A Love Without Limits

Mason is finally asleep and I am very uncomfortably lying next to him in his Lightning McQueen bed. What a challenge bedtime was tonight! He is currently obsessed with legos and was building a firetruck with Vinnie as I told him it was time to go potty and then night-night. He threw a huge tantrum because there was one tiny little piece missing and he didn’t want to leave the truck unfinished. We tried reasoning with him and explaining it was already late and that we’d look again in the morning because the piece was nowhere to be found, but in true “threenager” fashion he dropped to the floor and screamed bloody murder for the godforsaken lego piece. (Can you tell what a huge fan I am?)

I was left with no other choice but to pick him up kicking and screaming and bring him to his bed. At first it was that defiant, exaggerated, and – for lack of a better word – bratty cry that small children often use when they don’t get their way. After a solid half hour or so, though, it turned into a genuine sob. He cried as if he’d lost the most important thing in the world to him. His cheeks were covered in his salty tears and his little squeals of agony were absolutely heart wrenching. So much so that the disciplinarian in me took a backseat to the nurturing mother that could not stand to see her baby in so much pain. I pulled him close, told him I was sorry he was so sad, and cried with him. Then I held him until he finally calmed down and closed his eyes.

He won’t remember this moment when he is older. Hell, it’ll probably be forgotten in the morning when he wakes up. Lord knows that legos are not worth that kind of heartache and that’s a lesson he will inevitably learn as he faces real challenges in his life, as we all do.

The truth is, it wasn’t about the lego for me. That little white snap block will turn up somewhere in this house and all will be right in Mason’s world once more.

What I was really thinking about in those moments was all the things I won’t be able to protect him from as he grows up. I hope he lives a wonderful life and that future struggles are minimal, but many things will be completely out of my control.

And then I thought about my mom.

What she must have felt witnessing me go through the darkest moments of my life and not being able to make it all go away. Watching me bury my husband with a huge pregnant belly and all the difficult changes I had to endure in such a short period of time thereafter. I know she would have traded places with me in a heartbeat to spare me from the pain I was feeling.

But she couldn’t.

There was nothing she could do other than to be there, listen, hold me as I cried, and support me unconditionally as I started to move forward with my new life. I hope, from the very bottom of my heart, that she knows that was enough and that the gratitude I feel for her during that time of my life is second to none.

And I hope one day Mason will look back on his life and remember a mom who’d do anything for him – even if it meant helping him build the same lego firetruck a million times to see him smile.

 

SC2_7247
Photo taken by Melissa Perez of Simply Captivating

The Five Things Nobody Told Me the Day My Husband Died

You’d think that the worst part of becoming a widow is, well, the obvious: losing your husband. If and when you actually become one, though, you are forced to learn that the physical loss of the man you exchanged vows with is just the tip of the iceberg. All the really hard crap lies underneath the surface. I wish I could tell you that it can only get better from here, but I want you to hear the truth. I want to tell you the things that nobody told me on the day my husband died…

To read full post, click here.

To My Fellow Imperfect Parents

A couple of months ago, while sitting in the waiting room at my dentist’s office, Good Morning America was on the television. Kyra Sedgewick and Kevin Bacon were the featured guests, and they were talking about their experiences raising their children. Kyra said something that I thought was pretty powerful.

She stated, “They’re born kind of perfect, you just have to try not to mess them up too much.”

Wow. Isn’t that the truth? But then again – it seems like a lot of pressure and responsibility, doesn’t it? Then I thought, “Oh God, am I messing up my kid?!” And once again the self-doubt settled in…

To read full post, click here.

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.

My Expanded Heart

I met Ralf just a few months before my 18th birthday. Even with as young as we were at the time, I knew very early on in our relationship that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. We instantly shared a very special connection that was apparent to our family and closest friends.  Alike in so many ways, to the point that some friends would jokingly say we were the “same person” – just in male and female form. There were definitely differences, though. I was the passionate emotional one, he was patient and level-headed.

