Time as a Wrinkle

I have whiplash from this year. It went by in a blink. Wasn’t I just meeting my daughter’s new third grade teachers at Back to School night? Didn’t I just sign up my son for his last year at his beloved preschool?

first day of school 2016 copy

First day of school 2016.

Last day of school 2017

Last day of school 2017

My son will be entering kindergarten in the fall and my daughter beginning fourth grade, both seem unbelievable. In September, both of my kids will be in fulltime school, my days opening up like a blank book. Isn’t this the light at the end of my stay-at-home-motherhood-tunnel? And yet as the light bears down on me, I’m struck with nostalgia and grief.

Recently I came across a saying about parenthood that stopped me in my tracks.

The days are long, the years are short.

Leo preK graduation 2017

He entered the school as a two-year old. Now he’s barreling toward six.

Yes, oh yes. But would I want to travel back to those early, painful, excruciatingly days of new motherhood? Long on exhaustion and tears, short on sleep and freedom? Maybe.

***

The tiger lilies are back, as they always are every June. A welcome to summer and a bittersweet tug at my heart. They were my mother’s favorite flowers, or so I tell myself. She’s not alive for me to confirm this assumption. But I know she planted them along the railroad ties holding up the massive dirt hill our house was built upon. Every year they returned. Even after she stopped walking. Even after she and my father moved out. Even after her death. Even now, ten years later.

tiger lilies 2017

Ten years. Want to talk about whiplash? Try looking back on a decade after a death.

In ten years, I went from my early thirties to my early forties. I went from being a young married woman without children, to an older married woman with two. I went from being a devout but sporadic fiction writer to a devoted and slightly frantic memoir writer. I went from losing myself to finding something new.

Two days ago, on June 21, I went to visit my mother’s mausoleum by myself. It felt less like a depressing pilgrimage than a welcome, dare I say almost giddy, escape from my family. (No offense, family.) I packed a bag filled with old journals, new notebooks, notecards, my mother’s book, and my computer. My plan was to write a scene or two of my memoir in her presence. It would be my way of honoring her, and myself.

That morning my daughter made a collage for me to tape on the granite wall, and I printed out a picture of my kids at the pool, their arms wrapped around one another, grinning with the promise of summer, plus a class picture of each.

10 years holmdel

The year before I decided to take the kids for (almost) the first time (Emma had been once as a baby, and Leo in utero). We had a nice day with my father. Spending the bulk of our time at the park across the street, as my mother intended, and then stopping briefly by the cemetery to hang our tributes.

9 years holmdel

Exactly what my mother would have wanted.

This year my daughter did not want to go. The day before I gave her the option, no pressure. “It’s too sad,” she told me, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “You don’t have to go.”

She understands now, the significance, and she has always felt more deeply than most kids her age. “I had a talk with Grandma Susan’s blanket,” she told me earlier that day, “I wish I could have known her. I wish she was alive to meet me.”

Oh, me too. Me too.

Ten years in a blink.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes. Well. Anyone suffering a loss knows that is complete bullshit.

Time does nothing of the sort. Like one of my mother’s favorite books suggests, time is a wrinkle. It may stretch out taut over the years, growing smoother, but then in an instant it can snap back together, meeting at the seams, scrunching into a messy ball.

There is no finish line to grief. It’s a forever orbit. We keep going round and round.

Like the seasons, like the school years. The tiger lilies come back every summer, and thank god. They are a reminder of my mother, of her love, of her endurance in my life, and in my children’s, despite having never met them.

We bought journals the day after, my daughter and I. We are summer journaling together, an idea borrowed from a writing friend. Every day we will write or draw a little bit.

journal 2017

“What are you going to write about,” she asked me this morning. “Will it be something sad?”

Oh, this kid. She knows me so well.

“I might write about visiting Grandma Susan, but that wasn’t all sad.”

She looked confused, so I explained how beautiful my drive home had been. Blindly following the directions on my fickle GPS, I went down roads I’d never seen before, passing stunning farmland, huge cows with stripes that looked painted on, and red barns that gleamed in the post-rain sun. I looked for a rainbow, but found tiger lilies instead, stopping on the side of the road to pick a handful.

