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.

Slide01

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

 

 

Grief 3 Ways

As you may have noticed, there is a running theme here lately, about grief.

I didn’t intend to write so much about it, but that’s the thing about writing – you don’t always choose your subjects. Sometimes, they choose you.

When my mom died, she was all I could think about, write about, but I kept it mostly private. This was almost nine years ago, when the blogging and online world was quite different. I wrote – as I’ve always done – to understand. It was more instinct than decision. Now, the journals I filled have become a reference for the work I’m doing now.

I’m almost done writing the content of my grief course which I’ll be facilitating on the site, The Gift of Writing, and it’s been quite a journey. Despite all the time that has passed, I’ve learned things about my mom and myself I didn’t know before. That is one of the hopes I have for the people who join my class. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up, you just have to be willing to write.

If you’re interested in receiving updates about the class, click here to add your name to the wait list and you’ll be notified when registration opens.

In the meantime…

grief 3 ways

I recently wrote a guest post on The Gift of Writing called, Every Grief Counts: How to Honor Your Grieving Experience. I feel strongly about the importance of this post because I think there can be a sense of competitiveness and comparison when it comes to grief.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that grief is extremely personal. But the questions still rise up. How long is it appropriate to grieve? Are some losses “worse” than others? Please take a look at the article if you haven’t seen it already, or pass it along to anyone you think may be interested.

I also wrote an essay about my mother and her caregiver, Lucie, and the different ways both women showed me their love. You can read that here, on the lovely site, Mothers Always Write.

Last, but not remotely least, I am so proud of my friend Anastasia for the second book in her Ordinary Terrible Things series, Death is Stupid, published by Feminist Press.

death is stupid

Using her gift of collage and her deep well of empathy, she has created a wholly original book about death – including all the nonsense (well meaning and otherwise) that people say to children when someone they love dies. I urge you to watch the book trailer, which will give you a glimpse at the magic she makes with words and art.

Just to assure you, despite all my grief-making work, I am not at all depressed. It’s spring, one of my favorite seasons, and I’ve seen enough daffodils and forsythia to prove it. Sure, the chilling temperatures are a bit of a downer (and I’m very sorry to my upstate and New England friends for SNOW, not cool), but sometimes I think we forget the capricious, fickle, and teasing nature of April.

It’s still early spring, nestled up against the cold cusp of winter, and maybe clinging to the old season a little more tightly than usual. I imagine a dozing bear, annoyed at being roused, and yearning for just a little more sleep before it lumbers out into the sunshine.

Here’s hoping it lumbers out sooner than later.

 

 

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.