You Make Me Cry

Flowers covering Jan’s grave site after her burial - May 3, 2019

Flowers covering Jan’s grave site after her burial - May 3, 2019

My Aunt Jan, my mother’s younger sister, died on April 13, 2019.

We had her funeral this past Friday, May 3rd, at which I gave the eulogy. She did not have children, and her father (my grandfather, George), her only sister (my mother, Judy) and her mother (my grandmother, Helen) all passed before her, in 2000, 2006, and 2009 respectively.

After scripture readings, a gospel, and brief homily by the deacon, a few words from my aunt’s former partner, Richard, with whom she was in a relationship for 17 years, a bible reading and powerful personal message from my older brother, Anthony, and a poem and Anne Lamott book passage read aloud by my older sister, Rebecca… it was my turn.

It took me about nine minutes to deliver the eulogy I wrote, speaking to a full chapel of over one hundred of Jan’s close friends and family. I didn’t know maybe half of the people in attendance, those who knew my Aunt Jan from other walks of her life; so I had decided to greet as many old friends and former co-workers of hers with a smile and a handshake as they walked up to the chapel doors.

I thought that if I was able to introduce myself to most of them, then we wouldn’t be complete strangers when I stood before them to say what I had prepared. I was nervous to speak, but I was confident in the message I was there to deliver.

After the service was over, we all walked from the chapel to the grave site to bury her cremains. Many mourners I had just met hugged and thanked me for what I wrote, as we shared this powerful experience of saying goodbye to someone we loved. The love and energy Jan had given in life to those for whom she cared, inspired me to write the following words to honor her in death, as I shared that day...

Jan’s Eulogy 5.3.19

I have written a lot about death and losing people I love. I write to make peace with the fact that they’re gone, and with why they are gone. I write to process how I feel about it, and about them, and how their words and actions affected me.

But I also write to honor them in death as best I can, aiming to share more of who they were and what they meant to me and others in this life. Today, I’m going to communicate with you some thoughts and feelings I got down on the page when I sat to write and reflect on my Aunt Jan’s life.

As a writer, not a public speaker, I would much rather post this where you all can read it yourselves. But since delivering a eulogy at a funeral doesn’t work that way, I’ll read it to you, and do my best to convey through my voice what came out through the strokes of my keyboard in silent reflection.

Jan and I share a middle name. Marie. She was Janice Marie and I am Lisa Marie. She called me “Lisa Marie” my whole life, so I recently began calling her “Janice Marie” in texts and when I saw her. But before that, while growing up, I simply called her “Aunt Janny.”

Aunt Janny & me on the Parachute Sky Jump at Knott’s Berry Farm - 1976

Aunt Janny & me on the Parachute Sky Jump at Knott’s Berry Farm - 1976

Aunt Janny was a cool aunt because she was ten years younger than our mom. She was 16 when I was born. She often babysat my siblings and I, and for as much as I can remember, she let us run wild and do what we wanted.

Once on her watch, I fell and hit my head on the corner of our coffee table while jumping on the couch. I have a scar next to my eye from the injury, and Jan often liked to remind me of this mishap… a running joke that amused her. Somehow she equated it as her proof that she was not fit to watch over little kids.

As a 20-something girl, she possessed a gentle ruggedness that made her intimidating, yet approachable. When I saw her, most often it was in shorts washing her car in the driveway of my Grandma’s house on Tuba Street in Chatsworth.

She did this A LOT. Like every couple of days, a lot. She always had a potent air freshener hanging from her rear view mirror, and religiously applied Armor-All to her car tires, dashboard, and leather seats.

Jan’s happy place was in her immaculately clean sports car, cruising and blasting her favorite tunes. She would drive us to Malibu in her powder blue Chevy Malibu… her love for the beach trumping her dislike of sand inside her car.

Just picture it… a 23-year-old Jan driving three little kids over Kanan Dume Road to Paradise Cove Beach in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. The winding canyon road, windows down, wind whipping through our hair, and our little bodies sliding across the back bench seat, saturated with Armor-All.

Aunt Janny with my brother, sister & me - Easter 1976

Aunt Janny with my brother, sister & me - Easter 1976

No seat belt law meant we were untethered and at the mercy of Kanan’s sharp turns and Jan’s slippery, lubed-up leather. We would be crushed up against one another, pinned between a sibling and the car door, until a turn in the opposite direction catapulted us to the other side of the car, all the while a soundtrack of 70’s soft rock hits blared on the car radio.

No, none of the songs she played were AT ALL appropriate listening for the 7, 9, and 10 year old kids that my brother, sister and I were. But even though the lyrics went over our heads, the choruses were burned into our brains.

My brother collectively dubbed them, “Janny Beach Songs,” as we still refer to them today. Over the years, Jan loved when we would list these classic songs from memory and sing a few bars of “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” “Hot Blooded,” “Afternoon Delight,” or “Hot Legs.”

Jan loved music. She loved sports, and she loved shiny colors, especially RED, on her cars, her lips, and her nails.

But bright, neon colors… those, she most often wore on her feet.

Great Aunt Jan with my kids - March 2014

Great Aunt Jan with my kids - March 2014

(I brought out a pair of Jan’s neon orange Nikes from behind the podium and placed them in front of me)

I don’t know exactly when her obsession with the blindingly neon-colored athletic shoes began; but I do know the dizzying number of pairs she had, like this one, are a perfect analogy to Jan herself during the years she wore them.

They are sporty, but stylish…

flashy, but comfortable…

casual, yet expensive…

Just like her.

Jan loved what she loved, and embraced it all with vigor.

She was sentimental… about family, her favorite songs, and her precious memories. I actually don’t remember her being sentimental in her youth; but what do kids really know about the inner emotional life of the adults in their lives, unless those adults open up and share it with them.

Some people say we get more sentimental as we age… that things a younger person would deem “sappy,” like TV commercials and greeting cards, can easily bring older people to tears.

I don’t know if age has as much to do with it as maturity does. I think sad things that make us weep, or happy things that make us cry, elicit these emotions, to those that are paying attention, because they are just that… sad or happy enough to provoke a physical release in our bodies… grief or joy, manifested through tears.

The grief and the joy are not necessarily stronger or more potent for most older people than they are for younger people. It’s just that most young people, and unfortunately some grown adults, have not yet developed the tools to let feelings flow without fighting them… their restraint often rooted in fear and shame.

Our culture has taught us that emotions are for the weak, that holding back tears is a sign of strength, and that being or appearing vulnerable should be avoided at all costs.

I think society got it wrong.

Janice Marie & me on my birthday at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach - May 2014

Janice Marie & me on my birthday at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach - May 2014

My Aunt Jan had this way of pushing her lower lip out to communicate something was causing her to become emotional. I think it was her way of feigning crying to avoid actually crying; although sometimes she did begin to cry too when she just couldn’t stop herself.

She did it when she told me how something I had written affected her.

She’d say to me, “You make me cry, Lisa. You’re such a good writer. Your words are so beautiful.”

And she would say it almost like she was a little mad at me for rendering her helpless to her own tears. Like I had found her Achilles’ heel and she was being forced to unwillingly surrender to her emotions when she read what I wrote.

Of course, she didn’t have to read the pieces about my mom, or marriage, or life being challenging or hopeful. She could have avoided them and not subjected herself to riding a roller coaster of emotions. But I think she liked taking the ride, and letting me bring her on a journey to that place she wouldn’t let her daily life take her.

That place of vulnerability. That place we go as humans when we surrender to what we feel so completely that, often in a flood of tears, we are relieved of a heavy burden. For those who don’t ever allow it, or who don’t allow it often, crying is like a valve being loosened just enough to release the pressure of what has been held inside for too long.

My writing brought Jan to that place. With every lower lip pout or tear she cried, I think she got a little relief from what she often held inside: sadness, pain or just the feeling of really missing her nuclear family… her mom, dad and sister… the three people who loved and shaped her and brought her up in this world.

Janny is not here to read this; but I can picture her now being overwhelmed by it… her lower lip in full effect, holding back tears, and lovingly reprimanding me for “making” her cry.

Well, Janice Marie, I’m sorry/not sorry. I am honored to be someone who loosened the valve on your emotions every once in a while. I’m content to believe that this would have elicited your tears as well.

