You’ve probably heard of the campaign I’m running over on Kickstarter for my new book, Unconventional Gratitude. It’s a collection of letters to important women in my life and a reminder to look for ways to overcome getting caught in the downward swirl of depression in these trying times. So, if you’re sitting unshowered in your jimmy-jams on the couch unable to make sense of the world outside, but you did get to eat a donut sometime earlier, so at least you have that going for you – this book is for you.
I’m the last person to take your hard-earned money for granted. 2017 will be a lot of things, but it probably won’t be the year we all have dolla-dolla-bills to throw away. You should know what you’re getting for your money. So, to that end, please accept my example below.
I’ve considered long and hard what letter to share with you before the book at large is finished, and it’s been tough because I love so many. I’ve decided I want to share the one I wrote to my mother-in-law, Phyllis, who is no longer with us on this earth, but who remains one of the very best humans I’ve ever known.
A bird pooped on my head the day I met you.
I probably should have had major anxiety meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time for so many reasons. I was divorced and had kids that didn’t live with me. I had been in mental hospitals. I knew you thought I was an ex-member of a cult because you didn’t understand Mormonism. And I chose to wear a two-piece swimsuit to the beach despite my tattoos. But I had this sense of optimism about that day for really no good reason. I was in love with your son and he was happy and I supposed that would be enough. I didn’t know then that you and Joe weren’t as close as you hoped and that he didn’t share things with you like I did with my own family. I didn’t realize you didn’t know very much about who I was or how he felt about me.
We met at Coronado Beach. You and Jim had flown out from Virginia and we thought we’d meet out at the beach for lunch. It was a lovely day. The air was warm but not too hot. The water was beautiful. And I remember smiling a lot.
When a seagull flew overhead and pooped on me, I was taken by surprise. I’d been to the beach plenty of times and that had never happened. You laughed and said it was good luck while you helped me clean it out of my hair and off my shoulder. You were sure you’d read somewhere that it meant good things ahead. I thought you were making that up to just to make me feel better, but I found out later it was true.
Joe and I eloped for our wedding. I know that hurt your feelings and I’m sorry. After several dates were thrown out that not everyone could make, Joe and I decided to just take the kids to Vegas and get married without anyone else there. I think partly I just wanted to get it over with after the difficulties we had getting that far in our relationship.
Five years later we planned on having a big party so that anyone who wanted to come celebrate with us would have that chance, but when that date got closer, Joe and I were living through the shakiest part of our relationship and we didn’t really feel like partying so we canceled it. Long story short, we never got to celebrate our marriage with you and I always felt sad about that.
I know this won’t make up for everything, but I’d like to tell you about how it all happened, how Joe and I got engaged and then married. This is the stuff I would have shared with you if I would have known how back then.
The first time Joe asked me to marry him, we were in Krispy Creme. I’d never seen the way the donuts were made and he wanted to show me. He mentioned that maybe in the future he would ask me to marry him dozens of times instead of just once. I asked him how I would know when the real one was, but he didn’t have a good answer.
“I don’t have a ring yet,” he had whispered.
“I guess I’ll know the real one because you’ll have one,” I replied.
Joe pulled the ring off his Alta Dena milk lid and wrapped it around my finger a couple of times. “Will you marry me?” I nodded yes and then we left and drove home.
The second time Joe asked me it was 10:42 on an ordinary Sunday evening. Earlier that day, we had gone to see the film Garden State using passes someone gave us for Christmas. After the movie, we went to the bookstore to get the soundtrack, but they didn’t have it.
We sat down in the little coffee shop adjacent to the bookstore and wrote out the groceries we needed on the back of a brown paper napkin along with what we guessed they would cost. In the end, we ended up spending $8.72 less than we thought we would, even after we picked up the cat food for Basilone, which we had forgotten to put on the list.
When we got home, we baked fish in beer and lime juice and had left over potatoes. Joe sliced a tomato so we’d have a vegetable plus a splash of color. (I think he gets that from you.)
After dinner, Joe ran to the corner store to grab a chocolate bar for dessert. He broke off a piece of the Hershey’s with Almonds, handed it to me, and then tore off a piece of the inner foil wrapper. He made it long and thin and rolled it a few times. He grabbed my hand and wrapped the foil twice around my finger. He looked into my eyes.
“Will you marry me?”
I almost missed the third time when he asked me a few weeks later. We were cooking together and he slipped a slice of tomato on my finger. I laughed so hard I didn’t hear him say the words and he had to repeat them. I said yes.
The fourth time he asked, we really asked each other. First, we fought. He was frustrated that I was moving to be closer to my kids several hours away. He didn’t want me to move and he realized he was mostly asking me to marry him so I would stay or let him come with me. After we talked long into the night, we decided getting married made more sense than breaking up. After all, we did love each other.
Two days later we went to the swap meet and got a buy-one, get-one deal on two silver rings. We made plans to move together up north and he started looking at jobs. As you probably guessed, the reason we had such a hard time our first five years was partly because of how we started– a little rushed and trying to stay ahead of the uncomfortable wave we felt coming.
And then, one day a couple of weeks later, we were driving to Las Vegas in two vehicles, with four kids split between us, with our hopes and dreams crammed into the backs of my car and his truck, along with our fancy clothes bought special, and the blue cooler containing a plastic bread bag filled with egg salad sandwiches.
By the time we got to Vegas it was evening and we looked around for a chapel that looked right (and open). Nothing stood out, so we went to the hotel where we found the Stained Glass Wedding Chapel pamphlet in the foyer and booked a time slot later that night for 9pm.
The chapel sent a limo to pick us up, which might have been the only fun part for the boys. I had let Alexandra pick the wedding colors for us, so the boys had on pink ties and/or shirts. Everyone was being a good sport.
