Our Last Supper

Three years ago tonight, Ralf and I shared our last meal in our home together. Spaghetti and meatballs from one of our favorite local Italian joints – Ferrari’s.

I remember it well.

I asked if he would be okay with this dish yet again – because it was a frequent craving throughout my pregnancy – and he agreed. We had it delivered and then we sat next to each other at our kitchen counter, like we so often did. Now when I look back at this moment, I specifically remember resting my head on his shoulder and releasing a sigh of enjoyment as I devoured that first meatball.

“I don’t feel so good,” he said, with a mouth full of pasta.

“What do you feel?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I just feel off,” he explained.

“Yeah, you’ve been studying way too hard. You need a break.”

The promotional exam to become a lieutenant was just one week away. We were so close. He would be through with all the studying, his stress level would drop, and I’d have my husband back. We would finally be able to fully enjoy my pregnancy together. The maternity photo shoot was scheduled. He’d be able to join in on the baby shower planning and help me complete the registry – all of which I’d been doing without him because he was so preoccupied with preparing for his test. He would be building baby furniture and we’d be putting our son’s room together.

Finally.

Just seven more days.

I went to sleep much earlier than he did because, of course, he had to hit the books. Being the extremely light sleeper that I am, I woke up when I felt him climbing into bed hours later.

“Where are you?” he said, as he reached for me to pull me close.

“I love you so much, Maeghan. You really have no idea.”

This was not part of our regular bedtime routine. Sure, he told me he loved me regularly, but this time it was different. His tone of voice was serious, as if he needed to make sure I heard those words that night. It was as if he knew it would be the last night we would share in our bed.

Seven days later, he missed the exam because he was hospitalized awaiting his biopsy.

Eleven days later, he was removed from life support after his tumor unexpectedly ruptured and crushed his brain stem.

Three years later, I love and miss him just the same.

Death and Divorce: Comparing Apples to Oranges

My husband is gone.

Not gone like he stepped out to pick up some milk at the grocery store.

Not gone like working the night shift.

Not gone like on a fishing trip with his buddies.

Not even gone like staying elsewhere for a while as we try to figure out whether our relationship is still worth fighting for.

Gone like…gone….

To read full article, click here.

Love After Life

We never met while you were here on this Earth, but I feel very connected to you. You were the love of the man who now holds my heart. Like him, I have suffered the loss of a great love of my life.

I completely understand how he yearned for you, cried for you after you left – and how a part of him always will. I understand how even now he can be having a completely “normal” day and suddenly see your eyes in the face of a stranger or hear your laugh in the line of a song and be swallowed up in grief all over again. I understand how he may feel guilty at times because his mind occasionally has trouble justifying his right to be in love and feel happy again, even though his heart of hearts knows that happiness is what you would have wanted for him. I understand that while his soul overflows with pride and gratitude every time he gets to witness and share in another milestone with Mason and me, that there is an underlying, eternal ache for all the missed moments that he should have had with you and Anthony. A pain that is ever present but that he has learned to live with because he’s had to.

I understand that I will never be you, because, how could I be? You were the only you there could ever be. And from what I’ve been able to gather from stories, pictures, and my own imagination, you were special and beautiful both inside and out. I understand that he doesn’t need or want me to be you, either. His heart has grown despite his suffering and has made additional room for me, with your space completely intact forever. As it should be.

You were you and left too soon. It was completely out of your control.

I am me, and I’m still here. And while it’s impossible to know for how long, I hope to honor your legacy by giving him all the love you planned to. I know that I can, because it’s the same love that I envisioned giving to Ralf until old age. But like you, he had to leave sooner than anticipated.

We move forward into this unpredictable life, but you are and always will be a part of our story.

So will Anthony.

So will Ralf.

And what a crazy, tragically beautiful story it is.

I hope we make you proud.

