family

Human Waves

BeckyMeditating
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.

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Remembering Rain

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I am six-years-old in the backseat of my family’s blue Oldsmobile. My father is driving through a patch of heavy rain and my mother is nervous, she bites her nails and spins the radio knob in search of a local weather report. My older brother, however, is fascinated; he presses his fingers to his window and traces streaks of water as they race down the glass.

The rain somehow beats harder against our car. My heart beats faster along with it. I am worried this much rain means a tornado is coming and I know a car is the worst place to be during a tornado. There is so much I don’t understand yet – the nature of storms, of my mother’s phobias, of my own mind – and I am too young to find the words to form the right questions, much less accept that they don’t have answers. I am confused and I want to cry but everyone tells me I cry too much and I don’t want to prove them right. My brother can sense my disquiet, he turns to me and reaches one hand across the middle seat, pats his lap with the other. I lie down on him and am instantly soothed. He drapes his arm over me and tells me that he likes the rain, I shouldn’t be scared, rain is fun. I love him and the soft way he speaks and also how safe it feels to lie in his arms. My body relaxes and I think that if my very smart big brother likes the rain, then perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing after all.

— ◊ —

The rain stops right as my husband pulls into a hotel parking lot. I release our boy from his seat and he is thrilled to be free after all those hours of driving. He skips across the sidewalk through the front doors and into the lobby, climbs onto the couch and bounces three times before jumping down and dashing off again. I check in with the receptionist and then corral him back out through the doors to our car. My husband, laden with bags, comments on how beautiful the lightning is. He hands me the stroller then slams our trunk right as a loud crack of thunder rattles the sky, cracks open the dark, heavy cloud hanging above us, and releases an onslaught of rain. We squeal and run into the hotel, our clothes and hair drenched from mere seconds of downpour. The boy is beaming, he dances in circles around the lobby, delighted he is wet enough to leave puddles of water behind him. “Watch me!” he shouts at the receptionist who obediently walks around her desk and watches his clumsy rendition of a frog. She asks him if he likes the rain and he nods enthusiastically. She then asks if he is scared of thunder and he pauses, cocking his head in thought. After a moment, he leaps up to his feet, sticks his arms out behind his back and runs to the couch, shouting “Nooooooo!” as he throws his wet body against a cushion and bounces off of it, laughing hysterically.

 

Photo Credit: Downpour by Vaidehi Shah

Birthday Beach Bash

Dear readers, I am taking today off from writing a real blog post because my 33rd birthday is this Sunday and my family will be celebrating all weekend on a Delaware beach. I booked a hotel with an indoor pool, I packed more than enough books, I put my phone on silent, and the year in which I turn my favorite number will be kicked off with my two favorite dudes and some peace, love, and relaxation. Cheers!

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On Daughterhood

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As I drove the compact rental car from CVG to my hometown, I counted the ins and outs of my breath – a mostly useless effort to calm my anxiety. In just a few days, a surgeon I didn’t know would cut into my father’s chest, splay open his breastbone, attach a new valve to his heart, and then sew him back up. There was a small chance Dad wouldn’t wake up from it. I doubted my ability to fully support him, to give him what he needed from me, to stay patient enough to manage both his and my anxieties without exploding and yelling at him. I worried about seeing him knocked out on drugs and hooked up to tubes. I’d taken this trip by myself (because of logistical reasons, my husband and son weren’t able to come along), and I felt deeply alone. Legs shaking, heart racing, I sped down I-75 and lamented the reality of growing older, of how responsibilities seem to add up while carefreeness seems to vanish. And then, a momentous thought popped into my brain: Becky, be grateful. You GET to do this for your dad. You didn’t get to do this for your mom.

This thought not only dulled my anxiety but also allowed me to reframe the entire experience. Sure, Dad’s surgery was yet another difficult thing my family had to navigate, another obligation added to my already full plate, another anxious-making strain on my mind and body, but it was also an opportunity to demonstrate my love for him, to give back some of the support he gave me throughout the years, to show him how strong and capable I’ve become. I didn’t have this opportunity with my mother. I didn’t get to share in her old age and all the struggles that come along with that. You get to do this for him.

And really, shouldn’t we frame every experience like this? We get to do this life, all of it, the challenging parts, sad parts, light parts, confusing parts. It’s beautiful that we get to grow older. It’s beautiful that we get to take on responsibilities like being there for our parents as they age. It’s beautiful that we get to be alive.

These realizations enabled me to let go of the expectations I tend to bring to family visits and enter a place of peace and relaxation, a place that was absolutely necessary for achieving the Herculean task of keeping my cartoon character of a father from overtaxing his heart before surgery. And when I say cartoon character, I mean it; my dad is unique in the way unreal, animated people are unique. For example, the surgery was actually delayed by ten days because, even though he was blacking out from a lack of oxygen, he still continued his part-time yard work jobs in the hot Kentucky summer, decided to show a friend what a patch of poison ivy looks like, and ended up with the worst infection of his life. He went to a doctor who put him on steroids, and then the very next day, he climbed up a ladder to fix someone’s gutter and FELL OFF. So yeah, heart surgery was delayed.

