A salute to Erica Roman

I’ve been off of here again for too long, so here’s an attempt to get back in the saddle and write. I’m in the process of transposing (read: copy/pasting) my old durbansingleparentmale.com blog over to it’s new home (same URL). It’s weird to get emails from old readers like “why are you putting this crap back up?” It’s important to me I guess, and maybe someday it will be of use to someone else.

Last year around this time I posted about a little Twitter exchange I had with Patton Oswalt, who had recently lost his wife. I sent him some love, he sent some back, and for a minute there I had 5,000 views on this blog. It was pretty exhilarating. Recently I heard he’d announced his engagement to Meredith Salenger, someone I’ve never heard of but who was in a movie back in the 80’s I think.

Now, I’m gonna be candid here and admit, straight up, that the first thought that went through my head was “oh, but that’s soon…” It’s been like a year, right? Barely? I thought “too soon, too soon, they all say you should wait five years or something before getting hitched again.” Not that I did. But anyway.

Then I read this very lucid, beautiful piece of “up yours” to the people who’d trolled the announcement and thought “oh yeah that’s very, very true.” It’s funny. My life was taken apart, exploded really, with the death of Janie. How soon I forgot how harrowing all of that was.

So this post is a bit of a tip of the hat to Erica Roman who wrote what needed to be said about this topic. I don’t really have much more to say about it myself, to be honest. Just that now that I’ve removed my head from my sphincter long enough to recall how much courage it takes to get on with life and choose to believe that good things would come my way if I stayed open to them, I can give a hearty congrats to Mr. Oswalt, who deserves what happiness he can get out of this life. Also to Erica. You keep going brave soul, one foot in front of the next, one day at a time, as us griefers have learned to say. It’s coming. If it’s what you want, it will come to you. Just keep going.

It’s all you can do, right?

Muddling toward wholeness


Today, everyone is home. We had us an ice storm, spring storm Stella I think they are calling it. It’s bitter cold outside, but that hasn’t stopped Sean from joining up with his buddies to shovel driveways for a dollar a pop. Pretty good deal on a crap day like this, if you ask me. I’m still in sweatpants and other sundry bedclothes. I won’t be going outside today unless the house is burning down.

Today is also my sister-in-law Andi’s birthday. It is 81 degrees Fahrenheit out in sunny Durban, South Africa, where she lives. Andi was 12 when I met her back in 1999, attending Kloof Senior Primary, where she is now a teacher. This was 18 years ago. I was in South Africa because I’d chased Andi’s sister Janie across the Atlantic, determined I wasn’t going to let this one go. And while I was so fortunate to become her husband for a while, there was no holding onto her. Death has a nasty habit of correcting our best laid plans.

I read an article on Pitchfork today about Phil Elverum, a musician who goes by the stage name Mount Eerie. While I’m not acquainted with his music, his story is one I can relate to. He lost his wife back in July of last year, and is raising their daughter on his own now. The article’s author goes into some detail about the way the death has dramatically changed the content of Elverum’s music, if not so much the style. The way in which he attacks his craft has changed since her passing, his lyrical content, while still distinctly Mount Eerie, has a new tone of authority. As the author puts it, “the difference between this album and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the earth and undertaking it.” That line struck a chord in me.

While working as a translator, I was fond of spitting out the following Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Sometimes, in an attempt to make a given piece of text read better to the audience, I would employ a word that was close or nearly accurate to what was being said in the source language. I hated the thought of a thing being lost in translation, and often times a mental picture is sacrificed for verbal accuracy, and I hated to have to pick between the two. The truth is, though, that as a translator you often have to choose the latter. It is wonderful when you are able in a translation to convey both the art of what was being said in the source language while also being accurate to the text. Moments like that are too rare. Most of the time I’d understand exactly what the author of the source article was trying to say and how, but found a paucity of words in the target language into which to convey the beauty of what was being expressed. Great translators are able to dependably do this. I would often times translate what was being said so that it was clear, but inelegant.

