It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.

Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.

The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.

I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.

A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.

And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.

Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…

And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.

It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.

It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.

I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.

After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.

We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination 
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

It is Holy Week, and we are changing form.

The daffodils and other flowers have begun peeking through, which eee documents obsessively. We have all suffered precious, maddening losses this Winter, and are coping in different ways as we charge into Spring. For me, it has meant a kind of forward motion at all cost; for JRA it has meant one step forward, two steps back; for eee, it has meant an effort to preserve the fleeting beauty as it emerges.

Just let me know when it gets to be a bit too…Georgia O’Keefe, she chuckles.

I had not contemplated the Enormity of Grief before this year. As a postmodern intellectual Christian, I had read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed as a guide to the journey each time I’d encountered it, but I did not know – really know – that “grief felt so like fear” until now.

On Palm Sunday, I ask eee and Dorota to come with me to Trinity Downtown to the music service. We meet in a bar beforehand, which seems appropriate, because our group of friends was originally called “Winesday.” Conceived of in the end of 2009 as a way to decompress as we trained to volunteer as overnight social workers in the NY Presbyterian Hospital Emergency Department, we would meet every Wednesday and drink wine. The group grew and changed over the years, but the spirit remained the same.

We are different people now, but we still like to drink, I guess.

The music at Trinity is beautiful and the service is almost Humanist in form, and I feel at home again. In the years I was with Paul, he was deeply anti-religious, but culturally Catholic. I had converted to Catholicism to be with Andrew, but as a divorcee, went back to my non-Papist native form.

However, I hadn’t contemplated the complexities of being an Anglican married to an Irishman. In my American ignorance, I didn’t realise That Was a Thing, until it Was. We would find ourselves in baffling knock-down, drag-outs about Jesus, the Pope, and Santa Claus, and somehow I became a proxy for hundreds of years of Irish oppressors. It was…exhausting. I wasn’t even English.

I wouldn’t say it was our undoing, but it certainly didn’t help.

Later that week, we celebrate Passover at JRA’s house, which is different than last year.  The prior year’s Seder had been a cacophony of children and families, and this year our gathering is late and just grown-ups. We sit and we eat and we talk and we pray, and it is different and it is good, and I pop a bottle of expensive wedding-gift champagne and say drily, After all, you only get divorced for the second time once.

We finish our dinner and we search for the afikoman, which is typically an activity for the children, but which the group does with enthusiasm. I stand back and watch, marvelling at how different my life has become over the course of a year. At what we have gained; what we have lost; who we have become.

Then we sit and talk about Other Things – at which point someone suggests we should have a Group Costume for Halloween, because it is April, and there is no better time to discuss October. We bat around Group Costume Ideas. Disney Princes and Princesses? Maybe. Famous Couples? Nah. Nothing seems cohesive enough. The only way forward is as the von Trapp family, I finally declare.

Then we clean the kitchen and drive back to the city and are home before ten o’clock, and again, I marvel at the difference.

Days later, it is Easter, which I am hosting, and for which I cannot rally. Ordinarily, I love to host. But for this Easter, I cannot seem to plan the menu or cook the foods. Instead, I buy everything pre-prepared. It does not occur to me in these barren moments that this is what grief feels like – that grief is not a missing or a loss, but sometimes it is fear.

It is not that I miss Paul, but as I set out the Easter Things, I think about the table that I prepared a few years back, before we were married, when we gathered with my parents and our friends to celebrate in this same house. I think about the things we had together and the things we will never have.

It all feels…Enormous, and I am afraid. I am afraid I will never have a family; I am afraid it will always just be me and the dog; I am afraid I will continue the family tradition of being The One Old Maid in every generation which is a perfectly fine thing but it’s not the thing I want; I am afraid I will be stuck and I don’t want to be stuck.

