A Season of Loss and Hope

Sun setting over ice.

I didn’t know Walter. He was a new older person who moved into our neighborhood. We introduced ourselves, pointed out where we lived and said if he ever needed anything we were around. Over the past few years I’d try to wave if he was looking my way, but often we’d just come and go our separate ways. He drove, seemed self-sufficient and not necessarily interested in small talk. I checked in with him in March or April of last year when he was sitting in his car in the driveway. He did that from time to time. I wanted to make sure he had what he needed in preparation for the pandemic restrictions. My sister-in-law had given me two N-95 masks she found in her garage. I sent one to my mom in New York and wanted to offer Walter the other one. They had decades on me and I figured he needed it more. He turned it down, saying he was fine and he was heading out to buy his own masks and groceries. His only complaint was that he couldn’t find milk. We said our good byes and that was about it.

Right before Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law caught the Corona virus. I felt helpless to do anything but worry about the safety of her, my brother, niece and the people she might have been around. I did the only thing I could think to do in this crisis, I made a pot of soup. I wanted to make something that would make life easier for her and my family. Something that would nourish them in the days to come. I made a few other things for my niece, who wasn’t sick but might enjoy a home cooked meal. My ancestors must have come through, because here I was making a pot of soup that would feed a small town. My daughter asked if we could share some with Walter. I thought it was a great idea. I was a bit nervous though. Walter was an older white man, and if I’m being honest, I was concerned about stepping into his territory uninvited – especially since I’d have my kid in tow. It can also be weird these days offering food to a stranger. During the early stages of the pandemic we we weren’t even sure how COVID-19 was transmitted. We decided to package a container of soup and other freshly prepared foods for Walter with labels of what was in it in case he had any food allergies or sensitivities.

Hopefully Healing Haitian Soup

A beautiful thing happened the day we went to deliver our batches of hopefully healing Haitian soup. My daughter and I masked up and rang Walter’s bell. He opened the door and looked at us. We re-introduced ourselves and offered him the soup. I told him that I made it for my sister who was sick and wanted to share some with him. He asked why? Why would we bring him soup, rice, chicken and a baked treat? I replied that I wasn’t sure if he’d want any, but we were making food and wanted to make sure he had enough if he was interested. My daughter, who had hung back just a little bit behind and to the side when I rang the bell, stepped up and offered that everything was labeled in case he couldn’t eat something. Walter told us he’d eat anything. He seemed dumbfounded. Then he broke our hearts. He said that in that one act, we had done more for him than his family had. He began to tear up and my daughter and I teared up right back. I told him that now that I knew he was open to receiving my cooking, that we’d drop food by from time to time. He thanked us and we took our full hearts home. My often prickly quaranteenager bloomed with joy that night. That simple act of kindness had done more for her pandemic weary soul than all of my hugs, kisses and reassuring words.

For the next few weeks we made many deliveries to Walter’s home. We got to know what he liked and what he couldn’t tolerate. He loved the salads but pork was rough on his stomach. We purchased extra storage containers and disposable pans so we wouldn’t have to scramble to find something to put Walter’s servings in. We had a little system of me cooking and dishing up the food, while my young one would create the labels and package everything up, like a mini catering service. We tried to stay on his stoop but sometimes Walter would wave us into the entry way and want to show us something in his apartment. He continued to comment his disbelief that we would cook for him, a stranger. He shared that his wife had passed several years ago and that he was a bit of a wandering spirit since then. He would tell us that he told his brother in Florida about us. One day we stopped by and Walter was on the phone with him. His brother joking asked why Walter didn’t move in with us. Whatever happened between Walter and his family was unimportant to me, especially since I know there are three sides to every story. What was important was that he was a human being who appeared to be alone in the world and there was something small that we could do to impact his life positively.

Breakfast Pizza

One day Walter expressed that he wished he could do something for us. I told him that we didn’t want anything from him. We just wanted to share what we had, especially since he told us he wasn’t much of a cook. He waved us into the entry way and showed us a bag of pots. He asked if I wanted them. Could I use them? I told him that I was fine. That I had more pots than I knew what to do with. He insisted that they were his wife’s and that he couldn’t use them. He wanted me to have them. I got the sense that Walter was a proud man who might not be feeling on solid ground in this new relationship. I accepted the pots, knowing I’d have to figure out how to cull my already overflowing set. I asked what his late wife’s name was and he shared it with us. I told him that I would think of her when I used the pots, and I silently made a promise to myself to do just that. I would honor this woman I had never met, and knew nothing about, when I used the tools of her caregiving. I came home and wrote her name on the white board in my kitchen so it would not get lost in the zillion other things that race around in my mind.

As we neared Christmas, we decided to pick up a special meal for Walter. My loving kiddo asked if we could get him a little gift too. We went to our favorite kitchy small town shops and had a great time trying to find the perfect gift to express our heart connection to a man we knew very little about. My daughter had a delighted in discovering little treats to put in his present and excitedly told him what was in the carefully wrapped package when we delivered it. We had also gotten him a prepared steak meal he could heat up at his convenience. Again Walter asked why. We told him that we decided to adopt him into our family, as long as he didn’t object or tell us to stop, we would come by when we could. One day Walter jokingly asked if we had a steak in the containers we brought him. I told him that I wasn’t that great with steak, but I might try one day. When I got busy I cooked less and we worried about Walter, but I had a lot on my plate and just had to let it go. I knew he could get food because between trips he would tell us about his food adventures. Like the time he picked up spaghetti and meatballs from a local restaurant and dropped it in the backseat of his car, on the walkway and finally on the mat outside his door. He was exasperated by the mess he had made and had the trail of tomato sauce stains on the pathway to prove it.

