Facing the Fact.

What’s lurks, as I lean into life?

I’ve cleared my vision,

Shifted into my old optimism,

Dove back in for another revision.

I went running—pain free—three times.

I went on a date—without talking about my deceased beloved.

I readied to claim my progress.

But, like a bully who knows me too well,

Grief casts her shadow.

Still.

I know what I don’t want to know.

Worse than the fact:

He’s never coming back

(which I still—three years, nine months in—don’t quite believe),

I never stop wishing

He was here

Making it easy

To lean into

My life

Without him.

How I Lean into the Goneness.

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~ Roger Caras

I washed my yoga mat, which I rarely did while my 100-lb Black Lab Phoenix filled my life. Before she died months ago, she determined the rolling out of my mat was meant for her, even if I tried to coax her onto her own yoga mat, gifted due to her nail scratches. She had to be on whichever mat I wanted to use. So, I mostly did yoga around her.

My clean pink yoga mat free of black hair on the kitchen floor invited me into the emptiness, the sucker punch of her goneness.

 I sat with my sadness. I miss you so much, baby!

It used to be when I was sad Phoenix and I went for walks around the neighborhood and into the woods.

I still go sometimes—to get my body moving and commune with the trees.

The neighbors with dogs hardly recognize me without her black body by my side.

She served as my guide dog, guiding me to people. She could smell who needed love.

She traipsed across lawns like an eight-year-old girl, interrupted conversations, leaned in for love, and accepted certain treats from favored folks.

Kids asked to pet her. Does she bite? Will she lick me? She likes me!

She taught kids who feared dogs they didn’t need to be afraid. She helped teenage boys push past their cool and allow affection.

She let a neighbor grieving her own dog hug tight through sobs and suddenly dismiss.

The landlord, who doesn’t even melt for spotted baby deer, bragged to the window guy about Phoenix. “She wasn’t just a dog!” She was a presence.

When she stayed with my friends Carol and Pete and I was on my way to pick her up, they said, “We don’t know any Phoenix; Our dog’s name is Princess!”

That’s what one neighbor called her. She’d disappear behind, or maybe in, his house. Sometimes I feared he coveted her in a way that made me understand that commandment. I insisted he stop calling her Princess. “Her name is Phoenix!”

But yes, there was something regal about her. When neighbors engaged with her, as they often did, their invisible walls dropped. She made people feel safe.

When they exclaimed, “She’s so beautiful!” they meant her entire demeanor, as well as her black satin coat. Her soft caramel eyes whispered caresses. Her untainted, soulful authenticity invited comfort. She knew how to walk the path to love.

Now, I walk alone. I feel invisible and vulnerable without my identity born from “This is Phoenix’s mom!” The easy connections and conversations sever without her.

Then, there’s the lovely older couple… The lady flat out told me early on when I invited her to a gathering, “The only people I like in this neighborhood is Phoenix.”

For years, both husband and wife, asked repeatedly, “Has she gained weight? She looks heavy.” I stifled my instinctive, “Have you?”

Now that she’s gone, I’m privy to a new conversation. Recently, they pulled their van close to me, against the nonexistent weekday suburbia traffic.

“Gosh, we hardly recognized you without Phoenix! We don’t see you walking much. How old was she?”

“Eleven.”

They didn’t seem to have a reference point. They shrugged and looked at each other. “What did she die from?”

“I don’t know. She’d been sick for a while.”

“Was it cancer?”

“Probably.”

This conversation served up the opposite of “two heads are better than one,” as I’ve had the exact conversation with each of them individually.

“Well, we don’t see you walking as much without her.” Do you wonder why?

I can’t be too irritated with this couple, though. When Phoenix and I moved into the neighborhood, they told me where to catch the trail into the woods, like slipping me a secret ticket to childlike freedom found in the forest, our playground where Phoenix could go off leash while I walked, ran, skipped, sung, or wrote.