Expressing loss is a matter of translation. Those who’ve never been touched by a major loss, who haven’t traveled along the borderlands of death and seen the waste, sensed the decay or felt the floor beneath and the sky above torn to ribbons will be unable to understand the weariness of the bereaved. Unless it were to happen to them, and you don’t ever want to wish such a thing on anyone. And yet… much of the whole being alive thing is this human urge to communicate.

In the song “Real Death”, Elverum relates how a week after his wife died a package arrived with her name on it. She had ordered a backpack for their daughter shortly before her passing. Elverum sings in hushed, broken tones about how she was thinking ahead to their daughter’s first day at school, which wouldn’t be for a few more years, caring for their little girl even though she must have known that she would never get to see that day. He collapses in a heap on the front stoop of their house. The last line of the song goes, It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.

I can relate to that. Who wants to learn this lesson? Who wants to learn how to talk about loss? Who volunteers to excel at expressing the heart-crushing, horizon-erasing, future-eating, hope-slaughtering reality of losing someone you love so, so, so much? Who wants to tell their kids “mommy died”?

And yet… I did all those things. Somehow, in the noxious wallow through the gall and puke of grief, I found a way through and out back into the land of the living. I didn’t want to become proficient at this, but I did. I didn’t want to tell Seanie and Sophie their mommy had died, but I did. I didn’t want to raise them without their birth mommy, but I am. I didn’t want the life I knew and was so settled into to change and for me to have to adapt, but I did. I didn’t want to have to start living again, but I did. So much of life is doing things you don’t want to do.

How much you surrender to the shaping forces of something greater than yourself will have a great impact on who you become. I’ve described Janie’s death as being like a landscape altered by a volcanic eruption. It’s the same place, but it’s totally different now. How much you embrace that difference will determine how well you’ll be able to make a life in your new/old surroundings. To do that, I learned I couldn’t judge it. I mean, it was awful to suddenly become a widower. It was bewildering to be a single dad. It was confusing to know how to do those things and still feel the yawning chasm of loss in my chest.

I didn’t do it because I’m clever. I didn’t do it because I was gloriously delivered from the sorrow of the valley of the shadow of death or whatever triumphalist narrative someone needs to insert here. No, I did it because I didn’t have an alternative. I would have gladly joined Janie in death had there not been two tow-headed little anchors tethering my boat to shore. I’ve never been a suicidal person by nature but the demons of abandonment her death summoned from the depths of my psyche were intent on eating me alive. I’m still unwinding their tendrils from my spirit.

I did not pass through into the land of the living in order to anything. Some folks like to say “this happened so that you could…” whatever. But that’s not what happened at all. I survived. In the obits, the family of the deceased are referred to as survivors. I think such a title ought to be bestowed later on, but still, the title is apt. If you survive, then you’re a survivor. Survival for me is a multi-step process. First, it was a matter of surviving Janie’s death and loss of her in my life and living community in itself. Phase two is more complicated. It’s about surviving myself.

That’s a story for another day or a series of posts, in fact. It’s ongoing. Susanne, who for better or for worse has agreed to see out the remainder of her days on this rock with me, has seen what is ugliest in me and is still here. I’m trusting she sees something worthwhile. But as mentioned, this is ongoing. We’re working on it together, and I suspect we will be working on this, on us, for the rest of our lives.

I didn’t “get better” to then be rewarded with Susanne and Savanna and this new promise of hope for our family, so that Sean and Sophie could have a mom and an all better now dad. It’s not like that. Things were good. Then they weren’t. And now they are getting better. And we have hope they will be good. Great, even. Better than ever. But none of this was the original plan. Accepting that and moving on is, in the end, the only choice afforded to us when the shittier things of life take place.

Had the original plan held, I’d be in South Africa with Janie and the kids, celebrating Andi’s birthday with mom and dad Spence, Philippa, Will and the girls. And it would have been great. Instead, today I am sitting in my warm house in Delaware on an unexpected snow day, building towers of blocks with Savanna, asking Susanne to check my grammar on this post and dropping in to see what Sean and Sophie are up to. This, too, is great. I want this life, just as I wanted the life that came before it. I’m as fortunate for having this life as I was for the other one. I am grateful for both.