But in truth, I know that if you are feeling anything comparable to the human act of crying in this moment, it is not because my words “made” you do it. If you are crying, I believe they would be tears of joy in seeing your family and friends show up to honor you today. It would be from the overwhelming joy of being reunited with your nuclear family again.

Jan with her dad, mom & sister in Studio City, CA - Summer 1969

Jan with her dad, mom & sister in Studio City, CA - Summer 1969

I can imagine the four of you together in a tight group hug… you with my mom, Grandma Helen, and yes, even Grandpa George. I imagine him as a beautiful light embracing his wife and daughters closely and tenderly, his soul now free from what held him back from doing so while he was here.

I imagine you wanting all of us to know that you are okay. Wanting us to be happy for you… happy you are with your family, and happy you are at peace.

And I AM happy for you. I am SO happy to also imagine you as a light, shining bright outside the confines of your human form. As bright as your neon Nike’s, with no need to wear Nike’s anymore.

I imagine your energy soaring through this chapel and through all the people here who love you. You touched us all with your energy, and you will continue to do so each time we think of you.

RIP Janice Marie

November 18, 1956 - April 13, 2019

Aunt Janny with my older sister & Me - 1975
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No Pause Button

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We grow. Birthdays are celebrated, or missed.

We love. Anniversaries tally up (today’s my 14th wedding anni.), or cease.

We live. Spring break trips bring joy and make memories (as they have for us over these last ten days).

Yet amidst all the simple pleasures, life milestones, and fun adventures, heartbreak can still live inside us, and tragedies can still happen.

My aunt was admitted into the ICU on March 7th... my mom’s only sister, a stand-in grandmother to my kids, and the woman who made my annual birthday getaways to Newport Beach more memorable.

The month of March was hard. She was very sick, and none of it should have been happening. Family banded together. Friends offered support. People cried, others prayed. Life’s tough challenges reminded me (again) of who and what was important to me.

In the midst of hardship, life continues on and we continue along with it as best we can. Despite a desire to stop time and integrate my feelings on what was happening, before moving forward and facing it, life was moving on relentlessly, with no pause button. So we do our best to make the best of it. We keep the plans we’ve made and make more plans for the future.

While I’ve been out of state on vacation for my kids’ spring break this past week and a half, my dear aunt passed peacefully away back home in California last Saturday, April 13th. She was only 62.

It’s devastating and sad. We loved her. She was the last link to my mom. She loved us. My kids will miss her, as will I.

I have so much to say to her and about her. I have so much to feel about what happened.

But for now, this has to be it. I’m still out of town and my kids are waiting for me to rejoin our vacation adventures right now. When I return home, this all will still be waiting for me. The grieving. The service preparations. The time and space to reflect. The writing about her. The laying her to rest. The peace. Life continuing. Life moving on.

#nopausebutton #wegrowwelovewelive #movingforward #lifemovesprettyfastifyoudontstopandlookaroundonceinawhileyoucouldmissit #ferrisbueller #artinstituteofchicago #chicagomuseums

*Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook

I Am Here with You

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Every year, I bring the kids to visit you. After school ends, we rush over from Malibu and arrive with only a few minutes to spend before the gates close at five.

They give you their flowers and run around the grass. I try to steal a moment to talk to you, but I often don't let myself get very far into the one-sided conversation. I don’t want the kids to feel the heaviness in my heart while they flit around in their lightness. Sometimes, I just don’t want to acknowledge the heaviness.

So I watch them run around... burning off energy they built up on the car ride over. I tell my son repeatedly not to step on the other headstones and to leave the balloons and pinwheels where they are.

They are comfortable here, playing in their grandma’s yard, the only one of yours they will ever know.

I sit on the blanket and breathe in the peace this place is supposed to bring its visitors. I look around at all the trees and beauty and reflect on the number of years it's been since we laid you to rest. It may be only a year between our visits, but so much happens in the span of each year that sometimes it surprises me how much remains the same here.

Yet it’s a little different today… the light is different. I haven’t been here in the morning since the day of your memorial service twelve years ago, when I had a baby in my belly and an army of mourners walking with me from the chapel to this spot in the grass.

At this time of day, the tree that shades you filters the sunlight from directly above, casting strong shadows of branches down on your headstone and a warm, golden spotlight that bathes me in a natural glow when I lie down next to you.

The ground is a bit moist and uneven, and the smell of soil and cut grass is potent. My blanket is supposed to keep the wetness of the lawn from coming through, but it doesn’t. I hear the whizzing sound of weed trimmers all around, as the groundskeepers’ maintenance is in full swing. Ironically, I came here today to get some peace alone with you while the kids are in school, but it turns out it is a little less peaceful at this time of day then when we usually visit in the evening.

Still, without the kids in tow, there is a different kind of peace. I can sit here alone and say anything I want to you. I can talk and cry, and there is no one to hear me. I also can sit here in silence and feel the intimacy of the moment without words, knowing words don’t actually need to be spoken aloud to be heard.

Intimate words are hard for me to form through my voice. I get overcome with emotion in most instances of speaking intimately, and those strong emotions often muddle what I am trying to verbally communicate to others. For me, words flow more freely when I write; hence, this.

I write here next to you, sitting on this now wet blanket. Wanting to talk to you, but not knowing where to start. Wondering so much, about so much. Thinking of questions I never asked you. Wanting answers I am missing that I had not sought to get when you were alive, because my life had not yet begged their questions.

You feel closer to me here somehow. That doesn’t make logical sense, I know, because the ashes of your body buried beneath me here are not really you, nor is this inanimate slab of concrete next to me embossed with your name. I just refer to it as “you” because it is tangible. It is a symbol, a sign... It’s what I have left of you.

People like to say you are in me, and that you are with me always. They say it to comfort, and they say it with spiritual conviction; but it is not enough for me just to hear that. You are a feeling I have to deliberately elicit… one I have to connect with to believe, or to find comfort in. Just being told by others you are here with me, and that it is so because of how they choose to believe, doesn’t do it for me.

I am here with you. You are here with me. It’s intangible, but it is all we have. I write to you and about you to feel closer to you. I think about you and all that you have given me, and I feel you with me. When I am connected to my true self, I remember that you are part of me.

I have to go now. The kids and I will return in a few hours, with flower bouquets in their hands. They will give their flowers to you, and they will run around the grass, as always. They will hear church bells ring in the distance and take off to meet the source of the chimes. I will watch them go, silent in the calm of the evening stillness, enjoying the last few minutes we have before the gates close at five.

POSTSCRIPT (about the photo above): On that day, the branches of the tree that looms over my mom’s grave had filtered the midday sunlight in such a way that the glow affect on my face was created in the camera of my phone. I did not add any artificial filter to it after the fact, nor did I manipulate the photo in any way. I’m grateful for the beauty of nature’s filter, and for capturing this image.

The Legacy of Grief

And Why It Is So Important to Own Our Pain

My daughter leaving flowers for her grandmother on her birthday yesterday - Now ten years old, she was born three months after my mom died.

My daughter leaving flowers for her grandmother on her birthday yesterday - Now ten years old, she was born three months after my mom died.

I am still thinking about the people who lost their loved ones in the Las Vegas shooting massacre last Sunday night, October 1st.

Yes, still. It has only been a week.

Those left behind to grieve lost loved ones are on my mind because I was them. I know what they are feeling right now. The rest of the world may have moved on, but they are still in the thick of it, possibly paralyzed by sadness, scared about the future, and looking for answers on how they are going to live without their mom, dad, son, daughter, sister, brother, or best friend.

I know their pain. I have felt their pain; as I too lost someone in an unexpected, tragic accident. One day my mom was here, turning 60 years old, and the very next day she wasn’t. That next day changed my life forever... October 10, 2006, eleven years ago today.

The deadly weapon used to kill her was a truck, not a gun; but the person operating the weapon was unwell just the same. The driver was under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the accident, and so her impaired state caused her to drift off the two lane highway she was speeding on. When she swerved back into her lane, she over corrected and plunged her Bronco into oncoming traffic... slamming it head on into the car in which my mom was a passenger and killing her instantly.

