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.

img_6873

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

Slide01

[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.]

Advertisements

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? 

Being a Mom is NOT Enough (For Me)

Writing those words is not easy. Feels a little taboo, like something a mom is never supposed to admit.

Then there’s the whole people pleaser part of me that doesn’t want to make anyone mad. But this idea has been sitting on the back burner of my mind for a while now, simmering like a pot of water. Steam is escaping out of the edges and the lid is rattling. Time to look inside.

Photo Credit: *floydgal* via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: *floydgal* via Compfight cc

I believe being a mom can be enough, and is enough for some women.

Let me go deeper – I believe that being a mom is enough for some women at certain times of their children’s lives. Like for me, when my kids were infants, all I could do was nurture them and try to get enough sleep in between night wakings to stay alive. Writing was not on my priority list back then. Things like showers and sleep were.

During my daughter's newborn stage.

During my daughter’s newborn stage. A mommy nap.

But as the years rolled by there came a point when I realized I needed something else, something that belonged just to me.

I wonder about my own mother. Was being a mom enough for her? Unfortunately, we never had a chance to be moms at the same time and explore these types of questions. She died a year before my daughter was born.

Me and my mom, May 1977

Me and my mom, May 1977

She was a stay at home mom by choice, and I know that was important to her, in part because her own mother worked long hours after her husband died young. My mom never wanted us to experience the loneliness she felt as a child, and so even when she worked part-time or volunteered, she was always there to greet us after school.

This clearly influenced me. I wanted to offer my children what she did, and I have, while also trying to pursue my writing. My mom was an artist too, a talented sculptor whose beautiful and haunting creations outlived her.

susan schwartz masks

Unfortunately for her – and for our whole family – she was diagnosed with a severe form of multiple sclerosis when she was just forty years old, a disease that cruelly took away her mobility, one limb at a time, in rapid succession. Her deft fingers that sculpted vases and bowls, that painstakingly etched emotion into clay faces, were rendered useless. Her art endures though, as does her signature. And her love.

mom signature green

I’m soon to approach that milestone birthday, and I wonder if I’m holding onto a kernel of fear that something may befall me and derail my creative ambitions, like what happened to her. Perhaps that is what pushes me to write now with more urgency than before.

Or perhaps I’m finally ready to write with fervor.

I am fortunate that I have two healthy children, and the luxury of choice to stay home with them. I am grateful to my partner for supporting our family financially, for my health, and my ability to pursue my dreams.

me and kids winter 2014

I want to be their mother AND a writer.

And so, that’s what I’m finally trying to do.

today i will make magic happen