Friday, October 8, 2021

Finding My Ocean


Home is Calling.

 Will Beall, Screenwriter, Aquaman


Atop a surfboard, there is something so comforting about being pushed into a wave. There is someone behind you, waiting for just the right time. To push you forward. And to let you go. How can you not feel gratitude for that? 

That's what I'm feeling when Rod pushes me into the waves. Comfort and gratitude.

~~~

The first time the ocean saved me, I was 17 years old. 

The backstory isn't important. I've written about it before. I'll write about it again. But, by the time I was 17, already there was nothing about my life that I liked. I hated myself and I wanted out. 

I'm not going to get into details. I will only say this much: I was sitting in my car, which was parked in an industrial neighborhood in West Berkeley, when I made an attempt at suicide. While Berkeley does border a bay, I had no view of the water from where I was parked. Yet, shortly into my effort, something happened that made me think of the ocean. The thought was a quiet whisper in the back of my mind. 

The waves. Can you see them?

And I could. In that very brief moment, I could see the waves. That is what penetrated my stubborn intent. Metaphorically, I'd suddenly gasped for air. I was able to stop what I was doing and get help. 

It wasn't so much that I loved the ocean. It was just that when I thought of it, the size of the world became so much bigger than my despair. So, I wanted to see waves again. I wanted to smell salt water. In that one quick moment, I wanted to be alive. And on that day, one second of wanting to be alive made up for all the days prior that I'd wanted to die.

~~~

Do we live and breathe the things we love, even before we know them? I'm not sure, but maybe we do.

I grew up in Northern California, always within an hour's drive to the ocean. I'd gone to the beach many times, but not as often as I could have. It wasn't my favorite place. Sand was gritty and the water was cold. The temperamental rip tides frightened me. 

But in that one brief moment when I was 17 years old and poised to die, the ocean saved me.

In the years immediately following, I continued to find the ocean soothing. When I was overly distraught, I would drive up and down Frontage Road in Berkeley. The road is sandwiched between Highway 80 on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other. I always took these drives at night, with my radio turned up and my windows rolled down. Because it was dark out, the only sign of the water beside me was the reflection of the moon and an occasional headlight. But the ocean was there, I knew. In this way, I drove through romantic heartbreak, irreconcilable fights with friends, and many other types of pain. 

On that road beside the bay, I didn't need to be in the water or even see it. I just needed to know it was there. In the presence of moonlight and soft waves, I was small once again, and so was my heartbreak. I could carry it for another day.



My life is segmented into befores and afters. Before I got married. After I got married. Before my son was born. After My son was born. Before my mom died. After my mom died. Before sobriety. After sobriety. And before and after John. There are more, these are just a few. Most are punctuated by the entrance of people or the loss of people.

Every delineation has shaped me into someone new. I have moved forward with changes that were like a string of pearls draped around my neck. I am this pearl and I am that pearl. On the best of days, I know that I should be handled tenderly and held dear. But, not all days are the best of days.

In 2017, much of my life stopped. It was an agonizing place to get stuck, so I did everything I could to move forward. I let myself cry. I saw a therapist. I made art, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I broke down. I held years of anger in, then I sat with the consequences of letting my anger explode out all at once. And then I leaned into others who held me while I tried to build myself back up. 

 I did and did. I tried and tried.

But much of my life remained frozen, no matter what I did or tried. I was grieving and for a long time I described my grief like this: I was filled with boulders of sadness, regret, guilt, and the hopelessness of yearning for something that was forever gone. Everything was heavy. Years went by. The grief was no less heavy, but the muscles of my broken heart had grown stronger and for a while they could hold everything.

Last spring though, I was tired of holding all those boulders. I was tired of waiting for them to become lighter. It was time to lay my hopes for healing down. There would always be this part of me that was too heavy to carry, and there was nothing I could do. It was time to stop trying to heal, and to instead accept my brokenness once and for all. 

I believed I would never again feel brave. I would never again be strong. My life would now be dictated by 'never agains', instead of courage or something new.

Last April, I believed that moving forward meant accepting that my life had stopped. So, that was the acceptance I strove for.

~~~

In early May, I went to Aptos, a seaside town not quite 80 miles south of San Francisco. I was with friends, but I was still edgy and sad. I tried my best to hide it. These parts of myself are nothing new. Others shouldn't have to suffer through my sadness just because I do. 

During that weekend, I went to Target. I needed to purchase pasta sauce for our dinner that night. Several of the women, including my friend Caitlynn, came along. Everyone else needed something or other, too. 

We dispersed when we got there, and then we reconvened in the part of the store that held racks of bathing suits. Some were colorful one piece suits. Some were bikinis with frilly tops and bottoms. I didn't have a suit and I didn't want one. I wasn't interested in anything colorful or frilly.

Sullen, but trying not to show it, I didn't notice when Caitlynn rounded the aisle to join us. What I did notice was what she was holding. Wrapped in cellophane, it was a white boogie board. 

There were no considerations on my part. There wasn't a debate in my head, good or bad. I had one thought. I need one of those too. 

When did my grief begin to step aside so that I could step forward? When did my capacity for joy return? When did some part of me decide that it was unacceptable to accept that unhappiness would be a part of me forever? 

I don't know exactly when those things happened, but I can tell you this much:

Four years ago a part of my life stopped. It froze under the heaviness of all the grief I didn't have the strength to carry. And then one day last May, I was in a Target Store, holding a bottle of Ragu in one hand and a cheap Styrofoam boogie board in the other. 

That was the day my life began again.



I want to tell you all about my childhood which was full of trauma, but the stories are long and they all end in the same way. I felt dirty, I believed that I was at fault. At three years old I thought I was at fault. At six years old I thought I was at fault. At eight and nine and eleven, and on and on. I could tell you how and why I believed those things, but that writing is for another time. What's important is how desperately I wanted to be someone else, something else, somewhere else. Just anything other than me.

When I was a little girl, sometimes I'd dream that I could fly. I'd glide through the air, weightless, with the wind in my hair, knowing that I didn't have to land until there was something safe and solid beneath me. I could go anywhere I wanted. I didn't have to be me. I didn't have to be anything at all. I was Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, a fairy and a hero, too. I was brave and lovely. I didn't need saving when I was flying through the air like that. I could save myself. 

It was impossible for me to think that something of this world could be as exhilarating and hopeful as flying through the air. I had no context with which to work when it came to believing in something powerful that I could reach out and touch.

My mother was mentally ill. It was the 1970s and my parents were hippies. I grew up in Berkeley and it seemed like all the adults around were on LSD. No one noticed my mother's illness. Maybe they thought she was on LSD too. My father was rarely home and the rest of our family lived in a different state. I was surrounded by people who had no interest in protecting me. When it came to safety in the real world, I had none.

My dreams of flying only lasted so long. Inevitably I would wake up. I'd be back in the same muddied world that I'd wanted to escape. It was so sad to wake up that way. Eventually, the sadness took away all that was good about the dream.

~~~

I am not sure how old I was the first time I took a drink or used a drug. I know I was a child. Six years old? Seven? I remember being disappointed that beer didn't taste like 7-Up, and I remember someone giving me a joint and telling me to inhale as deeply as I could. I coughed so hard, I thought I'd never stop. Alcohol and drugs confused me, but they were always around. 

At some point the drinking and smoking began to be appealing instead of baffling. I was 11 or maybe 12, when I started drinking in earnest. Not all the time. Just at some friends' houses and at most parties. Some and most. That was all. What did I drink? Which drugs? The answer has always been the same. Some and most. 

I am sure I had all kinds of reasons for drinking and using drugs. I can't pinpoint just one. The reasons are a mishmash, just as they are for most alcoholics and addicts.  However, I can tell you what kept me drinking and using, at least for the first few years.