My mom died lying on the asphalt of a rural road in Northern California at the hands of a woman not intending to kill her that day but who wasn't in the right state of mind to safely operate a vehicle that became a lethal weapon. There was no news coverage of the accident; and no villains were vilified nor heroes celebrated (although the driver did get sentenced to a year in prison). There were no hashtags prayers. Still, my mom's death changed the lives of her family and friends instantly, just as the deaths of those 59 people in Las Vegas changed the lives of their families and friends instantly, and forever.

In both cases, the irresponsible act of one single, troubled and unwell individual took innocent lives. The Vegas tragedy was just on a much larger scale and in a very public forum; and that act was committed with malicious intent. The added sting of knowing the killer intended to harm and kill people that day is one I was spared when my mom died; yet, the result of both events was the same - people were killed violently and unexpectedly.

Social media was ablaze this past week, with some people praying for Vegas, others demanding gun policy change, and still others protesting those demands by trying to convince the opposition that they should blame the individual, not the weapon. I know this is not true, but it seems like the people in the latter group are stuck in time somehow, like we are all still living in the 19th Century, when guns were shot one bullet at a time and were used primarily for protection from looters, robbers, and carpetbaggers. Their argument frustrates and confuses me, seeming archaic and inaccurate on so many levels. Yet above all the various protests, there were genuine sentiments of grief and many heartfelt pleas for stricter laws and demands to hold our politicians accountable for their failure to implement policies that they believe could have prevented this tragedy.

Now, over a week has passed, and most voices have quieted on all sides, save the various articles still being written and shared to further the debate on the subject of guns, media, and politics. It seems most people have moved on, resuming their normal output and usual consumption of media and going about their regular lives.

As I touched upon in Forever Changed, the only post I shared last week, our society functions on our collective ability to keep the tragedies of each day at arms length, and to prevent them from penetrating the armor we built up to protect us from daily doses of bad news, depressing statistics, and inconsiderate behavior by those around us. The Vegas tragedy was so tragic though that people could not help but let it into their hearts; and so they allowed themselves to feel devastated for a day or two, or three... just as they did when deadly shootings happened in Orlando, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, or Columbine.

But eventually, after a few days, maybe a week, most people expect themselves, and each other, to revert back to their normal routine of disconnect. Be it for self-preservation or simply for keeping their lives operating, they pull themselves up, look ahead and move forward, leaving the devastation behind, along with most of the emotion connected with it. After all, they would argue that they have to get out of bed, go to work, take care of kids, and contribute to society in the way they normally do and are expected to do. They can't afford, neither financially, emotionally or mentally, to curl up under the covers and allow themselves to feel sadness, fear, and powerlessness to the detriment of their careers, families, and self-images.

For about a week, praying for the families of the victims in Vegas or "keeping them in their thoughts" was the extent of what most people would allow themselves to do or feel. This is understandable, as it really is all most of us can do. The sad reality is that a week of prayers won’t give the lost loved ones back to those families, and heartfelt thoughts won't stop future acts of violence, irresponsibility, and loss that are bound to occur in a society full of people in pain that are taught to treat the symptoms instead of the roots of problems.

The people that were demanding stricter gun laws and policy changes may have felt more in control by "taking action" rather than just sending prayers. As admirable and empowering as this feels, it may not have any effect, since deeming something illegal does not mean people will immediately abide by the law and cease seeking out and possessing it. This has proven to be true over and over again by the whiskey and rye drinkers during prohibition, the pot and hash smokers of the sixties and seventies, the cocaine snorters of the eighties and nineties, and the crack, heroin and meth IV drug users of any decade. It is a well known fact that making something “illegal” doesn't make it unattainable; it just makes it trickier and more expensive to attain.

Too many people own guns already, or possess a large enough arsenal to sell them illegally and make a lot of money. So even if stricter policy changes are made, possibly banning bump stock devices that allow semi automatic weapons to perform like automatic ones, someone somewhere will still figure out a way to make, sell, and buy them illegally.

Aside from guns though, add to those illegal drugs listed above the issue of legal drugs - alcohol, prescriptions, and medical marijuana - that are over used and abused daily, and you have a whole other group of citizens that are taking lives via DUI accidents and drug overdoses in record numbers that dwarf the 59 souls lost in Vegas at the hands of one soul with an automatic weapon.

This man’s horrific deed has incited ideological arguments, intense anger, and (more than usual) political dissonance; yet adding to the debate on gun laws, the responsibility of the media, and the political failings of our leaders is not the purpose of my writing this. It is charged subject, with multiple facets and layers that don't add up to one definitive solution. It troubles me, but I am not entirely convinced that what happened in Vegas could have been prevented by stricter gun policies in a culture that, on the whole, glorifies violence, condones separatism, and encourages and enables the denial and numbing away of our emotions.

Instead, I write to share and process my experience of loss these past eleven years, and to grieve the loss of the people killed nine days ago. Their families are just beginning their journey into grief and loss, so I honor them and the difficult road toward acceptance and healing that they have just begun to travel.

Yet I also write to ask questions. To bring up that which most don't and won't talk about. To point out the way in which our society (dis)functions as a whole to the detriment of our collective mental health and emotional intelligence. Among all this discourse about policy and politics, where is the dialogue on the state of our overall wellness as a people, as a society, as a nation?

Wellness is a buzz word these days, as is mindfulness and meditation. But these concepts, and the efforts to implement them, only seem to surface in progressive communities and are often isolated to an individual's personal journey of growth and awareness. Self help - therapeutic, holistic, spiritual or motivational - is seen by the general public as an esoteric ritual reserved for yoga instructors, therapists, fitness and lifestyle coaches and their tribe of followers.

The fact is, there is nothing alternative or obscure about addressing our natural human emotions and our fundamental need for connection and love, or honoring our pain by approaching it with awareness, compassion, empathy, and understanding.

Where is the national agenda promoting true wellness in our society, outside of Western medicine's money making racket of drugging its people up on prescription medications? Where is a national dialogue confronting how to tend to people's mental and emotional well being without the use of drugs or other numbing methods?

There isn't one. There is no national dialogue such as this.

Sure, we have renowned alternative medicine doctors, writers, and self-help gurus, such as the late Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Eckhart Tolle who guide and teach those who seek them out through their books, articles and talks. We also have influential people such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and Brené Brown who do the same with their powerful platforms, working in their own unique ways to show us how vulnerability and emotional intelligence is not something to shame or be ashamed of, but something to strive for, encourage and support within ourselves and our fellow humans.

There are also thousands of therapists and social workers doing their part every day, without the fame and glory of the former teachers and leaders mentioned above, to instill knowledge and awareness, promote courage and healing, and help people face and overcome their adversities without the use of prescription drugs, violence, or the usual numbing tactics coveted and accepted by our society as the norm.

But on a national scale, the need for and goal of true wellness, for the most part, is unaddressed in our society. In its absence, the crises of our culture is the perpetual numbing of pain and discomfort with a host of band-aids... anticipating and celebrating wine-o'-clock, ritualizing Sunday Funday drinking, zoning out on YouTube videos for hours, and binge streaming seven seasons of Game of Thrones in seven days, to name a few.

Numbing and denying our pain, instead of embracing it, leads to isolation and disillusion. Sharing our pain and our struggles in a supportive environment, instead of sweeping it under the rug, is the road to healing and thriving. The "rug" in its many forms - alcohol, TV, drugs, movies, video games, work, social media, sex, gambling, pornography, and retail therapy - has the magical ability to camouflage and cover up a lot of hurt and pain. Yet after the magic wears off, in a matter of days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years, we are still left with the same hurt and pain, now increased exponentially. If left under there, unchecked and unresolved for too long, this pain can rot, decay, fester, and transform into something twisted and toxic, with the potential to erupt in violence; and in last Sunday's case, a shower of bullets.

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave me in writing about my cyclical grief for my mom's death and the empathetic grief I feel for the families that are suffering tremendous loss right now? I don't know. All I know is I will continue to hold the victims of this tragedy close to my heart, next to the memory of mom, for as long as my grief needs me to do so. I am open to feel and accept it all. The grief, the pain, the disappointment, and the loss. I am a living testament to working through grief and pain by embracing and owning it, instead of concealing it away in a dark corner of my soul.

