I Will Never Move On

Last night, I was talking to a new widower friend of mine on the phone, when he suddenly shifted the topic of conversation and posed a huge challenge to me. Im not sure if he saw it as a challenge, but I did. He asked me to do him a favor. When I asked him what the favor was, he said, very matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest of things to accomplish: “I want you to change the world.” Oh, IS THAT ALL??? Should I do this right in between my morning coffee and my teaching job? Or perhaps I could fit it in right after cleaning out the kitties litter box and my second load of laundry. Maybe I can multi-task and get this done while I simultaneously file my taxes. Sure. Change the world. I will get right on that. (Can you sense my sarcastic tone?)

In all honesty though, after I got off the phone and stopped to think about it some more, the challenge did peak my interest in many ways, and I was somewhat flattered that anyone would think that little ole’ me could ever be capable of something as huge as world-changing. This friend of mine finds me inspiring, mostly due to the honest way in which I write about grief. What he doesn’t know (until right now, when he reads this) is that him giving me that challenge has inspired ME. He has inspired me to try and do better. The fact that he believes I am capable of such a thing, is providing me with the fuel to light the fire that sits inside. I would have never thought to make it a goal to change the world all on my own, but now that it’s been planted in my head and heart by someone else, I might as well give it a shot, right? I heard a quote somewhere recently, that really stuck with me. It said: “Change the world, by changing your mind.” Or “change your mind, and change the world.” I can’t remember the order that it was said in, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it pretty much means the same thing. It all comes down to perception. The way that people see or perceive something, has to first change, in order for everything around it to also change.

So, with that in mind, I am going to write about something that truly needs to be written about. I am going to put it all out there, and hope that the message gets passed around as much as it needs to be passed around. I am going to count on my widowed community to help me share this very important and vital message, by sharing this blog piece with any person who has ever told you or implied to you in any way, shape, or form, that you need to “move on.” I am going to write the truth, and then wait for that truth to become contagious. Just as this false idea that people who lose their spouse or partner need to “move on” has spread like wild fire, this new message needs to cause a fire ten billion times bigger. This fire needs to put that old one to shame. It is time to make a change.

Any widowed person will tell you that we have heard time and time again, the endless parade of well-intentioned, thoughtless comments that come our way, within minutes of losing our life partners and the life we knew. These comments include such classics as: Everything happens for a reason. // Time heals all wounds. // God never gives you more than you can handle. / It was God’s Plan. // God Needed Another Angel. // I know exactly how you feel. // You need to get over this. That is not the full list of whoppers – just a few of my favorites. But what all of these comments have in common is this: they make us feel worse, not better. They make us feel like our emotions aren’t real or don’t matter, because they are dismissive and they don’t validate what we are actually going through. The truth of the matter is, nobody could ever know what we are going through or what this IS, until they themselves have gone through it. Most people want to help. Unfortunately, most people are pretty clueless as to how their words can affect us, and most people don’t stop and think about just how insensitive these cliches can feel, when heard by someone who is in tremendous and very real pain. On top of all that, we, the ones who are in the tremendous pain, are told over and over again to just put up with these thoughtless comments. We are told that people are “only trying to help”, or that “they don’t know what to say”, and we should smile and nod and be grateful that they care. I’m sorry that people don’t know what to say. But I also feel like it’s time to change the conversation from “they don’t know what to say” to “let’s teach them what is not so good to say, so that we can stop using that as a convenient excuse to say hurtful and unhelpful things.” As the brilliantly smart and world-changing Maya Angelou famously said: “When you know better, you do better.” I think it’s time we do better.

So let us begin with the King of all Insensitive Comments: “You Need to Move On.” “It’s time you moved on.” Or any other of the many variations that include the phrase and the idea of “moving on.” Of all the many comments that are said to widowed people, this is by far the most common one, and also the most harmful. The reason it is so harmful is that this message is implanted into the widowed person’s heart and soul, over and over again, at EVERY stage of their grieving process, by many different people. We begin to hear this “move on” mentality on the very first day that our person dies. Just hours after my husband’s sudden death, I was informed that making the decision of whether or not to donate his organs would help me to “move on.” Then, at his funeral, I was told that the services and the wake would all help me to “find closure and move on.” A week later, when I was being held captive in the four walls that used to be our home, I was being told in condescending voices that it was “time to donate some of his clothing, so that you can start to move on.” Four and a half years later, and people are still beating me over the head with their chants of moving on. “Why aren’t you dating anyone yet? You need to move on.” “Why are you still going to that Widow Camp? Don’t you think it’s time to move on from that?” “Why are you still talking to his family? He is dead. You aren’t his wife anymore. So they aren’t your family anymore.” (Yes, someone actually said this to me. Really.)

These awful ideas are repeated into our souls, as if stamped onto our foreheads by people who have no idea of what they speak, and this becomes harmful. Because we start to believe it. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us for NOT wanting to forget about our person. We start to think that maybe we are doing this all wrong, and maybe we are weak and stupid and not well, because we still love them and we don’t want to place them on a shelf in our past, to collect dust forever. We start to very slowly lose pieces of ourselves, and unwillingly lean into what society is telling us instead. All of this is extremely harmful to our souls. Why?

Because none of it is real.

Because it doesn’t exist.

Let me say this as simply as possible:

There is NO SUCH THING as moving on.

It’s a lie.

It’s a fairy-tale concept, invented by those who don’t know what to say.

It is invented out of ignorance and fear.

They want you to move on, so that they can feel more comfortable with your presence.

If we can all just pretend that this scary death thing never actually happened, then it would all simply go away.

Except it doesn’t ever go away. Not for you. Not for the person living inside of it. It becomes you, and you become it, and you become wrapped up in each other. Death and life become one, and everything is different forever. The death of a spouse or partner is different than other losses, in the sense that it literally changes every single thing in your world going forward. When your spouse dies, the way you eat changes. The way you watch TV changes. Your friend circle changes (or disappears entirely.) Your family dynamic/life changes (or disappears entirely). Your financial status changes. Your job situation changes. It effects your self-worth. Your self-esteem. Your confidence. Your rhythms. The way you breathe. Your mentality. Your brain function. (Ever heard the term ‘widow brain?’ If you don’t know what that is, count yourself as very lucky.) Your physical body. Your hobbies and interests. Your sense of security. Your sense of humor. Your sense of womanhood or manhood. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. CHANGES. You are handed a new life that you never asked for and that you don’t particularly want. It is the hardest, most gut-wrenching, horrific, life-altering of things to live with.

To top it all off, people who still have their partners beside them, treat you differently. People like to think that they suddenly know what is best for you. People treat you like you are a child who cannot make decisions. They want to treat it as if it were maybe a divorce instead of a death. They want you to put that person in your past, like some “ex” lover or some regretful mistake. These insinuations are beyond hurtful to the widowed person, who is still and always will be very much in love with their person who died. And so, what ends up happening, most times, is that the widowed person feels more and more alone as the months and years go by, until eventually, they just stop talking to their friends about their loss altogether. Their friends and family then wrongly assume that because they don’t talk about it anymore, they must be “over it”, and therefore, everything is fine. Meanwhile, the widowed person continues to suffer in silence and mounting isolation. For us, it is a very scary place to be. And this is how the cycle of unhealthy perceptions of grief and death continues.

In the past four and a half years since my husband died, I have become friends, both online and in-person, with a lot of widowed people. We help each other. We call each other family. We are the family that you gain, when the family you knew is gone. We talk to one another about the pain and the heartbreak, and the changes and the shifts, and the complexities of life after death. A huge part of the reason I am writing this blog today, is that I have seen countless upon countless posts in the closed and private widowed groups, where a widowed person has been forced to hear from some family member, friend, or acquaintance, some form of “you need to move on.”

The way they say it comes in many forms. One widow parent who I know, was judged and lectured by her family, because she dared to share memories with her own children about her husband /their father. The family told her that she shouldn’t do that because she wasn’t helping her children to “move on from him. ” They told her it was not healthy for them to be “sad” over his death. Another friend was offered money by a relative, for every picture he took down from his nightstand, of his deceased wife. Another friend was pushed into a new relationship before she was ready, because her buddies thought she should “get out there again and start dating.” Another friend was judged because she still goes to the cemetery often, to visit with her husband. On and on the judgments come, each one breaking my heart more than the one before it. And while I cannot stop these people from giving their clueless and harmful advice, I can hope that maybe some of them are reading this somehow, and I can ask them to do me a favor.

I can ask them to ask themselves what kind of message do they think they are sending to their widowed friend or family member, with this type of “move on” mentality? Really. If you are reading this now, I would like for you to think about that for a minute. By telling a widowed mom or parent that they shouldn’t share stories with their children about their dad, isn’t that sending a message that their dad’s life meant nothing? Isn’t that sending a message that they should simply forget he was and IS their father – just pretend he never existed? And what about the widow or widower who goes to their spouse’s grave-site – whether its on special anniversary days, or a couple times per week? What message does it send to tell them to stop going there? Isn’t that like telling them their love didn’t matter? Isnt that like implying that erasing them from their hearts is better than honoring and remembering them with love? Why on earth are we shaming people for loving others eternally? Why are we making them feel as if that is not normal, when in fact, it is not only normal, but probably the most beautiful thing in the world. When a celebrity dies, we gather on social media and we share their pictures, their art, their music, their talents. We celebrate them and remember them, and we say “Hey, remember when he did that one film? That was a classic that will last until the end of time.” Yet, when the person who was the center of our universe dies, and we dare post a picture of them or speak of them a few months or years after their death, we are looked at with judging eyes. We are given pity and lectures about how “stuck” we are, and we are made to feel as if it is very, very bad what we are doing. This is so wrong, and so backwards. We should not have to shamefully love our people. The entire message of the move-on mentality, seems to be this: forget about them. Its in the past. Pretend it never happened.

But here’s the thing. That is not possible. You cannot forget love. You cannot pretend it away. The death of the person you love, only ends a life. It does NOT end a relationship. The truth is, LOVE is the only thing that we get to keep forever. Love is the only thing that we can take with us. Love is the only thing that never, ever dies. To take that away from someone, is not only unhealthy – it is cruel.

I will never move on from my husband. I will never NOT love my husband who died. I will never leave him in my past, like some forgotten old shoe I never threw away. This applies forever. Even if I should fall in love again. Even if I should marry again. Even if I should live every dream that I have ever dreamed possible. Even when I am old and gray and ancient, should I have the honor of being allowed to live that long. Even then. I will NEVER not be connected to my husband. He lives within me now. Whatever I do, wherever I go, I carry him with me. He is a piece of my very soul. There is no moving on.

Here is what I WILL do:

I will live the biggest and brightest and most colorful life that I can, because my husband does not have that choice. I will cling to every new joy that I feel in this life, because I am still alive to feel it. I will honor the life and the love that my husband and I shared, by being the person that he fell in love with. I will always find ways to keep remembering him and sharing his story with the world, because that is my duty and my HONOR to do as his wife, and his widow; and because sharing their story is how we keep them alive and relevant. I will continue to grow and to learn and to hurt and to feel and to fear and to fly. I will scream when I need to, cry when I have to, and laugh as much as my body can handle. I will tell all the people that I love, that I truly love them, and I will make sure they know this as often as possible. I will leave behind something of importance in this life, something of value, that someone , someday, can read or look at or see or feel, and it will make them think in a different way. I will love harder than I have ever loved before, and I wont feel guilty for loving again, because I will know in my heart that my husband’s love is inside every love I have going forward. I will choose to believe that he is somehow still here with me, and I wont question or doubt all the many times that I feel him. I will embrace his energy inside the music, and I will dance to the rhythms of our forever connected hearts. I will speak his name whenever I want to, and I will do this proudly, because that is what he deserves. That is what we ALL deserve – to not be forgotten, and to be spoken of with laughter and joy and remembrance, by those that will always love us. I will move INTO my future, step into my life, and I will carry him with me at every turn. I will take risks, and be afraid to fail, but go for it anyway, because I know that in the end, none of us get out alive. I will know that life is terrifying and chaotic and unfair and filled with sorrow and pain, but also exhilarating and wonderful and surprising and incredible, and a beautiful gift that keeps unwrapping, each and every time I make the decision to get out of bed. I will promise to do all of these things and more, and if I’m very lucky, maybe I can even change the world.