I'd figured out how to fly again. 

Addiction is crafty. It will rip you up and tear you apart, but first it ensnares you with seduction. I'd drink or get high, and everything about my life that had felt dark suddenly seemed to be light. I liked that. A lot.


12 years old, 1982, Berkeley, California


I spent years hoping that alcohol and drugs would make me feel like a fairy and a hero. I wanted to be brave and lovely again. I wanted to be flying. I still wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. But just like the dream so many years earlier, soon enough no matter how much I drank or used, I just couldn't exist in the fantasy anymore. 

For close to a decade I tried to survive by drinking. Then I tried getting sober. But, I used drugs. Then I stopped using drugs. But, I drank again. So I stopped drinking. But then I started using drugs again. There were periods of sobriety but they didn't last long. I wanted to believe that I could switch this, or stop that, or change something, and that all would be well. I was in search of a cushion, but everything remained hard. I desperately wanted something magical to save me, but nothing ever did.

And surely there'd be no saving me if my feet were planted on something solid. There'd be no loveliness, no courage, and no hope. I could see no way around it.

~~~

Before I go on, I want to say this part:

Four years ago is not the first time that grief shook my world and left aftershocks that I thought would never subside. I went through that same kind of grief 19 years ago, too. 

More than once I have forgotten what held me. The people. The places. The things that are worth coming back to. More than once I chose being weak over believing that I was capable of being strong. Alcoholics and addicts forget important things and we make heartbreaking choices. 

But the truth is, 19 years ago I got a brief reprieve from my heartbreak and my addictions. And I got it when I was surrounded by water.

Everything is lighter in water, even grief.

~~~

It's funny the details we remember, and the ones we choose to let go.

My mother took her life in April of 2002. When my brother called to tell me, my four year old son was home. I don't remember what my son was wearing that morning. His pajamas? Had I already dressed him for preschool? But, I do remember that he was eating breakfast and humming the theme song to the Spider-Man tv show. 

Spider-Man!
Spider-Man!
Does whatever a spider can!

I can't remember the words my brother used when he told me my mother had died, but I remember that the moment he spoke them, the air I was breathing tasted different. It was bitter, and cold too. I remember that. The cold. Suddenly, it was everywhere.

I still think about it. When a woman becomes a motherless daughter is there some warmth inside her that is forever extinguished?  If so, I remember the moment it happened.

I'd suffered loss before. But it wasn't until my mother died that I fully understood what it meant to have a piece of me die alongside someone else. 

My mother had struggled with depression and anxiety for years. Her death ripped away from me the hope that she was going to be ok one day and that then I would be ok too. When I lost my mother, there was nothing in me that knew what to do. I had no internal compass to guide me through the pain. I was bereft and devoid. 

I had nothing.

~~~

Honestly, that grief was so intense, I don't know if I would have lived if it weren't for a woman I worked with named Mary. I didn't know her that well, but a few weeks after my mother died, Mary told me that she was going to take me to the ocean so that we could surf.

I was 32 years old and I'd never surfed before. I would have thought that learning would be impossible. But my mother's death seemed impossible. The world was not what I thought it was. What was the point of assigning anything to categories of possible or impossible, anyway?

So one day, Mary and I made the two hour drive from Oakland, where we lived, to Capitola, a beachfront town just south of Santa Cruz.

I will always remember that day. I remember that the board that Mary lent me was close to 9 feet tall. I was certain it was too big. There was no way I'd be able to manage it, I just knew. I asked Mary if she thought that it would be better if we rented me a shorter board.

"Nope," she answered. That was all she said.

When we got to the beach, Mary stopped and scanned the water. 

"There's a channel right there," she said, pointing.

I had no idea what a channel was, but I followed her nonetheless. As we got closer to the water, I was nervous and began to slow down, but Mary just kept walking. If anything her stride became more forceful. More determined. We were going to walk right into the ocean, without looking back. 

~~~

I took all my cues from Mary. When she laid her board atop the water, I laid mine down too. When she hopped on her board, I did the same.

I felt strong and weak, both at the same time.

"Paddle!" She instructed. So I did. When the first set of waves came in, Mary kept paddling forward, but I hesitated. When you are laying prone on a surfboard, a wave headed right for you is a formidable thing. I froze.

The first wave lifted my board up by the nose and flipped me backward. 

Mary looked back, turned around, and paddled to my side. My board was now upside down and I was clinging to it and coughing. Obviously, surfing wasn't a good idea. What had I been thinking? I couldn't even paddle my board past the waves.

"Turn your board over and get back on." Mary instructed. 

"Arch your back. When you are going over the wave. Arch your back, and keep going," she said, laying her hands flat on her board and demonstrating. 

And with that, she turned back around and continued to paddle out. So I did the same. When the next set of waves came in, I arched my back. 

There is an exhilaration in gliding over the top of a tall wave. Your body and the wave and the air have all conspired to keep you moving forward. 

It's magical.

~~

I was a duckling that first time in the water. I followed Mary, paddling after her, wherever she went. She didn't waste words. If I did something almost right, she let it be. If I was being tumbled or falling over, she'd give me specific advice. "You're too far forward." "Lean this way, not that way." "Don't look at the board." 

When it was time for us to turn our boards around so that we could start surfing, Mary continued to give me advice.

"Paddle! Paddle!" She'd yell, encouraging me to keep moving. "Pop up!" She'd yell, at just the right moment, so that I knew when to stand. "Yes!!!" She'd yell, if I made it to my feet. 

Mary was my coach and my cheerleader at the same time. 
 
In no small way, when my mother died, I lived because I found out that I could do things that I never would have thought possible. I didn't know that impossible things could happen, until then. During that time in my life, I stopped drinking. I stopped using drugs. When I was in the water, I stopped breaking apart and breaking down.
 
Nineteen years ago, I knew nothing about healing. I lived through that time because I followed Mary to the ocean and I let her teach me.


Honolulu, Hawaii, 2002


And then I did what all good alcoholics and drug addicts do. 

I decided that there were better things to search for than healing.

By that time, I'd already learned how to skate around the worst of my alcoholism and addiction. I was always pretending. Living with trauma makes you a good pretender, by necessity. So I knew how to do it. During my early thirties, I spent a lot of time crafting the person I thought I should be. I created art and I made brownies. I volunteered at my children's school. I joined moms' clubs and played bunco and drove my son to and from Little League games. I knew what I wanted my life to look like, and on paper I was passing. 

Just like now, I wrote. Much of it was true. But it was never the whole story. I never wrote about my persistent feelings of brokenness. What would be the point? I didn't want anyone to know those things about me. I told very few people about the ways that suicide had touched my life. 

I was always tired. Lying and pretending can be exhausting. And it rarely works for long.

In my late thirties, I didn't want my life and I didn't want to be myself anymore. I wanted out. I'd plan dinner parties and water the houseplants one week, and I'd land in a psych ward the next. I couldn't shake this thing, this wanting to die.

No matter how good I looked on paper, no matter how much I espoused enlightenment in my writing, I couldn't keep it up. The hurt and unhealed parts of me kept tapping me on the shoulder.

Paper is good for collecting ideas and wishes, but it is not a foundation. 

Early into those years, I stopped going to the water. Mary told me she was worried about my distancing myself from this thing that had been so important to me. I was frustrated with her words and the intention behind them, so for years we didn't talk. 

I'd moved to the suburbs. Too far from the beach, I told myself. I was so busy with other things. Too busy to surf, I said. I'd loved my surfboard, but I put it in the garage where it grew dusty. After a few years, I sold it at a garage sale, alongside worn out clothes and chipped casserole dishes.

