An Unexpected Bond

A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a text saying that she’d been cleaning out her filing cabinets and came across some really nice pictures of Ralf and me. She asked if I would like to see. Then, she took pictures of the pictures with her phone and sent them my way.

There we were.

Just 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school, filled with hope and anticipation for the future that we already knew we wanted to build together.

So in love.

So happy.

And, completely clueless of what was to come.

Mason sat next to me on the couch as I scrolled through the images. In his precious little voice he asked, “What you watching, Mommy?”

I returned his question with another question.

“Mason, who are these people?”

“Mommy and Daddy in Heaven,” he replied with a shy smile.

“That’s right, Baby.”

I took the opportunity to talk to him about his father. I explained to him, as I have many times before, how much we loved each other and how excited we were to have a baby. Mason listened intently as I told him, yet again, the story of how his Daddy in Heaven was a fireman who drove a black RAM and knew how to operate a big boat.

Then I explained that Daddy in Heaven was called to be with God while Mason was still in Mommy’s belly. He loves to hear about how the doctors took him out of Mommy’s belly, how his Yaya placed him on Mommy’s chest for the very first time, and how she fell in love instantly.

He smiled so innocently, paused reflectively, and said something I was not quite prepared to hear.

“I want him to hold me.”

My heart dropped into my stomach.

“Oh, Sweetie. He wants to hold you, too. And I believe one day he will.”

I pulled him in close, squeezed him tight, and reminded him – for probably the millionth time that day- just how much Mommy loves him. Then, a few minutes later, the front door opened and in walked his Daddy on Earth. Mason screamed in excitement and ran into his arms.

And he was held.

Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we plan or even hope for, but we must be grateful for the unexpected blessings that come our way.

I know with all my heart that Ralf watches and rests in peace knowing that his son is so loved and cherished. Until the day he can finally hold him in his arms, just like he always wanted to.

I truly believe he will.

Imperfect Love

I posted this picture on Instagram last night. It was taken by a friend on the night we celebrated turning 21 (our birthdays are just five days apart). The picture gained a lot of likes and comments, one of them being “true happiness” – and it made me realize that there was more to this picture that I wanted to share.

First of all, if we look incredibly happy – one too many vodka cranberries may have had something to do with it. (I mean, 21st birthday celebrations usually involve alcohol, right?)

Secondly, while it was mostly an epic night, it ended with Ralf and I getting into one of the worst and dumbest fights of our entire relationship. (Yes, once again, vodka cranberry. If you asked me today what the fight was about, I couldn’t tell you.)

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. They simply do not exist. If that’s what you’ve been searching or waiting for, you will never find it. I promise you that.

We were truly happy – most of the time.

Then there were times that I wanted to wring his neck or that he wanted to throw me off of our second story balcony.

And now, I’m very happy in my relationship with Vinnie, but it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. There are days when the very ugly parts of grief surface for each of us, and it takes a great deal of patience and understanding.

Don’t look for someone to love you perfectly. When you find someone who will love you despite your own ugly imperfections – that’s who you should hold on to.

The one who will still see your beauty and your worth even when they are buried under irrational, unwarranted anger brought on by too many vodka cranberries.

The one who will see past your irritability and depression caused by grief and wait for you on the other side with open arms.

And if you’re lucky enough to find that, remember that the length of your time together is impossible to predict.

So cherish it.

All of it – even the unpleasant moments. Because working through the hard stuff is when your relationship will have the potential to grow the most.

Fight and argue if you need to; air out your dirty laundry.

Then,  remember that you must always fight for each other.

💙,

Maeghan

 

 

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.

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.

 

Ups and Downs 

I’ve been in such a funk these past couple of days. I can’t think of any one particular incident that could have caused it. I think I have always been prone to anxiety, but ever since I lost Ralf, it has worsened significantly. Sometimes, there is a trigger – like our wedding song playing on the radio unexpectedly, or seeing a black Dodge Ram on the road, or having to do a double take because for a split second I forget he is gone and could swear I just saw him at the end of the aisle at Publix. Other times, though, it’s just a general feeling of yuckiness that sets in out of nowhere. My head is cloudy. I have a hard time focusing on the most minor tasks. My body and my heart physically ache. Once you enter widowhood, you are a member for life. Even if you are so lucky, as I have been, to move forward and find love again, the pain your great loss has caused you stays with you forever. Some days it’s more pronounced than others, but it is always present. I am not the person I once was. I am forever changed and more aware of my mortality and the mortality of the people I hold most dear.

 
I’ve been having horrifying dreams and reliving every minute of Ralf’s final days in my mind over and over and over again. I keep thinking about that last morning we woke up in our bed together. It was the first time in a long time because he had been so consumed with studying for his lieutenant’s exam and had been getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to head to the library to study for months. I remember feeling so happy and thankful to wake up next to him, not realizing it would never happen again and that in ten days I’d be at his burial. I keep thinking of all the time we weren’t granted, of everything he is missing out on, of all the things I wanted and needed to say to him. My heart will always feel like I could have and should have done more even though my intellect knows that isn’t true. It’s crazy how the human mind works. It’s like when you rewatch a sad movie that you’ve seen a hundred times – you know how it’s going to end, yet you watch it again because somewhere deep inside of you there is the tiniest ounce of hope that things might turn out differently. I often find myself thinking how I should have picked up on some kind of sign earlier and sent him to the doctor, or how my pushing him to follow his dream of becoming a fireman somehow led to him getting brain cancer. I can list all the things I would have done differently while he was in the hospital, as if it could make any difference at this point.

 
Even with the way I am currently feeling, I know the severity of this “funk” is temporary. The wound Ralf’s loss left is now part of who I am – some days the scar tissue is intact, other days I bleed like the pain is new. But I know that a hard day, month, even a rough couple of years does not equal a bad life. I’ve heard it said that you should never evaluate your life when you are in a bad mood because everything will be viewed in a negative light. Even when I am feeling this way, I know that I am so greatly blessed. Blessed for having known and loved Ralf, blessed for the tremendous amount of support I received after Ralf’s passing. I am SO incredibly blessed to have my baby boy and the opportunity to find great love again – a chance to rebuild. I recognize that not everyone who has walked along the path of widowhood can say the same and I am grateful. Some days it may take a little (or a lot of) extra effort, but I always end up at that same realization. I believe that many beautiful moments await me, and I hope to enjoy them with my whole heart.