And I will never, ever move on.

Pinata

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of a phone session with a grief-coaching client, and I found myself talking with her about that feeling you have when you realize that your “other” life has ended, and a new one must begin. We were talking about what it’s like to have to literally stand in the middle of nothing, and learn to pick up every single thing that has shattered around you. That feeling of being totally lost as the whole world moves around you. Immediately, a very specific image of what this was, came into my head, and then later that night, I had a dream about it, where the images were laid out for me like a home movie, and this is what I saw ….

Pinata.

Life after losing your spouse or partner is like a pinata. Think about it. The pinata is your life. Your new life. The one you never asked for. The one that came crashing into your old life, uninvited. The one that mocks you everyday with it’s loudness and bright colors, when all you can see is grey. Your new life sits there, perched up above you, lightly swinging back and forth in the wind, messing with your sense of balance and steadiness. You are standing below it. Below your life. You look up at it, and nothing about it is familiar to you, because it is not the life you had just five hours ago, or five days ago. Your tired eyes are trying like hell to adjust to this oddly-shaped thing above you, and you are trying to focus, when suddenly, out of nowhere, another shock to your system.

Suddenly, someone is behind you, and you don’t know who it is, and they begin to put a blindfold over your face. So now your new life that you don’t want is above you swinging in the wind, and you can’t even see it. In fact, you can’t see anything. Nothing. Your world is completely dark. There is no light anywhere. The worst and most alienating part is that life is going on around you. Literally all around you, on every side, kids are laughing and people are dancing and life is singing and humans are having a party. They are having a party while your life is suspended in mid-air, and you have been blindfolded.

So now you are terrified. You are shaking and your mouth feels like it’s filled with dirt and mud. You want water but everything around you is sand and dryness. You can’t stop sweating, and then this horrible stranger who blindfolded you grabs you by your shoulders, and starts to spin you around. They spin you around in a circle. You go in circles for a long time. A really long time just moving in circles, ending up right back where you began. No focus. No purpose. No point. Just dizzy and nauseous from all the spinning and all the confusion. Where did everybody go? Where did my life go? Where are my friends? They were here just a few minutes or hours or weeks ago. You ask all these questions and more, but nobody hears you. You are left alone. Spinning.

The stranger puts a bat in your hand. It feels like a baseball bat. Why would they do that? You are about to pass out, and you feel like you cannot possibly accomplish one more task. You just want to sleep forever or stop feeling pain and hurt, but the voices come and so you can’t sleep and you can’t stop the hurt. The voices come from the thin, dry air and from all around you, and you can’t really make out what they are saying. It doesn’t sound like words. Nothing sounds like anything in this world where you are blind and spinning without your anchor. You feel the hand guide your arm up toward the strange colorful object. You still can’t see and you feel insane. But now, now suddenly and with a fire that scares you, you are filled with rage. You are crying and you are pissed off at this life and these questions and this God you believe in, if you believe in a God – suddenly the space around you grows silent, and you start blindly swinging. You swing and you swing and you swing, and at first, you touch nothing. Your arm starts to hurt and you start to question your sanity again. Is there anything up there? What am I swinging at? What am I reaching for? I don’t have the energy. I can’t do it. I can’t do it, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t …

But you do. You do, because you are so tired and so disoriented now, and in so much grief and pain, that you don’t know what else to do except stand there with your limp in your legs and your Jello arms and swing like a motherfucker at your life. You do this for hours or weeks or months or years, sometimes taking breaks for work or other obligations you are forced to still take care of, even though you can’t see and you have been blindfolded and left alone in a foreign space. You scream and you cry and you beat the shit out of the ground in front of you with your bat, and you stab at the air over and over and over, still feeling nothing except the cracks in your own joints from swinging.

Finally, there is a swing you take that has such intensity and such lack of direction and such violence in it, that you somehow magically actually make contact with something. You have made contact with your life. You try and center yourself, and you swing again through the darkness and the blackness and the hopelessness and the fear. You feel the tip and the middle of the bat hitting on something, and it makes a thud sound, once and then twice and then once more. You swing harder and faster now, even though you are seconds from passing out. You swing and you swing and you swing, and you hit and you hit and you hit. And then there it is, all of a sudden, and why did it take so long. You hear the final thud of your life, as it shatters in pieces around you. There is no applause or cheering. Just a subtle loosening of your blindfold, as it makes its way down your eyes and then falls down around your neck. You look around you, and there is your life.

You are broken open. Everything is scattered in pieces, and the fragments lie all over the hot ground. Your blindfold is off, so you can finally see, but your vision is still impaired. Everything is fuzzy and out of focus. Everything looks like shapes. You don’t know where to look first, what to deal with first. Your life has been broken open all around you, and you are still alone.

Eventually, after some weeks or months or years, you start to aimlessly wander around the space that is near you, searching for something. You have questions and there are no answers. But there is hope. There are shifts. There are changes. There is joy. There is laughter. It is somewhere, and now and again, you remember or feel what that was like. You can recall it, for a few seconds. But it disappears again because you are not ready. You have not picked up the pieces that are all around you. You realize that you have to start …….

pinata

Everything lying on the ground around you looks weird and unfamiliar. It is not candy or anything like that. It is all the pieces of what you must work through, what you must analyze and break down and feel. Sometimes you step on the pieces because they are sharp, so you have to then deal with them. Other times you bend down and pick up a piece of your grief.

This piece is the guilt. That piece is the anger. This piece is the jealousy and envy . That one over there is my future, the one I don’t get to have. The one I must grieve. That piece sitting in the rubble is the pieces of my children – the ones that were only born in the minds and hearts of me and my husband, as we dreamt of our someday family. That piece takes a long time to handle. That piece is a killer. This piece is loneliness. That one is the one that misses him. This one is my best friend being gone. That one near my foot is about the safety and security I felt with him, and no longer have in his absence. That jagged edged piece that I can’t seem to pick up still, is the one where I am no longer someone’s priority. The one where nobody is asking me what time I’ll be home tonight. And still, there are so many more pieces. The pieces of my life that I hit with a baseball bat came down in a flood, and there are too many right now. That one is old age and this one is getting sick and that one is dealing with more loss in my future without my husband. This one is my dreams. Our dreams. That one is the house we never got to buy, and the places we never went, and the anniversaries and vacations and kids and grand kids and retirements and years we will never ever have. The pieces are endless, but there they are. And you cannot fully life your life until you work through all these pieces. Some you come back to again and again, because they are just so hard and so painful to face. Others you are able to let go of or move through with a bit less harshness.

Eventually, you look out at the space all around you, and maybe you can finally see parts of the earth again. Maybe there are sections where all of your stuff and all of your fragments of grief aren’t taking up all of the room anymore. And then maybe you even have space for some of those things you felt in the distance before – things like hope, joy, beginnings.

When your life is taken from you without your consent, and a new one is forced upon you with zero notice, you are broken completely open and all the pieces of what lies before you emotionally, is scattered all over the ground. You are forever changed from this loss. This death. This is true. But the way that you change is up to you. At first, and for a long time, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like nothing is a choice, because it isn’t. But much later, once you work and move through the pain and the hurt and the pieces all around you, you get to decide how you might transform, and what that will look like. You get to decide, because you are finally able to see.

This Monday, July 13th, is the 4 year anniversary of my husband’s death. One of the things I have decided to do as part of this version of my life, is to use that day to honor who Don Shepherd was and is. He was the most selfless person I ever knew. And so because of him, I have created “Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” This will be the 3rd annual Don Day, and all details can be found on my public Facebook page for the Event. Anyone can participate:

https://www.facebook.com/events/828325530596844/

Coming up on 4 years, I am still working through the pieces that remain on the ground. I have picked up and moved through and stared in the face of many of those pieces, but there are still a few left to conquer. These days, I feel love more than I feel loss. I feel life more than I feel death. I feel joy more than I feel pain, but then again, my joy has pain inside it now. It’s different. Everything is different. But it is a thousand times more beautiful and meaningful than it ever was before, and my relationship with my husband is more profound these days than ever before.

It’s not ideal. But I’ll take it.

I spent almost 3 years swinging and swinging and swinging at that pinata.

When that bitch finally pulled apart and fell out all over the earth, it became mine for the taking.

In the distance, there are people having a party.

I think it’s time for me to join them.

(Note: If the above link doesnt work, Pay it Forward blog posts can be found right here on my blog, or search “Avalanche of Kindness: 3rd Annual Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day” on Facebook. The page is public so anyone can participate and join the page. Also, Where is everyone lately? I know I havent written as much as normal, and Im sorry for that, but I used to get at least a FEW comments. Whered you all go? Its like crickets in here… Miss you all!!! )

My Dreams Were the Color of Your Eyes

My Dreams Were the Color of Your Eyes. Your eyes that are no longer your eyes. The same eyes that glistened their sky-blue smile at me from across the pillow, in the middle of a sleepless night. The same eyes that batted themselves and pouted at me with such precise rhythm, that I could rarely say no to anything they required from me. The same eyes that I trusted with all of my secrets. With my soul. My life.

My dreams were the color of your eyes. Your eyes that promised me forever on that brisk October day. Your eyes that clutched my heart in that boat, at that moment, when you kissed me first and said, with wind in your voice: “Finally.” Your eyes that looked so smart and adorable behind your glasses everytime you read a medical book or sheet music for your guitar – so piercing and warm inside their own nakedness, when you would take the glasses off. Your eyes that were the bluest eyes I have ever seen, and the most honest. Your eyes that, when I looked in them, spelled the word Husband.

But sleeping is something that we take for granted. Dreams are something that we take for granted. Marriage is something that we take for granted. Love and time and years are something that we take for granted.

Those Eyes ….

 Decades. So many couples, so many marriages, that have the privalege, the honor, of spending decades together. We will never know a decade of married life. We will never have that son or daughter that we might have had. There is nobody – not a soul – that I can look at and say: “You get that from your dad. Your eyes look just like his eyes.” I cannot see you in anyone’s eyes, and Im the only person left who cares the most about you. Other people care, but I care most of all. Because I looked in your eyes and I found my heart.

My Dreams Are Not the Color of Your Eyes. They are not even dreams. They are shattered pieces of broken glass, scattered inside my brain, feeding me with migraines and anxiety and nightmares. They are worms that swim in my skin – alligators that bite at my toes and feet as I thrash back and forth in my hot, sweaty bed. There is no such thing as rest anymore. Or sleep. There is only guilt and exhaustion and hurt and pain. There are flashbacks and terror and panic and fear. Everything turns black.

My Dreams Are the Color of Blackness. Of death and grief, of gray and ashes, of urns and caskets. Why do I keep seeing you lying in that casket? Why? Lying there over and over, with your eyes that were not your eyes, because we gave them away to the living. The same eyes that loved my soul, were now just pools of empty sunken circles, in the place where your eyes used to be. And your skin that was not your skin, because we gave that away too, so your arms looked all puffy like sausage, and your hands did not resemble the hands and the fingers that interlocked with mine as we slept side by side in bed, humming ourselves to dream. To sleep. To dream.

Where are your eyes now? A letter from the Organ Donation Center only tells me that your eyes “gave a blind man the gift of sight.” Who is he? Is he kind and funny like you? Does he love animals like you? Does he have a wife that he loves and a life that he loves, like you? Does he dream in the color of your eyes, that are now his eyes? Does his wife feel her heart burst when she looks into your eyes? Do they know that my dreams are now nightmares, and that they lurk in my closet and under my bed, existing without color?

Where is your skin now? Another letter only tells me that several burn victims received the gift of skin-tissue to help repair them and give them new arms and elbows and hands. Who are they? How many people are walking around with your skin on them? Does one of them use his fingers to strum chords on a guitar, like you did? Does their skin get dry and itchy and red, like yours did? Do they use one of their arms to hold out for their wife to grab onto when she is terrified on an airplane, like you did? Do they know or realize what a beautiful person you are? Can they somehow feel it, or carry some of that beauty with them, through your skin? Do their loved ones feel a special electricity, when they brush up against your arm?