One of the biggest obstacles I faced after losing Ralf, was learning who I was without him. I’d been with him for so long; I’d transitioned into adulthood with him. The lines between his likes, his preferences, his dreams and mine now seemed blurred. So much of the person I’d become was because of what he and I had learned and accomplished together. Now I suddenly was forced to discover a new self . A self that would have to exist without Ralf’s presence in the physical form. A self that had no choice but to continue without him. A self that would have to experience initiation into parenthood alone, while simultaneously trying to rediscover my own identity as a newly widowed young woman.

It was hard, and oftentimes still is.

Just the other night at dinner, Vinnie and I were having a conversation about this. I was explaining to him that learning to be in a relationship with a man who isn’t Ralf has been challenging. Not because I’m comparing one man to another, because there is no comparison – they are two completely separate people. Not because I’m lacking any feelings for Vinnie, because I am very much in love with him. Not because of anything Vinnie has or hasn’t done, because he is nothing but patient and understanding of everything I go through. It’s been challenging because I’d only ever experienced a long-term, committed, adult relationship with one other person for nearly 11 years. Grief and life after loss look different for every individual. I imagine, though, that most people who have lost their spouses can relate on at least some level.

You think you’ll never be truly happy again.

You believe that life will never be enjoyed to the same extent it once was.

From my own experience, I’ve learned that it is possible to be truly and equally happy again – just in a different way.

Last weekend, I treated Vinnie to go see Incubus in concert for his birthday. We had such an incredible time together. I had several moments throughout the show where I felt immense gratitude for a great night with my new life partner. And yet, there were many thoughts and memories of Ralf, as Incubus was one of his favorite bands.

At the end of the show, the crowd cheered and the band reappeared on stage for an encore performance. The song they played is not very well-known or popular, and it was one of Ralf’s favorites. It was a regular on his playlist during our boating adventures. When I heard the intro, it brought a smile to my face and tugged at my heart all at once. The next morning, Vinnie and I were reminiscing about all the fun we’d had the night before. I’d already mentioned my memories of that final song to him. He said, “I can’t believe, of all songs, they chose that one for the encore. He is always with you.”

He is always with me. Ralf’s memory and spirit will forever be anchored in the depths of my heart.

And now, Vinnie is with me, too.

Reminding me daily just how much my heart is capable of expanding.

Showing me that it really is possible to love what was while cherishing what is – all the time, every day.

 

concert shot

Silencing Negativity

A few weeks ago, I conquered a fear. I crossed something off of my bucket list. I put all of my excuses aside and proved to myself that I could do something I believed I would never have the courage to do.

And guess what? It felt damn GOOD!

For years, many friends and family members had been trying to convince me to audition for The Voice. I always found so many reasons not to. All of my former excuses were still “true” this time around – and with motherhood added into the crazy mix – but I finally found the strength somewhere deep inside of me to get past them. Don’t get me wrong – it was a constant battle up until I actually found myself standing in front of the judge and singing.

I want to share the three main recurring negative thoughts that I was dealing with, and how I worked to shift my thinking:

  1. “I don’t have time.”

We are all guilty of using this excuse at some point or another – and to a certain extent, it is true. The lifestyle of our culture is very fast paced and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in a week, let alone a day, to get everything done. In reality, though, it’s not about “finding” the time. We make time for the things that matter most to us.

When the negative voice inside my head tried telling me that I didn’t have time to go out of town for the weekend on a whim, I told it that if nothing else my little family could use a weekend getaway. I told it that the laundry and the groceries could wait one more week. When it tried to tell me that auditioning was pointless because I wouldn’t be able to move forward in the process even if I did get chosen – because of lack of time and all the responsibilities waiting at home – I told it that exploring a new city I’d never been to would be a great experience. And it was.

  1. “I’m being selfish.”