I will grieve, and when I am done this time around, I will remember and cherish my mom even more. I will recall how my kids brought flowers to her grave site on her birthday yesterday... how my son placed his colorful fall bouquet in the ground and uncomfortably yet sweetly wished her a happy birthday as he looked down at her grave marker... how my ten-year-old daughter chose red roses for her because through the years she has learned that they were her favorite... and how she hugged me tight and cried her first tears ever over for the loss of her grandmother whom she never had the chance to meet.

The legacy of grief.

It seems like an unwanted burden to bear, but it is really an invitation to expand our capacity to love.

The Gift of Burden

It is the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19th, a couple days after my twelfth wedding anniversary, and I am trying to play catch up on all the outstanding tasks and residual clutter I had put aside for two weeks while we were away on spring break and anniversary celebrating vacations.

I sit at my home office desk trying to rid its surface of what's suffocating it... Kindergarten school work brought home before the break, health insurance paperwork, clipped box tops for school fundraising, and health and fitness coupons, race flyers and vitamin samples from the swag bag I received for running a 10K race just before leaving town.

My computer screen displays the results of the doctor search I had done a couple hours ago on the provider finder of my new health insurance company website. Now a couple minutes after 2:00pm, I can finally call the doctor at the top of the list... surely they'd be back in the office from lunch by now.

I retrieve our landline cordless phone from its stand to make the call, and as I walk back to the desk with it, my cell phone sounds nearby with a notification alert. It's a familiar and comforting chime, the one assigned to the Facebook Messenger app; one that has brought me fun chats and enjoyable interactions with friends and family so often in the past. Yet this time, it's not a link to a good article sent by my sister or a short but sweet note from an old friend checking in on me.

No, today it brings me the opposite kind of news... word that my cousin Christine died this morning, having succumbed to the breast cancer she had courageously survived a couple times already over the past three years. I sit down to read the words written by her brother, "my beautiful and loving sister passed today around 11:30," and immediately break down crying.

I cry for a few minutes before I respond to him with my condolences, and then I cry some more. Through my tears, and still holding my home phone in my hand, I look up at my computer screen at the name of the doctor I was about to dial listed under the specialty I searched this morning: gynecology. The timing was unbelievable.

My annual mammogram was due in March, and I had been avoiding scheduling it for a couple months already because it was going to be a bit of an ordeal... you know, one of those cycles of actions that is more annoying than hard, with so many steps to make it just inconvenient and time consuming enough to want to put it off in favor of things quicker and easier to check off your to-do list.

I had to search for a gynecologist close by, with good recommendations, who is taking new patients, and who accepts my new medical insurance (since the OB-GYN that delivered my son six years ago now does not), make an appointment to get a checkup, pap smear, and prescription for a mammogram, and then schedule a mammogram at the lab to take afterward.

I find that anything to do with health insurance and its confusing coverage is always cumbersome to deal with and makes me wish I had a personal assistant to tackle the minutiae of these tasks. But since it's all me, all the time, I had to take care of this cycle of annoyance myself; and I'd been a bit anxious the last few weeks over the fact that I had delayed in getting it done. Especially since my cousin's words had been replaying in my head, imploring me and all the women in her life to get our annual mammograms each year on time. Since her breast cancer was discovered on a mammogram taken one year after a test that was clear, she wanted to ensure that we all knew how vital early detection was. I had been diligent with my tests ever since; that is, until now.

So it was at the top my list of to-dos for this week; and there I was to-doing it at the very moment I found out breast cancer had claimed her life. I was in shock, not only from the sad news, but from the fact that I received it at the exact time I was finally taking these long overdue steps in my own breast cancer prevention.

After my crying ran its course, at least for the moment, I was determined to call the gynecologist on my screen right then, stuffed up, crying nose or not. I secured the next available appointment for Monday, May 1st, and then called the lab to schedule a mammogram for later that same morning.

There, it's done. I handled it - for myself, and now, strangely, in honor of Christine in this sad moment of unhappy coincidence. So many thoughts swirled around in my head... of sadness, anger, injustice, and fervent opposition to just how incredibly unfair this reality was. Yet I had no time to sort these thoughts out, as I had to leave and pick up the kids from school minutes later. Life was still moving on, and my desire to stop, grieve, and reflect did not surpass my responsibility to take my daughter to her softball pitching clinic or sit with my son and help him with his reading.

I wanted to write. I wanted to get out and process my thoughts on this travesty. I had so much anger to express toward cancer... about its incessant presence in our lives, its suspected causes that could possibly be eradicated if our society was just better aligned with what actually keeps people healthy and less susceptible to contracting it, and its relentless siege on so many people I care about - the latest being my cousin Christine, but also my ex-stepmother Julie, who died of lung cancer just last month, and my neighbor of fourteen years, Karen, who lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last November... three of my people in six months.

But the words didn't come, my head and heart still muddled in grief and indignation. The next few days were full of the usual duties and responsibilities of my life; yet, they were also full of the usual gratitude for my life, so I decided to focus on the good and the grace, and attempted to replace my anger with acceptance.

When I thought more about Christine and the day of her passing, I considered what a gift the burden of my looking up doctors and making a few phone calls was compared to what she had to bear that morning... taking her last breath and saying goodbye to her children, parents, siblings, and entire earthly world up until that moment. I knew her burden was much greater than mine, and was not the gift that mine was - the gift of life, of possibility, of health, hope, and living and breathing to see another day.

But the more I contemplated it, the more I wondered if maybe her burden was a gift, in an entirely different way. Maybe being free of the pain she had been suffering was a gift, more than I could ever understand. Maybe surrendering and not having to fight anymore to live on this Earth was also a gift to her. Maybe ceasing to endure more chemotherapy, chronic discomfort, hair loss, unrelenting sickness, and emotional turmoil was the absolute greatest gift she could have received that day... a precious gift, all wrapped up in the burden of grief felt by those she was leaving behind.

me with my cousins Christine (far right) and her sister & brothers - 6/28/14

me with my cousins Christine (far right) and her sister & brothers - 6/28/14

I was unable to visit Christine while she was sick. Time, distance, severity of her symptoms, and honoring her wishes for privacy made it so. The same was true of my ex-stepmother Julie and dear neighbor Karen... both of them also choosing to share their experience of illness and dying with only their closest inner circle during their hardest days and most delicate moments.

And who am I, or anyone, to protest these wishes? Unless you are the one lying there, the circumstances around death don't come on your terms. As a bystander (however distant or close a friend or family member you may be), death doesn't follow your course of action or wishes for what you would like to see happen before it arrives. It comes when it comes, and those of us left behind must accept the terms of it, whether we like it or not. Sometimes in death, we don't get to chose what we say, don't say, hear, or don't hear. We aren't the ones dying, so we don't get to call the shots.

It's only in life, in relation to our own life, that we are truly granted the opportunity, choice, and power to say what we feel, express what we believe, and experience moments in which we get to hear and feel what we want, if we are lucky. We are mere spectators of other people's lives, unless they invite us to participate; so it is up to all of us to seize those moments and opportunities to intersect and connect with each other, and make our time here as full and fulfilling as possible. Indeed, there is no doubt we are all connected, but as we come into this world alone as our own being and entity, we also leave this world alone, free to go where our energy takes us.

When I received the details of Christine's memorial service, I discovered that, ironically, it had been scheduled for the morning of May 1st at the very time I had made my overdue gynecologist and mammogram appointments. Of course I've changed them to attend the funeral; but when I finally get to them next week, I will be thinking of Christine. I will remember how much she loved her life, and how she fought for it until she could no longer do so. I will remember her spirit, her determination, her loyalty, her dedication to her family, and the enduring legacy of love she left with them.

And when I get my annual mammogram each year after this, I know I will also think of her and remember how this test, however bothersome to schedule or painfully uncomfortable to go through, is another one of those gifts of burden I will happily bear to live this life I'm so grateful to live.

 

🙏   Rest in Peace Christine, Julie, Karen, and all the beautiful souls we have lost to cancer.

Love By Choice Rather Than Obligation

My Eternal Friend & ex-Stepmother Julie and Me - March 2000

My Eternal Friend & ex-Stepmother Julie and Me - March 2000

I just found out you died.

Died of cancer. The same lung cancer that almost killed you a couple years ago. I didn't know it had come back. If I did, I would have flown out to see you. I would have called you to see what I could do. To talk to you again. To say I love you for the last time.