Looking back, I think the reason I let my attachment to the ocean go is because the water was so healing, and I didn't believe I deserved to be healed. 

I didn't want healing, I wanted to be numb. So, in my thirties, my psychiatrists became my drug pushers. I didn't complain. As my life began to crumble under the weight of my drug use, I didn't care. I didn't want my life anymore, anyway. No art related accolade, brownie made from scratch, or Little League game was going to change that.  

~~~

 


Eight years ago, I finally got sober. No more drinking, no more drugs. No more switching one thing for the other. Eight years ago, I became willing to listen when my heart and mind worked together and said: no more. 

I want to tell you that I came to my senses and decided to be more healthy. But that's not what happened. I want to tell you that therapy and medication and psychiatrists positioned me mentally to step into sobriety, surefooted and ready. But that is not what happened either.

What happened is that I died, except I didn't.

I often call my second attempt at suicide 'the miracle of a few minutes.' I was 44 years old and the attempt was much closer to being successful than my first had been. It was only because of CPR that I lived. 

The details of what led up to that attempt aren't important. It is what happened afterward that matters. For the first time, I realized that the drugs and the self hatred might actually kill me.

I'd been suicidal for over a decade. It took nearly dying for me to realize that being suicidal can be fatal. 

I was out of ideas and I had no more stories to craft. I'd tried it all and nothing had worked. I had what we, in recovery circles, call a hard bottom. It took losing everything for me to pry my fingers off the hope that I could be someone else. I didn't slide or step into recovery, I came crashing in. Everything about the first couple years of my sobriety had to do with rebuilding. Myself. My relationships. My faith. My hopes. 

I did not do it alone. I could not do it alone. I was angry and scared the first year. But, a lot of people stepped in and supported me. Other recovering alcoholics were everywhere. They recognized that one alcoholic talking to another is one of the greatest gifts of recovery. So they talked, and I listened.

The people around me wouldn't stop telling me that I was a miracle. That my life was a miracle. That my getting sober was a miracle. I don't remember exactly when, I just know that there was a day when I started to believe them. The miracle of my sobriety and my life. They'd been given to me. 

In my second year of recovery, I lived in the middle of that miracle. Everything that felt hard had become softer. I went to therapy and got help, specifically for the PTSD that was attached to my childhood. As each day went by, I became more convinced that if I could get sober - then I could do anything. 

~~~

I fell in love with John during that second year. He was also an alcoholic in recovery. And years earlier his brother had died by suicide. We had that kind of heartbreak in common. We understood each other and were pulling for each other, always.

Our relationship was so sweet sometimes, and not as sweet at others. But it was real. The way we loved each other. How hard we tried. All of it was real.

Everywhere in my life I was surrounded by astounding reclamation. Love, circumstances, recovering addicts and alcoholics. I believed that every life could be reclaimed anew. I'd been given a second chance. I could do anything. Couldn't we all?

No matter the situation, everything was going to be alright. I just knew.

~~~

I've written about John many times. I will write more about him, I am certain. But much of his story belongs only to him, and I have no right to tell it. So I won't try to do that here. What I will say is that our love for each other couldn't slay the worst of his demons. 

John was bipolar, and we met and fell in love when he was stable. By the time he was unstable, I was all in. I didn't want to go anywhere. I had my own struggles that I was working through, and he told me he wasn't going to leave me, either.

Nothing has to make sense when you love someone and they tell you they are not leaving. I believed him. 

He struggled, but he was going to be ok. We struggled, but were going to be ok, too. 

Miracles happened. I knew.

~~~

John took his life on a rainy Sunday in April of 2017. Two weeks after he died, I would sit with the weight of the 15th anniversary of my mother's death, as well.

The rest of that year, I didn't want to die, so much as I didn't want to live. I didn't want to take my life, what I wanted was to be with John. I didn't want the world to end, I just didn't want to be in a world without him.

There have been a few times in my sobriety when I've questioned whether being sober made anything better. This would be one of those times. Even today, I can't tell you if it might have been easier for me that first year after John died, if I'd just been drinking.

What I do know is that if I'd started drinking again, things would have been worse for the people who loved me. It would have broken the hearts of my closest friends. John's family was so torn apart, and my  drinking would have torn them apart even more. And I know, if I'd started drinking again, it would have destroyed my son.

So, with many arms around me, I did what John couldn't do at the end. I stayed sober and alive, for the people who loved me.  


John Macaluso, Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California, March 21, 2016


Because many hands helped me to get sober, I had an idea of how to get past the worst of the pain when John died. I found other people who were enduring suicide loss. I sought them out. I talked to them. I listened to their stories. I told them mine. Hope breaks apart easily but if you are tender with the pieces, you can still share what you have with others. 

I shared the hopes that I had, and people shared with me their hopes in order to guide me through the hopeless places where I found myself. I don't know that there is any other way to heal from loss. It is done with one hand holding another. We become the net that is cast when others are falling. 

So I became an advocate. I began writing about suicide prevention. People told me that my story of recovery went beyond trauma and alcoholism. That it included the distinction of being both a suicide attempt survivor and a suicide loss survivor. 

They told me that I needed to change my story from one where people were lost, to one where people survived. 

~~~

Last spring, it started with the boogie board. There was no way I was going to surf again. I was 52. It had been close to 20 years. Wouldn't those boulders of grief, not to mention my boulder of a middle aged waistline, keep me from surfing? A boogie board I could manage. A surfboard, not so much.  

Sobriety is full of gifts. One of my gifts is that eight years ago Mary came back into my life. She is my true north when it comes to friendship. Whether I am at her doorstep laughing or crying, I am always invited in. When standing beside her, the things that feel so wrong in the moment become right again. Mary is my purveyor of right moments. 

But she has children now. A bustling career. A busy social life and many hobbies. The beach is no longer her number one go-to. 

~~~

Stirring up people who were willing to drop everything to go boogie board with me was challenging. So some days I would go alone. Being in the ocean was still amazing. It was where I needed to be. I knew the ocean could be fickle at times, some days willing to play, other days the tide and wave height made it less welcoming. That was ok, I could be patient. I'd learned that even when the ocean pulls away, it always returns. 

My brother-in-law, Sean, is a real surfer. He goes several times a week. Sometimes my sister and their children (they are all my 'chosen; family) join Sean so that they can have a beach outing. One Sunday in August, I joined them too. I brought along my boogie board and had fun in the waves as usual. 

When Sean and I were back on the shore, he turned to me. "Why don't you try my surfboard?" He suggested.

I didn't have to think about it for long. It was like that day in Aptos a few months earlier. Yes, I wanted to try the surfboard.

Sean waded into the water with me. I was glad because I could barely hop on the board. Sean could tell by my nervousness that I wasn't sure I'd be able to do this, after all.

"Look, you don't even need to stand up," Sean reassured me. "Just hang on."

Those were the words I needed to hear. I didn't have to think about what I couldn't do. All I had to focus on is what I could do. So when a wave came, clinging on to the board is exactly what I did. 

I held my breath when I went hurtling toward the shore. I was not underwater, but I was not standing on the ground either. When I got closer to the shore, the board did what it will do when it slows down. It became unstable, rolled over, and dumped me into the water. I was fully immersed and everything was the sea in that moment. I could taste it and smell it. I could see nothing but bubbles and light. 

I didn't know I should be surfing again when I was clinging to the board. It certainly wasn't any kind of finesse or skill that told me. 

It was when I fell that I knew I wanted a surfboard of my own. I was baptized in that water when I was rolled off the board on that day. I have no other way to explain it. I came to the surface gasping for air. An automatic response, as was the relief I felt when I could breathe air once again. 

Coming up from underwater with the air reminding me that I have what I need. The thought is innate.

