Even in the face of death, “life goes on.” It’ll break your heart, it’ll piss you off. But it does. It goes on.
When we suffer a heart shattering loss, one that comes suddenly and too soon, it’s enough to make us scream … at the sky, at the mirror, at God … at the birds, so arrogantly singing in the trees, as if nothing has happened. What are they doing? Don’t they know?
Part of the heartbreak is that we’re still alive. And there’s a part of us that wishes we weren’t.
But time passes. We cope, as we must. And Faith … which is a comfort most days … becomes a sharp-edged action word. A word we’ll grip in our hands with the tears streaming. With our teeth gritted. Holding onto it, almost in spite of ourselves. Letting it cut us till we bleed. Wishing it would.
Because how else will we hold onto it at all?
When someone is suddenly taken from us, it’s so confusing. In an instant, life itself explodes to the surface. It’s impossible to know which step to take. It’s everything, all at once. And it’s nothing at all.
We try to think how to move from this day to the next. But thinking is impossible. So we just try to find our feet.
When, after many months, we’re starting to have snippets of time when we feel okay, we’re quickly plunged into guilt and grief, because what right do we have to feel “okay?” We don’t even want to! This all needs to stop!
But the world keeps turning. And we keep moving forward. It’s not easy. One day, far into the future, we will have beautiful memories to look back on. Memories that will warm our hearts, and make us smile.
But today we are in the wreckage, not wanting to leave it if it means leaving her, but trying to find our way out because nothing is the same. And it never will be.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one. You will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around what you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
These days we’re like a two way mirror.
Or through a glass, darkly.
At the grade school on Grandparents’ Day, if he shows up he is brittle and distant. He wears a starched smile, the kind that never reaches the eyes. When he looks at me, he doesn’t. Perhaps he can’t bear the reflection of himself that he sees there. Or perhaps I’m making too much of it, and he’s forgotten who I am. Like that time at the Film Festival when I saw him and called out to him. He looked at me, quizzically, then moved toward me, head shaking slowly, hand extended, with the words,
“I’m sorry, you’re going to have to help me.”
I did not take his hand. I looked at him in disbelief, and said,
“Cece.” He was embarrassed that he didn’t know who I was that day. But I realize now that he never really did.
Looking back at the years we were together, I recognize the holes he crawled through to go from our life together into his other life. I couldn’t see it at the time. The camouflage of home and family clouded my vision. But distance brings clarity. And friends who were there then have come to me from time to time since; as an act of confession? To clear their conscience as accomplices? I can’t honestly say.
While I don’t know every detail about what was going on then, I know more than I ever wanted to. Sometimes information serves no good purpose. Except, you know … it helps me realize that I was in a completely different relationship than he was. And it’s confirmed for me that he had no clue of the goodness that was present and waiting for him there. Loving him there. Knowing this is a different kind of heartbreak all by itself.
When someone becomes addicted to dancing with the dark, the light is just an irritation.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.
When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, my job was laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.
I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.
The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.
It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.
The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.
I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.
I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.
The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth; I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.
But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.
During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”
Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.
These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.
And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.
Women all over the world are dealing with separation and divorce. Many believe they are alone in their relationship drama; they think theirs is a unique situation, a solitary journey, with no hope at the end of the road.
I want to spread the word that we are a global community of women whose hearts have been softened by the breaks they have endured.
I met my husband our freshman year in college. We were both singers in a rock band. I can think back and realize that I had two visceral responses: revulsion and connection. That might sound strange, but I don’t think it’s unusual for a girl who had no clue what a “gut feeling” was, or what to do about it. Most of us – if we’d followed our guts in the first place – would not have made the choices we’ve made.
First rehearsal he was big and hairy, the center of the universe, he cracked jokes and tuned his guitar with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The first time he ever talked to me, he called me “Babe.” Normally that would have turned me off completely. But from him it was a fish hook, and I was a carp.
He was a charmingly thoughtless boyfriend, sweet but self-centered, and stayed drunk or hungover most of the time. In my purse I carried a big bottle of aspirin and a roll of Tums, because he needed them on a regular basis. He was a popular guy around campus, a reckless boy who was driven by booze, cigarettes, and rock and roll. I’d led a small, cloistered life. In my mind, I was walking on the wild side. We had sex early on he was my first. We used no protection. It was the sixties, and society said l-u-v was free. My woolly boyfriend and I got married in September, less than a year after we met. I was Catholic, and pregnant. He was Southern Baptist and he was nineteen. His father had to sign for us to go before the judge. We were perfect together, a match made in a textbook on dysfunction and codependence.
I was born in the late 1940s, so I had this idea that love conquers all (though I’d never seen it happen), life could be beautiful (though so far for me it hadn’t been), and that babies were the glue that holds things together.
