Soulful Plastic Surgery

Last week, I enjoyed hiking in one of the most amazing places on earth with a dear friend. As we walked and talked, our feet trampled through paths of dirt and mud, puddles and sand, rocks and brush. Our conversation carried themes of hope and despair, lack and encouragement, fear and faith.

In the midst of these words, the topic of happiness (or at least contentedness) with ourselves surfaced. We discussed how, even when we approach a dead body at a viewing or wake, the comments we hear discuss the appearance of the individual (“Doesn’t she look good?” or “He looks so natural.”) more than the work of their lives.

We walked on, and this thought came: “We might be better off to perform plastic surgery on our spirits.”

Of course, that type of change could never occur under a trained physician’s hand holding a scalpel or with the careful eye of an anesthesiologist. Our spirits need to be fed, nourished, strengthened, and loved–and we do that work ourselves.

We begin again to love ourselves, to disconnect from harmful media while connecting to grounding influences such as art, music, and nature. We exercise, balance our chakras, and breathe. We speak loving words to ourselves and others. We spend our moments with those who nourish us and those we nourish in return.

I’ve been blessed to do a number of those things this past week, and my spirit feels new. I’m not crumbling under the heavy weight of others’ (or my own) unrealistic expectations. My spirit is transformed, and I have more to give.

And, I dare say that I feel more beautiful–without a tuck, gummy bear implants, or anesthesia (which scares me, FYI). I am a happier me, and I like who I am.

My spirit is new. And I am still me–only better.

I’m on top of the world.

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🙂

Invisible Battles

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Jesse Owens’ words strike a chord of truth. What battles are you fighting within yourself? Maybe you struggle with making ends meet, as Jesse Owens did later in life. (For a brief biography on Jesse Owens, watch here.) Maybe you find you are not living up to your potential. Maybe you feel threatened by someone. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. Maybe you are dealing with loss that others have forgotten.

As you consider the invisible battles you fight, please be aware that others around you are fighting their own invisible battles.

Everyone struggles. Struggling is part of life, and–as we work through our struggles, we become stronger.

Still, the struggles are hard. They can seem never-ending.

I heard recently of a middle school student who chose to take his own life due to the weight of his invisible battles. I was saddened by his decision to take his precious, young life from this world.

This morning, I heard of a dear friend’s passing following a three-year battle with cancer. She was an angel to many–always concerned with strengthening and uplifting others. Personally, she supported me with a listening ear and a loving heart through my busy and exhaustive years of child-bearing. I mourn for the loss of the beauty she brought into the world and am grateful for the joy that I feel because she was part of my life. She seemed to be sensitive to those who were fighting invisible battles themselves, lending a helping hand even when she wasn’t well herself.

Working through our own invisible battles–whatever they may be–allows us to grow from our struggles. Let us remember to have hope, to carry on, and to count our blessings. Though we may struggle, we can find the supporting hand of others to help us. We can reach out to help, which lightens our own loads that we carry. We can be honest with ourselves and others regarding the way we feel.

As we face and work to win our invisible battles, we will be strengthened with a victory more precious than gold medals, more powerful than fame, more valuable than anything monetary.

We will feel whole.

A little fiction: “Something Beautiful”

Most days upon waking, my mind drifts in and out of consciousness, wondering whether or not I will ever feel passionate about anything again.  I marvel back to sixth grade, when Mrs. Schneider gave us “passion” as a vocabulary word.  I sat there, next to Bobby Newenschwander, who, as a typical sixth-grade-boy, snickered incessantly at the word as Mrs. Schneider’s chalk scraped white letters across a golf-course-lawn colored chalk board.  I copied the list down into my vocabulary notebook, reached into my desk for my copy of A Student’s Dictionary and found the word right between “passenger” and “passionate.”  I noted a small n. next to the word and copied, “a strong feeling or desire, enthusiasm.”  I couldn’t help but read the next entry—“adjective, ardent in feeling or desire.”  I wondered then, in my eleven-year-old-self, if I had ever felt passionate about anything.