The trees swaying in spring, autumn colors splashing against the river mirror, the fluffy, winter carpet encouraging us to forge a fresh path, and the swept-clean dirt floor dancing with roots repeatedly returned us to our better natures.

I go alone now, seeking my spirit, missing my Lab partner, and feeling vulnerable without her bark, bold body, and announcement to anyone we might meet among the trees: I’m with her.

She’s not with me now. As a woman, I’m suddenly a little less free. I must stay more aware, the way a wise woman walks in the world today.

I’m acutely aware of my 11-year-old loyalist’s absence, along with her lingering love.

My yoga mat is clean. I practice into this new space where I don’t have to navigate a dog for whom I’d gladly lay out a mat, a bed, or a bowl every day of my life.

She was my pleasure, my treasure, and my protector. A gift of the highest order.

How Memory Soothes.

“The most evident token and an apparent sign of wisdom is a constant and unrestrained rejoicing.” ~ Michel de Monatigne

The Cardinals’ chirps announce their return

to feeders outside sliding glass doors.

Fresh October air kisses my face

with memories I want to

dive into and dismiss:

The October my Labrador Phoenix and

I stayed with my boyfriend Kevin

at his house in the country

with a view of the river and

trees thick like an autumn rainbow.

Mornings sat us at his new, suited-for-two round table

With coffee made for and served to each other.

Kevin crossed his long basketball-star legs and

Pointed out birds I never noticed.

He knew their names and identifying characteristics.

In those moments, we were an old couple together.

I could grow old with this man, my mate.

We were Fire & Ice; Crazy, Sexy, Cool.

We added a thousand memories

After our colorful fall that felt like

I’d finally found a home for my soul.

March of 2016 took my beloved

like a kidnapper in the night,

by complete surprise.

His heart stopped

in the center of our love story,

that began with

two decades

invested in telling tales

About men and women we dated, married and divorced.

About jobs we worked since the one where we met,

Stories told over miles he and I drove separately.

So often we spoke for hours with one of us on the road.

He ran sales appointments and I drove between MN and OH

To see my sister, whose husband was dying of cancer.

How did I forget that Kevin carried me through those conversations

where my heart was breaking for my sister and brother-in-law and nephews?

Kevin encouraged me to stay with my sister after her husband—and then the cat—died.

And besides, the guy I lived with strutted the pilot stereotype he denied.

Kevin said, “Icey, you’ve got to get out of there.”

Always direct with each other: the kind of friendship I value.

Direct and the freedom to disagree. Respect and acceptance

Built a foundation for our deeper-than-either-of-us-had-ever-been intimacy.

We’d each tried to create a sacred, harmonious relationship with others,

But never got it right. Until we did.

Kevin and I knew what we had the way children know to play in water.

The same way Cardinals know when the feeder is full

And my heart knows it’s fall, when crisp air,

Color, fog, birds and memories collide.  

And I smile.

Grief Day 1: Phoenix.

I had to have my pal Phoenix put down. I’m still in shock. The house feels empty. I’m the only one here. It’s been Phoenix and me for so long.

Anyone can own a dog, but sometimes a bond beyond explanation is born between person and dog. It’s obvious good fortune, a gift, a blessing. God’s knowing.

Of all the impossible and unforeseeable twists and turns that had to occur—me coming upon a desire for a puppy at the time Phoenix arrived in the world, locating her through my neighbor whose cousin bred Labs, and having her brought home when I told my then-husband to get the other pup—sings of synchronicity.

Destiny delivered a special soul in a Black Lab body to partner with me on my journey.

Love was Phoenix’s mission; I was her assignment.

She loved life, chasing balls, hanging out on the deck, walking in the woods, greeting neighbors, and spreading joy.

One neighbor often hollered, “Here comes Phoenix, happiest dog in the world!”

Phoenix was partial to her own kind when it came to dogs. Labs had an automatic in.

