I met Alana Sheeren via my friend Jeanne, that great connector, and for the past couple of years I’ve followed Alana on her blog and social media.
She’s doing a series of interviews called “Transformation Talk.” Here’s what she writes about them:
Every Thursday for a year, starting in September 2012, I’ll post an interview with someone who is a force for good in the world. These men and women have either deepened their passion or found their calling after experiencing a loss, trauma or diagnosis
I want to broaden the conversation around grief and its transformative power. My hope is that in their words you’ll find echoes of your story. In their inspired actions, you’ll see yourself and your immense possibility.
About a week ago, I had the pleasure of being the “someone” she interviewed. Here is our conversation.
I realized this morning that today is April 11, a day that for me has become a day of unexpected transformations.
April 11, 2007 was the day my ex-husband was arrested. April 11, 2011 was the day I gave my first public talk to a group. And now April 11, 2013, through no foresight or planning on my part, is the day of my first interview.
I really appreciate the work Alana is doing with respect to grief and loss and their transformative power. Thank you, Alana, for being part of my ongoing transformation.
Yesterday I wrote that no matter how often I wax on about life’s cycles and seasons, they still take me by surprise.
I am, apparently, a similarly slow learner when it comes to other topics. Just last night I was talking, well, texting, with a friend about the long process of grieving various aspects of an abusive relationship she is ending.
This morning, I went to my last “official” event of this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Women in Distress 5K SafeWalk-Run. As of the publishing of this post, we’ve raised a total of $115,510 toward ending domestic violence.
As I drove through the 6 a.m. dark, it occurred to me that Markham Park, the location of today’s walk, a place I’d never been before today, is also the destination of the annual Toys in the Sun Run motorcycle ride, and the last place that Lee was alive on December 9, 2007 before the ride home and the crash that killed him.
I took that in. I considered the symmetry of my ending a month of speaking out by going to the place where he spent the last few hours of his life. That seemed pretty big. Something to pay attention to. A spiral of emotions and circumstances.
Then I remembered that today is his birthday.
I have lost track of his birthday in the last few years, focusing instead on today as the birthday of Mr. Z’s daughter-in-law, letting go of date and time reminders as I can. I have consciously and accidentally “moved on.”
Throughout October, I have thought about this walk, known its date and location, fundraised toward this deadline, harassed my team to get their donations in. How is it possible that my mind did not put the pieces together until this morning?
I am taken by surprise by the spirals, the synchronicity, the slam of recognition, the unexpected grief of memories.
Thank you Amy for the book that found its way to the top of the stack at just the right time and for this sonnet by Wordsorth:
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? – Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return
Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
Thank you Crescent Dragonwagon for sharing your post about Beanblossom, reminding me that there will be a long view and I must waste nothing.
Last night Books & Books, an independent bookstore in Coral Gables, hosted the annual FIU MFA Alumni reading. I read from my memoir-in-progress, currently titled “Secret Stories: A Memoir of Domestic Violence.”
The background is that Lee and I were married for eight years. Separated in April of 2007. Divorced in September 2007. He crashed his motorcycle on the Florida Turnpike in December 2007. On the night I found out he died, I also learned, along with nearly everyone else who knew him, that he had secretly remarried about a month before our divorce was final. This scene is from the viewing, the night before his burial. Here’s what I read:
When I entered the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn funeral home, I found myself in a crush of people. Some of them I knew well. Some I recognized but couldn’t have named. Some I didn’t recognize, but they seemed to recognize me. I imagined their thoughts: “that’s the ex-wife,” perhaps with more adjectives. In comparison to extroverted Lee, I was sometimes seen as aloof or cold. Casual observers saw us as incompatible. More intimate observers had some idea of how difficult and complicated our relationship had been. Two of Lee’s childhood friends hugged me. I was happy to see them, but at a loss as to what to do next, so I sought an appropriate default gesture and found and signed the guest book, and then walked through the anteroom and into the room where Lee’s casket was displayed.
The front of the room was also the location of Maria. I imagined that people wondered about us, how we would behave, whether there would be anything for them to talk about. Maria was a symbol of pure grief and devastation, and I was a symbol of ambivalence.
I made my way through what felt like a rope line, a receiving line, a farce, an absurdity, a slow-motion dream, people coming out of their seats as I walked down the aisle, sometimes never seeming to make any progress at all toward my dual destination of Lee’s casket and the meeting with Maria.
