I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: Being A Daughter

Sacred Privilege

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Sacred Duty

This is me. At around 7:45 on the morning of November 8th. Exhilarated! I was so thrilled to have voted for Hillary Clinton, the woman I was so sure was going to be President that I insisted on documenting the historic event with a photo. I am wearing my most patriotic Clinton-esque red pantsuit jacket.

Quaint, eh? About as quaint as the Clinton-Kaine pin my daughter gave me to commemorate the occasion. I carry it around as a talisman, but I worry that it’s just a kitschy souvenir.

My hand is on my heart – pledging allegiance – and showing off the ring I am wearing. My mother’s ring. She was with me that day.

It is from my mother that I got my political grounding.

My mother was a Democrat. On Election Day, she would take me with her into the voting booth and show me how it worked. I felt very grown up, very excited, and very proud. It was a sacred privilege, voting.

My mother was the first feminist I knew. She was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine. Literally. She got every issue of the magazine as long as it existed. It’s one of many many magazines that I grew up with in a household where words mattered. No wonder I made a career in magazines.

My mother believed that women were equal to men (actually, I think she believed that women were better than men) and that I could be anything. ANYTHING! She encouraged me to go to Bryn Mawr College so that I would be with other intelligent and serious women who wanted to make a difference. We women wanted to matter. I wanted to matter. To make a difference. To contribute something important to the world.

Sometimes I feel like Hillary must feel. Hard-working, over-prepared, focused on the details, only to be bested by some guy who shoots from the hip. Haven’t we women all been there? When will it stop?

This election was the first election my mother was not alive and did not vote. It seemed fitting that it was the first election in which my daughter could and did vote. Continuing the democratic lineage. Excited and proud.

It is a sacred privilege, voting. Have we forgotten how fortunate we are to live in a democracy? Did we take voting for granted? Our vote does matter, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

The shock that such a selfish and cavalier man could beat such an experienced and intelligent woman has left me with no words.

In the five weeks since, I have reflected on how I want to handle this mind-boggling reality. I alternate between outrage, fear, disbelief, and attempts at patience and optimism. A Democrat, like my mom, I tend to be pragmatic and centrist, always a diplomat, never particularly active. Careful to try to understand both sides and all points of view. Too conflict avoidant to be provocative.

When I am optimistic, I wonder if the outcome of this election is just what we needed to shake us all up. To create a constructive political movement that will lead to positive change.

The week of the election, the Dalai Lama appeared in my dream. He counseled me to distinguish between being concerned and being caring. It’s all about caring, he told me.

Wise words, don’t you think? Being concerned is intellectual and kind of negative and judgmental. Being caring is active and personal and hands on. Caring is positive. I think of that every day. How can I be positive, constructive and caring in an impactful way? What kind of example do I want to set for my children? What political legacy will I leave them?

For now, I have decided to choose and focus on a few issues that are meaningful to me and that honor my mother and her political legacy to me.

  • Women’s Rights. Particularly reproductive freedom. I am Pro Choice.
  • Freedom of the Press. I never thought I would feel the need to fight for the First Amendment.
  • The Environment. After all, if we destroy our world, then it doesn’t really matter who is President, does it?

I don’t quite know all the ways I will act to support these issues. I am not used to feeling that it is imperative that I act. I do know that I will keep caring, peace, and kindness top of mind – like the Dalai Lama.

And, I will not take our democracy for granted. Believing in democracy is not quaint. Voting is a sacred privilege. It is our sacred duty to protect our democracy, our right to vote.

I Learned How To Repress From A Master

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Learning to Hug

My father doesn’t know how to hug. When we embrace, he pulls me towards him so I am off balance and I feel like we are both going to fall down. Or, more typically, he won’t allow a full body embrace, holding me at arm’s length, literally. Given that we never hugged much when I was growing up, this is huge progress!

Now when we hug, which is infrequent, we usually cry. It is an emotion so painful to my father that I don’t think he can stand it. On the brink of losing control and succumbing to gasping body-wracking sobs, he quickly recovers and says something like, “It was good to see you. Call me when you get home safely.”

I learned how to repress from a master.

I caressed his face, marveling at how soft his skin is, willing whatever healing Reiki energy I could muster to offer to him, looked him in the eyes and said, “I love you Daddy.”

