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.

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.

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…)

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.