I was all set to do laundry on New Year’s Day. The baskets were loaded, the darks picked clean of stray white socks. Then I happened upon the superstition that if you do the wash on the first of the year, you may “wash away a loved one” in the process. I slow-cooked my pork and sauerkraut and waited for January 2.
Five people I knew passed in 2010. One man held me as a baby. One death ushered me into 40. Three more friends, acquaintances, members of my extended community, were gone in a grim flipbook of months or moments.
I make weekly visits to a woman who put her hand over my heart and lifted me last year, who has comforted me with Kleenex and new community and wise words like “go home and read everything you can about acceptance.” Now she is on a twisting journey through metastasized stage four pancreatic cancer and even when I see her under the auspices of showing up to help her, it’s me who gets the help.
I take her food stamp card out to pick up sockeye salmon, orange juice and grits. I walk her granddaughter into a doctor’s office where I am met with a raft of love and prayers and good wishes to take back to the little apartment she so loves because it is surrounded by trees and the walls are increasingly papered with get well cards. I learn how little a person can have and still give and give and light up the lives of other people. I relearn the importance of waking up early, holding my son’s face in my hands and telling him how grateful I am that his face is the first one I laid eyes on in 2011. As much as I want to shed the chaos and pain of the past year’s trail of loss, I also want to stay here, present in what it’s given me, for as long as I am.
I’m learning more than I ever imagined at my age about many ways that people get sick. About many ways that people die. About Jedi nutrition tricks, magical thinking and cold, dark, depressed spaces. I’m stretched thin along the hair’s distance between life and death, between health and a hard diagnosis.
In the days before 2010 expired, I found out there are other people I care about who are now doing their own dances with cancer. After learning her own fate, one gave me a strong symbol of her faith for Christmas, a bit of protection, a message that in the midst of fracturing family, certain things are not lost. I’m wondering if it’s time to lose a few inches of hair again and offer it to cancer.
I couldn’t do the laundry on New Year’s Day. But not exactly because I am afraid of losing another person. I know that I will, and whether that happens in 2011 or 2021 is not in my hands. But there is not one thing, not one person, not one stain from the experiences of this (or any) tour around the sun that I want to see cleansed from my life.
I looked up at the life-sized replica of a blue whale, diving toward the ground in the Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History. I couldn’t find a logical reason for it to hang there securely, touching the ceiling with only a small portion of its spine. I was certain that if I ventured beneath the lines of its long, wide belly it would fall and I’d be crushed.
But I inched toward it, stretched my leg outward and planted one foot in the line of mortal danger before pulling it right back out again. I filled my lungs with air, took a full step in and dashed back out like my foot was on fire. Then I steeled myself and went under again, maybe two or three steps before my hasty retreat. Finally I held my breath, sprinted beneath the whale’s most daunting section and stood there, not blinking, for the length of a heartbeat.
I can remember doing this a few times as a child on weekend visits to Manhattan. Once I’d mustered the courage to gaze straight up into the metric ton of fiberglass whale jowls, my work there was done. I’d found the courage to face and survive my fabricated deathtrap scenario. I was ready to explore the open sea. Or the third grade.
In my twenties, I bought a big postcard of the AMNH whale on a trip back east to pin to a bulletin board that hung above my desk. A timid alternative weekly reporter who sometimes had to tackle a governor for comment or interview an ex-Neo Nazi, there were many days when I felt myself reliving that ritual. I’d stick my toe into that civic event, linger on the side, then bolt right up to that politician and breathlessly ask my hard question. Although, truth be told, I think George Voinovich reminded me more of a woodchuck than a majestic whale when I stared into his jowls.
A coworker puzzled over the postcard once when he stopped to talk to me. I explained my childhood ritual, and said venturing under the whale seemed like life in our struggling medium. He laughed appreciatively, and began whooping “living under the whale!” over my cubicle wall at me whenever he passed by. This would be, we joked during smoke breaks, the name of my memoir one day.
I’ve faced a few falling whales since I was seven, and not all of them have been a product of my imagination. This year, I feel like I might as well get a 100-foot backpack and carry the thing around. That’s just the kind of year it’s been — relentless in its bad news and losses and lessons. 2010 has some kind of point to make.
