Love Letter To My Valentine

My love,

I’m well aware of your rare but genuine lack of sentimentality, and me addressing you on Valentines Day, one of those Holidays that makes all the whites of your eyes show when you roll them, is at least a little funny to me. I didn’t buy you one of those trinkets we often laugh at together. A “Blessed” keychain or one of those wooden picture frames with the non sequitur adjectives sketched in, meant to communicate love I guess. Love. Family. Hope. Frying Pan. Coffee Beans! Maybe we’re too young to be such skeptics. Maybe it’s our hiding ego, projecting superiority that we don’t need kitschy picture frames to allude to what’s real and shared inside of us. I’m in the card aisle at the pharmacy looking at a criminally large sized teddy bear holding a heart. It says I wuv you on it. It’s similarly tacky, but I consider purchasing it just for the laughs I know we’d have due to the scale alone; I actually don’t think I could carry it on my own. Then we’d feed it to Monty and watch him go straight for the eyes, as always, and fill the room with the cotton candy innards of a fifty dollar bear. But I hear your words play out in my mind “Don’t ever waste a dime on crap like that for me.”

I could lament about the commercialization of Valentines Day, but I think it’s all been said before, and I already know you’d agree. In fact I’d bet the farm you wouldn’t even bat an eye were the whole thing eradicated. You might not even notice! You’re funny. It’s not that you’re distracted, unaware. I’d suggest it’s the near extreme dedication to living a life of unwavering, powerful love, that is a fireworks display of a spectacle to watch. But for a lucky few, myself included, it’s a humbling miracle to be the recipient of. It sounds so dramatic to say, but I stand by that belief. It’s not hard to do. There have been plenty of reasons for your heart to have closed shop by now. To crack and break and crumble; call the whole thing off. And yet I’ve witnessed it come to the edge and never truly break. Instead I watch it explode like our day lilies in the spring, I watch it grow, astonished, in times that might normally make a person very small. And still yours expands, stretches, finds strength somewhere far in the depths and suits up for another day, knowing well the many things at stake when we agree to live a life. When we agree to love deeply. I don’t know exactly how one attains the capacity to love like this. I can only speak to the immense gifts of wisdom and friendship and compassion it has provided so many lucky ones, and me, knowing too well that ‘thank you’ isn’t large enough a phrase. I think how redeeming and salvational some of its outcomes have been. We’ve all experienced the pang of loneliness, and these last few years have shown me with unbridled truth just how far off and away we can feel, whether in a crowded room or a self-made island. Illness lends itself to its own kind of solitude, that can swallow you up whole if you aren’t prudent. Never have you let me drift too far down the rabbit hole. Sometimes sitting in a room with you, watching The Voice or Scandal or something I have no particular interest in, I feel wrapped in a sanctuary at the center of cupped hands, protected by the thick walls of a steadfast love that I know can never die. For two stoics like us, I can’t help but think ours is a Fairy Tale love, without an ending. We both know there won’t be one. Maybe I’ll submit it to Disney.

I keep thinking of this moment. A grey morning in December not long ago, I was more sick than usual. My central nervous system inflamed to a point that I could hardly tolerate sound or speak. My skin was buzzing, my hearing hurt, my thoughts and words felt and emerged mangled, and I couldn’t exactly articulate what was wrong. I felt like a shaken up liter of coke, hardened and about to fizz out everywhere, but there was no outlet. No where for the ‘fizz’ to go. My nerves felt inside out. When you came in the room, I tried to express what was happening but had trouble; honestly I hardly understood it myself. You didn’t look away, or demand answers or try to immediately “fix” the enigmatic pain I was in. You only said a couple words to me as you sat down on the couch and cupped your hand on the back of my head. “It’s going to be OK Mary,” and your voice cracked when you said it. My body felt as if it collapsed inside, calmed with this soundbite of peace, and the pressure slowly eased from that liter coke bottle. Tears came streaming down my face. I wasn’t that sad, truthfully. Certainly, all of this has been a trying time, for all of us, but there was a lot happening at once, my mind and body both being pulled and torn in different directions, and your very simple words allowed me the outlet. Permission. It’s pretty common for the tears to come when I feel so overwhelmed, overtaken physically. But it wasn’t your words exactly that moved me and conveyed your love with such depth. It was that your voice trembled when you said them. Just barely, and you’re not a crier, I know. I believed you, too, that it would be OK, but in that moment, you saw me. Accepting there was no quick answer here, no advice or platitude that could lift my heavy burden, you did the bravest and most beautiful thing a love can do: You sat down next to me, you put my hand in yours, and you shared what would normally just be my burden, my pain. You didn’t take the pain on, but you faced it with me. If only the world knew they didn’t need perfect words or answers to comfort and relieve us when we’re in the thick of pain. If only they knew that Love listens far more than it talks. A shoulder can mean more than a mouth. Love shares, it communes and confides. In joy and in pain. This is love. Our love. You helped carry the parts that I could not, and turned on its head what felt like momentary hell into saving grace. Just the memory of it strengthens me now.

