Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, is dead. I feel heavy writing those words as if I lost a friend. I am simply another reader…one of millions. But with her books in my hands, I’ve felt the companionship of a friend. I’ve nodded my head or spoken aloud as if in conversation with her. And, so it would be true to say that we had a relationship. That was the power of Mary’s art. That’s what made her so well-loved.
She was the rare poet who sold well. My social media feeds are filled with her brilliantly strung together words and moving tributes from regular people like me and her famous admirers like Hillary Clinton, Madonna and Oprah.
When I heard the news of her death, I retreated to my shed to pull her book Dog Songs from my shelf. The book popped open to page 31:
BENJAMIN, WHO CAME FROM
WHO KNOWS WHERE
What shall I do?
When I pick up the broom
he leaves the room.
When I fuss with kindling he
runs for the yard.
Then he’s back, and we
hug for a long time.
In his low-to-the ground chest
I can hear his heart slowing down.
Then I rub his shoulders and
kiss his feet
and fondle his long hound ears.
Benny, I say,
don’t worry. I also know the way
the old life haunts the new.
I read that poem as a dog lover, a hound lover, to be precise. But, I also read it as a person whose old life can be haunting. In one of the rare interviews Mary gave, she spoke of her unhappy childhood that included sexual abuse and parental neglect.
“I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood,” Mary told Maria Shriver. “So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.”
Thank you Mary for sharing your world with me. The joy, solace and inspiration your words have given me are alive. Still. On my bookcase.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I took a call from my husband as I was driving to my weekly counseling appointment.
“Something horrible has happened,” he said with uncharacteristic alarm.
You mean another horrible thing…I thought. It had been six weeks since my well-loved 36-year-old brother had died and only two weeks since we’d buried him. I was heartbroken; life was off-kilter, out of focus. Every time the phone rang, I anticipated more horrible news. I was living with the burden of a heightened sense of vulnerability.
That day the collective sorrow of the nation merged with my personal grief. I pondered what we term “senseless death” as I did when Matt passed. People taken too early, before hopes and dreams can be realized. Families left wondering why. Faith and equilibrium threatened.
The lives lost on 9/11 became part of our country’s history. Matt’s life was part of my history. The parallel drew me closer to all those who suffered that day. Loss and sadness are part of what it means to be human. It is there for all of us to experience together, but ultimately to resolve on our own.
Today, I remember my brother, Matt, who was taken too soon. I miss spending time with him; it was so easy. I remember the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on that awful day when as a nation we felt our collective vulnerability. I remember, most of all, that loss is part of life, and as such, kindness should be our imperative.
With heartfelt condolences to all who have loved and lost,
when you lose someone who means the world to you
your world changes
never returning to its former shape
it appears to others to be the same world
so it’s a secret you keep
until you can’t any longer
a place, flower or song
suddenly it spills out
you must tell the world
you are not the same
you have not been the same
you will never be the same no matter how much time passes
the illusion is just that
the pretense grows heavy
it requires too much energy to maintain
so you shed it
and discover others who know your secret
keep it themselves
believing they will not be understood
believing they too are alone
knowing time does not heal
what was already changed
all will be touched
shaped by love
altered by grief
The poem was inspired by thoughts of my brother and by my friends, in and out of the blogging world, who have shared their secrets with me: Franziska, Tamara, Sleepless Dave, Jon, Esmeralda, Jen, Gallivanta and Pam.
I’m a writer; I love language. But sometimes a picture says it all. Just a glance and you can surely see the joy and the pain I feel when I think of my brother. He was handsome, charismatic, kind and very easy to be with. It seems impossible that he’s been gone for 17 years. He will remain forever young as he is in this picture joking about his girlfriend’s early morning romp through the water.
I feel anger and contentment, sorrow and joy, anxiety and enthusiasm, along with fear and courage… sometimes all in the same day! And, yet, I am a “Fluoxetine Queen” as defined by the Urban Dictionary.
An enthusiastic and outgoing advocate of the drug Fluoxetine, more commonly known as Prozac, especially one who has used the drug and experienced its benefits or one who is dependant on it to function normally.