Id like to imagine or think or dream, that maybe your skin and your tissue and your eyes and organs and parts, are all pieces of other people’s lives and families. Maybe your skin that is part of somebody’s arm is teaching his kid how to throw a baseball, like you wanted to do with our future son one day. Maybe your cornea that is part of someone’s eyes, looked into his wife’s eyes as she gave birth to their gorgeous daughter, and changed their lives forever.

 Maybe none of those things are even remotely true, or possible. Maybe it’s much more simple, and much less grand. Maybe I don’t ever get to see your face again, or look into your eyes, or feel your skin and your touch.

 But maybe I get to keep that piece that nobody else gets. Maybe you and I get to share your Soul and your heart, until the end of time and then longer. Much, much longer.

I need to believe that. I need to believe that in order to survive.

My Dreams Are the Color of Your Soul. Your soul that lives inside my heart, and that keeps your eyes Yours, forever.

 

 

To the Families of the Victims at Sandy Hook Elementary …

There is a good chance that you may never read this. Or maybe you will read it sometime far away in the future. Weeks, months, or even years from now. I hope that somehow, someday, this finds you, and that you do read it eventually, because I can feel your hearts, and they are hurting. I hear your pain, and it is gut-wrenching. And I know that if you ever do read this, it will not be right now. Right now, as I type these words, and as the country argues over gun laws and school security and mental illness, you are sitting or standing or being interviewed on TV somewhere, and you are in deep shock. People keep saying you are so strong, as you aimlessly wander through endless funerals and speeches and burials, and you are stunned and you are numb and you are changed with each new second of horror that you face. You are living this new reality – this new world that you never asked for. You are just trying to breathe and make it through the next day, the next hour, the next minute. If you did happen to read this right now, you wouldn’t remember it anyway. You are living in the fog of grief. Welcome to your new life.

Happiest Day of my Life

 It is a life I am very familiar with. Last year, on July 13, 2011, 17 months and 5 days ago (because that is how I count things now), I woke up to this new life at 6:30am when my phone wouldn’t stop ringing, over and over and over again. “We have your husband”, the hospital said on the phone when I finally picked up. “You need to get down here right away.” Even though my husband Don was only 46 years old, in very good health, was not sick, and had absolutely NO symptoms of anything ever, I knew by their words in that moment that he was probably in a coma or dead. Why? Because I was married to an EMT, and one of the things he always told me was that hospitals are not allowed to inform you that your loved one has died over the phone. They have to tell you in person.

So I rushed myself into a car service and got myself to the E.R., the whole time saying out loud to myself over and over and over: “This isn’t happening, this isnt happening, this isnt happening.” I ran faster than I have ever run in my life into that waiting room. Nurses and doctors whispered and tried to calm me down. They brought me into a private room and made me sit down, at least 15 of them surrounding me, offering me things like water and tissues. One of the doctors sat down and said a whole bunch of words that ended with the only ones that were important: “He didn’t make it. We are so sorry.” The sound that came out of me was something that, at the time, terrified me. Since that day, I have made similar type sounds many times in the throws of grieving. Sounds that have become my everyday norm. That morning, the love of my life went into work, and never came home. He collapsed on the floor of a Petsmart while working his 2nd job stocking dog and cat food and helping with animal adoptions, a passion of his. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to tell him I love you. We didnt even say good morning. While I lay in our bed fast asleep, my husband lay on a cold ,hard floor, dying. Massive heart attack, they said. Cardiac arrest.

 

Since that awful morning that changed everything forever, I have become a different person. I am now the kind of person that writes letters like this to people I don’t even know, or will probably never meet. Because when something like this happens to you and shatters your world, you feel a connection and a bond and a secret understanding with anyone else whose life is torn apart in the blink of an eye. Or the stop of a heart. Or the shot of a gun. You want to embrace them. You want to tell them that things will never be the same, and that they will not ever get over it, but they will get through it. You want them to know, more than anything, that there is someone out there who feels a tiny piece of what they might be going through, but at the same time, has absolutely no idea what they are going through. You want to give them all of the tools and the maps and the directions on how to cope and how to make it through the next moment. You want to help.

So, today, Newtown families, just days after your entire world has been stolen from you, when everyone else is busy arguing and debating about why this happened – I want to deliver a different message. I want to talk with you about a Monster that attacks everybody at some point in their lives. We all know it’s coming, but we don’t know when or why. It doesn’t matter anyway, because when it comes for you, it takes over your entire being, and you are drowning in the ocean and choking on salt water just to stay alive. I am talking, of course, about the monster called GRIEF.

They matter.

Every single day, I am learning, still learning, how to handle this evil monster. Although I don’t yet have all the answers, and probably never will, I would like to share with you some of the things that I have figured out so far, in the hopes that it might help you to get through that next cup of coffee, that next Christmas, or that next death anniversary. I am not sure if I would call what I am about to write here “advice”, suggestions, or just words. Maybe they are just words, but sometimes, words can resonate, and they can move you. And by putting words out there, you never know who might read them.

 1. People often ask me different versions of the question: “Are you doing better? Are you getting better? Do you feel better?” No. Please know that there is no such thing as things getting better. This is not a scratch on your elbow or your knee that heals. It is not the flu. Your child, or your brother or sister, your mom, your grandchild, your cousin or aunt … is gone. It does not get better. That reality is never, ever okay. It gets different. It gets easier, very slowly, because you pick up coping skills along the way. Skills that help you fight the monster. Skills that help you sit with the monster in silence, and realize that he isn’t leaving. Ever. Skills that show you how to get along with the monster, and ask him if he wants a cup of tea. You don’t accept. You adjust. You don’t move on. You move forward. You try and live, because they no longer can.

2. Cling to anything that works. Anything that helps you. (Let me clarify. If drinking, drugs, or other things that will harm you or others are the things that help you, please don’t cling to those things. That would not be good, and in the end, you are only prolonging and postponing the monster. He will come back with a vengeance.) Family. Religion. Music. Hobbies. Reading. Exercise. Volenteering. Cooking. Sailing. Whatever it is. Something I wrote awhile back which I think is the extreme truth is this: Everything hurts, but some things help while they hurt. For me, writing slightly helps. Connecting to others who “get it” slightly helps. Being creative helps. Humor helps. Helping other people, and finding ways to honor my husband’s kindness helps. Please know that sometimes, many times, absolutely nothing helps. Sometimes, you will just scream or sob or lose your freakin mind because you miss them so powerfully that you actually cannot breathe. In those moments of complete hopelessness and sorrow, what I try to remind myself of is this: Everything is temporary. These intense emotions will not last forever. I will feel differently soon, and then they will change and shift again, and again. It hurts, but it also helps to know that any emotion or feeling I have, is fleeting. Joy. Anger. Hope. Fear. They all go away and return, just like the moon and sun. Try to embrace that. It helps.

 3. People are clueless. They say stupid and thoughtless things, and then other people will tell you that the reason for this is that they just dont know what to say. Hmmm … well, for people who don’t know what to say, they sure do have a lot to say! There are an endless number of insensitive comments you will receive from mostly well-intentioned people, but here are a few of my all-time favorites: God Needed Another Angel. / It was God’s Plan or Will. / He/she is in a better place. / God Never Gives you More than you can handle. / It’s a good thing you have other children. (or in my case – at least you didnt have children.) / You are young – you will get over this. / Be positive. / Time heals All Wounds. / I know how you feel. / Its time to put this behind you. / Be strong. / (to surviving sibling) Now you are the man (or woman) of the house. When you encounter these types of comments, try to remember that these people have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. They do not live inside this, and they just don’t know. Sometimes, remembering this helps me from wanting to smack them into the next time zone. But only sometimes.

4. Do not expect any of this to make sense. Because it doesn’t. The grieving, the feelings, the emotions, the why did this happen? Why us? Why him/her? The endless questions you will keep taunting yourself with: Were they scared? Did they know what was happening? Did they wonder why I wasnt there to help them? WHY DID THIS HAPPEN??? These are all things that will plague you on a constant loop in your mind, and you will drive yourself nuts with it. There really are no answers, and only time will make you feel a bit less awful about it. If religion helps you with some of these types of questions, then lean on that to comfort yourself. If it doesn’t, then try not to take outside opinions on the subject to heart. Feel whatever you feel, and never apoligize for it. With grief, the only way out is through. If you go into this knowing upfront that it won’t make any sense and that everything you are feeling, no matter how dark or foreign, is normal, then you will be a small step ahead. I wish someone had told me this in the beginning, in those first 5 or 6 months after his death, where I felt like I was literally losing my mind.

Benjamin Wheeler

Expect the unexpected. Emotions will change and shift like the wind. In one hour, you can go from joy to bitter, anger to fear, hopeless to elation. Things that you never thought would affect you, will affect you greatly, and other things might not. The first round of holidays without him, I worried and worried about Christmas Day, because it used to be my favorite day of the year. That day passed without much crying, but then New Years Eve sent me into a tailspin that I never in a million years expected. We didnt even celebrate New Year’s Eve! But I was at a party with my parents that night, and just minutes before midnight, I said to my mom: “I HAVE to get out of here. I feel like I cant breathe.” We got in our car and left. “Turn the radio off”, I said. I could not hear the countdown to midnight. I just couldnt do it. The one thought inside my head was this: My husband will never see another year change. He will never countdown to a new year. He has no more years. 2011 is the last year he will ever know. That thought filled me with pain, and I sat in my bed until 2am, crying for him and all the things he would never get to do or see. You never know what will hit you, or why. You cant prepare for what you will feel, but you can prepare by knowing it’s all a big, fat clusterfuck.

Noah Pozner

5. Get help. In any way that you can. By as many people as you can. When community or friends or family offer to help, take them up on it. Let them. A lot of people will offer to help you in the beginning, and sometimes, you just want everybody to leave you alone. Here is something you will soon learn: one day, you will look around and realize that you got your wish, and everyone has left you alone. In the end, people move on with their own lives, and they will help you when they can. Or not. But you are the ones that have to live inside this grief. You are the ones who won’t be taking your little girl to school tomorrow, or watching your little boy open his Christmas gifts. You are the ones who go to bed every night, knowing and remembering what you will wake up to tomorrow. Forever. It can be extremely isolating, even with all this media attention. One day you may be in a big room somewhere, surrounded by hundreds of people, and you will think to yourself: I have never felt more alone. Take the help that is offered. Talk to people. Create a support group with the other families of this horrific loss. They will be the only other people in the world who truly understand. You will find a complicated love and bond with one another – one that can only be created through mutual pain. Seek grief counseling. The support groups I have joined and my private counseling sessions have been two lifesavers for me. It is impossible to go through this alone. Your soul needs help. It is broken. Please don’t be ashamed or embarassed to ask for help. It took me awhile to figure this one out, because I don’t like to burden people. Now, whenever I ask for help, my friends come running.

 

Rachel D’Avino

6. Trauma creates trauma. You have been through and will continue to go through a traumatic event. When someone dies suddenly, with zero warning, that is a trauma that creates all kinds of fun issues for those of us who are left behind. Physical, mental, psyhological issues. Things like anxiety, panic attacks, migraines, muscle aches, heartburn, ulcers, vertigo (that is my latest one, most likely brought on by severe stress), dietary changes, lack of sleep, depression (which is very different than grief), joint pain … the list goes on and on. Add to the trauma of sudden death the extremely violent nature in which their lives were taken, and you have a recipe for years of P.T.S.D. (post traumatic stress disorder.)

Just to warn you, there will be many triggers, and they will be different for each of you. In some of you, they may show up right away – maybe when bringing your other children to school, or when hearing a gunshot of any kind. For others, the trauma can lie there, dormant inside of you, and show up at some random and unexpected time. For me, because my husband died of a sudden heart-attack and I was told his only symptom at work that morning was that he had a mild stomach-ache and used the bathroom a couple times, I convinced myself one ordinary Tuesday morning, that I, too, was dying of a heart-attack, because I had a stomach-ache. What was actually happening to me was my very first ever panic-attack. I started to get similar feelings whenever driving by the hospital where he died and where I sat in that cold, tiny room with him as he lie there, no longer alive. Since he was an E.M.T., anytime I see or pass by ambulances, I get a nauseous feeling everywhere inside me. I still can’t go into the Petsmart where he collapsed, and when I see anyone in a paramedic, cop, or firefighter uniform, I want to run up to them and hug them, because their uniforms ALL remind me of my husband’s.