Oh good. I am going to live.


Linda Mar Beach, Pacifica, California, August 15, 2021


I think I should tell you something about how I surf today.

I'm no good at it. Well, no good if you are talking about the technicalities of the sport. If you are talking about perfection straight out of the gate, that's not me. If you were to look at the line of people in the water, I'm not the one you'd think was 'a natural'.

When I am working on techniques, I tumble and tumble. My legs bruise and my wrists strain. My back pinches. I have swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater again and again. Once, I had dinner with friends hours after I'd gotten out of the water. Sitting at the table, I turned my head to sneeze, and it was ocean water that came running out of my nose.

I am not particularly pretty in my wetsuit. I am round and bulgy. I look even worse in the water. If I am not falling or tumbling in a wave, I am clinging to my board with red eyes and snot on my chin.

If I were surfing in order to look good, or if I had a timeline for being adept, I would have quit long ago. 

But looks and competency are not my goals. And thank God for that. My ability to set those things down means that I get to come back to the water again and again. My efforts are not about being good.

Today I am getting back in the water with bruised legs and a runny nose because all of this, to me, is about not giving up.

Still, I know that one too many back strains and I'm not going to be able to lift my board, much less take it into the water.

~~~

I need help. Specifically, when I am in the water I have trouble going from lying down on my surfboard to standing on it. The 'pop up', it's called. So I head to my favorite surf shop.

I purchased my wetsuit in this shop. The board rack for my car. Clothing, board wax, chapstick, and more. I've come in just to ask questions. Why do my eyes sting? (The saltwater.) Why do my surf boots smell bad? (Also the saltwater.) How do I get this suit over my midriff? (Tug. Hard.) How do I get it off my legs? (Also tug. Hard.) 

So far, they've been able to answer all of my questions. But this time, I need more hands-on help.  

"Talk to Rod," the man at the cash register said. He nodded toward a man at the end of the counter. 

Rod is tall and lean with strawberry blond hair. He looks like California, in all kinds of good ways. He is also a former competitor at the invitation-only Mavericks big wave surf competition. And when he wasn't competing, he was a member of their wave patrol. He knows surfing. And if worse came to worst, he'd be able to rescue me if I started to drown. With Rod, I was in good hands.

When it comes to surfing, I need all the good hands I can get. 

~~~


We walked to the beach and I let Rod decide how far down the shoreline we went. When he stopped, we both laid down our surfboards. Rod stepped on the back of his and wedged its fins into the sand below so that we could use his board to practice.

Next, he laid down on his board and demonstrated the rudimentary pop up. After, he stepped off the board and waited for me to try.

I stared at him. Then I stared at the board. Then I stared at him again.

I took a deep breath and laid down on the board, belly first, just as he had. He suggested I start by pretending to paddle. That part I could manage. After all, I knew how to paddle.

Rod waited for me to do the pop up that he'd just shown me. But I couldn't remember the sequence. I tried, but I just couldn't.

Let me tell you more about Rod's good hands. He was patient. He was persistent. He managed to make me feel like he believed in me. And he was determined to find a way to help me 'get it'. 

We practiced on the shore, which is how surf lessons are done. It's important to understand the basics before you get in the water. Rod tried demonstrating while I stood and watched. He tried standing and watching me when I was down on the board. He tried laying down next to me to demonstrate. He stood on one side of the board to help me, then he tried standing on the other side.

I was having particular difficulty figuring out which foot I should use in the front position on the board. 

Despite Rod's expertise, no matter what he did I couldn't manage to be consistent with which foot to use. I'd try this foot, then I'd switch to the other foot, then, just when we were certain we'd figured out which foot was my best one, my own body would rebel, and I'd use the other foot by accident. 

"Wait - are you goofy footed or not?" He asked me.

"I don't even know what that means." I replied.

He explained that goofy footed meant right foot in front. Well, maybe I was. So we agreed I would use my goofy foot. But then, inexplicably, I used the left foot again.

"Ok," Rod said patiently, "maybe you need to use your left foot after all."

I nodded. That had to be the problem. But then I'd try again, and it would be my goofy foot that I'd lean on first. At times I was tripping over my own feet.

"No, no... never... never cross your legs when you are popping up..." Rod explained, stating the obvious.

He demonstrated for the 5th time and then 6th time and then again showing me exactly what I should be doing. He did everything he could. At one point, I wanted to give up. I was pretty much done. 

Perhaps I should take up long distance running instead? That's what I was thinking. Or better yet, backgammon. Maybe I should perfect my game of backgammon. Because I was done thinking about surfing.

Maybe I was done thinking about the water entirely.

Maybe. 

~~~

If nothing else, Rod and I were in sync in our frustration. Eventually he lay on his back on top of the sand, looking up at the sky and shaking his head. 

"This is the most memorable lesson I have ever had. I will never forget this lesson," he said, which was kind. He didn't say that this was the most irritating lesson he'd had, or that I was the most hopeless student. He said the lesson was memorable. 

Somehow, in bemoaning the challenges I was having, Rod made me laugh. Actually, we both laughed a lot during that lesson. It was the laughter that kept my tears at bay while we were on the shore. Ultimately, laughter kept me from giving up. 

After a while, we both sat on the ground behind the board. I was looking at my feet. Rod was scrutinizing the board, no doubt thinking about a new approach to teach me. I was thinking about 19 years earlier when Mary taught me. I thought about the first time a wave flipped me over and what Mary said when I was ready to give up and turn around.

"Turn your board over and get back on."

And then I realized something. It was counter intuitive and not the way that new surfers learn, but it didn't matter. Suddenly I just knew.

I looked over at Rod.

"We need to get in the water," I said.

~~~

Nineteen years ago, I didn't learn because Mary described the process well. Nineteen years ago I learned by feeling my body in the water. The first time I made it over a wave, I was driven by the exhilaration, not the technique. 

Rod's skill at teaching carried over in the water. He praised what I did right. He told me when I was paddling out well. He said he was impressed that I could turn my board in the water without instruction. At one point I sat up on my board and used an egg-beater motion with my legs, to turn it around.  

"Good, good." Rod said.

"Yeah, I forgot that I remembered how to do that," I replied, laughing.

When we began to practice the pop up, I was still struggling, but the struggle mostly had to do with balance and my timing. Rod never complained. He patiently pointed out what I needed to adjust. 

He remained the consummate cheerleader. From behind me, he pushed me into wave after wave, ensuring that I always caught the right one.

"You're doing well. You're falling off in the right direction!" He said at one point. He meant it. He actually made me feel proud of the way I was falling off the board. It wasn't perfection he was encouraging, it was the incremental improvements. It was the fact that I kept trying.

Rod didn't have his own board in the water. Teaching me was less cumbersome when he wasn't managing his surfboard at the same time. So after I would catch a wave, he would have to return to my side from far behind me. I didn't look at him when he was doing this. He would get to me so quickly, I'd often still be trying to jump back on my board. I just assumed Rod was swimming. Fast.

At one point though, I did turn around and I watched him as he returned. He wasn't swimming at all. He was body surfing. I'd never seen anything like it before. At the sight of him, I dropped my jaw and held my breath.

Rod was perfect in that moment, with his body propelled by the beautiful ocean that I love so much.  

Body surfing was the closest thing to flying that I'd ever seen. I thought of when I was a little girl, except Rod was the hero, not me. He was my own personal Aquaman. But the reason I'd held my breath wasn't because of the way he body surfed back to me. It was because of the words that I heard in the back of my mind when I watched him.

I want to be able to do that too. Those were the words.