Widowhood and Hashtags

It finally happened. I’d read about it in some widow groups that I’m a member of, but had never personally experienced it myself. I’ve even had the audacity to think to myself, “Wow, these women know some really insensitive people!” And now, I stand corrected…

To read full post, click here.

Grief Book Review: My Favorite Color is Blue. Sometimes.

Grief is complicated. It brings so many emotions that can be difficult to feel, let alone explain, for adults. So how about for children? How can we guide little souls through such a complex and uniquely individual process in a way that is understandable and relatable to them? 

My Favorite Color is Blue. Sometimes. by Roger Hutchison does an exquisite job of describing the feelings of a griever in a profound yet simple way through colors and art. It’s a beautiful book that I’ve added to my collection of grief resources, and I will absolutely be reading it to my little man.

Click here to order your copy!

To learn more about Roger Hutchison, you can visit his website, follow him on Instagram, or find him on Facebook.

Bubble Baths and Pinot Grigio

I decided to take an Epsom Salt bubble bath tonight because I worked out for the first time in a very long time yesterday and I am SORE. I played some soft instrumental music on Pandora, lit some candles, poured myself a glass of red wine, then immersed these achy, out-of-shape muscles in a foam-filled, lavender scented tub.

I lay there for a few minutes with my eyes closed, trying to consciously and voluntarily relax every last muscle in my body. Suddenly, a memory visited me that was so incredibly vivid, it brought me to tears.

Tears of great joy and gratitude for having shared that moment with you.

And tears of immense sorrow and longing for all the moments that were taken away from us.

Can you guess the memory that triggered the tears tonight? I’m sure you can. Here is every detail I can remember, in hopes that writing them down will preserve them better.

I was stuck in traffic while driving home after a very long and stressful day at the hospital. You’d been off that day and you were waiting for me to get home. I remember you sent me a text telling me to hurry because you were starving.

I pulled my little black Honda Civic into our driveway, next to your beat up, filthy, hand-me-down Toyota Avalon, expecting to find you sleeping (and snoring) on the couch as I so often did. Instead, when I opened the front door, I instantly heard our wedding song (Bless the Broken Road by Rascal Flatts) blaring from the second floor. I called to you, but no answer. So I went looking for you upstairs.

I followed the music into our bathroom, where I found you waiting for me in the bathtub covered in bubbles, surrounded by dozens of tiny flameless candles, a thin crust Hawaiian pizza from Dominos, and two wine glasses filled with Barefoot Pinot Grigio.

I must have had the goofiest grin on my face.

You said something like, “I thought you could use this after the day you had.”

And you were so right.

I joined you in the tub and we ate our pizza, drank our wine, and talked about everything under the sun, as we so often did. It couldn’t have been more perfect if you’d tried.

I miss you.

Life continues to move full speed ahead, and I’ve been granted new and beautiful blessings.

But I still miss you.

I miss your smile.

I miss the pizza.

I miss the wine.

I miss the conversations.

I miss all the things we will never share together.

And yet, I could never adequately explain how thankful I am for all the things we did share – like that night in the tub.

Still Fighting 

Life can be really hard sometimes.

Unfair.

Cruel.

And there seems to be no rhyme or reason for any of it.

Sometimes I find myself wondering why some people are given such a heavy burden to carry. Why do some encounter roadblock after roadblock, obstacle after obstacle, when they are trying so desperately to pull themselves out of the depths of despair, while others seems to have their lives follow some perfect, cookie-cutter plan that they’ve crafted.

I don’t know.

When I have these thoughts I’m reminded of one of the last conversations I had with Ralf in the hospital. We’d just finished meeting with the neurosurgeon at University of Miami Hospital to discuss our plan of action. It was the first time that I think Ralf fully grasped the severity of what was happening. It was the moment he realized that his life as he knew it would be ending – and maybe really ending

After everyone left and it was just the two of us, I looked at him and said, “Don’t ask yourself why this is happening. If you ask why, you’ll just drive yourself crazy.” I realize now that I was really speaking to myself, because these questions were heavy on my own heart.