We were nineteen and twenty when our daughter was born. Our son was born two years later.
We were married for almost twenty-five years. We divorced in 1991, and since then I have allowed myself to see – through therapy and self-discovery – how rose-colored my glasses really were.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that my husband and I were in two different relationships. I never thought about cheating because it’s not in my nature to cheat. He thought I was cheating all the time, because he was a cheater. So he accused me, and I comforted him.
There were sweet moments, the times “between the cheats.” During those periods he was like a little boy making me laugh, unsure of himself, needing to talk, take long walks holding hands, calling several times during the day. It wasn’t until the marriage was over and I was in therapy that I was able to recognize the pattern of adultery. You could chart it on a graph, like the Dow Jones report. When my therapist made me see it, when it finally registered, inside I let out a birthing cry that, though it’s grown quieter through the years, is still there.
In the end my husband was so deliberately cruel, so public in that last Big Affair, that I literally felt myself going crazy. I was convinced that he was setting me up to kill myself. I went so far as to write my attorney, my brother, and my therapist, assuring them all that if anything happened to me, it would not have been by my own hand. Yes, I was a little paranoid; I quit going to the grocery store because I was certain that the shoppers were whispering to each other about me through the shelves of soup cans. My eyelashes fell out, my hair dropped in clumps, I didn’t sleep for days at a time.
I started writing a lot. I bought an old IBM selectric, and taught myself to type so I could go faster. I wrote frantically; sometimes I would start at suppertime with a bowl of cereal on the table next to me, and find myself still writing when the sun came up. The cereal had turned to mush, and the floor was covered with pages. I had to get it out of me, had to park it somewhere. And so I did. It was cathartic, the writing.
There are so many facets that go into making us who we are. Through the years we chip off pieces of ourselves in order to stay small enough for the love we’re in. But when we find ourselves alone and our heads begin to clear, those pieces we’d abandoned show up again. It shocks us, because we never made a conscious decision to surrender them at all.
When I moved out of our home and into my own place, it was the first time I had ever lived alone. I was startled when I realized that I didn’t know what kind of music I liked. Music played in our house all the time, but the choice was always his or the kids and I went along with it. I mean, I enjoyed it enough. But now it was my choice. I had no idea. He kept the CD’s, so I went to Tower Records and wandered around for a couple of hours. I looked at everything. I listened at every listening station. I ended up buying Enja, Muddy Waters, and a Big Band compilation.
They say that time heals wounds. I don’t believe it. I think time takes us farther and farther from the source of our wounds, but it’s up to us to heal ourselves. That was my goal – to heal myself without turning my heart to stone.
My journey over the last decade or so has taught me a lot about who I am, and about the process of getting to here from there. In fact, now when read I what I wrote back at that kitchen table, I am stunned by the story written there. Who was that woman? Can I have been she? It feels remote, mostly disconnected from me. Yet the remnants of that past continue to color, in a variety of ways, the days of my life now.
For example, I’ve learned the subtle but profound difference between loneliness and solitude. During the first days, weeks, months of my independence I was embroiled in the seas of loneliness and longing. Stay with that long enough, it will wear you to the bone. There comes a time when you literally have to say, Okay, I’m giving notice to the both of you: Longing, you have visiting privileges, but you can no longer live here. Fifteen minutes, once a week, that’s it. Loneliness, you have two hours to leave. Pack up and get out. I have two new roommates moving in today. Their names are Comfort and Solitude.
Comfort was tricky. I had spent my life creating comfort for others. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to do that for me. My therapist said, “Cece, make a list of the things that you would do for a friend who is going through what you are. Then do all those things for yourself.”
At first I was self-conscious. But I made my list. Flowers, massages, facials, pedicures, a nice meal out after church on Sunday afternoons. I literally felt guilty for being kind to me. I had to be deliberate, fight the resistance; for many, many months it seemed totally unnatural. Today it feels normal, and I know that it’s that very self-nurturing that has kept my heart soft, my spirit hopeful. I can tell you honestly that today I am able to see the goodness and the possibilities in life. And what I now know is that an empty glass cannot fill others. When we don’t fill ourselves first, there’s nothing to spill on anyone else.
Solitude bears a special quality. There’s a freedom to do, be, or say whatever the heart calls for. No ridicule. Linen cases on the pillows, starched and pressed; waking in the pre-dawn and lying in the quiet, listening to the birds in the crabapple; rolling out of bed and taking time – personal, quiet time – to wash face, brush teeth, open curtains, peer out at the day. So far, no word has been spoken. None are needed. Look in the mirror. The message is clear: you, and all your choices, are welcome here.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.
But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.
Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.
I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?
I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.
Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.
So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.