We sat down to write and she marveled at my speed, and what she thought looked like pretty script, but to me it was the usual messy scrawl, my fingers unable to keep up with my brain.

“It’s so good,” she said, after I read aloud what I had written.

I shook my head, gently steering her in a different direction. “Journaling is always good. It can never be bad.”

So much is a contest to her already. She’s entered the age of acute self-consciousness, anxious about how she stacks up against her peers, against me.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for us. I think about how my mother always wanted her children to exceed her, surpass her. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be an either or. We can all shine. Me and my mother, me and my daughter, me and my son.

We continue on, rolling forward, and back. Repeating old mistakes, and learning from others. The lilies will wilt and die, but there is comfort in knowing they will return.

Surrendering to Spring

Shortly after a late winter storm blanketed our region with snow, someone tipped off Mother Nature about the arrival of spring.

In a matter of days our backyard went from a smooth expanse of crystalline white, to big messy swaths of slush, to sopping pools of mud and flattened grass. The thick slabs of ice I thought would never disappear drained back into the earth.

icy leaves

The night before the seasonal shift, after an entire winter virus-free, my daughter succumbed to the stomach bug. Within days the virus spread throughout our family, picking us off one by one.

While my son slept feverishly, I stayed in his room, fighting off my own growing nausea.  In the morning when I told my husband about how I literally willed myself not to throw up, a feat he unfortunately did not share, my daughter pointed out my hypocrisy.

“Mom, you always tell me it’s better to let it out.”

It’s true. I do say this. In fact, I just doled out this advice the day before when she was sick. She’s like me. We both fight it.

“You’re right, honey, but I needed to be okay to take care of your brother.”

But this wasn’t entirely true. I also needed to be okay because I hate getting sick. I’m terrified of surrendering to the will of my body, even if it knows best.

There was a moment in the night, at the peak of nausea, when I had to look away from my son’s lava lamp because the rising yellow bubbles made my stomach roil. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly, hyper aware of every internal rumbling, when a sentence popped into my mind.

We’re all just our bodies.

I felt a sudden nostalgia for all the nights I simply went to bed, without pain, without worry of being sick. Like many people, I take my health for granted until something goes wrong. We’ve all had this kind of realization. When we’re sick, or watching over a sick loved one, when we’re battling an illness, or facing a new diagnosis, we suddenly understand what’s at stake.

Without our bodies, we don’t exist. I suppose this is up for debate, but for me, that’s how it feels.

During my sick vigil with my son, his body was restless, and he moaned a little. I put an arm around him and my palm ended up against his chest. I could feel his heart beating quickly, every surge, every whoosh, almost as if there was no barrier between my hand and his most important organ. Under my hand was the sheer preciousness, and precariousness, of his life.

little guy

When my mother died, one of the strangest, and most painful things to come to term with was the fact that I no longer had access to her body. I couldn’t hug or sit beside her. One day her body was there, lying on a bed, struggling to breathe, and the next, gone. I didn’t just miss my mom. I missed her body. I had taken it for granted.

It’s been almost a full week since my daughter came home from a birthday party feeling nauseous and our family viral saga began. In that time, the snow has melted. While we’ve been recovering, winter has surrendered to spring. Uncurling its cold claw, making room for warmth, for new life.

The backyard is muddy, the trees remain bare, but there is new green grass sprouting, and one of the daffodil buds by our mailbox has a distinct yellow casing.

daffodil bud

I point it out to my son, warning him not to open it. He touches it gently with his finger as we marvel at what’s wrapped tightly inside.

A Light Goes Out

“As women, we are told that to be the guest is to receive. We are told that to be the host is to give. But what if it is the reverse? What if it is the guest who gives to the host and it is the host who receives from the guest each time she sets her table to welcome and feed those she loves?”

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

For many reasons, 2016 has been a year of loss. Politically, for the majority of Americans, and also literally, regarding so many notable deaths. But as the year wound down to a close, I found myself haggling over a life with a higher power I normally don’t believe in.

Don’t take Ray, I pleaded, thinking of the little boy I’d known years ago. The one his mother, Lucie, called “My Special Little” because he came years after her first two children, and really, he was special.

The sweet boy who my parents doted on like a grandchild, who spent many afternoons of his baby and childhood in my parents’ house while Lucie cared for my mother.

