I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: December, 2014

Lucky

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A Daughter’s Eulogy for Her Mother

Yesterday, I gave this eulogy for my mom, with tears.  I wish she had been there to hear it.

I am wearing a dress that my mother designed and made. I couldn’t find the one that I remember as my favorite one. This one is inspired by the Mola textiles of Central America. She thought their patterns and designs were delightful.

I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever.

No one loves you like your mother. When she passes on, there is a certain sense of being adrift, unmoored, without the foundational support she has provided your whole life. While she knows you, at least your childhood you, how well do you know her? How well can we know our mothers?  Our mother’s life before us is mysterious. As we get older and she gets older, we become more interested, keenly interested, in her history, her story. Because we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being.  Learning about her, we learn about us.

So, in the last few years, sensing that time was short, I probed more, feeling urgency to know what I can of her, piecing together my impression, my story, of her.

My mother was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1922 on February 6th. Her father was a physicist at the University of Wisconsin where he is known for developing radio transmissions and starting the first radio station in the nation, WHA. He died suddenly of an aneurism when my mother was just 7.  She told me, just recently, how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning.  Clearly there was a special bond between him and her.  On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room.  She never saw him again.  What a devastating loss for her – which surely had an impact all her life.

Her mother was (I am guessing) a capable, no-nonsense woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression.  She took on boarders, taught school, and probably did not have a lot of time for my mom.  My mother had an older brother who must have been a bit of a surrogate father to her.

I think my mother was shy, a bit lonely … and very smart.   Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia.  She was good at school so she just kept going to school.  She kept going until she received her Ph.D. in Psychology AND Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment… for a woman… in 1950.

I was always so impressed and proud that my mother had a Ph.D. A few years ago, I looked up her doctoral dissertation and brought it with me on one of my visits. I surprised her with it. Hey Mom, I found your Ph.D.! Here it is! The title is: The Use of Rating Scales for Emotional Tone of TAT Stories. She looked at me dumbfounded and burst out, “Bah! What a bore!” It was hilarious. And a reminder that our outward accomplishments are not the sum of who we are and not necessarily what make us happy.

I did read her dissertation and a follow-up article that she published. While the statistical charts and academic mumbo-jumbo are confusing to a non-statistician, the theme of her research is interesting and says a lot about what she found interesting. TAT stands for Thematic Apperception Test. It is a psychological test where vague and ambiguous pictures are shown to people and then the subject tells a story about the picture. The point of the test is that you can tell a lot about the subject by the story they tell. My mom’s research was about teasing out whether you could find an objective scale for describing the level of response and emotional tone to the stories; whether the sex of the person made a difference; whether the image on the card made a difference; and whether telling the story orally or in writing made a difference. In other words, clear away the statistics, and you realize that she was interested in people and their stories. By the way, she found that the stories women told were sadder than men’s. And stories told orally had a higher level of emotional tone than stories told in writing. Some things never change. She would have loved a storySLAM.

After Wisconsin, she began her working career with Teaching/Research positions at UNC/Chapel Hill and at Yale. After a disastrous second marriage, she relocated to Washington, DC, taking on a job as Grants Administrator with the National Institute of Mental Health, where she worked for 34 years from 1959-1993. She organized committees of scientists who met quarterly to review applications for research funding. They decided who got funded. She loved this job. It had flexible hours and kept her on top of all the latest scientific research and provided her with the opportunity to work with intelligent and like-minded scientists.

In 1960, she met my dad, through a mutual friend while playing chamber music together. Their courtship was a happy time. My father describes her as very beautiful. They were married on January 14, 1961 and they settled first Washington, DC, which is where I was born in 1962. They then moved to the house where I grew up and where my father still lives. They shared a love of music and art and acquired a personal collection of modern art they both enjoyed.

In this time of loss and reflection, I have had so many memories and family stories come washing over me.  One favorite story involved an early and lifelong heroine of mine, Julia Child. My mother embraced the cultural trend toward more sophisticated food and cooking that Julia Child introduced. One of the stories they tell is that after watching Julia Child on television, I marched down to the kitchen and started banging away on the pots and pans. She encouraged my interest in food and cooking and tried many new recipes herself. She ate everything I cooked and pronounced it entirely delicious.  She was my biggest fan.

Every year, my mother would buy season tickets to The Washington Ballet. They performed at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. We would go on Saturday afternoons and we saw everything, from The Nutcracker to The Prodigal Son (with Edward Villella and Margot Fonteyn.) At intermission we would walk to the corner where there was a pharmacy and I would get a little treat. My love for theater and dance began with these Saturday afternoon outings with my mother.