Every few steps someone would approach, needing to hug or be hugged: a couple who sold Amway with Lee twenty years earlier, and more recently helped him find investment houses during the real estate boom. Motorcyclists who shared his passion for Harley Davidson. High school friends I had never met before. Customers whose lawns he had cut. Believers from his various churches. Musicians he performed with at different stages of his life. Neighbors from the community of the lake where he lived before and after our marriage. Men in suits and ties, men in guayaberas, women in church lady collars, women in cleavage-enhanced blouses.
Finally I arrived. My hands and back and shoulders and upper arms were covered with people’s handprints, and my cheeks were smudged with tiny bits of other women’s foundation and powder and lipstick.
I faced the casket, my back to the room. After the gauntlet that I walked through to get to there, I felt like I had zoomed in on a picture too close—for a moment I couldn’t see anything but wood: dark and expensive-looking, smooth, shiny, suitable for a furniture polish ad. Maria and Lee’s friends had made the arrangements in keeping with Lee’s love of luxury.
The other part of my zoomed-in-too-close view was hundreds of flowers, thousands of petals: wreaths on stands and vases and baskets on pedestals. I had wondered whether to send any myself, but then imagined asking the florist for advice, explaining the situation, saying, well, I divorced him three months ago, and his not legally married wife is the grieving widow. I sent no flowers.
As I stood next to the closed casket, I don’t think anyone was nearby, but I wouldn’t have known or remembered. It was just me and the smooth wood, the sweet-vegetation smell, the conversations behind me becoming white noise. For one of the few moments of the first few months after his death, I grasped the reality of what had happened. I took a deep breath. He was dead. Here was his casket. He could never hurt me again. I was standing in a funeral home where I had come with him a dozen times over the years, but we were all there this time for him. He was dead, and the woman crying behind me was his “wife.” The two facts competed in my mind for the title of “most surreal.”
I moved the paper death announcement that I must have picked up at the door into my hand that already held my purse, and I touched the wood, so overvarnished that it felt like plastic. It seems like I was there for a long time, but I closed my eyes and said a short prayer and a goodbye. I was finished.
I turned to face Maria. I had seen pictures of her with Lee in a Miami Herald article that praised him as her loving husband and step-father to her sons.In the pictures, taken at various parties and their wedding at the Coral Gables courthouse, she looks happy, relaxed, in love.She was my age, Colombian, pretty, medium height and figure, with shoulder-length dark hair and brown eyes. Despite the efforts of her friends, she was keening, wailing, weeping, rocking, on the edge of losing control.She seemed to struggle to emerge from her grief enough to realize who I was, standing in front of her.Lee’s closest friends were also nearby, and I asked one of them to introduce us.
I may have blocked out the conversations of the crowd, but conflicting emotions and questions raged in my mind. She’s not a blonde bikini model—how was this possible after all the hours Lee spent berating me for my failure to transform into one? Who was she? What did she know about Lee? What did she know about me? Stop. I made myself focus on doing what I saw as the right thing in that moment. So I crouched down in front of her so that I could see her face, and I told her I was sorry and that I would help her in any way I could. I hugged her. She cried and nodded.
I stood and started moving again, still meeting people, talking, chatting, acknowledging, remembering, hoping to find a seat. The funeral home was set up with doors that opened from one room to the next to create bigger and bigger rooms. At least four rooms were open for Lee’s mourners, and still people spilled into a hallway. Finally I sat down with my family and friends in the back of one of the side rooms and watched.
Eulogists had begun to speak from a podium by then, but the sound system was inadequate to bring their words to all the rooms. People moved about in a hallway behind us, talking, laughing, on their way out for or in from a smoke, expressing their disbelief and sadness and sharing stories of Lee’s outrageous greatness and wacky exploits, and the disconnect between Lee’s public and private stories became even larger in his death than it had been in his life.
For the past eight days, I’ve had this lyric in my head:
so let go, jump in
oh well, whatcha waiting for
’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.
–from “Let Go” by Frou Frou
For the past eight days, Mr. Z’s mother, Virginia, has been dying. She’s 93 years old. Last Saturday, the 4th of September, both of her sons, four of her grandchildren, and her newborn great-grandson (along with those of us who love them all) were to have celebrated her recent birthday with lunch and cake at the nursing home where she lives. She had expressed fatigue for weeks, even asking Mr. Z to cancel the
birthday party because she believed she would be too tired for it. Early on the morning of the day of the party, she had a stroke.
We gathered, first in her room, then in the dining room, then in her room again. We stood around her bedside as she slept, rotating into and out of the chair closest to her, keeping the family tradition of reading aloud the birthday-card wishes everyone had written to her from their hearts. They told stories and jokes. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Saturday’s stroke was not her first, and she and Mr. Z had discussed her wishes over the years. Medical powers of attorney and Do Not Resuscitate orders were in place. Never again would she be taken to the hospital. She wanted to die without intervention, heroic or otherwise. So on Sunday, now a week ago, Mr. Z signed the papers which admitted her to hospice care.
