The Story of Choosing Grace

 

Team Choosing Grace
Choosing Grace honors all of these individuals…

It all started back in January 2012 with a tragedy and an impending nervous breakdown…

Choosing Grace.

Fueled by loss, a ton of emotion, lifelong and newly-formed friendships, mourning family members and many shared experiences, Team Choosing Grace was formed in an effort understand and raise awareness about mental illness and suicide, as well as honor three people we lost to suicide.

As word of our first Walk spread, three people became four people and then five people and then six people and then seven and then…well…you get the point. This last year, our third Walk, we walked in honor of 26 people.

26 human beings.

26 individuals who left behind sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, colleagues…

26 people who lived incredible lives, and while not defined by the way they left this world, it is definitely an important part of their stories.

26 lives.

Before this year’s Walk, I was hoping to gather and share their stories. Because this is the first time I am doing this, I am open to any and all suggestions. Perhaps it would be a story from when they were a child, what they were like in school, at their job, or even what their favorite color, food or movie was? Maybe it won’t be a story about them per se, perhaps it would be the story about how their loved ones lived on…live differently…since they left. These stories may be serious or funny or thought-provoking or just plain sad. It may not be a story at all, it could even be a poem, or a quote, or a picture?

As I receive these stories, I will post them on the Team Choosing Grace blog leading up to the Walk on September 26th. If I don’t receive a story, I will ask permission to post the person’s first name so that our team can pause to remember him or her. I am very aware of the sensitive nature of this type of loss, so I promise to be very careful with this information. I will start posting these writings in the next couple of weeks.

Here’s to Choosing Grace and to remembering those with whom we walk daily…

 

 

 

the transitional object

heart-shaped kibble crumb
heart-shaped kibble crumb from bailey

a few days ago, we had to put our dog of 13 1/2 years to sleep. i had never done it before and was surprised by how peaceful it was…but it also felt so final. there was no doubt about it, bailey was really gone.

before they gave him a sedative, the vet tech gave him a bunch of treats. we had tried earlier in the morning to give him some “chicken meatballs”, but he had refused. in this moment, however, bailey ate up every single treat. he wagged his tail once, then twice, and looked up at her for more.

the vet then gave him the sedative to help him sleep before the final injection would be administered. we were up by his head and he fell into a deep, calm sleep. before the vet gave him the last shot, i looked down at the blanket and right next to him were a couple of heart-shaped kibble crumbs. i pointed them out to everyone in the room and we all marveled at the beauty of the moment.

bailey was full of love.

he was sound asleep as we assured him over and over again that he was such a good boy and that we loved him so much. bailey’s face was propped up gently on his paw and he started snoring loudly…three times…and then there was just silence. we kneeled down by him for a while and then kissed our sweet pal goodbye. before we left, we covered him with the blanket, but not before i grabbed one of the hearts and stuck it in my bag. my transitional object.

the transitional object. i had never heard of this term before my mom mentioned it to me a few years ago…

she had left roscoe’s dog run (basically a cord and a leash that ran from the deck to the back yard) up several years after he had died. we didn’t give it much thought until her deck was converted into a wheelchair accessible ramp and the dog run became more of a hazard as people were clotheslined walking up to her back door. when asked if we could just take it down for a little while when we were having guests over, she said, “it’s my ‘transitional object’, please leave it alone!” when i thought about the amount of loss she had faced recently, it made sense and i didn’t gripe about it anymore.

when she was ready, she eventually let someone take it down.

a few weeks ago, when we were moving things out of her house, my husband texted to see if he should transfer the one can of tab from her fridge to our cooler. anyone who knew my mom, knew her by her tab.

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although she hadn’t had a tab in a few years, keeping it in her fridge was another transitional object…something that made her feel more connected to the person she was before she became so sick with scleroderma. the tab is now my transitional object for her. (oh, and the forty storage bins that are stashed away in a friend’s garage and our closet, but we’ll get to that later).

it’s made me think about some of the transitional objects i have had over the years…

our friend, carrie…her words are my transitional object. the words she wrote to her children at her own funeral service about being kind and also her words that she left in a voicemail that i just haven’t brought myself to delete…

my brother, brian…i wore his sports watch until the battery died and his red sox baseball cap through a bunch of 5k’s…it made me feel like he was always with me…

my step-father, john…there are many because his death blindsided me and probably changed me the most. i have kept emails from him when he was helping us choose paint colors and work through house projects, the clothes he was wearing when his body was recovered and his suicide note. for me, these transitional objects help me stay connected to him, as well as try to work through my brother’s suicide.