Why now? When we are awaiting the arrival of our first baby?

Why my husband, such a beautiful and genuinely good person?

What did we do to deserve this?

He looked at me shaking his head and responded, “No. I don’t ask myself why.”

I don’t think I fully appreciated the profundity of those words until much later. 
He didn’t wonder why. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t believe that he was entitled to anything. He knew that maybe some things in this life just aren’t meant to be understood- that our human minds are simply incapable. 

With everything I’ve already been through, I wish I could say that I’ve met my “quota” of hardships, but it’s just not true. Life is an endless cycle of ups and downs. Hopefully, the hard times can serve as reminders of how important it is to cherish the good times. To be grateful for all that we hold dear, understanding that nothing should be taken for granted. 

Don’t ask why. 

Instead, just believe in your strength. Even if you can’t see it. Even if you have to dig into the deepest trenches of your soul. Find that last ounce of faith and hold on for dear life. Because that last drop of faith will carry you through until you reach the next moment filled with happiness and gratitude. 

Life can be really hard. But you can be equally strong. Even if that strength means you need to shed some tears. To get angry for a bit. To scream or yell your head off alone in your car.

Do what you need to do and then get back up and stay in the fight. 

Whatever comes my way, I know I can make it through, because I already have.

I promise that you can, too. 

National Grief Awareness Day

This is the message I want all my fellow grievers to hear today:

Grief is part of who you are now – and that’s okay. In many ways, if appropriately channeled, grief can transform you into a better and more compassionate version of the person you once were.

You are not weak. Your emotions are valid and warranted and the only way to heal is to allow yourself to feel them.

You are not disloyal because you’ve made (or are working on making) a conscious effort to continue your life on this earth without someone you never thought you’d have to miss. Please believe that you deserve happiness.

You are not ungrateful for still hurting over what you’ve lost even though your life may have brought you new blessings you never imagined. You can grieve the past and appreciate the present all at once.

You are not selfish. It’s not only okay but absolutely necessary to take care of yourself, to make yourself a priority, and to say no or to walk away from things that bring you down. It is possible to wish others well and still not accept poor treatment directed your way. Not everyone will understand or approve of your journey, and you don’t need them to.

Your grief will change over time, but it will never end. As they say, it’s the price we pay for great love.

Life is not black and white, and grief sure as hell isn’t either. You’re learning to navigate a very grey and unpredictable terrain and you are doing the best you can. The most important thing you can do? Keep going.

Most importantly, remember that you are not alone in your grief. Sometimes it will definitely feel that way, but I promise that you are seen and you are heard by someone.

I hope you spend today honoring the person you’ve lost in some special way. And if you happen to find yourself shedding a few tears while you do – I hope you remember that it’s okay.

A Perpetual Work in Progress

Judgment: we are all guilty of it and we’ve all fallen victim to it at some point or another. Why? Unfortunately it seems that it’s part of our human nature to assume, to jump to conclusions, to believe we know about something that we actually don’t understand.

Even before I lost Ralf, I suffered from some minor anxiety. I would easily stress over things that I realize now were pretty silly. When I remember planning the wedding – OH MY GOD! I had a complete and total meltdown over the invitations being printed vertically instead of horizontally. I’m talking a full-blown temper tantrum in my car with tears and screaming and hitting the steering wheel. Over a piece of paper that most of our guests would end up throwing out and that cost next to nothing because we were putting the invitations together ourselves. Granted, it was a time of high stress, but in that moment I was losing sight of the bigger picture. What mattered was that I was going to be marrying my best friend and not a tiny detail that would likely go unnoticed by everyone other than me.