But I didn't know. You didn't call me to tell me and I'm not sure why. Maybe you didn't want me to know... to worry, to be sad, to have to try to find the words to say goodbye.

I heard once the cancer came back it took you quickly. So quick that maybe there wasn't time for goodbyes - at least not with me, across all these miles. Or maybe you just wanted to slip away peacefully without having to say the farewells you weren't required or ready to say.

It makes sense, I guess. It just makes me sad to not have been given the chance to tell you what you meant to me or to thank you for all you had done for me. I think you already knew; but still, we humans like to say it. Saying it makes it more real. Saying it ensures us that our feelings and intentions are known. Unequivocally. Unmistakably. With no presumptions made, and no feelings implied or misunderstood.

So I am saying it now. Here, on this site full of my writing. A site you never visited, nor ever read one word from, but still were so proud it existed.

I gave my sister Rebecca some of the words on this page to read aloud at your memorial service in my absence. I wanted my feelings to be represented there so all the people there knew you mattered to others who weren't there. Others like me.

What she read was brief... not nearly everything that came out of me when I first heard you were gone. All the words that came out of me are here now, written with tears flowing and a heart full of gratitude for having known you.

When we spoke on the phone last summer, you were in full remission... your hair had grown back, you felt great and were riding your bicycle around town. You had just begun to explore the internet, googling and wikipedia-ing everything you wanted to know more about.

You didn't want to correspond via email, be friends on Facebook, or even visit this site to read some of the things I wrote. Although I wanted you to read what I had been writing for the past couple years, I respected your slow pace and understood your intention to not get overwhelmed or swallowed up by the abyss the internet has the potential to be. I thought about printing some of my best pieces out to mail to you; but it's funny how we all think we have infinite time to eventually do the things we don't have time to do in the moment.

So I am going to choose to believe that you are reading this somehow, feeling the sentiments and emotions I lay bear here, through the energy that is now you.

I will never see you in person again. The finality of that fact is a tough one. The last time I saw you was here in Malibu twelve years ago when you attended my wedding and were escorted down the aisle in procession as my stepmother and important family member.

Over the last decade, we were able to keep our relationship going, despite your divorce from my dad, the distance between our homes, and my being swallowed up by newborns and toddlers. Two or three lengthy, inspiring, and uplifting phone calls per year were all we had; but I was grateful for them.

One was always around your birthday in August, when we would talk about the summer we were having and our plans for the Fall... another was when you would call me at the start of each new year to gush about how fantastic my holiday card was, how beautiful my children were, or how the Christmas gift I sent you just couldn't be more perfect than it was... and a third was usually around Mother's Day, when you would thank me for the Mother's Day card I sent, and tell me how overwhelmed and blown away you were by my kindness and generosity for thinking of you as a mother.

Of course, I lost my mother to a car accident shortly after I lost you as my stepmother. The difference is, I never really lost you. Not until now. You became more of a mother to me after your marriage to my dad ended, and in the wake of my mom's death, than you ever presumed or intended to be when you were still married to him.

It's not like you took my mom's place after she died. You didn't want to do that; nor did I want you to try. The truth was, you couldn't do it even if you did try, and you knew that.

So instead of stepping into her role, you reinvented it. For yourself, and for me. You became a new entity... a mother by choice rather than obligation.

You gave me something unique that I hadn't had before - a nurturing presence who lifted me up, accepted me for exactly who I was, and loved me so unconditionally that I became stronger and braver and more self-assured because of it. You believed in me so much and was so proud of me in the most generous and selfless way, that I began to believe in myself more. So even though you weren't physically in my life, you were always there for me.

And I was here. Figuring things out, often floundering, succeeding and failing in motherhood, marriage, and life. Our calls seemed to always happen at the times when I needed your support, advice, and guidance the most. I definitely didn't call you as often as I wanted, to see how you were doing and check in on how life was for you. You loved it when I did, but you didn't need me to. You always made sure to tell me how much you loved and appreciated me, felt my love across the miles and held it close to your heart in the time between our talks.

You let me know the cards and photos of my family I sent were valued as some of your most treasured possessions. You expressed your regard for them through wildly enthusiastic and whimsical descriptions of where you placed them in your home - like on your refrigerator door so you would see them every time you made a cup of tea, or on your bedside table so you could see our smiling faces when you woke up - and these long, beautiful expressions of appreciation that you would generously give to me always left me with a deep and comforting feeling that I was truly cherished by you.

What an amazing gift you had. The ability to spread so much joy and love by just being YOU. Your true and unapologetic self was so honest, vulnerable, and sincere that I would bet any person who was lucky enough to know you, or be showered even once with your unconditional adoration and praise, was left a better person.

You were an enchanted, mystical and ethereal force of positive energy and light. You brightened my life with your encouragement, your sage advice, your enlightened wisdom, and your boundless love.

And although I will miss you deeply, your love will stay with me; and I will never lose what you meant to me.

Milking It

A two and half hour, traffic laden drive from the OC to LA warrants all windows down, sunroof open, bare feet, music playing, and a leg up while driving (even when wearing a dress). I drove down to Costa Mesa this morning for a dear friend's father's funeral, a fitting end to an already emotional week for me, after the tenth anniversary of my mother's death a couple days ago.

I drove most of the way home to Malibu on the clogged 405 freeway in silence and quiet reflection, thinking about life and how those we love will all inevitably leave us at some point on our life's journey, and how I knew that this was only one in a long procession of memorial services that I already had begun to attend, as my friends and I continue to lose the beloved people that came before us and reared us into this life. I also partly dreamed about just staying down there for the rest of the day, hanging out at the beach alone or calling a friend I hadn't seen in a while to meet for coffee, a smile, and a catch-up chat. Wouldn't that be lovely, I thought.

When I finally made it to the 10 freeway, traffic opened up, and so did I... shaking off my daydreams, I took a deep cleansing breath to remind me to stay in the present and seize the moment to enjoy the cool coastal breezes that were now rushing through my open car windows. As I emerged from the McClure tunnel onto Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, traffic slowed to a crawl again, and I noticed a couple people in the cars around me craning their necks and doing double takes at me.

Now, I am a 44 year old woman in a black funeral dress in an SUV on my way home to my husband and kids, not a 22 year old freewheeling chick in cutoffs and a bikini in a sports car heading to the beach; yet, I was getting some looks. I can only guess that I must have looked slightly strange and oddly comfortable with my bare leg exposed and leaning on my door while wearing that conservative black dress. My black heels were kicked off under me and my wind blown hair was no longer in its neat little bun.

I didn't care how it looked - it was as free as I was going to feel today, and I was milking it for all it was worth.

 

*Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook

Ten Years After My Life Before

The life I had before... I knew how to do that. I could do that forever. But now look at me. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all this?
— Erica Barry (in Something's Gotta Give)

Life is not a movie. No one knows this more than me. Still, just humor me here, okay?

The quote above is one of the most poignant and heartbreaking lines from a great scene in one of my favorite movies. It speaks volumes to so many of our fears of losing control, of stepping out of our comfort zone, of challenging the false egos and fabricated identities that we offer up to the world and hide behind to protect ourselves from the heartbreak of being vulnerable, of admitting we aren't fine, and of feeling and loving deeply.

Her sentiment, "What am I going to do with all this?" really resonates with me because I have felt it, not only in regard to romantic love (as she does in the film), but in regard to losing my mom... now ten years ago today.

When my mom died, so much came up in me that I was not prepared to deal with. I had my first child three months later, and my delay in fully grieving the loss of my mother until my daughter was safely outside of my body meant I was faced with embracing overwhelming joy and tremendous grief simultaneously.

WTF? Are you kidding me? How was I going to be elated about my beautiful and healthy baby girl while finally allowing myself to feel the intense anger and crippling sorrow of my mom being killed in a car accident?

What am I going to do with all this? All this feeling. All this hurt. All this love. All this disappointment. All this hope. All this sadness. What am I gonna do?

I couldn't navigate my way through it, and I didn't have the clarity, energy, motivation or support to know that I needed some sort of outlet, or some sort of outside help, to sort out the mess that was me, that sad woman buried somewhere beneath a bunch of diapers, baby wipes, burp clothes and boppy pillows.