Olivia Engel

It doesn’t have to be a horrible memory that creates a terrible physical sensation inside you. No. Sometimes the happy ones are even harder. Like Christmas. I can’t stop thinking about how this awful, evil thing happened to all of you so close to the holidays, and so now the holidays will forever be sprinkled with heartache. My husband proposed to me underneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in December of 2005, because that is how much I loved Christmas. Now? All the things that I once loved bring me intense pain. I can’t even go near that tree. I tried. A couple weeks ago, I found myself walking to our tree, where I sat down and sobbed into my hands for almost an hour. I wasn’t ready, and I will never try and rush through my grief again, because it feels awful.

Trauma creates trauma. Month or years after this day that changed your world, something else will happen in the world that will bring it all back again. Some other type of traumatic event or something similar enough in your heart, that it screams out to you and stabs at your soul. This school shooting did that for me. It brought me right back to the morning when my world collapsed, and it affected me and continues to affect me on a very intense level. To be honest, I am not entirely sure why. My husband died just 3 months shy of our 5 year wedding anniversary, so we hadn’t yet started our family together. I am not a parent. I am, however, a college professor, so it hit me on that level, from a teacher’s perspective and just trying to imagine the horror of something like that happening.

 Would I act as bravely as these incredible women did? Would I be like Victoria Soto, or Principal Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Rachel D’Avino, Mary Sherlack, or Lauren Rousseau? I can only hope so, but I just don’t know. This event also hit me as the widow of an E.M.T., Air Force veteran, and animal lover / activist. My husband wanted to rescue everybody, especially children and animals. I remember asking him one time how he copes with seeing people, patients in pain and sick and dying. He said: “I do it for that moment where I can save them and make them better and help them. That moment when we save one person is worth everything.” His heart would break whenever he couldn’t save a child, and it would soar when he could. And so; when I think about the unthinkable that happened just a few days ago, I think about my husband, and how he would have given his life to protect or save those kids. I think about all the heroes that emerged that day, and how he was a hero to me. I think about all of the kids and teachers, and how just looking at their pictures and hearing their stories touches me to my core. How I feel an intense desire to read about and listen to their stories, because they were here and they lived and they existed, and I want to honor that. It’s so important to always honor that, because people forget too easily. People move on when the next big media story comes along. They take their cameras and their reporters and their phony, anxious concern – and they sprint away to the next thing. But because of what I have been through and what I have lost and who I have become, I will never ever forget. Nor do I want to. They have all touched me in some way, and their lives matter. They matter.

Dylan Hockley

Daniel Bardun mattered. He was 7 years old and he took after his musician dad, by forming a band with his brother and sister. He played the drums. Rachel D’Avino mattered. She was 29 years old, loved animals and photography, and her best friend was planning a surprise marriage proposal to her on Christmas Eve. Charlotte Bacon was only 6, and she was an outgoing, energetic girl who loved pretty dresses, and school.

Oliva Engel, 6, sounds like someone I would have loved to spend time with. She loved theatre and dance, and she was very bright and grateful, leading Grace at the dinner table nightly. Dawn Huchsprung was a mom, a wife, and the principal at Sandy Hook. She pushed her body toward the killer’s in the hopes of stopping him and protecting her schoolkids. I can’t stop thinking about her husband, and how he is now widowed, like me. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Dylan Hockley, a 6 year old who loved trampolines and video games, was in the wrong place at the wrong time after his family relocated from England to smalltown Newtown, Connecticutt. Josephine Gay mattered too. She had just turned 7, and she loved riding her bike and selling lemonade in the summertime.

Catherine Hubbard

I never knew Emilie Parker, 6, but I will never forget her name or presence. Her grandmother, Betty, was just widowed 11 weeks ago and is part of an online support group I belong to called “Hope for Widows.” When it was posted on Facebook by the group leader that little Emilie was Betty’s granddaughter, my heart sunk instantly and I cried for her. Emilie’s father described her as having an “infectious laugh”, and said “the world is a better place, because she was in it.” A born leader and avid reader at only 6 years old, Madeleine Hsu was so loved by her family. Chase Kowalski, 7, also mattered. He loved baseball, Cub Scouts, and completed his first triathalon at the young age of 6. Catherine Hubbard, the beautiful little red-head, was a girl after my own heart. Just like my husband, she loved animals more than anything, and she dreamt of growing up one day to open her very own animal shelter. Catherine was just 6 years old, and her family asks that those who wish to honor her, to please do so by donating to the Newtown Animal Center.

Dawn Hochsprung

Jesse Lewis was 6 years old and his life mattered. He loved riding horses, and was excited to make gingerbread houses at school that Friday. Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, took after her jazz-musician father, and loved to sing. She was beautiful and vibrant, and loved her little brother. Anne Marie Murphy was a 52 year old mom, and a hero. She was found by first-responders with her body covering young children, as she attempted to shield them from the gunfire. Grace McDonnell, 7, was one of those young children. She wanted to be a painter, and she wanted world peace. James Mattioli was 6 and 3/4 old, as he loved to tell people. He looked up to his big sister, loved to eat, and enjoyed swimming and diving. Jack Pinto was 6 years old, and he loved wrestling, basketball, and football, especially Giants star receiver Victor Cruz, who paid tribute to the boy by penning “Jack Pinto: My Hero” on his cleats before the last big game, and by meeting with his family.

Caroline Previti was 6 years old, and although I was unable to find any information on her, her life mattered greatly. Messages on her Facebook Memorial Page call her a sweet little Angel. Noah Pozner was a 6 year old boy who “lit up a room” with his mischievious smile, said his family. Jessica Rekos had a passion for horses, and was often referred to as “our little CEO” by her family, due to her intelligence and wit. Avielle Richman, 6, also loved horses, and recently had her first loose tooth, which she excitedly wiggled for her family. All these children matter, and their lives and stories need to live on. Lauren Rosseau, 30, wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl, and was hired as a permanant substitute teacher at Sandy Hook. Mary Sherlach was the school psychologist, and she was with Hochsprung when they heard popping noises. She was shot to death while going out into the hallway to see what was happening. Mary was 56, married, and was the proud mom of two daughters in their 20’s. Victoria Soto, 27, was another hero. Moving her students away from the classroom door, where gunfire was erupting, she protected them from harm’s way, before the shooter burst into the room and shot her without saying a word.

Benjamin Wheeler, 6, loved lighthouses, the # 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens, and The Beatles. (The Beatles? Seriously? How cool does this kid sound?) Allison Wyatt, also 6, loved to draw and wanted to be an artist. She once gave her snack to a complete stranger on an airplane. Nancy Lanza, mom of two boys and seperated from her husband, would become the first victim of her son’s killing spree. Ironically, it would be the guns that she bought for protection, that would be used to murder her, and 26 others.

27 people. Here one second, gone the next. Their entire lives in front of them. Dreams unrealized. Futures stolen. And you. Their family. You are left behind to put together the pieces, to figure this out, to live a life. There will be some days when you don’t want to, or when you don’t think you can. There will be times when you just want to leave this world, and go be with them, somehow. In those times; try and focus on the love. Try and think about their light. Their joy. Try and capture what made them so special, and then find ways to honor it. Honor them. Sometimes it is the only reason to keep breathing, to honor them and to make sure that others know how incredible they were.

Tell their story. Be their heart. And please, be gentle on yourself. Grieving is the hardest thing you will ever do. Just get through today, and then eventually, you will find that you are getting through tomorrow. It takes time. And it will hurt. But if you aren’t afraid to live inside of it, you will come out the other side. You will make it. You will use their strength to guide you, and on their wings, you will soar.

 

For a list of where and how to donate to families of Newtown, go here:

http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/world/sandy-hook-donation-information-where-and-how-to-donate-to-newtown-connecticut-victims

 

Caitlin is Gone

This morning, I was jolted awake by the most frightening dream. It was not scary in the typical fearful ways that dreams can be scary. There were no monsters or fires or people chasing me. It wasn’t even about Don this time. Except it was. He was not in the dream, but it centered around his death. It was about change, and how much I fear it. It was about being terrified of things and people disappearing – people I love, people I count on. Maybe it was also about me feeling guilty anytime I ask for help from others. I don’t know. Having a tough time figuring this one out totally. It was off the charts weird and mean. It was also incredibly hilarious and bizarre, and although I am able to analyze some of it pretty well, I’d love it if my readers would attempt the rest for me in the comments. Most of my dreams seem to quickly leave my mind an hour or so after I have them, so because I just woke up from this one, Im going to write it out here exactly as I remember it happening. It felt incredibly real, as most of my Don-related dreams do these days. When I woke up from it, I was actually gasping for air a little bit. I was very confused. Here is the dream in all it’s terrible, hysterical reality:

It is Monday, which is my grief counselor day, and the dream begins with me getting off the bus in Manhattan and then walking the couple of blocks to my appointment. It’s a sunny day, extremely windy, hot as hell, and I’m rushing. There was traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, so the bus was running late. I turn the corner and pass the Starbucks that is there, (in the sea of other Starbucks within a 4 block radius), except it’s not a Starbucks anymore. It’s a McDonald’s. What on earth??? Why the hell … I have no time to react to this baffling turn of events, and I run the rest of the way to my counselor’s high-rise. The usual leathery-faced older man who is worn out by life and announces and buzzes me in – is now replaced by an older leathery-faced woman. She grunts at me angrily as she lets me through the front entrance. During my elevator ride up, I anticipate all the things I want to talk about with Caitlin today. It’s been another exhausting week and I need this safe place to explode and vent without judgement or fear. I get off the elevator and walk down the long hallway, expecting my counselor to be standing in her doorway, with the door held open for me, in that welcoming way that she always does. That doesn’t happen. I reach the door and nobody is there. That’s strange. I guess I will knock. Still nothing. I get out my cell phone to call her and let her know I have arrived, when the door opens suddenly.

A flamboyantly gay man who is minimum 85 years old  and looks like an aging Tim Gunn looks at me, then says insincerely: “Can I help you?” He is wearing a wool beige sweater with a hot pink scarf. It is August and 95 degrees. “Well, are you going to come in, or are you going to stand there like a fool?” I walk in. I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but my need to find out keeps me moving forward. Maybe my counselor hired this odd, rude man as her receptionist. “Wait here. The therapist will be with you in a few minutes. You may sit in this chair or that chair, but never that big one. There is bottled water on the table. The cost is $5 per beverage. Your timed session begins now. Toodles!” He flings his scarf around his rooster neck, sets a loud kitchen timer for one hour, and then exits the room, slowly disappearing. I have no idea where he goes.

I feel sick. Something is off, but I stay anyway. The comfy, large marshmellow-y chair that I always sit in is now off-limits to me, apparently. As is the water, which I now have to pay for? What’s up with that shit? And therapist? No. Caitlin is not a therapist. She is a grief-counselor. Why is he calling her a therapist? I begrudgingly choose the hard, tiny, uncomfortable chair, and squeeze my fat ass into it somehow. I look like an overstuffed sausage, it is boiling hot in the normally comfortable, friendly room, and I suddenly want to run away. The loud kitchen timer makes me nervous. It is larger than a normal one and looms over me, watching me like a creepy owl. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock …….

A few minutes go by and I’m now sweating. The clicking of heels gets closer and someone enters the room. The someone is not Caitlin. She is a brunette with medium-long, straight hair and glasses. She has a cold, dark face. She wears a business suit and black pumps. She looks to be about my age. She sits directly across from me and glares at me with suspicious eyes. She is not Caitlin and I hate her. She opens a drawer and pushes a button. A hidden cabinet opens, and a flash of light appears. A spotlight. There is a spotlight on me. I can barely see, it is so bright. She picks up a clipboard and a pen and begins to take notes. She is writing furiously. What the fuck is she writing? We haven’t even said anything yet! She speaks and doesn’t look at me.

