We Share Our Losses

My grandmother wasn’t a happy woman, not when I knew her, so this picture I came across the other day is especially striking.

Pauline and Harry

The joy and openness in her eyes, the width of her smile, radiates joy. Beside her is my grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my mom was eight years old. A man who never felt like he belonged to me, in any way.

His ending was a cautionary tale of a congested heart. Three strikes and you’re out. That’s how many heart attacks it took to kill him. A young man, in his mid-forties, he left behind the love of his life and two bereft children. My grandmother never recovered from his death. It left her shattered and bitter, furious at her bad luck. The life she had imagined turned into dust.

I don’t know how my mother recovered. She had been a daddy’s girl.

When I was a kid my mom rarely spoke about her father, though I’m sure she must have explained to us what happened at some point. I remember how she used to light a yahrzeit candle a few weeks before her birthday on the day of his death. Quietly it would sit on the white countertop and burn without ceremony. For the rest of the year it resided in the rarely used kitchen cabinet filled with dusty wine glasses and an assortment of solitary cups and mugs that had lost their companions.

Looking back, I wish I asked more questions, I wish my mom had been able to share her grief with me. But as a cousin reminded me recently, grief wasn’t discussed openly back then. Maybe my mom thought she was protecting us by keeping it to herself, or maybe her memories were too distant to access, but the space it left, in the shape of a father and grandfather, loomed large in my imagination.

My childhood friend Tamra, who I’ve known since third grade, saw the photo when I posted it on Facebook and made a comment that caught me completely off guard.

She wrote, I see the resemblance with you and your mom. I automatically assumed she meant a resemblance to my grandmother, but when I read the rest of her comment, I realized she had been referring to my grandfather. I stared hard at his jovial good-natured face, searching for familiarity: I saw shadows of my mother easily, and then, I almost saw myself.

I stared at him, this man I had never met, barely knew anything about. Despite all that he was mine. He did belong to me. For a brief moment I allowed myself to imagine what life might have been like if he had lived. A grandmother and grandfather coming to visit, living close enough for me to spend the day, the night, to curl up in his big arms and be read to, held, and loved. My grandmother might have smiled more, and maybe, just maybe she would have been a better mother.

Up until this point I had never allowed myself to stake a claim on this man, to miss him, or mourn his absence. To imagine what he might have meant to me. I felt like that would have been selfish. This was my mother’s loss, not mine. But I was wrong. It was both of our losses. Just like her death is not just my loss, but my daughter’s, and my son’s.

It seems so obvious to me now. We don’t have to hide or hoard grief, we don’t have to pretend it’s not ours to mourn. Like love, there is enough to go around.

The spring before my mother died, when she was weak and recovering from a long winter illness, but before we knew she was dying, my uncle came to visit. Her older brother. When his father died, he became “the man” of the house, too heavy a burden for a twelve-year-old to bear. Nevertheless, he bore it out of necessity, and out of love for his little sister, but it left a bitter trace on him, a shadow of his mother’s twisted anger.

We talked about the past that day, which was unusual. Maybe it was me. Maybe I asked about my grandfather, maybe I offered what I had been unable to offer all those years earlier. An acknowledgment of their deep loss. My empathy.

I listened with rapt attention as my uncle recalled that fateful day of the final heart attack. Their father taken away, and then later, the news traveling back to them, my mother running to her room in tears.

“She couldn’t stop crying,” he said, looking awestruck so many years later.

Those four words hit me hard. I looked over at my mother. Her big brown eyes were wide with sadness and memory as she gazed at her brother. In a flash I saw the two of them as children, trying to care for each other.

Before he left that day, my uncle said goodbye in his usual brusque but loving manner. A quick hug for me and a wave to my mom across the room. She said goodbye from her reclining chair where she had sat for nearly a decade since she lost the use of her hands and legs to multiple sclerosis.

“Go and hug her,” I told my uncle in a low voice. He looked at me surprised. This was not his usual way. I don’t know for sure, but I think her handicap made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was too hard for him to look at her in that chair. But that day I didn’t give him a choice. I took his arm and pulled him into the room.

He leaned over her chair and hugged her, maybe for the first time in years, and I heard him say in a voice so tender, “I love you Susii,” her girlhood name. The name her father must have called her. The name my father called her until she became my mother and decided she was no longer a girl, and to please call her Susan.