She loved most people but picked her favorites: like Carol, who connected with Phoenix on a trip to the beach in NC and her husband Pete, who Phoenix took to like a long-lost father, and Wayne, who Phoenix walked beside—no leash required.

Phoenix chose me as her favorite person. If dogs got tattoos, Phoenix’s would’ve said, “I’m with her.” Her gentle, undivided loyalty poured forth pure and untainted by the world for 11 beautiful years.

I never celebrated her birthday before, but this year felt like a major milestone.

She seemed to know. She made it a good one, with a long walk three doors down to the neighbor’s coveted healthy, lush, green grass. She made herself at home as if the world belonged to her. I sat down and pretended too, practicing Reiki, prayers, and presence on someone else’s lawn.

It didn’t matter. We were grabbing the good, our final togetherness.

Before we had to let go.

Somehow, Phoenix’s body broke down. Maybe for the simple reason life doesn’t last forever and there are many paths to getting out. We all go out. Ugh! The fact I don’t like.

I don’t like saying goodbye; I’ll never see you again. The worst!

However, if I’m going to keep living, I ought to find a better way to go through grief. These are the things we think of on Grief, Day 1… Maybe we can logic our way around. HAHAHA!

My heart hurts. My baby’s gone. I miss her presence, energy, persistence, her black shadow everywhere. I miss her marble-brown eyes looking into my soul. I miss laughing when she ignores me and walks away to sh*t in the neighbor’s yard at 3 am.

Missing my companion makes me miss my dead boyfriend even more. Isn’t that crazy?

Maybe it’s because Phoenix was “just a dog” in the way that Kevin was “just a boyfriend.”

Selected by God—specifically for me—to know, experience, give, receive, sit in, and cherish divine love. Divine. Sacred. Special. Undeniable. Unforgettable. Irreplaceable.

Soul connection.

Now, Grief walks in. No handcuffs. No threats. No tricks.

She reaches out her hand in invitation: “Come, walk with me a while again. We’ll journey deep but rise like dolphins out of water. We’ll return with radiance polished like diamonds.”

Grief looks different.

“Yep,” she says. “That happens when you’ve been looking at me for a while.” Then, she asks, “Are you ready?”

It feels like I imagine when I was a soul and I said yes, I’m ready for a body, and when I was I was a baby, but before I’d been birthed or touched the earth, I said, yes, I’m ready to join the world.

We don’t know what we’re ready for! Can we prepare for Grief? No, preparation isn’t necessary, but it helps.

It helps to be grounded.

If you’re not grounded, Grief can f*ck you up as bad as your worst bad, bad girlfriend.

Grief can make you love her and let her move in, not just to your home, but your heart.

Grief can take over your emotions the way a spoiled girl takes over closets.

Ah, but Grief carries crazy-cool wisdom woven in her womb. She’ll crack you into something new. She’ll sprinkle enlightenment around you and teach you how to feel the music in your blood. Grief will caress you and honor your secrets. She’ll comfort you in memory and heighten your senses.

She’ll make you think you’re high or crazy, but you won’t care. Once you have the courage to climb in bed with Grief, you may resist the world the way a teenage girl falling for her first boyfriend resists her parents.

Because that’s where the juice of life lives—where the heart and soul dance with unbridled emotions and the mind is merely a witness, all previous lessons dismissed.

While some people run from Grief, knowing she’s a too-large wrestling partner for their likes, the brave lean in. But, the wise don’t get lost or stuck.

I intend to be wise this time. Grief smiles as she takes me for a little spin.

Letter to a Dog Aunt.

Dear Aunt Jayne,

Thank you for letting me and my mom move in with you back in 2013. I was disappointed that little kitty departed before I got here. You were so sad when we arrived. (Not about the kitty, of course.)

I liked coming up and tucking you in at night. As the months went on, I enjoyed hearing the high pitch of happiness in your voice.

I never told you, but you when you called me Wiggle Butt, I loved it! You’re the only one I let call me that.