“So last time you were here, you mentioned your mother, Fran?” She taps her pen on her clipboard. The kitchen timer gets louder. Her breathing gets louder. She crosses her legs and squints at me. Her squint is an accusation against me. She despises me. She is everything I loathe about therapy.

“Fran is my grandmother, not my mother. And I never mentioned her. I’m sorry, but who are you??? And where the hell is Caitlin?”

“I am Kathleen. Caitlin is gone. You need to start accepting that.”

Start accepting it? It JUST happened! Where is she?”

“That is irrelevant.” She turns the spotlight so that it is directly in my eye.

“Actually, it’s pretty much the only thing that IS relevant right now. Can you please get that light out of my eyes?” The normally warm environment is now frozen, and I am being interrogated.

“She had more important people to tend to. More important things to do. She no longer felt the need to spend her time discussing your loss, so she asked me to replace her. You will be seeing me now. It’s really important that you not dwell on the past. She is not here. Accept it. Move on.” She takes out a pack of cigarettes out of nowhere and lights one up. Cigarettes? Seriously? Could this bitch be any more of a cliche?

“But this makes no sense. Why would Caitlin give up her job? She loves her job. And why wouldn’t she tell me? She would never do this to me. She wouldn’t just disappear like this.” My face feels hot and I can feel the tears welling up. It is four-thousand degrees in that room, but Kathleen’s veiny hand is ice-cold on her cigarette.

“People disappear. Don disappeared. He left you. Get a grip, Kelley. You are wasting session time talking about this. The clock is ticking. I did not want to go down this road with you, but if you insist, I will tell you. Caitlin did not give up her work. She gave up you. She doesn’t hate her work. She hates you. She took her practice and moved it to Wyoming.”

Wyoming??? She hates Wyoming!” This cannot be happening.

“No. As I said, she hates you. Her exact words to me were: ‘I would rather live in Wyoming than be forced to sit and listen to that woman’s whining for one more hour. I find her story tiresome and annoying, and life is too short for that kind of nonsense. Please do not give her my contact information, and good luck to you in trying to find some relevance in her insipid grieving.”

“Insipid? No. Caitlin would never say that. She doesn’t even talk like that. She is amazing. You’re a bitch.” Now I’m crying and I grab the kleenex box behind me. There is a lock on it, with a sign that reads: “Kleenex: $2 per sheet.” I throw it across the room and cry into my hands.

The bitch is unphased. She picks up the kitchen timer and moves the time forward by ten minutes. There are now 35 minutes remaining in this mindfuck horror show. She removes her glasses, takes a drag off her cigarette, and says calmly: “I do not allow profanity in my office, and crying is for infants. Learn how to grieve properly. Your husband would be ashamed by this embarassing display. You are acting like a child. I will tell you this one more time – with feeling. Your husband is gone. Caitlin is gone. And if you keep acting in this manner, everyone in your life will be gone. Your counselor asked me to take over, and because that is Kathleen’s job, that is what Kathleen will do.” The fact that she just referred to herself in the third-person, twice, is the catalyst that makes me get up and get the fuck out of there.

I stand up out of the horrible chair. “Well, no offense, but you suck at your job. You are the worst person I’ve ever met and there is no way in hell you have a license to practice anything. I can get through this much better without you, than with you. I’m leaving.” I walk toward the door. I can’t get out of this place fast enough. I still don’t know where the hell Caitlin is, but I don’t believe for one second that she is in Wyoming, that she hates me, or that she would abandon me and send this mess of a human-being in her place. The door won’t open. “Try again”, the bitch says. “There’s someone on the other side.” I open the door, and my brother walks in. He is stumbling, is wearing his Red Sox hat and sweatshirt, and has blood-shot eyes. He is drunk.

“David? What the hell are you doing here?” I have never been more confused in my entire life. He goes over to Kathleen and takes one of her cigarettes and lights it up. He smokes in my face rudely as he talks: “I live here now. In NYC. I fuckin’ hate this place but I had to move here because you’re so needy with all your grieving bullshit and all the constant help you need from everyone. I had to sell my house and truck. Jen left me and moved to Wyoming, and I had to give my kids away cuz I couldn’t afford them anymore. I gave them to The Salvation Army. I started smoking again and I drink again too. I go to the bars just to take away the stress of having to hear abour your stupid grief all the time. I’m tired of hearing about Don. Even Don is sick of hearing about Don. You should just shut up already and leave it alone. My life sucks now, and to top it all off, I’m stuck here with a bunch of stupid Yankee fans. Thanks a lot.” He puts his cigarette out on the floor, stomps on it, and then walks into the other room and disappears. Kathleen laughs. “I’m charging you for that cigarette”, she says. “Get the door.”

The doorbell rings. I go over and open it. This time, my parents are there, and they have aged about 20 years. They look terrible. Dad has a cane and mom walks with her spine in the shape of the letter L. “Holy Shit! What happened to you guys?” I am stunned at their appearance. “What the hell is going on???” I scream out loud at the universe. My dad sits down in the nearest chair, exhausted. Mom leans against the wall with her brittle hand. If I didn’t know it was them, I would never know it was them. Dad lets out a long sigh, and then finally speaks: “We have done so much for you. Too much. We can’t do it anymore. I got fired from my job because I had to keep coming up there to help you move out of your apartment. You have made my diabetes worse and your mother now has Alzheimer’s because of your inability to move on from this. She doesn’t even know where we are right now. She thinks I’m her father, and that we are getting ice-cream. We are quitting. We quit you. You need to sign these papers. They say that we are no longer your parents and that we no longer have to feel obligated to help you. We are resigning and moving to Wyoming.” Kathleen cackles again. Mom looks lost and plays with the spotlight. What the fuck is happening??? And what is with Wyoming???

“Do what my father says, honey. We love you, but it’s just too much. Look at what you’ve done to us. All because you refuse to live in reality. I’m going with my dad now to Kimball’s for my Black Rasberry ice-cream cone. Sign the papers, Katie. Fend for yourself. You’re all alone now. Be strong, Karen. These are the cards you were dealt. You can’t stop counting your chickens until they hatch. Life is not a rollercoaster. It’s a journey and a destination. There were two footprints in the sand. That was when Moses carried you. And I took the one less traveled by. Deal with it, Karla.”

Dad sighs again. “Come on Chris,” he says. He grabs her gently by the arm and leads her away from me. “I’m coming, Father!” she yells.

They both walk out of the room and into that weird other space that everyone keeps disappearing into …..

There is a loud, horrific noise. It sounds like an ambulance siren. The ambulance my husband drove. It gets louder and louder as I block my ears. Kathleen chuckles. “That’s the kitchen timer. I had them make it into the sound of an ambulance – just to mess with you a bit and remind you of his death some more. Funny, huh? Time’s up. Please get out of my office now. I have to relieve my bowels. Jerome will see you out.”

The flamboyantly gay older-than-dirt man that resembles Tim Gunn and his pink scarf return from thin air, and he hands me a piece of paper. “Here is your bill for this week. You’ll see it’s been broken down into sections so that your feeble brain can comprehend it. $150 for the session, $5 for the cigarette your brother smoked, $2 for the kleenex, and Kathleen added an annoyance fee of $45, because she finds you annoying in a general sort of way. So your total is $202. Kapish?” He opens the door and physically starts moving me into the hallway.

“But, I’m never coming back here again, and I can’t pay this stuff!”

“We’ll make sure that you do. I have pilates and yoga to get to, followed by my daily colonic and cleanse ritual. So – be gone with you! Toodles!” He takes his foot and literally kicks me in my rear end to push me into the buildings hallway. The door slams behind me. I walk down the long hallway, which got longer while I was inside, and push the button for the elevator. The door opens. The elevator is packed with people. There are at least 75, maybe 100 people inside. They are all crammed in together and they are talking to each other. They are everyone in my life. My parents are there. My brother. Relatives. Friends. They all keep talking. Everyone ignores me. The elevator starts going down, over 100 floors, 200 floors. 300. It is moving like a racecar at lightning speed and Im so dizzy. I start screaming out my friends and families names one by one over the loud elevator engine, praying someone will acknowledge me: “Hey!!! Sarah! Mom! Dad! David? John! Andrew! Hello??? Bobby? Why won’t anyone talk to me? Tabatha? Aunt Debbie? Caitlin!!! Oh my god! You’re here! You’re not in Wyoming! I knew it! I just had the weirdest dream … you didn’t want to see me anymore, and then nobody wanted to see me, not even my own family. Everyone was so mean, and they kept rushing me to grieve faster, and there was even a timer and a mean, horrible therapist … Hello??”

The elevator jolts to an abrupt stop. We are at street level, but it’s no longer a street, and it’s not New York City. It’s farm land and grass and trees. Its gray and ugly and drab. The large door opens. “This is our stop, everyone!” Caitlin says enthusiastically as she leads the huge pile of people out of the cramped elevator and into the land of Wyoming. I begin to follow. “No. Not you. You stay here. This is goodbye. I’m very disappointed in you. We are all very disappointed in you. I can’t help you anymore. I don’t want to. Nobody wants to. You’re hopeless.” Everybody nods in unison, and they enter into the farmland, toppling over one another like dominos. The door shuts again, and before I can move or think, the elevator goes all the way back up to the top floor. It shoots up like a cannon, and I feel like I will be sick. The door opens. Jerome is standing there in his wool sweater and hot pink scarf. He glares at me. “Well” he says, “Are you going to come in, or are you going to stand there like a fool?” I walk into the awfulness and sit in the terrible chair. Kathleen is already seated across from me, and she turns the kitchen timer dial with her veiny fingers. She shines the spotlight into my pupils – the start of her killing my soul.

She starts speaking after a long, hateful pause. “Last time you were here, you mentioned your mother, Fran?”

And so it begins. And ends.

Turning Horror Into Hope: Pay It Forward for Don Shepherd Day

Recently, I had the very unfortunate reality of facing the one-year mark of my dear husband’s sudden death. July 13, 2011. It will forever be the worst day of my life; the day that changed me into someone else; the day he never again came home. As with everything in life, on that anniversary day last week, I had a choice. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we have a choice, but we usually have a choice. Would I drown myself in the horror and hopelessness of that day? Would I isolate myself and convince myself that nothing will ever get better until the end of time? Or would I do something else? What if instead of making his death the focus of my heart, I used my heart to put focus on life? What if I could use who he was as a person, to inspire others into acts of kindness? What would happen? How far could I take this? And who would even care? The answers will astound you.

So I made my decision. July 13, this year and every year, would be a new holiday. “Pay It Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” The premise was simple. Do an act of kindness. Anything. For anyone. Then write to me and tell me about what you did. To me, this was the perfect way I could think of to honor my husband, because Don was the type of person who paid it forward every single day. He really did. Except he didn’t even think about it, and he didn’t wait until some tragedy came along to make him realize that Gee, we should really all be nice to one another. Nope. He just knew. And now that he is gone from this Earth, he is with me forever, and he is part of me. I am more compassionate, more kind, because I knew him. If I could use this horrible day and turn it around to help others – well – it is the very least I can do for Don; who made me want to be better. Pay it Forward for Don. Pay it Forward for Love. Pay Forward Life.

I sent out my idea to everyone I know. I used Facebook, email, texts, bullhorn, rotary phone, stork … whatever worked. Then I waited. On July 13th, I woke up feeling awful, like I was destined to re-live every moment of that day just one year ago. I was so heartbroken and sad. Then I started reading the messages. The emails. The texts. They came pouring in at lightning speed, and they lifted my heart to a place it hadn’t been to in ages. As the day went on, I found myself going to the computer excitedly, awaiting the next “Pay it Forward” story to read. It was like Christmas morning, and each story was a present that when unwrapped, demonstrated the love that people had for my husband. I still felt my heart drop on that day, and I was still so very sad. I think I always will be when it rolls around. But this gave hope to something horrible. It put light where there was only darkness. My friend and colleague Maggie Lally said it perfectly: “You changed the entire energy of the day.” She was right. And because I changed the energy, so did you. You floored me.