So instead of real help, I used band-aids. I patched up my life as best I could with quick fixes, forced positive attitudes, running, yoga, clean eating, a bit of makeup, a healthy dose of denial, and the sheer abandonment of some of my deepest passions and strongest convictions. I created some semblance of a happy home life and convinced myself that it was all somehow, in some way, going to be okay the way it was now.

The way I was now.

It wasn't. I hadn't fully understood what these new roles I now was expected to fill (wife, mom, motherless daughter) would do to my former identity, or how my attempting to fill them would demolish all that I had thought of myself. Although it looked as if I played the roles pretty well from the outside, deep down I was partly broken, unhappy with myself, my ability to parent, my marriage, my choices, and my unwanted, unchosen, effed-up circumstances.

The difficulties I faced had rippling effects that forever changed the landscape of my life and led me down roads I never imagined I would venture. Roads of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that did not serve my life. States of mind and being (sadness, anger, bitterness, fear, self doubt, insecurity and shame, to name a few) that I expected to only visit temporarily - that is, while grieving my mom, caring for needy babies and toddlers at home, and fumbling through my domesticated, messy life - were instead the states of mind and being that I set up camp and lived in for years.

In the narrative of the film, Erica dealt with her "all this" by writing. She wrote and cried and cried and wrote, and out of all of the hurt and pain and love, she created something glorious, healed herself, and moved on with her life. In the narrative of my life, over seven years had passed before I discovered that writing would be my salvation for my personal "all this."

With every word I wrote, I began to dig out of my dark tunnel both toward the light within me and the light in my life that had been eluding me. The digging was painful, enlightening, intoxicating, scary, euphoric, and all together devastating; yet, it freed me from the purgatory between "my life before" and the life I knew wanted to have in the future.

So today, on this day that means so much yet hurts so much, I am grateful that these last ten years are over. Still, the dawn of this solemn anniversary of sorts didn't flip a switch and make all my problems magically disappear. There is no ten year statute of limitation on my pain, suffering or difficulty in life. Sure, you can look at all the photos of me as a mother these past ten years, posing with my kids through faces of love, smiles and happiness, and see part of my story. And those faces are all as authentic and real as anything. But, as we all know, snapshots taken and often shared with those outside our inner world are mere snippets of a much larger picture... and rarely do they tell the whole story.

Not having my mom here hurts still. The void she left has never been filled. I feel it most when I see the grandmothers of my kids' friends enjoying their grandchildren, and the moms of my girlfriends helping their daughters like they have been doing all their lives, being there for them and showing them the unconditional love and support that only a mother can give. I miss that. This is the part of my story that makes life challenging for me.

But it's just a story. Not a movie, but a story without a completed script or a guaranteed happy ending. We all have a choice to either indulge in our stories, let them control us and dictate how we live; or to acknowledge and honor the events that unfold in them with awareness, vulnerability and acceptance. Then all we can do is just write and cry and cry and write until we create a new chapter, heal ourselves from the plot twists that we didn't see coming, and move through the remainder of our story looking forward to the parts that have yet to be written.

He Runs

Pepperdine University 9/11 Memorial - Malibu, CA

Pepperdine University 9/11 Memorial - Malibu, CA

This morning we arrived at 10am for our annual visit... me, my two littles. I've been bringing them here since they were babies; going on nine years now. It's a tradition I cherish, yet it's one I wish didn't have cause to exist.

Upon arrival today, asking my nearly six year old son not to run, through these wide open stretches of grassy fields and rows of colorful flags, is laughable and utterly futile. Still, I try. I attempt to wrangle in his carefree spirit, his unbridled energy, his "live in the moment" attitude.

I do so out of respect to the other visitors there in reflective moments and quiet contemplation. I plead my case calmly and carefully, not to disturb any of them myself, but the ocean breezes muffle the sound of my restrained voice and thus carry my request silently away with them down the coast.

So, he runs. Up and down the rows and rows of flags. He knows this place. It's familiar. He remembers coming here right around his birthday each year, and it's comforting to him. Every September, he tells me he's excited when "the flags" go up, looking forward to our impending visit.

Even though I have told him why these flags are erected each year, and why we visit them year after year, the tragic reality for which they memorialize is a bit too much for him to fully wrap his brain around. Kind of like how the idea of even having to explain such a thing to my kids is a bit surreal for me.

Yet my older daughter used to do the exact same thing, as she too has been coming since she was only a year old. First walking slowly and holding on to the flagpoles for support as a little toddler, she inevitably began to run free through the flags just as he does.

Now almost ten years old, she is able to calmly walk alongside me and understand why we are there. She knows what happened on this day fifteen years ago and how it affected all Americans, our country, and the world.

I know, of course, that my son will come to understand this too, in time. But for now, for today, he runs.

#neverforget

 

*Originally posted exclusively on Instagram and Facebook.

The Line Between Holding On and Letting Go

My one day road trip to Santa Ynez this week had me facing an all too familiar task: dealing with stuff left by my mother when she died. It's been almost nine years now, and many of her keepsakes and photos are still waiting to be addressed... what to save, what to toss, what to preserve for our kids as remembrances of her, their grandmother they never met.

There we were, my younger sister and I, standing in front of a dusty storage unit, feeling hot in the humid, 90 degree weather and totally perplexed by the fact that we had to, yet again, decide the fate of more of our mother's things. As my sister had moved and was ridding herself of this unit for good, those items of mom's for which she had been the custodian all these years needed to be relocated. Just how much of it was going to land in the trash bin this time? Which items had time rendered less vital and easier to part with? Which items were going to move on to a new home where dust and cobwebs would rest upon them once again?

And for God's sake, HOW, after all these years, are we still doing this?

When the accident happened back in 2006, there were things my three siblings and I had to face immediately. The need to go through our mom's daily belongings - clothes, paperwork, personal effects - was unavoidable and painful, but necessary. Her home and the large storage space she rented were filled with antique furniture, film/tv memorabilia, press kits, VHS tapes with recorded "Entertainment Tonight" segments and Academy Awards ceremonies, and an extensive lineup of framed, celebrity autographed pictures and movie posters... all vestiges of her former lives as an entertainer's wife, an event planner, a celebrity personal assistant, and a Hollywood publicist.

The boxes upon boxes the four of us had to go through, jam packed with keepsakes, photos, mementos and random clutter, all reflected and symbolized her passions, her obsessions, her professional successes and personal accomplishments. She held on to A LOT, which made everything even more stressful and time consuming... I mean, we found stacks of unused personalized notepads from public relation firms she worked at twenty years prior. The firms were gone, the clients gone, but those notepads sure survived!

We knew we didn't need or want to keep most of this stuff to remember her by, yet all of it still had to be sorted through, passed on to friends, donated, sold, or thrown out. We soon discovered that disseminating sixty years of a person's life in one fell swoop was incredibly overwhelming, especially a life as unique and interesting as hers; and that doing so while grieving was even more so. I was also pregnant when she was killed in that car, and so was my brother's wife.

Our two sisters tirelessly helped with our newborns when they arrived shortly after the accident; and although these babies brought such joy to a time of darkness, we were all still hanging by a thin emotional thread. Nursing my daughter post partum with crippling grief, I found the reality of sorting through the remnants of my mother's life in the past tense totally surreal in the worst possible way. WHY did she have to die with so much stuff stored away and so many things unresolved? It was all just too much. 

And as such, her most treasured memories and valued earthly possessions were simply put aside. Those things that, right when she died, we just could not imagine parting with, yet still didn't know what the hell we were going to do with either. So we each took a portion of these "invaluable" valuables, agreeing to deal with them later when it wasn't all so fresh... when the pain had somehow lessened, and when time had put some distance between us and tragedy. Call it avoidance or procrastination – none of us were ready or in any shape to decide who was going to keep the family photo albums or inherit the heirloom china and silver.

So these put aside things were put aside, stored and untouched, for years. Most of them are still in "put aside" mode, as our lives of having more babies, parenting toddlers, and changing careers have been stretched so thin that making time to revisit the burden and the pain hasn't been a top priority.

This past Tuesday in Santa Ynez changed that. My sister could no longer put aside her lot of mom's indispensable treasures and together we were forced to finally deal with it. And as luck would have it, she seemed to have gotten the most priceless commodities of all - only a small portion of what we found was disposable. Damn. There I was, the chump who agreed to drive up there and give what needed to be saved a new home. After all, I still had my own portion of mom's priceless bounty to unearth and deal with at some point, and now I was agreeing to take on more... big chump.