The next time he saw his sister, she was under hospice care, unconscious, and close to death.

When I got pregnant, shortly after my mom died, I knew right away there was one thing I’d do differently. My children would know their grandmother. I would tell them her name, show them pictures, and talk about her life, her art, and one day, her death.

There are two of them now, grandchildren. A girl and a boy, in the same order my mother had me and my brother. A strange kind of twinning, but not.

They do not wonder about the blank space as I once did because it’s always being filled.  My hope is that she is as vibrant and beautiful in their imagination as she was in life.

mom and Harry

My mom and her dad, my grandpa Harry

Rest in peace, Harry Cooperman, grandpa. I know I would have loved you.

Grieving While Pregnant

A few weeks ago on Facebook, one of my favorite sites, What’s Your Grief, asked readers to offer advice or pose questions about how to parent while grieving. This immediately caught my attention. Parenting while grieving is the only way I know since my mom died shortly before I became pregnant with my first child.

Pregnant with Emma Feb2008 copy

February 2008 pregnant with my daughter, my mom’s portrait beside me

On a whim, I decided to pitch the site an idea about grieving while pregnant, my other unfortunate expertise. To my surprise and pleasure, my pitch was accepted. I immediately started taking notes. I couldn’t write fast enough. Clearly, this idea had been brewing in my subconscious for, well, years.

If you haven’t seen it already, I would be so honored if you’d stop by and take a look, or perhaps send the essay to someone who might be able to relate. Click on the link below to head over to the site.

Making Time For Grief During Pregnancy

Thank you again!

Making it Count

This is the hardest part. Getting there. The sitting down to write. The writing.

desk at workAfter the morning rush – making breakfasts, lunches, fixing hair snafus, finding socks, waking up a rumpled, warm late-sleeping little boy from my bed, and then hurrying out the door for school drop-offs, first the big kid, then the little.

Throughout it all, there is buzzing in the back of my head, a warm recognition of what day it is, that soon, this morning will belong to me. Soon the house will be quiet and I will be alone, except for the cat nudging the computer with her chin, and the birds frequenting the feeder outside my office window.

But first, the logistics of mothering two children. Sometimes there is a struggle, a scuffle or two. Often there are tears, from the little, at our parting. Arms wrapped octopus style around my neck, fingers that are sometimes pried off, one by one.

Me walking to my car in a sad defeated haze, thinking, is this worth it? Am I doing everything wrong? And yet, I know that I’m not. I know that I need these mornings alone as much as my little needs school. On those days especially, I know I must make my alone time count. Every minute.

I didn’t always. There were the hibernation years of early motherhood when I wasn’t writing. My daughter, newly diagnosed with celiac, was often hungry for sweets she was unable to eat, so I’d bake gluten free treats during naps, then fold laundry or do dishes. I’d keep my hands busy, but my mind was restless, itchy.

Things are different now. There is much less baking and even less folded laundry (if that’s even possible).

I’m not winning any housework awards and I must admit to feeling a stubborn knot of pride about this. My kids have clothes that are clean, even if they have to pick through a pile to find them sometimes. They eat off dishes that have been washed. But mundane chores are not a priority. Not ever, to be perfectly honest, but especially not during my writing time.

I protect it, as fiercely as I protect them. Because if I don’t, there is a price to pay. My rising irritation and frustration. Unhappiness. Snappishness. Writing releases something for me, it helps me to both understand and escape myself.

After ushering the kids off to school and returning home, it’s time to begin. I walk briskly by the detritus of the morning rush. There’s pretty much zero chance I’ll stop to fold the laundry, though I may kick a pair of underwear out of my path. The real concern is the internet.

It beckons me with its side roads and back routes, under the guise of research, a promise of just five minutes, the happy ping of outside validation. If I step in, I’m sunk. I might lose an hour, or worse, my confidence.

On the way to my office I grab everything I need because I won’t get up again until my time runs out. Not to reheat my coffee, which I only drink hot, or to retrieve a forgotten water bottle. My computer, breakfast, books, and journals must be at the ready.

I sit down, turn on the computer, and open the blank page. I’ve arrived at the leaping off point. The almost-there place. It could all go wrong with one simple click. Most days I hold steady, keep focused.

