Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Way We Were

I tried to kill Verna the day after my brother got married in 1996.

We were at the Sunday morning brunch, saluting the newyleds, just a few hours before Verna and I were to fly home. There were two chairs in front of me and it appeared she was going to sit in the one to my left. So I pulled the one to the right toward me, the seat she was aiming for. She hit the floor hard, wrenching her neck and back. We spent our remaining hours in Boston in the emergency clinic as Verna was heavily sedated for the flight home.

Our marriage, like everyone else's, was a collection of memories, some funny, some poignant, some happy, some sad. One of the most painful parts of the grieving process for me is that I basically only remember Verna from photographs. I've been inundated with pictures, ones I've dug up or have been sent or given to me, and those images are the ones I now see in my mind's eye. What did she really look like? I'm afraid, very afraid, I will only see Verna in the two-dimensional images captured by a camera.

But, fortunately, I have memories, plenty of them, and I can see an endless loop of Verna caught live and up close over the twenty years we were together.

There was the time after work in 1990, when we were counselors at summer day camp in San Francisco, when Verna leaned over to me, a week or so after we'd started dating, and said, "How can you stand it? Don't you just want to kiss?"

So we did. And then one of colleagues walked in and immediately left, embarrassed that she'd interrupted our private time in a communal office.

Or the time in Israel when we'd eaten in an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem in 1992. I had pasta sauteed in oil and heaps of garlic. Verna went out for drinks with one of the women on our tour while I went to bed. As soon as Verna returned and opened the door to our hotel room, she shrieked, "Ohmigod, you reek of garlic."

Or the births of both Miguel and Maya.

Or the time she ran a 5K race in San Francisco just days after she found out she'd miscarried in 2004. She crossed the finish line, sweaty, in a light drizzle, and collapsed in tears about what her body could and could not do. Eight months later she was pregnant again with Maya.

The memories come to me at all hours, but often at night as I sit alone while the kids are asleep. Sometimes the memories trigger powerful emotions. This past Sunday, right before the start of the Race for the Cure 5K in San Francisco, the announcer said, "We'll be led today by so-and-so a breast cancer survivor..."

At that point, tears started streaming down my face. I remember when Verna ran this race in 2007 and hadn't really trained, but still managed to finish 4th in the Survivor's Division, only two or three minutes behind the winner, who earned roundtrip airfare courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

"If I train," she'd said at the time, "I could win this thing."

She never ran the race again.

So when I heard "survivor", all I could think was, "Verna is no longer a survivor, and it's not fair." I hugged Verna's brother Marty, let out a loud sigh, and rubbed Miguel's head (he was in front of me) as we waited for the horn to blare and the race to start.

And, yes, the memories are mostly wonderful, Verna in bright colors, smiling, funny, zany, adventurous. Like the last vacation she and I took in 2008 to Cabo in Mexico. It was our first vacation without kids in 11 years, and it was an amazing week of food, relaxation, snorkeling, drinking, meeting fascinating people, and waking each morning to say, "What do you want today?"

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

We toured the real Hotel California, met an awesome Mexican artist, partied late with four sisters from Louisianna, sailed at dusk on the ocean, swam on the beach, played in the resort pool during happy hour, walked 4-5 miles each day, and never, ever felt more relaxed or at peace.

The memories, which also include Verna's face, indeliby frozen on my brain, as she took her last breaths, comfort me and haunt me and provide me solace for they are real and they were our lives. Memories of the way we were.

Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
Scattered pictures,
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Children

“Mommy made the moon for us,” squealed Maya, looking at the Harvest Moon shimmering in the sky. “Look, Daddy. Miguel said so.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, happy that Miguel was initiating conversations about Verna.

Not that I have the energy or desire to wade into the nature versus nurture debate, but both our kids, like everyone else’s, are proof positive that they do come to us with at least a broad set of biological potentialities. In other words, we are not completely blank slates when we are born. To what degree we are influenced by culture is for graduate school. All I know is that Miguel and Maya have distinct personalities, and that reality has informed how they’ve reacted so far to Verna’s death.

