Friday, October 24, 2014

Manitou magic

One day in August I drove three hours to Oakland, Maine. I stayed about an hour, and then drove three hours home. It was the best seven hours I’ve ever spent.

I was picking up my boys from their week at Camp Manitou Experience, a camp for grieving boys. I could have sent them home on the bus, but I wanted to see the camp for myself.

Good call.

My two boys lost their dad three and a half years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to help them get the help they need to process their grief without a lot of success. We do some things that work well, like declaring dad’s death anniversary a family holiday every year and spending the day skiing. And we’ve tried some things that haven’t worked, like lighting candles. Apparently we're just not the candle-lighting type.

The boys seem to be doing pretty well, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. My younger son Colin -- then barely six -- spent the first month after his dad’s death hiding inside his shirt, pulling in his arms and his chin, and wrapping himself in his blankie. We took a trip to New York shortly after dad died and I cringed at the filth being collected on the blanket as Colin dragged it around the city. I knew he needed it, though, so I constantly tucked it around him and into his shirt and pants to try to keep it off the ground.

It’s gotten better since then, but still. He’s only 9, and Ian is 13, and they don’t even fully realize yet what they’ve lost: dad’s presence at high school and college graduations, at their weddings, career advice, advice about fatherhood.

The boys both have good friends, but can they talk to their friends about their dad? Not too long ago Colin pointed out a picture of his dad to a friend who quickly said, “Don’t talk about it. It’s too sad.” Ian’s friends are older and therefore more sensitive but they also don’t get it.

So no.

Camp Manitou Experience was my last-ditch effort, and from the minute I stepped foot on the camp to sounds of cheering boys charging into East Pond fully clothed -- the UNH team won the week-long college league competition! -- I knew we had hit the jackpot.

Far from the suffering and downtrodden demeanor you might imagine from 120 or so boys who have lost someone, usually a parent, these boys were a happy and confident brotherhood in the midst of a week-long celebration of boyhood.

It was a week of all the usual camp stuff on speed -- roasting s’mores, stirring chocolate milkshakes in huge vats with lacrosse sticks, fireworks (fireworks!), boating, mini-golf, scavenger hunts, and a pudding slide -- plus daily circle times, activities that connect boys to the person they lost, and a final campfire designed to provide space for sharing emotions and memories of the person they lost.

It's the combination of the two -- the swimsuit portion of the Mr. Manitou competition and the campfire sharing time -- that makes the difference. It's not all about grief. The boys developed camaraderie, and then friendship, and then brotherhood.

After Ian was home from camp he said, “You know, I liked the boys in my cabin, but I wasn’t really good friends with them until the last campfire.” He paused for a minute. “It’s amazing that you can be talking about something sad and then 20 people can be hugging you and you can feel so great.”

Ian was able to talk about his dad with a group and have it be a good, supportive, healing experience. For the first time ever.

Ian wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by Camp Manitou Experience. At the closing ceremony, a hastily assembled but remarkably good natured and talented a cappella group, the Manitones, sang “Change in My Life” to their new-found brothers:

A man gets crazy when his life is all wrong,
And a heart gets weary when it doesn't belong.
When the road gets rocky, Lord, you've got to keep on,
Let the new light come shining on through.

I've been lonely, I've been cheated, I've been misunderstood;
I've been washed up, I've been put down, and told I'm no good.
But with you I belong, 'cause you helped me be strong.
There's a change in my life since you came along.

The chanting started as soon as the group finished: “That was awesome!” I was too busy wiping the tears out of my eyes.

Then a group of 14-year-old boys finished me. They presented a beautifully painted wooden tree showing words that tell how they feel about the camp, about each other, and the ways they’ve grown and explained the choice of each word:

Invisible strings. Family. Phantasmagoric. Confidence. Growth. Bonding. Unity. Connection. Hope.

Later, a crush of boys had an impromptu dance party to “Singing in the Shower” in the middle of the cafeteria, deliriously happy to have found each other.

Many boys do arrive at the camp lonely, cheated, and misunderstood. But once they arrive, they are transported to a magical land where they’re not different. Where every single person “gets it.” They have the rare experience of being completely comfortable.

The camp doesn’t cost the boys or their families a cent. Even the daily canteen, which stocks candy bars, sunglasses, and necessities like toothpaste, is free. And, mindful of the fact that many boys’ families are financially as well as emotionally impoverished as a result of their loss, the food is good. I’m talking about lobster rolls (Ian ate five) and barbecue ribs for dinner.