At times, I found myself feeling guilty for wanting to do this. Yes, guilty. My brain understood all along how unreasonable that sounded but my heart took a bit of convincing. This is something that I think mothers struggle with a lot. We get so wrapped up in being the nurturers, the givers, that we neglect our own needs. We tell ourselves that our dreams aren’t important, or that they have to take a backseat to our parental responsibilities. Yes, being a parent is a huge undertaking– one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

But you know what else? Happy moms raise happier kids. There is no better way to teach your children that they can do or be anything they choose than to show them that you believe in yourself that same way. The saying that reminds us we can’t pour from an empty cup – it’s so true. Taking care of ourselves, nurturing our own spirits and well-being, is not selfish – it’s necessary.

  1. “I’m not good enough.”

This is a big one and probably the most difficult type of negative self talk to silence. I struggle with this daily. The voice in my head tells me that I’m not really that talented, that nobody really wants to hear me, and I tend to believe it. When it came to auditioning, that same inner voice laughed at me. It told me that I was being ridiculous for even thinking I might have a chance.

I told it to shut up and sit down. I told it that I wasn’t auditioning for anyone’s approval. I told it that I was doing this for myself – to prove to my insecurities, once and for all, that I could.

I didn’t make it past the first audition. I wasn’t really feeling anxious at all until it was my turn to sing. I know I didn’t sound bad – I just didn’t sound my best because my voice was shaky from the nerves. When we were sent on our way, I called Vinnie to come pick me up. The first thing he asked was, “Are you okay?”

“I really am,” I responded.

“I’m so freaking proud of myself.”

I still am.

It’s not always about the outcome – it’s about the process. That’s where we learn the most about ourselves. And you know what this process taught me?

I can.

I did.

IMG_4536
This moment was captured during our awesome weekend getaway.

Ever Present

I remember the day I found out I was pregnant with Mason. It feels like it was just yesterday – and I know that I’ll probably still be saying that twenty years from now. I was home alone, it was late afternoon. I’d just been to urgent care the previous night because I wasn’t feeling well and was prescribed some pretty hefty antibiotics. They’d tested for pregnancy and the result was negative. On this afternoon, though, after I’d already taken three of the fourteen pills dispensed to me, something prompted me to take a home pregnancy test – just in case. I remember opening the bathroom cabinet to grab something else, and there was the First Response logo glaring at me.

I thought to myself, “There’s no way I could be pregnant already. We just started trying. Plus they just tested me yesterday. I’m being ridiculous.”  

I watched that second, very faint and barely visible pink line appear on the result window of the test stick. My jaw dropped. Just to be extra certain, I stopped at Walgreens on the way to my parents’ house. They were waiting for me to join them for dinner, as I often did while Ralf was working. I purchased one of those digital tests – the kind that clearly say “pregnant” or “not pregnant” – because I was in a bit of denial. I remember quickly hugging my mom and rushing past her to get to the bathroom. Sure enough, there was the word I was praying I’d see.

“Pregnant.”

I had to sit through that dinner with my parents, wanting to explode with happiness but having to keep it under wraps. It took every last drop of willpower not to call or text Ralf and spill the beans – I am THE worst when it comes to keeping these kinds of secrets. When he arrived home from teaching late that night, I greeted him at the front door with both tests in hand. I remember how the expression on his face revealed the same shock and disbelief, yet utter joy, that I was feeling. Then, in true Ralf fashion, he pulled out a calendar and started calculating timelines and crunching numbers.

Ralf went into full-force study mode very early on in my pregnancy to prepare for his upcoming promotional exam to become lieutenant. I often felt lonely through the whole experience because he wasn’t able to participate much. If he wasn’t working, he was hitting the books until the wee hours of the morning. I had to go to many of my appointments alone, created the baby registry by myself, went to test out strollers and look at car seats without him. It was really hard, and if I’m to be honest, our relationship was disconnected and strained at times. But we both kept telling ourselves that it was temporary, and I knew his goal was to move up the ranks in his career to better provide for our soon-to-be little family.