This ol’ house


I stopped working at CAI (Computer Aid, Inc.) about mid-July. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Wow life has changed. In the last post I mentioned that Susanne and I bought a house and sold another. Our new house is in Newark, and that’s is fine. It’s a fair sight better than Wilmington at the moment, no doubt about that. I’ve grown to like Newark. When Janie and I bought in Wilmington, all I wanted was city living. Newark was boring, I thought, there’s nothing to do, blah, blah, blah. Now the suburbs aren’t so unappealing. And the house’s location is brilliant. On the other side of our back yard fence sits a Vietnamese restaurant. The smell is so fantastic… We’re close to everything we could need (shopping, hospital, bank… did I mention there’s a Vietnamese restaurant just over our fence??).

The day after we closed on this house, I put in my two week’s notice. Some time back, I enrolled in a master’s degree (Masters in Social Work). I begin the week after next. I have my books, I’m doing everything online… I’m motivated, stoked, ready… and kinda frightened. But that’s the way it goes. It’s a big step – I’ve pogoed around the world and career-wise for all of my life. This is something that engages my interests and will rope in my life experience – the whole field of mental health and wellbeing. Having benefitted so much from the many counselors and therapists I’ve come across over the years, especially since Janie’s death, I decided that’s the field for me. So I’m stoked. Pumped. Fired up. Shit scared.

Susanne has taken on the burden of full-time earner for our family. I’ll be Mr. Mom for a while. I’ve done it before so it’s something I’m comfortable with. Two years from now I’ll be licensed and working in the field of mental health.

But back to the whole quitting CAI thing… the day after we closed on our home, I went into work and did what I’d wanted to do ever since about two weeks after I started there – and that is to put in my two week’s notice. Don’t get me wrong – it was the right job for me at the place I was in life. I was recovering from Janie’s loss still. My first foray into the working world after getting back to the US in 2012 was a sales-heavy environment, and I about caved in on myself. So CAI, while pretty boring, gave me a chance to work on me, to take it easy and do something that was not difficult and make okay money off of it. It’s safe to say I’m not Mr. IT Know-it-all, for sure. Not my field. But that’s okay. It was a grace from God that the gig came along when it did. It served me well but I am very glad to not work there any longer.

After leaving there, I got to work on my new, not-for-pay job: refurbing a very neglected house. I’m not Bob Villa. I can barely use a Philip’s head. That being said, I know how to use a paintbrush and a roller, and I can say today that this house is now painted. I painted the last thing I’m going to paint for some time today (the hall bathroom and our little en suite). I had lots of help – friends from church (eternal thanks to the Keiths Coulter and Miller, Ben Meeder and Cal Beene), family (my dad-in-law Bill Caraher), my big brothers Tom (who hates sanding but is way handy with a mower) and Randy (mover extraordinaire) and especially my dad, who spent most days with me at the house either painting or sanding or moving things in.

The former owners color palette was not to our taste, to put it kindly. Everything was dark – the walls were this German mustard yellow, there was lots of umber and yellow ochre, forest green on the walls. The one bathroom was painted a glossy chocolate brown, on the walls and ceiling, no less. What is to be Sean’s room was painted orange – also walls and ceiling. All the paint was glossy, and to prep said walls I took to sanding just about every painted surface in the house. Have a look-see below:

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It was pretty dark, basically. Now it looks like this:

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The floors in the above pictures had been stripped but not refinished. They are now done and shine like a bowling lane. All-new appliances were purchased and delivered (if not all installed, isn’t that right dishwasher?). The last big thing left is to have the new HVAC installed. We had all the ducts cleaned out (it was pretty rough in there) and the man is coming tonight to begin putting the system in. We are close, very close. Sean’s room needs some kind of floor – we’re working on that. Ceiling fans still need to be installed, little odds and ends like that (fixtures, new tub liner in the bathroom, etc.) but we were almost set to move in.