There are some who will be surprised to hear that, despite pharmacological intervention, I feel every spoke in the Wheel of Emotions. Indeed I once consulted an orthopedic surgeon regarding my ankle.
He perused my paperwork and inquired, “I see you’re on Prozac…so you’re happy all the time, huh?”
He was an older doctor and I believe he needed to retire or take a continuing education course. I never saw him again and I never had the surgery he recommended. Maybe you can tell by my tone that his question miraculously caused me to feel something other than happiness. I was irritated, annoyed and downright angry.
Early in my blogging career, I wrote a post entitled In Praise of Prozac. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve been depressed and that I was brave enough to get treatment. I want to be part of the movement that seeks to destigmatize issues relating to mental health. And, I’d like to reach out and offer compassion and hope to anyone who is suffering.
I decided to re-visit the topic after reading the New York Times front page story Many People Taking Antidepressants Discover They Cannot Quit. I had an immediate reaction to the story. (I’m not the only one; less than two weeks after its publication there are over 2,000 reader responses.) You see, I am one of the “many…who cannot quit.”
When I filled my first prescription for 20mg of Prozac, I was a stay-at-home mom with a four-year-old daughter. My 35-year-old brother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer the month before. My husband’s job was demanding and my support system consisted of only a few close friends.
Matt and I had been very close and it wasn’t surprising that I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken. But, it was clear that I was not simply sad. I struggled to get out of bed and into the shower every morning. I was irritable. Each day seemed to bring physical aches and pains, despite the fact that I was not sick or injured. I remember most clearly a feeling of heaviness, exhaustion and emptiness.
I might have continued to suffer had it not been for my beautiful daughter. After I had a panic attack while at the bookstore with her, I knew I needed to do something. I had to take care of myself so I could take care of my child. I set up an appointment with a counselor and saw my general practitioner.
The only question I remember asking my doctor, “How does one stop taking antidepressants?!”
I do not remember his answer.
But, I didn’t re-visit that question for nearly a year because Prozac improved the quality of my life and relationships. It did not deaden my emotions; it made them manageable again. I continued to feel sad, but that emotion did not paralyze me. I often felt tired, but I did not feel utterly depleted. I no longer felt like a detached viewer of my own life. I felt present again. The random, unexplainable aches and pains disappeared and with them several other prescriptions. And the fear was gone; I could leave the house without worrying that I’d experience another panic attack. I felt equipped to handle the responsibilities of motherhood.
I was not successful the first time I tried to taper down my antidepressant, nor the second time…nor the third. Seventeen years after my first dosage, Prozac still makes it possible for me to live my best life. Why does a strong, content, fulfilled woman need an antidepressant? I don’t know and neither does my doctor.
If you’ve done your research, as I have, you’ve probably seen depression defined as a “chemical imbalance” or a “serotonin deficiency.” But, that’s an oversimplification. Experts really don’t know what causes depression or how it affects the brain, nor do they understand exactly how antidepressants improve the symptoms.
But, this is what I know:
Prozac and counseling helped me face a huge loss.
Prozac continues to help me.
I have no regrets.
Antidepressants will continue to grab headlines and much of the press will continue to be alarming. That’s just the way it works. You are not likely to see Antidepressants Save Millions of Lives Every Year printed across the front page of any newspaper. And yet, I personally believe that is the bigger story.
Prozac hit the market a mere 12 years before I needed it. So, in a very real way, I am a guinea pig. I can live with that. After all, I am a Fluoxetine Queen!
There are so many ways to feel happy. Sometimes, a moment can bring on a smile that lasts for days.
I showed up at the gym for cardio today, as usual. I was feeling exhilarated and energized at the 35 minute mark on the arc when a young man climbed on the machine next to me. I had met him the week before. It was impossible for me to forget his name.
I removed my ear buds and said hello. I was feeling so good that I couldn’t resist teasing him.
The look of terror in his eyes was amusing, but he was too sweet to torture. I’m into humor, not cruelty, so I quickly assured him that I was fine. I imagined him imagining me collapsing near his feet and requiring immediate emergency care!
