death

A Bear is Born

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Anyone who lives in New York City is bound to see a celebrity at some point.  Being incredibly unobservant, I went five years without a single sighting.  Then, within just a few months, my little section of Brooklyn was transformed from a quiet, family neighborhood into a star-studded, hipster playground.  Believe me, this part of Greenpoint was not fancy.  But because there were numerous abandoned warehouses scattered along West Avenue, a litter-filled, broken strip of pavement on the East River that boasted a frightening amount of alley cats and a gorgeous view of Manhattan, quite a few television networks moved in: Boardwalk Empire built their 1920’s New Jersey boardwalk two blocks away, Lena Dunham and her girls with great hair yet no self-esteem moved in three blocks southward, and CBS took over a warehouse down the street to film their Broadway-meets-television flop Smash.  Our peaceful corner of the world had been discovered.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this hubbub wasn’t glamorous or exciting.  In fact, it sucked.  Whereas we once always found a parking spot right outside our building, we suddenly had to park a ten-minute walk away because trailers and equipment needed the street instead.  Crew members yelled at us for walking our dogs through their set, also known as the public sidewalk, and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of so-and-so clogged the delis, whose owners jacked up the price of a Modelo six-pack from six to nine dollars (for cans, mind you, not even bottles).

But this was our home – a rent-stabilized home with a yard, no less. My husband and our dogs, a mixed breed named Basil and a Boxer named Bear, loved that yard.  So, in order to keep it and to swallow the neighborhood transformation a little more easily, I devised a plan to turn us into super stars.  Or, more exactly, a plan to turn Bear into a super star, fulfilling the rags-to-riches dream I felt she so deserved.

— ◊ —

A few years before this transformation began, Dave and I enjoyed a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda.  Overflowing with giddy love the night we returned home, we visited our local bar and, drunk on beer, marriage vows, and personal pinball records, ran into our neighbor, Adam, standing on the corner with two big dogs, his Rottweiler named Zeus and Sarah the Boxer.

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“Why do you have Sarah?” Dave slurred.  She belonged to another neighbor of ours, a Polish man we often saw walking on West Avenue, and we’d never seen her with anyone else.

In his typical bro manner, Adam replied, “Well, dude, I hate to lay this on you, but her owner died this morning.”

As we pet sweet, stinky Sarah, Adam explained how her owner had been an alcoholic who lived in his broken-down car in the lot behind Adam’s house.  He’d get drunk and wrestle with her, to the point that they’d both draw blood on one another, then pass out in a pile in the backseat.  Adam discovered the man’s body earlier that day because Sarah, sitting on the pavement beside the open passenger door, was barking nonstop; her owner had died from alcohol poisoning that morning and his seemingly final act was to let his dog out of the car.  This was all shocking news to us.

“She’s a good girl, but I can’t keep her,” Adam said, gesturing at his already 100-pound Rotty who was only a year old.  “I don’t know what to do, man.  I just can’t have both dogs at my place.  This breeder in New Jersey was supposed to pick her up thirty minutes ago, but now he’s not even answering his phone.”

“No, no, we know this dog!” Dave exclaimed.  “You can’t give her to a breeder.  We’ll take her for the weekend, find someone who will spay her and be good to her.  Right, honey?”

“Yes, definitely,” I replied, knowing it was a question with only one answer.  But even if I’d had a choice, I still would have agreed.  Sure, she stank, she jumped, she licked, and, to be honest, I thought she was ugly, but, as Dave said, we knew this dog.  We could take a weekend out of our lives to find her a loving home.  Plus, little Basil would go nuts over a house guest.

I should have known what I was getting into when I first saw the look on Dave’s face as he listened to Sarah’s story, but I’d never “fostered” a dog before and honestly believed it would be a two-day commitment.  By the end of the weekend, our decision to keep her came down to a moment when Dave and Basil were both looking at me with pleading eyes, and I just couldn’t say no.  I blame it on the honeymoon vibes.

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— ◊ —

My love vibes had vanished by the time the neighborhood usurpers moved in.  (more…)

The Best, the Worst, Here.

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I’ve always held myself to impossibly high standards, standards that I don’t expect from other people. In fact, if someone else makes a mistake, I’m often the first to empathize and offer my support. But when it comes to me, well, I’m supposed to be perfect. Don’t my family, my friends, my students, the world, deserve the best from me?