After a celebration that takes us through the afternoon and evening, night falls, and guests begin to leave. As Dorota and Michael stand to head out, Michael recalls our discussion at the Seder and reminds us that we have promised to go as the von Trapp family for Halloween. They approach the door, and he bursts into So Long, Farewell. Soon after, Zac joins. Then, the whole room erupts into song, singing them out the door.

And I laugh, almost until I cry, because that painful, fearful place in my heart has opened up again, like a window. And every time I think I have mastered the form of this season, it changes again; grows wings; bursts out like a demented cuckoo clock; singing; rejoicing; fearless; and still, somehow, terrifying.

In my grief, I have gotten nothing I hadn’t bargained for, and also, everything, it seems.

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

I wear the smallest invisibility cloak.
I put it on
Whenever you look at me,
And I disappear.
Like when I left
To go run a marathon
Kitted out
In full bright regalia
And those bouncy Pippi braids I so love

Waving goodbye first thing
And toting the bag
Emblazoned with the name of the race
And you,
Blithely saying goodbye
Not noticing
Where I was off to.
Never realising that I’d gone.

I get smaller, too
Microscopic
I shrunk as you cut me from the frame
In those pictures of us
Skiing in Vermont
To use in your dating profile.
Or when you
Refused to be photographed with me
In the first place
If no evidence of us ever existed
Then no harm could ever be done.

But sometimes
It is cosier.
Insidious, almost.
Like the blanket I wear on your sofa.
Snuggled beside you
Like the whole world
Rests between your head
And my heart.
Isn’t this nice, I think
I feel your breathing and mine
I feel my chest lurch under the weight of you.

Between the beats
Your son calls
His face appears on your phone
Like a ghost or an angel
And you quickly rise
Hiding me from his view,
Invisible again.

(November, 2016)

(This is the seventh and final in a short series of posts)

After the service, we stand in a makeshift receiving line outside the church. JRA performs the social duties of widowhood, which seem not unlike those of being a bride, except unfathomably lonelier.

This is the way marriage is supposed to work, right? I think as I watch her, Only one of you comes out alive. But what do I know about Till Death Do Us Part – I’m the only one of us who has been divorced multiple times, which suddenly seems pretty lonely too.

In the receiving line, my first husband and his wife greet me warmly. He is wearing the cashmere scarf that I bought him for Christmas many years ago; I am wearing the necklace of rough-cut citrines he bought me in Shanghai. The trappings of our life together are still omnipresent and unavoidable. Even after all these years, I still recognise pieces of his wardrobe as things I bought him; I still know exactly who gave us what as a wedding gift. The one thing whose giver I could never identify was the sturdy mortar and pestle on my counter that I would use to grind spices and make guacamole. Then one day JRA noticed it and said I’m always so glad you always have that out, Pete and I were so worried when we gave you something that wasn’t on your registry.

I wonder, briefly, where people who haven’t had first marriages get their Stuff; and how, once divorced, they manage to cleanly untangle their necklaces and cashmere scarves, and separate their kitchen gear, and uncouple their iTunes libraries.

All the mourners are invited to Pete’s parents’ country club for a reception following the service, and we spend the better part of the afternoon reminiscing and eating miserable sandwiches. Eventually, I settle in and chat with Andrew’s wife. There is an easy intimacy between us because we are both members of the same strange sorority of being Mrs. L—.

The afternoon wears on and the club is closing, and we all head for the exits. Andrew and his wife and I are the only ones left waiting for our coats, and we leave together. I watch them get into my beloved, ageing Jaguar – the car Andrew is still driving, which is now covered in the accoutrements of family life: a badly placed ski rack; children’s car seats covered in toys.

It makes me laugh a little, and reminds me of a line from a song that had come on the radio as I was making soup the night Pete died:

And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Towards the end of his life, Pete had stopped eating solid foods. Soup was always on the menu, and at our social gatherings, there was always a thermos of it; at restaurants, we always remembered to check the menu for drinkable dinners. He’d tired of the fact that soft foods were nearly always sweet – he was desperate for savoury; threatened to make a pizza smoothie, which caused endless eye-rolling from JRA.

