Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#3) The Parking Lot

“There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.” 

~Vice President Joe Biden

The Parking Lot

It was a beautiful day in the California beach town when I parked my car in the nearly empty lot. Knowing I would only be inside for a few minutes, I left the roof and windows of my mini cooper partially open for my little Maltese, Lulu.

The pink stucco exterior of the funeral home looked only vaguely familiar. The first time I visited was mostly a blur. I was there for a “viewing.” I was there to say a heart-rending goodbye to my 22 year old son, Nick. I am able to clearly recall relatively few images from that day, but those have been seared into my memory forever.

The interior looked even less familiar as I wandered from room to room looking for the Funeral Director. Then I noticed the rug. A wave of emotion threatened to crash down on my head.

Just as he had done on that day, the Funeral Director quietly appeared and led me in the right direction, his office this time. He offered me a seat, and let me know there would be a little paperwork to fill out before I could take my son’s ashes. He had a kind face and calm demeanor. I guess that sort of goes with the job. I imagine it’s not an easy one.

After the business was taken care of, he brought out a burgundy velvet bag and gently handed it to me. I was surprised by the weight, it was heavy.  I had questions. “We will want to spread his ashes, how can we open it?” After setting the bag on the table, he removed a black box with a white label on the lid that spelled out Nick’s full name. He showed me how to open it. I was glad to see it was a very tight fit, as my brain quickly indexed through several possible worst case scenarios. My next question:  “How do we know those are his ashes?” He explained something about a foolproof identification system they use which involves keeping a metal tag inside with the ashes at all times.

The exchange was both surreal and commonplace. I was a little wobbly when I stood up. I don’t know whether he sensed that, or if it is protocol, but he offered to carry the bag to my car. When we got out there, I realized I was not prepared. There was no place special enough for my son’s ashes. Lulu was in her carrier on the passenger seat, and I  briefly thought I could move her to the back and set the bag on the seat, but what if I had to make a sudden stop? I’d have to use the seat belt. I just couldn’t go there. I opted for the floor in front of the passenger seat, wrapping it in a purple tablecloth I happened to have in the car.

The Funeral Director must have been used to this awkward dance too, because he waited patiently until I got settled. I thanked him and we said goodbye.

After he went back in, I removed the tablecloth and picked up the burgundy velvet bag. Again, I was taken aback by the weight of the bag, which led to my association with holding a sleeping baby. I sat in that parking lot for awhile. Then I started driving.

For years I have entertained, if not completely believed, the idea that we are not our physical bodies, and that the body is simply a shell we no longer have any use for at the end of our lives. I repeated this over and over in my head and aloud, in an attempt to prepare myself for seeing Nick in physical form one last time that first day in the funeral home.

This concept proved to be particularly challenging for me to grasp, as the body in question was one I gave birth to, cared for, and watched grow into a strong and handsome young man. I remember the first time I saw his little feet. So these are what I was feeling when he would unleash a sudden flurry of kicks like a little alien tap dancer! Those sessions in utero were a harbinger of Nick’s intense energy, not unlike my own at times. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, just as I recognize  the long, slow, deliberate, catlike stretches of his younger sister.

Not really having a plan or a sense of direction, I ended up at the beach. One positive thing that has come out of this devastating loss is a renewed connection and easier communication with my ex-husband, Nick’s father. As I sat thinking and looking out at the water, I checked my phone. I saw that he had left a message. He was wondering how I was holding up, given the day’s agenda. I returned his call and we began to make plans for a ceremony to scatter Nick’s ashes. During our conversation I received several calls and texts from a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored them.

As it turned out, those calls and texts were from the Funeral Director. He asked if I had gotten far, and offered to meet me. He apologized and said there had been a mix-up with the paperwork. I told him I was sitting at the beach, not far from the funeral home, and that I could be back there in a few minutes, there was no need to meet me.

I left a message for Nick’s dad, telling him who the mystery caller was.

The Funeral Director came out to the parking lot to meet me. He had a ruddy complexion to begin with, and I’m telling you the poor guy looked mortified. Yes, I just wrote that. He began to apologize profusely, and in a strange twist, I found myself consoling him!

“It’s okay, really. It’s actually kind of funny,” I said as I walked around to the passenger side. I opened my car door, unwrapped the tablecloth and opened the bag to hand him the paperwork. Then I noticed the white label on the top of the box. It said MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME…

“OH!” I think I jumped back.