In the first few months after my mom left her body, when I was so consumed by grief that everything else ceased to matter, I had a major revelation that “the best” doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct we’ve created that keeps us disconnected from our present reality. During this period of intense grief, I would sometimes think the best choice was to go out with my friends, but then the moment I arrived at the bar, it felt all wrong. Other times it seemed best to stay at home and read, but then I’d cry and feel lonely and wish I’d gone out. Then there were times when whatever I’d chosen, whether it had felt right or wrong in the moment of choosing it, was exactly what I’d needed.

Because “the best” had become so nebulous and easily changeable in my mind, it started to seem not only unreal but also silly. Besides, the grief I was constantly grappling with overpowered everything else and made the process of analyzing if I should have gone out or stayed home feel unimportant, a waste of time.

Humans, or Americans at least, seem to despise discomfort. Even a little bit of it. We’re constantly complaining about how cold or hot the air is, how hungry or full our bellies are. We can’t seem to find that perfect situation. But instead of seeing that it doesn’t exist, we get lost in searching for it and then feel angry or sad that we continually can’t find it.

Now, four and a half years after my mother’s passing, I feel stronger, tougher, and wiser, but I’ve also fallen back into old habits of expecting “the best” then feeling guilty when I don’t achieve it. In a weird way, I miss those few months right after she died. I don’t miss the pain, but I miss the clarity it gave me, how it temporarily freed me from these constructs that I – we – have created.

But I don’t need all-encompassing grief in order to free myself again from these thought patterns. All I have to do is breathe.

 

Amazing comic by Gemma Correll.

Human Waves

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On this fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am struck by how often I find her in my day-to-day, by how alive she still is in so many ways. Yet I am also struck by how badly I wish she could have met my son. He has met her, through photographs, recipes, lullabies, records, but she never got to see his face, much less hold his precious little body, and this is the one big thing I still grieve.

But when we lose someone we love, there will always be that one big thing. As I meditate by this glorious ocean, two waves crash into one another directly in front of me, their waters flowing through each other until it’s impossible to tell where either one begins or ends. Seconds later they reverse direction and glide away, disappearing into the vastness of the great water behind them. I think of how my mom and my son are like two waves splashing together inside of me, their waters flowing through each other through me, how really all of us are like waves in the same great glorious human ocean, crashing and gliding and flowing through one another.

Moms, Roosters & New Tattoos

My mother’s obsession with roosters began when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure what sparked it, though there are a few different theories; much like the rooster itself, represented across cultures as a symbolic, magical creature, her passion for them was the stuff of myths. Roosters hung from our ceilings, sat cross-legged on our fridge, balanced on their claws in the corners of our kitchen. She had plates, silverware and salt shakers with roosters, aprons and t-shirts and dresses. She loved them in all forms: detailed and lifelike, polka-dotted and geometric, tall, serious, plump, goofy. If it were remotely a rooster, she adored it.

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While I didn’t personally share in this passion, I delighted in it. The way her face would light up with childlike glee when someone gave her a rooster-shaped knickknack. The way she’d smile, satisfied, as she stared at her collection. The way some of them made her laugh while others brought out an expression of reverence. It made me happy that amidst all of her struggles, something as simple as a rooster could bring her such joy.

As a kid watching our house slowly fill up with variations on the rooster, I could never have guessed how much they would come to mean to me. After my mom died, I found myself in my own kitchen eating from one of her rooster plates, surrounded by rooster ornaments and spice jars and even a rooster watering can, and I felt so grateful to have these regular reminders of her; the rooster had became a symbol of her humor, her uniqueness, her warmth, her amazingly deep love. So yesterday, in honor of my mother and so that I can carry this regular reminder with me everywhere I go, I got a rooster tattoo. It was difficult to pick which kind to go with, but I ultimately chose a Picasso sketch – I feel like it combines her funny obsession with her creativity and her love of art. I had a lot of emotions leading up to it, but as I walked into the parlor last night, I didn’t feel sad or anxious, just full of peace. I breathed and smiled and thought of her as the needles buzzed into my skin, and now, every time I look over and see my rooster’s curly head, I also see my mother’s bright smile, I hear her laugh, and I feel her love inside of me.

Huge thanks to Brian Faulk at Hand of Glory Tattoo for his good vibes and great work!

The Cat Bardo

“And when we have to let go, something else becomes possible.”  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

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A few weeks ago, Dave and I put down our old lady cat Blacula. She’d been howling every night for half a year at least, a long, drawn-out wail from somewhere deep inside of her. The sound found its way into my subconscious, pushed my already strange dreams into new realms of oddity and confusion, and I’d wake up all anxious and sweaty, only to realize it was the damn cat again.