That night he’d died, I’d sung along to Talking Heads in my kitchen, and served up chicken soup to a friend who came over for dinner. We’d had a lovely, quiet meal, but neither one of us had known that it was a beginning and an end when JRA had called later that night and said, Pete’s not doing so well.

And now, I stand in the golden February afternoon and watch as my first husband gets into my large automobile with his beautiful wife, and for one split second, I laugh in astonishment at myself as I wonder: How did I get here?

As I pull out of my spot in the overflow parking on the golf course, a flock of Canadian geese rise towards the sky.  It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be surprised at all; I have known all along exactly how I got here, which was that fifteen years ago, Andrew introduced me to JRA, who walked down the aisle as my bridesmaid when I married him, and JRA fell in love with Pete, who together created Lady H, who walked down the aisle as my flower girl when I married Paul, and Lady H danced that night with her dad, who is the one who brought us all full circle today.

Andrew and his wife pull away, I think that maybe hope is not the thing with feathers, love is.

(This is the second in a short series of posts).

You’re not family orientated, Paul tells me, You don’t like babies; you don’t like kids.

I begin to question everything I think I know about myself.

Things move at a snail’s pace, and also, quickly.

Pete stabilises somewhat; is moved from White Plains to Mt. Sinai in the city. December drags on. I see a lot of Lady H; JRA. Christmas rolls around and I meet JRA at the hospital to drive back with her to Scarsdale for Christmas eve, only to have a car pick me up and take me to JFK from their house.

Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah are the same, so we eat fish that Papa cooks, and we light the menorah and we listen to Jewish acapella groups on YouTube singing catchy songs about the Macabees. Grandma and Lady H ask me what my favourite Hanukkah song is and I confess that I know zero Hanukkah songs.

You didn’t even learn any in school? they ask, incredulous.

No. I grew up in California, I say, as if that explains it. I know one song, about a dreidel, but I can’t remember any of the lyrics and of all the holiday songs I know, it is probably the one I like the least. Merry Christmas, Darling, is decidedly not an Hanukkah song.

I have so much to learn.

But then my car arrives, and I have to cut my Christmas Eve dinner with them short and head to the airport. I am not going to Ireland. I am going to Argentina; Brazil.

The Christmas Eve airport is surprisingly painless, and I board my flight quickly. As soon as we are airborne, I take a Benadryl and put in earplugs, and tune out the world until I land in Buenos Aires on Christmas Morning.

After nearly a decade of avoiding family Christmases, the last few years have been chilly family holidays in Dublin. Paul and I would fight, and the holiday always ended with me in bed, watching The Sound of Music on my iPad, after having pretended to have eaten dinner. He would be furious at me about needing to eat on a regular schedule; I would be jetlagged and cold – desperate for my days of spending untethered holiday seasons in sunnier climes.

I reach passport control in Argentina and I feel nothing but relief – no anger; no sadness – that my invitation to family Christmas has been revoked. I continue onward – across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport – and on to a flight to Iguazu Falls. I’ve hired a driver to meet me at the airport, and take me across the border to the Brazilian side.

I am happiest when I am free, I think. I am happiest when I am on an adventure. When Paul and I first started dating, I’d said: Let’s go to Japan! And we did, early in our relationship, on a whim. I thought that he was as free-spirited as I was – ready to tackle new countries and challenges – but it turned out that he loved adventure only to a point, which became clear when we got lost in Rappongi and couldn’t find the restaurant we were looking for, and no one spoke English, and everything was broken, and it was boiling hot outside even at 10pm, and we stood in the middle of a busy street screaming at each other. 

I realised a long time ago that he is so successful in his life because he sets goals; sticks to them; never deviates. Even his adventures have all been carefully orchestrated – by assistants, and travel agents, and tour companies – and he sticks steadfastly to his itineraries. Rappongi was an aberration, and Paul wasn’t Andrew – who could be counted on to quickly remake every plan on the fly, even when his remakes were as terrible as the situations themselves.