All this and next week we’re off to the Outer Banks! So it’s been a mad dash. But, somehow, we got it almost all done. Pretty darned skippy if you ask me.

I’ve really loved this transition period. I went from being sedentary in the extreme (the nature of my previous gig) to being on my feet and exerting myself every day. I’ve dropped 20 pounds in the span of six or eight weeks, which is a lot of weight for a guy who doesn’t do the diet thing. I still could stand to lose another 50 lbs., but hey, it’s a start.

The best part of this new gig has been this, though:


I’d work every morning at the house and come back and take Savanna for a walk in her stroller. This was how I’d get her down for her nap. It’s been the best part of every day, without a doubt. The last couple of weeks got just way too oppressive heat-wise, and as such I’ve transitioned to a more conventional nap arrangement (by snuggling her on our bed – a real chore, I know). Before, I didn’t get to see Savanna very often. Now I’m more hands-on. I never got to see Sean and Sophie in the mornings either, since my shift at CAI began at 5am. Now, I see them every morning before heading out. This summer, that’s meant me taking them to their summer camp, which was brilliant for them. Summer camp, that is. They were a teeny bit paunchy at the start of summer. Those camp counselors whipped them into shape, no question. They ran and played hard for eight weeks. Paunches are all gone.

As mentioned earlier, we’re off to the Outer Banks next week. I’ve never been – I hear it’s fantastic. My classes start the 29th, the day after we get back. Sean and Sophie start school on the same day. And we are planning to be moved in by then. Holy crap.

It’s all good, though. It’s been a long, long time coming. Sean, Sophie and I moved into mom and dad’s house in March of 2012. A lot has changed in the interim four-plus years. And I’m really thankful for this next step, this chance Susanne and I have to build a home for our kids, to really be us as a family.

Not such a bad gig, right?



Working title…

I wanted to write something today but don’t know what to write about. Like I so often do, I started something the other day and have now come back into the draft and deleted everything in it and I’m writing this now. I’ve named this post “Working title…” in the interim while I figure what I’m writing here.

Not that there aren’t things to talk about. The referendum on the UK remaining in the European Union took place and the leave camp won. Is it just me or is the West trending farther and farther right towards jingoism and intolerance? I thought the days of rabid nationalism were behind us. So much for that.

There’s only one kind of nationalism I find to be constructive and that is of the footballing variety. I should qualify that by saying that there’s still plenty of the ugly nationalism in football, but the sheer explosion of national pride and joy in Iceland’s commentator is of the sort I don’t mind. That’s some funny stuff there.

I’m not going to muse about the state of the world’s politics, I can’t stomach it. But as a father I have to wonder what this apparent global trend toward nativism means for my kids. Is this a blip on the screen? Perhaps we will see a trend against unfettered globalization for the next several years. Could this be necessary? This is a very weird moment.

In our family, there are many big changes about to take place. Ever since Sean, Sophie and I moved back from South Africa, we have lived in my parent’s house. Yep folks, that’s over four years. So spare a kind word for my parents, who have put up with my crazy ass for all that time. Susanne moved in here after we were married, and it’s been the lot of us living in the basement this whole time. Savanna’s first year, first steps, first most things happened there. While enormously challenging, this was probably necessary for me after the world came tumbling down around my ears. I’ve had the opportunity to rebuild, a luxury not afforded to everyone.

All good things, though, must come to an end, and I am happy to say that our time at the Jones Ranch is drawing near. It’s a long story but I’ll give here a brief run-down of events leading up to this: some of you are aware that the first house I ever owned was the one I bought with Janie, in Wilmington. We bought that house right before the bubble on the housing market burst, in 2006, for $133,000. It is located in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. We loved living there and at the time we bought it, Little Italy seemed to be about to turn the corner and turn into the next Trolley Square. We thought it was a good investment, and indeed nine months after we bought it we had the house re-evaluated (to drop PMI) and were told the house was worth $192,000. We put maybe $5,000 into the house in upgrades and it valued like mad. It was a loony time, for sure.

