I have been asked multiple times about my sermon from last Friday’s service at B’nai Jeshurun. A friend suggested that I post it – so here goes…
First, I would like to thank Rabbi Matt, Rabbi Karen, Cantor Stahl and everyone at TBJ for inviting me to speak this evening. It is such an honor and I am so happy to be here.
TBJ was almost my second home for a long time. Not only did both my daughters, Amanda and Lily, go to preschool and Hebrew school here, I was also an assistant preschool teacher in the 2’s for 8 years. It was a wonderful job and I met the most wonderful group of women.
But it was during that time that my world fell apart and I was forever changed.
I found out that life can change in an instant, and it is impossible to be prepared for it. Six years ago – mine did. There is no right or wrong way to react to something that turns your world upside down – but this is my story:
I remember one summer morning eight years ago, my husband Howie came running into the kitchen holding his lap top. This was before we had iphones and he had been reading an email that was so upsetting he wanted me to see is ASAP.
The email was from the sleep away camp where our daughters were – informing us that a father of two girls at camp had drowned while swimming in the Hamptons. Howie and I were both so upset about this. That poor family. That poor wife. Those poor little girls. How could a family possibly get through something like that?
As sad as we were for this family, we did not know them. They were “other people”. I always thought tragedy happened to “other people”. You know – an acquaintance, the relative of a friend, someone you see around town. You feel bad. You may run into that person at the mall or shop rite and you give them a hug and say how sorry you are. And then go on with your day.
I believed that something like that could never happen to me or my family.
Two years after that email came, it did happen to my family. My girls and I suddenly became those “other people”. I was the woman that people were staring at in shop rite. I was the one they felt sorry for. How did that happen?
It happened on an ordinary Sunday afternoon in October 2011, the day after Yom Kippur. We had just returned home from our daughter Lily’s soccer game. Howie decided to go out for run while I made dinner.
It’s funny – whenever I tell this story, people automatically assume that Howie was a runner. He was not. He went running every once in a while and I am not sure what made him decide to do it that day.
He came home not feeling well and wanted to go upstairs to lay down. It turned out that the “not feeling well” was a heart attack. He passed away that night. He was 48, I was 45, and our daughters were 10 and 12
Devastated barely describes it. Suddenly there I was – a grieving single mom with two grieving adolescent daughters. What on earth was I supposed to do? I did not think the three of us would survive without him. I did NOT think I could do this.
Looking back at that time, those who knew me would say that I seemed to handle this horrible situation well. I know I appeared to handle it well but the truth is – I did not. Something that I found about myself is that I am a wonderful actress. I think there was a period of time when I even fooled myself.
I looked like I was doing well because – I did not stay in bed all day. I did not walk around town crying. I did not hide from the world. I did not curl up in a ball and become non-functional.
I woke up every morning. I got my girls ready for school. I made breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I went to work. I even allowed my friends to drag me out sometimes.
For years I did everything I was supposed to do. But I did it with a big fake smile on my face.
The truth is – I had to. I did not have a choice in the matter. If I didn’t get up, my girls didn’t get up. If I didn’t survive, they didn’t survive.
My daughters were the only things that mattered to me, so I did what I had to do for them. All that I wanted was to raise them as well as I possibly could without Howie. I wanted to make sure that they turned into happy, healthy, self-reliant, successful people DESPITE what happened to them.
That thought is what kept me going for years.
But on a personal level I felt differently – for myself the only thing I wanted was to change what happened. I wanted my old life back and I didn’t hesitate to think it or say it ALL the time. All I wanted was for Howie to come back and for our lives to go back to the way they used to be.
Logically I knew that this was impossible – but it did not stop me from constantly wishing it.
So, life went on like that for a very long time – years. I took care of my girls and prayed for my husband and my old life to come back. All the while I pretending to be ok.
This is not to say that I was constantly miserable for those years. I had some good moments, some happy times. But for the most part I faked it.
Eventually it all caught up with me. A couple of years ago I began to fall apart. I call this time “my nervous breakdown” although I don’t think it officially was one.
I couldn’t do it anymore. I was mentally and physically drained and I actually looked it. I was too skinny, ghostly pale, and my hair was literally falling out of my head. Something had to change. Faking it wasn’t working.
Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom to realize you need to change. This was my turning point, my Aha moment. I could choose to let losing my husband ruin the rest of my life, or I could change the way I was reacting to it.
Nobody was going to swoop in and rescue me. I had to rescue myself. It was time.
I made some changes and most importantly – I got help. I needed to come to the realization that, as much as I wanted it to, my old life was not coming back. Slowly I began to understand this. As I started to let go, I also began to feel better. I didn’t miss Howie any less, but I was accepting that he was gone.
This was when I started to become a happy person again. I began to enjoy spending time with friends and family, especially my daughters. I started a happy, healthy relationship with someone who had stuck around for a long time while I “wasn’t ready”. I even began to look like the old me again, the pale skeleton was going away.
So that could have been my happy ending – but it’s not. Without knowing it – I needed more than that.
As I was feeling better, I was thinking a lot about what my girls and I had been through. All of my stories were swirling around in my head.
I thought that maybe I should start writing them all down. My first thought was a journal but then I thought that maybe I should start a blog. So, I did. Without even thinking about it. I literally googled “how to start a blog” and I just followed the instructions. I called it “The Widow Wears Pink”.
I wrote my first post and hit “publish” before I had the chance to change my mind.
I shared it on Facebook and people actually read it. It was mostly my friends and family but it was a start.
I kept writing and I got more readers. The words came pouring out of me. I was constantly writing and telling my story. People were interested.
Soon after, what I wanted to happen did happen – my blog started reaching other widows. I was hearing from people from all over the country who unfortunately found themselves in a similar situation to mine. When they would tell me that reading my blog was helping them, that they felt less alone – it brought tears to my eyes. Helping others gave me an incredible feeling.
I wanted to reach more people. I found someone who taught me how to have my essays published on other sites with much larger audiences. I submitted my work and it was being accepted. I found out that I was a pretty good writer – something that I never knew about myself. I was now doing something I loved and was good at. Besides raising my daughters, I don’t believe I ever had that before. I found myself. It was a fabulous feeling.
The best part about all of this is that my girls witnessed this. They saw me transform into a happy, busy, independent woman.
In the past year since I began writing, I have had my work published on sites such as Scary Mommy, Grown & Flown, Modern Loss, Kveller, and Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B. I also now have a platform on Huffington Post and I freelance for Today.com.
People say that things happen for a reason. I do not believe that and never will. There is no reason that a 48 year-old husband, father, and son dies.
I would gladly give away all my writing and the small amount of success I have had with it to bring Howie back. But I can’t. It took me a long time, but I eventually found a way to turn the worst thing that ever happened to me into something positive.
Sometimes I wonder what Howie would think of all this. Would he recognize this “new me”? I knew my husband pretty well and I am pretty sure his first reaction would be – “If you were going to start a new career, could you have at least chosen one where you actually made money??” After that – I hope he would be proud of what I have accomplished.
If someone would have told me 6 years ago – or even 4 years ago – that I would be standing here today talking about my writing – I would have told them they were crazy. Life certainly does take unexpected turns sometimes.
As much as I wanted to, I could not change what happened. But what I was able to do was change how I reacted to it. I realized that I needed to live, and that is what Howie would want me to do. Not just exist, but live. So, I found myself, a new myself, and I found a way to be happy.