She woke the baby up, too. I’d stumble into his room at three in the morning and he’d be standing in his crib, meowing. Except his version of a meow mimicked the senile, eighteen-year-old cat version, so he’d say it like the word “why,” drawing out the space between the ‘wh’ and the ‘y’ in a dissonant tone reminiscent of old-timey folk laments. This became a nightly occurrence, and he started calling cats “gwhys,” a combination (we think) of the Spanish word “gato” and the cat wail “why.”

***

Blacula was never easy. She was one of those terrified-by-life kind of creatures. Always hid. Never let anyone touch her. Drew blood within seconds of being picked up. Soon after she was spayed as a kitten, her ovaries became infected then she gnawed at her post-surgery stitches and infected those, too. Like cats tend to do, she fell in love with the person who wanted nothing to do with her – my allergic husband, Dave, whose roommates had adopted the cat despite his protests – and therefore he was the only one whom she allowed to nurse her back to health. Which, of course, meant she fell even more fiercely in love with him.

Years later, the roommates moved out, leaving the cat they’d selected to the person she’d selected, and poor Dave, being the kind soul he is, accepted the commitment he’d been straddled with. Still, despite Blacula’s obsession with him, holding her was not allowed; Dave has a scar from the top of his pinky finger all the way down to the bottom of his palm from one particularly difficult visit to the vet.

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When Dave and I first met, we quickly fell in love with one another and reveled in our mutual passion for pets, so it didn’t take long to move ourselves and our two cats in together and then rescue two dogs (yeah, we’re nuts). From the very beginning, Blacula assumed the role of evil dictator who controlled her underlings through fear. She regularly bloodied our 80-pound Boxer dog’s nose, once so badly she left a small piece of skin hanging from its tip. She’d also do things like scratch the other animals’ faces when they were sleeping, watch them scramble awake in terror, then simply strut back to wherever she’d been resting and curl up in a tiny, black-and-white ball, satisfied with the disruption she’d caused. Or, she’d sit in the middle of the narrow doorway that divided our railroad apartment in half, make herself as big as possible and growl at the others, smacking them into submission if they dared pass through. The smaller dog, Basil, took to lying on his stomach and singing for her, a strange version of a hound-like howl reserved just for these encounters. After a few minutes of this, Blacula would finally allow him to walk around and into the other side of the apartment, but no one else could ever pass through until she got hungry enough to leave her post, most likely to eat their food before finishing her own.

bexnblaBlacula and me when we first moved in together back in 2008.

***

Dave and I decided to put Blacula down together while Lew was in daycare. I wanted to be there, to witness her death, to take responsibility for a decision I’d helped make, to ease her out of this life, to support Dave. But even more so, I wanted to be there to get some answers. I wasn’t sure what my questions were, but I was positive that watching a creature die would give me some kind of insight. I was expecting a moment, a heaving sigh and shift in the air, something big and profound. I wanted to be able to say, “Aha, now I understand.”

When the vet injected the medicine that would kill her, Blacula was already motionless from the sedatives. I pet her cheek as Dave scratched her head, we both told her that we loved her, and then I thought maybe something had changed, maybe she had passed on. I wasn’t positive, though, and so I told myself that the big moment was yet to come, but then the vet listened to her heart and confirmed that yes, it had stopped.

I’d felt only enough of something to wonder if I’d even felt it at all.

***

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With Blacula’s history of abusing the others, Dave and I were obviously scared when I was pregnant. We imagined her attacking our precious newborn baby in the middle of the night, perhaps even scarring his perfect little body. And what would we do? Who would take a cat like her? It would be horrible to put down a healthy cat because of something like that.

To our extreme surprise, she loved Lewis. From day one. She sniffed him and sat near him and purred loudly. His earliest attempts at petting the animals were rough smacks with his chunky hands up and down against their bodies, and while everyone else would complain or run away, Blacula would just sit there and let him smack her. Each morning after we transitioned Lew into his own room, she’d enthusiastically run in to greet him as soon as we opened his door, sometimes even jumping into his bed. He was the only person who could ever give her a hug. He’d wrap his arms around her torso and lay his cheek on top of her head, and my heart would leap into my throat. But she’d just sit there, calmly, happily even. If I’d done this, she would have scratched my face, my chest, any skin that her claws could reach until I’d let her go.

***

Unless they’re asleep at the time of death, animals die with their eyes open. Seconds after her heart finished beating, I was shocked that she still looked alive. “It just seems like she’s resting,” I said aloud, then leaned down and stared deep into her dead eyes. I swear they looked back at me; something was still there. Then they began to glaze over, just a bit at first, then more and more until about a minute later, they had transformed into cloudy, turquoise mirrors reflecting the fluorescent light above us.