Little Ray, we called him, even after he grew up. It was a fitting name, because he was such a beam of light.

I didn’t know how to pray, but I did it anyway.

That’s what you do when the outlook is grim, but you dare to hope. I dared to hope and every night before bed I’d imagine him as a young man, approaching my mother.

They’d embrace, he’d play her a song on his guitar, and then she’d send him back to earth, back to us.

***

The day after I visited him at the hospital, we drove upstate. I checked my phone constantly for news. Nothing. We arrived to so much snow my husband had to drag our luggage from the car on a toboggan. I felt anxious. Fear folded and unfolded in my heart, but I ignored it. I made dinner. We put the kids to bed. I prayed again.

Midmorning the next day, I checked my phone. A message appeared. I took one dragging deep breath and then dropped to my knees on the floor.

It was the day before New Year’s Eve and he was gone.

***

We are all novices in grief. Each time we experience a death, we begin again.

I mentioned this to a friend and she asked me to explain. The only way I can is through parenthood. It’s like having a second or third child. You think you will remember everything. You have the experience stored in your body, in your mind, but with the new child you marvel at every detail, at all you’ve forgotten.

Ray was eighteen years old when he died. I knew him mostly as a baby, as a little boy, and only in passing. I was living in Manhattan when he was born, in Brooklyn when he was growing up. I’d see him on occasion when I’d come home to visit. I’d hear about him from my mother often. She loved talking about Little Ray. He brought her joy, made her smile.

mom-and-ray

When she was dying he came to visit with his mother. I watched him run around the rooms of a house he knew well.

He was a breath of life for her. For all of us.

***

New Year’s came and went. It was 2017 and I realized I never picked a word for the year as I had in the past. A couple days before the funeral, on my drive to therapy, I went through a dozen words. Nope, nope, nope. Nothing worked. It was a raining and the sky was a leaden gray. The wipers squeaked across the windshield.

Life can turn on a dime, Lucie said at the hospital, and I knew this was true. I wanted my word to act like a sponge. I wanted to soak up my life. The good and the bad.

I knew the right word arrived when I felt my eyes prickle with tears as I sounded it out in my mind. Receive. Yes. That was it. I thought about the quote from the memoir I was rereading, When Women Were Birds.

“What if it is the guest who gives to the host and it is the host who receives from the guest?”

If I looked at my life that way, maybe I wouldn’t feel so drained by my children’s incessant needs. Instead of feeling emptied, I could be filled. It’s a choice, I realized. A flip-flop perspective. Receiving love while offering it.

snow-heart

But I knew it wasn’t just love I’d have to be willing to receive.

You don’t get one without that other, messier package: pain, sadness, death.

***

The funeral was terribly hard. In some ways, it hurt more than my mother’s. He was 18 to her 58. Maybe it’s because I had a cushion of shock for hers, or perhaps I shouldn’t compare it because pain can’t be quantified.

I struggled to remain composed during the service, but sobs bubbled up my throat the moment it began. The packed room was muffled with weeping and the occasional gasp of disbelief, all of us wondering the same thing: how had this happened? How could Ray be gone?

Several times I had to remind myself to stay present. I wanted to check out, buffer the pain, but I kept going back. I told myself to stay. To receive.

Listening to his friends speak about him, his girlfriend, his family, it was like meeting him, and losing him, all over again. As I covered my mouth with my fist, I watched the people who loved and knew him best stand up at the podium and honor him with words and music, through tears and laughter.

Many said they could feel his presence in the room. Grief and love washed over me in equal measure.

At one point, a woman silently offered me a pack of tissues. Thank you, I whispered, and she nodded. In that moment I loved her.

We were all connected in that room, every one of us, strangers, friends, family, because of Ray.

From behind the podium, Lucie implored us to hold onto the love and peace her son embodied. Love each other, she said, and we did.

I weep for our loss, and the world’s.

I love you Little Ray.
Thank you for shining your sweet light on my family.
We will always hold you in our hearts.

me-and-ray

Woke Up To This

Tears are forming just looking at the first line of my last post.

“Today I voted in what I believe is the most important election in my lifetime.”

Still believe it. More than ever.