Miguel is more like Verna: quiet, stoic. But unlike Verna, who fretted about so much and internalized her anxiety and then pondered it for days, he doesn’t process what he is going through in any measurable way. He has actually said to me, “Dad, I don’t want to deal with what’s going on,” just not in those exact words.

Miguel copes by being preoccupied with sports, friends, music, watching movies, or chilling on the Internet, which often includes finding funny videos on YouTube or episodes of Zack and Cody on NetFlix.

Maya, like her father, articulates all her feelings right away. Three days after Verna died, as I was pushing her in her stroller to school, Maya said, “I dreamed about Mommy last night.”

“Oh,” I said. “What was your dream about?”

“I dreamed that Mommy came back. I know Mommy isn’t coming back, but I made myself have the dream, just pretend. Do you have dreams like that?”

“Not yet,” I said. “But I hope I do soon.”

All I could think was: how did I ever help make this highly evolved four-and-a-half year old who shares my last name? And I immediately knew the answer: all credit to Verna.

On the day of Verna’s funeral, as Maya and I were walking our dog in the early morning, Maya glanced up at a cluster of clouds and said, “I see Mommy in the clouds. She speaks to me in my heart.”

She said that again tonight and Miguel actually said he was blown away. He added, “Where does she come up with that?”

“I think Maya is a living angel who came down here to help us,” I answered, and I more or less believed what I said. Really.

Miguel will grieve in his way, even if he chooses to avoid, deflect, and preoccupy. I will not force him to talk or open up. I will always be there for him, as I was when he had a mini-meltdown just before Verna’s funeral.

Maya opts to voice her feelings directly and through games in our garage, bedroom, and with her play therapist at the hospice office. Tonight as I carried her home from the park, she also said, “I see Mommy in the house. She comes to sleep in our bed because she loves me and you and Miguel.”

As autumn dusk settled on the chilly evening, I was slightly spooked by our daughter, a soul whose wisdom is both comforting and scary. She may be as gregarious as her father, but thank goodness she possesses her mother’s insight and empathy.

But what really topped off the evening’s magic for me was Miguel. As he and I tossed a baseball, I said, “Check out the full moon. Maybe Mommy sent it to us.”

“That’s what I told Maya,” he said.

Miguel may not be processing Verna’s death very much, but he is processing and progressing. And being a sweet big brother.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A High Degree of Visibility

Verna sometimes felt invisible next me to me, her loud and gregarious husband. Her sense of being indistinguishable may have been on her mind a week or two before she died when she told me, “Let anyone who wants to speak at my funeral, speak.”

St. Raphael’s Church’s rules, however, precluded a litany of family and friends singing her praises, but a standing room only crowd of more than 400 people filled the San Rafael parish cathedral on a windy day last Wednesday as we laid Verna Mercedes Wefald to rest.

Verna need not have worried that she was ever invisible. The packed church, with overflow crowds snaking out front, was a veritable This Is Your Life gathering that included the woman who ran (and still runs) the daycare program Miguel attended at the City Attorney’s Office in San Francisco when he was 10 months old, Miguel’s preschool teacher, attorneys and paralegals Verna worked with for 11 years, a priest from Southern California who knew Verna’s brother, Marty, but hadn’t seen him in 35 years, a woman I’d never met but had corresponded with via a political chat room, and countless family and friends.

Six days before she died, Verna had a reading done by an internationally known forensic scientist who claims to have psychic powers. She is a medium. One thing she said that I will never forget is that, “Verna, you have touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. You don’t realize what an amazing impact you’ve had on so many people.”

I believe the medium’s words were quite comforting to Verna as she neared death. As I scanned the crowd on the day of the funeral I knew everyone was there to honor Verna, the woman who bravely lived her life so well before and after her cancer diagnosis.