***

Blacula took to hiding under the futon for most of the day and night about six months before we put her down. The final weeks were pathetic – she was confused and scared, unable to properly clean herself, and rarely came out from her hiding spot. But the strangest part was how the other animals ganged up on her. The dogs began chasing and nipping at her whenever she did manage to venture out, and Frida, the other cat who’d mostly avoided her in the years since we’d moved from the railroad to a more spacious apartment, began guarding the water bowl and litter box and attacking her whenever she tried to use either. We thought this was an instinctive version of payback and did our best to make it easier on Bla, but then immediately upon returning home with the empty carrier after her final appointment, the other pets relaxed, became much friendlier and more easygoing – Frida even cuddles with the dogs now – and we wondered if these attacks were their way of telling us it was her time, that perhaps they weren’t enacting payback but instead trying to end her suffering, a suffering that was distressing them all.

In the movie The Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson shares a story about asking her Tibetan Buddhist teacher whether or not to put down her very sick dog. The teacher told her that we humans do not have the right to end another creature’s life, to take away its time of suffering, time it can learn and gain knowledge from, knowledge it will then use in the bardo, or the space between this life and the next.

laurieandersonLaurie Anderson by Maria Zaikina / Creative Commons

Part of me agrees with this sentiment. It didn’t feel quite right to end Blacula’s life. I took a power that didn’t belong to me, and she didn’t even have the capability to let me know if this was what she wanted or not (side note, I think about this a lot when it comes to eating meat, but the vegetarian days of my past and the omnivorous ways of my present are for another essay).

On the other hand, though, I felt like I was giving her a gift. She’d suffered for such a long time already. Her mind was gone and her existence was miserable. She would not be missing these days. If I were in that position, I would want Dave to release me, too.

And, to be honest, we were wrecked. We’re parents, we work a lot, we both make art, and we weren’t sleeping because of the freaking cat – the difficult, mean, malevolent cat who’d been a challenge since the day other people picked her out and brought her home and left her to Dave, a person who never wanted a cat in the first place. We tried so, so many things to help her, but it didn’t matter; she just got worse by the day, and we were exhausted. More than wanting Dave to release me from this burden, I would want to release him from it.

***

We were sadder than we thought we’d be. It turns out you get used to a creature, even an evil creature, after sharing a home with it for years. “I want gwhy,” Lew repeated many times that night and the following morning. We had done our best to explain it to him beforehand, used phrases like, “We have to say goodbye to Blacula forever,” and, “Dying means your body is all done and you go to sleep,” and, “Blacula is going away but we’ll still have her in our memories.” We had these conversations a handful of times and each would end with him saying, “Bye bye, gwhy.” But it obviously didn’t translate. He’d look under the chair in his room, the place she deemed second best to underneath the futon, and say, “Gwhy? Gwhy?” then cry when we reminded him that she was gone. It only took two days, though, and he moved on.

img_6207_15446367261_oBut for me, days later, I was still upset. Yes, it took me four whole days to realize that through this experience of putting down the cat, I’d actually been looking for some kind of insight into my mother’s death. What happened to her when she moved from dreaming into dying into being dead? What kind of moment did she experience? What did the room feel like when/if this moment happened? And where is she now? We will never know, not even my father who was sleeping beside her.

I’d wanted this controlled experience with death, with choosing to end a creature’s suffering, watching the injection, feeling the moment, to inform me, to comfort me, to give me something. Instead, a million new questions ran through my head as I gazed into her mirrorball eyes. What happened during that minute between her heart stopping and her eyes turning? Where was she then, and where was she now? Did she know I was there looking deeply into her final moment? Could she see me or hear me or sense me in some way? What do we even mean when we use words like “she?” Who or what was she? Who was my mom? Who am I?

Of course there are no real answers. But in letting go of my mom, in letting go of Blacula, in letting go of these questions and my expectations and my ruminations, something else becomes possible.

Good Grief, It’s Christmastime

xmaslightsI’ve come down with a common heart cold. Tis the season, I suppose. It’s hard when there’s so much holiday cheer everywhere; I want to be taken in by the bright lights and rosy cheeks and joy joy joy, and every now and then I can feel the magic of Christmas and it’s good, but mostly, this time of year depresses and stresses me. This was true before my mom died and is especially true now. Though honestly, it has gotten easier. This is Christmas #3 without her, and also Christmas Eve #3 without her, which just so happens to be her birthday. What a serious double-whammy, right? (Side note, she double-whammied me in a few ways: birthday/Christmas in the same two days, Mother’s Day/my wedding anniversary in the same few days, and back-to-school with new students/anniversary of her death in the same week. I swear that wherever she is, she laughs hard every December, May and September. Gotta love her dark sense of humor.)