Since losing Ralf so quickly and unexpectedly, my anxiety has become significantly worse. Sometimes there is a trigger for feeling anxious, like getting in my car before work in the morning and realizing I’m low on gas. Other times, though, there is no single incident that sets me off. Of course, the anxiety I’ve always been prone to is now magnified by depression caused by grief and the sleep deprivation that comes along with parenthood. I often have a hard time being in large crowds of people without feeling like I am going to jump out of my skin. I can barely handle traffic. I am forgetful and I misplace my keys and my phone constantly. Some days it’s hard to simply function because I’m in such a fog.

I haven’t been diagnosed with an actual mental illness by a professional, and I believe my anxiety and bouts of depression are pretty “typical” or “expected” considering what I’ve been through. But now that I’ve become familiar with these feelings – it makes me so much more understanding of people who have battled with them their whole lives – even perhaps without a “reason” to.

How does this tie into judgment?

Unfortunately, mental illness is often accompanied by stigma. You’re expected to just “snap out of it” or “suck it up.” People who have that mindset don’t realize that a person who is truly suffering from anxiety or depression wants nothing more than to stop feeling that way. They don’t realize the enormous amount of effort it can take, and that effort is sometimes not enough. For me, I have to fight daily to stay positive and remind myself of all my blessings so that I don’t stay focused solely on the tragedy I’ve survived. I have to stay active. It really helps when I’m exercising regularly and eating clean. Speaking to a counselor and journaling are also helpful. When I do all of these things consistently, I am able to keep the negative feelings under control most days. Some people aren’t as lucky. Some people can’t shake them even when they take all these same actions in addition to medication.

I remember not long before Ralf passed, there were two firefighters in his department who took their own lives within months of each other. Both were young. Both were fathers. Some comments were made about how their actions were “cowardly” and that they should have at least wanted to keep living for their children. It seems like it should be that simple, right?

It’s not.

I have never been suicidal, so I can’t even begin to imagine the level of desperation a person must feel to want to give up on life. To actually believe that your existence is burdening those you love most and that they would be better off without you. It’s heartbreaking.

We shouldn’t speak in absolutes, and yes, there are cases where people are offered help and choose not to accept it. I’m talking about the ones who need and want the help but don’t know how to seek it. Who are scared of being mocked or told to “just deal.” The ones who hide behind what seems like a “normal” life but are actually stuck in a black hole of misery and unable to climb out.

They matter.

There is nothing “wrong” with a person plagued by mental illness any more than a person who is diagnosed with high blood pressure, or diabetes, or cancer, or any other physical ailment. Mental health is a real issue that deserves real compassion.

Now, I am going to contradict myself just a little and speak in absolutes:

We ALL are fighting inner battles.

We ALL have parts of ourselves that are sometimes difficult to acknowledge.

We ALL need help from time to time.

We are ALL a work in progress.

I suffer from anxiety. I have to fight through intermittent bouts of depression, which are fewer and further apart as more time passes. But I’m still a good person and there is nothing “wrong” with me. My anxiety is just one aspect of who I am; it does not define me as a person. Perhaps one of the most detrimental forms of judgment is the one we often cast upon ourselves. I am working on being more forgiving and understanding of myself, and I encourage you to do the same.

Messages from Beyond

I often reminisce about conversations that Ralf and I shared. That was one of my favorite things about our relationship – the way we could chat for hours on end about virtually anything – ranging from silly and irrelevant to profoundly deep. Memories of those heart-to-heart exchanges are a great source of comfort and peace for me now. We spoke about death numerous times, perhaps because of the nature of his career, or maybe because somewhere deep inside, our subconscious minds knew that we needed to. We always agreed that we would want the person left behind to continue living a happy and full life.

We were both huge fans of Robin Williams. We loved his movies and owned a copy of one of his HBO standup comedy specials, which we would pop into the DVD player whenever we wanted a guaranteed good laugh. We even got to see him live at the Hardrock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida a few years before our wedding. There is one Robin Williams experience that sticks out above all the rest, though. I’ll never forget the night we watched What Dreams May Come. To simplify a very complex screenplay, it’s the story of a man who travels through different realms of the afterlife to reach his deceased wife. After watching that movie together, Ralf and I promised that if there were in fact a way to communicate after death, that we would somehow find a way to do so – and I truly believe that he does.

