Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
tendido_sign
I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.


Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.


Jun 1 2010

Spilling Over

On Sunday, my children saw me for the first time in ten days. They ran to me with that amped-up fondness that the heart manufactures during a long absence. Into my arms they flung themselves and I received them with equal exuberance, only I held on a little too tight, a little too long, a little too fierce. Quickly they were wriggling to free themselves.

“Happy French Mother’s Day!” They sang this out in unison, prompted, I’m pretty sure, by De-facto who, having made very little of the American Mother’s Day earlier in the month, hoped to make good. Last week’s school art projects helped the cause: Buddy-roo proudly handed over a large blue envelope she’d made that read bonne fête maman! Inside, a picture of a flowerpot covered with sparkles, and a poem, copied meticulously, no doubt, at the behest of the teacher after she wrote it in perfect penmanship on the chalkboard.

Short-pants had crafted, in her class, a small box out of construction paper. Inside it there were tiny notes with micro-messages, mots doux as she called them. “Maman, mon coeur,” or “I love you night and day.” Sweet words, indeed, scratched out in her familiar pen. These hand-made gifts so precious, so heart-felt and so tear-inducing. Damn it.

“Why are you crying?” Buddy-roo asked. Before I could answer, Short-pants chimed in. “Because she’s happy and sad at the same time. Right maman?”

I guess I’ve said that before.

These days tears are everywhere. They reside barely below the surface, wherever I turn. A group of scientists discuss new ways of visualizing biology in order to better understand it, and I’m a little choked up. Thirty strangers sing happy birthday to me, I press the tears down. A liberated Alice returns from the Underland at the end of an in-flight movie and I’m hunting for Kleenex. My Pilates trainer urges me forward in grueling sets of 8 and 12, I’m concentrating to hold the tears in, at least until the workout is over and I’m on the stairs outside.

A taxi drove me to attend a meeting yesterday at an address that I, too, was unsure of. I was dropped at the wrong building, which – no surprise – put me on the brink of tears. Hold it together, I counseled myself. Running mascara has very little professional merit. The receptionist assured me it was only a ten-minute walk to the other #163 Quai-de-Whatever, where I wanted to be. So I walked. On the way, a man dressed in white painted an iron fence a shade even whiter. Does he still have a mother, I wondered, and does he think of her often? A hundred meters later, under a trestle, I passed a hooker wearing short black shorts and an ankle-length black leather coat that flew open behind her with every step of her stride. She smelled of liquor and hair spray as she went by. How about her mother?

Everybody had a mother, at some point. Every time I look at anyone I pass, I wonder, do they still?

Thoughts rush by on a train of remorse. Why didn’t I spend more time with her this last year? My week-long visits every-other month were a stretch to make happen at the time; they seem pathetic in retrospect. Now that my mother is gone, now that I can’t ever visit her again, isn’t it ludicrous that I didn’t go every month? Or that I didn’t just move in?

I run through the last week of her life, a string of images are frozen in my mind: watching her dress herself slowly and carefully, laughing because it was taking so long. How she sipped her special juice drinks with a straw, but elegantly. As she weakened, how she would regard herself in the mirror, as if she did not recognize the not-well person she had become. This image is especially strong because I, too, was in it, off to the side, watching myself watching her talk to her own reflection. “I don’t know how to do this,” she whispered. “Neither do I,” I’d said, unable to contain the tears. But she didn’t cry about it. Ever. At least not in front of me.

This morning my daughters’ longer-and-lankier-than-ever bodies were nearly impossible to stir, their jet lag, now a week old, as fierce as mine is after just returning a day ago. Buddy-roo grumbled and stretched and turned to the side, “scratch my back.” I caressed her, urging her, gently and then more rigorously, to wake up and rally for the day. I went to rouse Short-pants, who sweats in her sleep. I pulled the comforter off her shoulder and swept the damp hair off her forehead. Her sleep was deep, but when she saw it was me, she jerked her arm from under the covers and wrapped it around my neck, pulling my head right up to hers. It was a strong, firm grip, very deliberate.

“You can take your time letting go,” I told her. So she drew me in closer, even tighter.

Tears. Again. My emotions spilling out like an overfilled tank. Or to draw a truly sad and timely analogy, like an oil spill. No small trickling here. Rather a fountain of feelings gushing out because of some sloppy fissure; messy, embarrassing, uncontainable, washing up on the shore for everyone to see.
I have an odd and eccentric empathy for those BP engineers. Some spills are not so easily contained.


Feb 24 2009

You’re supposed to feel

Somebody always has something to say about how you’re supposed to feel. Once I worked for a man with bad hair, and he accused me of being too sensitive. “How much is sensitive enough?” I asked him. A lover once told me I was too mental, “You can’t think through your life, you have to feel it.” Both of these comments came at about the same time. I didn’t know what to make of it; was I too feeling, or not enough?

When I was pregnant – this seems like ages ago – I was informed by others, often complete strangers, how I ought to feel about becoming a mother. There were, apparently, designated emotions of excitement, anticipation, and joy, and the fact that I felt other feelings like dread, fear and suffocation – not on the condoned list – meant I’d crossed a line, putting the sacred institution of motherhood at risk. “Oh but you must be so excited,” people would correct me, denying me my inalienable right to feel miserable.

So I felt it anyway, just more quietly.

This inspired me, once I hatched small beings into the world, to be very mindful of the casual language we end up using around feelings. “Don’t be sad,” we say unconsciously to a small pouting child. What is that about? Telling a child that the rush of sadness that came over you just now is somehow wrong, you shouldn’t feel it? You have to be one of those happy shiny people all the time?

Not that we should overindulge their sadness or anger. But sometimes, doing a little bit of nothing does the trick. Emotions, like waves, follow their course, crashing on to the shore and receding back into the larger body of water. One wave follows the next, and they just keep coming.

Yesterday Short-pants was angry at me. She made this obvious by putting her feelings in writing and slipping the large note loudly under my door. I didn’t try to talk her out of it. “You are really angry,” I said, like I learned in
mean_mamaa book about how to talk with kids. And just like the book promises, if you wait a beat, the whole story pours out about what she wanted and what Buddy-roo wanted and what I did and didn’t do…the whole crisis is illuminated. The anger, once expressed, begins to dissipate, sometimes merely from the fact of not being denied.

Maybe anger has a half-life, and half of it goes away when you get that it’s just plain okay to feel that way for a little while.

But what about me? What do I do with my pent up I’m-fed-up-with-all-this? How do I get to express my longing? Or my sadness, my fear? Little eyes are always watching. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, just to have a moment alone to process. But little fists learn quickly how to knock incessantly. And besides, why should I shield them from what’s real?

Of course I try to contain the more difficult feelings, but when I can’t keep them in, I simply don’t. I’ve stormed into the girls’ room in a rage, their little faces shocked and their little bodies recoiling from the force of my angry words. I’ve backed up against the wall and let my body slide down it until I’m sitting with my forehead against my knees, heaving tears. About these outbursts I do not apologize; I explain. Later, when the feeling has ebbed, we sit on the stairs and I say something like “Mama was pretty angry, I wish I hadn’t been so loud that I frightened you,” or “Mama was pretty sad, wasn’t I?”

But what if something happens and you don’t feel anything? Like when you’re supposed to feel and you can’t figure out how? Or you’re just, numb? Can they see that too? Which is more damaging to them, I wonder: to witness rage, fear, and sadness or to watch their mother stoically stand at the counter, sponging over the cutting board in a circular motion again and again and again, just to get at the nothing that’s brewing within?