Angels on earth made this happen, mostly volunteers who spend their vacations as camp counselors and their free time doing the endless planning and organizing that makes this happen. And people like you and me, who make Manitou Camps Foundation their charity of choice on Amazon Smile, or write a check. Or both.

Like Ian and Colin, each boy at Camp Manitou Experience has a huge hole in his heart and at camp, they help heal the edges of the hole for each other. That they come out changed is instantly apparent, and I firmly believe they will go through the rest of their lives helping other people come out of hiding, helping to heal their broken hearts.

I walked away from that camp thinking, “We are going to be OK. We might even be great.”

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life in Balance

There was a lot of talk among my widow friends about looking for a “new normal” after our husbands died. When Mat died, every last thing about my life changed: how I slept, ate, and spent my time, where I went, who I talked to, what I read, what I dreamed about, even what I wore (more on that in another post).

It’s harder to think of things that didn’t change than that did.

I’ve been looking for this new normal for a long time now and haven’t quite found it. For one thing, I don’t really want to accept my life the way it is so I don’t want to call it normal. For another thing, life is a never-ending series of smallish gains and losses. Take my kids’ development. I lost the adorable babies I had when my boys became toddlers. I gained bright, inquisitive, elementary school children at the same time that I lost impulsive pre-schoolers. The sensitive fifth grader that I knew how to relate to has been replaced by a teenager who sometimes is sweet but sometimes is a monster.

What if there is no normal?

My friend Corey asked me this question the other day. What if the second we think we’ve found our footing, the ground shifts under our feet again? Maybe it’s not a 10 on the Richter scale, but there’s enough of a tremor to threaten our balance.

Since the big one, there have been lots of other big and small gains and losses in life: a new car, finding a hilarious new friend, a vacation in Hawaii with my brother, inadvertently straining a relationship with a friend with a careless comment, unexpectedly struggling with faith, the end of a once-hopeful new relationship.

Welcome to life on a balance board.

A balance board is a deck, very much like a skateboard deck, that sits on a tapered cylinder (inexplicably called a rock). The goal is to balance on the deck as it sits atop the rock -- remember this is a round object that rolls back and forth -- constantly making the small adjustments necessary to keep from falling over. Mat was a snowboarder, and his balance board helped him stay in shape during the off season.

Theoretically, as you improve, you can use the tapered ends of the rock to practice snowboarding moves like toe turns and heel turns. And jumps and spins and ollies.

I wouldn’t know, because just standing on the balance board takes all the concentration and leg and core strength I can muster. I suppose if I were able to find the exact center of the board and keep my body perfectly still, then I could rest on the board. Stand on it without having to work.

But this is not the way the world works. There is an exact center, but the rock is not a stable object. It rolls back and forth, and there is gravity, and I can’t stay perfectly still, and so I have to constantly slide the deck over the rock from one side of the center to the other, always going through the center but never able to stay.

If life is a balance board, then looking for normal is a fool’s errand.

If life is a balance board, then the only thing for it is to develop some serious core strength.

Sunday, June 01, 2014


I’m afraid it speaks volumes about my (lack of) spiritual depth that I so often find profound meaning in pop songs. There was “The Fighter,” by Gym Class Heroes, and “Keep Your Head Up,” by Andy Grammer. This morning while I was jogging it was “Pompeii,” by Bastille.

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

The topic of why I connect so solidly with a song about the destruction of a great city is for another day (OK, month).

But the trend really had me worried, so I started to think.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about a woman looking for her keys under a streetlamp. Her brother, who has been visiting from Utah, offers to help, asking, “Is this where you lost them?”

“No,” she replies. “But the light here is best.”

The approach seems patently ridiculous. “Look for your keys where you lost them, you dingus,” my brother would say to me.

I’m often searching for things. Usually answers to questions like, "My city was beautiful. Why did Vesuvius erupt and destroy it?" and "How am I supposed to be optimistic when there's still lava seeping through my streets?" and "I miss the old Pompeii. The new construction is going really poorly. Can we get some beaches and mountains in here, and a food truck that serves chocolate 87 different ways?" and "What's the secret to getting ash stains out of my whites? Hot water doesn't seem to be doing the trick." 

I pray for answers to these questions, but truthfully I usually feel like I get no response. "Why is s God ignoring me?" is another question I often have.

So I look wherever I happen to be. It may be at church or in a verse of scripture but more likely it’s in the suds of the dishes I’m washing, or the leaves I’m raking in the yard, or the sprint I’m making from work to school to pick up the kids to home for dinner to the baseball field for the Little League game. Or in the pop songs my kids select on the car stereo.

Is God ignoring me, or is he so desperate to speak to me that he'll use whatever cheap medium is available?