It was a ridiculous desire - but it was the wanting, not the likelihood, that took my breath away.

~~~

When Rod reached me, he pointed something out.

"You're goofy footed," he said definitively. "That's the foot you keep using in front. So that's where your foot wants to go."

I marveled at that. My mind hadn't been able to figure it out on the shore. But in the water, my body knew what to do. 

I successfully popped up once during that lesson. But I was so happy. It wasn't so much that I'd done it, it was that I knew what I should be practicing when I was at home, laying on my kitchen floor. I knew which muscles I needed to strengthen, I knew what to do, moving forward.

~~~

When we got out of the water, Rod shook his head.

"I've never met anyone who goes in the water, so that they can learn how to practice on the shore," he said.

But I wasn't thinking about surfing. I wasn't thinking about paddling out or popping up.

What I was thinking about was my mother and how I found solace the year after she died. And I was thinking about John and my belief that I'd never really experience joy again. 

I'd forgotten this one important thing about healing.

My body remembers what to do.

~~~

With Aquaman, NorCal Surf Shop, Pacifica, California


At the end of the lesson, Rod and I headed back towards the shop we'd come from an hour earlier. We walked slowly, navigating the rocky ground beneath us. Before we were off the rocks, Rod stopped and pointed toward the end of the accessible beach where there was a row of weathered wooden docks. There, just in front of one of the docks, a lone man stood in ankle high water. He wore long pants that were rolled up and a fisherman's jacket, though there was no pole in his hand. 

"See that man?" Rod asked. "He's here all the time. He just stands there. He doesn't move, he doesn't do anything. Just stands."

I watched the man. It was true, he was perfectly still.

"I get it." I said. "Look at what he's staring at," 

Rod smiled. 

And I do understand. After all, I'd stare at it every day, too, if I could. It is such a beautiful thing. This part of our world that is a world of its own at the very same time.

The ocean.


Honolulu, Hawaii, September 2002


I want to tell you that there was one moment that began to lead me back to the water, but for me, inspiration was not born of one thing.

I believed I could do this because 19 years ago, the first time I fell off my board Mary told me to get back on and keep going. 

Five months ago I got back in the water because my friend Caitlynn rounded a corner in a Target store with something in her hands that reminded me that the ocean is meant for playing and healing. 

Two months ago I bought a surfboard because my brother-in-law Sean reminded me that I didn't have to stand up, I just had to hang on.

And I come back to the water, in no small part, because of my lesson with Rod. I have a huge schoolgirl crush on his surfing knowledge, that's true. But that's not why I come back to the water. It's not because Rod looks like California (in all kinds of good ways). And it's not because of the comforting way he pushed me into the waves, either.

What I remember most from that lesson with him is the way he returned to me after I'd caught a wave. I remember Aquaman body surfing through the water. 

The reason I return to the water over and over again is because of that moment when I thought to myself, I want to do that too.

I want to be alive. I want to participate in life. I want to wake up in the morning so that I can stand on a shore and look at the people on surfboards, the ones who are already out there. 

Whether I am looking at someone who can stand on top of a board with grace and determination, or I am looking at someone who has been sober for many more years than I have, or if I am looking at someone who is moving forward with grief and yet finding joy in their lives at the same time - I live for that thought, the one that takes my breath away:

I want to do that too.

~~~

I know that surfing isn't going to save everyone. I know that it won't even interest some. But I believe that we all have an ocean. Even if yours isn't a beach or the sea, go find whatever it is. The thing that makes you feel like you are glad to be alive. Go find your ocean.

I found mine. 







~~~~~~~~~~





With Mary Halpin, my favorite surfer girl:

Top Left: Hawaii, 2002
Top Right: Pacifica 2021
Bottom: Hawaii 2002

With Sean Leake, my son RJ, and Caitlynn Wakeman:

Top Left: Sean Leake, my favorite surfer dude
Top Right: Caitlynn Wakeman, who changed my life in a Target Store
Bottom Left: My son and I at Nor Cal Surf Shop in Pacifica, California
Bottom Right: My girl in the curl tank top made by Caitlynn Wakeman

Nor Cal, the best Surf Shop this side of California:


*I am so grateful for NorCal Surf Shop and their helpful staff. If you need something surf or skateboard related, head their way. They are located at 5440 Pacific Coast Highway in Pacificajust steps away from the beach.

And I can't say enough about Nor Cal's surf lessons. They provide group lessons, semi private lessons, and private lessons. If you are in Northern California and you want to learn, head to Nor Cal. Ask for Rod Walcha, and tell him Chel sent you.

~~~

On October 6, 2021, I celebrated 8 years of sobriety. I wasn't able to get sober on my own. 

If you are struggling with alcoholism or addiction and need help, you don't have to do it alone either. Reach out. No matter where you are, there are people who will give you a hand. If you need more information, let me know. 

We do recover.

October 6, 2021

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

DAY 29 - Leaning Into The Arms Of Grace


Leaning Into the Arms of Grace
El Collie, 1995
 

You learn to tough it out.

You learn to accept.

You learn to surrender.
You learn to lean into the arms of grace

both unseen, from the realms above,
and extended through a human hand.

You get through tattered and torn around the edges.
You get through wondering how you've managed

to make it through this far

You get through hanging on for dear life.
You get through shaken and shuddering

and sheared of everything

but your quivering mind and quaking heart,

and the distant echo of a memory that this was why you came here.


though you think there has been some colossal mistake,

inscrutably, incredibly, something in you knows

that this is precisely what you came here
so valiantly to endure:

this merciless nakedness
of heart and soul.


El Collie Kress

11/4/1947 - 4/17/2002

My mother, El, was 54 years old when she died by suicide.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

DAY 28 - I Will Not Forget

ORIGINALLY POSTED: SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2017

Your name is upon my tongue 
your image is in my sight 
your memory is in my heart 
where can I send these words that I write ?
- Rumi



How can forty days go by like this? I'm surrounded by the memory of him, so how can he be gone? Our photos. The cards and poems he wrote me. Our memories are everywhere.

I still cry myself to sleep every night. I sleep with one of his favorite shirts. Sometimes in the mornings, there is a moment when I first wake up and I have not yet remembered. I can smell his scent on the shirt I'm holding. His shirt. And in that moment, I'm certain that he is next to me.

Sometimes, when I first wake up he is still here.

And then, he's not.

Two or three days after he died, I had a dream that he wasn't alive and yet I was still walking around and doing things. In the dream I was putting gas in my car and doing dishes and talking to people on the phone and laughing too. In the dream, John was gone but I was ok.

On that day though - which was just a few days after he'd died - when I woke up there was no moment of forgetting and I was not ok.

Forty days later and I am walking around and doing things. I am putting gas in my car and doing dishes and talking to people on the phone and even laughing sometimes. But I am not ok.

John is not here and nothing is ok.


All throughout the day, I think about that moment in the morning when I'm certain that he is still here. I tell myself that moment is just as real as these forty nights of knowing that he is gone. I fall asleep clutching his shirt because I remember when he wore it. I wake up holding on to it still - because that is what I want to do with the memories of him. I want to hold onto them forever.

I can't walk around and do things and also be this lost in my grief at the same time. It never leaves. It does not go. But I have to step around it in order to take a step forward.

Most of the time I hate these days. I hate waking up and remembering that he is not here. I hate trying to figure out how to step around the burden of myself and everything I'm feeling. I hate when people tell me how good I look or how well I'm doing. I hate that they don't recognize that there are times when trying to look like I'm not in pain - makes the pain even worse.

And I'm worried that in moving forward, some part of me will stop trying to forget his absence, and instead will try to forget that he was ever here.

My heart does not want to forget. I do not want to forget.

So I will write him down and put him into words and allow myself to remember.

