A Return to Light

Today is winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, but it’s also a celebration. A return to light. Every day, from now until summer solstice, the sun will linger longer in the evening sky.

This reminds me of the mantra I was repeating last night, when my mind crackled with fear and worry about my family: Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.

Sometimes it’s comforting to remember that nothing is permanent. Not the darkness, not a season. It might be the darkest day of the year, but tomorrow will be a little brighter.

mug in window

I’m holding onto this knowledge tightly right now, in regards to my own life, but also what’s going on in the world. I can barely look at the news. I can’t listen to my usual podcasts. I feel sickened by the passage of the tax bill, and all the fearsome chatter in the stream of political emails I receive.

I’m overwhelmed, and with that comes despair and inertia. Fortunately, I know it’s temporary. The fog will lift, things will change. It may go backwards before it goes forwards, but it won’t, can’t, stay still.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this in times of crisis. My go-to place is usually straight to Doomsday. Def-con 5. When my son has a terrible tantrum, I weep for his future. Every fight with my husband feels like a harbinger of divorce. Another victory for the GOP signals armageddon. Basically, when anything goes off the rails, I panic.

It’s taken me years to learn the basics of emergency management:

stop, breathe, wait

The last part is what trips me up the most, especially when there is no immediate action to take, no quick fix or repair. Just faith, and memory.

There was a time when I wanted nothing to change, when that very mantra set my teeth on edge. It may sound strange, but after my mother died, I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want my grief to lessen. I didn’t want anything to change (well, except for her to still be alive, but that was impossible). When well meaning friends and family tried to console me with the platitude, “you’ll feel better in time,” I wanted to shake their shoulders and scream, “I don’t want to feel better!”

grief covered face

They were right, of course. Nothing stays the same, not even grief. But that’s the kind of lesson we must learn for ourselves. It can’t be instructed or taught. It has to be lived.

Discomfort is uncomfortable. We can’t outrun or hide from it. We have to live through it. Sometimes we understand this instinctively. We choose pain over numbness. We greet each rising wave head on and let it knock us over. We trust that the water will recede, and that eventually, we’ll be able to breath again.

sea-ocean-rocks-waves

No matter what you are grieving or struggling with right now, no matter how big or small, how old or new, I wish you some moments of peace this holiday season.

See you in 2018. xo

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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.

It Will Never Be Enough

My writing and blogging friend Dina Relles recently posted a prompt on Literary Mama about something read or spoken that has stayed with you.

At first, I was at a loss. My recall memory is kind of awful, just ask my husband who corrects me every time we have one of those he-said/she-said arguments, but then, suddenly, as though pulled along by an invisible thread, the words arrived.

It will never be enough.

Lucie spoke those words to me in the kitchen of my childhood home. We were huddled close and speaking in low voices about my mother, who was dozing or resting in the nearby family room. There was no worry or concern that she would overhear us because she had lost the use of her legs, and her arms, many years before.

My parents hired Lucie soon after my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her job was to help with chores around the house, drive me and my brother places, and cook dinner. Basically, do the things my mother would soon be unable to do.

I was fourteen when I met her, and she was about thirty years old, maybe younger. A single mom with two small children, she needed work with flexible hours. I remember so clearly the day she came to us. She had dark eyes and a somber, quiet demeanor. Later, we would know her laugh intimately, her dry wit and her bawdy humor similar to my mother’s. But that day she was a stranger.

I can still see her sitting at our kitchen table, hands on her lap, speaking in a soft, low voice. I don’t remember what she said that day, but seventeen years later, we’d have a conversation that I would never forget.

We stood in the kitchen, our heads touching, in front of the sink with windows looking out at the overgrown back yard, an empty space where the white metal playground used to stand. Lucie’s big brown eyes were soupy with tears.

I thought she was going to die, she whispered to me. We were talking about my mother. I was thirty-one years old and Lucie in her late 40s.

What happened, I asked, and she told me about how my mother had been on a different medication for the last month or so. I think it was killing her, she said. Your father didn’t want to worry you, but I thought, what if she dies and you found out later that we didn’t tell you.

