family

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 and a bar, 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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Brain-Picking Becky #12: On Daughterhood

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As I drove my 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 dad’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, 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’s given 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 (a problem I wrote about back in Brain-Picking #4) 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 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.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Writer’s Note: I edited some typos hours after publishing this piece. Otherwise, I stuck to the rules.

Brain-Picking Becky #4: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 2

I’ve always believed that people can change. Actually, it’s not really a belief; we can count on the fact that people will change. Studying Buddhism has allowed me to more deeply understand this concept and to see how we create so much unnecessary pain for ourselves by holding onto a past version of something that has already changed. What’s interesting to me though is that I’ve always been on the opposite end of this spectrum. I like change. In fact, I find comfort in change.

However, I’m feeling stuck when it comes to relating to my family, like no matter how much I don’t want to hold onto a past version of us, I just can’t seem to get rid of it. Yes, obviously, my relationship with my dad and brother has changed dramatically over time, especially since my mom died. But I feel frustrated because I wanted to see more change after her death, and instead, this last visit felt an awful lot like how it used to be, just now without Mom. I find myself wondering if there’s something so deeply rooted in each of us and in the family group itself that no matter how many other changes take place, when we get together, we’ll always go back to what it was like when my brother and I were kids. I know there’s a ton of research out there about the psychology of families, and one day when I’m not mothering, teaching, writing and music-ing, I’ll look it up and be fascinated. But even if I did have that time right now, I feel like I need to make more sense out of my own family before diving into applying psychological theory to it.

Let me explain. I wrote the bulk of Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 1 back in July on the third day of our summer visit. My husband, baby, dogs and I stayed in Kentucky for four more days after that, totaling a week of us living with my dad in his two-bedroom apartment. I love my dad – he’s so funny, we have a lot of simpatico, and we truly, deeply enjoy one another – but a week is far too long for any adult to stay in her hometown with her dad, especially when they both have anxiety disorders. Despite my solid attempts at staying present, shit from my past kept boiling up and I kept missing my mom and worrying about a future full of dead people (I actually don’t fear my own death that much but completely dread being left alive after all of my people have died). With my dad’s cancer appointment looming on the last day of the visit, Dad and I were both operating at record-breaking anxiety highs and got into a heated debate over gun control, of all things. It is no secret that I share the exact opposite views of my father on many issues, but I’m really good at censoring myself and avoiding key topics during visits. But between the anxiety and the ghosts of my past and the cancer appointment and the exhaustion of being a mom and a daughter at the same time, I let my guard down and it got ugly.

We recovered. There were sincere apologies and hugs before bed. But I still had a lot of emotions churning through me and cleaning is my favorite compulsion, so I attacked that sink of dirty dishes like only the OCD can do. About halfway through, as I was angrily scrubbing a plate, heart racing, stomach clenching, annoyed at my father for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for getting so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not being there, I burst out laughing. This exact moment of anxiously washing dishes and feeling these particular emotions was so, so familiar. I just hadn’t experienced it in the three years since Mom had died.

In some ways, it was comforting. Yes, this is what my relationship with my family feels like, and things were so thrown off by my mother’s death that we’d forgotten how to be mad at one other. Those three years after her death allowed my father and I to become more honest and much closer with one another, and my brother and I to grow more into our own people and respect one another in a deeper way. The three of us broke down barriers and became more openly loving and just more open in general. But we were also delicate with one another and perhaps too lax about this newfound openness. Most adult children do not tell their adult parents and siblings everything about their lives. In fact, many families function well because of the boundaries they’ve established. The gun control blowout was a reminder of this very important lesson.

But in other ways, this moment felt bad. Like, mom’s death bought us three years and now we’re back to how it used to be where despite how much we love each other, we also make each other anxious. So as my car full of creatures rolled closer and closer to Kentucky for our Christmas visit, I kept wondering, What is my relationship with my dad and brother going to be like this time?

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I won’t keep you in suspense – it was quite enjoyable but also anxious-making. We had some delicious meals and fun conversations and silly jokes, and yes, I also found myself angrily scrubbing dishes, heart-racing, stomach-clenching, annoyed at my dad for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for being so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not responding to my texts. But this is how it is, you know? A lot of things have changed and a lot of things haven’t. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. We love and enjoy each other and it is truly special to see my dad with my son, to see my son with my brother’s sons. The future of our family feels promising. This is all good stuff. Perhaps the real issue here isn’t that we aren’t completely open with one another or that we make each other anxious, but that I wanted to see more of a change or a different kind of change than what actually occurred.

I started this piece by writing about how people create unnecessary pain for themselves through holding onto a past version of something, but here I am creating unnecessary pain for myself by holding onto an imagined version of something. It can be difficult to accept life as is, but in those lovely moments when I actually am able to do that, things suddenly feel a lot easier.