our friend, ann…i kept the postcard she had sent from her summer vacation just before she died the summer of 1983. it stayed folded up in my pocket and then placed in a book and then eventually i lost track of it…

the same thing happened with the tree-top fairy from my babysitter, sheila. it was always close to me and then it was just gone…

i guess over time you really are able to let go, but for now, i will hold onto many objects, including a heart-shaped kibble crumb and a can of tab…which i know people will think is absolutely crazy, but for some reason it helps. maybe i am more like my mom than i thought…

just sitting ‘n spinning…

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A few weeks ago, my former babysitter, Tina, joked that she would bring a sit ‘n spin to the last hurrah at our childhood home.

Ah, the sit ‘n spin…such great memories! The sit ‘n spin was a staple in every home in the 70’s, usually found in the living room, right in front of the t.v.

My siblings and I would spend HOURS on that little contraption. When it was my turn, I would stare down at the blue and yellow stripes and spin so fast, the colors blended together. What a trip!  Sometimes I would close my eyes, throw my head back and knock into any sibling or dog in my way. I was like a mini-tornado and loved every minute of it!

A few years ago, I saw one in the basement at a friend’s house and asked if I could try it out. Two notable differences this time around: I got dizzy after the first turn, and 150+ lbs takes a whole LOT of upper body strength!

It was not the same.

Luckily, my babysitters (er, I mean former babysitters) and I have our memories…

Last summer when my mom died, I immediately called and texted friends and family to let them know the sad news.

Then I messaged my babysitters.

I still cannot really explain it, but as I sat in the tiny, crowded airport awaiting my flight back home, I felt a sudden urgency to let them know. And just as they had been there for me when we were all kids, they responded immediately and were there for me again.

I was about 8 years old when my parents got divorced. Within that same year, my mom went back to school to become an R.N. and she also went back to work full-time. Because of her long hours, she relied heavily on neighborhood kids to take care of the four of us. Tina, Erin and Anne were some of our regular babysitters and they were a part of our family.

When I reconnected with Anne and Tina via Facebook a couple of years ago, it felt like we had never lost touch, although it had been many, many years.

It felt like home.

They have memories of things that I only somewhat remember…favorite toys like the “Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop” playdoh set and songs we used to make up and sing together.

"shave and a haircut...two bits"
“shave and a haircut…two bits”

I remember Kiss singing “Beth”, Stu, Kayo, the Christmas tree falling on Brian, Blarney shenanigans, Little Kings’ subs, Round Records and the rock fight incident…just to name a few…

They will probably never realize the influence they had on my life or how safe I felt when they were there. I know that we had the neighborhood reputation as being the “Benda Brats,” and we definitely lived up to the name, but they still showed up for us. Every. Single. Time.

My mom hired them out of necessity because she couldn’t be there. Little did she know that these kind, intelligent, beautiful, funny and accomplished women would be there for me again when she was gone.

Not only there for me, but willing to let me sit ‘n spin…

the bro

the "bro"
Bailey and The Bro

Our 13-year-old puppy, Bailey, exudes loving kindness. He’s also very cute – it says so right on his latest and greatest t-shirt – “I’m cute”.

Yes, it is a little bizarre for a golden retriever to wear a t-shirt. However, it is even more bizarre that his t-shirt serves as a bra, or as I like to call it: a “bro” (from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes).

The “bro” became a wardrobe staple for Bailey a few months ago when the vet suggested that he wear a t-shirt because the tumor on his chest had grown so much and needed some support. Because Bailey is a “senior” dog and the tumor has grown between muscle, tendons, and is filled with blood vessels, removing it was just too risky. Providing support and keeping him as comfortable as possible is what we were told to do.

And so we listened to the vet’s advice and followed Bailey’s lead…


The first time Dave and I saw Bailey, we fell in love with the fuzzy little puppy. He came home with us on Christmas Eve – what a gift! Our very first baby, Bailey would lie in my lap as I rubbed his tummy, tickled underneath his chin and cooed, “Who’s a pretty baby?!” We invited friends and family to see our new “baby” and he pretty much captured their hearts too. Despite the uncontrollable sneezing, eyes watering and almost swelling shut, even our friends with terrible allergies still visited and pet him saying, “It’s okay because he’s so, so (ATCHOO!) adorable!”