I’ll never forget a conversation we had one night in the hospital. Our family had just left after a very difficult discussion with the neurosurgeon – the moment I think we all realized the severity of what was happening. It was the only time Ralf revealed how scared he was, when he finally broke down. Up until then, I kept asking him to let me be there for him, telling him that I didn’t need him to be strong for me. I told him that I wasn’t going anywhere, that we’d figure it out no matter how bad things got, that I would make sure he could be an active participant in Mason’s life regardless of how handicapped he might become.

With tears streaming down his face, rubbing my belly in such a way that it almost seemed like he knew it would be the last time, he looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be stuck in a wheel chair. I want to be there. I want to hold him.” Two days later, Ralf was on life support.

Some might call it naivete, but I really believe that Ralf was finding ways to be present in the decision making even when he had only machines keeping him alive. On the morning that I had to tell his family that Ralf had been off sedation for over twelve hours and wasn’t waking up on his own, I also told them that I planned to change the baby’s name. I wanted to name him after his father. Later that same day, as I sat next to Ralf’s hospital bed, I happened to look up at his IV bag and saw the name of the brand.

“Mason-Tayler.”

I heard Ralf’s message loud and clear. He wanted me to stick to the name we had chosen together. So I compromised and only changed his middle name.

Since Mason was born, I keep discovering all kinds of little “coincidences” that I know in my heart are not actually arbitrary at all.  Most recently, Ralf spoke to me in a huge way. I’ve been unhappy with the situation at Mason’s current daycare for some time, and have been looking into other options. I went to tour a private school that my good friend recommended, and instantly loved it when I walked through the doors. It had the right vibe – reminded me a lot of my own upbringing. I immediately fell in love with the school and registered Mason for both the summer camp and the upcoming school year. When I excitedly shared the news with Ralf’s parents, his dad informed me that Ralf attended a school by the very same name in Miami for prekindergarten. I had no idea. I realized that Ralf had chosen this school for Mason even before I stepped foot in the building.

There’s another memory that I seem to revisit repeatedly. One day during Ralf’s hospitalization, I was told I couldn’t be in the same room with him for twenty-four hours. He received some testing that exposed him to radiation, and since I was pregnant, they wanted to be certain the baby would not be affected in the least. Although I understood and appreciated the concern, I was heartbroken and frustrated. I hated that I could’t be right next to him every step of the way. I expressed this to Ralf over text and his response will stay with me until my dying day.

“You are here. You’re always with me.”

Except, he is the one that is always with me.

With us.

10402025_752880371495474_6431809515301416950_n

To My Widowed Sister

Just a couple of months ago,  I had a fellow widow reach out to me. On January 17th of this year, she unwillingly and involuntarily entered into this lifelong club of young women who lost their husbands long before they were supposed to – before having the opportunity to share a lifetime of memories with them, of building a family, of growing old together. She told me that she’d come across my blog and thanked me because my story gave her hope. While I was thankful that my words reached someone who truly needed them, I have to be honest – I felt helpless. She said she felt “destroyed” and I hurt so much for her because I can completely empathize – something that not everyone can truthfully say. I wanted so much to comfort her, but all I could muster at the time was, “I am so sorry. I know it doesn’t feel like it now and you will never be the same, but it will get a little easier.”

I’ve been reflecting long and hard on my conversations with her, asking myself what I can do to help – and after the anxiety I’ve been dealing with the last couple of days, I realized that I may have lied to her. Not intentionally, of course, but in hindsight perhaps the promise that “things will get easier” is a gross oversimplification of the the grieving process altogether. I realize that grief is very unique to every individual, and that hers may not look exactly like mine. I’m hoping, though, that my recent “aha” moment can offer some insight. My widowed sister: this one is for you.

I remember during my first few months as a widow, it was often so hard to nod in agreement when someone told me to stay strong, to remember that everything happens for a reason or in God’s timing, to take solace in the knowledge that Ralf was in a better place. Even back when my grief was brand new, I realized that people said these things because they had no idea what else to say – and the truth is, there is nothing that can be said to ease the pain that early on. And still, even though I should have known better given my own experiences,  I found myself trying to comfort this woman using one of those very same cliche condolences.