“I was hoping to spare you that part,” he said quietly.

Then I started to laugh, I mean REALLY laugh, thinking about how I was crying and rocking MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME’s ashes in the parking lot.

“That’s my son! He’s playing a joke on us!”

The Funeral Director apologized again and took the whole package back into the building to sort things out. I called Nick’s dad and updated him. He asked me if I’d read his text, I hadn’t. So I did.

Friday, October 2                      4:29 pm

I got your message. I thought it was the wrong urn too. Nicholas Prank.  Thanks.

Nick’s dad was now connected through the Bluetooth in my car, so when the Funeral Director returned we were all able to participate in the conversation. I reintroduced them. The Funeral Director apologized once again and assured us that he had double checked, and everything was now in order. He still looked tormented.

“This has never happened before,” he insisted.

“Oh we believe you!” We answered in unison, laughing. Colorful memories sprang to my mind of other times when we had heard those exact words in relation to Nick’s antics.

“I’m telling you, our son is pranking us. Here, read this text his dad sent me. I hadn’t even read it myself, and I said the same thing to you,” I urged.

The Funeral Director read the text message on my phone, and I could feel him relax a little. With a barely perceptible smile he said “Well, I just wish he would’ve given me a heads-up.”

“But that would’ve spoiled all the fun!” said Nick’s dad.

I’m not going to pretend the last eight months have been easy. There have been days when I could barely get out of bed. But there have been gifts too, those Moments of Grace I’ve been talking about. I never imagined I’d drive away from a funeral home with my son’s ashes in the car, smiling. I’m smiling right now as I write this. Smiling, and tearing up.

Thank you Nick. I love you.

Postscript: It's now been almost three and a half years since Nick passed. After several more of these types of experiences, (they continue to this day), and much study and exploration on my part, I now know that my son is not lost to me. He is very present in my life and the lives of those he loves.

Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#2) A To-Do List

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”   ~Ian MacLaren

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Image: Anna Marie January

Love. Trepidation. Tears. Truth. Memories. Laughter. Connection. Reconnection. Oh, and a Fire Dancer… The memorial service for my son was over, and there was nothing more for me to do. EVER. Well, at least there was nothing more I could do for Nick.

That kind of thinking dropped me into a new reality. For awhile, despite all the love and support, I felt disconnected, even from those closest to me. Everyday routines and places seemed bizarrely unfamiliar.

Certainly the apartment I rented three years earlier, the place where I came to cherish the freedom, quiet and order of living alone, had lost its’ sparkle. My little oasis was murky and dull. It felt, and even smelled like sadness.  I was done there.

My partner lovingly suggested I move in with her and her daughter, a proposal I had considered, then rejected several times before. I feared a situation where I had no real private space would only lead to imbalance, frustration, and ultimately another break up. My fundamental need for a hefty dose of solitude ranks high, immediately behind oxygen.

We decided to convert the garage into an art studio for me.

The move and garage conversion generated countless to-do lists. One of the items on my list this October morning was so out of the ordinary, I wasn’t sure how to begin to prepare for it. I decided to tackle the most mundane chore first, the one that guaranteed a measure of frustration but would offer no surprises. I went to Home Depot.

Once there, I located the few small items I needed fairly easily (for a change). I was headed toward the checkout line, lost in my thoughts until an overly cheerful man loudly called out to me from behind a table. Instead of the usual “Are you a homeowner? For a limited time we are offering blah blah  blah remodel, blah blah…” he said:

“Hello over there! It’s a lovely day, isn’t it? Awww, why the sad face? Cheer up! What could be so terrible on a day like this?”

As he spoke, he came out from behind his table and stopped right in front of me, literally blocking my path. I reached out and put both of my hands on his shoulders. We were almost the same height. Now it was my turn.

“I could say something really weird to you right now.”

His entire demeanor changed. He looked at me with these piercing blue eyes and softly said:

“Go ahead.”

Because I was annoyed, I must confess that I think I answered him with the intention of either shocking, shaming or shutting him up. Probably all three.

“I’m on the way to pick up my son’s ashes.” (So there Mr. Cheerful, I thought to myself).

“My son died on September third,” he replied.

I was the one who was stunned. Under the buzzing fluorescent lights of my neighborhood Home Depot, once again I found myself standing in that deep knowing of the previously unimaginable with someone, who only a moment before, was a complete stranger!

“Are you Jewish?” he asked, as if he’d suddenly come up with a great idea.

