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.

Life After

Passion, hustle, relentless, inspired, driven, tireless – those were words that could have been used to describe the pursuit of my creative dreams before 8:45 am on March 7, 2016. Listless, unfocused, lost, self-preservative, conciliatory, slow – these words feel closer to where I am today, 10 am on May 9, 2016.

On Sunday, March 6th my 18 year-old nephew Coby ended his life by stepping in front of a train. I pause at the writing of that sentence because of the tightening in my throat, the tears that threaten to blur my vision and the current that runs up and down my arms. This moment, the moment I wish I could freeze like a superhero in a film, is the moment that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.

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One of my first days with Coby

I graduated with a degree in Psychology, have a bunch of friends who are clinicians and have been down the terrifying path of suicide with others in the past. I have worked in Emergency Response and with children in crisis in the past but nothing could have prepared me for the donkey kick to the solar plexus that was the notification call from my brother that Monday morning.

There was no doubt in what I was hearing, “Coby took his life” but I still heard myself scream, “NO! WHAT??” I’m not sure how the human mind processes trauma. I’m not a clinician. I decided to go another route into the creative world, but I doubt whether clinician or not, that I would have an understanding of what my body and mind was doing in those moments to protect me. My mind is still protecting me and it is the very act of protection that has altered who I am right now.

Coby’s journey is over and I am left behind trying to make sense out of the senseless. There are certain truths I have been able to accept. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. Some people talk about committing suicide but never do and others don’t talk about it but execute the act.

When I became a parent I learned that I wasn’t in control. It was one of the scariest realizations of my lifetime. To love this little being more than my own life and to know that I could not control how long she would remain on this Earth was the most painful and terrifying discovery. It gave way to my faith. It found me praying that we would be allowed to have a long life together and that I would be around to see her triumphs and tribulations. It gave me the freedom to “offer up” my worries and fears.

I have never, nor would I ever be prepared for my recent internal dialogue about suicide. The questions about what I did, what I could have done and how I missed the breadcrumbs Coby floated out into the social media universe about the pain he was living with. I live online. So much of the work I do is online but all I could think was that I missed it. What could I have been doing that was more important than being there for the man-child I had watched grow from an adorable, precocious, sweet, mischievous and goofy kid?

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I sat with those thoughts for a short while before I let myself off the hook. I know, and I knew in other situations, that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. He was 18 and in my world that means he had his own life. A life full of sports, friends, pop culture and his own dreams. I was the Aunt who was there when he forgot to bring candy to school one day and who showed up for family gatherings, but I was also the Aunt that was caught up trying to figure out how to navigate life as a divorced, single-parent solo mompreneur.

I wasn’t around for the soccer games, the birthdays (unless they were specifically for the family) and the ins and outs of his life. I misguidedly figured I’d be there for the important days – his high school graduation, his first college soccer game, his wedding and the birth of his kids.) I was here waiting in the wings if he needed anything, but I was in the wings. That was the relationship we had and if his life ended differently I wouldn’t even be here writing about it.

This post isn’t about Coby or his life. I couldn’t do him justice in a blog post. How do you sum up the moments, giggles, guffaws, bursts of pride, stern looks and gusts of love into words? How can you encapsulate what 18 years of loving an ever-changing human being means? I can’t. I won’t even try.

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Coby making sure I’m treating his baby sister right.

This post is about life after Coby. It’s easy to get distracted from the morass of feelings that sneak up from time to time because I didn’t see him all that often. It’s easy for my brain to default to an alternate reality where he will be there the next time I visit my brother, sister-in-law and niece at their house…but he won’t be there…and every now and then it comes screaming back.

In between the alternate reality and the screaming back there lies the space and time where I need to be mom, business owner and human being. The problem is I feel like I’ve forgotten who I was and how to get back there. Gone is my playful, social justice-themed and inspired social media chatter. Gone is my frequent “third shift” role call when I check in on Facebook to see who else is burning the midnight oil working on projects, grant applications or grad school work. Gone is my ability to stay up late and work all night. Gone is my willingness to want to listen to the voicemail messages that have been filling up my phone. Gone is the spark that fueled my creative engine.

Intellectually I know that my creative engine is in neutral and that life is the spark. I’m treading water until my heart receives that message and decides to return to my creative sandbox. The million dollar question is how do I navigate my work, parenting and creative demands in the meantime? My daughter wants her “happy mom” back. I thought I was being happy mom, but I appears that I am only the happy mom stand-in.

Coby’s death leaves me wondering what really matters? How much of what I do results in a positive impact on this world we share? I am grateful that the work I have chosen to do at this point in my life is meaningful and that I can see a reason to keep moving forward. I don’t have to ask myself how important it is to show up as a mom, which is another reason to feel gratitude. On the tough days since Coby has passed  I remind myself that the sun will rise and the birds will sing…and so will I.

Thankfully I have some outstanding client obligations that drag me back to my computer but the biggest challenge I am facing is how I move forward with the stuff that filled my head and heart before Coby’s death left a gash behind. I know that it will take time to heal and transcend this trauma but my head and heart are at war because I was raised in a society where you work! You grind, hustle and then grind some more until you fall out…and then you start all over again.

There was never a chapter on what to do when the world stops, your heart contracts and you can’t see straight anymore. I miss Coby. The absolute hardest part is parenting my little one through the big questions about where he is and all of her memories of Coby. Just when I get myself in check she lobs me a question or a memory or just sits down with a sad, tear-filled face.

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There are no answers. There is no normal. There is only life after. In our  life after I hold her close, I rest when I’m tired, I ignore the calls I can’t handle and I do my best to be kind to my heart as it finds the resources it needs to heal. On my best days I’m a poor imitation of happy mom and on my worst I am the best that I can be. Life moves on and as I had to remind myself, life is for the living.

I wish with every fiber of my being that I could have been there in the moment Coby decided to go ahead with his plan, but it was not meant to be. My heart goes out to my brother, sister-in-law, niece and all of those who were close to Coby. I can’t imagine what it is like to have seen him every day and now to have to live with that loss…how you put your life back together when a entire piece of your heart is missing.

People have asked how I’m doing. Many have reached out with messages of love and support. I’m grateful. In time I believe I will be able to read and listen to them all, but right now my heart isn’t up to it. I have created a safe space filled with people who were there when it happened and who knew nothing about it. In some weird way it gives me freedom to fall apart or pretend nothing is wrong, depending on the situation.

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My heart won’t allow me to do the “getting to know you” conversation about his passing anymore. I know people don’t mean anything by it, but I just know that I can’t relive or debate the details of his passing one more time – not right now. Right now I’m going to work out, cook things I never cooked before, love up on my prickly, hormonal pre-teen and spend time nurturing my spark so that it will come back to my creative sandbox.

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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