With Paul, I had had to become the logistics person. Which I did willingly until I began to resent it.

I realised, more specifically and to my dismay, that when we got married we were on a different kind of adventure – one that ended with me quitting my job, and becoming a mother, and with the world eventually becoming smaller and smaller – first London, then Dublin, and then a small subsection of North Dublin called Dublin 4, where his entire family lived within actual sight of each other. Success could only be measured by achieving Those Things, and failure was not an option.

I never wanted any of that – and I had always been transparent about it. My world was very big, and the thing I loved most about myself was my crazy ability to pick up and pop up somewhere weird; to cherish my family from a distance; to look stupid with someone. I wasn’t afraid of failure anymore.

I reach the hotel in Brazil and it is situated on the edge of Iguazu Falls. The mist makes a rainbow into the sunset, and it is stunning and I am happy.

I call my family and wish them a Merry Christmas. I tell them I love them; they ask about Paul. I lie. I have no idea what he is doing, so I make something up. I do not tell them that three days before Christmas he served me with a Notice of Separation Event under the terms of our prenuptial agreement. I don’t tell them that no one will ever love me because I’ve had two husbands, or that if I just felt less guilty about the monsters in my genes, maybe I could make this all go away.

I say nothing. I listen to them; I listen to the falls outside my window as the sun sets.

Water flowing underground. Same as it ever was.

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Holiday Eats // What dish do you look forward to each year at the Christmas party?  Share the recipe if you can!

I have told some version of this story before, but it bears retelling: Most people in my family think I cannot cook.

This is untrue, but my real skill is letting them think I cannot cook so at family holidays, I do not have to lift a finger. This played out most recently at Thanksgiving, where I voiced my preference for the Traditional Thanksgiving Vegetarian Lasagne, and crowdsourced recipes on social media. After selecting one, my mother and I went to Whole Foods to buy the ingredients, got into the Traditional Holiday Argument at the checkout stand, and went home to prepare it in advance of the main event. Since we spend our Thanksgivings in the mountains, some of the foods must be prepared in advance to save on prep and cooking time due to limited oven space.

As I anticipated, my mother cooked the entire lasagne. I did not do a thing except to make a suggestion here and there and throw shred cheese at a casserole dish when the time came. This was by design. While I am a competent and perhaps even a good cook, the myth circulating in my family is that I am rubbish at all things domestic, so expectations of me are sub-basement low. For many years, I found this insulting, and now, I find it hilarious and I find every way possible to shirk domestic duties because people expect so little of me.

With that context in mind, for many years, I used to host dinner parties where I would slave away over every detail – perhaps to compensate for my family’s low opinion of Me as a Traditional Woman. I would make fancy hors d’oeuvres and some kind of well-planned main dish. Now, when I have friends over, it’s more likely that someone insists we just order in Thai food (which, frankly, is awesome by me). But for years, I would have parties, and people would skip over all the fancy stuff and insist I make…chilli dip.

The dip came about as a variation on something a friend of my mother’s used to make – I made it once as a joke to complement a “cheesy foods” party I was hosting. There were piles of fancy cheese, and a brie en croute, and then this terrible dip. The dip is nothing more than a can of canned chilli and a brick of Velveeta melted together. That’s it. My mother’s friend served it with meat chilli and Fritos – since I don’t eat meat and I hate Fritos, I used veggie chilli and Scoops.

No one ate my fancy canapes. People ate two Costco-sized blocks of Velveeta that night. I was left with two pounds of Prima Donna Gouda that went bad in my fridge. It has been at least ten years since the first time I made chilli dip and I am still angry.

After that, at every party; every holiday – Meredith, can you please make chilli dip? Can you please melt together two horrible things in a microwave safe bowl and bring us some chilli dip, and bring it right here?

The indignity.