This made me think of Nepo’s definition of Love. One I come to again and again, the most eloquent I’ve ever heard, and I often find myself reciting the words in my head: talking with friends, watching birds, kissing Monty. Somehow through your small action made with great braveness, your love materialized in a way I could not only feel inside with warm intensity, but could touch and see it, feel it in your hands. His definition for love is only this: Sudden Oneness. How perfect these two words capture what We shared that mangey morning. I warred with my same broken body, but I was also slipping into the outskirts of doubt and hopelessness; a place you know but helped lead me out of. His words so perfectly explain why when you love someone deeply and true, that when they cry you cry. When they’re happy you’re happy. Their joy is yours and vice versa. This is the beauty and brilliance of the oneness from love: lightening burdens and multiplying grateness. My tears continued but something about your unconditional nature made them begin to carry new truth in their waters. Hope, I think. Surrender. Reassurance.  But it was this small gesture that mattered most; allowing me as the mess I was, seeing and hearing me and not turning away or trying to quell it with empty phrases. I know how hard it must have been for you– the only other soul in that dark room, while mine laid strewn on the floor like a discarded garment. It’s not that you saved me, necessarily, but you saw me through the darkness. You stayed. So many fear that stillness of pain, enduring the murkiness of life when there aren’t easy answers to offer someone. You helped see me through it, bring my tired heart back into the light, ready to try once again. But first you let me die a little. Shed a skin I didn’t need anymore. Another testament to what brave love can do. Little deaths prevent big deaths. That was Nepo too.

It’s interesting, but when I recall this whole ‘event’ now, we seem to be alive inside a pocket of timelessness. There we are, the two of us, enduring what we did, frozen in an exchange that felt unearthly, and I can’t for the life of me feel or remember the passing of time. The moment is still alive. The lessons are wide awake, and they pour through so much of me: My fingers when I write. My soul when I’m discouraged. My intellect when my respect for the novelty of life drifts– I think of you and our moment and I know that there is meaning behind the pain, but it requires seeking. And luckily we don’t always have to do this alone. The Oneness that enveloped me, I think in fact may have been my first real glimpse of Forever. Or Eternity. Whatever the word for that otherwise incomprehensible concept is, for a fleeting moment I caught it, like a fast grab of a buzzing fly, followed by thick silence. In this excessively brief lapse in spacetime, I glimpsed the two of us–we were not just not apart, we were the same. We were one another. And the comfort was greater than a reunion you’d imagine would bring great joy. It comforted me. Humbled me. A powerful experience no doubt, but mostly mom I’m just plain grateful to know and learn from you this way. You’ve mastered a difficult and necessary art, and expressed and given it the way that you do, it’s something that will last far after you. And me. And my children too. Perhaps like Einsteins theory come to life one hundred years after the fact, that little ‘blip’ on a device recording an explosion a million years old, your love ripples will be felt long after you’ve gone. This is the miracle of true love. It’s so huge and yet it can be easy to miss. Like looking for mustard in the fridge tirelessly and finally coming upon it on the middle shelf in plain view, right in front of your eyes.

For me, this is incredible news! I half-knew already this was true. Losing and still knowing dad, our love somehow still growing, I knew it had to be real and not just the stuff of voodoo or fairytales. So I rest more assured now. One day you’ll die, and if life is good to us, it will be before me. But I don’t fear this occasion the way I once did. I know it will hard. The pain will be deep, as loss is not a one-way street. You lose more than a person, you miss a piece of who you were with that person. But like my clearly favorite Nepo says, Grief is a sign we loved them well. It’s in living this life, that when we give and receive love in its pure form like this, unconditionally, that it sustains and lives on. It works miracles! And it removes the sting and surprise of death, a thing we treat with pretty odd behavior in my opinion. But anyway, I can’t lie. I’ll be a mess. A sobbing heap on the floor. A shaken up bottle of coke. And where will I go? How will I recover? As I was taught of course–I’ll remember that moment of your bravery, to see your kid in pain once again and have to surrender; to be at peace with the mystery of these things. Just as you saw me through that, I learned that these moments actually do pass. That life does go on, the pain isn’t forever, and we wipe up our mess and keep going. I learned that because you lived through it with me, not because you sent a card with a bow that said “This too shall pass! Call if you need anything!” You are living love, in a beautiful form, and you are doing incredible work in the world because of it.