Curry Pork Puffs

Life got really busy with work deadlines and self care outings – so we wouldn’t go crazy at home. I had less time to prepare epic meals, or even simple meals. Occasionally when we’d stop for prepared food we’d pick up a plate for Walter. When we had been away for a few weeks he asked if we had gone to New York to see my mom. I told him tiredly that we hadn’t gone anywhere. That my hours were so long that we were often getting take out and, on rare occasions, drive through. We would think of Walter, but those days that was the most that we could do. Some days when we would visit Walter he seemed a little off, but he was always happy to see us. He would wash out the containers and have them waiting for us when we eventually made it back. He would report in on the things that he liked and those that he loved. He never complained. We became an occasional sounding board about his frustrations and, once in a rare while, he would share a story about his life with his late wife. One day early this year he shocked us by telling us that he was preparing to move. He shared that this had been his fourth home since his wife died. The next time we saw him, he waved us in and said his phone wasn’t working. I let the real champ, my daughter, take a crack at figuring out what was going on with it. She did and he was able to call his brother, who he was sure had been looking for him. We had begun to feel protective of Walter, but also knew that we were not family.

The snow came, loads of snow, which kept us in more. Our trips to Walter were less frequent, but we had written our names and my phone number on a post it with one of his deliveries. I told him to call me any time he needed or even wanted food. I hoped that he would call if he was hungry, couldn’t get food or just wanted human connection. In early February I came across a friend’s food truck in my neighborhood while running errands. I reached out to friends to invite them to meet me and try some of his delicious fare. I made plans to come back later that day to eat with my daughter and friends. Before I left I bought a plate of food for another neighbor who had helped shovel us out. When I went to drop off the food he wasn’t home. I thought let me see if Walter would like it. It wasn’t something I would normally get for Walter as it was an appetizer sampler and not a balanced meal. As I was walking towards his house one of the neighbors near Walter’s home called out to me, “Are you looking for Walter?” I was in a rush to get back to my friend’s truck and my friends would be waiting for us. I turned towards them and was unprepared for the news that Walter has passed the previous week. She related that his niece called him daily and when she couldn’t reach him she called the police for a wellness check. They found him in his home.

Friend Chicken Wings

We hadn’t seen Walter in a few weeks. I knew he was older, and at times a bit frail, but it still hit like a small pile of bricks. She also shared that Walter had dementia, which filled in a few of the blanks. I thanked her for being the bearer of the sad news, offered them the plate of food and left, dreaded having to tell my daughter that another person in our circle was gone. I know better than to delay death notifications, so I ripped the band aid off and gave it to her straight. It was a shock to her too. We headed out to meet our friends and recounted our Walter stories. What we enjoyed about our time with him, how grateful we were to have provided love to a lonely soul in his final months on this Earth and how blessed we felt to have benefitted from a man who humbly and graciously accepted the love we were offering. We had lost so many connections due to the pandemic and Walter allowed us to use some of our atrophying empathy, generosity and love muscles.

In the weeks since his passing, there have been a trail of people coming and cleaning out Walter’s place. We don’t know them and they don’t know us. We look out the window, comment to each other that someone is at Walter’s house moving stuff and talk about how we miss our moments with Walter. Today I saw what must have been the last of the cars and trucks that have been coming through roll out. Seeing the remnants of his life pull away from the curb reminded me that we don’t take anything with us. It all gets left when we expel our final breath. It made me reflect on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the death of my nephew Coby, which is followed by the fifth anniversary of the death of my Aunt Elsie a few months later. My mind of course can’t stop there. The litany of losses continues, Uncle Mico, Joyce, Pop Pop Yousef and Garret. So many deaths and so much unimaginable sorry. Living under the cloud of darkness that comes with grief means never having the answers you so desperately crave. You find a way forward. You pick the thing that helps you cope with the loss, with your mortality and with fear for everyone else who you love. Because you know if you can lose that one person, one day another one you love will leave you…unless you leave them first. The ultimate lose lose. The nightmare of a control freak. Death comes for us all. It will not be controlled.

Chinese Style Ribs and Napa Cabbage

After Coby passed all I could do was go to the grocery store, have tea or coffee with my sister friend and cook. I cooked more meals than could be eaten by a football team. It wasn’t about consumption, it was about coping with my unimaginable sorrow. A sorrow that had broken me. I could barely parent my aching tween…or at least that’s how I remember it. Thankfully, with time, the volume of emotional pain and trauma lessens. At least it has for me. Most days I can go about my business and do this thing I don’t even know I’m doing. When one of our departed loved ones runs through my mind, my first instinct is that they are still here. I imagine that I’ll see them at the next family gathering, the next food delivery, the next run in at the grocery store…and then reality settles in. When it does it’s bittersweet. I have come to terms with the losses. I had to and will have to again.

