Tag Archives: loss

My Tribe

A colleague was standing outside my door this afternoon talking to another co-worker of ours.  As he was doing so, he was thoroughly examining the Cutie orange he had just peeled.  He looked at it quizzically, cocked his head, grimaced and choked half of it down.  He swallowed hard, then shook his head.  His most unusual response to eating this delightful little nugget of almost pure sugar generated an inquiry on our part.  I mean, who doesn’t like fruit?  Unless, of course, we are talking about overly ripe bananas (a topic that was thoroughly covered in Bananas Are All the Rage) or papaya (because I think we can all agree, that shit is just gross.)  Otherwise, fruit is pretty awesome.

So when we asked why he was so troubled by eating fruit, and moreover, why he was forcing himself to do it he said, “Oh, I just eat fruit because I have children.” I remarked that it was noble of him to serve as a role model to his children, even when they aren’t around to witness his behavior.  To which he replied, “It’s not that.  It’s that my old man died at the age of 49, and I’d prefer to live to see my children as adults.”

My ears immediately perked up and my posture straightened.  I motioned him into my office and asked more questions.  How old were you when he died? What did he die of? How was your relationship with him?  Do you think his untimely death has made you more aware of your own mortality?  Do you think it has given you fuel for your passions and your drive in life?  He sat down on the couch in my office and answered my questions, one by one.  He was unfazed because he knew  in that moment what I knew, too…we are in the same tribe.

Isn’t it strange how our pain can join us?  And yet, I would offer that there are few things in life that can bond us together more.  I suppose that is true for everyone; I know it is true for me.  I am blessed with more friends than I am even sure I deserve, but the ones who understand the darkest, saddest and most sacred corners of my soul are the ones who lost a parent too soon.  They are the friends who understand that no matter how joyful my spirit is – no matter how silly, how funny, how passionate, how wise I am – I carry with me a well of grief that never, ever goes away.  Ever-present, it’s just there.  I hardly notice it most of the time and for practical purposes, I’ve learned to live around it. But I’ll be the first to admit, there are some circumstances that can tweak me in just the right way and my grief will come pouring out of me with the force of an uncapped fire hydrant on a hot summer day.  My grief is a comfortable, old friend or an angry, jilted lover depending on the day.

As my colleague and I talked through our feelings in an impromptu therapy session of sorts, we concluded by reminding ourselves how reassuring it is to find someone who has had a similar experience as you.  I am not the only one who has vacillated between feeling grateful I’ve not had the same fate as my mother and then wondering if I am on borrowed time.  I am not the only one who sees the beauty of my determination to live passionately, strong, smart, and hard in a way that could only come from an awareness of the impermanence of life.  I am not the only one who wants to make sure I make my best and most important mark on the world as soon as I can.

That is the beauty of finding a member of your own tribe.  You remember that you are not the only one.

A New Pair of Specs

Twenty-nine years ago I lost my mom, and not a day has gone by that I have not thought of her. My life was forever changed, in some ways for the worse, and I suppose in others for the better. This is worthy of re-posting in memory of her.


On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like…

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The Story I Never Told

I remember it now as vividly as if it only happened yesterday.  It was a sunny, brisk April morning eleven long and short years ago.  I woke up at my usual time and immediately thought something was off – my then-husband was already up and out of the house.  I didn’t recall him saying he had an early morning meeting, but I quickly shook it off and got ready for work in my usual way.  On the way out the door, I shooed the cat out of the way and patted the dog on the head.  I went out to the garage, got in my car and saw a gold manila envelope on the car seat.  When I opened up the envelope and looked at the contents, everything changed in the flash of a single moment – life as I knew it would never be the same.

Without a single utterance or warning of any sort, my husband had left divorce papers on my car seat.

I really don’t even have words to describe the moments that followed. Shock, disbelief, panic, and rage were all hurling at me with the force of a Mac truck.   I felt a hurt so deep, so searing, that I thought I might not make it through the day.  Truthfully, I’m still not sure how I did.  I ran inside to try calling him at work. Of course he did not pick up.  I paced and I sobbed and I screamed.  I had no recourse, and in that moment, no way to know what was happening.  I have had some days in my life, days that were truly, deeply terrible. Days of loss and grief, of confusion and pain. But I’ve never had a day, before or since, that shook me to the core like this fateful day.