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Writer’s Note: It took me 100 minutes to write and edit this one. The 60 minute challenge is really hard.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #3: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 1

I’ve been interested in the concept of “home” for most of my life. Is it the house I grew up in? The state? The country? Is it where I live now? Is it my body? Or is it an idea rather than something physical?

I still say phrases like, “I’m going home for Christmas,” or, “Going home is good and difficult at the same time.” Yet I strongly identify with New York as my home and Kentucky as the place I am from. KY the homeland, NY the homehome. Which means they are both simultaneously my home. Yet my childhood house was taken by the bank, a tragedy that still finds its way into my nightmares, and my dad moved from the place he shared with my mom into his own apartment after she died, so when I go home, there’s no physical house to go to. But he still lives in the town I grew up in, so there are the familiar stores and schools and fields, though much of that has also changed. Similarly in New York, I feel at home in my apartment yet it isn’t mine, I don’t own it nor intend to live in it long-term. I consider Prospect Lefferts Gardens to be my home, but it’s the third neighborhood I’ve lived in here in NYC, and besides, Brooklyn is known for how rapidly its storefronts and populations change, meaning that even if I had stayed put, most everything around me would look different. So yet again I circle back to, What is home?

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Anyway, this entry is a two-parter. First, something I wrote when visiting Dad in my hometown back in July. Then, in the next few days, I’ll post part two about our most recent visit that started with the road trip described in Brain-Picking Becky #2: Notes From the Road.

Out of dedication to honesty, I wrote and edited this intro in 35 minutes. I spent an hour writing Part 1 back in July but then edited it a bit today before posting. I promise Part 2 will be written and edited in an hour only (this challenge is hard, give me a break).

From July 2, 2016:

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 and makes everything feel distant yet deep inside of you at the same time.

Being back home in Mt. Washington is always a funny thing. I just don’t like it here. It seems so sad and boring to me. I look at everything with such a city girl air that I make myself feel guilty. Mean. Judgmental of my own people. But I’m not being judgy. I understand that they look at my life in Brooklyn with the same awe, think the same thoughts about why someone would ever want to live that way. I think the guilt is less about being snobby and more about a feeling that I’ve somehow rejected or turned my back on a part of myself. But even that isn’t true; I never liked it here. I always felt out of sorts, despite the things I desperately love about my hometown. I was just born in the wrong place, and there’s something that will always feel bizarre about cleaving my life the way I did when I moved to the Northeast.

cardinalDespite all of this, today, for the first time, I was able to look out of my car window at this strange hometown of mine and see happiness. I’ve been looking out of my car window as a transplant for 13 years now, and it took this long to realize that I see so much sadness here 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, and 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 above proud men mowing lawns with their shirts off. There are familiar faces waving and saying hello, there are heavily accented, ridiculously friendly conversations in grocery store lines about butter, there are swing sets and grills and the smell of damn good meat in the air. It finally occurred to me today that within each of these pleasant, small town markers, I still see my own lanky legs with their hand-carved scars, smell the remnants of barbecues that taunted my anorexic resolve. The cardinals and trees and swing sets remind me of the house the bank took from us. The contented families remind me that my mother is gone, and that in some ways, she felt gone even when she was still here.

We have a choice about how we tell our stories (I stole this line from Hazel of The Fault in Our Stars; brilliant). I realized today that I’ve been telling myself a story of sadness, a story that started well enough with a cute family filled with love and happiness that was shattered by mental illness and tragedy. A story of a girl who was saved by her swift exit, her getaway to a greater, more sophisticated place where she actually belonged. But now that I can finally stare the sadness of my past in its face without disguising it as the sadness of this town, I realize how even during those difficult years, there was happiness. My family’s story is not just about our tragic woes, but it is also about a young artist discovering the importance of her creativity, the same creativity that her mother shared and sparked and encouraged. It’s a story of people who loved each other so much that despite the angst they evoked in one another, their deep-rooted connection brought them to a place of understanding and peace. It’s a story of a brother and sister who learned how to be strong and big-hearted enough to grow into happy, healthy, educated people in loving relationships with kids of their own. It’s about a daughter and father who made each other laugh at the darkest aspects of life. Despite my scars and boniness and our collective insanities, we succeeded as a family. 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. Perhaps I was rejecting or turning on a part of myself, the happy part of my teenaged years, and now this guilt is fading because I’m finally embracing them while also giving myself permission to just be who I am.