Then the bubble burst and the area’s value plummeted. We moved to South Africa in November of 2009, and it’s been rented out to a succession of people ever since. I won’t go into the gory details but it’s not been entirely smooth sailing. After my last renter decided she no longer felt compelled to pay rent, I put the house back on the market (with her in it). Her eviction took some time but it’s been over a year since any income has come from that house. It’s been, shall we say, a stretching experience. These things happen to the best, I suppose. That being said, this circumstance, too, is about to be put to bed.

On Tuesday, I sign the house over to the its new owner. It’s an exciting, oddly sad emotion. It’s weird to think that this house where some of the best memories of my life were made became such an albatross, and now that I am able to move it along there’s still this ambivalence. Move along it shall, though, and on the same day I hand the keys over to the new owner, Susanne and I are closing on our home here in Newark. That is another saga which I will not go into in detail, but suffice to say that short sales are anything but short. Or simple. Or fun. But… we have us our home. It’s big enough for all of us which has always been a challenge with our budget, so that we took the long way around, while not exactly incident free was a beast borne of necessity.

These events were meant to culminate on Monday, actually, but as it happens it was (honestly, thankfully) postponed to next Tuesday. I don’t think I could have parted with the old house and signed on for the new one all on the anniversary of Janie’s death. That would have been something of an emotional overload. I am taking the day off on the 28th, will sign piles upon piles of paperwork and by the end of it have both feet firmly planted in our Next Big Adventure.

What are the superlatives that could be employed to describe my state of excitement? This might be an appropriate place to deploy a barrage of emojis but alas, I will spare you, gentle reader. The house in Wilmington has symbolized different things to me over the years: when Janie was alive, it was our first real home. We’d lived in other houses but this one had our names on it. We welcomed so many friends into it. I remember our house warming party. I remember how we’d invite friends over: be it from our supper club or lifers like the Salfranks and Ray Ray. We welcomed family from South Africa, Wendy, Shaun, Emma… we had parties, we played Wii after too, too much wine. We welcomed Sean and Sophie into our family. It was a happy place, a place I loved.

I did not know when we left it that it would become an unwelcome burden. To part with it after years of it being such a point of tension in my life is both welcome and bitter. I didn’t want this place to become a symbol of being stuck. Releasing it is very much a freeing exercise, a chance to move on. It’s done with mixed emotions but with absolute clarity of mind.

The new house needs work. It’s big – over 2,000 squares. Thankfully, there are not too many major things to be done. By moving into this house, Susanne and I are settling down on our patch of earth and building a home for our kids, a place that will mean everything to us and to them, for years and years to come. The sense of excitement is palpable for all of us, with the kids asking repeatedly for the chance to go through it. They will get their chance on Tuesday.

I guess today I feel as though I am perched on the edge of a world whose contours are unknown to me. New things aren’t bad, but they can be intimidating.

I think I’m going to stick with “Working title…” for this one. Seems to be appropriate, with so much still being underway…

Talking about death in the age of Twitter

Yesterday was weird. On the one hand, it was painful. The anniversary of Janie’s death always is. But then, yesterday’s post is the without a doubt the most traffic I’ve ever received on this or any blog I’ve had. So that’s a bit mind blowing. Most days I’m lucky to get ten views. I had 5,000 or some change yesterday.

How did that happen? A little over a month ago, I heard that the wife of one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, had died. Like me at one time, he suddenly found himself a widower and raising a child on his own. He wrote about it, much like I did when Janie died. What he wrote crushed me, because it brought back those early days of torment, of raw anguish.

So how do you reach out in this day of social media and short attention spans? I tweeted at him. He re-tweeted. I don’t tweet or whatever – I’ve tried and I’m rubbish. But I was stunned – thousands of people re-tweeted that. A few even messaged me.