John was real. These memories are real. My memories of us belong to me, and nothing - not even this pain - gets to take the memories away.


I've noticed that some people are having difficulty looking at me. Some people are having trouble starting a conversation, casual or otherwise. There are some, even good friends, who are stepping away, because of this tragedy. Worst of all, I have noticed that some people are afraid to even say his name out loud.

I understand the impulse. Grief is difficult to see. We don't learn in this culture how to honor the departed and how to hold space for the grieving. This is no one person's fault. I understand.

I know too that I'm also blessed that for every person who has turned away - I do have many people who have turned toward me.

John's own family has created a net into which I can fall when I need others to stand beside me and remember him. They are there when I need others to be devastated too. They never try to hurry me up or hush me. His family has been there and they know that on some days I miss John in the same way one might miss breathing.

Perhaps I take such comfort in standing beside John's family because I know they have John woven into their very blood. Their pain is likely even greater than mine. I cannot and will not deny that they knew him differently than I did, and surely they miss him more deeply than I do. In many ways, they are the ones I'm looking to in order to see how one bears a grief that seems so utterly unbearable. And that is what they show me, every single day.

There are times when the extent of my guilt is agonizing. And there are those who reach out and love me even when all I can think about is that I do not deserve to be loved anymore.

To those who held me up - and hold me up still - those of you who sat with me and my son during those first few weeks, ensuring that we were never alone, to those who brought us food, and gave us rides, and provided shoulders to cry on and hands to hold too - to all of you, my gratitude is endless.

Some have patiently listened to me tell the same stories, share the same memories, and repeat the same regrets - over and over again. They understood, instinctively, that I just needed to say the words out loud, and if I needed to say them a hundred times over - that was ok.

There is the friend who let me sleep on her couch for not just one week but two and then three. She let me sleep on that couch even though she had a spare bedroom - because I felt the spare bedroom was too far from her own bedroom and too far for me to be away from another person. To her, I am forever grateful.


Just two weeks after John died, I had to move from the house I'd been living in, to my new little cottage. To the many people who helped me move - you're all the reason I have somewhere nice to call my home. Thank you.

And even still, just like my grief is still here, just like my tears are still here and just like my love for John is still here - there are so many people who are still helping.

One friend has brought me food more than once. She brought me other household staples because she understood that I was too overwhelmed to even walk into a store. She even helped me break down boxes a few weeks after my move, because I was afraid a spider might crawl out of one of the boxes and I just didn't want to be alone.

There are the invaluable friends who have fixed my car and fixed my kitchen cabinets and just made sure that I had what I needed to get through day.

A few people who'd mainly been John's friends before - have now invited me places or spent time with me or sent me messages full of love. I know that these people are honoring their own memories of John by reaching out to me. They understand that John wants us all to be ok. I know I am being loved in part, because so many people knew what a loving person John was.


These are all the people who carry me through from hour to hour. These are those critical people who help me remember that no matter how broken my heart may be - I am also still loved.


So, I guess I can tolerate those who are afraid to look at me. I can step past those who are afraid to say 'Hello Chelise'.  If they must forgo my presence, if they must forget my name - so be it.

What I can't tolerate is the fact that some are afraid to say his name.

John Bernard Macaluso should not be forgotten. He was many things to many people. He had just as many names. Equally so, he appreciated the beauty and diversity of the people in his life - so he had many names for us.

I will not forget.




To John, his parents were Mom and Dad, and he called his sister Weesa.

When John was a very little boy - he couldn't pronounce his sister's given name, 'Teresa.' so she became Weesa. 'Weesa' is what John called his beloved big sister, until his very last day.

He often called me Bella. Most of the time he called me Babe, and sometimes he called me Boo. When he called me by my given name, he always prefferred my full name, Chelise, to the abbreviated Chel.

I am so glad that I still have many voicemail messages from John on my phone.

"Hi Chelise..."

"Just checking in on my Boo."

"Hey Babe, just calling to tell you I love you."

I am so glad I still have his voice with me. I am so glad I can hear him again. I am so glad I can remind myself what it sounded like when he told me he loved me.

I am so glad. I am so glad. I am so glad.


And because John was many things to many people - he himself had many names.

He picked up the nickname Superman from a friend, and it stuck. "Whassup Supe?" People would say to him. I often called him my Italian Superman, It just seemed right. How could it not?

His childhood friends and his friends from college often called him J-Mac - because it was his name after all - and it sounded cool.

Other friends called him Johnny Boy.

His sister called him Chary.

When John was little and couldn't pronounce his sister's name - his mother suggested to Teresa that she call him something silly too. 'Perhaps Puchari?' His mother offered.

Puchari didn't quite feel right to Teresa, so she shortened it and called John 'Chary' instead.

Weesa and Chary. Names that lasted through his lifetime. Names that were made up, but were shared between siblings whose love for each other was very real.

John adored his nieces Gianna and Emily, and they always called him Zio - Italian for Uncle. When the girls found out John died, one of the very first things they said was that they were worried about me. They made me cards from scratch, to remind me that John cared about me. 'Zio loves you!' is what they each wrote on the card they made.



In my heart of hearts I believe it's true. Their Zio loved me when he was alive, and their Zio loves me still.


John's father called him Son. Out of affection, as a point of pride, as a sweet reminder - he called his youngest boy Son.

John's loving mother, like I, primarily called him by his given name - John.

Sometimes though, I called him 'Babe' too.

But in the hours after I learned that John died, something deep and maternal came out of me. I curled up into a ball and rocked back and forth - the thought of his pain sinking in. "My poor baby! My poor baby!" I wailed between sobs.

And his mother - though so stoic those first few days - would break down too. In tears, she would call out to God. She would call out out to whatever angels were nearby. When she did, it was to tell them who John was to her. She reminded us all who her youngest son was - in just three words.

"My beautiful boy."  

That's what she would say. Her beautiful boy.


So, John had many names to many people. And you can look away from me. You can avoid my gaze. You can try to forget that I am standing nearby.

But don't forget him.

Superman.
J-Mac.
Johnny Boy.
Chary.
Son.
Babe.

John.

Her beautiful boy.



And oh, his mother was right. John was beautiful.

We took a lot of photos together, he and I. They are all over my house now. Reminders of his lips. His kisses. Reminders of his arms around me and of his hands which spent so much time holding mine. I can still look at his hair and the little curly cue in the front which often fell onto his forehead. We took a lot of photos together and they help me to not forget.

John's eyes were the color of water. I stare at them in those photos now and I imagine that his eyes are a river that will carry me back to him. Forty days have gone by and I am so glad that I can still look into his eyes, even if it's just in the photos. I can still get lost in his gaze. If I try hard enough, I can still feel myself float away in those eyes of his that were the color of water.

His mother was right. John was such a beautiful boy.


I know that John wasn't aware of how handsome he was. He couldn't take it in, no matter how many times I told him. And yet, he was extraordinary at making me feel as if I were lovely, at least to him.

John told me I was beautiful, every single day. On our very first date. On days when we were fighting. On days when we were madly in love. John told me I was beautiful, even when I was struggling and during the times when he was struggling too.

Sometimes when he looked at me, he would say: "You are so beautiful it hurts."

Who will tell me I am beautiful now? It doesn't matter. From our first date on, John was the only one I wanted to be beautiful for. He was the only one then, he is the only one now.

He is the only one.


I was older than him. A lot older. Sixteen years. The thing is, other than age, we had so much in common.

Most people know that we shared a mutual love of superheroes. He particularly loved Superman, and my favorite for years has been Wonder Woman. I must admit though, John knew more about her story and her history than I ever did.

We each thought the other person was funny - even when other people would have argued that neither of us were.

