Charlotte Maya, SUSHI TUESDAYS: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience

Charlotte Maya, SUSHI TUESDAYS: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience

Guest host Julie Chavez speaks to author Charlotte Maya about Sushi Tuesdays, the memoir about the loss of her husband to suicide, and her search for answers, acceptance, and family resilience as a young widow with two small children. Charlotte discusses the meaning behind Sushi Tuesdays–the day she dedicated to self-care after her husband’s death and the name of the blog she started as she navigated the “mess of grief, mothering, childrearing, and widowing.” She also talks about her late husband Sam, the people who helped her get by, the role of writing in processing her grief, and ultimately, how important it is to speak openly about suicide to take away its stigma and help those who are suffering in silence.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal ideation, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.


Julie Chavez: Charlotte Maya, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about your beautiful book, Sushi Tuesdays. I’m so glad you’re here today.

Charlotte Maya: Julie, I am thrilled to be here with you chatting about Sushi Tuesdays. Thank you so much.

Julie: It’s my pleasure. I finished your book. It is meaningful and important and raw and beautiful. I was really moved by so many parts. I’m excited to talk with you about it and hear more about what’s behind the book.

Charlotte: Thank you so much.

Julie: It’s my pleasure. Because I’m terrible at summarizing things, I’m going to have you start for us. If you wouldn’t mind, just give the listeners a sense of, what is your book about?

Charlotte: Sushi Tuesdays, it starts with my husband’s suicide. We had no idea that Sam was suffering so much. I was thirty-nine. The kids were six and eight. Sam was forty-one. Really, that’s where it starts. The propelling question is, how am I going to get through this? How am I going to move forward? How am I going to help my children heal? What happened? Those are the compelling questions that I lived and then wrote.

Julie: Did this start with your blog? I know that Sushi Tuesdays refers to the day of the week that you set aside for yourself during that time where you allowed yourself to do whatever you wanted. It sounded like it started with yoga and therapy. Those were the two underpinnings. Then slowly, that developed into this day of true self-care. When did you start the blog? I know that’s kind of the beginnings of the book, correct?

Charlotte: I’ll back up just a little bit. Yes, the title Sushi Tuesdays comes from, Tuesday became my self-care day. I called it my Charlotte Shabbat. I had a favorite yoga class on Tuesdays. Then my therapist had a recurring slot open up on Tuesdays. Tuesdays became my day just to take care of myself. As a single mom with two young kids, I knew that I had to take care of myself in order to keep this train on the tracks. As a practical matter, it was only the time the kids were in school. They were in first and third grade, so from maybe nine to maybe two. If you’re a single mom and you have five hours to devote to yourself, that’s a lot of time. I guarded that time very carefully. It was sacred time. That’s why I called it my Charlotte Shabbat. I was really afraid that — to back up, when the policemen came to tell me that Sam had died, they told me, “We will tell the children that their father died, but you have to tell them how. We recommend that you tell them the truth because you do not want them to find out from somebody else.” At a time when nothing made sense, that actually made sense to me.

It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Also, my children, who are now twenty-two and twenty-four — the six- and eight-year-old are now twenty-two and twenty-four — know that they can trust me for honest answers to really hard questions. That advice to be honest and transparent was just so helpful in guiding my path forward. I was afraid that when I was honest and transparent outside of our little home, that I would be ostracized because of how Sam died, but what I found was the opposite. What I found was connection. What I found was people wanted to talk suicide, Sam in particular. Suicide’s the tenth-leading cause of death in this country. We don’t talk about it. It’s the second-leading cause of death for two age groups, twenty-five to thirty-four and ten to fourteen. The thing we know that helps is talking about it. People kept telling me, you have to write the book. You have to write the book. That sounded really overwhelming. I had never written a book. I was on a run one day, and I thought, well, maybe I could write a blog. A blog is about a thousand words. A book is about a hundred thousand words. Maybe I’ll just start with a blog. That is where I started. About four years after Sam had died, I started my blog, Sushi Tuesdays, not realizing, by the way, in URL form, there is one of what we call Uncle José’s colorful words right in the middle of Sushi Tuesdays. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Julie: No. I will only see that from here on out. That’s exciting for me.

Charlotte: It’s poetic because I was dealing with the mess of grief, the mess of mothering and childrearing and widowing and finding a path forward. It was dealing with the raw, real mess.

Julie: Absolutely, it really was a shit sandwich.

Charlotte: Yeah, it was. I didn’t know if I could say that out loud.

Julie: Oh, I’m sorry. I did. Sorry, listeners.

Charlotte: If you say it first, then I can say it too.