Five minutes later my workout was done and he peaked at the numbers displayed on the screen of my machine.
“Wow, you just did 40 minutes on that thing,” he exclaimed.
Not long ago, I felt self-conscious when I found myself sweating next to a young, fit person. But, today I was impressed …with myself. I knew his praise was genuine. That was a gift, but it wasn’t the only one he presented to me, without knowing it.
If you know me or have read my posts, you are aware that I lost someone very special to me in 2001. He was 36 at the time; I was 40. I will live the rest of my life looking for him… and finding him. My brother, Matthew, seems to appear in the face of any young man who is kind to me…and also happens to call himself Matthew.
Look for the beautiful, in the ordinary, and you’ll find it!
He would be 54 years old today, but instead he rests under a marker that reads: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not here—I do not sleep.”
Today, I remember my brother. Perhaps, you, too, have a special birthday you remember but no longer celebrate in the conventional fashion. Or, maybe your mind turns to a loved one on the anniversary of his death. Loss will touch us all and I have found that it can be such a comfort to share the experience with others. I hope you will not mind if I share my story with you on this day that can not help but move me.
During his 36 years of life, my brother, Matt Lehman, occupied a large place in my heart and in the imaginations of family and friends. He was handsome, stylish and charming. (Think Matt Dillon, seriously!) He was a salesman and a collector. He’d been born with long eyelashes and affecting eyes. And bat his eyelashes, he did! The gesture was even more disarming when it was combined with his ready smile. He radiated enthusiasm, as if for him the entire world and everything in it was exciting. He was a joy to be around, and so everyone wanted to be his friend.
Matt was the youngest of three siblings. He was like the exclamation point after his two sisters. And, he certainly was not meant to be the first to die. But, as he told me one day after a visit to the cancer treatment center “how can I ask ‘why me’ when there’s a 12 year old child sitting next to me waiting for his chemo treatment?”
There was never any hope given other than the possibility that treatment could extend his life a bit. It was in July 2000 that I received his phone call telling me it was cancer, “not a good kind,” and the doctors had estimated he had four months left. In the end, he lived a full year after his diagnosis. He made the most of that year, generously sharing the time he had left with those who loved him.
I vividly remember an exchange with Matt during one of our last visits. His faith was unshakable; he was going “home.” I did not share his strong beliefs, but I found myself explaining that I couldn’t go with him just then. I needed to stay and raise my 4-year-old daughter. My baby brother was going somewhere and some part of me felt that I should go with him or instead of him. Or maybe, some part of me wondered how I could bear my grief.
For a long time after Matt’s death, I felt sure that every ring of the phone would bring news of illness or death. And, of course, just below the surface was the fear that came with being brutally reminded of my own mortality. But, I have celebrated the milestones of 40 and 50 remembering that my brother never did. I am grateful for the years I’ve been given to test my commitment to my husband (shaken but never destroyed!) and to watch my daughter grow into an adult I admire, respect and love.
And, so with tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face, I remember my dear brother today but not beside the headstone that bears his name. For he is not there. He lives with me in my heart and I know in the hearts of many others.
I welcome you to share your remembrances of those you have loved and lost.
* When he was young, Matt could not manage to say Michele and so I was Shell to him for as long as he lived.
This post was originally written on February 19, 2017 and posted after my blog went live on March 24.
My husband drove me to town today to pick up the pies. He let me off at the curb and circled back for me as there was no parking. I hobbled into a small local restaurant known for their amazing baked goods, among them: roasted pumpkin pie with mascarpone whipped cream.
I happen to be known at this restaurant (not surprising)! The owner noticed my bright pink ankle support and unusually slow, wobbly gait.
“Falling is so scary,” she said. “Glad we could do the pies for you. Now I’ll get someone to help you carry them.”
A young man appeared at my side with the pies in his hands. He waited until my husband arrived on the street in front of us and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. I wanted to thank him by name, but I did not know it. He introduced himself as “Matthew.” I assured him that I would not forget that name.