Ten minutes before the ceremony began, I was standing in the aisle greeting people when I looked over at Miguel, seated in the first pew. He was crying, bent over, head hanging against his hands, in one of the few outward expressions of emotions he’d displayed for Verna in five years. I sat down next to him and pulled his head to my lap. He was actually bawling.

“Miguel, do you want a Kleenex?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“That’s OK, you can cry on my pants. What’s a little snot?”

A few minutes later he asked for a Kleenex, and one miraculously appeared behind me. I stroked the back of his head and was glad to see his release. He sat up, I put my arm around him, and then he resumed joking with his first cousin, Dominic, who is 17.

At just about noon, Father Paul, the senior pastor at St. Raphael’s, gathered all of us—Miguel, Maya, Verna’s family, my parents, my stepparents, my brother, and the two others who were also pallbearers—at the back of the church. The six pallbearers (Verna’s two brothers, Marty and Jim, her first cousin, Jim, my brother, Scott, our dear friend, Tony, and me), all selected by Verna, descended the steep steps in front of the 19th century church toward the hearse. Once we carried Verna’s casket to the lobby, Father Paul said some prayers and sprinkled holy water on the coffin.

Unlike when I served as a pallbearer in 2008 at Verna’s mother’s funeral, and cried so hard, I was in a state of shock as we gently pulled Verna toward the church’s altar. I was so focused on carrying out my sacred mission that no tears fell as I marched with the casket.

The first part of the service was a blur of Father Rossi, holy church music, and scriptural readings. Tony did the first reading, one I selected from Genesis. When I’d met with Vicki, Father Rossi’s pastoral assistant, she suggested I choose something from the Old Testament.

“We want to make you as comfortable as possible,” she said. “And be sensitive to your Jewish faith.”

I immediately chose something from Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah. Chaye Sarah is Maya’s Hebrew name and was my grandmother’s actual name when she grew up in Poland. I just didn’t know if there’d be verses that would resonate with me.

But Providence shined down on me—something like that. I found a portion inside Chaye Sarah that deals with Abraham sending his servants back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. The servants knew that Rebecca was the maiden for them because when they met her at the well she offered water to them and their animals.

Rebecca in these passages is seen as compassionate and caring, traits that Verna certainly possessed. I was ecstatic that Chaye Sarah presented me such a worthy portrait of a Biblical character to link with Verna.

Amanda did the second reading, something from the Book of John. Then Father Paul talked briefly about Verna, but in the context of explaining the significance of the Biblical texts.

Miguel, Maya, and I carried the Communion wine and wafers from the back of the Church to the altar. When Vicki had invited me, during our planning meeting a week or so ago, to participate in the service by carrying the wafers with Maya, I said, “But what if we drop them?”

I could clearly see the headlines in the Catholic Times: Jewish Mourner Carelessly Drops Host on Floor of Church.

“They’re not holy until Father Paul blesses them,” Vicki said.

See, even I learned something new about transubstantiation.

After Communion, Verna’s brothers together shared reminiscences of her. Moments before they began, Jim whispered in my ear, “I hope it’s OK if we poke a little fun of you.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said.

Jim mentioned how Verna and I were polar opposites in many ways: she was a carnivore, I am a vegetarian; she was Catholic, I am Jewish. She was athletic, and then he paused without saying another word. It was very funny.

The carnivore-vegetarian split reminded me of the first time I met Verna’s family at their fog shrouded home across from Ocean Beach in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Her parents hosted both her brothers and their wives and two grandchildren, and Verna’s aunt and uncle. Because Verna was so accommodating (and I was inflexible about my diet), she lovingly prepared a vegetarian lasagna. At several intervals during the meal, both her brothers chimed in, “Verna, this lasagna is so delicious.”

But Jim also spoke about how Verna and I shared core values about parenting, the world, and life in general, and that helped forge the close bond between us. Then I got up and delivered the eulogy I have already posted.