Perhaps by now it’s become apparent that I’m single. (Haha) But I can’t think of a more deserving Valentine, a bigger barer of gifts who never seeks out recognition or accolade for loving this well. You seem to perform the duties of love effortlessly, and I’m not only grateful to have you around and receive them, but I’m happy and feel lucky to learn what love is through you, how to give it and accept it from such a master as yourself. You’ve been through enough pain for 10 lifetimes, but I’ve never see you throw in the towel or give way to bitterness. Sure, you’re still a human being and a mother and you’ve made your mistakes. We all have. But you’ve never faltered on love and it seems to grow larger and more powerful in happy and hard times. Perhaps this is what the pain of experience does for us. I don’t know. I’m still learning. But watching your resilience and continued faith in life, in things bigger than you and me, in good things, in eternity, I know I’ll never stop seeking the answers. I’ll never stop trying to find the good, the value, the meaning in every kind of experience. Including the dark ones. Perhaps especially those. Thank you. For all you’ve done and continue to do. I don’t know how you’ve not collapsed yet of exhaustion, but maybe all that loving you do is an energizing force. It certainly is for me. Thank you. Keep going.

Oh yeah, Be Mine?

I love you.

Health, Happiness, Modern Romance

7caojdadi

P.S. I extend this letter to Marc, Doug, Nick, Amelie and their significant others for pitching in in all kinds of ways, helping carry me through the crap times, and loving me so well. You are all my angels. Thank you.

Some Lessons of Love on Valentines Day

I’m told that you learn how to love from your parents. So on this International day of love and cheap Walgreens chocolates, I’m going to share the lessons of someone whose influence has been huge and far reaching- My mom. Here is a part of her story.

My mom and dad met on a blind date set up by their two best friends. It was only meant to be “friendly” and an innocent night of fun. Neither my mom or dad were fully on board with the idea of it, but they were told “It’s just dinner. What’s the harm in that?.” What was promised to be just dinner, ended up being the first night of a journey that would lead to marriage and four kids. Bam! In 1993 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There was a lump underneath his belly button which had been there a while. It hadn’t really grown or changed but to be on the safe side they went in and removed it. Upon opening him up, they saw that not only did he have cancer, but that is was so widespread they couldn’t even locate the origin. So we were never told he had “lung cancer” or “stomach cancer.” He had whole body cancer! He was given six months.

We were also told the cancer was too far spread for chemo or radiation treatments to be effective. My dad wasn’t thrilled with this prognosis, so he devoted himself to getting well through a hollistic approach. He cut out white sugar, white flower, meat, artificial everything, and drank so much homemade carrot juice that his palms turned orange. He lived in great health for three and a half more years to the surprise of all his doctors. But ultimately he lost the battle. After he died, I remember my mom saying “I could never love someone the way I loved your dad.” And it was pretty well understood and accepted that she wouldn’t marry again.

But four years later, she was set up on another blind date which she again resisted strongly and almost bailed out on minutes before. This time it was a different set of friends who set her up, but the promise was the same. “It’s just dinner. And we’ll be there the whole time.” Well wouldn’t you know it, sparks flew that night too with Roger. (We liked to call him Roger Dodger) And six months later, they married. I remember my mom saying, “When you get to be my age, you just know these things. There’s no reason to wait!” He had two kids from a previous marriage, so now altogether there were three boys and three girls. We were literally the Brady Bunch, just far more dysfunctional. But it was a really incredible thing to see my mom so re-energized again. Roger was very different from my dad, but it didn’t seem to matter. He brought her back to life.