During the past week, Mr. Z and his brother and Debbie, Virginia’s aide of nine years, have stayed by her side around the clock, only leaving together for one three-hour period when they considered that she might prefer to die without company. Those of us who love her have had a chance to tell her things we’d forgotten and begin to let her go and say goodbye and grieve. Plans for the family to travel to Alabama to carry out her burial wishes have been made. Caregiving staff have shared stories of her nursing home life that they might not have had a chance to tell. There’s beauty in the breakdown.
Today is Virginia’s ninth day since the stroke. She rests quietly. When her breathing becomes labored, nurses administer morphine by bitter-tasting sublingual drops. We stroke her hair and her hands. Those who have known her best say that she is strong, that she is a fighter. She, or God, or maybe some dialogue between them, will decide when she will take her last breath.
The past few weeks have offered a series of reminders about the certainty of uncertainty, the potential of everything to change in a second, a phone call, a heartbeat, a breath. I’ve been trying to look for and at Certainty instead, and the beauty in the breakdown.
Yesterday I cried in the back corner booth of a bagel restaurant while having lunch with a friend.
Long ago I learned to hold back my tears because of someone’s belief that to cry for myself was self-indulgent, not to mention red-eyed and -nosed unattractive. It meant that I was making too much of things, being too sensitive. I’ve unlearned those teachings enough that tears come easier now, especially in private.
But public tears for someone else were still another matter.
A few months ago, another, relatively new friend teared up while telling me something that was going on in her life. Uncomfortable, I averted my eyes. I rationalized at the time that I was giving her privacy, but as soon as my eyes shifted, I felt the connection with her break a little, which is probably what I wanted. I was not giving her privacy, but taking it for myself, and afterward I regretted retreating from her pain. I felt stingy.
A few weeks ago, a domestic violence survivor told me her story, and she was dry-eyed, but I cried. The connection between us increased with my tears.
I got it. This was compassion, from the Latin “to suffer with.” Compassion given and received.
So yesterday when my friend told me about her ongoing struggle, I cried. I apologized, worried about upsetting her, being, heaven forbid, “emotional.”
She said that my tears were the best gift I could have given her.
This post is partly in response to the word “compassion” in Dian Reid’s Self-Evident Challenge.
For about three years now I’ve been paying lawyers to help me fight to end a relationship that was all about fighting.
I’m not much of a fighter. My default responses to real or perceived aggression include feeling trapped (essentially sitting in a corner in tears) or ending an exchange or even a relationship with frozen silence. If I have to engage in real fighting, I feel afraid, and sometimes I have to get detached to get through it. If I can’t fully detach, the roaring starts in my head, like a sound machine people use to sleep, an uninvited layer of protective cotton that gives me a buffer but makes rational, analytical thinking difficult.
The last in-person fight I had with him had ended with police taking him away, and then there was the fight with lawyers, but with the legal end of the marriage, I thought the end of the fighting would come as well. Then he died. And new lawyers came in, to clean up what the first round of lawyers had left undone.
Last Wednesday, more than two and a half years after his death, we went to mediation in hopes of avoiding going to court.
It was set to start at 930, but when we walked into the conference room at 9, there was already an Au Bon Pain coffee cup on the table, already big black briefcases and file boxes on carts stacked against the wall. We were early, but not as early as others. Apparently no one wanted to be late.
People returned to their coffee. Introductions were made, but no one smiled. I was the only woman in the room of twelve people.
The mediator sat at the head of the table. Across from me sat the Personal Representative for the estate, his two lawyers, and a lawyer for another person who had a claim. On my side, one lawyer for me, two for my business partners, and my father and brother. Mr. Z, a retired lawyer, was there next to me. Everyone on my side was there to protect me. To list the kindnesses and love expressed to me by the members of my side of the table would make this an even longer post than it will be already. To say that I am grateful to my team is an understatement.
Someone on our side joked across the table, Are you worried about being outnumbered? The other side said, Of course not. Our guy said, Well, you’ll be worried in the brawl in the parking garage later. Everyone laughed. But this early joking was not far off from how everything about the day felt to me. The roaring in my head had started even in the practice fighting of our preparations.
The stakes were high for me. My financial goose could be cooked. I understood the case as well as anyone, and if it hadn’t been for the roaring, I would have been an able advocate for myself. I could be an able advocate on another day in another room for someone else in my peep-toe wedges.