Julie: It’s so true. One of the things you do so well in this book, first of all — sorry, let me back up. I’m sorry that you lost Sam. I’m sorry that he’s gone and that you and your boys had to go through that. I read the first chapter — I have two sons who are also two years apart. I have been married for over twenty years. There was a line you wrote about knowing — you said, “After seventeen years, I knew what he was thinking.” I have a very similar line that I wrote about myself and my husband. I was so moved by your bravery and your openness in it. Thank you for writing about it, but I’m sorry that you had to live it.

Charlotte: Thank you.

Julie: Will you tell us a little bit about Sam?

Charlotte: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for asking. Sam was funny. He was a huge Dodger fan. Actually, I should say he was a huge baseball fan. The Angels were actually his team, but we lived closer to Dodger stadium. We would always joke — there was never a question on the Dodger jumbotron, one of those trivia questions, there was never one that he couldn’t answer. He was just this encyclopedia of baseball knowledge. There are always times we think of Sam. Baseball season is definitely one of them. Baseball was a passion for him. He loved it. He probably should’ve found something baseball related instead of going to law school and other important but maybe less passionate pursuits. He was funny, but he never laughed out loud. He hardly ever laughed out loud. I knew if I could make him laugh out loud, I felt really good about that. That was a good day if I could make Sam laugh out loud. He always would say, “I’m smiling on the inside.” I’m like, “Can you give me a little something?”

Julie: Throw me a bone here. Come on. I’m trying really hard.

Charlotte: That was funny.

Julie: Did he have a dry sense of humor?

Charlotte: He did. Sam would be one of those people in the back of the classroom cracking up with one other person. You wanted to be in that conversation with him. You wanted to be the person who was sitting in the back of the classroom with Sam because you knew whatever he said was really funny, probably irreverent, very clever. He was just sort of quiet in that way.

Julie: I love hearing about who he was. I think that’s one of the tough parts about suicide, is we talk too much about — not too much, but the topic becomes how they died. They are more than their death or how we lost them. I think we’re starting to know that a little bit more, but especially in the time that he died and before that, we didn’t talk about suicide. It’s still not even close to enough. Did you find after he died that that was the case, that people only wanted to talk about the suicide and maybe whether you knew? Did they want to dissect it with you?

Charlotte: Yes, there’s all of that. I do agree that the stigma and shame surrounding suicide threatened to reduce our loved one’s life to their very last moments. That’s part of why I’m so grateful for these conversations where we can open up their whole life. I do think that’s sort of particular to suicide. It’s so confusing. We want to know why. We want to protect ourselves. We wish we could’ve protected our loved one. There is a lot of conversation about the why. How could this have happened? How could I have missed the signs? Were there signs? All of those questions are really very poignant. Also, with Sam’s friends and people who knew him and the cousins, those are the first early places where we could open up the whole conversation to the whole of Sam and include his life, his quirks, to make fun of him. Sometimes that feels a little bit taboo, but that teasing nature is what we do with people who we love and we have a lot of affection for. We might laugh about their quirks, but we love them for those quirks. That’s part of who they are and part of our whole relationship and what we remember.

Julie: That makes complete sense. Perhaps also, especially in Sam’s case, I would imagine that the more public side of his death then brought in people who weren’t safe for those kinds of moments and conversations. You were sort of dealing with it on two fronts, and obviously, with your boys as well.

Charlotte: I was surprised, though, how many people were safe. I think part of it came from my willingness to have these conversations and my vulnerability in that space. A lot of people have lost loved ones to suicide. They haven’t had a space to talk about it. When I was talking about Sam, I would hear about somebody else’s brother or somebody’s aunt or somebody’s mother or somebody’s child. Being open to those conversations, it’s horrifying how many people die by suicide. I think the number is something like one every eleven minutes in this country alone, which is devastating.

Julie: Wow, it is.

Charlotte: We might not be able to stop all the suicides, but we can do a lot better than we’re doing right now, for sure, and so having these conversations and being safe places and understanding that if someone that you know and love seems off or seems like they’re suffering, it’s okay to ask, are you thinking of hurting yourself? Are you thinking about suicide? Do you have a plan? You’re not going to put that idea in their head. If you ask it out loud, now they know that you are open to listening. Then you can guide them to a professional. We don’t have to be the professionals. In the same way we are fluent in physical health, we can do better in mental health. The language we use matters. We don’t normally use the term commit suicide because that word commit has criminal connotations. Suicide’s not a crime. It’s an illness. When we understand that, then it’s easier to have those conversations. Instead of saying commit suicide, we say died by suicide or even suicided as a verb, which does sound a little awkward, but we’ve done harder things than learn to say suicided.

Julie: We can figure that out.

Charlotte: Totally. We’re on it.

Julie: I love that you make that distinction and that you’re pointing that out because language always lags. We’re always catching up to where we should be. You’re right, using those terms is important because depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation, they’re such monsters. We don’t understand them. I think seeing it with a different lens is healthy for the people who are still here and also for honoring the people that we’ve lost.