So, I take it back. What I said is inaccurate and misleading. IT (as in the loss of your husband who you loved with every piece of yourself and envisioned an entire future with) will never “get easier” – how could it? That statement doesn’t even make any sense if you really think about it. Here is the good news, though: YOU will get stronger. IT will never turn into some distant memory of an obstacle you once overcame – YOU will learn to somehow continue living with a permanent scar on your heart. There will probably be difficult days for the rest of your life, moments when the pain rises to the surface and results in sadness or anxiety or anger. On those days, don’t be ashamed of how you feel. It doesn’t make you weak or ungrateful for what you currently have. Allow the tears to flow and remind yourself that they are a testament to the great love and loss that you have experienced. These emotions will eventually visit you less frequently but I doubt they will ever disappear forever – even after you’ve managed to rebuild and recognize that your life is still beautiful.

And yes, beauty and happiness can be found again in this life – in ways and to extents that may seem impossible right now.

When YOU are ready.

When YOU decide.

If YOU keep believing.

I believe in you.

Funeral Procession
Photo by: Rene Pimentel Photography

A New Dance 

This weekend, I reached another milestone since Ralf passed away: I attended a wedding. Well, almost – we decided it would be best to skip the ceremony and head directly to the reception. There was some anxiety leading up to it since I knew it would be just one week after the anniversary of Ralf’s death, and the end of what’s been a very emotional month for me. Vinnie and I talked about it a lot. We decided to RSVP with the understanding that if it proved to be too much at any moment, I could just say the word and we could leave with no questions asked. I’m so blessed to have such a supportive man by my side who totally gets it.

I was feeling good when we arrived to the venue. Anxiety was at bay. It was nice to have a reason to get all dressed up – something I don’t really do much of anymore being a full-time working mom of a toddler. We were enjoying our cocktails while Vinnie was catching up with old friends as we waited for the bride and groom to make their grand entrance. When they finally arrived, their faces were beaming with the happiness of two people who have just begun one of the greatest adventures of their lives. It was then that I remembered why I used to love weddings so much. A celebration of love, commitment and anticipation for the future. 

Then, it happened. I heard that piano intro start to play and immediately recognized the song. The groom pulled the bride in close for their first dance as a married couple. I looked over at Vinnie with a huge lump forming in my throat, tears welling up in my eyes. “I have to walk out.” Vinnie nodded in understanding and responded, “Okay.” I tried to hurry over to the restroom as discretely as I could, and thankfully it was empty. I trembled as I turned the lock and rested my head against the door. Releasing the tears I’d been holding back with all my might, I listened to the muffled sounds of Rascal Flatts welcoming the couple into their new journey from a distance. I was transported back in time, with Ralf’s arms around my waist, my forehead no longer pressed against that cold varnished door, but rather against his warm cheek.  I could hear him softly singing the lyrics in my ear as we swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the music with all our friends and family watching. That was when I knew that the decision to skip the ceremony had definitely been the right one. 

This little breakdown went on for about five minutes. Then I took a few deep breaths, wiped my face with some tissues, and fixed my makeup. I made the decision to go back out there and have a great night with the wonderful man that is in my life now, rather than allow for the rest of the evening to be ruined. And that’s exactly what I did. 

I walked back to the table to find Vinnie waiting for me, with a concerned look on his face. I explained what had happened and told him I’d be fine. As we finished eating dinner, a slow song began to play and couples started making their way toward the dance floor. Vinnie asked me if I wanted to dance. I smiled as I placed my hand in his. He pulled me in, pressed his cheek against mine, and interlaced his fingers behind my back. And in that moment, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be. We danced and laughed the night away- it was one the best times we’ve had together. 

It’s not the life I planned for. It’s not the story I anticipated. But I am so grateful to be learning this new dance with you. 