Then I begin. The words come or they don’t. But I remain at my desk for three hours, taking breaks only to sip my coffee, flip through a book, or gaze at the birds. I feel grateful for my time, even though it’s short.

In a little over a year, when the little guy starts kindergarten, there will be entire days stretched out in front of me like taffy. I hope the practice I do now will help me take advantage of those luxurious hours. Until then, I am a madwoman, making every minute count.

Do you have solo time to unspool your creativity? How do you keep it safe? Do you?

What’s in a Name

Last week, somehow, all my morning stars aligned.

While my son slept (in my bed) and my daughter snuggled in her bed (watching a show on my phone), I went downstairs and fixed myself a cup of coffee before settling down in front of the computer.

I was lucky, because minutes before my daughter hijacked my phone I saw the weekly prompt from The Inky Path and was immediately intrigued by the title: Your Name.

social security name

No one was asking me for breakfast – yet. I didn’t have to make lunches – yet. Birds floated gracefully around the feeder outside my office window while I wrote for ten blessed uninterrupted minutes.

Below is the inkling of the prompt (pun intended) and my response. I highly recommend heading over to The Inky Path and signing up for their FREE weekly newsletter and prompt. (They also have fabulous writing classes with reasonable fees. I’m not being compensated for saying such things, I just happen to believe them.)

Tell us about the name, or rather, your name. What is the story of your name? What is your relationship with the name that was given to you at birth? Do you use it as it is or in a shortened version? How has your name affected your life? Who would you have been with a different name? If you had the chance to choose your own name, what would it be?

I was never a big fan of my name. Dana Schwartz. It’s not as bad as my first (and last) Cabbage Patch Doll, Phyllis Hortensia (!), but it just didn’t mean anything. Well, that’s not true. Technically, Dana means from Denmark. But I’m not Danish.

I went through periods as a kid where I wanted to change my name. When I wished my parents had named me something else. Hailey was one of their choices. So was Robin. That was a close call. My father was concerned because he thought I looked a little like a bird when I was born. This was kind of true. He didn’t want anyone to make fun of me. My mom mentioned the name Summer once, and oh, I would’ve loved that. I was born in summer and I adore summer, so it would have fit.

How would my life be different if I were Summer Schwartz? It sounds kind of funny, but then most things do paired with Schwartz.

That’s another non-story. Schwartz was not my great grandfather’s last name. It was given to his family upon arrival at Ellis Island. Their name was Polanska. Too Polish? Too hard to pronounce? They gave them a new name, Schwartz, which means black in German, and that was that. An empty name. A placeholder.

A placeholder for what? A husband? I always considered, despite my feminist leanings, changing my name when I got married. But then I met a lovely man named Steven Plac. His last name is actually pronounced “Platz” in Poland, but here in America, they say, “Plack.” A name reminiscent of tooth decay. Sigh. What a waste.

Despite my husband’s wishes, I chose not to become Dana Plac. But it wasn’t just the sound of the name that made me hesitate, there was another reason I held onto Schwartz. It was my name. It belonged to me. Even though it had no bearing on my cultural background, even though I never liked how it sounded, garbled in the mouth, it was mine. I held it since I was born and giving it up felt like losing something.

Oh, but what about Summer? That sounds like a carefree girl. Someone who is not so uptight or worried or anxious. The kind of name of a girl who takes off her top at parties maybe, after too many drinks? The kind of hippie girl who dances around half naked around bonfires on the beach? Sorry, Summer, maybe you’re not like that. But there are worse things to be than carefree. Maybe it would’ve been nice not to be so damn self-conscious and concerned about what others think. Summer might not have cared. She might have danced right beside the fire and felt the warmth.

I don’t know who I would’ve been if my mom named me Summer. It comes down to mothers, somehow. I think my mother was the one to have the final say. It should be that way. We women do carry the babies. We know them before they emerge, we know about their secret selves.

As a child I held onto the idea that I could change my name. Maybe I could become Summer after all. I told my mother, when I’m 18, I’ll do it. But 18 came and went, oh boy, did it go, and here I am, forty years old, still holding onto my name, Dana. Two syllables, like Summer, but more solid, tethered to the ground, hearty, like a plant that digs in, takes root, and tilts its head toward the sun, feeling the warmth that way.

What do you think of your name? Did you ever consider changing it? I’d love to hear your story in comments.