But the days of immediate stress and crisis are, in some ways easier than the days you spend in their wake. Still tired, you stand on the perimeter of the room, deciding how, or whether you should even try to face your personal boogeymammal. You start thinking about which screws you loosened in your own life that helped things fall apart. Suddenly the Hall of Ocean Life is the last place you want to visit.
Yesterday I met a friend for coffee and we reminded each other of a piece of advice we’d both been given by our wiser friends: Sometimes you have to let yourself mourn the life you were expecting, the life thought you deserved, in order to move on. In some ways, I feel like I’ve already been doing that for a while, but I’ve signed a one-year commitment to an Al-Anon 12 Step group to keep pushing through that process to a new place.
I used to think the steps were something only alcoholics do, but I no longer see it as a chore or a burden. It’s an unburdening. I feel so lucky that this opportunity to try and build a brick house beneath the whale has come to me.
I don’t know how much more I will say directly about that process here – maybe nothing, maybe a ton – but it felt important to at least say it once. Today would have been my 10th wedding anniversary, an occasion to celebrate under different circumstances. Writing this – putting that first toe back out into the line of mortal peril – is how I’m handling that.
I took my son to the AMNH this summer, where we made it a point to venture into the Hall of Ocean Life, even though he would have happily spent the entire visit without leaving its Rose Center for Earth and Space. I told him about my childhood fears. He stood under all 96 feet of whale, looking up and said “this doesn’t scare me, mom.” I thought about being hurt, but instead I said “I’m glad. I’m not scared of it anymore either.”
He honored me by buying a plush version of the whale as the emblem of the place he loved the most in New York City.
When I went out East in August, I was beginning to feel lighter.
I felt invisible at BlogHer, but that was mainly because you have to work so hard to be visible at BlogHer, and I’m not much good at doing that on my own behalf. Having my son in tow and my liveblogging shifts, I didn’t have much energy for it. Meanwhile, my email inbox and east coast conversations bustled with unexpected work possibilities — things to consider or do when I got home and Declan started going to school full time. I was looking forward to this hard and glorious autumn full of work and schedules and cool air and time for coffee with friends during the day and possibilities.
But when I came home and started following up, my emails went out like arrows, got stuck in the wall behind the people I was trying to reach and weren’t returned. Or minds were changed. I searched for new possibilities and found some really promising ones, but the same thing happened. It’s been frustrating. The more I try to advance, the more I feel like I’ve been checkmated.
So I’ve been doing invisible things. Like spending time in places I usually drive past with the windows closed. Places that have been invisible to me. I’ve carried household things my mom or friends didn’t want to an apartment complex that used to be another blur on the side of freeway. Now it’s home to a friend who is restarting his life with little more than what people have seen fit to give him.
I’ve sat next to a hospital bed, trying to keep an ear on the medical staff as they tended to a person who told me she loved me the first day we met. Another person who has shown me that you can lose everything, that your whole life can turn over, and you can come out of it better than you were before.
I’ve spent time inside of an urban church so humble you could barely distinguish it from an old used furniture shop. I sat on one of its folding chairs and stared at its plastic purple flowers. Just like the old urban church that is now a Buddhist temple that I frequent, I have found that it’s a place of extraordinary grace.
And there’s so little I can say here beyond that about these things, which are the things I can feel in my chest the most right now, I wonder that I should be writing here anymore at all.
It’s a funny thing, this business of living through periods of chaos. A long term illness ends. A person dies. You’re insanely busy getting a funeral together and somehow after that, you think that things are going to get easier, that the natural rhythm of your life will return.
But chaos and I had made peace. I had gotten used to waking up in a house that isn’t my own, bracing my son, my mom or my stepdad in whatever ways I could, then carving out deliberate chunks of time for myself to make sure that I didn’t collapse beneath the constant weight of things. Crisis was this thick brush I could cut through and then look back on. There was this satisfyingly clear path behind me, slivered with grace.
But things got harder when I expected them to get easier. Grief has been itchy, with shooting pains. Sleeping has been harder. I’ve polished off a bottle of Zantac and my right foot has done a lot of tapping in the middle of the night. Another friend died. The idea that I had that I would have a real 40th birthday party for myself later, on a day when we weren’t asking “is he still breathing?” every half an hour didn’t pan out.
But nice things have happened. I’m an honored blogger at BlogHer ’10. On Friday, in New York City, I’ll find out how some visual artist or photographer has interpreted this post. I have found the organizers that I will be working with as a volunteer to be utterly gracious and accommodating to a mom who is traveling on her own with a 5-year-old son. When I went looking for a place to stay, I found a truly generous and kind roommate. I became an aunt for the fifth time to an early but healthy boy on Friday.