Charlotte: Yes, that’s right. We used to the say “the C word” for cancer. People would whisper about it and not talk about it out loud. When you say the word out loud, it takes away some of that stigma and shame. Then we can also devote resources and research and invest in saving lives.

Julie: I’m a big Mister Rogers fan. What’s mentionable is manageable. That always comes to me. I think the same thing. If we can talk about it, then — to your point, also, one of the biggest lies — I read some of this in the book. A person who’s experiencing suicidal ideation, their mind is telling them a lie that they’re not important, that no one cares, that their death might be an improvement, all these other pieces. For someone to ask about that and open up a window for them to actually speak about it, then it feels, oh, this is a person that’s checking in with me. It helps to combat that loneliness. That’s the worst part.

Charlotte: The isolation must be just horrific. About a year after Sam died, his cousin Carol died from breast cancer. She was thirty-three years old. At the funeral, one of the cousins said, “Carol was fighting for her life, and Sam threw his away.” It made me so angry. Carol had doctors and chemo and therapists. She had women showing up at her doorstep with casserole and people offering to watch the baby and drive carpool. Sam was fighting just as hard, but he was fighting alone. That’s what we can really combat. We don’t have to fight alone. We can address the isolation.

Julie: Is that part of what writing means to you?

Charlotte: That’s a great question. The answer has to be yes.

Julie: I feel like that in your writing. When I read it, I feel less alone. It is that connection that we can have.

Charlotte: Yes, it is that connection and what resonates with each other. At some level, loss is universal. It resonates in a certain key. We’ve all experienced different losses. It’s not better or worse. It just stinks in its own unique way. To be able to relate to each other in this way can be very healing.

Julie: We’re not great at holding each other’s pain, so having spaces for that, it feels like — writing can really be one of those because of maybe the lack of face pressure. Sometimes I can read those words and feel that but not necessarily — for some people, conversations are really tough.

Charlotte: Totally. These are tough conversations. Writing about it, reading about it is also a way to open up a safe space.

Julie: When you were talking about people showing up for a person who has cancer — I know one thing that really stood out to me in the book was when you talked about Engineer Jane. You talked about all the Janes, so all the people that just showed up and did stuff and were there in all these ways for you. Engineer Jane offered to be at your house at 7:45 to walk your kids to school. I thought that was so beautiful. You made a point about that. Why did you choose to include that?

Charlotte: I had so many people just embrace me and the kids. I was very lucky in that way. One of the things that I learned being a widow — it is hard to accept help from other people. We’re not acculturated to do this. I was just at such a loss that when people asked me if they could help me, I just said yes. Yes, I need the help. I don’t even know what I need because I need all of it. One of things I learned was that everybody has a gift. It might be surprising. When people say, “What can I do to help?” they might have something that they don’t even realize is a gift to somebody else. Maybe it’s choosing a soundtrack, making a Spotify playlist. Maybe it’s cooking or baking. Definitely, we need to eat. The children need to eat. That’s important. Maybe it’s driving carpool. I called all these people the Janes because there were so many of them. It amused me. As a lawyer, I sometimes Jane Doe 1, 2, 3. I had a lot of friends whose names started with J: Janie, Joanie, Jennie, Jenny. There were just a lot of J names, and so I consolidated them and really highlighted what the gift was. Engineer Jane said to me, “Charlotte, I can’t cook. I have no social skills,” she says, “but I have noticed that you and the kids are always late to school.” She said, “I would be happy to come to your house at 7:45,” with her two kids, by the way. She was our little morning drill sergeant. She’d walk in, it would be 7:44. One of the three of us was in jammies, for sure. Somebody’s teeth weren’t brushed. Maybe none of the teeth were brushed. I’d be like, “Okay, Engineer Jane is going to be here in sixty seconds.” We all knew she was going to be there exactly at 7:45, and so we all got into gear, backpacks, lunches, socks, shoes, homework. It was an incredible gift. She did that for months. Do you know anybody who can be anywhere with their two kids five days a week at 7:45 promptly? No. Only one person could do that, and she did. I didn’t need twelve engineers on my doorstep at 7:45. I just needed the one. One of the things I just loved about Engineer Jane, to me, is that she epitomizes that each one of us has a gift. It might not look like everybody else’s gift. That is what’s beautiful about it.

Julie: And even more valuable in some ways because if everyone’s cooking, then no one is getting you out the door at 7:45.

Charlotte: Yes, that’s right. Listen, there’s enough for everybody to help me with.

Julie: Everyone, my need is great. Please feel free to pitch in.

Charlotte: Please, show up, and then do your magic.

Julie: That’s right. I do love, too, that you were open to it. Also, I wonder if there’s a reminder there for all of us to maybe try and be more specific when we are offering help. Do you think that’s something that’s helpful for people?