Twice Blessed


I was 28 years old and 7 months pregnant with my first child when my entire world collapsed. It was a time that should have been joyous and filled with nesting and baby shower celebrations and a family photo shoot featuring my enormous belly. Instead, I had to bury my high school sweetheart and husband of barely 3 years. He was my same age when a brain tumor detected just 10 days earlier took his life. There were no symptoms leading up to his diagnosis, other than some occasional complaints of dizziness and fatigue, which we assumed were due to the sleep deprivation and countless hours he had spent studying for his upcoming lieutenant’s exam. He woke up with a headache and nausea on our last morning in our house together, and we both thought a simple trip to urgent care would fix whatever was going on. Ralf went from being a healthy, active fireman to brain dead and on life support in what felt like a flip of a switch.

I was so incredibly broken. Not only had I lost the person I’d been in love with since before my 18th birthday – my dreams for the future had vanished, too. I lost the man who was supposed to be my forever. It felt like my previously beautiful life just evaporated into thin air. Suddenly I was a “widow” and a “single mom” and was mentally preparing myself to spend the rest of my life defined by those terms. I hoped to find companionship again one day, but had also accepted that it might never happen – and if it did, it would never come close to the love that I’d lost. I told myself I could do it alone and that Mason would never need a father figure. My pain was too fresh at the time to realize that if I were lucky enough to find a man willing to embrace Mason as his own, it would be a blessing. I couldn’t see past the fog of my current reality.

At some point, someone suggested that I try joining a Facebook support group for widows and widowers. I did, but the group consisted of thousands of members nationwide, and I quickly found my feed being flooded with long-winded vent sessions. It was impossible to keep up with every post, and I would just ignore and scroll through most of them. One day, however, a short and straightforward question caught my attention – a man asking what other members had done with their wedding rings. This struck a chord with me, as I had been struggling with the same issue. I was unable to even wear my wedding rings while Ralf was sick since I was so bloated, and once Mason was born and the rings fit again, putting them on was just too painful. I decided to reach out to him.

In talking to Vinnie, I learned that he was young and had recently lost his wife, Erica, unexpectedly. What’s more – she had been pregnant with their only son, Anthony, and was just days away from her due date. We quickly connected as we discovered many similarities between our stories. Aside from the obvious, we also had a lot in common. We both enjoyed music, singing, and stand-up comedy. When Vinnie asked me how I would feel about him traveling from Buffalo to Miami to meet me, I was naturally scared at first, but a little voice inside my heart told me it was the right thing to do. Our visits became frequent, and what began as a friendship and mutual understanding developed into something more. We both realized we didn’t want to waste another precious moment. We knew all too well that life cares nothing for “correct” timing. Vinnie took an immense leap of faith and moved cross country to be with me and Mason.

I truly believe from the very bottom of my heart that Vinnie and I were led to each other. I have this beautiful vision in my mind of Ralf and Erica crossing paths in Heaven and planning our meeting, wanting us to find love and happiness in each other, not in their absence, but with both of their spirits guiding our footsteps along the way. I imagine Erica witnessing the bond that continues to grow between Mason and Vinnie, and she smiles with pride. When I see Vinnie holding Mason, I also see Ralf holding Anthony and offering him the fatherly love he can only give Mason from afar until the day they get to officially meet in Heaven – the same love that Vinnie so anxiously anticipated giving to Anthony.

Our individual stories are tragic, but the new story we are writing together is beautiful and full of hope and promise. I know that neither one of us could have ever imagined that we’d endure such tremendous loss. I also know, though, that we couldn’t have designed a more perfect fit than the one we’ve found in each other. We share a perspective on life and love that comes only after losing the person you love most. We are slower to anger, quicker to appreciate, and endlessly grateful for a new beginning.

I will always love Ralf, just as Vinnie will always love Erica. Our new love will never cancel out the loves that preceded it.

Love has not divided, it has and will continue to multiply – and we are blessed to be alive and willing to embrace it.