And when BlogHer is over, I have plans to reconnect with surrogate sisters, childhood friends, family, college friends and past colleagues. Best of all, I have plans to play with my son in the city I identify with my best childhood adventures. We will climb onto a plane today.
I haven’t had time to fret or obsess over who I’m going to meet at this conference. I’m going wit my heart open to people, not products. And I expect little, other than a mallish form of chaos, and I’ve established that I’m good with chaos.
I will try and tweet the links to the liveblogs as they happen. I’ll also obviously be at the gala on Friday night. Wave your arms at me if you’re one of those people that isn’t too keen on smalltalk. Hope I find you there.
My son and I went to the grocery store today. It had been days.
As we finished up in the self-checkout lane, an older woman behind us didn’t wait for us to finish bagging before she threw her groceries onto the conveyor belt. One package of applesauce cups came flying down to us. Then another. And another. And another. We could tell where our groceries ended and hers began because of the growing barricade of applesauce.
“Sorry,” she said. But she didn’t stop what she was doing so that we could finish bagging. She looked hurried and preoccupied. I flung the rest off our things into bags and got out of her way as quickly as I could. Not that she noticed.
“That was a lot of applesauce,” said Declan. “Do you think maybe her husband is very sick? Or maybe he could be dying.”
When a person can swallow very little, but still needs medication, applesauce is one way to deliver it.
My stepfather passed away the morning after my birthday. Quietly. Peacefully. In my mother’s home, where we are staying. It took three days before hospice came and took the hospital bed. It was six days before we held the the funeral.
Today, I woke up thinking about yesterday’s solar eclipse, wondering if it will really change the world as much as astrologers said that it would. Today is the first average weekday since our little world shifted. Our perspective on just about everything has shifted. Including applesauce.
Growing up, I remember the phone ringing at the butt crack of dawn on every one of my birthdays. Once, as a teenager, I grouched a little at my mother as she came in and nudged me out of sleep to answer it.
“You won’t have this forever,” she warned me, whispering. “You will miss it someday.”
Early this morning I woke up, squeezed my eyes shut and listened for the sound on that phone line – the sound of my grandparents, their voices chipper and full of the rural Ohio upbringing that makes every R sound like a sharp turn while the Gs in ings go awol and yous come out as yas. They always wanted to be the first to wish all of their children and grandchildren Happy Birthday. And mom was right. I miss that. I do.
Today my mom sang to me while Declan held my face and waited to tell me, intently, that on Ni Hao Kai-Lan, the children sometimes travel inside of floaty bubbles. My brother called and sister-in-law called sang while their son punctuated each line with an aggressive “CHACHACHA!” Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve already been flooded with messages and I’m starting this day feeling loved and hopeful.
Two things guaranteed that today would be a quiet celebration. First, the biggest fireworks in the city happen downtown, which would be like asking friends to sit in traffic gridlock if I wanted to, say, meet them for dinner.
And then there’s my stepdad, who has passed the point of speaking or eating or doing much in the way of responding to this realm. We’ve been bracing for the impact of his passing for a couple of years, more intensely in recent months, and round-the-clock for the past several days. I’m well past dreading the idea that he could pass away on my birthday. Instead, if I could take some of the good juju and love I’m receiving for this birthday, I’d pour it into the wish that he finds whatever love he needs within himself in order to let go peacefully.
I’ve decided to honeymoon with 40, and celebrate it with a crowd of people that I like soon because I want to and I actually think I deserve to. But today, this is how I want to do it. I want to be mindful and prayerful through the day and to pretend that things are brilliantly exploding in celebration of my future and my stepdad’s past through the evening. I want to meditate on passages and new beginnings and eat crab legs and be hopeful.
Earlier this week, Dec gave me the best possible birthday gift I could have asked for. He’s been reading individual words for a long time, but worried over trying to read a book by himself and often refused to try. I gently reminded him on Monday night that I still learn a lot of new words, and that lots of things that he thinks are easy, like astronomy, are things that many people would consider hard.
He slept on it, and the next morning, started reading some of the Bob Books at the breakfast table as though he’d been doing it all his life. And as silly as those short, confidence-building books are, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.