I happen to know the derivation of his name. “Matthew” is from the Hebrew and it means: Gift of the Lord. It was my beloved brother’s name and he was most certainly a gift.
I felt my eyes fill with grateful tears. It’s been sixteen years since Matt died but he is always with me. I will forever be thankful for him.
My husband and I had just finished watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War the week before I visited the Avila Valley Barn with my daughter and her college friends. I passed a man in a baseball cap that read: Vietnam Veteran as I entered the property.
I looked at him and said, “Nice cap,” and gave him a thumbs up. It was, I suppose, a rather awkward way of acknowledging his service, but he responded with an open smile.
After I shopped for fresh produce, sampled apple pie and selected pumpkins for my seasonal table, I felt compelled to join the veteran on the porch. I sat down in the rocking chair next to him and said hello. Mike and I began an easy conversation about the fine weather and pleasures of Avila Beach.
Then I began the conversation that I really wanted to have with him by asking if he’d seen the Burns’ documentary. He had not, but he readily shared his story with me. He had just entered high school when the war began, but he said he somehow knew that he would end up in Vietnam.
After graduation, he received a scholarship and attended The Boston Conservatory of Music. Mike was an opera singer for two years… until he was drafted. He was discharged a year later after he witnessed the death of two others standing very near to him. His injuries, both physical and emotional, remain with him. It seems the after effects of Agent Orange have been the most troublesome to his well-being.
“The folks at the VA keep telling me I’m not long for this world,” he told me. “But, I don’t put a lot of stock into what the government says.”
His distrust seems justified.
“My wife and I just settled into the home of our dreams,” he continued. “It’s a small house with a huge garden that my wife loves. And, I’ve finally found some peace.”
I asked what had become of his musical career and he answered that it was another “casualty of war.” After many years of struggling with life on a daily basis, Mike discovered that he had the patience and skill needed to work with disabled children.
“I’d have never known I could help so many kids if I hadn’t served,” he concluded.
I left the barn that day with tears spilling from beneath my sunglasses. My thoughts turned to Mike again this weekend as we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I certainly hope the VA doctors are wrong; I hope Mike has many years to enjoy life in his new home and garden.
Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a misunderstood holiday celebrated in Mexico, and in my home, on November 2. Given the timing of the holiday and the macabre imagery and costumes, people assume it’s simply “Mexican Halloween.” But, the meaning of this holiday is so much greater.
In the year 2000, my 35-year-old brother was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer and I did what I always do when presented with a major life challenge; I researched and read about the topic of death. Books have always been my saviors. During the toughest year of my life, as I watched Matt die, the accumulated wisdom of others brought me comfort. It was during this time that I learned about Day of the Dead.
The holiday takes its origins from the Aztecs and was celebrated around the end of summer like Halloween. With the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Catholic influence led to the combination of the holiday with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. Dia De Los Muertos follows the same two-day structure. In the Catholic tradition, All Saints’ Day calls us to reflect upon how we should live; All Souls’ Day is a celebration of those we’ve loved and lost. In the Mexican tradition, November 1 is the day to remember the loss of children and November 2 is the day to remember adults who have left us. The most important aspect of the holiday is the belief that the spirits of the dead join the living for the celebration.
In preparation for the party, altars are created that contain remembrances and offerings to our departed loved ones. (Sugar skulls are often included for children and alcohol for adults. You may have noticed KAH tequila in my display.) I love arranging my tribute each year and I love talking about my altar to visitors in my home. Those who are represented are gone but not forgotten; that truism is comforting to me.
My grandmother, Rose Carmella Bartucci. She had a big heart and memories of her make me smile. My daughter never knew her, but her middle name and nickname (Rosebud) are in her honor.
My father-in-law Jim. My husband inherited all your best traits and my daughter adored you.
Bart, my faithful four-legged companion. The pink shed isn’t quite the same without you.
During the time that my brother was sick and following his death, I often felt very alone in my grief. It’s not easy or natural to speak of death and dying in our culture, but I believe very strongly that we should. What better way to start a conversation than by bringing the departed back into your living room?
I’ll end this now as it’s time to toast my loved ones.