Whatever anger I have for my father, and there was a lot of anger – mostly misdirected at my self through depression and anxiety – has dissolved with the passing of my mother. Perhaps it is under wraps, waiting to reemerge in a fury. Perhaps it is being rechanneled as anger toward something easier to be angry about. Like Donald Trump, that cad.  Or the godawful trend of building monstrous space-hogging houses on modest lots in my hometown which has sent me into a righteous rage. (Ranting post to come!) Our little triad of a family is now just him and me. Like it or not, I am who I am because of who he is. We are forever connected. With more time and self-awareness and self-compassion has come more understanding and compassion for him.

This weekend was my first visit since the memorial service for my mom. Seven months have passed and he is coping by sticking to his routines. Now we have breakfast. Now we have lunch. We go to this restaurant for dinner. We practice the violin after dinner. We read until midnight. We water the plants on Sundays. We get up and do it over again. Oh yeah, I can relate.  I learned the habits of everyday survival from a master.

Sadly, there is no “we.” Linguistic habits die hard after 54 years of marriage. He is very alone. And lonely.

All I feel now is sadness.

I dragged him to the National Gallery yesterday. After all, he dragged me all over art galleries when I was young, it’s the least I can do now that he is old. My dear friend Paul met us there for lunch and a quick viewing of the special exhibits there. Paul, who is bolder and braver than me at asking emotionally probing questions, gently asked my father: “Do you feel her presence in the house? Is she always just around the corner?” No, he said, he doesn’t feel her presence.

He must refuse to feel her presence. Refuse to feel her loss. Immune to it with his routines. Because she is in every crevice. From the needlepoint-covered brick that serves as a doorstop to the placement of the paintings on the walls. From the black and white tile in the front hall that she picked out long ago to the philodendron that sits waiting for her, forlornly, on her dressing table. Her lipsticks are gone. (I checked.) But she is there. Not the 90+-year-old sitting passively and frail in her spot. No, it is my vibrant mother who, along with my father, made me who I am, who permeates my childhood home with her presence.

My father recently told me, when I asked why he never watches movies or reads fiction, that he either finds them silly or he gets so caught up in the drama that it disturbs him. Wow. That was kind of new and interesting information he revealed. I love getting caught up in the drama of a movie. The more intense the emotion the better. I find it cathartic to cry, well, at least when I let myself cry. But he can’t stand the intensity of the emotion. He can’t stand crying. So he devotes himself to his intellectual pursuits or to the practical acts of survival that fill his day. I used to think he was remote and undemonstrative. Now I think no one taught him how to love. How to cope with the joy and the loss that love requires.

I like to think each generation – or maybe each life, if you believe in reincarnation – peels away another layer of the onion to get closer to enlightenment. For me, enlightenment is understanding – to the core of your being – that nothing really matters except for love. Then acting on that understanding. All the time. Try it. It’s hard. Love is hard. It’s easier to plan what to have for dinner or to get up and go to your job, than to love. All The Time. It is my father’s difficult struggle with intimacy that has given birth to my desperate fight for intimacy.

Maybe you need to know how not to hug in order to be able to hug.

Mother’s Day Presence

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My Teachers

I’m feeling a bit subdued this mother’s day. Kind of dreading the cheerful saccharine. Not sure the world needs another mother’s day post. What about all the people who have difficult relationships with their mothers? What about all the people who have lost their mothers? What about all the people who want children but can’t or won’t? What about the women around the globe dying because of poor maternal healthcare? Better to spend the money allocated to mother’s day gifts to helping women and girls around the world. Better to spend the time spent shopping for those mother’s day gifts with people you love. Basking in their presence.

My friend just told me about a student of hers, a high school senior, whose mom is dying of cancer. He is spending mother’s day weeping. It makes me cry. This young man is still a boy. What must this woman be going through? What is it like to know you are dying and to be saying good-bye to your children? I can’t imagine! Well, actually, I can imagine. Sigh. Can’t I just enjoy a nice mother’s day without ruining it with questions and angst?

I am so lucky. I want for nothing. I’m like ridiculously happy that we have a new garbage disposal. We’ve spent the last year (or more) finagling the old broken one. We had a system. My husband would go downstairs and turn on the electricity. Then I would plug it in and let it grind. Then he would turn off the electricity. Then I would unplug the whole contraption. All while yelling up and down at each other.

I’m like incredibly relieved that it didn’t cost $1,000 to fix the minivan with 120,000 miles on it. Come on Honda! You can make it to 200,000 miles and a couple more trips with dormloads of stuff.