This behavior isn’t unusual; my dad is absolutely the busiest person I’ve ever met. He also talks literally nonstop, even if the other person is vacuuming or on the phone or behind a closed door. While this level of vigor and chattiness can be fun and entertaining, it can also be draining. Add anxiety about open-heart surgery to the mix, and that shit got bonkers. We spent three days before the surgery together and by night one, I’d given up on telling him to sit down and let me take care of things and instead tried to preemptively guess what task he might set about completing and then beat him to it (this was fairly effective except for outliers like his scrubbing the inside of the oven at 9pm one night). I also definitely texted my friend on day three about how I was looking forward to his being on anesthesia. But still, we had fun. We haven’t had that much one-on-one time since at least a decade ago when I first started bringing Dave around, and while it was intense, it was truly wonderful. Reframing the visit through the perspective of just being grateful for the time I had with him, no matter what that time ended up being like, was a game-changer, and it actually brought a new sense of calmness that affected both of us. This perspective also created a necessary emotional distance for me; I didn’t take things as personally this visit, I didn’t get as bothered or upset as in the past. And it was absolutely fascinating to observe my dad from this space as opposed to the more sensitive spaces of before. Really, he and I are so similar. Through watching and listening to him without feeling so affected by everything, I gained such an interesting insight into myself and also into my son – we are all such Firesheets! Genetics is a strange and magical thing.

heart.pngAnyway, my brother came down for the surgery, and after nine hours of lying around the hospital in a weird, glazed-eyed, time/space warp, we got the news that everything had gone as smoothly as it possibly could have. That night, my brother and I ate pizza and drank beer and told stories, also the first time we’d been one-on-one in at least a decade, and I was reminded of all the lovely little things about him that I’ve adored since our childhood. The very next day, Dad was up and walking down the halls, to be released only four days later – his strength and motivation have been utterly impressive. I left Kentucky feeling proud of the three of us as a unit, happy to have come together like that, to have tackled this huge thing while also still genuinely enjoying each other. I also left with a lot of pride in myself; I think I’ve finally figured out how to be my dad’s daughter.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

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I love the Kentucky summer. There’s something about the heat and humidity that puts you in another world. Soaks into your skin until it permeates your brain. Makes everything feel distant yet deep inside of you at the same time.

Despite my love for the summer weather, I certainly don’t love my hometown. Good ol’ Mt. Washington just feels so backwards and boring to me. It’s kind of sad, too. I mean, Main Street boasts a Dairy Queen, a church and a carwash, a handful of shuttered businesses, and the charred remnants of a junk store that turned out to be a meth lab (it exploded).

This truth-telling makes me feel guilty, like I’m a mean city girl who’s turned my back on my own people. But I haven’t, I swear. Besides, I know they all think I’m crazy for moving to Brooklyn. And that’s fine with me. We don’t have to understand each other’s choices.

The thing is, I never liked it here. Even though there are parts of my hometown that I desperately love, I always felt out of sorts, like I was just born in the wrong place. There’s something that will forever feel bizarre about cleaving my life the way I did when I moved to the Northeast.

cardinalYet today, as I looked out my car window at this strange hometown of mine, I actually saw some happiness. I’ve been looking out of my car window as a transplant for 13 years now, and it took me this long to realize that I always see so much sadness in my town because I look out and see my own sadness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t sadness here; people are bored, depressed, underworked and underpaid. Farmers have lost their livelihoods. Generic yet uniquely American strip malls have sprung up on the land that once meant everything to them. High school kids are on meth and heroin, they’re missing teeth, they eat bad food every day. But there are also high school kids smiling while they do tricks on their bikes and skateboards. There are contented parents sitting around the public pool while their kids squeal in the water. There are athletes running alongside the highway, sweating and glistening and gritting their teeth in that satisfied way the insanely athletic do. There are dogs and beers and lanky legs propped up on lawn chairs. There are vibrantly red cardinals flitting from one gorgeous tree to another over proud men mowing lawns with their shirts off. There are heavily accented, ridiculously friendly conversations in grocery store lines about butter. There are familiar faces waving and saying hello. There are swing sets and grills and the smell of damn good meat in the air.

It finally occurred to me today that when I look out at these pleasant markers of small town life, I don’t see them for what they are. Instead, they remind me of my own traumatic history, of my lanky legs with their hand-carved scars, of the childhood home the bank took away, of my mother, who is gone, who, in many ways, felt gone even when she was still here.

We have a choice about how we tell our stories, and I realized today that I’ve been telling myself a story of sadness, a story that started well enough with a cute little family full of love and happiness, but then mental illness and tragedy shattered it all. But wait! The young daughter made a swift exit, a getaway to a greater, more sophisticated place where she actually belonged, and she was saved! Phew!