Bailey taught me that there is joy in the most unexpected, simplest things.


He’s been there for us since the beginning…about 1 year into our marriage. He was the first one to learn that I was pregnant, and the first one to console me when we lost that pregnancy. He was also right there when I learned that I was pregnant with Emma. When I sat on the stairs in surprise, excitement and FEAR, he quickly tried to comfort me. For Bailey, consoling and comforting meant nudging my arm with his cold, wet nose until I finally pet him. My heart rate immediately slowed down.

Bailey taught me the simple, yet important lesson that making someone else feel better when you feel sad, makes you feel better too.


When Emma was born and cried NON-STOP for three months, Bailey stood guard over her bassinet, crib, baby swing and car seat.

First night home
First night home

I think he felt just as bad as I did that we couldn’t stop her crying. When he wasn’t standing over her, he could be found next to me. We would both look over at the crib and he would gently nudge me with the cold, wet nose.

Bailey taught me that misery really does like company.


When my mom and step-father, “Papa John”, would come over, they would literally run over us to get to Bailey. When we saw them just before our big move to Connecticut, my mom hugged me and sobbed, “Oh honey…I’m going to miss BAILEY so much!” The last time she visited and I was taking pictures, Mom asked if her “granddog” Bailey could be next to her in the picture. In fact, he already was as he didn’t leave her side that entire visit, which was the last time any of us ever saw her again.

This was taken the day AFTER Kate's First Communion when we realized we forgot to  take one with Grandma the day before!
The day AFTER Kate’s First Communion when we realized we forgot to take one with Grandma the day before. Kate was such a good sport to get back in the dress and wear the wilted headpiece.

Bailey taught me the importance of being loyal and present.


These days, Bailey’s a little slow…slow to get up, slow to hear things…just slow. No doubt about it, it’s just plain hard to get old. When he is up, he walks around looking like he’s had a partial boob job, which is funny but a little sad too. He still walks around the kitchen while his little sister, Jane, balances dog toys on his head. He lets her go first when we open the door to let them both outside. Bailey now refuses to eat unless there a “chicken meatball” to spice up his dry food. Just like his “Uncle” Blarney did many years ago, he also pretends to shiver to get extra treats and it works every time too. (I mean, have you ever seen a dog shiver with chattering teeth and all? It’s sooooo cute!) The vet just smiled when I told him and agreed that he’s earned every single treat.

It’s no surprise that the tumor is right over his heart and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Because Bailey has always had the biggest heart.

So, we continue to keep each other as comfortable as possible and the “bro” supports us all.

are those happy tears, mommy?

This morning I received an unexpected gift.

Choosing Grace  is our AFSP Team name.  "B" stands for Benda, in honor of my brother, Brian "H" stands for Hanson, in honor of John and my mom
Choosing Grace
is our AFSP Team name.
“B” stands for Benda, in honor of my brother, Brian
“H” stands for Hanson, in honor of John and my mom

It’s from one of my life-long friends, Amy.

Amy (or Amelina, to me) and I will always have a special connection – not only have we known each other since kindergarten, but we were also hit by a car together in second grade. There is nothing like bonding over broken bones and body casts.

The accident happened back in the 70’s, when parents didn’t hover and kids had a little more time to explore different options. We explored the option, “Does it really make sense to cross at the light ALL the way at the end of the street when your house is actually in the middle of the block in the opposite direction?” The answer: Yes, yes it does. (And my kids and their friends get a daily street safety lecture from me, even though we’re the last house on a dead end street!)

That impulsive decision greatly impacted our young lives and we both wear the scars of the accident to this day. She has a permanent bump on her forehead and I still have the indentation in my leg, which has actually lessened with age and weight loss and gains (who says there aren’t benefits to cellulite!).

While Amy and I can joke about it now, it really was no laughing matter. Amy still remembers the whole terrible incident; I was knocked unconscious. I have always believed I was the lucky one for that.

When I was hit, I flew up into the air and then slid under a parked car. Neighborhood legend has it that a bunch of neighbors came out and literally lifted the car up, so that the paramedics could get me out. I have no recollection of it and my parents told me that when I woke up in the hospital, the first words out of my mouth were, “I’m bored.” I only remember being upset when I learned that they had to cut off my brand new jeans from Winsbergs to get to my leg and that I wouldn’t be wearing any jeans until I was out of traction and the cast – about three months.