There are not many things that I know in life; but I now know this: Love is contagious. Kindness is contagious. Evil is always followed by hope. At their core, most people are good, and want to give. When you are good to others, they remember. And they pay it forward. What follows below are ALL of the stories and deeds of kindness that people wrote to me. Everything is written in their words. Some are from friends. Some are from family. Many are from strangers. Some of the acts are small things, some are very big, and some are off-the-charts creative. They are all, in their own way, truly amazing. Before you continue reading, you should get some kleenex, and you should have some time. A lot of people participated. More than I could have ever imagined. If you read this and it doesn’t move you, you may want to get checked out, because it means you have no heart. The stories below are in no particular order. Everytime I read them, I change my mind on which one is my favorite. In the end, I cannot decide. They are all little miracles, brought on by the most powerful thing in the world – love.

 

As we travel cross-country, we continue to do lots of little things to pay it forward for Don. So far we helped a man with his car, opened doors for loads of people, and donated money to the Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park in his honor. We will do as much as we can while driving, and we will keep telling people about you and Don. Sending you love from the Motel 6 in Wells, Nevada. High class all the way, Baby! – Holly Lash, California.

 

We made a donation to our local animal shelter. I knew from your posts that Don loved animals, and so do we. – Phyllis Norris Groover, Alabama. 

 

I am an artist. On July 13th, I had some artwork printed out. I agreed to donate a piece toward an auction that would be raising money for a young girl who is fighting luekemia and had lost her leg. In addition to the piece I said I would provide, I also had more work printed out to try and earn more money, plus a print for the young woman to keep for herself. I am not accepting any money to cover any of the costs for shipping or printing. (and they dont know that either.) I am glad I got to do something extra to help someone else – and do it on the day to remember Don and pay it forward. – Kevenn T. Smith, Ohio.

 

 

While traveling on business this week, I had a couple hours layover between flights, and was having lunch at a bar in O’Hare. A soldier in uniform sat down at the next table, so I told the waitress to put his lunch on my check and tell him it’s from Don Shepherd. I ended up chatting with him, told him who Don was, and he was very touched by your story. He said that he would also do something to pay it forward for Don as well. – Sarah Forgey, Virginia.

 

I’m not sure if Don would have appreciated it, but my Don Day animal honoree mascot is this neighborhood Bear, who I will now call “Don.” – Leslee Koritzke, California

I cannot count the number of times I have stopped at my friend’s elderly mother in law’s house to pick up my nephew with a quick and impatient nod hello and goodbye. Friday the 13th I was feeling hot, annoyed, and hurried when I stepped through the door to see her sitting there looking very small and frail. I thought of you and Don and gave her a warm hello and sat down to visit. She told me stories about her new cat Penny, and we watched as her 4 yr old grandson tossed a ball up the stairs and the cat came bounding down after it. It was a small gesture, but one of the many moments Ive thought about you and Don and how fragile life is, and how easily those we love could be snatched from us without notice. Im grateful for each moment I stop and realize Im not in such a hurry anymore. Thank you for sharing your love, heart, and grief with us all. It is a gift. – Katherine Ragot, Massachusetts.

 

I offered to take my friend’s daughter to field hockey practice a few mornings a week. – Lisa Etkin, New Jersey

I thought of Don today and stopped off at a pet store in Key West and donated to the Xena Fund. You can check them out at www.thexenafund.com. They are unique because they help animals that need emergency surgery. It felt good to donate. Thinking of you. – Jarlyn Gonzalez Phillips, Connecticutt

 

In memory of Don, I made a donation to your site to help you get your book published. – Joe Hernandez, New York

 

Here is a picture of our beautiful new puppy that we adopted, Tovah, in honor of Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day, and in memory of our sweet Benny, who went back to God on 7/5/12. – Belinda Bishop, Alabama.

 

 I donated 10 cases of cat food to a no-kill shelter for cats. – Pamela Clark Rademacher Nall, Chicago.

 

My eldest daughter Chloe is an animal lover. I sat down with her today, bought her an ice-cream, and explained about the wonderful thing you were asking others to do today. She proudly announced to anyone within earshot that in honor of Don Day, she would collect donations for the SPCA. She collected towels, food, toys, and $22.75! We will deliver this to them and then double the donations she collected, as we promised her. I only wish I had met Don. You are leaving such a great legacy in his name. – Maria Stefanou Peters, New York

 

In honor of Don, I tried to anonymously pay for a tank of gas, but all the pumps had input credit cards, so I could not. However, a co-worker was having a super stressful day, so I bought her lunch and sat with her. – Misty Corrales, Alabama.

 

I took on a new guitar student today at no cost, an 11 year old boy with no hope of being able to afford lessons. I will be loaning him an acoustic guitar to play on until he gets the hang of it, and then, when it’s time, I will buy him a nice electric. – Norman Paulsen, Jamundi, Columbia. 

 

I took my handicapped neighbor to and from Temple tonight. – Sheila Slaw Muller, New York.

 

I sent my staff home early to thank them for all their hard work this week. – Susan Spencer Farinacci, New York.

 

My boss and I are donating money to a family that just lost their dad. The fundraiser is being held tonight. – Spreti Valente, California.

 

My husband and I donated needed supplies for the staff and kitties at Austin Pets Alive, a no-kill shelter here in Texas. I was so very blessed to have known Don, worked with him, and be his friend. I miss him everyday. By sharing your sorrow with so many, you have touched more lives than you really know. I’m honored to call you my friend, and I know why my friend Don fell so madly in love with you. – Maria Mantek, Texas.

 

I just made a donation to your website in honor of Don today. – Kathy Bernal, California.

 

I took SIX kids to the movies today. Does that count? – Darleen Manfre Fleming, New York.

 

I am donating a full crib, car seat, and 5 boxes of infant and children’s clothing and books to a local center for abused women and their children. – Stephanie Miller Morales, Texas.

 

My act of kindness went to help someone who is working so hard to have a chance to become a parent, to get a little bit closer to her goal. In part, this is also to honor our Lanny. Thanks for letting me be a part of this day, and for letting me share this in remembering Lanny. – Cyndi Harvey, Colorado.

 

In our little dul-de-sac of 4 homes, 2 of our neighbors are widows. They each received these flowers today in honor of you and Don.

For our second act of kindness today, we also donated some kitty food to our local shelter. As you asked, here is a photo. As you can tell, they were very touched. Thanks for inspiring others today. – Stacey Riggs, California.

I donated 6 bags of clothes, books, shoes, etc, to my local thrift store. I told a friend about today and he gave a stranger at the laundromat quarters to do her laundry. Celebrating Don’s life today, and every July 13th to come. – Sharon DiCostanzo, New York

 

Today I honor a very special man who left this world far too soon. I made a donation to the SPCA in Don’s name, and will be walking with my beloved beagle and cattledog in the local Mutt Strut in honor of Don and his unconditonal love for animals. – Amy Hoffman Engle, South Carolina.

 

For Pay it Forward Day, my husband Robert donated half of his dress shirts to the local shelter. He picked the best of the best to give. I was floored! As for me, I bought little mini-cupcakes and then sent an email explaining why everyone would be eating cupcakes. “Hello! There are cupcakes in the break room. They aren’t meant to make you fat. They are meant to make you happy. I bought them in honor of Don Shepherd, a man you never knew. He was awesome, and he would have bought you cupcakes if he could have been here today.” – Ginger Michele, Florida.

What a fun Friday! I offered to watch my neighbor’s child, who has a disability. We had a blast. I was nervous about how it would go because I have a newborn and toddler, but she was great with them! She loved helping me with the kids, and I was so glad I could help her mom, who took me up on the offer before I even finished the sentence! Thanks for the inspiration. I will definitely be doing it more often. – Trey Sullivan, California.

 

A late audition by a young musician gave me an opportunity to pay a little back in honor of Don today. Auditions are often rather routine, but this young man and his mother needed some special attention. By the time the almost 2-hour process was finished, I was glad to welcome him on as a music major. I spent as much time with his mom as I did with him. Her husband died when her son was younger; a number of years ago; and she had been raising him and his sibling alone ever since. She told me how much her son misses his dad these days, and how it has shaped his life.  He is a talented musician who just couldnt decide about auditioning for the Music Major. I talked to him, played for him, learned about his goals and dreams. When I told his mom Id be able to recommend a fairly high Scholarship for talent, she burst into tears. She is so hopeful that our University will give her son a chance to blossom as a person and musician. It made me realize that every dollar I could recommend was one dollar less she would have to earn or borrow. I thought of Don and all the qualities you have spoken of. I think he would have been pleased that I was a human being first, and a music administrator second. I hope that this young man will have a great experience as he continues to think of and honor his own Dad, taken too soon from him. – Asked to be Kept Anonymous.

 

Dylan and I left cookies, crackers, and candies for our mailman – with a note that said: “Pay it Forward for Don. Don passed away suddenly on July 13, 2011. To remember him and honor his life, today we are paying forward his kindness and generosity.” – Jesaida Zayas Snyder, King of Prussia, PA.

 

I helped my mom prepare her house for selling it. I thought of you and Don as I wore a bike helmet, crouched in a 4 foot, 100 degree sloped attic, amongst old trunks of linens and towels and assorted crap. Next year I’m doing gift cards. – Sheila Sayah, New Jersey.

 

 

I have been a volenteer with the Dunstable Summer Concerts for about 5 years now. Last year, we made a connection with someone that could get the RE/Max hot air balloon to come to one of our concerts. Their only request was that we donate all proceeds collected to a local cause, charity, or person in need. As the day got closer, I read about Pay it Forward, and suggested The Sharing Network Organ Donation as our cause. It was one of the largest turn-outs that we have ever had, with over 300 people descending on the Common. We had signs letting people know what their donations would be going towards, and from there, over $400 was “raised”. (That’s a hot air balloon joke.) – Laura Rothman, Massachusetts.

 

I made a donation to our local Richmond SPCA in Don’s name. The fact is, I love animals, as did Don, and its a great organization that I think he would appreciate being associated with. – Laura Jean Shelton, Virginia.

 

I paid it forward to a friend with a Psychic Reading. I wanted to help her anyway, so this was a good way to do both. – Jan Drake Bakke, Nevada.

 

I donated $50 to the Connecticutt Burn Care Foundation, for a child who was disfigured in a fire, so he could attend a children’s burn camp for kids with disfiguring burn scars. It was sent “In Memory of Don Shepherd.” – Jennifer Pierce, Massachusetts.

 

While walking home the other day I saw this homeless woman that Ive seen many times before. The heartbreaking thing is that she is with her baby as well. Instead of walking past her, this time I stopped and spoke with her. I didnt give her money because I didnt have any cash, but I asked her if she was aware of shelters nearby. She said something, but it was hard to understand her. So I walked away and called Jessica who told me to call the homeless hotline and outreach workers would come out and help her. So I called and let them know where I was. I dont know what happened after this, but I hope they were able to help. I havent seen her in the past few days. Between seeing a woman with a small baby, and thinking about my friend Don, I had to at least stop to see if she needed help. – John Joseph Cina, New York.

 

I took a down on her luck friend out for lunch, and I also paid for an old woman’s groceries in front of me, at Don’s all-time favorite grocery store – PUBLIX! Her grocery items, you’ll be happy to know, included Don’s favorite Publix Sub. – Gin Malvita, Florida.

I wanted to tell you that I produced a random act of kindness in your husband’s honor, even though I didn’t know him. I went to my local library, and in various books that I love, placed notes attached to $5 bills. The last line was: “random act of kindness and paying it forward.” Thanks for encouraging me to do something nice for others. – Anonymous.

 

We got a chance to pay for the lunch of the people behind us at Burger King. We told the clerk about Don’s Day and had him relay the message to the car behind ours. I hope he did! We have also set up a time to play/perform music at a local nursing home to honor his love of music. – Amy Martinson, Texas.

I went to the Post Office to mail a few things, and there was a young man and woman standing there with a sign saying he was just laid off and needed food and money for their baby. I didnt have much cash on me, but gave them all that I had, which was $14. Thinking of you always. – Tobi Raymond, California.

 

I donated money to your wonderful friend Elayne Boosler’s animal rescue organization, Tails of Joy, to honor my incredibly selfless son-in-law Don, and his love of animals. We love and miss you so much Don. You will always be our family. – Christine and David Niemi, Massachusetts.