My mother was working on dinner when I tossed my backpack across the table, poured a glass of cherry Kool-Aid and sat at a bar stool across the counter from her bowl of cornbread stuffing and sliced chicken breasts.

“How was school today?”  And then, “did you copy your vocabulary list?”  This question was always part of my Monday interrogation.

“Fine, Mom.  Thanks.  And yes, I have my vocabulary list with definitions.”  Even though I hadn’t missed any words the past few weeks, I had spent the first quarter missing several words…okay, more like half the words…on the list each week.  Doing better lately didn’t erase the concern from her brow, though.  “One of our words this week is ‘passion.’  Do you know what that is?”

My mother’s hands stopped stuffing moistened bread bits and seasonings into the open breast as she looked into my face.  “Yes.  Did you look it up?”

“Sure, but I just wondered what you thought about it, and what I could do with it for my vocab. sentences for homework tonight.”

“Well,” she began, as I could see her mind working between handfuls of stuffing, carefully placing the prepared chicken into the casserole dish and just as carefully placing words, “people can be passionate about lots of things—like politics,…sports,…hobbies.  Sometimes people use the word in reference to feeling strongly about a relationship.”

I remembered looking for that relationship many years later as a college student at Emery.  Back during a time when we had no classes on Wednesday, I would wander through the tree-strewn campus, walking up and down paved hills, reciting formulas for OChem and wishing I could find that feeling of passion for someone.  Sure, I’d dated lots of guys—frat guys, athletes, intellectuals—all without a glimmer of that “strong feeling or desire” I wanted.  I became passionate about searching for passion.

Then, one Wednesday, I saw this guy driving a golf cart with lawn tools in the back as I was out for a morning run.  I waved to him, as I had grown accustomed to waving to everyone I passed, and his eyes looked eager as he returned my wave.  The tips of his hair stuck out in dark tufts under his Red Sox cap as his eyes met mine.  I passed him to feel a drop from somewhere in the vicinity of my chest cavity to my abdomen (I was pre-med at that point), and I decided to circle around and see where the golf cart was travelling.

About a mile of up and down the grey stripe of pavement dividing a sea of green, I noticed the Red Sox cap turned backwards on a body, stooped over some type of planting area.  I saw rhododendrons and azaleas, which I recognized, but he looked to be planting some type of annual as a border plant around the edge of the bed.

“Good work,” I remarked, keeping up a stationary jog.  He startled a bit, turned, and stood to face me.

“Uh, thanks.”  I watched him dust his shirt with his dirt-stained hands, hands which would later arouse feelings within me I didn’t know I could have.

“What are you planting?”

“Madagascar periwinkle.”

“Oh, it’s very nice.  I love the color.”

“Would you like one?  I have more than I need.”  He took a step toward me with flower in hand.

“I have to finish my jog now, but maybe I could catch you later,” I offered as I continued a stationary jog.  “When’s your lunch break?”

“Oh, I just have to finish this bed and two more.  I should be done about 11:30, and then I’ll need to shower.  Want to meet up at the cafeteria?”

“Sure.  I’ll see you there—a little less sweaty—around noon?”

“See you then.”

I jogged back toward my dorm with a smile all the way. We met for lunch (where he gave me a flower), and so began our two-year courtship, eight-month engagement, and twenty-seven-year marriage, filled with moments of passion so indelible…moments of support, love, and companionship mixed with anger, frustration, exhaustion, and the act of passion that would land me here.

I opened my eyes to look up at the tall ceiling.  My lovely orange suit (I look much better in red) hung over my delicate bones, my small hands that once performed surgery to sustain life were calloused and swollen from manual labor, my lovely size 6 feet that used to slide in and out of Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo were now lacing into something more like generic Converse—and I didn’t care.  I had a momentary flush of feeling as I remembered that Clara and Angelique were coming for a visit today, but it did not last long.  A pang of guilt filtered from my bed-headed hair to my bulging cotton socks, but that didn’t last long, either.  “I guess I have finally shut down, after all,” I muttered to an open cell, with no one around to hear.  If I cared anymore, I think I might try to get out, to appeal, to kill myself, but I don’t.