I’m like ecstatic and at peace now that my daughter is home from her first year of college. I really don’t want anything. Theater tickets are always on my list though. My husband wants to buy me a tree, but the yard feels as cluttered as the house. Maybe next weekend I’ll feel the urge to plant. All I want today is a day with no errands and chores. And to feel loving presence.

I remember carefully making handmade cards for my mother and picking flowers (aka weeds) for her. When I got older I would bake something special for her. When I no longer lived at home nor near enough to visit easily, I would buy her a nice card, send her flowers or a book, and call her, of course. She always seemed thrilled with whatever tidbit I gave her. She completely understood that I was busy busy busy. Never did she say: “Why don’t you visit me more often? Please come visit me!” Did she not think that? Do I wish she had said that? Shaken me and knocked some sense into me: “Life is short! Stop being so busy busy busy! Come visit me dammit!” But no, she would never have said that.

My dad is very lonely. He deeply misses her presence in the house. He sometimes expresses surprise that I am not more grief-stricken. Me too. But I have mourned her loss for years. She faded to such a shell of herself over the last decade of her life. I was always wondering when she was going to die. It was a relief when she died. Finally. This is how she dies. Now we know. This is how we go on without her. This is it. Life. Flying by. Busy busy busy. Until we die.

Her presence. It’s true. Even as she faded away, her presence still permeated the house. When I did visit, her face would light up and she would forget that she was 92 and forget that she needed a walker and would try to get me food (always food!) or other items I might need or want. Sometimes I see an old woman who reminds me of her. I smile and send her love. When I slow down enough to breathe, to concentrate, to remember, I can conjure her presence. I feel her.

I feel all the women who have touched me, helping me to become who I am. The teachers I idolized. The babysitter I wanted to be. The other moms, my friends’ moms, especially Margie, all unique and different from my mom, adding their own perspectives on how to be a woman. Later, it was my friends who were my teachers. A community of women all worth honoring and celebrating this mother’s day, even if they weren’t or aren’t moms.

It is my own children who have taught me the most about how to be a mom. Their wisdom, their neediness, their resilience, their intuition, their amazing love for me and my breathtaking love for them that has taught me that life is short. Be less busy.

We are past the stage of handmade cards and weed bouquets. But my children are home. I am basking in their presence, feeling my mom with me and all the women who have been moms and mentors to me. Soon enough my children will be grown up and no longer living at home. And if they don’t visit me, well, then, I just might have to visit them.

Sisters and Brothers

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An Only Child and Her Siblings

I didn’t know April 10th was National Sibling Day until my Facebook feed was peppered with sweet photos of brothers and sisters. Awwww. There were my friends posting past childhood photos with their brother or sister. There were my friends posting current family reunion photos of their middle-aged brothers and sisters. And there were my younger friends posting some wonderful old childhood photos of their parents with their sibling(s). It was lovely and fun and I wanted IN on it! But I don’t have a brother or a sister. And of course there were my friends who do have siblings but didn’t post a photo. Hmmm. Not all sibling relationships are Facebook friendly.

I started combing through photos, looking for my own twist on National Sibling Day. Apparently 21% of us are only children. We can be lonely only’s. (Cue sad story to go here.) Or, we can create our surrogate siblings and find the best of what that relationship can be through nurturing our other relationships.

There is my very best friend in the whole world, truly best friends forever, dear Emily. We met at that fragile age of 11, awkwardly and painfully transitioning from girls to teens to young women to married women to moms to middle-aged women. While she did have a brother, she did not have a sister. And so. Sisters we were and are. I’m quite sure we cut our hands and merged our blood in some profound ceremony of our invention. Blood sisters we were and are. Our paths have long gone in different directions. Our personalities are quite distinct. And yet, like “real” sisters, there is a shared history and a shared bond. We know each other’s family secrets. We remember each other’s past. (Yes, that DID happen. No, you’re NOT crazy.) We love each other and support each other, cheering successes and mourning losses.

There is my amazing cousin, dear Elizabeth. The one who was killed at the age of 48 by a drunk driver in 2002. The one I still miss. The only female of my generation in my small family. Older than me, she knew my mother’s family history better than me. Older than me, she offered a window on what being a 20-something woman might be like while I was a sheltered teen in suburbia. I love her and miss her and hold sacred the ties to the others in my small family. She was and is my sister.