I don’t know if I can adequately convey the surprise I felt when we entered the chapel and a tiny woman, about four feet tall, wearing a ton of stage makeup, platform shoes, and a platinum silver wig greeted us and then walked behind the pulpit, stepped up on a footstool so she could clear the top, and proceeded to marry us. I don’t remember one word of what she said and we laughed pretty hard about it later while eating steaks after midnight at a casino buffet, ties loosened, pantyhose removed, and the pressure finally off.
People often say they don’t have regrets because the things they’ve gone through have made them what they are today, and they wouldn’t want to change that. But, for me, this is a regret. If I could go back, I would change it. I would be more patient and wait until all our family could be there to celebrate with us. I wouldn’t be in such a hurry, worrying about Joe maybe deciding not to marry me after all. I would wait. And see. And hope.
By the time we came and lived with you and Jim in Virginia six years later, Joe and I were separated but not wanting to get divorced. I’m sure it was uncomfortable for you, but you asked me if I wanted to sleep in a different room than him, which I appreciated. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and kindness.
Phyllis, that year we lived with you was, well, I’m trying to find the right words. It was amazing and hard and worthwhile and I’m so glad we did it. Relationships of all kinds healed while we were there. You thanked me so many times for, as you put it, bringing your son back to you. It didn’t matter how many times I insisted it had nothing to do with me.
You were such an amazing example to me. You were exquisitely beautiful at living and then graceful at dying.
I was your companion during the last part of your life on this earth, a role I was happy to have then and still feel lucky to have had to this day.
I offered to do chores and help around the house, cook meals, that sort of thing. You took me up on fixing dinners a couple of times a week, but you wouldn’t let me clean, even when the chemo was putting you through the ringer.
One time I came upstairs and you were rolling around in the kitchen on a chair with wheels, pushing yourself around with the mop from place to place, your ankles crossed and legs pulled up out of the way. You tipped your head back and laughed when I saw you. Your feet were in such severe pain from chemo that you could hardly walk and sometimes you would crawl on your hands and knees to get from room to room. I begged you to let me mop for you and you got serious and told me no, because you loved taking care of your home and your family. It was your great joy to serve and do things for them. It filled you up, you said.
On good days, we went shopping together or walked in the mall in the mornings. A Frank Sinatra or Michael Bublé song would come on while we were in the car and you’d start to snap your fingers and bop your head, humming along, a huge smile on your face.
No matter where we went, people knew you. Roanoke’s population is about 98,000 (I know because I just looked it up.) so the likelihood of someone knowing you every time we left the house seems slim, and yet it happened. And they didn’t just know you, they loved you and would tell me a story about how you had helped them in some way or how you’d done something for them. You always brushed it off as no big thing, just a small thing, but I tell you, you did “just small things” for a lot of people and it’s a big thing to all of them.
Watching you watch your morning television shows was possibly the best part of the day. You got such a kick out of Regis and Kelly followed by Kathie Lee and Hoda. “Kathie Lee used to be on the Regis show, but now she’s with Hoda,” you’d tell me, which I knew, but I liked it when you reminded me. We watched every type of award show together until you started falling asleep if it went on very late. You loved the fancy dresses and hairdos.
You were a devout Christian. Once, before Joe and I were married, when you stayed with us in our little house in Golden Hill, you walked in the door about the time I was getting up. I asked how the outside world was and you told me it was fabulous. You’d already gone on a walk, picked up some things around the house, and attended mass around the corner. You got up early pretty much every morning I ever spent with you, even on your hard days in the middle of your treatments.
Your devotion to God was an important example for me. We both married men who don’t believe in structured religion, let alone a specific Higher Power, but you never let that stop you from your fierce defense of your beliefs. You made no excuses. You didn’t argue. You just believed. Several years later, I would try and do impressions of what I thought you might be like when I went back to church. It was hard to go by myself, but I remembered how you never let that stop you. You went because you wanted to be there, not because of who was going with you. Thank you for showing me how to do that.
Your positivity was challenging for me for many years. You just always, no matter what, looked for the bright side. There I was, a depressed person by my chemical makeup, and you would not let me wallow. You would send me cards in the mail with messages of love and hope along with pictures of Joe when he was little. You’d send me an email after I would write a particularly downer of a blog post and especially if it had to do with suicidal thoughts, you’d tell me how loved I was. Once I sent you a thank you note for your kindness in reaching out and you then sent me a thank you note for my thank you note.
You used lots of exclamation points in your emails but it didn’t seem gratuitous because that’s actually how energetic and positive you were in real life. Seven to fifteen exclamation’s worth of positivity. You were so full of gratitude for every new day and that gratitude spilled out into everything else. Life’s too short, you’d tell me, so live every day to the fullest.
One time in your living room, I was sitting on the couch and you were in that chair by the window that you loved, covered with a super-soft blanket. This was just a couple of weeks before you slipped into the coma you’d never come back from. We were talking about life and more specifically your life, and you told me that you truly loved everyone, even Hitler. I laughed at that declaration because you said it almost like it surprised you, and I actually think it might have.
You told me that everyone was doing the best they could, even someone like Hitler and you really believed that God loved all of us because we were his children even when we did bad things. You said you weren’t afraid to die. You said your children were everything to you and that your husband was the love of your life. You said you used to have regrets but not anymore because you’d let them all go. And you said you hoped all of us would be happy. I didn’t know what to say so I just got up and gave you a hug, which was a little awkward because I’m an awkward hugger, but you pretended not to notice.
I think the bird pooping on my head the first time I met you was lucky, Phyllis, because I later had a year of my life that I got to spend with you. Thank you for your example of believing it’s a privilege to take care of your family. Thank you for showing me how to live and die with so much courage and love and beauty. Thank you for all the laughter. So much laughter.
I love you.
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