The mediator explained the rules of the fight.
One of their lawyers talked, then two of our lawyers talked, then the other team left to deliberate alone in a smaller conference room. My team spread out around the table.
The mediator left the room to talk to them, then came back to tell us what they were thinking, then left us to consider our response, then took our response back to them, and back and forth, all day. There is a lot of waiting time in mediation.
When considering our responses, we argued among ourselves, or more accurately, they argued among themselves, as only men, particularly men who are lawyers, can do, no one taking offense at the arguing, rams slamming their racks against one another, crash, crash, crash, backing off and going back in again.
No one meant for me to feel unsafe. No one meant anything else than to do his best to protect me. But the arguing, and the feeling of being trapped in a situation of tension, reminded me of too many other arguments and conflicts and unsafe nights for me to argue along with them without the roaring in my head increasing.
There was no way to escape the tension but to go to the bathroom, so I drank glass after glass of water, and when the pitcher was empty, I switched to little plastic bottles, always happy to have a reason to leave the room, walk through the reception area, past the elevators, left down the hall to the first door on the left, and into the relative sanctuary of a stall, where I could take deep breaths to try to slow my heart rate and regain my composure.
My attorney went out into the lobby and asked the receptionist, Is there a goddamn tv in this office? Does it have cable? And the tv appeared, in the closet in our conference room, so we could watch the World Cup. Switzerland upset Spain. The South African goalkeeper got a red card. Unheard of. The mediator came in and out, talking to us, talking to the other side.
Around noon I thought we were near an agreement, and we were, and I wondered if we would finish soon, but no one else thought so, and sandwiches were delivered, sliced turkey stacked high, egg salad sliding off the rolls, potato salad in a formed plastic container. I ate half a turkey sandwich.
We started again at 12:30. I picked up paper clips from the carpet at my feet under the large conference table. I looked down at a tangle of computer cables, a large power supply. I wondered who would use it.
When it was all too much, when even picking up the paperclips or going to the ladies room couldn’t distract me, I walked to the window. Sometimes I looked out at a beautiful view of Biscayne Bay and the Port of Miami, turning my back to the men, and sometimes I turned my back on the bay, surveying the room, listening to what they were saying, trying to engage my left brain.
Sometimes the roar in my head drowned them out for a few seconds, and around two o’clock I was afraid that the roar would become so loud that I wouldn’t be able to hear them, follow their reasoned and documented arguments at all.
I took the paper clips I had amassed from the floor and placed them on a counter at the end of the room.
At one point, following the soccer theme, I made the Time Out sign with my hands and said, since my neck is on the line here, let’s do such-and-such. That was probably my last substantive comment of the day.
The junior lawyer of my team asked me if I was okay. He had stayed out of the fray and was able to sit back and see that I was struggling. Maybe he could hear the roaring, too.
Finally it was over, we reached an agreement, and the junior lawyer began to draft a hand-written version for everyone to sign. While he wrote, everyone sat around, chatting. When the draft was finally circulated for signatures, I could barely read it. Fortunately my lawyers wrote it and read it.
We left the building without incident in the parking garage, and Mr. Z and I went to a restaurant where I drank two martinis (exceeding my one-drink maximum). Late the following day I began to ask, Why the roaring?
I realized that the fighting in a closed conference room, regardless of the fact that people were often fighting for the way to best help me, brought up a lot of old fears of conflict and being trapped. My body knew it, responding with a racing heart and shortness of breath, wrapping me in a wall of sound.
I was able to recognize this as a stress response, but instead of tracing it to other instances of detachment or frozen-ness, I tried to fight it. I would have been better off acknowledging it to someone (the best candidate would have been Mr. Z) but I was so frozen in fear or panic, unable to fly or fight, that I tried to overcome it, and as the day went on, my protective self grew stronger, trying to get my attention.
Only talking to Mr. Z at three a.m. Friday morning did either of us realize that I had been frozen, panicked, by the arguing against the other side and among my own side. I was trapped in the past, in my reactions to the present that weren’t based on a room full of men debating the best way to legally protect my interests, but on the past room with one man who wanted to berate me or hit me until I disappeared.
But it’s over now. No more fighting him in the bedroom or the living room or the conference room.
It’s time to fight in new arenas: on the manuscript page, on the web page, on the tweet, over tea with another woman who is where I’ve been. And time to listen to the roar, if it starts again, and ask it what it’s trying to tell me.
This post is partly in response to the writing and yoga challenge by Bindu Wiles, 21.5.800, and Dian Reid’s Self-Evidence + Authenticity theme of Self-Awareness.