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I don’t let myself off so easily when it comes to the guilt about not getting more manicures and pedicures with my mom, however. It seems like the dumbest, most trivial thing, but whenever I’m home and I pass Xscape, the salon/spa in town, I am overcome with guilt. My mom just wanted to spend more time doing relaxing things with me on my visits, and instead I pushed her to go visit other people, mainly my granny (her mother). The three of us were close – they practically raised me together – and we had a lovely rapport. Granny is old and sick and I thought my time with her was more limited than my time with my mom. And to be honest, I was also afraid to spend that much time alone with Mom, who, because of the medicine combined with her illness, shook uncontrollably, struggled to keep up with conversations, and sometimes drooled or spilled food on herself. One weekend in my late twenties, I flew in with a long list of questions, a tape recorder, a notepad, and a pen to interview Granny about her life. I wanted Mom to be there for some of it but not all. I knew Granny would open up to me more if it were just the two of us. I also wanted a break from the drain of my mother. On the final morning before I began our last interviewing session, I gave Granny a manicure while she, Mom and I talked about something (I can’t remember what), and then when Mom asked if I would give her a pedicure, I shied away, saying that it was already late and I had so many questions to get through. It was true; I really did have a project and only one more day to finish it. I also have a thing where I feel squeamish and a little nauseous about touching other peoples’ toes (though I didn’t explain this because it makes me feel silly). Mom understood and it was not a big deal, she didn’t even look that disappointed, but now that she’s dead and Granny is here, playing with my baby who my mother will never meet, I am ripped apart over the fact that I didn’t give her that damn pedicure, that I didn’t delay visiting Granny long enough to spend one more hour alone with her at Xscape, that I didn’t listen to her better. How was I to know we only had a few more years?

Being home can be hard. But now that the humidity has broken and a gorgeous sunset is setting in, I’m coming back to myself, back to this world. Ruminating can be dangerous.

These thoughts about home and my mom are all a valuable yet also long-winded way to avoid writing about my father’s cancer. We (my husband, baby, dogs, and I) are here right now because of it. We’re here to see him and hug him and go to an oncologist appointment with him. We’re here to make 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 get things in place because he gets anxious when they are not and in turn feels peaceful when they are. We’ve talked about mindfulness and acupuncture and racism and gardening and cancer and my mom and too many other things to list. My dad is a talker and he addresses all subjects head on. It’s a thing that I love and admire about him but that also drives me mad. I feel kind of selfish and dramatic, sitting here ruminating about my mother’s death and our rocky past, but his cancer has made the pain of my life feel fresh again, and Mom died only three years ago, anyway, so, as my therapist said, I need to stop being so hard on myself. I just can’t freaking fathom being an orphan. His cancer is not deadly, it is slow spreading, he will very most likely die from something else, but good god, he’s going to die at some point. And that’s how things are. If people are lucky, they witness their parents’ deaths.

dadnlew2016It just feels so unlucky. I keep finding myself in these thought loops about what should or is supposed to be, and it’s a really 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 her death, after caring for her for so long, after 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. I just think about a future filled with dead people and sickness and grief and loneliness and then I sink deeply into a hole and I wonder if this is what my mother felt like all the time. Then I think that I need to climb out of this hole. And then I think, this hole is in my head. I made up this hole. I am not in a hole but in fact on a balcony with a laptop and a beautiful sunset, waiting for my vibrant, very much alive chatterbox of a father to return from the store where he ran off in his pickup truck to buy us a salad to accompany the pizza that my gorgeous husband is clanging around in the kitchen making for us, noises that my beautiful baby son is peacefully sleeping through while my devoted dogs rest dutifully outside his door. I am here, rooted in a wonderful reality. And then, because I’m committed to honesty, my next thought actually is, This is a long, wandering piece of writing that brings up so many themes and doesn’t connect them together in any kind of coherent way. Then, What the hell is wrong with you?

“Hey Beck, there’s a light up there right behind your head if you want me to turn it on for you.” My father is home. I am struck by how he is so much like himself, so outwardly unchanged despite the deformed cells inside.

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.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #1: 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, it still sucks. But you know what? It doesn’t and it won’t ever 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.

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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 felt happy inside. And I sang her favorite song to Lewis and we smiled together (I couldn’t even listen to that song for a year after she died, much less sing it to my son in the midst of a grief spell). I also told him about how we’ll bake her cookie recipes on her birthday and 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 complain about Christmas 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, for me, to keep myself from falling into that dark hole of my past, and for her, because she is not here to do so and how dare I waste this beautiful gift of life? 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…)

Grieving My Mother: How I’m Really Doing So Far

My mom with her first grandchild, Ian, my nephew.

My mom with her first grandchild, Ian, my nephew.

In the past two months since my mother’s death, many people have asked me how I’m doing.  I’ve wanted to answer honestly.  Instead I’ve said, “I’m okay,” or, “It’s up and down,” or, “Getting better with time.”  None of these clichés come close to capturing my experience, but they work in context.  People want to let me know that they care.  I acknowledge and appreciate their care without forcing either of us into a real conversation about death.