Whenever I’m feeling particularly down, Ralf finds a way to reach me. It’s usually something subtle, like a song that comes on the radio at the very moment that I need it to, hearing from someone I haven’t spoken to in ages, or having a stranger reach out to me to tell me how Ralf touched his or her life. There have been other signs since Ralf’s death, though, that have been blatant and undeniable. Even members of both our families who consider themselves to be agnostic, or even atheist, have admitted that some occurrences have defied any logical reasoning. These are the ones that stick out the most…

A Numbers Guy, Through and Through

I was very blessed to have my mom care for Mason while he was an infant and I had to return to work. I would spend my lunch hour with him as often as I could. One day, after enjoying a mid-day visit with my little man, my phone started ringing as I turned the corner into the parking lot of the clinic. I had my phone connected to the Bluetooth system, so it took a moment before a name registered on the screen. I remember freezing when it finally appeared.

“Incoming call from Ralf Garcia.”

At this point, both my mind and my heart were racing. My immediate thought was that maybe Ralf’s phone number had finally been reassigned to a new Sprint subscriber. But even so, why would that person dial my number? Then I realized the phone number that was appearing right under his name was slightly different from his – the area code and first two digits were off, but the last five were identical. Then I said to myself, “Maybe it’s a glitch in the Bluetooth and it’s registering as Ralf because the phone number is so similar. Someone probably just has the wrong number.”

I pressed the answer button and heard nothing but static noise.

“Hello?”

The line went dead.

“Hello?!”

I tried calling back three times, only to encounter an automated voice stating that it was not currently a working number, urging me to hang up and try again. And when I manually dialed Ralf’s number, I heard the same message.

There was another occasion involving his phone number. I went to visit Ralf’s gravesite on his birthday with my parents. On the way there, we stopped at a flower shop to pick up a nice arrangement. I stepped outside for some fresh air while my father made small talk with the florist and wrapped up the transaction. My mom could tell that I was feeling anxious, so she joined me. We were talking about something – I can’t recall exactly what right now – when suddenly her voice faded into background noise and my jaw dropped.

“Oh my God, no way!” I gasped in disbelief.

“What is it?” she asked in a concerned way that only a mother can.

“Look at the store’s phone number on that sign,” I responded.

We hadn’t noticed it until then because it was awkwardly placed on the side of a refrigerator they kept out front. Their phone number was almost exactly the same as Ralf’s, with only the last digit being different. I’m not quite as good as Ralf was at calculating statistical probability (he had a degree in mathematics), but I’m guessing those chances were pretty slim.

Tattoos and Nicknames

Not long before I met Vinnie on Facebook through a support group for widows and widowers, I had posted a picture on Instagram of a quote I’d come across and really liked. At the time, I had no idea that it originated from the story of Winnie the Pooh. When Vinnie and I started talking, exchanging stories, and getting to know each other via Facebook Messenger, he asked me if I had any tattoos. I told him I didn’t, and then he shared a picture of his with me. Beautifully written across his forearm were the same words that had caught my attention just days earlier, as if alerting me of something significant that was to come.

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

After Vinnie and I had already met in person and our relationship was blossoming, I was invited to have dinner with some friends. Max and Ralf had become best buddies through work, and Max was actually the person who spent the most time with Ralf during his final months because they were studying for the Lieutenant’s exam together. I had become very close with his wife, Melissa, after losing Ralf because she was there for me when I needed her most.

That night, like so many before, we shared food, beer, and great conversation – just with a piece of our quartet missing. We started reminiscing, exchanging funny Ralf anecdotes. Somehow, the conversation led to Max recounting some of their studying shenanigans. When he got to this part, I remember making eye contact with Melissa, who already knew about Vinnie, as we both tried to subdue our reactions.