So I sit here, and lie here, and eat here—well, I eat sometimes—and pay my debt to society.  Never mind all the lives I saved once upon a time (which, I recorded once in med school alone to be around 27, 28 if your counted that little girl who I Heimliched in the cafeteria), but I guess that was another life…another feeling of passion.  Passion for life.  My passion for him was different.  He needed me, and I needed him.  Together we fit in ways I could not describe with words in any language I knew (which included six conversational, two dead, and one more just reading since I never learned to pronounce correctly in German).  But then, he needed me to help him leave.  And I didn’t want to; I really didn’t.  I fought against the need for the better part of a year.  But I loved him.  And he was in so much pain.  So much suffering.  “I save lives; I do not take them away,” was my mantra each day.  But he would look at me with his dark, undiscerning eyes, which reminded me of his dark hair sticking out of a Red Sox hat one spring day in Atlanta.  I put Madagascar periwinkle by our bed, but he didn’t notice.  At that moment, I realized that we could leave—like a dream—together.  He would leave his body and I would leave my emotions and we could survive in some other sphere of existence where passion filled our days and nights, where we only existed for each other.  So I did it.  It was an act of mercy as much as it was to save what we had—to save our marriage, our passion, our daughters.  And no good or great attorney could get me out of what I started, and no good or great therapist could help me live again the way I lived with him.

I guess eating really doesn’t matter anymore.  I’ll see the girls today and tell them that everything is fine, remind them to put fresh flowers over his stone.  Spring must be right around the corner.  I don’t feel as cold right now.  Or as warm, either, come to think of it.  Maybe I don’t feel anything.  I wonder what death feels like.  Cold, or warm, or like walking or running or singing or dancing or praying.  Maybe it feels like the moment you release all that energy from a lifetime of learning and going and doing and working and saving.  Some of my patients would talk about a light, bright like the sun.

I loved our honeymoon.  We spent four glorious days on St. Pete Beach at the Don.  We swam out as far as we could to the buoys each morning and ran along the beach in the evening sunset.  He wandered the gardens, with hands and nails cleaned for our wedding, but I knew he longed for the feeling of earth, of planting, of growth.  He went on to teach landscape architecture at Purdue for fifteen years, but still he was happiest with soil under his fingernails and the smell of earth imbedded in his skin.  I could see his shadow, over me, his face filled with love, then excitement, then relief.  I remember each spring, he would bring me a small pot of something new, mixed in with Madagascar periwinkle.  He would often ask me, “What if I had been planting geraniums that day?”

“You weren’t.”  I would smile back at his teasing.  “Geraniums stink.  We were both sweaty and smelly enough that day—so you needed to be planting something simply beautiful.”

And we were.  Together.  Somehow.  Simply beautiful.

Last…

The last website which was open was a shopping cart from Victoria’s Secret filled with items for their anniversary in two weeks.

The last playlist played on iTunes was simply titled, “dance.”

The last note was a grocery list including items for next week’s menu.

The last phone call listed on her cell was to the school, scheduling her days to volunteer for next month’s fundraiser.

The last food she ate was half of a pastrami sandwich on rye, with Dijon mustard, pickles, and provolone.

The last text message she sent was to her husband, a simple, “i ❤ u, always."

He had sent back an "I love you, too" reply, followed by a request for the new password she set for the email that was recently hacked. After his seventh rapid-fire text, he began to wonder. The children would be getting home soon.

He left his work for a "late lunch" and travelled the roads, winding in, and out, and through, like black ribbons weaving their ways through grasses and businesses, restaurants and car lots. He tried to call. Maybe she was taking a long shower.

He arrived home just before 2 p.m. and felt a flood of relief as the water was running in the shower upstairs. Surely she was out of hot water now, though.

He slid off his loafers by the door and mounted the steps, taking them two at a time–and the last one in a leap of three. He rounded the corner into the master bath, filled with steam that was beginning to settle like fog on the slate floor. She was sitting at the base of the water, with a calm expression on her face, her eyes as still as glass. She did not blink.