Yesterday I decided to write a post on here. I’ve held back from writing other times about this topic because, well, I’ve written on it so much. It’s such well-worn territory for me and, frankly, I’m tired of being bummed out about it. That might come off as callous but it’s not meant to. You lug around grief for long enough, you get tired of it. The lump in the throat that’s always just there, like a hair trigger, becomes this unwanted guest. I used to find writing about Janie cathartic. It’s become less-so with time. Maybe people were sick of reading about me being sad or hearing some other gut-wrenching anecdote about how a three year old processes the loss of her mommy. I mean… ugh. Who carries this shit around indefinitely? It’s like a life sentence or something.

But five is a big, round number. It’s half of a decade, which makes it something of a mile marker. To my mind, it’s significant, and as I’ve finally started to feel like some semblance of myself in the last year, this anniversary of Janie’s passing felt momentous in a new way. I wanted to mark it, and so I wrote what I wrote yesterday. I tweeted Patton, he re-tweeted it and I suddenly had way more visitors than I’ve ever had the right to expect.

It was oddly thrilling and felt somewhat… off. There is a part of me that wonders about capitalizing on this story. There’s the worry that this could be seen as grief porn.

I’m not sure about what the rules are in this age of content sharing. I don’t view this as content. As far as a category, that’s what it is, but to me it’s more. Once there was the impulse to make sense of it, for her death to mean or matter or something. I’ve now gone well past trying to find a reason in Janie’s death – there was none. She died and there’s not much I can do about it. Her life – that was meaningful. She still means so so much to me. But her death?  I’m not in this to give her death any more meaning.

I’ve consistently found people through these posts who will throw out a note, a thank you or comment that something written found purchase in their souls. Sometimes we want to give voice to something that aches because we just do. It’s a need. Maybe that’s why songs of heartbreak are forever popular – we relate.

No one wants to relate to survivors, ever thought about that? In order to relate to someone who survived the death of a loved one you’d have to go through the same ordeal, and no one wants that. It’s logical. Death will hang around the survivor often, too. Much in the same way the herd pulls away from the weakened wildebeest (the better to bait the lions!), we instinctively pull away from those wounded by the death of a loved one. No one means to do it, it just happens. Maybe the subconscious fears is it’ll rub off. Who knows.

How the survivor deals with that really just depends on that person’s makeup. In my case, I wrote about it and found a community of people that way. Grief support groups were big for me early on. My closest friends hung in there, as did family. But there’s only so much I can throw on my nearest and dearest. At some point, you have to process the hurt and sadness. Counselling helped. Writing about it helped more.

It still does, and so does writing about everything else. Life does carry on. Eventually, you string together enough good days and you wake up one morning and the ache has subsided somewhat. It’s odd because when that happened to me, I immediately felt distressed, as if I had dishonored Janie in some way by not waking up in pain.

That’s another one of those traps, a trick the mind plays on you. I’ve learned that if Janie could speak to me, she’d say she is happy I am moving on. Life does not stop. Her presence in my life, the blast crater Patton correctly described it as, is slowly filling in and new growth can be found there. This is the way of the world, it has always been this way. Sometimes I hear that time heals all wounds or whatever. Time alone does not heal anything, but it is a factor in and among many in an individual’s recovery. The day will come when you wake up and it hurts less. Sometime after that, it hurts less still.

Then one day you think of the departed and there’s not this swell of pain. There’s a sweetness there in that thought, even. When it happened to me, I had an attendant emotion – gratitude. You see, she was my wife. She picked me. I got to be hers. I was really, really lucky. It’s awful that she’s not here. But then again… it’s a miracle she was in my life at all.

Things do come full circle. Life does re-emerge from destruction. It takes time, but it takes effort and maybe a bit of creativity. I was gratified by yesterday’s uptick in interest and a little taken aback. I was reminded that if I just reach out a little, there’s plenty of other people slogging through this mess of life with me.

Finally, watch this video. The poet’s name is Michael Lee. This is still my favorite poem on the topic of death and loss.

And as always, hang in there. One day at a time.