Two acts of kindness on Don Day from me. Number One: Because I feel like I know Don personally through you, I paid a visit to New Jersey (the lame state), to visit a friend who was having a lonely day. She is a Lower East Side city girl who loves Manhattan more than anyone Ive ever met. When her baby was born, her husband decided the child needed to be reared just like him – in the suburbs of NJ, within spitting distance of his mother. (What could be better?) I took the NJ Transit to visit my friend, whom I love, and we did suburban things; mostly sat by the town pool for hours – BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO DO IN THE SUBURBS!!! I love my friend and spending time with her is always a joy, but I was mindful the entire day about Don and what a good, good man he was. His love for you transplanted him to NJ, as my love for my friend gets my ass on the train to spend a long day in the burbs. By the way; my friend, like Don, also thinks NJ is lame.

Number Two: I have a good friend in Los Angeles who is an animal lover, like Don. She rescues animals (literally goes out with a team when calls come in about abused or abandoned animals) and saves them. She also adopts those dogs and cats who are unadoptable because of age or illness. I made a donation to “Tails of Joy” for her and sent her a tote bag so that she can spread the word out there about www.tailsofjoy.net. She is a woman whose husband died when he was only 46, and she was just 40. Like you. She is a writer/comedian, like you Kelley, so I thought she would be the perfect person to include in my thoughts about Don on this wonderful, new holiday. – Caitlin Kelly, New York.

 

The Vietnam Veteran’s were given a futon bunk bed, a couple of mattresses, and a couple of huge bags of clothing in honor of Don. God Bless you both. What a beautiful way to honor your beloved husband. – Lynn Gaba Henkel Dilloo, Nevada.

 

My husband Joe and I stopped by our local EMS station with some fresh homemade treats (brownies, cookies) to thank them all for their hard work and sacrifice. We wanted to pay it forward in honor of Don and know that all EMT’s like him deserve a big thank you from all the people they protect and serve. – Jennifer Calkin Mastromarino, New York.

I went to Petsmart today, and, while there, donated some money to help homeless animals. – Brett Alyse, New York.

 

Sometimes the best laid plans get sidetracked and not necessarily by the planner. So instead of my original plan, I have donated to Elayne Boosler’s Tails of Joy. It’s sort of the same thing as what I had wanted to do anyway. – Karen Block Breen, New York.

 

My 15 year old daughter signed up to be a volenteer at Petco from 7am-9am daily to take care of the kitties that are in need of good homes. – Erika Lynch, Massachusetts.

 

I bought a homeless woman a sandwich. I have passed this woman everyday this week on the corner of 47th and 8th. Swept up in the 1001 things to do at once energy of NYC, in the sticky July heat and with the inherent general defense mechanism we all develop of blocking out those in need asking us for change, food, help, attention, kindness, love. But today I felt compelled to stop. Three major events in my life occured this week, all from seemingly different corners, yet all strikingly linked:

1. I began rehearsal for a project unlike anything I have ever been closely a part of. Somehow I have found myself producing REQUIEM FOR A LOST GIRL in the NY Musical Theatre Festival. It’s elements include: a 7 piece Chamber Orchestra, a 20 person choir of young NYC musical theatre actors, a dozen or so members of the homeless youth of NYC streets, a gaggle of Canadian composers, opera, rap, poetry, interpretive dance, a rocking chair and a friendly German conductor named Marcel. If it sounds like a mess, it is. But a gorgeous, heart-wrenching, inspiring, tragic, hopeful, life-changing mess. What brings all these elements together? Standing in the middle of that first rehearsal, it finally made sense. Hunger. Hungry to work, hungry to help.

2. Today is Pay it Forward for Don Day. One year ago today, a dear friend of many years lost her husband. Suddenly. He was working a second job and collapsed instantly from cardiac arrest. The irony is that his primary job was working as an EMT. In his spare time he volenteered countless hours at animal shelters. He is a veteran of the US military. And he LOVED our friend. He was one of the most generous, selfless and humble men you could ever meet. And it made no sense. Kelley has asked us to do something for Don. “Reach out to a stranger who needs you. Make a difference. Make a new friend. Go outside the box. Make someones life better. It can be big or small. What matters is that you do it, and you think of Don.”

3. Well, I cant talk about it yet. Not publicly. Lets just say its one of those things that happen suddenly, that sends one into panic, surprise and exposes how much we take for granted. Comfort. Home.

This got long. I think what I wanted to say is what I said in a Facebook Note one year ago tonight: “I am always weary of sounding preachy, especially in this format. But … hug your loved ones. Call your friends. Say thank you. And dont sweat the small stuff, life’s too fucking short.”

Oh, and …buy a homeless woman a sandwich. – Andrew Block, New York.

 

In honor of Don, I made a donation to the SPCA. Also, we went to the Italian Festival for dinner. We were lucky enough to snag a table, but there were 3 on duty cops that needed to eat quickly and go back to patrolling, so we gave them our table. – Heidi Miller, New York.

 

I paid it forward in the name of Don today by leaving the closest spot in the hospital parking lot open for someone who needed it more than me … or someone greedier / lazier than me. – Bianca Neff Diesel, Ohio.

 

Today I let two people go in front of me at the IRS. Nobody is ever nice at the IRS. Love the spirit of Don Shepherd Day. – Amy Cavanagh, Florida.

 

My show Friday (Blogtalk Radio: Living in the Psychic Realm) garnered more friends on Facebook needing guidance and advice. Once they are all in good places themselves, they will be able to turn from client to colleague, helping others. – Linda Irwin, Idaho.

 

I am donating a large amount of clothing and household items to Goodwill, as well as donating sets of collectors plates to a little rural Tennessee animal shelter for them to auction off and use the proceeds toward the care for their animals. – Vanessa Russell, Maine.

 

Neil and I made a donation through your website in honor of Pay it Forward for Don Day. We know you will decide where it can be used best. – Lauren Young, Massachusetts.

 

I treated my mom to her first ever Caramel Machiato. Glen has been installing closet supports in 2 bedrooms at my parents house, and cutting back a hugely overgrown fig tree in their backyard, even in the miserably humid weather. – Janelle Klepic, California.

 

Today, in honor of my friend Kelley Lynn creating Pay It Forward for Don Day, on the one year anniversary of the sudden loss of her dear husband, Tails of Joy helped pay for 22 dogs to be transferred out of a Miami, Florida pound, and into a rescue that will heal them and find them new homes. We did the same thing for cats yesterday. Here is the message I left on the Chip In Board: “Thank you for all that you do. xoxo Elayne Boosler, Tails of Joy (in honor of Don Shepherd Pay it Forward Day). – Elayne Boosler, California.

 

I am paying it forward by making a donation in honor and memory of Don and my Mom. They both loved animals, especially cats. I will be donating to Pets Alive in Middletown, NY. Pets Alive saved my Louise and then they placed her in my arms. She came home with us on the day before my Mom’s birthday less than two months after she had passed. – Lori Harvey Sternberg, New York.

 

You said Don loved animals. I believe he sent us one. We found this fledging Canadian Blue Jay on the road, about to be eaten by our cat. The kids named it Bob. He’s taken up residence in our backyard, closely guarded and fed by his parents, and has attracted the attention of every cat in the neighborhood. Every five minutes, we rush out to shoo away a feline so his parents will stop screaming and dive-bombing our deck. Google says this particular act of kindness could last up to 2 weeks until Bob can fly properly. Does this sound like something Don would approve of? You’ve worked your way into our hearts and helped me with my healing through your honesty and humour. In one month, I will be going through the 6th sadiversary from my Michael’s coronary, and Ill be thrown back into THE DAY yet again. I hope I can handle it with as much grace through the pain as you are. We will try to keep Don-Bob safe so he can come back next year and pester the entire neighborhood. – Jennifer Nunes, Edmonton, Alberta.

 

My mom, who will never pump her own gas, asked me to get gas for her car. So on my way home, I stopped at my moms, put gas in her car, and ended up having a glass of wine with her and my brother and chatting away. I know family meant a lot to Don. Also, my girlfriend and I are collecting signatures to help pass the Busters Law Bill. Right now NY has crappy animal abuse laws, but there are a bunch of lawmakers that want stiffer penalties for animal abuse. They just passed the bill to create an animal abuse registry; meaning anyone who has commited a crime to any animal are placed on a list, similar to that of the sex offender list. – Linda Knights Wilkie, New York.

 

As I reflect on this past year, I have learned more about Don each time I speak with Kelley. I knew how much he loved animals, with the pictures shown to me throughout the years. So it was only perfect for my Mom and me to help out some local cats that are up for adoption from a local rescue group for Don’s one year Angel Day. We donated money to the organization, and also spent time playing with them and feeding them treats, which they loved (as you can see in attached picture.) I feel a special connection to this rescue group because I adopted my cat Bella back in November there. After the loss of my cat Mittens in September, I wanted to help another animal in need, so this is something that Don and I have in common. This leads me back to the day of his funeral one year ago. My cat Mittens had been sick and I could not find her that day which was not her behavior to hide, so Mom looked for her all day, but she never came out. Later that afternoon, I saw Kelley  at the services for her husband, and talked for a short time as there are no words that can comfort someone in shock and grief of a loved one. I understand, as I lost my brother and my father within three months of each other, and this new grief journey we are on is forever. So I was concerned about my Mittens and that she was hurt, called my mom, and still nothing.

At the funeral home, I had learned even more about Don through talking with some of his friends, the beautiful pictures of his life with his family, with Kelley and with his cats. I knelt before him and said a prayer for him, for Kelley, and for my Mittens, asked Don if he could please find her and make sure she is safe. So I sat down quietly to reflect on this moment … then my phone rang, and it was Mom and she said Mittens just walked out and she was fine. So Don heard me that day and that was a very powerful moment. After that, Mittens was diagnosed with mouth cancer and she lived a few more months and then passed in my arms. I still think about that day, a day that changed Don’s loved ones forever. So I celebrate Don’s memory in the one connection I had with him, and that is our cats, and will continue to pay it forward everyday for the Love of our Cats. – Laura and Mary Ameruso, New York.

 

I didn’t really pay it forward in the extraordinary ways that I see some others have today. I am in awe of how many people paid it forward in memory of Don today, and I am also simultaneously very sad for the loss of my friend. I had plans for a few weeks to see a good friend who I hadnt seen in about 9 months, which is way too long to go without seeing her. She lives around the corner from my mom, and usually, when I visit this friend, I dont let my mom know because splitting time between them gets complicated. But thinking of Don today, I called my mom this morning and asked her if she wanted to go to the park this evening and take a walk after it gets cooler. I did this because I would like to stop taking for granted the time I have with people on this earth, especially my parents. I know it made mom’s day to spend time with me, her daughter who she can hardly get a hold of unless it’s obligatory – like a birthday or a holiday. I ended up going to her house. She had ordered some Chinese food for me and we sat on the couch looking at my art website on the internet, which was very funny for both of us since I have some pretty crazy stuff on there. I helped her with her computer skills a little, and we chatted awhile. We never did go to the park, but it was nice to slow my life down and spend time with people who I love. So – that is what I did in honor of Don. – Jessica Rowshandel, New York.

 

This isn’t much, but I helped an older lady who was struggling through the precinct. She was struggling to get into the paper shop as she had to climb a couple of steps, so I helped her to the bench opposite the shop, and went inside for her and bought her the newspaper. She was ever so grateful, and it really did put a smile on my face. – Polly Coaker, England.

 

There is this woman that I know that not everyone likes, and nobody wanted to take her to the viewing of my friend’s mom. I thought of you and Don when I drove her there and then back to work. It’s not anything huge, but you were the first one that popped into my brain. Thinking of you. – Asked to be Kept Anonymous.

 

I bought groceries and then took them over to my Uncle’s house. He had no idea I was going to do it. He is 86 years old, and he was very surprised and so grateful. I did this in memory of my own Uncle Donny and his kind nature. – Mark Exlos, Ohio.

 

Thank you so much for inspiring me to do “An Act of Kindness for Artie Day” – a spin on your “Pay it Forward for Don Day.” I wont say Im not sad and I dont desperately miss my husband, but thinking of others and taking the time to post and email the request, plus reading some of the stories, changed my whole day. Im going to do this every year, and every year I will mention you and Don as the reason. – Jan Warner, Arizona.