We have a keepsake or memory that we hold onto from each of those dearly departed souls. It probably wouldn’t make sense to other people, but it doesn’t have to. It makes sense to us and helps us feel a little bit closer to them and the moments we shared. For Pop Pop Yousef it’s an old spice bottle that he repurposed to share his garam masala mix with me. It still has his hand written scribble on the label. It’s priceless to us as it is the reminder that he wanted to make sure that I had everything I needed to take care of his precious granddaughter. For Aunt Elsie, it’s her old pressure cooker. I’ve only used it twice, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep it forever. She is the one who is most often in the kitchen with me when I’m cooking. I’ll remember the things she told me about being resourceful, her mixing up all the words to songs and all of the life lessons she drilled into me over and over until I got it.

One of Walter’s Pots (part of it at least)

The extra bags of brand new and unused disposable food containers remind me daily of Walter. I have to pack them up and give them away as they are overrunning my limited storage space. I will not give away the pots he gave me. I will keep them and cycle out some of the ones I bought from the store through the years which have no emotional ties. I will continue to think of Walter’s wife, and now Walter, when I use one of their pots. This week as we enter our season of remembering those we loved and lost too soon, I will think of the millions who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, mental health issues and life. I will work to maintain perspective about how blessed we are to have so many loved ones in our lives. The price of loving someone is knowing that either you are going to lose them, or they are going to lose you. It’s a mighty risk that comes with the best rewards life has to offer. Having the love of another human being is a priceless gift. I don’t know what impact we had on Walter’s life, but I hope we reminded him that love is everywhere, and it can come from where you least expect it.

Mompreneur Coronavirus Chronicles – Edition #1

love-all-around

I know my friends were starting to wonder if I was losing it a bit when I started ramping up my posting about the impending Coronavirus pandemic last week. This week my pages went off the rails with about ten times more posts than I normally share. What a lot of my social media friends and peers may not know, is that in my previous life I spent three years working for an airline in the Emergency Response Department. While at the airline I responded to many crises (thankfully never an aviation disaster) and attended countless industry emergency response conferences and drills.  It’s where I developed a practice of heeding the wisdom of trained and trusted experts and working to incorporate their recommendations into my home life. I do my best, but really I’m still a typical consumer who has too much stuff, wastes too much and isn’t as socially and environmentally responsible as I should be.

I also realize that any concerns I have about the coming weeks and months are colored with a good dose of the privilege of living in a a country with normally easy access to resources. Even still, I am an independent artist and single mom. I don’t have a regular paycheck and since my main source of income comes from producing content for companies, these shut downs leave me with a sickening feeling about my already tenuous finances. Like so many of my colleagues, we’re scrambling to figure out how we can take our services and find ways to offer them online, but it’s no easy feat. There were plenty of artists already struggling to do this before COVID-19 entered the picture. That is a scary reality that will definitely keep me up at night.

I knew that based on the information coming in that we needed to begin social distancing and that it would be wise to just post up at home (only going out when necessary.) We are lucky enough to be able to taking advantage of the open spaces and parks where we can get fresh air and exercise while not putting ourselves or others at risk! More important than us getting coronavirus, as we would likely recover, was not being carriers of the virus and inadvertently transmitting it to someone else in a high risk category.  It was time for me to think about how my actions could harm other people in unintended but potentially fatal ways. I felt that isolating myself and my kid wasn’t asking too much.

I knew what I needed to do, had the knowledge about how to prepare and was willing to at least make an attempt at it. The realization that shook me was that as a single parent (with an ex-husband states away,) if something happened to me my kid would be stuck. If I get sick then she has been exposed and would need to self-quarantine for 14 days. There wouldn’t be another parent to step in while I quarantined myself in my bedroom (as advised by medical experts.) Both of my parents, who would happily take her, are in high risk categories – and in reality there would be no good situation. Any member of my family or our awesome village who might want to help would be putting themselves and their household at risk if they tried to step in and take her.  That realization was the terrifying one.

In an effort to not get paralyzed in a state of fear, I did what I had been trained to do – I started to scour trusted sites for information about the transmission of COVID-19, the risks to my community, the recommendations from the trained and trusted experts and began to make my plan. Totally distracted from my work, I turned to getting myself and my household set up so I could prepare foods that could be warmed up in case I wasn’t able to make meals. I got both junk food and healthy options so when the cabin fever got us, at least we’d have goodies to nosh on while still nourishing our bodies to keep our immune systems strong and hopefully resilient.

DIY Hand Sanitizer
Vitamin Shoppe DIY Hand Sanitizer Display

I went on the hand sanitizer scavenger hunt like so many others and finally ended up finding 91% alcohol at a Walmart and aloe vera gel at a Vitamin Store. This was after scouring 8 other stores to no avail on Tuesday evening. I began to pick up inexpensive items that would go the distance like dried beans, cans of diced tomatoes and bouillon cubes. At least if we ran out of fresh foods, I could make a good soup or chili. I knew that if I really got in trouble I’d be able to order stuff online or have a friend leave a package at our door, but why not take necessary precautions while I could.