We packed five cumbersome and dusty plastic storage containers into my car and went to toast a chapter being closed with a glass of wine from one of Santa Ynez's finest. It was still 80 degrees outside at 8:00pm when I stopped to take a breath and enjoy the sunset before continuing my long journey home. Although I knew what we did that day needed to be done, I was now weary of the work ahead to figure out what to do with it all.

The question pondered on the drive home? Where do you draw the line between holding on to material things to honor a life and preserve a legacy, and letting those things weigh you down, trap you in the past, and hinder your ability to thrive in the present or move forward in the future?

Here I had spent another day of my life sorting through her possessions. THINGS. Things that weren't even mine. Heavy things. High school and college yearbook heavy. Sorority scrapbooks, multiple 3-ring binders full of slide film, endless envelopes of photo negatives, stacks and stacks of unsorted 4x6 prints, loads of photo albums, a framed newspaper article from when she was crowned homecoming queen in college, and a myriad of old film reels and cartridges with home movies that were made before I was even born.

Stuff. Not people. Memories of people. Memories of times and places. Of loves and experiences that, for the most part, weren't mine. Of a life that wasn't mine. A life that was now gone, but that supposedly lives on because of the mere existence and proof of these "things"? These things that are now occupying my time and taking me away from living my life, being with my people, experiencing my loves. 

All I could think was, IF she had just lived to meet her grandchildren, maybe she would have hugged, kissed, and loved them so much that she would have no longer needed so many reminders of her past to comfort her. And IF she had just lived to find peace and happiness in this life, maybe she would have discovered that all the material things she held on to so tightly were not that important after all. And IF she had lived past sixty years old, maybe she would have grown into a wise old lady who would declare that none of it amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world, or some other nugget of wisdom a wise old lady would spout out, and would have resolved to purge her life of the clutter, downsize her most precious mementos to a manageable collection, and pass it on to us before dying a peaceful, natural, non-tragic death. 

IF.

If anything, at least she would still be here and we wouldn't be saddled with all of this.

Yet, it is less the gaining of her stuff and more the loss of her herself that troubles me. She was my mom... a daughter, a sister, a friend... a woman who created, enhanced, and affected lives. Five dusty old containers full of sentimental pieces of film and paper does not a legacy make. It may seem like the essential elements of her life are encapsulated in those old bins, but the truth of her life, of HER, lives inside of every person she touched. 

My children could comb through all of that stuff when they are older and they still won't know her. They still won't see her smile up close, hear her laugh in person, feel her arms around them. None of her kept things can replace what those kids have lost - what we all have lost.

So where does that leave the line?

Maybe it exists somewhere between holding on and letting go... between honoring a loved one's memory while not allowing their memories to suffocate us... between preserving their legacy by sharing their stories not recorded on film or paper while still saving the tangible items that best represent them and their life.

As for us? We exist somewhere between the sadness of losing them, the peace of acceptance, and the healing passage of time.

Why Dads Are Not Mr. Moms

Yes, I was one of those moms that started out believing that my husband should do and say and be just like me when it came to our children. When they were babies, I thought I held the premium on knowing how to care for them and I wasn't shy about making sure he, and everyone else, knew just that.

My mother died in a car accident when I was six month pregnant, just three short months before I was set to welcome our first child and her first grandchild into this world. So not only was I a postpartum and sleep-deprived new mommy, but I was also a severely grief-stricken one that desperately needed to feel in control of something in my life. Taking care of my newborn baby girl was that something.

daddy with daughter on his 1st fathers day back in 2007

daddy with daughter on his 1st fathers day back in 2007

As a result, I was very controlling and overbearing in relation to how my husband dealt with her. I believed I reigned supreme on all baby duties... from feeding, diapering, burping, rocking - you name it - I just knew better. From that skewed perspective, I expected my husband to take his cue from me or he was just going to be doing it all wrong.

It was a tough beginning to what was supposed to be a magical time. We got through it, and the rough times made way to healing and easier states of existence, enough so to want to have a second child. Yet surprisingly with the second, I still seemed to hang on to the idea that I was boss. Now we had a baby boy and a four-year-old girl, and a new sibling dynamic emerged that gave way to even more challenges to contend with. Good grief... it was almost worse the second time around!

Yet this time, I was not mourning the loss of my mother nor was I flying blind, now a seasoned veteran of motherhood... kinda. Blame it on the ever present lack of sleep or postpartum hormones run amok, but something in me still held strong to the idea that, since I was the one who gave up so much of the day-to-day reality of my previous life, and I was the one who stayed home ALL day, EVERY day with these children, then I deserved some sort of free pass to dictate what my husband should do in relation to them. After all, he was gone all day! I figured that acknowledging this truth would be obvious to him and perfectly reasonable since, of course, I knew best.

Great in theory... disaster in reality.

As you can imagine, he didn't appreciate or agree much with my ideology.  As a committed new dad, he wanted to do things his way, on his time, using his instincts and opinions, and he resented me trying to micro-manage his parenting. Conversely, I felt his blatant disregard for my "expertise" and insight into the kids' behavioral patterns and preferences was egotistical and irresponsible.

I tried to control everything to such a degree that I ended up getting the opposite of what I was seeking. Instead of heeding my advice and guidance, he firmly protested against it, and turned a deaf ear to most anything I had to say about the kids' care. He approached dealing with them on his own terms with little regard for my opinion. Not the best way to nurture a "we're in this together" team vibe as parents or to display a united front to the kids. It didn't do wonders for our marriage either.

Today, over eight years into parenting, I have since conceded to the fact that my husband has his own unique gifts and attributes that he brings to the table that aren't intrinsic in me - and that's a good thing. I see how some of his strengths can benefit my children as much as certain strengths of mine can. I recognize how the things that don't come naturally to me seem to be instinctual to him, and vice versa. He too has been able to see that there is method to my madness; and we have both come to accept that conceding to the other in certain situations is for the greater good. 

daddy coaching daughter's softball team this spring

daddy coaching daughter's softball team this spring

You could say we are two halves of the perfect parent, if there is such a thing, which I know there is not. And even though we still butt heads at times about how to do things regarding our children, we try to be respectful of each other's opinions and feelings even when we are on opposing sides of an issue. 

Even so, I don't conceive it ever to be completely smooth sailing for us; and I admit I envy those couples who are more compatible when it comes to their parenting ideologies. However, I now see that his freedom to experience parenting authentically for himself and to contribute his own thoughts and ideas to the mix is vital for our family's harmony. I also know that not allowing him that freedom, but instead continuing to demand he behave like a carbon copy of me (a Mr. Mom of sorts), is not in anyone's best interest, least of all the kids.  

I feel there is greater benefit for them when we both are able to be who we are: and for us, it's mom and DAD. And them discovering and accepting that not everyone thinks alike or agrees on everything... well that's a lesson in life that is never too early to learn.

*Article as featured on the GoodMenProject.com

Eight Years With, Eight Years Without

Eight years ago today my mom died. In an instant, a car crashed into another car and she was gone.

I had just spoken to her a couple days before. She was on a road trip with her best friend celebrating her 60th birthday weekend and had called me from a baby shop, excited to tell me about the crib bedding she had found for my soon-to-be-born baby girl. Using verbal imagery, she exuberantly tried to sell me on this expensive, over the top crib set from a store hundreds of miles away; something that I could not return or exchange if I didn't find it as perfect and dreamy as she did. As she was not known for her practicality when it came to shopping, I gently declined it before a bad cellular connection ended our call prematurely. No goodbyes were exchanged. I didn’t bother trying her back, figuring I would just talk to her the next day, not knowing that would be the last time I would speak to her.

I couldn't reach her the next day on her birthday, and had to leave my wishes in a message. She didn’t call back, probably having too much fun to bother. The day after her birthday, I got a call from the road, but it wouldn’t be from her. Instead it was from the officer on the scene of the disaster she had just been in, saddled with the duty of telling me “your mother didn’t survive the accident.” Six months pregnant and shellshocked, it was the darkest day of my life.

