I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Grief

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.

I Did Not Know The Boy Who Died This Week

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Go Deep

I did not know the boy who died this week. The friendly, athletic, well-liked 23-year-old from our town. My kids are in different grades than his younger siblings. They play different sports and hang out with different people. I am woefully unconnected with the school and the town. I’m not unsociable but I am quiet and reserved and I work full time in Manhattan. I worry that my introversion is off-putting and has kept my kids from being more integrated with the community. I prefer smaller groups of family and close friends, so my path did not really intersect with him and his family.

I did not know the boy who died this week. While I thought about him and his mother and his father and his sisters and his friends and all those who were touched by him, I did not feel I had a place at the wake or the funeral. I don’t know this family. But they are part of my world. I feel like I could know him. He could have been any number of amazing, interesting, fun 20-somethings that I do know. With full lives ahead of them. I guess he was out with friends. I suppose alcohol was involved. I am sure he thought he was invincible. Don’t we all at 23? It could have been anyone. It could have been my child.

It takes some living and some near misses to learn that accidents do happen. I could die at any moment. You could die at any moment. My children could die at any moment. As babies, I held them close. Nursing, co-sleeping, baby-proofing. “Never let them out of your sight,” our pediatrician said, only half-jokingly when we asked him for the most significant things we could do to keep them safe. Well, that’s not realistic.  And so we have lived our lives. We put them on the school bus. We sent them on sleep-overs and on school trips. We taught them to ski and take risks and be independent. My daughter drives and my son will soon drive. Off they go. Out of the nest. More out of our sight these days than in our sight. As it should be. And yet, I grasp. I want to hold them close. I want to live forever. I want them to live forever. I never want to let them go.

When they were young, I thought being the mother of a newborn was the hardest thing I had ever done. The exhaustion, the worry. Are they eating? Are they pooping? Are they BREATHING? The mothers of children older than mine would smile indulgently. “Just wait. It gets harder.” What? What could be harder than a newborn?! Now I get it. Now the worries are: Are they safe? Are they happy? Will they live full lives? Will they love and be loved? For many years. For many years, long after I die.

I am a very cerebral and sensible and pragmatic person. Skeptical of the mysterious and unproven. Crazy hokum. And yet. Is it? Crazy hokum? I am fascinated and increasingly open to my intuition and the deep experiences I have had with meditation and Reiki. On Wednesday night, I was drawn to take a yoga class with Colleen Saidman Yee. I don’t know her very well, and I am not a regular student of hers, but she recently published a book, Yoga For Life, that is touching me right now. At Savasana, she said something like: “Dare to go deep.  Deep to the places within. The places that frighten you. The places that you touch and scurry away from.” I tried, but not much happened. Still, I knew shifts have been and are happening.

That night, returning home, the streets were blocked for the wake. The one I didn’t attend because I did not know the boy who died this week. We detoured around to my house. My home. That night, I woke. For my middle-of-the-night battle with my bladder. Should I get up and pee or can I make it through the night? I lay there. And saw something. Felt something. A presence. I laughed. Now I am seeing ghosts? I went to the bathroom and felt the night. Felt the presence. Who was it? I decided it was my mom. Who else would it be? Then that night I dreamt I had siblings. I was talking to my “sister.” She was 17 years older than me and she told me that we had two other brothers. Wow. A whole family of people I never even knew I had?! And then I dreamt I was flying! I was terrified of the sensation. It was exciting but terrifying. I touched the sensation and then scurried away, waking.  Afraid to go too deep.

Today, blessed weekend, I took one of my regular yoga classes with one of my yoga friend teachers with my yoga community in my yoga “home.” Heart-openers. Damn you Clare. As I lifted and expanded and breathed into my heart, I thought about the boy I did not know who died this week. And his mom and dad and sisters and friends. And I suppressed tears. Convulsive sobbing tears. I touched that space and scurried away. I wanted to shout to my yoga friends: A young man died this week! I am so sad!  But I didn’t. I went deep but not that deep.

There is a video montage of photos of this boy I did not know who died this week. I watched it. It could be my family photos. Beautiful human beings doing family things together. I saw him grow from a boy to a young man.  I cried. Cathartic heart-opening tears.

A young man died this week! I did not know him. And yet…I do know him.

Go deep. Love deeply. Live joyfully. We all die. And it might be sooner rather than later.

Image:  4th Mandala Heart Chakra, by Jennifer Christenson

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.

 

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.

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