As the news continued to emerge about the lack of testing happening here in the US, I realized that we were going to be in worse shape than I initially anticipated. The Good Morning America interview with NIH official Dr. Anthony Fauci made me realize I needed to also think about what other things I was going to be able to do with my kid to keep her from becoming a Netflix zombie (nothing against either Netflix or zombies, but we need a bit of balance too.) We talked about what activities we had access to at home and I thought of longer term crafts like sewing. While the grocery stores were crushed to the limit, I scooped up a few yards of fabric on sale at a nearly empty craft store. It wasn’t the first time this week I’d been there. Earlier in the week that had been one of the wildcard places I went in search of hand sanitizer. I thought I was so clever, but I guess the regular crafters had me beat!

We’re only on day 1 of social isolation for me and day 3 for her (she’s been relaxing and catching up on Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds and On my Block and finding all the junk food) while I’ve been gathering supplies and news. If today is any indication, it’s going to be a long haul! I’ve instituted some basic, we are not cave people, rules. Every day there will be showers taken, fresh air consumed with exercise at a local park or open space, craft/activity time and tv blackout time. Since she’s on Spring Break from school I’m not going to make her do school work. That should come in two weeks or so. It’ll be tough to manage cell phone usage when the tv’s off (honestly for both of us,) but hopefully we’ll get back to doing things together like reading, playing board games and making yummy stuff that can be broken down and put in the freezer for the coming weeks.

Thankfully I’m well connected with people who are sharing awesome resources for parents, artists and human beings in general. I’m sharing the wealth below:

We are all heading into uncharted territory. It’s daunting, scary and an opportunity to take the precious moments we have to re-connect (with appropriate social distancing) with our loved ones, friends, peers and our global community. The Coronavirus is uniting the entire world in one epic fight. Hopefully we’ll start coming together for our common good and ensure that we are finding ways to protect and support the most vulnerable individuals.

If you’ve got great ideas on resources for single parents and artist/entrepreneur/gig workers who are also parents please leave a comment. The best thing about the internet is that we are only one click away from support, connection and hope.

Stay well and take care of each other!

PS – Below are links if you want to contribute to my work or my coronavirus survival. If you are a person of means, please be on the lookout for how you can support the gig/service/artist/entrepreneurs out there who give so much but operate without a safety net:

 

 

 

World Mental Health Day

IMG_8759
 In life sometimes you need to rearrange your pieces.

Today has been a good day – a tough day, but a good day. Since March 2016 there have been floods of bad days. More bad days than I would care to remember. Suicide stormed into our lives, made it personal and never left. It was oppressive, blinding and made me question whether or not I would be able to survive each day.

Today I am grateful to the bereavement and primary mental health professionals who have worked with my family to get us back on mostly solid ground. I understand that there will be flare ups and that we will never be “back to normal.” That’s ok. It’s understood and we are learning to live with it.

Today on World Mental Health Day it is important to me that I share that mental health issues have impacted my family in devastating ways. My wish is that we would have done things differently from the start. The challenge is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If we had known, we might have made some changes, but each and every one of us was out here living life to the best of our ability, including my nephew Coby and my aunt Elsie.

It’s important to me that I say their names and that I send them love because I miss them, every single day.  There is no shame, stigma or stereotype so important that it takes priority over getting mental health support. The support is for you, not for the world and how they see you. In the big scheme of things, when your mental health is compromised, nothing else matters except your well being.

Today I wish that you feel comfortable with wherever you are in your process and that you are willing to reach out for help if you need it. My hope is that we get better at making mental health treatment available to those who need it and that we stop judging and punishing those people living with mental illnesses.

Today on World Mental Health Day, I am thankful for therapy, medication and all other forms of treatment that help human beings live productive lives and manage the stress and demons of their worlds.

Today I am sending love to those who struggle in public and even more to those who are struggling in private. You are not alone. Please come into the light.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

If you are in need of help please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  1 (800) 273-8255

Inconceivable! Ulrick Documentary

In 2011 I wrote an email to master painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre, but it came back undeliverable. In all of the conversations I was having related to filmmaking and the lack of positive representation of people of color in the media, here was a beautiful story yet to be told. I was brand spanking new to filmmaking and I had no idea what I envisioned, but I felt there was something there. It would take my mom and I years to find and reconnect with Ulrick (as he had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.)
In 2016 my co-producer Stephanie Malson and I got the green light to take a trip to New Orleans to see if what I felt was really something. It was more than something. It was everything. Ulrick Jean-Pierre is an amazing artist and human being. I feel humbled and blessed that his story has become mine to tell. Every step of this journey has come at a cost, but for every sacrifice there has been an even greater reward. That something has turned into a feature length documentary in progress about Ulrick and his incredible body of work (ulrickdoc.com – website for the film.) 

IMG_0154
Stephanie & I reconnecting with Ulrick this week in Kansas after a long absence apart! 

As I wind down on my last day in Kansas, I’m reflecting on what we’ve accomplished on this shoot, and the inconceivable knowledge that we really interviewed Edwidge Danticat! That we are about a month away from the end of principal photography. That we have added an incredible new team member, who we have yet to share with you, but will soon. That I get to be the one to tell this story. That I have an enormous responsibility of representing for my culture and offering a counter narrative to the simplistic and often bigoted rhetoric that is passed around about Haiti and her people. That we have a team of collaborators who are passionate about this film and that are committed to seeing it completed in excellence.