When I met my husband, I was fascinated with his siblings and his relationship with them. Like all of ours, his was a dysfunctional family. When his parents divorced, the three siblings relied on each other in a way I have rarely seen. Somewhat poor, somewhat neglected, they had each other. They regale us with their stories of shared adventures, a robbery, a fire (save the bike!), a wayward dog, going to bars for all-you-can-eat, living on one baked potato for a week because they were out of money. (Surely, that is an exaggeration!) The first time I met his brother, I was nervous and wondering if I would recognize him. Of course the second I got off the airplane I realized that the man at the end of the gangway who was the DNA twin of my husband was him. What must it be like to have someone out there who looks like you? They and their dear spouses welcomed me as a sister, which my reserved and lonely only child persona craved. When their parents died, we all gathered to sift through the memories and the artifacts, sharing laughter and tears. It didn’t really matter who got what because there was such closeness between the families. His brother and sister have become my brother and sister. His extended family, my extended family. A tribe with shared memories who would do anything for each other. Who would do anything for each other’s children. Because it is the next generation that consumes us now.

When we married, I knew deep in my soul that I would not have only one child. Two. I had to have two. I imagined that I would have two girls. Two sisters. That seemed the ideal relationship. Two girls to support each other, grow up together, share secrets together. It was the relationship I felt was lacking in my life. So, when the ultrasound indicated that our second child was a boy, I gasped. An alien! I had an alien growing in me! What was I going to do with a boy? What was my daughter going to do with a brother?   From the day he was born, he adored her. “Bia! Bia! Bia!” he cried out for her with excitement. We have picture after picture of him looking up at her with love and awe. She, on the other hand, like a normal big sister, tolerates him and his little brother-ness with a mixture of loving watchfulness, nurturance, and a touch of condescending superiority. There was a time, like around a few years ago until about now, where they barely acknowledged each other. I wonder if and when this will change. I pray it does. My niece and nephew are close, but that closeness seems born out of the shared, sad loss of their father. I guess that is what it takes. Shared history. Shared memories. Shared triumphs, but also shared losses. And that takes time and maturity. It will come. When I determined to have more than one child, it was so that neither would be alone. After we are gone. Perhaps that is naïve and impossible, a mother’s desperate hope that her children will be happier than she. After all, we are all alone and on our own path. We all suffer. But surely, having a sibling, either through “real” family or by creating one, helps. I love the brothers and sisters in my life.

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.

 

A Simple Roast Turkey

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Prepared With Complicated Emotions

For those of us with eating issues, Thanksgiving is fraught. I’ve made the long journey from lonely eater, to competitive pie-baking guest, to overwhelmed hostess, to becoming a more loving and thankful person. I have gradually realized that no one wants the turkey with exotic spices; no one wants the healthy version of mashed potatoes; other people want the sweet potatoes with marshmallows even if I don’t. (Surprise, they are now a favorite of mine!) Like the Grinch, I have very slowly realized that it’s not about me, nor the food, nor my ability to control the holiday experience. It’s about everyone being together. And who wants a hostess that is tense and competitive and judgmental? A hostess should be happy and inviting and joyful, like a beloved yoga teacher, making you feel like the most important and most loved person. Yes, I know. Duh. A mundane epiphany. It only took 52 years.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was going to enjoy the holidays. Making my resolve more concrete, I shared my decision out loud with my husband. He characteristically said in his no-nonsense way, “Good! Our kids love the holidays and you should be proud that we’ve created traditions that make them feel loved and happy. Besides, the more you enjoy the holidays, the more they will want to come home for the holidays.” Ah. There it is. The circle of life. As they grow older, I want them to want to come home. Unlike me, I want them to want to visit their parents.

I dug out the recipes, made my shopping list, even found the notes I had made a year ago of missing items and ways to improve the process. I was calm, organized, and ready. And So Excited for my daughter to come home from college for the week.

Then my father called. My 92-year old mother was back in the E.R. The “rehab” center where she was barely surviving the recovery from a broken hip had rushed her there. She was on Coumadin and her blood was too thin. This was it, according to my father. I better prepare to abandon my family and my Thanksgiving to rush to her side to say good-bye. I was, sadly, somewhat immune to his dire predictions. He’s been predicting her demise for the last ten years or so. I went through a laundry list of self-questioning:

  • Was my father’s dramatic pessimism warranted? Maybe. After all, she is 92 and one of these days his dire prediction is going to come true.
  • Did it make sense for me to abandon my family and my Thanksgiving to rush to her side and to help my father? Probably not. It was snowing and the worst travel day of the year.
  • How would I feel if my mother died before I could see her? Deeply sad.