In the days that followed, I searched for answers but got very few.  After thirteen years in a relationship that was almost entirely devoid of conflict, it appeared that my cool, calm and usually collected husband had gone off the deep end.  There was an evening about ten days after the divorce-papers-on-the-car-seat incident when he really lost his mind.  One sassy question from me along the lines of, “Why do you have to be like that?” unleashed thirteen years of suppressed rage.  After a massive blow up, the likes I had never seen in this otherwise almost passionless relationship, the evening ended with him laying on the bed in our spare bedroom sobbing a deep, guttural sob – a sob I could not in good conscience ignore. Balancing my own sense of safety with all of my other sensibilities, I went upstairs and laid on the bed with him – consoling him, crying with him, caressing his hair – and promising him that even though we were in the middle of a mess right now, we would both be okay on the other side of it.  It was my last act of affection toward him, and it came from a genuine place.  It was also the last night I ever spent in that house.

If there was a victim in this story, it would make sense to conclude it was me.  He made it so easy – too easy – so I let him take the blame.  Friends and family stood by my side and made speculations about the how and the why of it all, none of which put him in a favorable light.  A few months after our divorce was final, he was engaged to a co-worker of his and all of the unanswered questions seemed to have answers. It was easy and convenient to end the story there, so I did just that.

But time has a way of simultaneously gnawing away at the hard exterior shell and softening the edges to reveal the truth. What I didn’t say at the time, and really haven’t said to many until this very moment, is that I hold myself 100% responsible for the demise of my marriage.  I’m not letting him off the hook entirely, because I actually believe that both people in a relationship have 100% of the responsibility for it.  But this is the story I never told.

When I was 22 years old, I met a perfectly lovely man and willed myself to love him.  Because he met everyone else’s approval, I fell deeply in love with the idea of being in love with him. The deeper I got into the relationship, the more unstable my state of mental health became.  Over time, I developed a full-blown panic disorder, with my body protesting (sometimes violently so) the choices I was making.  I ignored all of this and did what I “wanted” anyway.  Now this is not to say that he was a bad guy – quite the contrary, actually.  He is a good man, with a good heart.  For a variety of reasons, though, he just wasn’t good for me. I knew it, and I married him anyway. Thereafter I invested myself in every part of my life except my marriage. I distracted myself with work and school and social opportunities.  I gave the best and most important parts of me to everyone else.  In the context of our relationship, I was moody and demanding and kind of lazy – all the while being funny and charismatic and hard-working in every other aspect of my life.  He desperately wanted children and I held back, knowing the relationship was not strong enough to handle it.  Over time, I became little more than a roommate – and kind of a pain in the ass roommate at that.  It eventually got to a point where even I really didn’t like me.  The long and the short of it is, he got the worst of me.  And he got it for thirteen long years.

So the bottom line and the story I’ve never told is this:  he did what I never would have had the courage to do.  He examined what really had become of our relationship – not what we portrayed to the outside world – and recognized that not only was it not working, it really wasn’t even salvageable.  He may not have chosen the most compassionate way to end the relationship, but he ended it with good reason and the only way he knew how.  In the end, he gave us both a chance at happiness.  And while he left me with many gifts in all our years together, that was the most loving gift of all.  Today, almost exactly eleven years later, my heart is grateful and my life is full.  I hope the same is true for him.


Sometimes when you leave the house in a hurry, you forget something really important – like your bowling ball. This is the story of Veronica.

In 1993, I made a bold move that would change the trajectory of my life forever.  Young, inexperienced and in love, I packed up my bags, left the Twin Cities, and moved to Milwaukee.  When people today ask how I ended up in Milwaukee, I always explain: “I moved here for love that has long since passed.”  At the time, the plan was to move here for a year – maybe two – and then head back to the Twin Cities.  Twenty-one years later, I am pretty sure Milwaukee is home.  Today, there is a finite list of reasons I would consider moving:  1) Scott Walker is elected President (in which case it is compulsory that I move to Canada); 2)  I am inspired and propelled by love again; or 3)  Milwaukee is destroyed by a zombie apocalypse.

Anyway, if you have ever moved to a new city, you are probably aware as I was that it is really hard to make new friends.  It can take seemingly forever.  I am so lucky now to have an incredible group of friends, but I am very aware that this has required over 20 years of interviewing, nurturing, harvesting and weeding out a few clunkers.  Good friends are worth their weight in gold.  Once you have them, you should never let them go.  I’m not sure if I would have the wisdom to value friends the way I do now, had I not had a period of time where I didn’t really have any nearby.

But when you are in a new city and devoid of any meaningful friendships, you have to find things to do that don’t require friends.  There are only so many movies you can see or festivals you can attend.  In my case, I decided to engage in something fun that I could add as a skill.  For the first two years I was in Milwaukee, Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and I went bowling on a weekly basis, sometimes twice a week.  I actually got pretty good over time, and could consistently bowl an average of 200 or higher. I really grew to love it.