He pulled her cold body from the hot water, wrapped her gently in a towel, and called 9-1-1.

Mourning

I walked down the stairs to find an empty kitchen sink, quite unusual at our house full of five people on varied schedules. He must’ve rinsed his bowl and loaded it into the dishwasher before his early flight, I thought as I filled the Brita pitcher with water and replaced it in the fridge.  The only negative thing I can say about this place is the water tastes gross.  Thank heavens for Brita.

I mentally checked off my personal list for the day…get kids off to school, drop off stuff at Goodwill, pick up dry cleaning, milk, and fresh veggies…and somehow squeeze in a run before the heat of the day settled onto the sidewalk, sending up its waves of steam from the recently running sprinklers.

A little person’s footsteps interrupted my quiet thoughts.  Dilly tumbled down the stairs, blanket in hand, and nestled her head into my left shoulder.  “Mommy, you are beautiful,” she said as she reached up to pull a loose strand of one of my shorter layers out of my eyes.

“Thank you, Dilly.  Are you ready for breakfast?”

“Mmmhmmm,” she lifted her head and nodded for emphasis.

“Mommy is making oatmeal.  Would you like to help me?”

She slid down my body and out of my arms, reached for the stool, and propped herself up by the island, near but not too close to the cooktop.  I filled a pan with water from the sink, rationalizing that we wouldn’t taste it through the fruit, cream, and sugar we would put in the oatmeal, and turned the flame on high.

Shelly and Jack headed down the stairs with the noises in the kitchen.  Shelly turned on the television to find news, check the weather, and jot down a current event for social studies class.  It was her morning routine.  Jack headed to the study to practice his viola before school.

Over the noise and chatter of Dilly singing her new favorite song from kindergarten, I noticed small bubbles emerging, growing larger from the base of the pan up to the surface, searching for a way to release the heat energy that was bursting inside the molecules.  I could hear faint strokes of the bow against the C string of Jack’s viola, and Dilly started humming the piece Jack had been working on for weeks…his solo in the upcoming fall orchestra concert.  I couldn’t recall the name of the music.  He was getting better, though.

Dilly helped me measure the oatmeal, and she asked to pour it into the boiling water.  Together we stirred it as I lowered the heat and waited for the grains to absorb the hot water and soften in the pan.  We sang together Dilly’s song from last year’s preschool Halloween musical, “Stirring and stirring and stirring my brew…ooooooooo…ooooooooo” in unison as we took turns scraping the bottom of the pan.  None of us cared to eat charred oatmeal.

“Mom!” I heard Shelly call from the family room.

“What, Hon?” I called back from the kitchen, removing the pot from the flame and placing it on a trivet on the table.  “Want to get the bowls, Dil?”

“Yes, Mom.”  She crawled down from the stool and headed to the cabinet as I met Shelly in the family room.  I looked at her, at the rubble on the television screen, and the words that were superimposed over the pictures, trying to make out what the newscaster was saying over the sinking feeling in my heart.

“Flight #1082 from Dallas to Tampa….”

No.  It couldn’t be his flight.  I ran back into the kitchen, pulled my phone off the charger, and went immediately to the notes section where I saved his itinerary.  I took in my breath, looking for the flight number.  1082.  1082.  Nope, no 1082 for him. His flight number was 2044.  I breathed a sigh of relief, but my heart wouldn’t leave my throat.

I couldn’t shake the fear away through oatmeal and raisins, through walking Dilly to her bus stop. I kissed her goodbye and headed back to our front door, wondering in what order to accomplish my to-do list.

I climbed the stairs to dress for my run and decided to check email before I put my playlist on my iPod.  I skimmed through ads for Children’s Place and Gap Kids sales, through notifications that lunch accounts were getting low (already?) and an invitation to attend a PTA breakfast.

Then I saw his name.

I selected the email, and began to read his words:

Hey, Lover.  Didn’t want to wake you with a text.  Took an earlier flight so I could be more prepared for my meeting in Tampa today.  Hitting lunch with Dave, dinner with the team, and I’ll be back on the red-eye early in the a.m. to kiss you good morning.
Love you always,
Shaun

Below his email, he pasted his new itinerary.