After about six weeks in the hospital, I returned home. I had a full body cast and a sweet bedroom in the dining room, complete with t.v.

We also had a new dog named, Rover.

Just as we never mastered “JAAHCKK”, we never quite remembered “Rover”, so our newest addition became known in our Sesame Street-obsessed family as…

Grover

GROVER!  Grover was a friendly, low-key stray dog and there are a couple of pictures of me leaning on him when I somehow figured out how to stand in the body cast. Because he was more of a wanderer than a family dog, Grover walked right out of our back yard just a couple of short months after we found him. He probably knew that we were settling in and was just looking for another kid who needed someone to lean on…

And speaking of leaning…back to my friend, Amy, and all of my life-long and new-found friends, who I have been leaning on especially over the past few years…

With everything that’s been going on, I’ve been flooded with so many memories, but I also keep thinking about the story/poem, “Footprints in the Sand”. My favorite line is, “…The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.”

I was about 13 years old the first time I heard that story and remember feeling profoundly moved and hopeful that God would have my back during difficult times. I still believe that, but in my life the story looks more like this…

When I look back at the footprints in the sand, I notice that during the most difficult and darkest times of my life, there have been several sets of foot- (and paw!) prints in the sand. It’s during those times that my friends and family have carried me.

They are the only reason I have the strength to continue choosing grace.

spinning

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this is alf.

alf. i never would have imagined that a harmless facebook post with this fuzzy little alien’s mug on it, would trigger so many memories. although the show was cancelled 25 years ago and i only watched it a handful of times, i always liked alf because his voice was funny, he was quick-witted and obsessed with cats, and his cute little face reminded me of a dog we had when i was little. our dog’s name was “jacques”.

jacques (stunt double)
this is jacques’ clone.

jacques was an airedale terrier. because we were so young when we got him, my memories of jacques are a little fuzzy. i remember that he was very soft, fluffy and full of energy. i also remember my mom saying that he was very expensive and, if you knew my mom, that was very important. the only other things i remember are that he liked to jump, and my mom, who gave him his french-inspired name, constantly corrected my siblings and me (we were  6, 5, 4 and 3 years old), “his name is not ‘JACK’, it’s pronounced ‘JAAHCKK’!”. we were a very cultured crew.

unfortunately, jacques was not with our family for very long. one day when my mom went to the back door to call him inside, she noticed that both gates were closed, but he was nowhere to be found. jacques was gone for good. i’m sure we were devastated, but i honestly have no recollection of our response. although we’ll never know exactly what happened, my mom always said he was stolen “because he cost a small FORTUNE”. we had several dogs after that, but jacques was the last dog my mom ever paid for and the only dog taken from our back yard.

as we’ve been clearing out our childhood home over the last several months, we have come across many photo albums overflowing with polaroids and our family dogs are very often front and center with the four kids. i haven’t found any pictures of jacques yet.

while there’s no record of jacques, a picture of his doppelganger, alf, and the friend who innocently posted it, have inspired me to start writing. so, i freely admit that i am spinning with everything that’s happened over the past several months and what will happen over the next several weeks. it feels like my mind will spontaneously combust if i don’t tell my stories and the stories of those who lie under the radar. there is gentle kindness to be found even (especially) in these moments.

let the spinning begin….

saying goodbye


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In a couple of weeks, my friends, family and I will say goodbye to our family home. For 43 years, our house provided WAY more than shelter. It’s the place where two of my siblings were born. It’s the place where we celebrated baptisms, first communions, graduations, birthdays, dances and a wedding. It’s the place where friends and neighbors congregated after school and on the weekends. It’s the place my brother left, and it’s the place where I learned his ultimate fate. It’s the place that housed many furry and not-so-furry friends, including dogs, a cat, lizards, gerbils, fish, a bird and a rogue squirrel that took up residence in our attic at one point. It’s the place where we laughed. It’s the place where we cried. It’s the place where we played hard. It’s the place my mom left and never returned. It’s the place I will always call home.

It’s been over 43 years of the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows and many in-between days too. It’s been a constant in my life and in the lives of many other people.

Saying goodbye is never easy for me, and it would be so easy to become sad and resentful over this loss. However, as I sit here on the sofa with our warm puppy, Jane, to the left of me and our sweet Bailey on the floor to the right, I realize unconditional love and kindness are right here in front of me and I have a choice. I am following their lead…