The story goes like this:

Among the many books that they had to review for the exam, there were two authors who penned a lot of the material. One’s last name was Salka, or something similar, and the other’s name was Vincent Dunn. Apparently their pictures appeared somewhere in the text and through their endless hours of studying and delirium, Ralf and Max each took on one of these authors’ personas. Ralf would call Max “Salka” because he had a more rugged appearance like him, while Max would tease Ralf by saying he had a “pretty boy look” similar to Vincent Dunn.

And what did Max nickname Ralf?

“Vinnie.”

They had a running joke whenever they were quizzing each other on proper protocol in different scenarios. When one would stump the other, he would say, “Come on, man! WWVD – What would Vinnie do?” They even jokingly used it as a hashtag.

An Unexplained Welcome Gift

Mason and I joined Ralf’s aunt, cousin, and grandmother in Disney World this past weekend while Vinnie was out of town working. They arrived in Orlando on Friday afternoon and we met them at Animal Kingdom on Saturday morning. We had a wonderful time seeing all the different animals and enjoying the rides. On Saturday evening, we headed back to the hotel for some dinner. We would be staying in a different room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge than the one they had the night before, because Ralf’s aunt requested one that would be more handicap accessible for Ralf’s grandmother.

As soon as we walked through the door, we all commented on how nice the suite was and noticed that someone had left three complimentary stuffed animals on the couch. We agreed that it was a nice touch. Then we quickly made our way out to the balcony in hopes of seeing more animals, since we’d heard they tend to be more active at dusk. Mason squealed in excitement at the sight of a giraffe.

I stepped back inside to head to the bathroom, and something on the couch caught my attention that, for some reason, none of us had noticed before. Resting just to the left of the stuffed lion was a beautiful painting of Mickey holding hands with a firefighter.

I froze, completely speechless. And as Maria and Caro trailed in behind me, so did they.

“Maria, did you do this? Did you mention our story to anyone?”

Nearly in tears, as was I, she promised me that she had not. I quickly texted Ralf’s parents to see if by chance they were responsible – of course, they weren’t. I even called the front desk the next morning, explained the significance of the gift to our family, and nobody could explain why we’d received it. We are still waiting on a call back from Guest Relations.

 

Could all of these examples be nothing more than very lucky coincidences? Someone could definitely argue that point. But I choose to believe that they are much more than that. I choose to believe that they result from the power of a great love that exists beyond the parameters of space or time. If I’m wrong and in the end there is nothing more to death than “lights out” I won’t know the difference anyway, right?

So why not believe?

I absolutely do.

 

firefighter painting

 

UPDATE

 

mug

 

While visiting Vinnie’s parents in Buffalo a few months ago, I discovered this mug in their cabinet as I was about to prepare myself a morning cup of coffee. Vinnie recognized the picture when I pointed it out to him. He’d completely forgotten that his mom (a huge Disney fanatic) owned a mug with the same image that mysteriously appeared in our hotel room last year. I immediately snapped a photo of it and sent it to Ralf’s aunt, Maria. She couldn’t believe it either. She also made an interesting point. She said that maybe that mug, although unbeknownst to anyone for quite some time, was a sign of what was to come: a Disney loving family crossing paths with a firefighter family. What an awesome thought!

I also asked Maria if she ever heard back from Guest Relations. Nobody was ever able to tell her exactly how that picture ended up in our hotel room. And, she was told that there was nobody in that department by the name I’d been given from the front desk. We may never know if it was an anonymous gift (perhaps someone who recognized us and knew our story?) or just some crazy coincidence (maybe it was simply a gift intended as an apology for the previous room not being handicap accessible and it just happened to have a fireman in it?)…

It doesn’t really matter, though, because wherever and whoever it came from, the inspiration to give it came from somewhere – perhaps from a source beyond what our human minds can imagine.