IMG_0228
(L-R) Contributing Producer (and Co-Curator of exhibit,) Cécile Accilien, Co-Producer/Camera, Stephanie Malson, the AMAZING Edwidge Danticat, me (Director/Co-Producer) and our phenomenal artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre!

I am blessed. Simply blessed. This reflection is as much for me as it is for whomever takes the time to read my lengthy goings-on. It is for the days when I feel like an imposter, for the days when I need to pay my rent, for the days another door slams in my face. This reflection is to remind me that I come from an incredible people who will never be stopped, who continue to rise from the ashes…time and time again. This is my battlefield…or my playground, whichever way you want to see. On the journey of independent filmmaking some days it’s a battlefield and some days you get to play. This week we got to do a little bit of both. 

IMG_0250
Co-Cinematographer Stephanie Malson documenting the exhibit at University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art.

_______
 
My original email from 2011…
 
“Ulrick,
 
I hope this email finds you blessed and thriving. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m Gladys Bruno’s (formerly St. Phard) daughter.
 
Congratulations on your beautiful and powerful work. It was really phenomenal rediscovering you through your work. My mom has updated me from time to time about your work and accomplishments. I also appreciate that you
have kept in touch with her over the decades. I know you two haven’t spoken in a while.
 
I wanted to reach out to you as I am making my way into new artistic endeavors. I’m an actress and producer living in suburban Philadelphia. I was hoping to connect with you to learn more about your journey. I hear so much talk about the absence of positive stories about people of color in the
media. I am looking for opportunities to introduce a larger audience to some inspiring people.
 
I don’t have any plans at this point, but you keep coming to mind. I would like an opportunity to connect, and if you are open to it, see if there might be something there. In case you want to check out my company, the website it is…(My old company.)
 
I’m so happy to hear that you have had a profound and positive impact on the artistic community and the world.
 
Be well,
Tatiana
 
Tatiana Bacchus”
________
Tax-deductible contributions to the film can be made by check to our fiscal sponsor, Allied Arts Foundation with notation “Ulrick Documentary”, and sent to:  Allied Arts Foundation, 4111 E. Madison Street, Suite #52, Seattle, WA 98112.

Life After – Hazy Shades of Blur

I am a deadline beast. Give me a deadline, ratchet up the pressure and watch my work! It has been described as impressive…if not a unique blend of chaos. Deadlines keep the pressure and the focus on the work. They leave just enough time to manage the the life side of the work/life balance equation.  They don’t leave time for idle thoughts or pondering about the direction life is taking you (when unconciously pondering, it’s almost always life taking me somewhere as opposed to me being the navigator of my own road.)

It’s been just over two years since we lost my nephew Coby and almost two years since my Aunt Elise’s death, both by suicide. The searing pain is gone, but at times what is left is a hazy shade of blur. It’s almost like life doesn’t make sense, even though you are doing what you are supposed to – and some things are working, while others aren’t. I’ll never be able to adequately describe the underlying energy that is like the phantom floaties I sometimes see in my peripheral vision. You can’t shake it, you can’t really see it but you know something is there…or at least was there a moment ago.

How do I know this current is still running underneath it all? In the moments between deadline sprints, life relaxes and things that normally don’t phase me start to creep up on me – emails I know I should have answered a long time ago, friend’s birthdays I’ve missed and shrinking away from grieving friends. It’s almost as if I can’t get my “should” in order. I know I should do these things and that I want to be there for my friends in their time of need. I also know that if I don’t manage things there could be personal and professional consequences, but that doesn’t move me towards action. Honestly it just adds to the sensation of stress pebbles dropping from overhead.

I am so grateful that I can feel any of this. Two years ago I was numb. My heart broken so severely that I didn’t think I would find my way back. Happily my kid has been doing bereavement and general therapeutic work with counselors that has worked wonders. I still maintain parenting a grieving child is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It is also not something I thought I would have to deal with until one of her grandparents passed (and thankfully they are all still here and kicking!!)

I have faith that this hazy blur will pass in time. How much time? I don’t know. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that social media, along with being a critical tool for my work, had become my release. Sharing thought provoking articles, resources, funny stories and inspiring videos became an escape. The challenge I’ve begun to recognize is that people equate time on social media with free time or time you could be using to communicate with them. I can’t say that I can argue that point. I now also see it has been a way to escape the blur and engage in a way that I can control. The thing I guess I would like people to know is that I am not intentionally trying to hurt them or withdrawal. It really is a coping mechanism. Perhaps not a great one, but the one that has gotten me through.

I think being able to pull back and see the blur, to know that it is symptomatic of the underlying grief felt from losing two beloved souls and to understand that I need to continue to forage my new path is progress. To date I feel like a high functioning imposter. I know there is a storm ahead, but for now the party on the deck needs to be managed. That’s a bit what life feels like two years into this new branch of my life. I miss Coby and Aunt Elsie. Every holiday is a reminder. Every smile of a family member, every belly laugh reminds me of something they did and the little blips here and there challenge my awareness that they are really, truly gone from this physical world.