Charlotte: Yes, absolutely. When people asked me, “What can I do to help?” I would say, “I have no idea.” When they said, “Could I collect your mail, pull out the bills, write the checks –” this was 2007, so we still wrote checks back then — “write the checks, put the stamp on the envelope?” There were lots of pieces to this whole thing. “I’ll just clip everything together so that you can sign the checks, put the check inside the envelope, and take it to the mail.” Then I said, “Yes, absolutely. A hundred percent, I need that.” If somebody said, “Could I –” I don’t know. Fill in the blank. Could I walk the dog? Could I drive carpool? If they had very specific ideas — one night, I was telling somebody a story about Jason having — Jason’s my youngest — having shredded his favorite blanket into strips. He just shredded it in a fit of rage and confusion. He shredded it into strips. I let him because he wasn’t hurting himself or anyone else. It was an expression of his grief and rage, and that felt important. Then after it was in tatters, he looked at me. He said, “Mommy, you have to fix it.” He was inconsolable because now he had shredded his transitional love object, and he couldn’t go to sleep.

I was telling a friend this story about how I failed again as a mother. I just felt like there was no way to win. Either I don’t let him shred it and he still has his rage or I let him shred it and now he doesn’t have his blanket. She’s a seamstress. I didn’t really know that about her. She said, “Can you gather up all the pieces? I will do my best to put it back together.” This is an incredible moment for me when she is able to do that. I would encourage people also — healing is ongoing. You might not know what your friend needs in the first week or even month, but healing doesn’t have an expiration date. Grief doesn’t have a date certain on which you are done. Just stay in there because you might notice after a month that somebody needs a blanket repaired, and you might be just the person to do that.

Julie: I love that image. What a beautiful and hard story. That’s so much of what you share in the book, is trying to mother your kids well through it and care for yourself. It’s just so much. Yes, people’s gifts, you’re exactly right. People don’t realize, sometimes, what they can offer. It’s a good thing to think about. I know that I am terrible with the meal trains. It’s garbage for me. I have to think of something else.

Charlotte: Not your gift. Maybe your gift is finding the right book for somebody at the right time. They might not have the attention span to read in those first three, six months or years. Maybe after nine months when they say something about having picked up a book again, you go, oh, I have just the perfect book for you. I can’t speak for you, but I imagine that everyone listening to this podcast might go, I love to get the perfect book.

Julie: Yes, you’re exactly right. You have me pegged. There’s nothing I like more than giving someone the perfect book.

Charlotte: It’s the best.

Julie: It really is. You’re right, there is kind of an honoring there. Like we were talking about earlier, you can be a person who helps close or a little removed too. Those are both valuable too because I think sometimes it can feel claustrophobic. I know you spoke about that in the book as well. At a certain point, you need some normalcy. It’s just that back and forth.

Charlotte: At the beginning, it could be overwhelming, but then very quickly, it gets very lonely. Those friends who could keep showing up — again, I don’t need a hundred people showing up every day. Those friends who keep showing up in their own unique ways is very special. We joke we don’t hide the skeletons in the closet around here, we put their pictures up on the piano and on the mantel because love remembers. Then it’s not so heavy. We get to have these conversations about our beloveds.

Julie: People who made our lives what they are.

Charlotte: That’s right. There are always moments — Jason is set to graduate from college next month. This month. It’s May. This month.

Julie: Oh, my gosh, it’s May.

Charlotte: I know. It’s astonishing that Sam isn’t going to be there. There are always these moments that sort of take our breath away, but we get better at it.

Julie: I love that you share so honestly about grief because it is such a messy thing. Grieving, it’s a forever. You don’t stop missing those people.

Charlotte: That’s the beauty. Love and grief are flip sides of the same coin. Love gets to remember.

Julie: That’s such a beautiful note. Just for us to finish, what’s your greatest hope for this book?

Charlotte: My hope has always been that Sushi Tuesdays will find the readers who will love it and that readers who need that self-care and that light and that hope and that real honesty will find Sushi Tuesdays. I know you’re a librarian. One of my favorite gigs was volunteering in the kids’ library. I remember standing there one day. I love to read. There are all these books. I’m looking around thinking, as much as I love to read, even in my school library, which is pretty robust, there’s no way I could read all the books there. It’s sort of a small but incredible miracle when readers and books find each other. That is my hope for Sushi Tuesdays.

Julie: I think you’ve done a tremendous job. I know it found me. I’m very grateful that it did. I am wishing it all the luck.

Charlotte: Thank you so much, Julie. What a joy it is to speak with you.

Julie: Same. Thanks, friend.

Charlotte Maya, SUSHI TUESDAYS: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience

SUSHI TUESDAYS: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience by Charlotte Maya

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