I’ve now lived the past eight years without my mother, and those same eight years with the void she left… Eight years with my daughter and the overwhelming happiness, intense love, and joyous fulfillment of being her mom, and eight years without my most loyal supporter and eager babysitter-to-be… Eight years without hearing my kids call my mom “Grandma,” and eight years with a pervasive sense of loss… loss of the vision of how I expected my life to unfold, loss of the delusion of control over my life and what may happen in it, and loss of an emotional bond that was so embedded in the fiber of my being that I have had to fight and flounder to find my way to live without it.

Yet, my mom was not my hero. She was not someone I emulated or wanted to be like. She was fragile, she was damaged, and she was, at times, hopelessly hopeless. Her life disappointed her in a way that she found hard to manage, hard to accept, and hard to overcome. She had an extremely rough time of it, not because she had a wholly rough life, but because she perceived it as rough and received it as rough. Her perspective skewed heavily to the glass half empty and try as she might, she rarely was able to get that damn glass full. 

My siblings and I grew up under the weight of this, which shaped us and cursed us with ingrained habits and programmed behaviors developed throughout our childhood that we have had to work (and still work) to overcome as adults. It is the reason that, in my 20’s and 30’s, I focused my energy on how not to be like her. I have since realized that the more you concentrate on what you don't want, the more you draw it to you. So I don't do that anymore.

But it wasn't until my mom died that I fully realized most everyone else she came in contact with had a very different perception of her. I know they had to have seen her dark side, but I think most of them chose to focus on her more endearing qualities, maybe because she often was just so fun to be around. She was cleverly sarcastic, generous to a fault, wickedly daring and inappropriately funny. She was always up for a drink, a smoke, a laugh, a party, an adventure. Adored by her friends, treasured by her colleagues, and loved by her family, my mother succeeded more than she failed in lighting up the lives of those around her with her charm, beauty, and intoxicating likability. This was never more apparent than on the day of her memorial, when the chapel was bursting at the seams with people from all stages of her life, all there to mourn the loss of one of the kindest and most lovely spirits ever to walk this Earth.

I wish she could have been there to see it. To see all the people whose lives she had forever touched. She would have loved it; and for a day or so afterward, she would have felt like the luckiest woman in the world. 

Sometimes I feel she was laid to rest when she was to spare her of all the pain and disappointment she so often felt. I like to believe she was truly happy in the moment she left us... on an adventure, discovering new places, escaping her troubles and enjoying the present - free from the pain of the past and worry of the future. Just living it up. Living it up to the end. If you knew her, you would agree that that may have just been her perfect ending.

Booby Trap

As a new mother, many of the decisions I had confidently and unequivocally thought I made while pregnant were turned on their heads by LIFE.

Life happened, as it so often does, in such a way that unexpectedly altered the course of my existence, and my mothering journey, forever.

"I Belong With You" by  Katie M. Berggren

"I Belong With You" by Katie M. Berggren

In my previous post, Milk & Cookies, I briefly touched on the fact that one of those self-assured decisions I made during pregnancy was to breastfeed. I wrote that as a self-proclaimed, "post-partum, hormonally-imbalanced, sleep-deprived, and geographically-isolated newborn mother," nursing my two kids was very challenging for me, especially the first time around. What I didn't go into in that post was why.

When my baby girl was born, nursing didn't come as naturally as the naive and enthusiastic pregnant version of me had hoped. After a couple weeks, I was in over my head, completely at the mercy of the most demanding, albeit precious, task master.

My daughter's unrelenting need for mother's milk, and my unrelenting sense of duty to provide it for her, left me feeling (and looking) like the walking dead. Although no one but she was expecting me to keep it up, it was my fervent, almost maniacal, penchant for following through with my intention, coupled with my need to maintain control of as much as possible at the time, that kept me from quitting early, despite my many notions to chuck it all and buy a big tub of baby formula.

Riding the waves of latch problems, breast engorgement, nipple soreness, plugged ducts, and monotonous pumping, I vowed to stick with it, despite the extreme discomfort. Fighting in the trenches, I was winning and losing battles left and right; but committed to the war effort as a whole. My breast pump became both my nemesis and my salvation. I was not going to shirk giving my baby this gift of my abundant milk supply, even though no one would blame me if I did. No one, that is, but me.

I can see how this may sound like a dramatization of the facts, or simply a case of a really negative attitude on my part; especially to those whose nursing journeys were enjoyable or even just moderately challenging. But I assure you it is not, at least not from where I was existing back then.

Living in a very rural coastal area, just feet from the ocean but miles from any conveniences, none of our close neighbors were home during the day nor did any of our family members live nearby to help or relieve us. My husband, who worked all day, five days a week, and an hour drive away, helped me as much as he could. Yet I ended up fending for myself and my baby most days, isolated and alone.

This rough situation was made a thousand times harder by the unexpected and unthinkable tragedy that had occurred just a few months earlier. I was six months pregnant when I got the phone call that my mom had been in a car accident. A couple frantic calls later, the officer on the scene informed me that she had not survived the crash, having been killed instantly on impact.

Being the first in the family to hear the news, I was saddled with the responsibility of breaking the news to her three other children, her mother, her sister, her entire world.

How was I possibly going to do this amidst my own shock and disbelief? After telling my younger sister and older brother, they agreed to disperse the news to the others. Still, those were the two worst phone calls I have ever had to make.

The remaining three months of my pregnancy were somewhat surreal. I grieved, but not much. I consoled others in the face of their overwhelming grief. I spoke at her funeral... composed, resolved, and shedding little to no tears. I was mostly numb. I was so afraid that if I really let myself feel the depth of my sadness, my baby's well being would be compromised; and I just couldn't take that risk. So, I didn't feel it. I wouldn't. I couldn't.

When my daughter was born, I was elated. A sense of happiness and purpose I had never experienced enveloped me. Then quickly, as the days went by and the nursing challenges, exhaustion, and hormonal shifts set it, all bets were off. Finally.

I started to cry. A LOT. And loudly. I got angry. I yelled. I screamed. I couldn't understand why my mom, who was so excited to finally become a grandma, wasn't going to get to be one after all. My grief, juxtaposed with my joy, together created the most imbalanced reality I have ever lived. Grieving the loss of the woman that nurtured me my first months of life, while I nurtured my own daughter through hers, left me jumbled.

I found it difficult to fully embrace and enjoy my new role amidst the sorrow. I was a motherless daughter living in a world I didn't recognize - one with my daughter but without my mother. Their lives never intersected on this Earth, and they never would. This truth was difficult to accept, and the pain of it made that first year both a blur and one I will never forget.

That's the why of it. It isn't pretty. It isn't sunny. But it's a big part of what makes me, me, today. It shaped me in ways I don't think I would have been otherwise. My mother's death continues to challenge me to this day. When it comes to not living in fear of suddenly losing those I love, or not being afraid of taking risks for fear of something bad happening… I am still a work in progress.

Although not always successful at it, I strive to let go and surrender to what comes - no matter what comes - and to live with joy, hope, positivity and fortitude. I think motherhood is the ultimate teacher of these things; so I guess I am in the right classroom.

 

*POSTSCRIPT: The circumstances surrounding my breastfeeding challenges were unique to me, and as you read above, I have many specific and varied reasons why it proved extremely difficult for me.  I got through it hope and perseverance; but mostly by just plain, day-to-day surviving. 
However, this description of my personal experience does not in any way reflect my opinion about breastfeeding as a choice.  It is important to make this clear because it was such a significant thing for me to accomplish; one of which I am still very proud. Also because, truthfully, I would do it again, hands down, no question, if I had to do it all over again.
Even as hard as it was the first time around with my daughter, I was committed to giving my son the same benefits of my breast milk, no matter the challenges I would possibly face. I am happy to share that it did go much smoother with my son, although I had to contend with a toddler while doing it!
So if asked, my advice to any prospective mom that is considering breastfeeding is to DO IT. Just try it, be patient with it, persist with it, find the joy in it if it is in the cards for you to be a nursing mother. And be sure to enlist the help of as many people as you can to assist you in any way necessary to help you accomplish your breastfeeding goals.  
I believe it is worth it, and that it will be something you will be happy you did. Even with all my issues, I am SO glad I did it! 

For more information and support on breastfeeding, please visit bestforbabes.org.