If there is a blessing in all of this, it’s that they both were such big personalities that it will be virtually impossible to forget them. As I work towards healing the internal wounds I will remind myself to go gently, that work is work – not life, and that most people will be fine without me, while I take the time for myself.

If you’ve felt my absence or if you’ve felt hurt by my time away, please understand that although I may look like it is business as usual, it’s not. It’s a new day. One I’m working to embrace and thrive within, but it takes time, effort and self-care.

For those of you also struggling with functioning during your new day, I encourage you to prioritize your health and wellness. ❤

____________________________________________________________________________________________

For more information on Coby and the Fly High Coby Fund:

https://www.gofundme.com/flyhighCoby

http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2016/04/parents_of_teen_suicide_victim_starting_nonprofit.html

If you are in need of help please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  1 (800) 273-8255

 

Life After – Anniversary

Poised on the ice, listening and watching for the tell tale sound or sight of the first spiderwebbing of fractures on the surface. I feel steady yet I anticipate hearing an epic crack before I lay my head on my pillow tonight. My current balance is eighty percent intellectual, twenty percent emotional. Had my beautiful nephew Coby not died by suicide a year ago, it would just be another Monday morning and simply significant in that it is around the time we celebrate another one of my beautiful family members.

img_1238
Always clowning – Soup Straw

 

In some ways it seems shocking that a year has passed since our lives fell apart.  The human spirit continues to amaze me. It is stunning that a human being can endure unimaginable pain and still return to the light of day, forever changed but back in the light. Contact with some family members still seems to hurt. Not hurt in that they do something painful, but in that seeing them brings elements of the tragedy back. Most people forget what today is in our lives so there is no reckoning, no shadowing of the eyes, no slumping of the shoulders or the urge to reach out to check on them – not knowing if it will cause more pain.

To be honest, this is the most frustrating part for me.  I am steady, but I wonder if I should be checking on someone or extending sympathies or acting as if it is just another day. I don’t think on it too much as I am a much more heart-led soul. I will reach out to my family today to let them know that I love them, that I am sorry Coby is no longer with us and that I will be thinking of them.

20150304_202127
He was a great big cuz!

On my end, I have to keep an eye on my small person. While I am steady, I sense the ice is not so steady under her young legs. True helplessness comes from feeling like you don’t know how to reach or help your child in times of need. I definitely don’t have the answers here, but I know that my work day will end the minute she gets home. Tonight will be a full court press, hands on, eyes up, heart open night together.

I will do my best to remember that this is new to both of us and to remember the wisdom of an aviation disaster survivor speaking about how she managed her grief after losing a child in a plane crash. When asked what she attributed the survival of her marriage to she responded, “He doesn’t mess with my grief and I don’t mess with his.” I need to learn how to be supportive to her while not messing with her grief.

My grief is what it is. I still haven’t listened to the voicemail messages that flooded into my phone the days following Coby’s death (as I am constantly reminded by notifications that my voicemail is always almost 90% full.)  I am still trying to figure out if I can bear hearing them or if I should just delete them all unheard. I am truly appreciative of the outpouring of love that came in those days and every day since. As I type this I remind myself that life is for the living. I will delete the messages unheard, but I appreciate each person who reached out to me in my darkest hour.  This is what my grief looks like. Even the simplest decisions related to the aftermath of Coby’s passing are so difficult to make.

I am in the light now, face up to the sun and I am going to do my best to stay there. I know the clouds will come and when they do I will reach into my tool chest to get the resources needed to survive the resulting darkness.  Some days that’s coffee with a girlfriend, others it will be a therapy session and some days it’s a good old-fashioned cry. Today I will look for a way to honor Coby’s memory in a way that celebrates his life and not his final moments. I will send him light and love.

img_1236
Light and love

Right after Coby’s death I questioned myself about what I could have done, what I could have said, did he know how much I loved him and more fruitless thoughts about how I could have stopped it all. In January of 2016 I was asked to write Coby a letter that would be given to him at a school retreat. I am eternally grateful that I did because it gave me some peace that he knew exactly how much I loved him.

In re-reading the letter now I realize that there was little more I could have said or done, not knowing what was going on in his head and heart. I wish we were celebrating Coby’s collegiate accomplishments today, but instead we are reminded that life is fragile, that our young people are at war with demons we may not see and that the most precious elements of our lives are not guaranteed to be here tomorrow.

Below is my letter to Coby.  It makes me sad to read it (as the tears finally come,) but it is also the most honest, authentic expression of who Coby was to me.

Love you forever, Cob.

_________________________________________________________________

1/8/16

Dear Coby,

Love. Fascination. Pride. Joy. Those are the things that come to mind when I think of you ­ my handsome, loving, hilarious and incredible nephew! I am in awe of the things you have accomplished and the way you carry yourself through this turbulent world. I am so proud of the young man you have become. I trust you with my most precious gift in the world (and that’s saying everything!) and my heart is full when I see how you care for your little cousin. It speaks volumes about the man that you are when you take time to be with and care for Lani or grandma. Those are the moments that show the beauty of your character. No, it’s not cool to hang with them…or me, but you do it anyway. Yes, because we can be fun and feed you great stuff and because you love us, but often you’re being kind and supportive of the things that we need. You can’t teach that kind of compassion, support and love. It’s either a part of your character or it’s not. I am grateful to God that at the end of the day, after the jokes and the selfies, you are a solid young man of beautiful character.