One day, Mr. Jennifer Wittwer came home and said he had been at the closing-out sale of a local sporting goods store.  While there, he found a bowling ball that was the right weight, had finger holes exactly the right size, and – get this – already had his name engraved on it.  He had invested a grand total of $5.00 on this purchase, and was beaming with pride at this almost unbelievable turn of events.

At the insistence of Mr. Jennifer Wittwer, I too went to the sporting goods store to see if I could find a bowling ball.  The store was in its final close-out, so it was dirty and disheveled.  People were everywhere, frantically trying to get the deal of a lifetime.  I made my way to the bowling ball section and took a quick inventory:  the pickins’, as they say, were slim. But then, tucked away in the back of the shelf, I caught a glimpse of her – the bowling ball of my dreams.  Perfectly marbled in an array of purple tones, she was eleven pounds of pure beauty.  I picked her up and felt her smooth surface in my hands.  I held her up to my face and instantly fell in love.  I tried the finger holes and they were a perfect fit.  “I’ve found her!” I exclaimed.  I then looked at the name on the ball, and had a good, hearty laugh.  Engraved on the ball was the name “Veronica.”

From that day forward, my bowling alter-ego became Veronica.  I embodied the cool, casual spunk of a Veronica the minute I would step foot into a bowling alley.  While Jen is fun and sassy in her own right, Veronica had a little spring in her step that let the world know she was in charge.  Veronica was also fiercely competitive and could have a little temper flare if things weren’t going so hot.  The bottom line is this: Veronica was the kind of girl everyone wants to befriend, but nobody dares to mess with.  Veronica meant business.

Years later, when Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and I ended our relationship , I left the house in a hurry. After 12 years together, my sister and brother-in-law helped me pack up and move out of the house in about a 3 hour period of time.  The circumstances necessitated my haste.  It was the most emotionally tumultuous and difficult time of my life, a time I don’t care to re-live or ever repeat.  Somehow, someway, I made it through. As I settled into my new life, and then into my new home, my stomach dropped when I one day suddenly realized: Oh my God, I forgot Veronica.  In the midst of all of the chaos and the sudden, abrupt changes, Veronica got left behind.

I try not to think about it too much and I push it to the recesses of my mind.  I don’t know where Veronica is today.  For all I know, she is in a landfill.  Maybe she got donated somewhere and a young girl in a junior bowling league has taken to her.  I shudder at the thought, but it is possible that the new wife of the former Mr. Jennifer Wittwer is using Veronica on a regular basis.  I simply don’t know where Veronica is, what she is doing, and who is loving her.  It breaks my heart.

Is it normal to have regrets in life?  I think so.  I certainly have a few.  It has become a joke, a metaphor of sorts, when I reflect on my broken marriage.  “I want my damn bowling ball back!”  And I say it in jest, but truly, I do.  I’ve offered $100 to the person who is brave enough to go ring the doorbell of the former Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and demand Veronica back.  So far, no one has taken me up on it.  Until then, I will patiently wait.  Someday, maybe someday, we will be reunited.  Until then, I will just continue being Jen – the best Jen I know how to be.  Even when I go bowling.


I was sitting on the subway in D.C. when the email came through:  Aunt Alice had passed peacefully in her sleep a few hours before.  I wasn’t surprised, per se, for the last time I had seen her a few months prior, it was clear that our sweet Aunt Alice was weak and tired and dwindling in spirit.  Sure, she was still the same great auntie I had always known and loved, and yet, I suppose she wasn’t.  She was 96, after all, and had led a full and lovely life. She deserved to be tired.

Aunt Alice always had a special place in the hearts of the Swearingen cousins.  Though she was one of the many siblings of our grandma, she wasn’t just any old run of the mill sibling.  No, she was the carbon copy of our Grandma Kathryn.  There was really no denying it.  It was her laugh, her touch, her smile, her everything.  Alice loved to tell a story how, one day while out running errands, someone in town looked down at her sandaled feet and said, “Why Alice, you even have Kathryn’s feet!”  It’s true.  She even had Kathryn’s feet.  She had Kathryn’s everything.

Having lost our Grandma Kathryn much too soon more than thirty years ago, we quickly attached ourselves to Aunt Alice to keep the memory of our grandma alive.  And you know what?  It worked.  We reveled in her ability to tell a story in the funniest way that maybe took a few gratuitous detours along the way.  We basked in the way she could laugh heartily, most frequently at herself.  We welcomed the way that she gave so freely of her affection.  It was all there. It was all Grandma Kathryn.

About three or four years ago, my sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Morton, Illinois to see Aunt Alice and other assorted family members.  Aunt Alice asked us to go with her for her daily trip to the nursing home to see her sister Babe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years prior.  On the way there, Aunt Alice told us that someone once asked her, “Why do you go see Babe every day?  It’s not like she knows you do it.”  To which Alice softly replied, “Yes, but I know.”