We stood with this possibility hanging in the air, and then embraced. I thanked her for telling me now and asked her to please call me if this happened again.

Is she okay now? I asked, my chin pointing toward the other room.

She’s better than she was, Lucie said, after a moment. But I don’t know Dana, I don’t know.

Her eyes welled up again and I felt a weight drop hard on my chest. I gripped the counter, staring out the window as my mother must have on occasion while watching me and my brother play tag or scramble up the jungle gym.

Do you think she’s going to die? Do you think I should move back home? I asked, my mind wild and panicked at the possibility. I began to wonder about logistics. How could I leave behind my life, but how could I not?

What should I do? I asked, feeling desperate. I wanted her to tell me what to do, to give me permission, to lead the way through this unchartered territory.

That’s when she looked at me square in the eye. Her expression serious and mournful. I can’t answer that, she said, you have to live your life. You have a home, a job, a husband.

I must admit I felt a shiver of relief because as deeply as I loved my mom, oh so deeply, I also felt afraid of living right up against her pain, day in and day out.

But Lucie wasn’t done. She took my hands in hers, she stepped closer, and what she said next will never, ever leave me.

The truth is, she whispered, her eyes dark and wet, it doesn’t matter if you move back home or not, because whatever you do it will never be enough. When she dies, you will always, always want more.

We wept together, Lucie and I, as we would in another kitchen, in another six months, when my mother was dying.

Is it strange to say that despite the panic and fear I felt upon hearing those words, that later they would bring me solace?

Later, in my grief, in the empty space left behind after my mother died, I forgave myself for not moving back home. I felt regret, for that and more, but in the back of my mind, those words rang out, not as a punishment or chastisement, but as a balm, a loving caress across my cheek, those words held me close and told me I had done as much as I could and yet, and yet, it would never be enough.

 

A messy and beautiful moment with my mom in my 20s.

Me and my mom in my 20s.Taken, most likely, by Lucie.

If you write your own version of words that stick, leave it in the comments below. I would love to read it.

I’ve also shared this on Writing Bubble’s, What I’m Writing, weekly link-up.

typewriter-butterflies-badge-small

Endings

Sometimes life taps you on the shoulder and whispers, take notice, this is important.

On Christmas Eve, my husband took our cat Mimi to the vet. She had a suspicious lump on the side of her face and a weepy eye. Looking back, it’s clear that this was not going to end well, but I was hopeful, or perhaps denial is the more appropriate word. Shortly after he sent me a text that sank my stomach to my knees. Call me right away. 

I sobbed quietly in the kitchen while he explained the vet’s explanation. My children sat unaware in the other room. Our two cats had been our first “babies,” now beloved by our actual babies more than us. Changing diapers and raising humans rubbed the shine off our feline affections, I’m sorry to say. However, nothing like a terminal diagnosis to release a dam of guilt and love.

In furtive whispers we decided to wait before telling our children, especially our daughter who is six and two thirds (her words) and highly sensitive. There was an off chance that this was a non malignant lump. We decided to make an appointment for surgery. I think we both knew in our hearts euthanizing might be the more humane (not to mention practical) course, but neither of us was willing to make that call despite years of complaining about cat litter and hairballs.

On Sunday after a weekend celebration filled with family, laughter, and of course gifts, my husband took our daughter aside and told her the news. I heard her cries from where the kitchen and felt the sting of her pain, a layer of her innocence peeled back, at this first intimate exposure to disease and death.

She asked why, repeatedly, as she cried and we tried to answer her questions honestly, but also carefully because our girl suffers from anxiety, especially regarding illness. Not that surprising given she has celiac disease, but more than the average kid. We walked the line of truth on wobbly legs. We did our best, which ultimately, is all you can do as a parent, and really, as a human being.

At one point my husband said, “Death is an important part of life.” This phrasing seemed to agitate her. “Why important,” she asked looking confused.

I put my arm around her and pulled her close. “Death is part of life,” I said, removing the adjective before adding another. “And it’s very sad.”