Life is going to offer up a world of challenges. It just does. No one gets to the end without having their back side handed to them once in awhile. Some get it more than others. Whichever side of the fence you land on please remember that we are all praying for you. You are covered by the prayers and blessings of some of the most ardent prayer warriors I know. So remember to breathe, seek help when you need it and know that most storms will pass in time. Keep your eye on your passion and your purpose, not everyone else’s. Find out what feeds your soul and gives you a reason to get out of bed swinging each morning. Tilt at windmills, slay dragons and most of all work on being a good person. Money will come and go, but you can’t take it with you. Cherish relationships above all else, especially your relationship with God.

I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes that have sustained me through the tough times and have been my compass in life:

●  Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. Think only of the best, work only for the best and expect only the best. Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. Give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others. Live in the faith that the whole world is on your side as long as you are true to the best that is in you. (Christian D. Larson)

●  Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. (unknown)

You’ll always be my Cob. I will always be here if you need me ­ no matter what, and if I know one thing, it is that the world is ready for you to step up in all of your magnificence and make a huge impact.

Love you forever,

­ Aunt Tanya

_________________________________________________________________

For more information on Coby and the Fly High Coby Fund:

https://www.gofundme.com/flyhighCoby

http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2016/04/parents_of_teen_suicide_victim_starting_nonprofit.html

If you are in need of help please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  1 (800) 273-8255

Rough Waters by the Shore

This morning I sat on the side of my bed pondering my fate. Most mornings I utter some form of gratitude for seeing another day when so many others don’t. This morning it was a quick something, but my mind wandered to rough waters. The kind of rough waters that threaten to upend a boat right before it reaches the safety of the shore. The kind of rough waters that are overcome by the exhausted being who has found, somewhere deep inside, the determination, heart and scream-down the storm raging in your face will to continue on to reach the elusive yet visible shore.

The waters are crashing over my head, filling my eyes, nose and mouth with brackish water, but I saw the shore. About a year ago one of my business  mentors told me I was in the middle of the ocean. He said it would take as much effort to give up and get back to shore as it would to power on. I chose to power on.  I mean, really. That’s not much of a choice. I’d spent 7 years of my life in pursuit of my dreams, had one devastating set back and now I was offered the choice of giving up on all I had accomplished with not much to show for it but a mountain of debt and hope. The other choice was to take all of the hours I had invested in educating myself, the knowledge I had gained in those classes, attending film festivals, workshops and incubators, the manifestation of projects in various stages of development, the sweat, time and expertise of all of the freelancers who collaborated on my projects – unpaid, deferred and paid, the monies I was able to raise through crowdfunding, grants and platforms like Patreon and Fundly, the few messages of my need to capitulate and get a real job and the ocean of messages of support from friends, family  and mentors and push on. When you look at it like that, there is no choice. I had to keep moving forward.

The rough water is chest level and the punishing waves have elicited an unending barrage of stress, fear, anxiety and doubt, but I saw the shore.  In one of my workshops for artists, the instructor told us, “No one is coming to save you.” Damn. Damn. Damn. Seven years fighting each day towards this dream and no one would come rescue me? Damn. To tell you the truth, as frustrating as that message is, it is liberating to know that you are going to have to pull your head out of your own arse and figure things out. Sure there will be people to support your journey, but this is one trip across the ocean that you’re going to have to take on your own.

IMG_1272

If you believe, as I do, that everything happens for a reason and that you are where you are supposed to be, then the dark times can be paralyzing. I have always looked at it from the perspective that I am here because I still have something to learn before I can transcend to my next level of consciousness and overcome my worldly rough waters.

In 2008 when I was an actress deciding to write a show with my friend so we could see positive representations of ourselves on television and work in the field we so loved, I could never have imagined how soul crushing and financially debilitating this journey would become. I guarantee you that I would NEVER have decided to embark on the journey if anyone had shared that with my then 34 year-old self. I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have enough courage. I wasn’t worthy enough. I couldn’t tolerate that much pain, shame, longing and despair. That’s who I would have believed I was back then.

The woman I am today is in the boat with the rough pounding waters demanding that I turn back, that I give up, that I abandon this pipe dream and go back to where I belong. The problem is that I’ve seen the shore, and even more important than the shore is that lined up along the path to the shore are lifeboats of love, compassion, support, encouragement, inspiration, motivation, empathy, self-discovery and wonder! I’m not sure why I couldn’t see it before, but I am eternally grateful to know that although they can’t save me, they won’t let me go down with my ship! They are pacing me, lighting the way and making sure I know that we are in this together. I have to get my boat to the shore, but I am not alone. I see the shore. I don’t know how many days, weeks, months or years it will take me to get there, but I do know that I will get there and oh, the celebration we will have when all of our boats are on the shore together.

Keep going…

 

Creativity Trumps Fear

In the midst of swirls of grief there are moments of happiness, joy and pure creative expression. I’ve been working to get a documentary concept out of my head and down onto paper for the last 18 months. The spark was clear and strong but unraveling the story, angle and approach would not come easy.