No.

I couldn’t bring myself to read any farther.  A flight change?  Why?  I knew he was nervous about his meetings and presentation, but what was another half hour on the ground, really?  Or even not on the ground?

No.

I shook my head as the number appeared below…black and white…I tried to make my eyes focus to see it, read it, make it real…but my vision was clouded and my eyes were filling and moving and beginning to overflow.  Still, I had to see, to confirm, to know.

My eyes jumped around the page looking for the numbers, any numbers but what I feared.

Then, I saw them.

1

0

8

2

No.

Not Shaun.  Not the man I met on a weekend in the Keys a decade and a half ago.  Not the man I corresponded with over email and text and international calling plans while I finished a semester abroad before graduation.  Not the man I had given my heart and soul to, who had just this morning rinsed his bowl and placed it in the dishwasher to make my day easier.

He couldn’t be….

I couldn’t say the word out loud.  I went back downstairs to the television, found breaking news on the same channel Shelly had watched only moments ago when I had assured her that Dad was on another flight.  Of course, he was on another flight.

“…little chance of survivors…143 passengers…12 crew…mechanical failure…”

NO!

I felt my hands around my knees, my arms pulling in tightly, and my body rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth as I once rocked our three little ones in turn. The three little ones with his eyes or his nose or his smile.

I closed my eyes over the glare of the television screen.

And I wept.

Random Thoughts

I used to listen to Matchbox 20 on Mix 106 out of Tavares, FL before they were picked up by a label.

I don’t really have any memories before age 5…and very few specific memories between 5 and 15.

I only find myself singing when I am really, truly happy.

I’m working on self-confidence.

I liked alternative music when it was still called progressive.

I have several children.

I love to paint but rarely do it.

I love to bake and do that more often than I should.

I like the rain when the air is warm.

I hate wearing shoes but love my heels, platforms, and wedges.

I adore my husband.

I LOVE sunshine.

I would sleep in some days if my family life would permit it.

I like to exercise.

I thrive on progress.

I love to study, write, and discuss myriad topics.

I believe in God as a loving, caring, forgiving Being who is in the details of our lives.

I’m learning to like myself.

I’m trying to be happy where I am.

I have lots of love for others.

I like to help people.

I believe that I can see my family forever, even after death, in another more peaceful existence.

🙂

The Ring

As he slid the metallic, hollow circle over my knuckle, I was surprised how comfortable it felt on a finger which had been naked for so long.  Thin band of white gold with a solitaire in the center.  Had time passed so quickly since David died, or was I just really ready to take this step?  Four years is an eternity to sleep alone after being together for what felt like a lifetime…but maybe seventeen years is just a drop in the bucket of lifetimes…?

“How does it feel?”

I looked up from watching the light catch the facets of the diamond and into his eyes, realizing I was probably lost in thought again.  I really didn’t mean to be so distracted.  He was so gentle, so caring.  So different from David in stature and mannerisms, but so similar in personality.  Perhaps that was the attraction.  That, and the children seemed amenable to him.

After David’s death, I invested the insurance money, bought a house, and worked on web designing and social media marketing to make ends meet.  I resisted the desire to date, the desire for touch, the desire for noise in the quiet of my bedroom without the snoring sound David once made while lost in dreams.

Sometimes, in that same quiet of night, I would scream silently into a pillow…David’s pillow.

On the year anniversary of his death, I threw it out with the trash.  Not that I didn’t want to remember him…but I always said that a year was long enough to mourn.

My body felt it, too.  I would watch sappy rom-coms to feel connected to love, to life, to relationships.  But I wanted touch.  I wanted my bed to be warm during the cold Wisconsin winters.  I wanted someone to take my hand as we walked into a store together.

And, he had done those things…except for the bed.  My bed is still cold.  We agreed, because of the children, to wait.  I wanted them to continue their moral education, and no matter how much I longed for him, we set boundaries.  And I knew I would never forgive myself if I crossed them.

“Babe?”