 

I made a donation to the NJ Organ Donor Sharing Network in honor of Don, and you were both on our minds all day today. – Norma Morrison, Massachusetts.

 

In honor of my beloved brother Don Shepherd, I donated $50 to the House Rabbit Rescue, and spent an hour there with the bunnies, loving them. Due to lots of “bunny hoarding” in our area, lots of rabbits are confiscated, and lots more end up here. They try to find homes for these guys, though many have been here for years. There is a group of folks and vets in the area that donate their time to give medical care, groom, feed, clean the facility, and provide donations to keep these cute little pets alive. Sharing these photos with you from the day, and sending love. – Cynthia Shepherd Poe, Alabama.

 

 

My 86 yr old grandmother is a special lady, and she is an inspiration to me. In honor of Don’s Day, I spent a few hours visiting with her in her living room, which was as much a gift to me as it was to her. In addition, I made a donation in Don’s honor to Tails of Joy. Long before I had a child, I had a dog, who I adopted from the Lowell Humane Society. That dog, Nikki, was the greatest dog and I miss her everyday since she passed away in 2004. Back then, I thought dogs and cats would be my only kids. At present, I have 4 furr-kids and 1 human. The pets have all come from rescue or the streets, and those are the best kind of pets you can have. Please keep writing. You have strong purpose and vision. Please keep asking us to remember Don, and know that your requests are not falling on deaf ears. – Kristi White, Massachusetts.

 

I made a donation on behalf of Don to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Clearwater, Florida. (where Don lived for many years) The Marine Aquarium is home to the Winter Dolphin, and they help protect hundreds of animals and situations throughout each year. Thinking of you, and sitting here emotional at my computer, just like on this day last year. – Dianne Bissonette, Virginia.

 

I had the BEST Friday the 13th – all because of Don Day! My first act of kindness was with my husband at Applebee’s. We decided to give two $20 gift cards to two tables. We picked a dad with a young daughter, and a dad with two young sons. I wrote a note about Don Day and signed them from “Friends of Don and Kelley.” The waitress was not supposed to tell, but she was so touched that she couldn’t help herself. The man with the two boys came to our table to thank us. He said his youngest son had been crying all day because he missed his mom after she moved to California for a new job. They still had two more weeks before joining her there. They had come to Applebee’s to try and cheer him up, and the dad said that our gift card accomplished that, so they were headed home to call the mom. The young son wanted to share the story of Don’s Day with her. We had a nice conversation and walked to our cars together. They were all three smiling when John and I said goodbye, and they thanked us so many times.

I wish we could have videotaped our second act of kindness. So many reactions! On the way back from Applebee’s, John and I stopped at the bank to get 50 one dollar bills. I typed up a short note that explained Don Day, and paperclipped to each dollar with the title: “Doling out Dollars at the Dollar Tree For Don’s Day.” My mom, dad, son Zane, and niece McKenna met me at the Dollar Tree to help me. I had 52 dollar bills and notes ready. We stood in front of the store and the kids gave the next 52 customers dollars, as I explained Don Day to each person. After several dollars, my son started sharing the story too. Many people were leary about what we were doing, even trying to avoid us. Many were teary-eyed and wanted to hear more. Some were just thrilled to have an extra dollar, especially the kids. Several people said they wanted someone else to have their dollars, and they would pray for Kelley and Don instead. One man yelled: “There should be cameras here! This is the kind of thing that should be on the news! What an amazing thing you are doing. Thank you!” Four different people said they used their dollar to buy school supplies for needy children – already paying it forward. (The Dollar Tree was collecting donations for a charity inside the store.) Some shared their own stories and thought Kelley’s idea was amazing and said they would tell others. When we passed out all of the money, we went inside to pick out some school supplies to donate in memory of Don. A little boy came running up to me to show me he had picked out a Thomas the Train puzzle. He was so thrilled, and his mom said he was telling everyone in the store what he was buying with his dollar. Who knew how much happiness a dollar could buy? I do know that we had a lot more than $52 worth of blessings, fun, conversation, smiles, and everything else, thanks to Kelley and Don. My son has decided that every July 13th we will be doling out Dollars for Don Day. This may be our best family tradition yet! – Kelli Renee Williamson Fockler, London United Kingdom.

 

Being a military family, we have faced struggles, but we were unprepared for what awaited us when we finally got a date to leave that life and return home to our civilian lifestyle. Our two dear adopted cats needed a temporary home as we looked for a place to live in our new state, and with our move date fast approaching, it wasnt looking good. The last thing I wanted to do was put them in a shelter. Then I received an email from my sister. My sister who was given up for adoption soon after she was born and whom I had a broken relationship with until only about a year ago. She already has a house full of pets and two children of her own, but in a desperate attempt to find someone who could help, I emailed her my plea. She called almost immediately and said that she would be happy to foster our kitties for us. My heart cried as she said she would never turn me away when I needed help. I just couldnt believe it. We only had ten more days to find them a home, and here she was, reaching out to help us. Despite our broken relationship. Someone had paid it forward for US and our kitties. Don was there to care for them when nobody else was able to. Thank you Don. We will never forget you and your generous heart and love for our kitties. – Jenny Billot, Texas.

 

I was nice to my husband for an entire 24 hours. If you knew our relationship, and how entertained Don was by it constantly, you would know what a huge sacrifice this really was for me. Thinking of you Kelley. – Nancy DiNinno, Massachusetts.

 

On July 13th, I had to work all day, and I work at Macy’s. So, I interact with people all day, we were in the midst of a Summer Hot List Sale, and people were on a shopping frenzy. 90% of these people were unaware that we were offering coupons, as most associates in the store will not offer customers coupons, unless they produce their own. So to help my costumers save money, I offered the coupons. 20% to every single person I checked out that day. People were pleased to know that at least one associate was on their side to help them save some money that day. One customer who was buying outfits for a new job, saved $190 on a $600 purchase. Another great thing happened that day too. An elderly man who only spoke Portugese, needed some assistance in calling a cab to pick him up from the store and back to his hotel, about 20 minutes away. Not only did I call the man’s hotel and explain to the front desk that he was here and doesnt speak much english and is in need of a cab, but I also walked him to the designated waiting area, and stood with him there until his cab arrived safely. Not many Sales Associates would take the time to do that, and I felt good that something that might seem small too many, was a very big deal to this one man’s day, on Don’s Day. – Cassandra Richardson, Georgia.

 

Kelley and I just met a month ago, when she told me she accepted my offer to be roommates. I never met Don, and I dont know Kelley’s family beyond a quick hello, but Kelley has a big heart, is deeply feeling and is very generous with her time, its clear, so I can only imagine Don must have been a true sweetheart. Plus, her parents like country music, which is always a good sign.

I resently took a trip to Boise, Idaho, to see my family. My mother died tragically 5 years ago, and Ive never been very close to my father. We have tried, but the whole gay thing and living out East for 20 years has made it difficult. I didnt want to go to Idaho. I didnt want to see my family. We are not a tight group. My mother was mentally-ill, and, while funny and kind, she was a trainwreck in the making. I decided to go on this trip to pay respects to my mother and work again at forgiving her for all she did. I also went because my father is 87. I have no idea how much longer he is going to live. After I had visited my mothers grave with my father, we went back to his house. He lives in a tiny trailor home on the outskirts of Boise. Its a quiet place he shares with his dog, Gracie, a dog Im not terribly fond of. I swear the dog is possessed with the spirit of my mother. She’s moody, thinks she’s a bit of a princess, and will pee all over the carpet if left alone for more than 20 minutes. My father is ancient now. His fingers are gnarled by arthritis and his feet always ache. I look at his feet and my hands and realize his fate is my fate. His body will be my body.

We stood in the bathroom together, Gracie roaming around, pushing her way into our private moment like my mother would have done. I told him I had come to tell him I love him. I said the only reason I endured an eight hour plane ride is to tell him Im proud of him and thank him for all he did. So that is what I did. I put my hands that look like his hands on the side of his face that looks like my face and I pulled his rigid, frightened and diseased body into mine and I watered into his ear: “I love you very much, Dad. You need to know that.” He let me hold him, but not for long. We pull out of the embrace and he kisses me on the lips, like he used to when I was a little boy. “Remember when I said to you, ‘Straight as a soldier?'” I nod. I do remember. I’d lay in bed at night, my hands at my side, and he’d come in smelling of car grease and faded Aftershave. Old Spice. He’d run his hands through my hair and then shove his hands under my body, slipping the sheet under me, keeping me safe and tight and warm. After he’d leave, having giving me a kiss on the lips and shutting out my light, I’d stay like that for hours, never wanting to move, wanting to remember the feeling of my father keeping me safe forever. My mother was crazy, a whirling mass of chaos; but he was constant. There. Present. Always counted on. That’s something.

“I love you so much.” “I love you too, son.” He surprised me by embracing me again. Later in the day, I pulled away in the car, on the way to the airport. He waved as I waved at him, I knew every moment dealing with anxious relatives and cranky siblings and pain and death and hurt was all worth it. He gave me life. He loved me unconditionally and still does. I am his only son and now, at the end of his life, I can give him my unending love and gratitude for everything he has given me.

I have a photo now above my computer at home. It’s a late summer day. I am two months old and my father is holding me in his arms. He sports a nifty crew cut and a white T-shirt. His eyes are small in profile and I cant see his face except a bit from the slanted side angle, but I look afraid. Scared. I had good reason. But even from a distance, with his face in profile and with the way he cradles me, I can tell I was loved. I was wanted. I was protected, for a time. For this I am grateful more than he will ever possibly know. I was wanted. He made me feel wanted. – Michael Bryan, New York.

 

I am really very happy that you found an amazing way to honor Don today; publicly, privately, alone for yourself, and together with all of us. We decided to honor Don by making a donation to our Zoo here in Basel, which is literally right at our doorstep. Its a small but very nice zoo and they make great efforts to provide natural habitats for the animals. Now what is special about our donation is that we did not just hand over money to the Zoo. Instead, we joined the adoption system of the zoo in Don’s name. From today, Don is the Godfather of a Long-Tailed Finch. He will get a plaque with his name on it, which they will put on a Wall in the Zoo with all the other donors and godparents for everyone to see. The long-tailed finch is a really beautiful little bird that comes originally from Australia. Love and Hugs, Annegret and Marc Eiermann, Basel, Switzerland.

 

So there you have it. A whole lot of people, from all over the place, gathering together, seperately, to honor a man that some of them never even knew. It is inspiring. It is hopeful. It is all kinds of amazing.

In writing this and putting it all together and going through several pictures of my husband to post in here, I cried more than once. I will keep crying tomorrow, and the next day, and for many days to come. I will keep feeling pain, and I will keep living inside of this tornado that has become my life. But to go through this with the new knowledge that people can be this good and this giving and this loving – it makes me want to live, so that I can see more and feel more and BE more. It makes me wonder what might happen tomorrow; because as I learned one year ago; anything can happen. It could be something horrible and incredibly sad. Or – it could be a miracle of epic proportions. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jealousy

(Originally written on 8/11/2011)

JEALOUSY

Today my mom, dad and I went with our close family friend Eve to the hospital/comfort care center to visit her husband Charlie. Everyone calls him Chuck, and I know him as “Uncle Chuck.” Hes not my uncle by blood or anything, but my brother and I grew up with them as our next door neighbors our entire childhood on Taylor Road in Groton, and we always called them “Aunty Eve and Uncle Chuck.” They were one of those couples that always seemed to be stuck in time; as if they both remained the same age year after year.They never changed. Same hairstyle, same type of clothes, same habits, same routine. Their yellow house next door looked the same every single Christmas, and they both seemed to revel in their sameness. It was wonderful, and comfortable, and they liked it. And then about seven years ago, something weird happened. Uncle Chuck started getting sick, and old. And sometimes, when you live right next door to someone forever and see them everyday, you dont notice them getting old. But because I lived in NJ and would come home to Groton Massachusetts every few months; I started to notice that the once quick-witted, funny, stubborn, nice as hell guy I always knew … was becoming a bit less quick, and a lot more stubborn. Continue reading “Jealousy” »