“Ask [anything], and it shall be given you; seek [anywhere], and ye shall find; knock [on anything], and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew 7:7)

Monday, April 07, 2014

In Search of a Spoon

Can I be honest? Of all the things I miss about Mat, I miss his body the most.

I take that back. Let’s not be too honest. But let me just say that in our not-quite 13 years of marriage we spent a lot of nights sleeping together. We had a king-size bed that felt big enough for us each to have our own zip code, but always started the night curled up together in some configuration or another. Eventually I would get too hot and retreat to my side of the bed, but not before some seriously satisfying spooning. I miss it.

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s desperate for this kind of human touch. I was out to dinner last night with some of my widowed friends, and this topic came up. Elaine, a mom of three girls, has been trying to teach her five-year-old daughter Kate how to spoon with her. She described the scene: she’s trying to arrange Kate in spoon position, and she’s getting stiff resistance. Legs are not properly tucked, body is twisting, and arms are flailing.

“Mom, I don’t want to lay on my side! I can’t see the TV that way! Why do I have to lay on my side?”

Poor Peter has it worse. His kids are both teenagers, and even the thought of a bedtime snuggle would be met with icy stares. He’s never dared to bring it up. Like most of us, Peter is having a serious dispute with God over how his life is turning out, and he was making cracks about going to see his priest to try to work things out. Someone said, very inappropriately (it wasn’t me, I swear), “Just be careful you don’t get molested by the priest.”

His response? “I don’t care if I get molested as long as I get to spoon afterwards. I haven’t been spooned in two years!”

“Too bad I didn’t drive my minivan,” sympathized Elaine. “Otherwise we could head out there right now.”

Likewise, I am desperate. I spend most of my time scheming how to get my kids to snuggle me. Or, as Bev Goldberg on our favorite TV show The Goldbergs puts it, trying to get snuggies.

Ian is 12, almost 13, so this is tricky. I have to play it cool, or I will scare him off entirely. When I’m lucky, he comes to me. He might jump into bed with me for a minute in the morning while he’s waiting for the water in the shower to heat up. The house is cold, my bed is warm, and it’s right next to the bathroom. I bite my tongue about the wasted water and go in for the snuggle.

More often the best I can do is very subtly sidle up for a hug. Sometimes when I’ve made Ian’s favorite breakfast (French toast), or helped him pack his lunch, or unexpectedly done the laundry for him, he’ll throw his arms around me. Those are good. I make French toast almost every week to try to get one of those hugs. I’m careful not to hold on too long, though. I want him to come back for more.

Colin is an easier target. He’s a delightfully squishy 9-year-old who likes nothing better than to snuggle with his mom. This is mostly because he likes to sleep in my bed, which is more comfortable than his. And inevitably, he gets to stay up later when he’s in my room. He reads or draws while I wind down for the evening, and then it’s a full-on snuggle fest.

The downside is that after he falls asleep, he elbows me in the back, kicks me, takes the covers, talks in his sleep, and rolls to my side of the bed, leaving me with a tiny sliver of mattress. There’s nothing restful about it. But it’s worth it.

Occasionally Colin will use snuggies as a bargaining tool. It works. Last week he wanted a new junk ball bat, and he started pleading his case. “Mom, can I have a new bat? This one is old and dented. It doesn’t work anymore!” There’s nothing wrong with his bat, so I ignored him. That’s when he started making offers.

“I’ll give you snuggies for an hour!” Tempting, but I was on the phone, so I waved him away. He persisted. “Two hours!” Still no response, so he upped the ante. Finally, at five hours of snuggies a day for a week, I hung up.

“Deal,” I said.

Sometimes I get a two-fer. Our favorite family activity is watching TV and movies together. I don’t care if you think this is lame, I get snuggies out of the deal. I make popcorn and we head to the basement which is unheated, and we huddle together for warmth. Heaven.

I realize my luck will run out. My day will come. My kids will both be teenagers. They will stop telling me things, stop laughing at my jokes, stop thinking I am even remotely cool. Worst, I suspect they will stop wanting to snuggle me.

But in the meantime, when’s Colin getting home from baseball practice? I could use some snuggies.

And he still owes me four hours and forty-five minutes.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Love Doesn't Die

Colin and his friend Eli, both 9, were in the back of the car a couple of weeks ago.  A song came on the radio called, “Love Doesn’t Die.”  Eli and Colin started discussing the lyrics.

“Everything dies,” Eli said. “Plants die and pets die and people die. Love dies too.”

“You don’t stop loving someone because they die,” Colin informed him.

“Well, you love them and then you could get married but only until you die. If they die then it’s over,” reasoned Eli.