She was also my tv buddy. Back in the old days, when there were only 4 channels and each program was only on at a specific time, it was an event to watch a show. On Saturday nights, when my father was playing string quartets, my mother and I would watch the full Saturday night line-up, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I got to stay up late to watch the Carol Burnett Show. And of course, Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights.

But perhaps the most significant gift my mother passed on to me is a love of reading. She read out loud to me all the time when I was little. The first books I remember are the Winnie the Pooh books. She also read me the George MacDonald books, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. But my all-time favorite was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which I read over and over again. When I was old enough, I became the reader and she the listener. We read Gone with the Wind, MiddleMarch and all of Jane Austen. Books remained a bond, a point of connection between us. In the later years, when she really no longer wanted anything, I would give her books. All the books I wanted to read but seemed to have no time for any more. She taught me to appreciate language. And women. Our favorite books were books written by women with plucky heroines. I learned so much about being a woman through these wonderful books. She was the first feminist I knew. Interested in women and the stories they tell.

When I knew my mother, she had finally embraced her creative side and was a talented artist with notable expertise in fabric arts, especially knitting and needlecrafts. She designed many beautiful garments and accessories and volunteered at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. I frequently accompanied her and dutifully learned how to knit and do needlepoint, though it wasn’t until much later that I appreciated these activities and her skill at them. After she retired from the N.I.M.H., she volunteered as a docent at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She always told me that if she had not been a scientist, she would have been an artist. She loved color and was always intrigued by unusual combinations of color.

I had a couple of heart-to-heart conversations with her in the last few years, trying to ask the questions I hadn’t asked and say the things I wanted to say. I kept wondering if there was anything more she wanted to do, before she died. She always said no. She was content, finally, to just be. Perfect just as she was.

When someone you love dies, it makes you wonder what does happen in death? Where do our souls go? Why are we here? Without religious tradition and faith, these questions can be troubling, leading to existential angst. These questions can also drive an urgency to live this life with meaning. Because, what if, there is nothing after this life? Better make this one count.

I believe that we are here for those sacred moments of connection and peace. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I know where our souls go. They are part of us who live on.

Shortly after my mother died and I had returned to New York, I was remembering that she had this gardenia plant when I was quite little. She nurtured this gardenia, so proud when it bloomed. The scent of the gardenia blooms was sweet and intense, permeating the house. As this memory was rolling around in my mind, I arrived home from work where there was a box waiting for me. I opened the box and GASPED. It was a gardenia.

Mysterious.

I feel my mother. Her body may have stopped breathing but she lives inside me. I really feel her with me, supporting me with love as I breathe in and breathe out.

During one of these later heart-to-hearts, I asked her if she believed in God. She simply said, “Too mysterious.”

I asked her if she had any regrets or and advice for Kiera, for Aidan. She acknowledged the shyness of her younger self and said, “Be more social.”

When I asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell me, she just smiled and said, “I’m so lucky.”

Mom, we’re the ones who are lucky to have had you love us so much.

I love you Mom.

Crying With Strangers

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Beautiful Tears

According to the buzzy factoids that bombard my FaceBook feed, there are three types of tears: basal, reflex, and psychic, the emotion-based tears. Psychic tears have a chemical composition that includes protein-based hormones that function as a natural painkiller. That is why it is such a cathartic release when we are able to cry.

Beautiful tears

I cried a lot when my mother died. I was so sad to see her die. I was so honored to be with her when she died. But it was and is my father’s overwhelming grief and anguish that breaks my heart. This from the awkward and undemonstrative man who never cried. Like the Swedish farmer joke, he loved his wife so much he almost told her.

Stop the tears

After she died, I had to return to my busy busy life, making lunches, pleasing clients, doing laundry. You know, the important stuff of life. My family, my friends, my colleagues offered genuine sympathy, hugs, love, and support. I was surprised and so, so moved at the outpouring from all walks of my life. But I didn’t cry. Even though I was sad, it felt like it was time for her to go. Even though I felt her loss, it was a relief.

Stranger tears

Then one morning on my way to work, I ran into a casual acquaintance on the street. When I told her that I had recently lost my mother, she wrapped me up in a big bear hug. I cried. I hardly know her! Somehow the spontaneous hug and this sense that she knew deep in her soul what it was like to lose your mother brought out the release. After that, everything set me off. Arranging for donations to my mother’s alma mater, I cried speaking to the young woman on the other end of the phone, a stranger who was probably a current college student, as I told her the story of  how extraordinary my mother was, earning her Ph.D. in 1950.