The initial feeling was, “Of course this should be a film!” but then when I started to think about who should be interviewed for this film I began to hesitate. When I’m developing a concept I intrinsically put myself on set, in the producer/director’s seat and in the vicinity of the action. This very thought meant that I would be in the same room with a person I had been creatively in awe of for most of my life. That’s when the doubts began to creep in.

The challenge with these doubts were that there is no way to tell this story without sitting across from all of the things that intimidate me. Over the last 18 months and through the prodding of mentors, peers and collaborators I kept coming back to my notes and drafts. I wrote my dream. I didn’t pull any punches. I finally went with the thought that the worst they can do is tell me no – but if they told me yes…

IMG_9949The mere act of doing the work to define the random rumblings in my head have made this real. Yesterday I sent off a proposal to two trusted colleagues who are attached to this project and then sat in a puddle of vulnerability as I waited for them to get back to me. That act of being vulnerable is why I’ve failed before. It’s why I waited a year to respond to someone who graciously offered to get me an audition with a friend of his in Hollywood.

It’s all fear. As much as I tell my little girl that feelings can’t hurt you, I find myself being paralyzed by my fear. After coming clean to my friend about why I ignored his email and promising myself to do better, I realize that I can be scared and still take action. The fear paralysis is what will kill my creative expression and ultimately my happiness. Today I am relieved and happy that I was able to wrestle the random ramblings in my head onto a 2-1/2 page proposal. This is always the first step in my process and so often the hardest.

As I remember my late aunt and celebrate her life this weekend, I’ll take with me some of her fearlessness and ingenuity and do my best to incorporate that into my creative practice. No matter what happens beyond this point with this project, my artistic voice will never be heard if I hide in the shadows. Future possibilities exist because I stepped into the light. I invite you to step out of your shadows and join me in the light…even if just for a moment.

Life After – Remix

While tonight doesn’t feel like part 3 of the previous posts I’ve written about living life after losing Coby, it also doesn’t feel like “normal” or “new normal” or whatever. I guess it’s just whatever there is on the other side. For tonight’s sake, let’s just call it a remix.

 

IMG_7601

Today was a good day. It’s been an exhausting week full of client demands and creative hurdles to overcome but I’m keeping pace, and maybe even picking up steam. When I think back to the time when I couldn’t even answer the phone, I know that is huge progress. I still haven’t listened to my voicemail messages from the weeks following Coby’s death. My phone keeps sending me warning messages that my voicemail is 90+% full.

Do I listen to these messages that might sink me because they are full of my friends and loved ones concern for my family? The kindness hurts sometimes. As weird as that sounds, a hug can crush and tear-filled eyes have the power to unleash the feelings that are being held at bay by the hustle and bustle of the end of the school year, conference calls, piles of mail and happy occasions.

Nah. They can stay right there for now. For the moment I get to celebrate a few victories -My little one getting an academic award and a call back for a great project, hitting a significant milestone with our newest documentary and remembering most of my passwords while I plow through work.

I celebrate a tiny bit while being reminded that Coby will never graduate like so many of the friends I see on social media and in the world. I’m thrilled for them, yet I can’t help but think that he should be there clowning with his friends in a cap and gown. We should be showering him with love and praise for one of the greatest accomplishments one can have – successfully pursuing an education. Alas, it is not to be for Coby and that hurts. If I’m honest, typing that, acknowledging that fact brings on the tears.

I think of the shadows left behind in the souls of his classmates. I think of the carnage that is left behind after. After. After. After. I think of the carnage of the world we live in and I struggle to stay in the light as I wonder how the hell we can hold human potential and the essence of life in such disregard. A deranged man in a nightclub extinguishing precious lives, petty grievances in neighborhoods all over the country handled with terminal consequences, hate, fear and anguish all around.

IMG_9621

In moments like this I remind myself I have a choice. Light or dark. Each moment I get to choose and sometimes making that choice is a Herculean effort, but today – as I took my girl to try sushi for the first time (in honor of seeing a great indie film East Side Sushi) and told her how proud I was of her, choosing the light was an easy choice. In a year, where she lost the only “big brother”she was ever going to have, being able to find the light together is a blessing.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I know that the sun will rise and the birds will sing, and that has to be enough for now.

Life After – Part 2

I think of Coby. I close my eyes. I don’t see or hear a train screaming down the tracks. It’s a brilliant breakthrough that I am eternally grateful to have experienced. I no longer have to rip my eyes open and calm my racing heart.

I think of Coby and a lovely thought mingles with the residual sadness leaving me with a  bittersweet warmth. It still seems unreal. It still couldn’t have happened to us, but it did. My little one put it best when she said that now when she thinks of Coby she isn’t sad anymore, but that she feels happy. Time beginning to heal.

Coby with his Grandma Gladys.
Coby with his Grandma Gladys.

I’d be foolish to think that there aren’t going to be many moments when the old feelings surface, but today I’m so, so, so grateful that they have given way and allow me to see another possibility. I miss Coby. I love Coby. Eternally 18 and eternally in my heart. I guess that will have to be enough.