The Working Title Is…The Dirtiest of The Dirty Words

There are a number of words that, when uttered at a certain age, carried the punishment of a soapy mouth. Comedian George Carlin famously spoke of seven dirty words that were once verboten to say on television. As society evolved, or depending upon your perspective, deteriorated, the ban has since been lifted on some of the classics.

I will freely admit there are a few of those words that roll off my tongue like the saltiest of sailors. Certain situations demand a, “What the xxxx?”   Or a, “Are you xxxxxxx kidding me?”  And, of course the occasional, “xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx, what xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx with xxxx for brains came up with this xxxxxxx idea?” But that doozy was usually reserved for supervising craft related book reports or volunteering on fundraising committees.

There are a few words that are SO naughty that they render me speechless, leave me aghast and can even cause a tiny bit of throw up to unexpectedly appear in the back of my mouth.

In recent weeks, I have been hearing the dirtiest of dirty words repeatedly. People uttering it without shame, in full voice rather than hushed tones, and some have even had the audacity to say it directly to my face in what I can only interpret as a sure sign of Armageddon.

The dirtiest of the dirty words…..Fiftieth.

Arrrrrrgghhhhhhh.

Sure, they try and mollify my horror by sandwiching such a cuss between the words “Happy” and “Birthday,” but the pain of such a slur stings like a xxxxxxxxxxxx.

I was out to dinner with my wonderful in-laws a few weeks ago and the subject arose of the impending milestone anniversary of my birth. It was in the middle of this lovely meal that I had a devastating memory break through from its comfortable resting place deep within the recesses of my brain.

I was a guest at my future father-in-law’s surprise 50th birthday party.

Now get this straight…I love this family. I love my father-in-law as much as I loved my own Dad, but this memory sent me into fits of sweat and labored breathing.

I remember that party vividly. I remember feeling so fancy schmancy at the country club that I didn’t feel right ordering a beer, so I tried a Cabernet. (Note to self for future autobiography: drop pin here for pivotal turning point in liver function.)

But what I remember most about this party celebrating a man I deeply admire was… everybody was really, really old.

So how the xxxx can I be that same age?

Please, don’t waste your breath with platitudes…

  • Age is just a number.
  • It’s how you feel that matters.
  • Fifty is the new Thirty.
  • It’s better than the alternative.

I know all that xxxxxxxx is true. Especially that last one.

In her book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg writes that she will never again complain about another birthday after the unexpected death of her husband at the age of 47.

I can empathize with that statement. There has not been one decade in my life where I haven’t buried someone I loved at far too early an age. And after posting my essay, I’m No Sheryl Sandberg, Sheryl was kind enough to reach out to me. We had a lovely exchange of emails that left me incredibly moved by the depth of kindness displayed by this world-renowned business luminary.

Which makes it all the more awkward when the voices in my head scream, “I don’t give a rat’s xxx if Sheryl Sandberg maturely responds to our mutual young xxxxxxx widowhood with such xxxxxxx grace and sophistication. I AM STILL GOING TO XXXXXXX COMPLAIN ABOUT TURNING XXXXXXX FIFTY.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out why I’m struggling with this big xxx number. My life doesn’t look like I thought it would at Fifty. I sure as xxxx never thought I would mark this occasion without my husband or either parent beside me. But the pity party is short-lived because I am also reminded that I could never have predicted the multitude of blessings that would have been bestowed upon me in these Fifty years.

With a reversal of tone and content so severe from this foul-mouthed forty-nine year old that it would make even Kathy Griffin’s head spin, the reminder came to me while I sat in church on Sunday.

I share a birthday week with the Catholic Church who celebrated her’s on Pentecost. And she’s super old. I listened to how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and was reminded of the gifts the Holy Spirit brings us all…sometimes directly to us and sometimes through other people.

I was reminded about the f’in things that truly bring my life meaning…family, friends and faith. I see those gifts of the Holy Spirit at work—in and through the people I love—their counsel has brought me Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding and Right Judgment. Their love has brought me Courage and opened my eyes to Wonder and Awe. And because of them all, I feel immense Reverence for God. Despite the fact every once in a while a xxx xxxxxx might slip out while driving behind some xxxxxxx.

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.

Now fueled by these gifts and all the blessings in my life, I will move forward into the wonderful unknown of what is yet to come. But I’m NOT doing it as a xxxxxxx Fifty year old.

I’ve decided to go way, way old school. I think the ancient Romans had it right. They knew how to make Fifty look lithe and likable, lustrous and full of love and laughter.

So, in a few weeks, when I fill out the paperwork for my colonoscopy, it will look like this…

Age: L

You can go xxxx yourself Fifty. I’m going to languor in the lusciousness of L.

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The Working Title Is…I’m No Sheryl Sandberg

Not that anyone was confusing the two of us, mind you. Even the mere mention of her name morphs me back to a self-conscious high schooler…admiring from afar all of someone’s strengths that seem to only spotlight my shortcomings.