This is all to say, I really dislike holiday foods. I will grudgingly make you chilli dip if you ask me nicely. But wouldn’t you really rather I make something less horrible?

Or maybe we can just Seamless some Thai food instead.

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

White Elephant // What are the gifts you are looking forward to giving or hoping to receive?

Smplefy messaged me days before the NYC Marathon in early November and asked something like Are you sad that you’re not running? People had been asking me that all throughout late October and into November. People always ask me that. The year before, I had stood briefly in the middle of First Avenue as they’d cleaned up the Race and felt All the Feelings of angst and grief and failure. I had just had my knee reconstructed – there was no way I could have run even if I had wanted to – but the pile-up of injuries was breaking my heart and at the time, I had absolutely no idea what was causing my Personal Mess.

I had spent the Summer and Autumn trying to embrace my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome diagnosis; trying to say Yes to everything; however, this was a situation where I didn’t want to say Yes, but had to.

I’m sad, I admitted.

But that next day, I happened to check my New York Road Runners dashboard and realised I mistakenly hadn’t forfeited my marathon entry over the summer. I could’ve sworn I’d cancelled it around the time I had hip surgery; could’ve sworn I’d sworn off marathoning forever. But if I declined my entry for 2016, that would be The End – this year was the end of New York City Marathon deferrals. Historically, if you paid the fees, you could defer your entry in perpetuity. No more.

It was then that I sat with the heavy knowledge that I was physically healthy, largely untrained but in very good shape, and had a marathon entry.

The Friday before the NYC Marathon, I walked out of my office and went out to my colleagues. Do you guys think that I could, you know, run the marathon? I asked casually.

I was wondering if you were running, one of them said.

Have you been training? another one asked.

No, I wasn’t planning to run, and I haven’t been training. But I think I’m going to do it, I decided.

And that was that. I packed up my things and headed for the Javits Center to collect my race number. On the way over JRA called me (remember, I’m still a Phone Person so my friends actually call me on the phone as opposed to solely texting me).

What are you doing this weekend?

Saturday night, Paul and I are having dinner for our anniversary and Sunday I’m running the marathon.

Wait. What. 

Yes. I just decided. As in, I am at the Javits Center now. 

Does anyone else know? Are you sure about this? Do you want me to gather Team Merethon? Should we plan a party? 

I’m going to make a gametime decision on Sunday morning about whether I’m actually going to do it, but Yes. To everything. 

Oh dear.

And that was how I wound up running my final marathon.

I left on the morning of November 6th for a perfect, clear day and a slow race. I packed my bag and said goodbye to Paul, who never noticed I was leaving to run a marathon. I left the house wearing my 2011 Team Merethon shirt in honour of my friend Scott, who died by suicide a few years ago and who loved running; loved the team shirts. I stripped off my tearaway clothes at the start, left the shirt on top of the pile at Fort Wadsworth for Scott, a veteran himself, remembering the celebratory photos he and his wife would send me to cheer me on race mornings past.

Throughout the day, various friends figured out I was running, and came out to greet me on the course: Dorota and Michael at Mile 16 with signs; JRA, PB-BG and Lady H at Mile 20 with big cheers; RHJ at Mile 24 with a phone charger. I ran the slowest race of my life – a nearly a full hour and a half slower than my personal best – and arrived home to a house full of cheering friends and Thai food. I savoured every mile. I walked when I had to. I took on the Queensboro Bridge as a marathoner one last time. I put Harry Belafonte’s Jump in the Line as the “easter egg” on my playlist and it made me crack up when it came on.

I suppose there is some Big Takeaway or some Grand Life Lesson here. The gift I most wanted this year was to be strong enough and healthy enough to run my Last Marathon – to have the support of my friends and family to be able to do that. The real gift wasn’t the medal at the end – it was the truly unique experience of doing this in the first place; the unbelievable amount of support I got from everyone along the way. I got to say Yes to the New York City Marathon one last time, and I am forever grateful.

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