Please know how much I love you and appreciated sharing your home and part of my life with you. You made my life experience richer, fuller, more enjoyable, and safe.

You loved me without hesitation and respected my needs. You didn’t get mad at me. I know I was a good dog, so I didn’t give much reason, but I’m also very sensitive and you understood that.

Living with you and my mom, right here where we could walk to the woods and hang on the deck and chase squirrels and go on walkabout… what a life!

Aunt Jayne, remember when I first moved in (next door) and my mom used to throw the ball with that magic wand and I fetched it until I got distracted? Man, I could run fast when I was young!

Thank you for respecting my body as I grew sicker and weaker. Thank you for comforting my mom in all the ways only you can. That’s all I ever wanted to give her—more love. You help with that.

You made me feel safe and always welcome. Trust me, my mom notices if people don’t practically salute me. That’s how I feel about her, too. I love her sooo much!

That’s why it was hard to leave. I kept fighting, but I’m glad I got to walk out with dignity. You were there for that big awful hard thing. You were there when I ate my first and last hot dogs.

Why didn’t you introduce me to hot dogs earlier?!

I forgive you. I hope Tom’s there when I get wherever I’m going. I know it’s going to be an amazing experience. I’m sorry I had to leave, but thanks for making my journey easier.

Love and Black Velvet Hugs,

Your Wiggle Butt

The Spirit These Times Require.

So, my dear,
you’ve learned to cry.

Not just reactionary tears,
earnest ones born of
your brave heart.

You see the darkness and refuse
to disrespect yourself
into denial.
Bravo.

Welcome to the juxtaposition:
No one asked you
to lay down
your joy.

Claim it again.
Be a warrior, enlightened.

To fight for light,
enter the darkness
dancing.

Let them hear your laughter.

Flash your smile
like a peace sign
as you pledge to do your part.

In one bucket, carry the problems.
In the other, the spirit with
which to transform them.

 

How I Found my Forgotten Bank Account with a Million Bucks.

“And further, the thing put to rest–whether it be a loved one, a dream, or a false way of seeing–becomes the fertilizer for the life about to form.” ~ Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

There’s no man in my life right now, but I’m embracing love. I’m letting it rise in my body like the sun from behind the trees.

I was in love with life before I welcomed my friend Kevin to claim me, calm me, and call me into sacred love. We uncovered our deeper desires as I neared 50, after dancing in and out of a decades-long friendship.

Then, he died. March 4, 2016. Unexpectedly. In his sleep.

Losing him put me on my knees in prayer and sorrow.

A few people said things like “Kevin wouldn’t want you to be sad.” My response was a basic F*ck off!

Kevin wanted me to own all my emotions. We had a no bullsh*t zone. That’s why our relationship transformed into something each of us had only dreamed of before.

Sometimes I try to minimize the extraordinariness, as if that could dim the pain.

Then, some random 6:00 am morning, I open the drawer of my bedside stand to the letters he wrote, even as there’s a chant in my head: Don’t do it!

Handwritten letters starting in 2014, as rare and special in the age of text and email as our crazy, sexy, cool love was.

The one letter I allow myself this morning reminds me of the truth I know and try to let go as much as I cling to it: ours was no ordinary love.

It tasted as real as shared morning coffee, felt fun as the seven trips we took together in under two years, and opened as passionately as his smooth, swooping handwriting curving across lined yellow pages.

What follow are Kevin’s words from only one of the dozens of letters:

“Being with you, loving with you, and talking with you takes my emotions to places they’ve never been before.” With. He was so with me.

“Listening to you read last night touched me in a place I didn’t know I had.”

“You and I are unique in this love affair.”

“My devotion to you will not waver. I love you deeply more each day.”

He never wavered. Our relationship didn’t falter. We had no warning. He was gone.

I’m left with a drawer of letters mirroring the magnificent gift we somehow manifested.