At the end of the day though, I keep finding myself compelled to share more.  I want to get this out of me.  And I want you to hear it.  I want us to have that real conversation.  But I can’t seem to find the words.  Even when I’m talking with a good, trust-worthy friend, I speak about how I’ve grown, what I’ve learned about myself, how it’s hard but important, how her death has helped me to better appreciate life.  While these things are true, they’re only half of it.  Why can’t I find the words I need to talk about all of my experience?

It occurred to me recently that I can’t find these words because they’re not here.  Our society doesn’t talk about the messy side of death.  Our society doesn’t allow for open discussions on grief.  Death and grief are depressing.  Morbid.  Weird.  Only freaks talk about death.

Because of this, we as a society didn’t develop a common language for sharing the entirety of our experiences surrounding death.  In fact, we developed language that pointedly doesn’t share our whole experience.  “Up and down” doesn’t mean anything at all.  Everyone is up and down, regardless of death or grief.

And now, here I am, trying to let you know how I’m doing and finding it difficult because in order to really let you know, it’s got to get messy.  For me, that’s okay.  People who are in the midst of grieving shouldn’t have to worry about sounding too morbid or freaky.  They shouldn’t be asked to only share the “acceptable” pieces of their experience.  They should let it all out.  And people on the receiving end should be honest, too.  It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, saddened, or angered when hearing about the experience of death.  In fact, it’s good to feel something.  The more you talk and feel about death, the better.  I badly wish anyone had shared the reality of death with me before I learned it firsthand.  While nothing could have prepared me for this experience, a little knowledge on what to expect would have been nice.

So, for those of you who asked me how I’m doing and really meant it, here goes.

The sadness can still be overwhelming at times.  It starts in my chest.  A tight clenching and shortness of breath.  Then it’s like a hand reaches up from my heart and grips my throat.  I cry so hard my face, neck and head hurt.

Other times, the sadness is more subtle, like the way my left ankle, the one I sprained years ago, occasionally aches on cold days.

Sometimes, the sadness is surprising.  I’ll be in a good mood, absorbed and happy, when it suddenly takes me over.  There may be a trigger, like the girl I babysit for receiving a phone call from her mother’s mother, an experience I will not get to share with my future children.  Or, there may be no trigger at all.

The lack of sadness can be surprising, too.  Like last week when I spoke with one of my aunts for the first time since the funeral.  We talked about how much my mom struggled, how we’re glad she’s no longer suffering but how much we miss her.  My aunt cried hard.  I somehow didn’t feel sad at all.

Then there are moments where I can’t stand how unfair it all is.  How unfair that my mother had to deal with such extreme mental illness.  How unfair that after all of that work to rebuild our relationship, she died.  I get mad at her for not having been honest with me about how sick she was, for not having held on just a couple more months until we had one more visit together.  I get mad at myself for having ever blamed her for anything, for not having asked her more questions when I had the chance, for not fully understanding her situation.

Thankfully, my anger is not long lasting; I can’t imagine how different this would feel if we hadn’t had those years of rebuilding.  I can pass whole days now feeling warm and happy, filled up with her presence.  I tote her on the back of my bike and complain to her about annoying pedestrians.  We walk the dogs through the park together.  We eat lunch on the beach.  I tell her secrets I never would have in real life.  These are my favorite days.

There are also days where my emotions take a break but my mind has trouble.  Big questions about the point of life.  Little questions about what to do with my evening.  I get trapped in obsessive cycles, asking myself the same questions, repeating the same thoughts.  It’s difficult to get anything done.  On these days, I feel lost.

And then there are times where I don’t think about or feel it at all.  I used to have guilt over these moments.  Now I find hope in them.  My mother’s death has changed my life, but it won’t always consume it.

I’m grateful that enough time has passed that I can look back and see the progress I’ve made.  I do feel better than I did in September.  I haven’t burst into tears on the sidewalk for a few weeks now.  I can conjure up good memories more often than I could before.  I can’t look at the photographs yet, but I can listen to her favorite musician without blubbering.

Still, I struggle to find balance.  How much should I rest versus how much should I push myself to write, to sing, to exercise?  How much should I be actively processing it all versus how much should I let go?   They say giving into the depression and anxiety is unhealthy.  It’s good to keep up old routines.  But they also say pushing yourself too much will backfire.  You need to take time to heal.  They say making space to feel whatever comes up is the only option.  Be sure you don’t ignore any of it.  But they also say surrounding yourself with friends is the remedy.  Do not get trapped in your grief.

I could do this to myself all day.  Instead, I make a decision and go with it.  Sometimes, it’s the right decision.  Sometimes, it’s not.  And that’s okay.  I’m learning that life can still be enjoyable even when things are tough.

While grieving is a universal experience, it’s also a very personal experience.  What I’ve written about does not describe what it’s like for everyone.  I’m very lucky to have the support I have; I’m grateful to everyone who has reached out to me.  I hope that we can continue through this process together and that, through talking about death, we can all learn and better appreciate the value of it.