Now that I can finally stare the sadness of my past in its face without disguising it as the sadness of this town, I can see how simple this version is. Even during those difficult years, we had happiness. My family’s story is not just about our tragic woes. It’s also about a writer discovering the importance of her creativity, the same creativity her mother shared and sparked and encouraged. It’s about a father who made his kids laugh at the darkest aspects of life. It’s about a brother and sister who gained strength from one another and grew into happy, healthy, big-hearted adults with kids of their own. It’s about four people who loved each other so much that, despite the angst they evoked in one another, figured out how to get to place of understanding and peace. It’s about a family that succeeded in the face of trauma.

I don’t need to feel sad and guilty about the fact that I am living my dream life in the greatest city in the world. I don’t need to look at my history and feel an uncanny confusion about who I was then versus who I am now. I know exactly how I got here, and it wasn’t on a trail of tears. I can let go of that guilt; it’s okay to dislike my hometown. It’s okay to see and feel sadness when I’m here. But it’s also okay to see and feel beauty and joy when I’m here. Perhaps I was rejecting or turning on a part of myself – the happy part of my teenage years – and now this guilt is fading because I’m finally embracing them while also giving myself permission to be who I am.

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These thoughts about home are all a valuable yet also long-winded way to avoid writing about my father’s cancer. Yep, that’s right. We (my husband, baby, dogs, and I) are here in Mt. Washington right now because my dad was just diagnosed with cancer. We’re here to see him and hug him and go to an oncologist appointment with him. We’re here to cook and freeze food so he’ll have easy options in case he needs treatment. We’re here to empty boxes that still remain from his recent move, to organize cabinets and put things away because he gets anxious when they are not and in turn feels peaceful when they are.

We are also here to distract him. Or rather, to listen to him. My dad is a talker and addresses all subjects head on. It’s a thing that I love and admire about him but that also drives me mad. We’ve discussed mindfulness and acupuncture and racism and gardening and too many other things to list. I feel a bit selfish and dramatic, sitting out on the balcony alone, ruminating about my mother’s death and our family’s rocky past, but his cancer has made the pain of my life feel fresh again and I needed a break. But instead, I’m out here freaking out over the fact that my dad is going to die. Maybe not right now, maybe not even from this cancer – the doctor said it is slow spreading – but good god, he’s going to die at some point and then I’m going to be an orphan, and that’s just how things are.

dadnlew2016I keep finding myself in these thought loops about what should or is supposed to be, and it’s a terrible and wrong thought loop to be in as nothing really should or is supposed to be, but come on, Dad should get more time than this after caring for my mom for so long and giving up so much. He’s 64, strong and otherwise healthy, smart, fun, funny, handsome. He should have a second wife, a second life. Instead, he gets cancer. And maybe this diagnosis and a second life aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe he doesn’t even want a second life. It’s just that I keep thinking about a future filled with dead people, grief and loneliness, and then I sink into a deep dark hole and wonder if this is what my mom, who lost her father when she was eight and then spiraled into mental illness from there, felt like all the time.

Good grief Becky, you need to climb out of this hole. This hole is in your head. You made it up. You are not in a hole but in fact on a balcony with a laptop and a beautiful sunset, waiting for your vibrant, very much alive chatterbox of a father to return from the store where he ran off in his pickup truck to buy a salad to accompany the pizza your gorgeous husband is cooking for dinner while your beautiful baby boy sleeps peacefully, guarded by your devoted dogs resting dutifully outside his door. You are here, rooted in a wonderful reality, surrounded by so much life.

“Hey Beck, there’s a light up there behind your head if you want me to turn it on for ya.”

I was so lost in my head that I didn’t see my father drive into the parking lot or walk up the stairs. As I stare at him now, I’m struck by how he is so much like himself, so outwardly unchanged despite the deformed cells changing him on the inside. I wonder what it feels like to have your own body turn against you like that…

No. Ruminating can be a dangerous thing. It is time to rejoin my reality.

***
Writer’s note: The oncologist reported that Dad’s cancer, CLL, was caught so early and is so slow-spreading that he does not need treatment and will not feel the effects of it for a long, long time.

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.

Memories

My mother loved all things Victorian, especially Victorian Christmases.

My mother loved all things Victorian, especially Victorian Christmases.

I received such an overwhelmingly positive response to my last post that I’ve decided to continue sharing my process with you.  So many people commented on my Facebook page about their experiences with grief or how they also struggle with talking about death.  I’m honored that something I wrote sparked this dialogue.  I think we should keep it up.  It’s important to share our stories.

This past week has been surprisingly okay for me.  I thought it was going to be a lot more stressful with the miserable month of holidays coming up, but so far, so good (it also helps that I went to acupuncture and was able to exercise almost every day).

That’s not to say it has all been nice and easy.  It occurred to me at some point during the week that when I was kid, my family used to put the Christmas tree up on the day after Thanksgiving.  At first, this memory felt sudden and overwhelming and I had to take some space to be alone and process it.  But the more I thought about it, the warmer and happier I started to feel. (more…)