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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The Working Title Is…Hamilton and My Kitchen Table

Talk less. Smile more.

Those just might be my four favorite words from the entire Hamilton soundtrack. And, almost two weeks into the New Year, I find myself repeating them; sometimes as a mantra with the centered calm of one skilled in meditation, and other times through clenched teeth while holding a fistful of booze and scrolling through Facebook.

The First Amendment ensures the privilege to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship, retaliation or societal sanction. I believe it is among the greatest rights afforded us by the Constitution. But like any right, it comes with great responsibility.

When people first began standing on their soapbox, their opinions reached only as far as their voices would travel.   Now, with the power of the internet and social media fueled by a 24-hour news cycle, it’s nearly impossible to escape a diatribe of personal opinion.

Reasoned thought is often buried under blather spewed from the virtual soapbox. You can’t escape it without unplugging or scrolling at carpal tunnel inducing pace, which is what I’ve been doing lately. I am longing for the bygone days of people posting photos of what they had for lunch and mad at myself for ever calling the sanity of such a post into question.

The soapbox has crumbled under the weight of close-minded name-calling, sophomoric humor and downright nastiness.

During the election season, I tried very hard to be open-minded. I read everything from real news sources, fake news sources and the opinions of friends…the real kind and the Facebook kind. As soon as someone invoked some insulting nickname for a candidate, that person’s opinion was no longer of merit to me.

When someone I respected dealt a particularly low blow, or when an argument of issues turned into a personal attack, I called the person out. Never in the comments section for the whole world to see, but in a private email or even (gasp) a hand written note.

But that grew tiresome. I realized I am not the respect police.

Talk less. Smile more.

I’m sure many might think me ignorant, but the two things that shaped my view of politics were my kitchen table and my television set.

At my kitchen table, my parents would inspire thoughtful conversation and debate. Politically speaking, they were not party people. “We vote for the person, not the party,” they would say, and that resonates within me still today. Our conversations were about the issues and what we could do to make a difference…not what Albany or Washington could or should be doing.

Poverty in our community? Clothing drives and food drives were an ever-present part of our lives. A struggling educational system? My mom volunteered countless hours at a literacy center, and each school year we would clean our bookshelves and donate gently used books to that school’s library. We participated in walk-a-thons, read-a-thons, and we visited shut-ins. We’d take elderly members of our church to doctor’s appointments and, for many years, one man joined us for Thanksgiving and Sunday dinners. This lonely man was a hoarder with soiled clothes and an awful odor. Around our dinner table, we were taught to respect everyone. Everyone. No matter their color, creed or station in life.

After I left the kitchen table and turned on the television, it was what I saw and heard there that really impacted my impression of the leader of the free world. I learned it was possible to respect an office, but not necessarily admire the person.

My earliest recollections are of President Nixon. I remember the Watergate hearings taking the place of what should have been MY television shows and being told that the President did something very bad.

The seed had been sown.

President Ford was portrayed as a bumbling idiot who would trip over his own feet. He was followed by a peanut farmer from Georgia with a beer drinking brother and the potential to embarrass a nation. Then came the jelly bean eating divorced actor from California who co-starred with a monkey. Followed by a man who was a war veteran and former director of the CIA yet somehow always characterized as weak. Next up the philanderer; then the frat boy who was just riding his father’s coattails and finally, the community organizer turned Senator who was not ready for the world stage.

As long as I’ve been alive, there has been disdain for the Executive Branch. But when the soapbox stretched to cyberspace, the chorus of critics swelled to a deafening decibel.

People quickly share a post, but have they done their own research behind the claims? Supporters from both sides of the aisle mock and joke and create disparaging nicknames for people who are giving their lives to public service.

Truth is, each of these presidents accomplished great things when in office, despite the naysayers. But when I look at my personal history, the Executive Branch has had infinitely less impact on my life story than any branch of my own family tree.

In my professional career, when I was entrusted with the great responsibility of hiring people into a company, I paid no mind to race, color, creed or sexual orientation; not because the government told me so, but because that was the lesson taught at my kitchen table and repeated at the kitchen table my own children have grown up around.

Yesterday, I scrolled past posts and reposts from angry Republicans, Democrats and Independents until I finally came upon one from our church showing the multitude of donations delivered to a Warming Center our parish is staffing for the homeless this week.

And I smiled.

So to those of you endlessly complaining and name calling like a petulant child, I challenge you to step away from your keyboard and, instead, share those things you are actively doing to bring positive change in the world. And I pray our President-Elect will do the same.

Talk less. Smile more.

Let your kindness show what you’re against and what you’re for.

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