John and I both shared an extraordinary love of dogs. One of our regular outings was to go and see the dogs at ARF or the SPCA. We would talk about what kind of dog we might own together one day.

We both loved movies and plays. Early on I lost count of which movies we'd seen together at the theater. There was more than once when it seemed as if we had seem them all.

And of course, we knew a lot of the same people. We both belonged to a community of people who were working to better their lives and who were helping others to do the same.

John told me he was committed to living a life of service to others. Service, compassion and empathy were John's professed and demonstrated goals in life. I was so inspired by him. I can only hope to be as committed as he was to those same things. 


On John and I's first date, we decided to see a movie. When I got to the theatre, before I got out of my car to meet John, I called a friend to tell her I was there.

"What are you wearing?" She asked, so I described my outfit in detail.

"What does your hair look like?" She then asked, so I described my usual style, my hair pulled into a bun.

"No, no, no. you have to wear it down," she told me. Wearing it down would be a signal to John that I was interested, she said.

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes. Wear it down."

So I took out my bun. Suddenly, I felt nervous. I took a picture of myself and sent it to her.

"Is this ok?" I asked.

"Yeah, that'll do." She said.

I still have the picture I sent her that day. I still have that picture of me, with my hair down, checking to make sure I looked ok for that first date.


John smiled when he saw me. "You look beautiful," he told me, setting that precedent for every day that would follow.

I wouldn't change a minute that went by or the words that John and I exchanged on that day. After all, it was the first step toward losing my footing in such a wonderful way. It was the first step toward our falling in love.


Our age difference was most notable when it came to pop culture references. We both did what we could to learn about the influences on each other's lexicon - though admittedly, he tried harder than I.

For our first Valentines Day together, in an act of profound respect for my generation, John went with me to see Pretty in Pink on the big screen. It turns out the movie is really bad. The dialogue. The story line. The acting. I mean, just really bad. Who knew? All of those John Hughes movies were my generation's cinematic exemplification of unrequited love and teen angst. Did we all have such bad taste in the 1980s?


Our age difference presented itself in other ways too. John could dance. In 1985 - I could sort of dance. That was the year John was born. Enough said.

He and I went river rafting together once. It was a four hour rafting trip and the first three hours were relatively calm. Our group floated down a serene river, relaxing in the raft. It was my favorite part of the trip. John on the other hand was bored out of his mind. He fidgeted and asked the guide when we'd hit the white water. That would be during the last hour of the trip, the guide explained. When that hour came, the ride became turbulent and wild. I hated it. What had happened to our serene ride? When were we going to relax again? John though, felt that we were finally getting what we paid for.  

He was young. I was not. The difference in age wasn't a deal breaker, but at some times it was more noticeable than others.


I don't know what John's main concern was in regard to my age. He never complained to me about my age or what it might mean for our future.

I had one concern though. I was worried that he'd end up having to take care of me in my old age. When I would hit the elderly age of eighty, John would still be a relatively young sixty four. I thought it was likely that as the years went by - the age difference would feel more conspicuous. What was I asking him to give up, in terms of his future, by wanting him to commit to me?

And of course, I worried about the inevitable fact that he was going to outlive me. What would that mean for John?

I think now about the time and energy I wasted worrying about those things. I think about all of the pain I caused myself because I worried about that one thing in particular.

I was sure that John would outlive me.



Most people who knew him, knew that John was incredibly generous. With his things. With his money. And especially with his time.

More than once he helped to foster a dog, at no cost, when the dog owner was in need.





He stopped by his parents' house whenever he could - often several times a week.

He helped people move.

He babysat children and ran errands for friends anytime they asked.

More than once, John dropped everything he was doing to bring a friend ice cream, because they were hurting over something unrelated to him.

These weren't always his favorite things to do. Sometimes he felt tired, or overwhelmed, or frustrated with hearing people cry about the same circumstances over and over again. Often he felt inadequate if he couldn't fix something or make someone feel better.

The thing is, no one knew he felt frustrated or tired or overwhelmed in these ways. He did things with love and offered his time and efforts graciously. When I'd comment on how nice he was to always be helping people, he'd say:

"I just want to be a good son."
"I just want to be a good friend."
"I just want to do what I can."

And I'd remind him - every time.

"John, you are a good son. You are a good friend."

John often went above and beyond and still, he always felt as if he couldn't do enough.


John hadn't been in love before and he thought a boyfriend was supposed to take care of everything. Sometimes I had to remind him of my independence. Other times, I know I took advantage of that part of John. Mostly though, I was touched, flattered, and all that much more in love with him because of it.

John was my flat tire rescuer. My chauffeur when my car was in the shop. My cookie delivery service when I was not feeling well. He brought me dinner when I was working late. He gave my son rides, and helped out my other friends as well.

I always called John my big strong arms, because that is part of who he was to me. The person I could count on, the person I could always reach, and the person who would always reach out to me.

I know there were times when he felt frustrated with all the minutiae I asked him to do for me. I was not always as generous with my time as he. I know there were times when he felt that his efforts were not reciprocated.

Despite his frustration though, he was always there for me. Always.

He would tell people that he was helping me with stuff because he was doing "boyfriend duty." He would tell me he was helping me with so much, because he wanted to be a good boyfriend.

But John wasn't just a good son, a good friend, and a good boyfriend.

John was a good man.


I have PTSD and I remember when I told him that sometimes I have panic attacks. It was early on in our relationship. I was shaking and embarrassed when I said the words out loud. When I finished he was quiet so I asked him what he thought.

"I think that must be really hard," he said.

"Yeah... Anything else?" I asked.

"Well, if you are worried I'm not going to want to go out with you anymore because of it, you don't have to worry. I'm not going to leave because you are hurting. I'm not going to do that."

In fact, I did have more than one panic attack when I was with him, and its true - he never left.

The third time it happened, I was in the corner, curled in on myself, sitting on floor with my back pressed against the wall. I looked up and watched as John pulled out his phone and opened up a memo he'd made. After reading it, he came over and kneeled in front of me.

"Is it ok if I touch you?" He asked.

I nodded my head and he put his hands on my knees.

"Can you take a deep breath and count to ten?" He asked.

So I did that, while he kneeled there in front of me, with his hands on my knees. I took a deep breath and counted to ten, and soon enough I felt safe again.

John didn't leave me when I was overwhelmed with PTSD symptoms. He didn't chastise me or tell me that I had to stop.

What John did do was look up the ways that you can help someone when they are having a panic attack. He made notes and kept the notes on his phone. I never asked him to do this. I didn't even know he'd done it. I never knew until that day when he helped me to feel safe again.

John saw that as his boyfriend duty too - making me feel safe. And like he did with so many other things, he went above and beyond.


There were nights when I'd get home from a difficult day. Maybe someone had hurt my feelings. Maybe I was the one who had hurt someone else's feelings. Sometimes I was just overwhelmed. I'd call John while I was crying. I'd tell him that I was afraid to go to sleep. I'd tell him I felt all alone.


"Keep me on the phone." He said one night.

"What do you mean?"

"Don't hang up. Just put the phone down on your pillow and keep me on the phone. You can go ahead and go to sleep. I won't hang up. You aren't alone Chelise, I'll be right here."

So we did that. He did that for me. We did it so many times I can't count. I'd call him at the end of the night, upset about one thing or another.

"Will you keep me on the phone?" I'd ask him.

"Yes. Always. I'm here."

I sleep with my phone in my bed now. I never did that until I started dating John. I do it still, now. I can't imagine I will ever stop.


I'm not an easy person to love. At least not romantically. I can be selfish and insensitive and demanding. My own mental illness challenges are enough to overwhelm even the strongest person. I know this about myself.