And that stuck with me.  That’s the kind of family I come from.  The kind that sticks together no matter what.  The kind that overlooks the challenges and celebrates the togetherness at every opportunity.  A family of siblings who all lived in the same small town for their whole lives and were each other’s most important social connection.  “Didn’t somebody in this family have a secret?” I once asked Aunt Alice.  “Oh, I suppose so” she said with a quick chuckle, “…but not for very long!”  This family’s unique brand of togetherness and transparency led to an accountability that doesn’t exist for every family.  It taught us how to conduct ourselves in the world and with each other.   It taught us that family may not be all you have, but family is the most important thing you have.  It taught us that, even if she doesn’t know it, you still go visit your sister with Alzheimer’s in the nursing home faithfully every day.  Because you know.

That evening after I learned of her passing, I went out to dinner with a colleague and we decided to walk back to the hotel afterwards.  Along the way, we happened upon the National Cathedral.  It is an incredible piece of architecture and we eventually found our way inside.  Immediately upon entering, we heard someone at the front of the church playing the flute.  They weren’t just playing the flute, though.  They were playing “Amazing Grace.”  A little stunned, but then again not, I plopped myself down on a pew and said a prayer for my sweet Aunt Alice who had taught me so much.  My prayer, really, was mostly to say thanks.  I lit a candle in her honor and made my way back to my colleague.  He had been admiring all of the stained glass, but was perplexed as to why one panel was illuminated so much more brightly than the others.  We went outside to investigate, and as we turned the corner we stopped cold in our tracks.  There before us was biggest, brightest full moon we had ever seen.  And just to the right of that, a cloud formation that looked like an angel.  We grabbed each others arms and I said something to the effect of, “Oh wow, I think we are having a moment here.”  A moment, indeed.  A perfectly serendipitous moment to remember a remarkable woman from a remarkable family.

Little Lessons on the Prairie

The Wisconsin prairies have entered my consciousness in recent years compliments of a friend who is a self-proclaimed prairie enthusiast. You might think such folks are few and far between, and perhaps they are, but they are a committed group of folks who have a vision for their contribution to the world. The prairies, which once covered nearly all of our midwestern states, are now sparse and rare to find. Prairie enthusiasts know that a return to this form of sacred land has much to offer our world and our future generations. Not only is it preservation of history, it enriches our environment and raises our human understanding of days that long preceded us.

The prairie is a place of peace and harmony, life and vitality. The tall grasses sway gracefully in the wind, and the plants bloom all throughout the season like a perfectly synchronized symphony of color. The birds make serene yet sturdy home, and the grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas sing joyfully, as though the prairie is the stage built just for the opera they themselves composed. The butterflies breeze in and out and all around, abundantly surrounded by the nectar produced by the wildflowers, willfully carrying pollen to our Creator’s intended destination.

And while this scene is placid, rich in nourishment and even definitively divine, it is actually much more complicated than that. By way of God, the prairie has had to learn over and over again that the only way its beauty can be attained is through the occasional burn to the ground. By history and by chance, prairies often started on fire from lightning. As man has made efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state, it has become understood that this ceremonious spring burn is in fact essential to the health, vibrance and longevity of the prairie. The burn chokes out the weeds, and the rich, blackened ground adds to the nutrients in the soil to replenish the plants. This welcomes the sun to drench the earth in a warm blanket, inviting and encouraging the grasses and plants to grow back in the quickest, most robust and healthiest way possible.

It is interesting that such beauty must be tormented by such searing pain in order to truly thrive. It seems this is perhaps symbolic of the human experience, and what we need to thrive as well. Often in life, things are humming along beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that we may not even take notice of the abundance with which we have been blessed. Taking it for granted, it is often called, and it is something that seems to be inherent to the human experience.

Grief has been the spring burn in the prairie of my life. I’ve had my share of loss, and at times it has been the source of incredible pain. Death of my parents, loss of friendship, failure of a marriage. Most recently, it was having to make the decision to euthanize a cat who shared her life with me for fourteen years. Regardless of the loss, the experience and the outcome has always been the same. It has been pain so blistering that it forces me to revisit every bout of loss that predated the one I am currently experiencing. That being said, it has also provided me with a cleansing of sorts. A way to feel the burn, and really let it dig down deep in my soul. A way to let my tears wash over me and drive the cumulative toxins out of my soul. A way to remember that I am human, and only human, at the end of the day. And at the conclusion of each new milestone of grief, I am able to brush myself off and move on triumphantly with life…with a renewed reminder of all that really matters.