Colin didn't hesitate. He said, “My dad died and I still love him. He’s still part of my life.”  

He spoke with authority and conviction and the conversation was over.

I make a lot of mistakes. But I must be doing a few things right.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Seeing Thestrals

My kids and I devoted our entire summer this year to Harry Potter. We watched every movie several times and listened to most of the books on CD during car trips (the British version read by Stephen Fry – that’s important).

It was time well spent. I must be secretly nine years old, because I love Harry Potter as much as my kids. I have an adult body, I go to an adult job, but nine must have been my favorite age, because I have never left it. (I also love to do cartwheels and drink milk straight out of the container. My kids have to remind me to keep the car clean. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the parent is at our house.)

During our summer immersion into Harry Potter, I rediscovered thestrals. Thestrals, you probably know, are magical creatures in Harry Potter's wizarding world. They are about the size of horses, but fleshless, with vast, black, leathery wings. They pull carriages full of students from the train station to Hogwarts at the beginning of each school year, invisible to all but those who have seen death.  

I can see thestrals.

I gained sight after Mat’s passing that I didn’t have before. The understanding of intense loss—the kind that changes survivors’ lives forever—became not just visible, but etched in my soul.

I didn’t want to pay the terrible price it cost me to be able to see thestrals, but unlike Harry I haven’t found the sight of them to be horrible, or evil or sinister. It’s rather beautiful.

This vision connects me to other people who can see thestrals. We understand each other, and we talk about things no one else wants to talk about, we mourn together, and we comfort each other, because comfort can be intolerable from anyone who cannot see thestrals.

And like Harry's friend Luna, we reassure those who are seeing thestrals for the first time that they are just as sane as we are.   

It’s not hard for us to find each other. Topics come up in casual conversation that reveal ourselves to each other. I was at a car dealership last week, and the salesman and I spotted each other very quickly. He told me all about his mother’s passing 20 years before, and he hugged me when I left.

Thestrals eventually provide Harry and his friends with desperately needed passage, and he wonders how he could ever have thought them ugly.

Thestrals also provide me with much-needed passage at times. I like to say that widowhood is a crappy club, but at least the company is good. My connection to these women saves me when I think I’m losing my mind because no one else understands me. It saves me when I just can’t figure out how to live life without Mat, or when I am most desperate for my fatherless children. We are entirely at ease together, speaking a language with each other that’s rare among women our age. 

We also remind each other that when dementors attack and try to suck out our souls, chocolate is the best antidote.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Ah, the joys of summer. Summer means the beach, and lazy days spent lounging around the house, and a slower, more relaxed pace that recharges batteries worn down by a year of school and work.                                                             Or I suppose that's what summer means in some houses.  At our house, it means the living room is often above 80 degrees even with the window A/C unit blasting, driving all over creation to drop off and pick up kids from a different day camp every week, most of which only run from 9-3, and trying to get the rest of a 40 hour work-week in from home while the boys watch endless amounts of TV.

And it means vacation. I'm dreading this summer's trip, as I do almost all family vacations. Dynamics at our house have shifted since Mat passed away, with the balance of power tilting decisively toward the kids and away from me, the remaining parental unit. This plays out in lots of different ways, like at the dinner table, where it seems less and less worth the effort to prepare something only I will eat. Or in many attempted family outings, where I seriously have to consider how much energy I have to fight resistance from the kids who would have a great time if only they would give it a chance, and where a little back-up from another adult would go a long way toward unifying the troops.

I'm getting the hang of coping with my loss of power in some arenas, such as at the dinner table, where I get daily practice. In others, such as vacation, where practice is harder to come by, I am still floundering. And so trips, which involve planning and packing and complaining and logistics and unfamiliar territory, are pretty much a recipe for me coming unglued at least once.

But still we go. We recently returned from a lovely weekend in Vermont, which is a simple, easy trip. It involved minimal effort on my part, but forces still conspired to drive me to temporary insanity at one point. 

This picture is of the Salmon River, in Mat's hometown where we took our last summer trip. Mat's sister brought her family too, and showed us the houses Mat lived in while he was growing up, the high school where he was the star basketball player, and rafted with us down the river where he worked summers as a rafting guide. 

After the trip, my brother asked me, "How was it?"

I considered the question, and weighed the high points against the inevitable very, very low point.

"Well, it was good," I decided. "But Mat wasn't there." 

And he wasn't. Mat wasn't playing basketball in the high school, or skateboarding in the yard at his old house, or perched on a bridge about to dive into the river, or at the town summer festival.

"It was good that you checked," he said.

Yes, it was, temporary insanity and all.