I’m about to take a social media hiatus right now for sanity’s sake, despite feeling tremendous gratitude to all my friends there – both the ones I know in real life, and those who live oceans away. It’s just too much for my senses right now. I need some quiet to think, reflect, and weep.

It’s funny, I never thought I’d love and treasure Facebook the way I do. There is so much freaking love and solidarity and compassion in my feed it’s unreal. Maybe in part because I came to the FB party super late, and most of the people are actual friends, or people I’d like to be friends with, and almost all of them share my views about things like, for example, politics and feminism. It sure makes easy reading, let me tell you.

My friends on FB got me through this election. They got me through those train wreck debates and all the ugliness that came before and after. I was on FB during the 3rd debate and I can’t tell you how much it helped. My husband and I were in the room together of course, but I also felt like I had dozens of friends whispering in my ear and passing me notes.

We’re in this together, you all said to me via funny jokes and serious commentary.

I felt so understood and cared for and seen. Just like I did last night and this morning.

Thank you.

Stepping away is not about that, but about taking care of myself during this grief.

Because I am totally grieving right now.

It started last night, around 11pm, when I shut down the internet and tried to fall asleep. I felt like someone had scraped all my insides out. My heart and chest felt hollow, empty.

The feeling was familiar because it’s exactly how I felt the morning after my mom died. When I shared this with my husband he agreed, saying that his emptiness feels similar to the global grief he felt after 9/11. The world is different. Or actually it isn’t. The world is the same, we’re just seeing it differently.

Regardless. My heart is broken. Having to tell my daughter this morning broke it all over again. Her hopeful face crumbled. I watched it crumble and then she cried. I had spent the previous hour practicing what I would say to her after reading an article online, but before I could open my mouth I started crying again.

I hugged her tightly. I said, “I know, me too.”

hillary-for-president-poster

My daughter made this the other day.

We talked after our tears slowed, and we’ll talk more tonight. Really, our conversation is just beginning. My husband woke up soon after and found out the news from our faces. He was just as crushed.

All day I’ve been cycling through sadness, disbelief, and anger. I’m also crying, a lot. In the car I screamed  so loudly my whole body went rigid. My heart keeps on breaking.

I told my husband that we cry now, and then we fight. I believe this. I’m not down for the count. But I am down. I don’t want to hear a thing about giving Trump a chance right now. I’m also not ready to put on my gloves and get into the ring, yet.

So, for now, I’m just going to grieve.

Sending love to everyone else in the trenches, or wherever you find yourself in the aftermath of this election.

P.S. Thank you to whoever took down the Trump signs near the intersection by my house. I literally was ready to pull over and rip them out myself (I just can’t bear to see them so close to home) but you beat me to it.

Transitions

Summer is over. Not technically of course, but once school begins something in the air shifts even before the temperature drops.

We’re still adjusting here. My daughter to her new school, my son to his fuller schedule, and me, to longer stretches of time alone.

first-day-of-school-2016

First day of 3rd grade and pre-K

The first day of school, I sat at my desk and felt the emptiness of the house echo in my bones. My son was having his first full day, which meant, so was I. This was what I wanted, and yet I felt a pang of melancholy, and received a flash into the future when my children grow up and leave home.

Is it me, or does time seem to go faster the older we get? During our second annual vacation to Cape May in August, I tried to hold onto the hours and days, but it felt as futile as watching my son clutch a fistful of sand. The tighter the grip, the faster the flow.

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Now that we’re into the second week of school, I feel the beginning of a rhythm, though shaky. My natural impulse is to rush headlong into fall and not look back. I’m done with summer, I told my husband as we debated about going to the pool last week.

He looked surprised. I’m not, he said, and I suddenly realized I’m not either. My sadness about summer’s end is what makes me harden and give it the cold shoulder.

This is how I deal with change, with transition. When it’s uncomfortable – and it always is – my natural inclination is to hurry through it. I liken it to the Band-Aid metaphor: rip it off or peel back slowly.

I want to rip it off. I want to toss it in the trash and not look back. But my heart gently reminds me to care for my wounds, no matter how small they are, and what I really need to do in moments like these is feel. Even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts.