I had done it again…wandered in and out of thoughts, of memories.  I wondered, if I am creating a new reality with him, here, now, why can’t I get my mind out of the past?  The feelings flooded more freely lately, like a deluge of emotion I never saw swimming in a sea of obligatory, perfunctory actions.

But this was right.  I knew it.

And as I looked up at him again, I said, “Right.  It feels right.”

Flags

I walked into the almost empty room, noting the somber expressions on once-familiar faces, and moved toward Joan, who had already taken her place by our son.

I took my steps carefully through the aisle, shaking a few hands along the way, until I reached for Joan’s freshly-lotioned hand and felt her squeeze mine back gently.  I wondered if she took strength from me or gave it back.

Then I saw him.  I would like to say that our eyes met, but his were, of course, closed.  I placed my hand gently on his chest, ran my fingers down his tie as if to straighten it like I did when he was about twelve years old.

I could see us then, in front of the mirror at the old house by the lake, getting ready for Easter Sunday service.  Joan and I had taken him to purchase his first real suit and tie, and I stood behind him and helped him learn the way to cross one end over the other and secure a Double Windsor knot.  I taught him how to tuck the tail into his shirt as it was a little longer than needed.  “Our secret,” I smiled as I put my finger to my lips and shared a laugh with him.

I wondered who had tied his tie today.

Joan looked over to me and dabbed my eye with a small, white handkerchief.

The caretaker…or whatever he was called…walked over toward us and quietly whispered, “Are you ready?”

Joan nodded for both of us, and I pulled my hand away from his tie, letting my fingers brush his cool hands.  She stood by and held me around my waist, and I again wondered if her actions were for her benefit or my own.  We took a step back together to make space for the man, and he carefully closed the top of the casket.  Joan turned her face into my shoulder to muffle the sobbing sound coming from inside her.

The man placed familiar fabric over the top, a perfect stitching of white, blue, and the color of my son’s blood, spilt in the name of freedom.

Nineteen really is too young to die.

Upon Waking

In my dream two nights ago, I was preparing for a severe storm.  Apparently, we lived in a ginormous house, and I was on the telephone and iPad (coordinating with people who may need to come visit and stay in the basement of said ginormous house) when I received a phone call from my sister. We chatted while I worked; then, suddenly, alarm filled her voice as she said, “Your little guy is choking!” (He was staying with her for some reason, I’m guessing.) We got off the phone, and I continued my preparations for the storm. I was trying to get a weather report on the iPad (but was having connection trouble) when my phone rang again.  My sister’s voice on the other end simply said, “He’s dead.”

In that moment, (trying to assure her…or maybe even myself…?) I said, “It’s okay. I just spent the most wonderful day with him yesterday.” My mind flashed back to moments of cuddles and stories and laughter and happiness of the prior day, and I truly did feel relief that, were he dead, he died knowing his mother loved him and had done all she knew to care for him.

Upon waking, of course a bit of alarm set in, and I removed my covers as my feet carried me, almost without thinking, to his room. I reached for the spot on his back where his Batman pajama shirt had lifted and exposed a tiny stripe of skin above his waistline. I touched it and waited for my hand to rise and fall with his breath. As my hand moved up and down in time with his diaphragm’s expansion and contraction, I took a breath myself for the first time in several moments.

I proceeded to find all of my little people, alive and well, breathing the slow, heavy breath of sleep, of dreams. I fell to my knees in the last one’s room to offer up thanks for sparing their lives each day so that I can have the privilege of more sweet moments with them.

My feet then returned me toward my bedroom. As I walked through the kitchen, the microwave clock read a scarlet 2:38. Lifting my covers, I returned to bed but not to sleep. I lay pondering the day, wondering that if–or when–that phone call ever came to me, would I be able to respond with the same feeling of relief embodied in my dream–that our last moments together were blissful, peaceful, loving, happy? Would my children leave this frail existence knowing that their mother loved them? I was determined to work on sharing the love of my heart with them more readily and worry less about the little irritations and fatigue that so easily beset me. I was determined to complain less and love more, to fuss less and laugh more, to worry less and sing more.

Will you join me?

🙂