No tears

I am still holding it together when I’m with my most loved ones. Why? Too embarrassed? Afraid of judgment? Am I not allowed to cry? Afraid I will fall into an uncontrollable abyss? After all, my days of being depressed are behind me. I am not going back there. But. Shouldn’t we be able to cry with the people with whom we are most intimate? Why do we put up our guard? The risk of vulnerability is greatest with the people who know us best. If we didn’t have good emotional role models then there is even more reason to perfect that suit of armor. It is through writing and journaling, yoga and meditation that I feel I can peel away the layers of armor and reveal my hidden self, emotions and all.   When I reveal what is hidden, I connect.  It is these moments that remind me that we are all connected and that the love between people can occur anywhere. With all the complicated bonds and history behind family relationships, perhaps it makes perfect sense that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections are easier with strangers. Maybe the delineation between family and friends and strangers needs to soften. How can we change the habits and patterns grooved into family life so that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections can happen with family and friends?

Allow the tears

This Christmas, I want to be more open and emotional with my loved ones, showing them my heart and giving them my love. Love is what is sacred and holy. Merry Christmas. May you shed beautiful tears.

Photo Credit:  Deep thanks to Rose-Lynn Fisher for the use of her beautiful photo of beautiful tears, Tears of Grief.

 

Forgetting to Breathe

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The Aftermath

The dreams have begun. Mainly anxiety nightmares. Like the one where the memorial service is happening for my mother and I am not ready. Confused at the presence of many people I don’t know and frantic that I haven’t written the eulogy I want to write. (I wish I had shared my blog with her.) Like the one where my new plants that seem so beautiful and alive are actually infested with microscopic bugs.  (Ugliness lurks, even when the outward appearance seems to thrive.)  Like the one where I am navigating an avalanche, struggling upstream on an iceberg. If I fail, I die. (No interpretation required.)

And then there was the one Friday night where I am sitting on a bench between my old father of my now and my vibrant mother of my youth. She is wearing one of her fantastic colorful handknit dresses and has black hair without a speck of gray. She is speaking to me, but no sound is coming from her voice. I urgently tug at my father, “Dad! Look! Mom’s alive! She’s speaking!” I am the bridge between the past and the now, between the physical and the spiritual, between my mother and my father.

It doesn’t help that it’s the holidays. The busiest time of year. Not the most joyful time of year. Bah humbug. I had promised to enjoy the holidays. That was before my mother died. Sigh. The finality of death seems, well, final. How can I possibly enjoy the holidays now?

How can I not? There is so much to live for! So I talk to myself. Fight with myself. Pretty much every waking minute is a negotiation with myself that goes something like this:

Oh my god, I have so much to do! It’s never going to get all done.

Remember, Sally, every year it gets done.

But this year is different. I’m too tired and sad.

Breathe and do what you can.

Ack! My father is coming for Christmas. Now, I’ve got to deal with my father. Is this some joke that God is playing on me?

Well, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, our most challenging family members are the most powerful spiritual teachers of our life.

What am I going to get him for Christmas?  What am I going to get everyone for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas?

Nothing! I hate Christmas!

My kids love Christmas. Pull it together. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Smile. Breathe. Go to yoga.

I don’t want to go to yoga. I’m too tired to breathe. I’m too busy to breathe.

Why do we resist doing what feels good for our souls?

Oh my god, I have so much to do! I want to go back to bed.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can.

Remember, Sally, you can choose to not be anxious and depressed. It’s not your go-to place any more. Choose life. Choose joy.

The finality of death can seem final, but life goes on. Clearly, not the same life as before. The new normal is one where my mother is no longer “declining,” but gone. The new normal is one where my father is alone and cognitively not sharp. I am his only child and feel love and sadness for what he is experiencing and anxiety about what the future holds and, frankly, some dismay and anger and selfishness. (Those evil bugs infesting my beautiful growth.) What if I don’t want to take care of him? The new normal is one where my children are growing up and leaving home. What is next for me, for my family, for this next phase of my life? The new normal is one where my mother lives in me and my dreams. Death is not final. Death changes life.

When I am sleepless from a nightmare, in the grip of anxiety, I tell myself not to shut down and close myself off. I can tackle the avalanche coming my way.

Remember to breathe.

Breathing In and Breathing Out

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Alive

The death of my mother has cracked open my heart. With every emotion heightened, I feel impatient with the numb carelessness with which most of us approach our day-to-day lives. The holiday shopping honking at the slower and more cautious driver; the selfish crush of the commuter horde to find a seat; the eye-roll at the different: the slower aged elder, the awkward special needs child, the sad one. “Life is short! Life is precious!” I want to scream. We’re all going to the same final destination. Please be kind along the way.

I returned to New York and my life on Thursday. The familiar routine of work and household chores a distraction. But I find I don’t want to merely return to normal. I want to feel everything. I want to feel the sadness, the loss, the love, the compassion. It makes me feel human. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

Isn’t the breath amazing? We take it for granted, but it is what makes us alive from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

When I got home Thursday night, I shared the story of my mother’s last breath with my son. I cried. He cried. I held him. He said that he had been wanting to cry but couldn’t. I know that feeling. It’s painful. The chest tightens and constricts. You feel like your heart is going to break but you are too controlled, too embarrassed, too remote to let it go. Crying that night made him feel better. Catharsis. I whispered, “Live your life.” The best way to deal with death is to live.