We embodied Kevin’s last unfulfilled mission on earth: to love and be loved without walls.

How blessed I was to be his last love. Being involved and intimate with Kevin Lentz welcomed a pivotal shift in my life.

It’s one thing to believe that kind of love exists, but experiencing it was like the quench of water when I hadn’t realized my thirst.

Losing him was like the sun going behind the clouds and refusing to come out.

However, Kevin didn’t define me. He refined me.

I know and accept myself more completely since being loved by this man who knew, accepted, respected, and appreciated me.

His death made me starved for his affections. And yet, he never really left, as he reminds me: “I’m here, Icey! I’m here!”

Icey. I miss getting drunk on sound of his deep, masculine voice calling me Ice Baby and revealing to me the secrets of his soul.

I don’t doubt his words in my head, but it’s not the same as physical presence. In that, I’ve been ghosted.

On the other hand, imagine you’re struggling to pay your bills and you find a forgotten bank account with a million bucks and your name on it.

Yeah, Kevin left me a full account of love. Not only that, I’m the woman he fell for.

On the weekend that transformed our friendship into my favorite love affair, I was engaged with life.

I was in love with my writing dream and pursuing the publishing of my book. I was drenched in gratitude for my dog and sister and sitting in Kevin’s friend Big Daddy’s boat, soaking in the sun while we floated on Lake St. Louis.

I leaned back, looked up at the sky, and shouted, “I’m so happy!”

Kevin said, “With what, Icey?”

“With this moment. With my life.”

Yes, I was rich in love before Kevin and I became Fire and Ice. Fire filled my bank account to overflowing and never drained it.

I’m rich! All the love I had and all the love he gave lives inside me. I’ve been left full.

In fact, sometimes I think I could burst with the love I feel for my beautiful 10-year-old Black Lab companion. She’s a special creature, as anyone who meets her can attest. We share a beyond-reason bond, even getting sick simultaneously.

Once, when I went with Kevin to Florida, the kid who was watching Phoenix called with some bad news. There was something wrong with her. I asked him what he thought it might be. He nailed it: “Master Separation Anxiety.”

Every morning I give Phoenix a dog massage and tell her she’s the best dog in the world. We go for walks in the woods daily and I take as many pictures of her as new parents do of their baby. She’s got me captivated. Still.

And my sister? Don’t even get me started! When I moved in with her “for the summer” five years ago, I thought I knew everything about her.

We were close, even more so due to holding each other up through the losses of our only sibling, our mother, and Jayne’s husband.

Now, I think what I knew of Jayne just a handful of years back was like what you read on the spine of a book compared to what’s inside. We’ve learned so much more about one another, not just the stories we hadn’t had time or felt ready to tell, but the day-to-day way we walk in the world.

Jayne has taught me how to share a home with someone in a healthy, committed, communicative relationship. You’d think I would’ve learned that after two marriages and five decades on this earth, but what I’d learned was how to manage parallel lives. It’s as similar and different as water and ice.

My sister lost her husband of 33 years. She modelled how to rise after your favorite person dies, although neither of us imagined I’d need the lesson so soon.

My sister consistently speaks her mind and feelings and encourages me to do the same, as if she and Kevin were given the same lesson plans.

She puts present time experiences front and center and makes plans for us to spend time together, the way Kevin did.

Whether it’s grabbing a beer at Pies & Pints, riding camels in Australia, going down water slides in Orlando, taking road trips to Michigan to visit her son and daughter-in-law or home to Ohio from our childhood state of New Mexico, Jayne isn’t just riding along; she’s with me.

The way some people sleep on road trips, too many people sleep through their relationships. They’re missing out because there’s always more to learn about a person.

Jayne Gerlach is my sister and she’s one of my best friends. I’d say I couldn’t love her more, but I’ve learned love keeps growing.

And life, just like Kevin said, “It just keeps getting better.”

Even through the pain, I’m falling in love again—with life. Mine.

What do you love most about your life?