After the service, close to a hundred of us gathered graveside at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, also in San Rafael. Father Rossi shared more prayers, and then several of us placed flowers on Verna’s casket as it was lowered into the ground. Maya chose to toss in two bracelets, one for Verna and one for her mother (as they are buried in the same plot) that she’d bought with her Auntie Donna a few days earlier. My brother, Scott, then invited people to shovel some dirt into the grave, according to Jewish tradition whereby mourners ritually honor the dead.

I’d be lying if I said the service, the graveside ceremony, and the reception afterward outside our home were anything but surreal. Yes, Verna is gone, but the reality has not fully sunk in. It’s still so very hard to grasp viscerally what I know intellectually to be true: Verna died.

But, then again, Maya and I see Verna every night as she shines brightly in the nighttime sky before millions, if not billions, of people.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eulogy For Verna

Delivered today at Verna's funeral:

There may only be three good things about this nightmare. One, Verna is no longer suffering or in pain. Two, I get to be surrounded by the love of family and friends. And, three, I get to say whatever I want for the next few weeks and most of you will let it go.

I do want to acknowledge three service providers whose amazing care helped sustain us these past several weeks. Hospice by the Bay, which tended to Verna and our family with such love and dedication. Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Marin for their wonderful caregivers and support. And the Living and Dying Project out of West Marin for spiritual support and comfort for Verna and me.

There are loads of people I could also mention, but I want to focus on Miguel and Maya. Miguel and Maya, Mommy did not want to die, Mommy did not want to leave us. She fought as hard as anyone to stay alive for as long as possible. But she died. She died because of cancer, an evil, evil disease that all of us must work to eliminate in quite possibly our lifetimes. She did not die because she wanted to, or because she didn’t pray hard enough, or because she didn’t think positively enough. She did not die because she gave up. She died because her breast cancer was stronger and it killed her. But the breast cancer did not crush her spirit and could never erase our memories of her.

Mommy was so brave and so amazing during her entire ordeal. I truly hope that during your lifetimes, Miguel and Maya, when you are faced with adversity or other hard times, whatever those instances may be—having to speak before people, going to a new school, applying for a job, dealing with a break-up, playing sports or participating in ballet—that you will remember Mommy and how she never, ever stopped living as she fought her cancer. How brave she was and how hard she tried to be there for you and me even when she was in such pain and so scared about her future.

I also want you both to remember what Mommy said to you when she said goodbye a week before she died. Mommy said, “Be passionate.” That means find things to do in life that you love and enjoy and pursue them, do them. Being passionate about life can bring you much happiness.

Another important thing Mommy said was, “Be good. Do the right thing. Treat others the way you want to be treated.” You both know what this means, the difference between right and wrong. Let Mommy’s voice be the voice inside you that gently reminds you, when you are faced with a choice, to do what is right. I, of course, will be there as well to guide you, nag, er, prod, er, lead you to the path of goodness and kindness. But I don’t think I will have that much work to do. Both of you, Miguel and Maya, are kind and sweet people. Mommy and I are so proud of you, and we always will be.

Miguel and Maya, Mommy will always, always love you. She loved being your Mommy more than anything. Miguel, before you were born, Mommy read more than 20 books to prepare us for becoming parents. She used to get mad at me because I didn’t read as many as her, but that was Mommy: super, super organized. She was ecstatic, Miguel, that you were and are our firstborn. Maya, you came to us when Mommy was already sick with cancer, but having you, our daughter, helped Mommy feel so much better and gave her a reason to put her energy into healing and dealing with her sickness.

Miguel and Maya, you are here on this planet because Mommy and I love each other so, so much. You are alive as an expression of the love Mommy and I shared and will share forever. Mommy may be a star in heaven, but she will always, always love you, and be proud of you. And Mommy will always be with us. As long as we remember Mommy in our hearts, she will never go away. We keep her alive by remembering her and honoring her memory.