My mother’s death was the first time I truly understood the futility of hurrying through a transition. Grief is like a boulder. It’s not easily moved aside. You can fight and struggle against it, you can close your eyes, but it’s still there. Waiting for you.

stone-statue

It’s similar when a person is struggling with their health or has a disease. There is no ignoring sickness. You feel it in your body. You’re reminded of it every day when you wake, every night when you go to sleep, and many hours in between.

Recently, I went for my annual physical and my doctor was concerned about the sound of my heart. She heard a murmur, the whooshing sound of blood going back and forth through one of the valves instead of just forward. To be on the safe side, she sent me for an echocardiogram.

Mostly, I was calm, but I felt a tiny sliver of fear. This is the heart we’re talking about, my heart. The life force of an organ that kept my mother alive even when everything else in her body was ready to quit. What if there is something wrong with my heart?

The (sort of) joke in my marriage is that I’m the healthy one. I don’t have allergies or celiac, I’m apparently immune to poison ivy, and I haven’t had the flu since childhood. I’m rarely sick. I think it surprised us both that something might be wrong with me.

My husband offered to take me to the appointment. I didn’t realize until we arrived at the hospital how grateful I was to have his company. He had already been to this hospital three times for his own tests, but this was my first.

The technician was kind and professional. She dimmed the lights and turned on music. Soft familiar strains of Enya floated through the invisible speakers. The gel was warm as she moved the instrument across my chest.

My head was turned away from the screen, but every now and then I caught a glimpse of the shadowy interior of my heart. I could hear it, too, the whooshing, and I was struck with how precarious life is, how fragile our bodies can be, and how miraculous.

the-franklin-institute

The Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

In the days before getting the test results I mostly put it out of my mind, but the what if’s whispered on occasion. I thought about the research I did years ago for my MFA thesis, titled, The Night Side of Life: Illness in Fiction, which was inspired from a quote in Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor.

“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

We toe the line between well and sick every single day we are alive. At any moment, we can be pushed or thrown to the other side. My mother found this out when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 40. One day her life was moving along as expected, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

My test results came back normal. Relief. Gratitude. I’m off the center line, back on the safe side, for now.

I can’t help thinking about how my doctor described the murmur in my heart. The blood not moving in a straight line, but whooshing back and forth. That is how I live my life. Dipping back before going forward, and back again. It’s painful at times, yes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

I wonder how the transition into this new season has been for you. Do you also struggle to remain present inside discomfort? I’d love to hear from you in comments! I’ve missed you this summer, and now that school is back in session, I’ll be returning to my (mostly) regularly scheduled programming.

Also, as some of you know, I’ve spent many months preparing for my online journaling course, Crossing the River: Writing Through Grief, which is now scheduled to begin January 2017. 

If you’d like to be put on the mailing list for updates about the course, and the upcoming free (!) online seminar, click here

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[Please note, this course is NOT intended only for those suffering a loss from death, but ANY kind of grief. The scope or size does not matter, nor does how much time has passed.]

Grief Roar

Summer is flying by, and while my morning writing routine (#writinglikeamother) has slowed due to life and kids (also known as life with kids), I’ve managed to carve out time to work on my upcoming journaling course, Crossing the River: Writing Through Grief coming this Fall 2016 scheduling update: JANUARY 2017 on The Gift of Writing.

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I’ve filmed several lessons which has proved both humbling and inspiring. As a writer, I’m used to being hunched over my computer with a furrowed brow, not staring back at my face on a screen.

Despite my initial discomfort at being in front of the camera, I’m thrilled to facilitate a writing course I know would have helped me after my mother’s death. Since much of my mourning occurred in (self-imposed) isolation, I suspect having a community to share my emotions with, and my words, would have been a lifeline.

[Please note, this course is NOT intended only for those suffering a loss from death, but ANY kind of grief. The scope or size does not matter, nor does how much time has passed.]

Recently I returned to Jena Schwartz’s Roar Sessions with a guest post about muted grief, and what might happen if we open up our mouths and hearts. I’d be honored for you to head over there and check it out.

If you’d like to be put on the mailing list for information about my course, and the upcoming free (!) online seminar, click here.

Thank you for letting me chime in during the craze and haze of summer’s end. I hope you’re enjoying these finale weeks. I am, as always, feeling both bitter and sweet about it.

Dana xoxo