The range of emotions over the next 48 hours was wide and intense.

  • Guilt that I am not near by and don’t want to be more of a caretaker.
  • Anger that my father can still make me feel like a scolded bad girl who must resort to explanations of duty and responsibility to explain why I don’t visit more. (I’m busy, busy, busy!) As opposed to the truth: I am angry at what you did. (Make peace with it, Sally. It’s part of your journey.)
  • Compassion for my father who is so devoted to caring for my mother that he feels shattered at this latest crisis leading to her further deterioration. Compassion for his loneliness and worry about his increasing confusion.
  • Despair that the care options for our aging parents are so medicalized and impersonal, based on aiding survival, not on facilitating love.

48 hours later, on Wednesday, after the hospital treated her for the Coumadin overdose and discovered that she had a UT infection which they were now treating with antibiotics, my mom perked up. About to hop on a train, because my father just that morning had insisted that I really probably should come say good-bye, I spoke to the nurse who said she was doing better. Feeling jerked around but relieved, my father held the phone up to my mother’s ear and she kind of squeaked in greeting. My heart jumped up to my throat and I was overcome with emotion.  Would that happy squeak be the last sound of maternal love I hear from my mother?

I decided that I was going to enjoy Thanksgiving. I do believe you can change your thoughts and make thoughtful decisions about how you are going to react and make conscious choices about what emotion will prevail. More and more, I am choosing joy and laughter. I am still angry, guilty, sad, confused, anxious. I am also loving, capable, funny, generous, thoughtful, and frequently happy. My daughter is home. My mother is alive. I am thankful. So thankful that, at midlife, I feel fully thankful along with all the emotions that come with a poignant sense of gratitude.

(P.S. It’s now Saturday and I am, sadly, on my way to say good-bye to her.)

Simple Thanksgiving Roast Turkey

  • Brine the (≅13 lb) turkey Thursday morning.
    • Dissolve 1½ cups kosher salt, ½ cup dark brown sugar, 1 container orange juice concentrate in a quart of boiling water.
    • Remove neck, giblets and metal truss from the turkey.  Throw away because the giblets make your husband gag.  Rinse and place turkey in a cooler or bucket.
    • Pour brine mixture, 1 gallon of cold water, 1 gallon of ice cubes to submerge turkey. Add chicken broth if turkey is not submerged. Place container out on back porch where it is 40°.
    • Let soak in brine for 5-6 hours.

Go take a yoga class. Marvel at how beautiful the class is and wonder what it is about the teacher that makes her so popular. Perhaps it is because she is the most welcoming hostess, making each person feel special. Let the revelation sink in. Maybe I too can be a joyful yoga teacher, a welcoming hostess.

Back home to make sides, side by side with my daughter. Imagine Thanksgiving someday at her house where I hope to be a gracious and loving and helpful and proud guest.

After a light lunch, it’s time to deal with the brined turkey.

  • Preheat the oven to 500°. Lug the turkey inside and haul it into the kitchen sink. Pat it dry. Do NOT stuff it. Slather it with canola oil. Think about how you feel about eating turkey and honor your hesitation. Give thanks to the poor turkey for giving its life so you can honor a family and cultural tradition. Place the turkey on a rack inside a roasting pan and place it in the very hot oven for 25 minutes. Do not peek. (Alton Brown taught me this.)

Go watch football with your husband and son for 25 minutes. Wonder why this violent sport is so popular. Acknowledge that you find the familiar sound of whistles blowing on the tv in the background to be nostalgic and comforting. Muse about what Janay Palmer is doing today and how her relationship with Ray Rice will evolve when it is announced that he is being reinstated into the NFL.

  • After 25 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven. Watch the smoke! (Gotta clean the oven!) Turn the temperature down to 350°. Cover the breast with a double layer of foil, cutting out a little hole for the button to pop so you can see it. Place the turkey back in the oven. For 2 hours. Do nothing. REALLY. No basting, no checking, no nothing. (Alton Brown taught me this.)
  • After an hour and 45 minutes, begin peeking at the button to see if it’s popped. It should pop at 2 hours. If it doesn’t pop at 2 hours, take it out anyway and use your own thermometer to check the temperature. I swear it’s done. Do not overcook.

While it is resting, finish your sides and consider making gravy. Have someone else carve it. Serve buffet style, because you are done! How simple was that?  Ask everyone to help with the clean-up.

 

Image Credit:  Wild Turkey Cock, Hen and Young by John James Audubon

 

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