Five years later, I was a junior in college at LSU. I remember this Tuesday morning distinctly. I was brushing my teeth and going over a case in my mind for my Media Law class that I was running late for. My cell phone started ringing and I saw it was my house. When I answered, I heard the horror in my moms voice. She could hardly get the words out, but she does. “Roger died last night.” He was in Florida on business and died in his sleep at his hotel room the night before. He was never late, so when he didn’t show up to work the next day, they knew something was up. The autopsy revealed it was a heart attack. I kind of gasped for air when I heard my moms words. In a moment it felt unreal and disgustingly real simultaneously. I was trying to process what she had told me as I packed a bag when it hit me- the icing on the cake of this surprising and sudden tragedy–my sister was getting married in two weeks. And here’s the cherry on top– they were getting married in the very same Hall that my mom and Roger were married in. As my sister Amelie so eloquently put it, Are you fucking kidding me?! It was unbelievable. I hopped in the car and made the hour and a half drive home, in shock. It felt like a 10 second drive.  Doug, Nick and Amelie were all in by that night as well. Roger’s kids were in the next day and we all put our heads together and began the “making arrangements” process. Sometimes I still look back at all that and think, did that really happen?

So we Gelpi’s do two things really well: Weddings and funerals. For one thing, we’ve had a lot of practice. We planned and executed the funeral, and then prepared for my sisters wedding a week later. Somehow, the funeral was beautiful and seemed just how Roger would’ve wanted it. A lot of people spoke, including his son who’s words were poised and beautiful. The service took place outside in the 3 acre garden he created. As depressing as it was, somehow it still felt right. The next weekend, it was time for my sisters wedding. And it was a blast. Still one of the best weddings I’ve been to! Everyone smiled, laughed, and danced, including my mom. Sometimes I think we should start a business where we plan both weddings and funerals. I must say, there’s not SUCH a difference. Each involve an absurd amount of flowers, a lot of drinking, and usually someone saying something inappropriate. There’s just more dancing at a wedding! Anyway, the next year involved a lot of cursing and yelling at God. A lot of questioning life and existence and the universe and a lot of crying and flipping off the sky. But in very quiet moments, in stillness, I felt reassurance. I could feel that this was not how the story would end. It wasn’t over; not yet.

Just over a year later, my mom was at a bar-b-que at some of our best friends house, the Pastoreks. Paul Pastorek was one of my dads best friends. They were the family we’d take ridiculous annual vacations with in the summers. We were extensions of each others families. Anyway, while at the bar-b-que, my mom met Paul’s brother, Marc. Somehow, in their more than 20 years of friendship, my mom had never once met Paul’s brother, until today. You can go ahead and guess where this is leading. Yep! They ended up falling in love, too. Just over a year later, they were married on a mountain in Colorado. We joked about who was crazier; my mom for taking another chance and marrying again. Or Marc, for taking a chance and marrying a woman with two dead husbands! The first song we danced to at the wedding was “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. It was both irreverent and inappropriate, just like all of us. Once again, we danced all night. It was perfect.

Taking the plunge, part 3.

So now, the lesson. Only marry men with strong genes. Just kidding. I think the biggest lesson I have gathered from my moms story,  is that choosing to love someone involves incredible risk. There are no guarantees in life and certainly none in love. I think it would have been very easy for my mom to clam up after the first loss. And then to disengage completely after the second loss. Excuse my Jewelry commercial sappiness, but I think by keeping her heart open to even the idea of loving again, she was able to both give and receive it in spite of the track record. At Roger’s funeral, she stood up to speak to everyone’s surprise, including her own. But she said something came over her, and the first  thing she said was “To love is to be vulnerable to loss.” This is true for everyone. And that’s a scary thought if you harp on it too long. But the alternative, which is safety, bears no reward. And that doesn’t sound like much fun, at all. Most everyone I’ve talked to who has been in love, whether it worked out or not, says it was well worth it. A few nights after Roger died, a lot of people were over at our house. We were eating, drinking, and remembering, telling stories. At one point my mom was talking about their first date and how hesitant she was. At the end of the story she said “What can I say, given the chance, I’d do it all over again.” That’s what you call courage! I was in awe of her. And as I watched her marry a third time, change her name a third time, ‘do it all over again,’ take another plunge into the unknown, I knew I was bearing witness to a model for not only how to live, but how to love too. Get busy livin or get busy dyin! Am I right? So here’s to you mom, for doing it all over again, picking up the pieces and moving forward, and teaching everyone around you that love, while it is a gift, is not random. You have taught us well.

Health, Happiness and Love!