Miguel and Maya, Mommy will always love you, and I will always love you. I am not going anywhere. I am here for you, and I am supremely blessed to be your father. Being your father brings me happiness and joy every single day. I love you so, so much.

Verna, I am eternally yours. This is not goodbye. I love you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This Is Not Goodbye

I don't believe in spirits from beyond or ghosts or ESP or telekinesis or mediums or any of that hocus-pocus mishmosh.

Until now.

I was slumped in Verna's electric recliner chair on Friday night, past midnight (so it was actually Saturday morning), after having just watched Date Night. (Why I chose a romantic comedy just days after Verna's death is beyond me.) A wave of sadness washed over me and I could feel a creeping sense of despair. I missed Verna. I thought, "I'll never see her again. I'm alone. The kids are alone. I'm scared."

So I got up and decided to fill one of the photo albums I bought for the kids as memory books. I chose Maya's, which has Disney princesses on the front and back, and started putting in about 50 photographs, mainly of her and Verna.

When I finished I walked into the kitchen to clean up a bit before going to bed. It was 12:30 am. Suddenly I heard an alarm, so I rushed into the living room and stopped right in front of our entertainment center, the one from Sear's that took me several years to build after deciphering the instructions.

I cocked my head to the left, thinking the alarm could have been coming from upstairs in Miguel's room (he was at Lake Tahoe with a friend and the friend's family). I thought, "I've got to silence that alarm so it doesn't wake Maya."

As I looked to my left I saw that the screen light on Verna's iPod, atop the entertainment center, which hadn't been played or touched since the night before she died, was on. I saw the black strip highlighting a song and I did a double take. "No," I thought, "it can't be."

The light disappeared, so I pressed the middle of the button, the spot that turns the light on only, and saw that my eyes hadn't failed me. The song showing was This Is Not Goodbye (by Melissa Etheridge), which Verna used in her DVD photo tribute to her mom and is the first song--chosen by Verna--in her DVD to be screened at her funeral this Wednesday.

And as soon as I pressed the middle of the click wheel, the entire docking station turned on and the song started playing. I pressed the pause button, because, frankly, I wasn't in the mood to hear the song, but nothing happened. I pressed it a second time. A third time. A fourth time. Finally, I got the message: listen to the damn song, Steve, Verna is communicating with you:

Bravely you let go of my hand
I can't speak yet you understand
Where I go now I go alone
This path I walk these days of stone
And the angels are calling
I must go away
Wait for me here
Silently stay
And don't ask me why
Only believe
This is not goodbye
All of my strength all of my desire
Still cannot melt this breath of fire
I go to meet some kind of test
Bury the truth that scars my chest
And the angels are calling and calling
I gathered all my courage
I shaved off all my fear
With this banner on my shoulder
I hold your essence near
And the angels are calling and calling
As the song ended and my breath had skipped a few beats, I knew for certain: Verna was speaking to me, reaching out to let me know that everything would be OK, and that this is not goodbye. We will see each other again. Go in peace.
I felt better, much better. I thought I was the last person who would ever, ever believe in anything remotely otherworldly. Even though I told Maya that Mommy is a star in heaven and we locate her every night before Maya goes to bed, I didn't really believe it. I just wanted to offer my sweet four-year-old something tangible to relate to after she lost her mommy. I don't believe in Santa, but I would never burst Maya's beliefs. Tonight I even told her she could ask Santa for a bigger girl bike this year.
But after Friday night, I am a believer. Do I believe in Santa? No. But I do believe with all my heart and soul that Verna spoke to me. And I now believe that the spirits or souls of our departed do exist somewhere in the universe and do connect with us through electrical devices and other ways.
Verna's message--This Is Not Goodbye--has brought me a sense of peace the past two days, a sense I know will be severely tested on the day of her funeral and for many days after. But just knowing that she is here and can communicate with me is comforting enough for me to battle the demons of despair.
As for that star in heaven, the one twinkling above our house each night? Verna, Verna, Verna. For sure. Absolutely.