She’s written books, and I’ve only talked about writing one someday. She worked in India for a year on projects aimed at eradicating AIDS, leprosy and blindness. I worked in Wisconsin for a year and once scooped melon balls for five solid hours in a horse barn for a Milwaukee AIDS Project event. (Granted, it’s not India, but I’ll never forget how many flies there were in that barn. And I’ll never eat another melon ball.)

There are similarities between us. We’re both brunettes. She went to Harvard, and I’ve been to Harvard. Well, not Harvard exactly, but I’ve been to Lizzy’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square. Delish!

And then, of course, there is the fact that we both buried a husband without the opportunity to hear his last words or even say goodbye. We both have been left to raise two fatherless children. Her children were younger, but at 11 and 14, my daughters were equally far too young for their world to be shattered.

Almost two years ago, as I approached the fifth anniversary of our life without Pat, my Facebook feed was filled with people sharing and re-sharing a post written by Sheryl Sandberg following the death of her husband.

Beautifully written, it was ultimately the foundation for her newest book released this week, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

She wrote of the profoundly personal experience of grief and credited the “bravery of those who have shared their own experiences” as to what has “helped her pull through.” She’d been taught the three pillars of resilience and shared their role in her growth. And she offered all this incredible insight after the time defined by Jewish tradition as the end of religious mourning for a spouse…thirty days.

Thirty days. Thirty days? All I could think was, “How can this woman write, ‘I am sharing what I’ve learned in hope that it helps someone else’ after only thirty days?”  Thirty days?  I hadn’t “pulled through” anything after just thirty days. In fact, I don’t think I finished clearing the funeral food out of the fridge yet, much less begin clearing my thoughts. I remember staring at her words on my computer until tears blurred the screen.

How had she accomplished in thirty days what I have been working toward for five years? Oh, believe me, in our house, we had been kicking the shit out of Option B since my husband drew his last breath. In fact, that was all we were doing for those first thirty days, and the next thirty and the thirty after that. My tears turned to sobs as I thought about all the people in our lives that had lifted us up for the past five years—lifted us with their love, with their prayers and with their presence and support. I became increasingly aware of the fog I had been living in during those first years without him. I looked back over my calendar and realized how much I had absolutely no, or very little, memory of—things that only existed like blurry snapshots in my mind—not the least of which was Pat’s funeral.

I began a cathartic journey of self-awareness. I thought maybe someday I’d even be able to write a book about it. Well, wouldn’t you know, two years later, that multi-jillionaire/thirty day-wise widow/corporate titan capable of bringing actual change to the world/superwoman beat me to the punch there too!

I pre-ordered her book, and it magically appeared on my Kindle Monday morning. As with anything created by someone of whom I am jealous, I hated the book before I even clicked on the cover art. Which I also wanted to hate. But I couldn’t.

I read the book in one sitting, getting up only once to get coffee. It is very well done and covers not just grief that follows the death of a loved one, but a huge expanse of subject areas including rape, chronic illness, war, incarceration and life after all kinds of disappointment and loss.

The book is thought provoking and insightful. Some parts pertained to me in a very personal way, others I just couldn’t relate to, and some I had a completely opposite experience.

But that is to be expected and is what, in my opinion, should be the opening paragraph of any book or conversation about grief.

Buried almost a third of the way into the text of the book, Sandberg writes, “There’s no one way to grieve and there’s no one way to comfort. What helps one person won’t help another, and even what helps one day might not help the next.”

That is the key message of grief. And it’s one that takes more than thirty days to figure out.

Our reaction to loss and heartbreak are as unique and individual as the relationship we shared with the person who no longer walks beside us. Our “fingerprint” of grief is ours and ours alone. So while Sheryl Sandberg’s book is well worth the read, it can be only one tool in the toolbox of someone who suffers and seeks reprieve.

Reading her book led me to pick up my pen and write and write and write. Emotions flowed on to my paper as I re-read her book, page by page. Realizing how different my experience has been and appreciating the ways we’ve walked the same path. I began writing on themes as broad as joy and hope, as nitpicky as the semantics of death and the liberal use of the word friend, as pivotal as humor and faith and as confusing and daunting as finding love again.

Maybe Someday I’ll Write a Book just as a point/counterpoint to all of Sheryl Sandberg’s books. I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I’ve been leaning in all sorts of directions since the day I was born with scoliosis, so I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that one too.

What I do know is that Sheryl and I were both blessed beyond belief to be married to our very best friends. The way she writes of Dave sounds so very much like Pat. A friend to all, love and laughter always intertwined, even down to the ten college roommates who were like brothers and the fact that both men loved the musical Wicked.

While we own our individual fingerprints of grief, I do believe we have been changed for the better, Sheryl. And because we knew them, we have been changed for good.

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