John used to say to me 'I love you more.' That wasn't possible, I explained to him. And then he told me that he didn't mean that he loved me more than I loved him.

John told me that he loved me more than the challenges that each of us was facing in our own recovery. He loved me more than the the difficult times. More than the conflict. More than misunderstandings. John always made sure that I knew, he loved me more.


In fact, John was incredibly good at making everyone feel cared about.

He volunteered at the small thrift store where I worked, and eventually he was hired and worked there too.

Because of its location in downtown Concord, homeless and indigent people would often come into the store. I would always watch them like a hawk, ready to ask them to leave if their behavior seemed suspicious.

Occasionally these people would come up to the counter and ask if they could have something for a discount - or even free - saying that they had very little or no money.

I would always say no. Sorry. No. I didn't want to set a precedent. I didn't want anyone to think they could take advantage of me.

But John? He would pull the money out of his own wallet and buy the person whatever it was they wanted.

Every. Single. Time.

John never boasted to anyone about the fact that he did this for people. And I never saw anyone return to take advantage of John. I saw many people thank him. I saw a few in tears.

If John and I passed someone who was begging on the street, John always gave them whatever he had, be it food or money or a jacket on days when it was cold. John would stop and talk to homeless people. He ensured that just for a moment, they didn't have to cope with that invisibility that so many homeless people do. John would have entire conversations with them.

I think he got this ability to talk to anyone about anything, from his beautiful mother, Jo. No matter where she goes, when Jo meets someone new, within minutes she knows their name and seemingly their entire life story. Somehow she learns deeply personal things from complete strangers. John's family says that Jo has always been like this, and because of it - no person was a stranger for long.

And that's how John lived his life too. There was no such thing as a stranger to him. If he didn't know someone, he'd set about befriending them.

When people were less fortunate than John and they asked him for help - he'd provide them with whatever he could, and he never humiliated anyone in the process.

John not only gave those that were suffering money or food, he was gifted at handing them their dignity at the very same time.


John liked languages and poetry. He liked to write and he loved Rumi. He had apps on his phone which prompted him each day to learn a new word from the Oxford Dictionary, and also a new word in Spanish. He was a communicator and he was always striving to do better.

Though not fluent, sometimes he spoke to me in Italian. Especially in the morning.

I am an early riser. He was not. Somehow he still managed to send me early morning texts so that I would always wake up to his loving words. Most of those messages were in Italian. and in those messages he always called me Bella - reminding me that he thought I was beautiful.

'Buon giorno Bella, ti amo' John would write.

'Ti amo anch'io.' I would reply.



I called him my Italian Superman, because that is who he was. I found him a t-shirt that had the Superman emblem in the same colors as the Italian flag.

It was one of his favorite shirts.

I have it now, and keep it in a basket beside my bed.



John had a lot of quirks too.

He hated book jackets. The removable covers. He took them off of every hardback book he owned. He could never explain it, but no book jacket was safe in his domain.

He cracked his knuckles and picked at his cuticles and chewed on his nails. His hands were a veritable treasure trove of activity. He would stop only if I were offering him my own hand to hold.

John nearly always wore flip flops. Even in the freezing cold. Even in the rain. He only wore closed toe shoes on special occasions. It became a favor to me. "I'm not wearing flip flops," he'd point out when we were going on a special date.


Today, I have a pair of his shoes at my bedside. A reminder of the silly things that he did just for me. 

John sang in the shower. Loudly. And when he was showering, he only ever closed the bathroom door as a favor to others. Sometimes, he forgot. Or perhaps there were times when he just couldn't be bothered and left the door open anyway.

For whatever reason, whenever this would happen - I'd laugh. Some of his quirks were hilarious, and this was one of them.


His bathroom antics aside, there were other things that made me laugh, too.

When eating, John couldn't leave anything on his plate. If it was creamy, saucy, or just crumbs - he was sure to compliment the cook by eating every single thing. Perhaps he was practicing the Italian ritual of fare la scarpetta - the process of taking bread and using it to scoop up every bit of sauce left on a plate. John did use bread sometimes. However, he also used his fingers when bread wasn't available. I am not sure that there is an Italian term for that habit, but it's what John did at the end of every meal.

John liked almost all food - but cucumbers weren't his favorite. And though he loved sweets - he never liked cake much, unless it was very dense. There were only a few things he wouldn't eat at all, and coffee flavored ice cream fell into that category. He did drink coffee occasionally though, and he preferred it black and not very hot. He'd down the entire cup at one time. He drank it only for the caffeine shot.

Among the many sweets that John did love, he had a favorite candy, See's Scotchmallows. I'd never been a big fan, until he brought me a box on our second date. Then, I was hooked.

John had no favorite food. No favorite color. He said he didn't have favorites - because how could a person be expected to choose?

I want to say he had no other favorites at all, but of course that wouldn't be true. There was one sports team that he favored above every other.


John loved all superhero and comic book inspired tv shows and films. Most know that he eagerly awaited every big screen superhero movie as it approached. Very few though know that one of his favorite comic book inspired movies was a more obscure film that came out when John was only ten years old.

V for Vendetta.


Early on he asked me to watch it with him, so I did.

In exchange, John watched When Harry Met Sally for me. His favorite line was the same as mine. Toward the end of the movie, it's New Year's eve and Billy Crystal rushes to Meg Ryan's side in order to deliver this adoring line:

"I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."





John and I talked about marriage. A lot.

We also talked about the fact that he wanted children. I was too old to have a baby, I told him. So he said we could adopt. I wasn't sure that I'd want that either, but we agreed to put off talking about it more until we felt we were ready to put the plans for marriage in place.

John did tell me what he'd want to name those children though, and I thought they were wonderful names. A boy would have been Giovanni. And for a girl, John wanted the name Astrid. So if we'd had children together and they'd been a girl and a boy, those would have been their names. 

I'm glad we didn't argue about how old I was or how practical it was or how realistic. I am glad we never got to the place of having that debate, because in the end it was irrelevant.

Besides, I am sure those children would have been lovely, Astrid and Giovanni. Both of them, adopted or not. Lovely, because they would have been loved by John and I.

John always wanted me to write about him. He told me that, all the time. Still, he probably wouldn't like these memories. He would want to argue with every one. Many of the things about John that made him endearing and wonderful - embarrassed him too.

He knew, without question, that he was loved - but somehow he managed to be unaware of how completely lovable he was. He thought he was lucky. Sometimes he felt weighed down by the responsibility that he deemed being loved brought along. John didn't realize what a gift it was to others, when he gave them the opportunity to love him.


I don't want to forget any of these things about John. Sometimes it hurts to remember, but it also brings me just as much joy. This is the dichotomy of life, I know. That grief and joy are so often wrapped up in one package.

People tell me that when the memories fade, so will the pain. 'Move on, move along, don't conjure up these things, just let him rest in peace', they suggest. 'How will you get over this?' They ask. 'One day you will want to meet someone new!' They explain.

But I don't want the memories to fade.

I know that time goes by and people change and that people grow and heal from tragic circumstances. I know that. I don't need anyone to tell me that I just need to let some time go by and that then I'll be 'ready again'. Whether that is true or not - it's not true for me now, and today I can't imagine it ever will be.

With John, I experienced real, true, deep love. At the end, things were very difficult and back and forth and challenging, but we were not over. And John's death is not something that makes letting him go easier, in fact it's just the opposite.

If I never date again - that's ok with me. They say there is a lot of value in retiring when you are at the top of your game. In so many ways, John was the top of my game when it came to being with someone. I got to have that. I can't ask for anything more.

I got the best of the best. So yeah, I know life goes on and you never know and things change, and all of that. But there were so many wonderful things about John, and about John and I together. He was the top of my game.

I will not forget.