After she dried her eyes, my husband asked if she wanted to spend the afternoon with Mimi, but she said no. Already I saw her edging back, in fear, but also as a form of self-protection. Adults do this, too. I saw it happen to my mother when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age forty. Some friends dropped back so far they disappeared. When she was dying, eighteen years later, I watched certain people approach her fearlessly, weeping at her bedside, resting their head against hers, while others remained on the periphery of the room, watching from a distance.

There is no right or wrong way to behave in the face of death. But my husband and I understood that this first introduction, the way we acted and reacted in the eye of this oncoming storm, would shape our daughter. At this point, death was a possibility not a certainty, so we didn’t push her. It was her idea to drive to Philadelphia and visit The Franklin Institute, one of our favorite museums. I asked her why even though I already knew. I already knew.

To see the heart, she said.

the-franklin-institute

Oh, the heart. I hid my tears behind a hand as I thought about hearts, that precious fist shaped organ, the quiet steady force of life. When I think about hearts I always think of my mother’s, how hers beat on even after her lungs failed. I was sitting at her bedside when she stopped breathing. Her face turned blue, but most surprisingly, she smiled.

Then, with a sharp gasp the smile disappeared and she was back. We later learned later it was because her heart was so strong, so young. A few days later, it stopped, and she died peacefully in her sleep. But I will always remember how it didn’t want to quit, and it seemed a fitting metaphor for such a loving woman.

We agreed to drive to the museum, all of us nodding our heads in unison. It’s a good idea, I said. Better to leave the house and not mope around. Besides, poor Mimi would be better served sleeping peacefully than being pursued by our worried children.

It was overcast, the kind of day when the passage of time is elusive, the sky knitted thick with clouds. I put away my phone and took out my notebook. I wrote about the sky and my daughter. I wrote about the sun shining like a pale coin, and how it seemed to struggle through the clouds, elbowing its way out before falling back again.

We had a nice day. We walked through the heart twice, its methodical pounding amplified in our ears. There’s the left ventricle, I pointed out to my son who held my hand and walked ahead of me. His big sister ran through, already an expert at the steep stairs and all the twists and turns. I called out to her, wait for us, I said, not wanting to lose sight of her. Often she’s five steps ahead of me, in the heart and in life. I’m learning to let go bit by bit, but it’s hard.

The next day Mimi took a turn for the worse. She vomited in a sudden and violent way. There was blood all over the floor. My husband and I looked at each other horrified, knowing what that meant. For once I was grateful for the endless episodes of Angelina Ballerina. It gave us time to clean up the blood, to compose ourselves. To prepare for the next conversation.

Our girl took it hard. I wept beside her as I witnessed this next level of understanding. Later, though, I realized how lucky we are, how lucky she was that this first brush with death was an animal’s, as dear as she was to us, and not a parent or sibling. I knew it could be much, much worse.

But still.

Mimi's last day.

Mimi’s last day, December 30, 2014

The next day we spent inside, biding our time. The appointment with the vet was at 4:30. For the first time in days, my daughter approached Mimi. She was still cautious, but offered to sit with her to “keep her company.” I gave her a pad of paper and she sketched a portrait. She wanted to get Mimi just right and I think she did.

bunky and mimi

When it was time to say goodbye, I was a wreck, but my dear daughter was composed and full of compassion. She stayed in the play room with her father when he put Mimi into the carrier. She offered to walk Mimi to the car, crouching low so the cat could see her face and “not be afraid.” I stood at the window stifling my sobs, so proud and so heavy hearted.

Rest in peace sweet kind Mimi, always the gentlest of cats, with the most beautiful coat of caramel striped fur I’ve ever seen. We will miss you.

mimi the cat w color

mimi cat

A cat of many names, given upon adoption as Nome

Shortened to Noemi, and renamed by our daughter, Mimi

Born 2005-Died 2014

Have you had to deal with a pet or family member’s death with your child? How did you handle it? Were there any books about grief that seemed to help?