“No, but I was raised…”

Before I could finish my sentence he reached out and pulled me into a sweet bear hug, and gently rocking, began to pray:

“Baruch atah Adonai,  Eloheinu melech haolam…”

Mark’s son was a married man in his early 40’s with children. He died of a drug overdose. Apparently he wasn’t taking the drugs the professionals had prescribed for him, and was secretly self-medicating with the one that killed him.

Mark and I agreed that as parents, our pain did not begin the day our sons died. But we knew that as long as they were alive, there was always hope. I told him how glad I was that we met and thanked him for the prayer. I also jokingly admitted my irritation with his initial approach. We laughed and hugged one last time.

Although I couldn’t help but feeling anxious about going to the funeral home, I left the store with another very clear reminder that no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, I am not alone.

Postscript: It's now been almost three and a half years since Nick passed. After several more of these types of experiences, (they continue to this day), and much study and exploration on my part, I now know that this incident was among the first group of signs my son Nick would send me. He is not lost to me. He is very present in my life and the lives of those he loves.

Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#1) The Gas Station

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Image: Anna Marie January

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  ~unknown

On a Sunday afternoon in August of 2015,  I received the worst news a mother could hear. My 22 year old son Nick had taken his own life.

I could write about that phone call, about when I fell through the earth, about our handsome son’s history, that little four year old who once asked: “Daddy, what is chaos?” And after listening to his father’s explanation replied, “Yeah. That’s what I like!”

I could write about our family, what I and everyone might have done differently and I could  describe my obsessive need to piece together his final days, to understand each event that led up to that moment when he decided he could take no more.

But not today. Because at times, almost simultaneously, pushing through the haze and waves of my grief are these incredibly powerful and healing experiences that I just can’t ignore.

The Gas Station

It was a particularly difficult morning for me, less than a month after I lost my son. I was feeling weighed down by debilitating exhaustion, a common companion to the shock and disbelief one experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events, I’m told. Faced with what seemed a monumental task–I headed out to put gas in my car.

While I stood there waiting for my tank to fill, I noticed, kitty-corner to me on the other side of the island, an elderly woman sitting in an older model white sedan. Her back seat was filled to the roof. She was a large woman, her movements slow and labored as she stood up and maneuvered around and in-between the car door and island. She wore a light blue hat with a dollar bill tucked into the fold.

We greeted each other with a “Good morning.”   I then said something that surprised me, probably as much as it did her!

Me: “You know when you’re feeling really bad? Sometimes if you do something for someone else, it helps you feel a little better?”

She looked at me and nodded yes.

Woman: “Did you lose someone too?”

Me: (Wow) “Yes, my son.”

Woman: “I’m so sorry. I just lost my sister. What was your son’s name?”

We briefly exchanged the relevant information and condolences.

Me: “You may think this is strange, but the reason I said that earlier is because I’d like to fill your gas tank, if you’ll allow me to.”

Woman: “Really? Thank you! (Laughed) You must have noticed the pillows and blankets back there–I’m on dialysis and have to bring those with me to get comfortable. Are you sure?”

Me: “Yes, I’m sure. Let me finish up here and I’ll come over and put my credit card in.”

We stood by her car and talked. I learned that she had lost many of her family members, including siblings, but was particularly close to this sister. Perhaps she recognized something in me, having experienced so much loss herself?

Woman: “When did your boy pass?”

Me: “About 3 1/2 weeks ago…”

Woman: “That’s right around the time my sister passed.”

Me: “It was August 23rd.”


Woman:  (She almost whispered) “It was a Sunday.”

Me: “Yes. It was.”

Woman: “That’s the day my sister passed!”

Much longer pause…

With the tears that had been welling up in our eyes over the course of the conversation flowing freely now, we held each other. We were two perfect strangers with broken hearts, yes, but we had so much more in common. So there we stood–hugging and crying on a September morning at the Chevron Station. It was magic, really.

We said goodbye, and as she walked slowly toward the mini mart she called out “Now I can buy some food for my kitties!”

I was feeling so much more than just a little better. It’s difficult to describe. Stunned. Touched. Awed. I think the word I am looking for is LOVED. I remain grateful for our “chance” encounter.

My son, Nick.

Postscript: It's now been almost three and a half years since Nick passed. After several more of these types of experiences, (they continue to this day), and much study and exploration on my part, I now know that this incident was among the first group of signs my son Nick would send me.  He is not lost to me. He is very present in my life and the lives of those he loves.