Of course I’ve been sad today; tomorrow morning, my dudes, dogs and I embark on our holiday road trip to visit my family in Kentucky, and the packing and prepping have been endless reminders that she will not be there when we arrive. I’ve cried a lot. Not just a few tears but that horrible, throat-clenching, suffocating wail/moan that only grief can bring about. I described that feeling in the first piece I was able to pen (type?) after her death, and I have to say, while it doesn’t come nearly as often anymore nor last as long when it does come, it still sucks. But you know what? It doesn’t actually suffocate me. It feels like it will, it feels entirely possible to die from how hard it grips my throat and heart and guts and just all of me, but then it releases and I’m left with a lingering ache in my thyroid and a big, stinky Boxer dog licking snot and drool off my face. And I’m okay.

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So grief doesn’t kill us. That’s nice. And, as I said, it really does get easier. The most cliché phrase ever is also the truest: things do get better with time. Today I looked at a photo of Mom and Granny and me, and I felt happy inside. I also sang her favorite song to Lewis and we smiled together when I finished (I couldn’t even listen to that song for a year after she died, much less sing it to my son). I also told him about how we’ll bake her favorite cookie recipes on her birthday, how we’re bringing back stockings this year because she and I always loved them more than anyone else (still can’t believe my family just dropped that tradition after her death. Are you kidding me? Stockings are better than real presents!). And, instead of giving into my exhaustion and lying around my apartment in a grief bubble all day, I bundled us up and walked across the park for a date with two lovely writermama friends and their wonderful, crazy toddlers, and even though I spent most of the afternoon lying around my friend’s apartment in a grief bubble, I felt so grateful to have such wonderful people in my life who not only accepted the state I was in but offered me love and support to get through it. Plus, the babies! So in the end, the majority of this day was truly enjoyable, and that’s a HUGE improvement over days of Decembers past.

xmascarolsBut can I please complain about carols for a minute? I’m not a Grinch, I swear. I love Christmas lights, especially the big-bulbed retro kind, and trees and ornaments and I even like gift shopping, but what the hell is up with Christmas songs? They’re just awful. The music is terrible, so boring and repetitive, and the words beyond cheesy. Plus there are only like, five of them, and these same five songs are redone over and over in equally terrible ways, and when I walk into a Duane Reade to get some baby Advil because Lew’s cold just won’t go away and Holly Jolly Rudolph is blasting on the speakers, I want to vomit, scream, and break things. And do not tell me that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is at least one of the better songs because that shit is rapey. The only thing that makes Christmas carols okay is David Bowie.

Thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far. It does feel good to get that out of my system. And while I do harbor a completely reasonable amount of anger directed toward Christmas songs, sometimes I just need to rant about something trite instead of the fact that Mom always wanted grandkids and died when her first one was only a few months old, her second one (my baby) was conceived just ten months later, and her third one shortly after. I’m excited to see my son with his cousins – that kind of bond is so special – but it’s just fucking heartbreaking that Mom will never get to see it, to hear it, to hold them in her arms.

But I must stay present and fully experience this visit, to keep myself from falling into that dark hole of my past and also because she is not here to enjoy this time and how dare I waste the beautiful gift of life on crying about death? Yes, little Lew will learn that his mama feels sad this time of year, but he will also learn the value of grief, the power of mindfulness, and the joy of family, including his Grandma Sandy.

For more info on this column, please read Brain-Picking Becky: Intro.

Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe in Lumen Magazine

Granny_Mom_MeThere is no better way to honor my mother than by writing. While she was not a writer herself, she did fully embrace her own creative energy throughout her life via the piano, her voice, and, mainly, her needle and thread. She passed her love of art onto me, celebrating the goofy short stories I wrote in elementary school as if they were Nobel Prize quality and always urging me to write more. When others told me a Masters in Creative Writing was a waste of time and money, Mom told me to do it not just because I wanted to, but because she knew I needed to. Therefore, it is incredibly special to me that Lumen Magazine has published my essay, “Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe,” that I wrote on the first anniversary of her death. Please take a moment to read and share; not only do I hope to keep her spirit alive, but I also think that, in a society where death is a taboo topic for conversation, it’s important to share our experiences. Thanks, Mom, for the support that I still feel and will always feel.

Pictured: Me, Mom, and Granny.