My yoga practice has been immense comfort to me this week. Moving my body, focusing my mind, and breathing in and breathing out has kept me grounded and open-hearted. Yesterday, we focused on a sutra that goes something like: “The self must lift the self.” In other words, only you can make yourself feel better. We noticed the areas of our bodies and minds that were dull and brought energy to these areas so that every cell was shimmering with the breath. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

In this time of grief and loss, all kinds of random memories have come flooding back. I was remembering that she had this gardenia plant when I was quite little. She nurtured this gardenia, so proud when it bloomed. The scent of the gardenia blooms was sweet and intense, permeating the house. I was thinking that we should have gardenia flowers at her memorial service. As this was rolling around in my mind, I arrived home from work on Friday where there was a box waiting for me. I opened the box and GASPED.

It was a gardenia.

Mysterious. Awesome. WILD!

I feel inhabited by my mother. Her body may have stopped breathing but she lives inside me. I really feel her with me, supporting me with love as I breathe in and breathe out.

The Breath

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Good-Bye Mom

Dying is a harrowing experience for the ones not dying. I wonder what it feels like to be the one who is dying? What was she thinking? Anything? What was she feeling? Pain? Fear? Sadness? Relief? I hope and pray it was like slipping into Savasana. Please let it be so.

On Saturday, I called the hospital to see if I could get a more clear idea of what was happening with my mother. My father had been providing contradictory information to me for the last few days and seemed frighteningly unsure. The case worker got on the phone and said, quite clearly, “You need to get here today.” Well then. It must really be time. I arrived in the evening. She was having trouble breathing, so they were administering morphine, which reduces pain but also reduces the panicked sensation of not being able to breathe thus slowing down the pace of breathing in and breathing out. Morphine was all she was on at that point, having been transitioned to palliative care. It was the end. I spoke to her and held her hand but she was quite out of it. I debated spending the night at the hospital, but my father was so upset and confused that I decided to go back to the house to be with him.

In the middle of the night, not sleeping, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. The time was here. No time to hold back. But I didn’t have anything to say. The desire for questions and regrets and what if’s was gone. I didn’t have all my questions answered. I didn’t tell her everything. But it didn’t matter any more.

When I was very little, my mother read out loud to me. The first books I remember her reading to me were the Winnie the Pooh stories. It occurred to me that she might be able to hear me and to be more aware of what was going on than I realized so I combed through the house looking for these old books and found the books of poems by A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I left my sad and exhausted father at home and arrived early at the hospital Sunday morning.

I spoke to the doctor who was mercifully kind – so kind – and clear and blunt. She is dying. It will be soon. There is no hope. We will make her comfortable. (An infection due to complications following a hip fracture led to sepsis.) Doctors: we are overwhelmed and beg you for your clear guidance. Overcome with guilt and doubt, wondering if we should do more, it was a bitter relief to be told that there was no more to do.

Left alone with my mom. I gazed at her, my beautiful old frail mom who I have been mourning for so long. The vibrant and exceptionally accomplished woman who I knew as my mother had faded many years ago.

I began reading. The matter-of-fact tone and silly language of the poetry was so familiar and so enjoyable. I read a poem. Paused and sat quietly.   Held her hand. Read another poem. Took another break. And so the morning went.

I offered her Reiki. I don’t really feel like a “certified” Reiki practitioner. It always seems mysterious and slightly ridiculous for a card-carrying intellectual to find such comfort in Reiki, but if ever there was time for me to have faith, this was it. I felt the energy in my soul and I offered it to her, praying that it ease the transition between the physical world and the spiritual world.

This is what I said to her that day:

I love you Mom. You can go now. I am happy. You don’t need to worry about me. I will take care of Daddy. You are the best mom. It is because you are a good mom that I am a good mom. I have two amazing children. Thank you. I love you.

Later that afternoon, I brought my father to the hospital. He was overcome, broken-heartedly exclaiming “Oh Sweetheart!” It broke my heart to see my stoic father lose his beloved sweetheart of 54 years. She was more agitated, less comfortable but more alert. She opened her right eye half way and stared and stared and stared at each of us. We just gazed in each other’s eyes. She drifted out of consciousness and we took a dinner break. We returned that evening and she seemed quite out of it. The lovely nurse assured us she was aware we were there and was calmer when we were there. So we sat quietly holding her hand. After about an hour, she breathed out and did not breathe in again. Then her breath returned. Not for long. Gradually, her breath faded away.

I love you Mom.

 

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