My stepdad’s life has been filled with books and I know that he would be so proud of this. So Declan read “Fun in the Sun,” to his Grandfafa before bed that same day, and I talked out loud about how many books were in the house, how avid a reader his Grandfafa had been. My stepdad tried very hard to say something in response, so I know that he heard and received this gift as well.
So far, 40 is birth and death and new language and hope and memory and a pain in the pit of my stomach. It’s Buddhist mantras wrapped in silver around my thumb as I dive through this zero, sheathed by reminders of our impermanence. It’s a call to live well and let things happen, make things happen, to live by the serenity prayer and be more open, more loving.
This song came up on my iPod on my way to my son’s camp this morning, and it strummed every nerve in my body: Calling All Angels.
Listen, be well, have a beautiful weekend and if you’re into prayer, say one for my stepdad, ok?
I wish I felt comfortable writing my way through this time.
I’d like to tell you about the fact that my son and I have been living at my mother’s since February because I needed to separate from my husband. I needed things to change. It was excruciating for a while and it is still not easy. We’re at a crossroads. We take things day by day. Sometimes I’ve only taken them moment by moment. We still plan on doing another radio show together. We are still family, connected by this amazing person we created — this person that I wouldn’t want to deprive of his father’s love or the ability to know who and where he comes from. One way or another, a new life will be built. I just have no idea what that life will look like.
I’d like to tell you about the remarkable meetings and support groups I’ve found for the families of addicts and alcoholics. About the evenings when I find myself in a room with people I never imagined knowing, let alone being vulnerable with, and how they humble and lift me. How this 78-year-old woman heard me state the facts of my life, asked to hug me, and, once I agreed, whispered “that is one heavy load you are carrying.” She closed her eyes and pressed her hand over my heart with a prayer. Her warmth thawed my many years of cynicism about Al-Anon meetings. She helped me to hear what I needed to hear, to take what I needed, as they are so fond of saying, and leave the rest.
I’d like to tell you what it’s like to live with a stepfather who is dying and has Lewy Body Disease, which combines the debilitating physical symptoms of Parkinsons with dementia. About the things I can’t see that are apparently here, like cars that keep pulling into the house, dead dogs lying around, men moving freezers, people with scissors and family members that have long since passed. How, before he stopped being able to walk a few weeks ago, he showed up in my room one morning because he couldn’t find my mother. He thought he had to hold his breath for as long as she wasn’t in the room with him. As I watch my mother try to manage each day, I see just how brutal the business of caregiving can be.
I’d like to tell you what a house feels like after hospice swoops in, about the book they gave my mother that details what to look for in the last weeks, days, hours and moments before a person dies. About how strange and refreshing it is to experience health care that probes a family about its mental, physical and spiritual well-being and looks for ways to help. About being the bearer of bad news to my stepdad’s sons with each clear and dramatic decline, especially the brother who has been my close friend since I was 19 and has a baby on the way this summer. About how generous the heart of my stepdad’s paid caregiver is as he shows up every morning and evening (on the days he’s not working) to carry him from the hospital bed to a recliner in the family room and back.
I’d like to tell you how vulnerable my son was before all of this. How frighteningly perceptive and unfairly aware he is of the world around him, of cells and stardust and disease and disaster. Or how often I feel like I’m on a razor-thin line, some days thinking that this experience, this period, could be a profound opportunity for him to understand more about life, relationships and death, other days terrified that all of this will screw him up, scar or emotionally maim him because it’s all so, so much for someone who is freshly five to carry.
I’d like to tell you about my uncle who passed away this past Sunday after his years-long battle with cancer. And I do mean battle. He fought for every moment he had on this earth, and didn’t fail to live each one that he could. During one early remission, he traveled to Africa and nearly got himself killed by leaving the tent when hippopotamuses were around. I would know so much less about what a strong, loving family man looks like if I hadn’t known him. I would know less about what a self-actualized, truly indefatigable person looks like. I also wouldn’t know how hostile to humans and dangerous a hippo can be. While I’m not planning a safari, that seems like an important thing to know.
So I’m telling you.
It’s been months now that I’ve felt like a person walking around with an oozing, emotional gunshot wound on her chest, visible only to those who know me or know what’s been going on because even as I avoid writing about it here, I say these things out loud when I’m out a lot. I have to. Friends — especially so many beautiful, generous, supportive moms — cautiously ask me about how things are going, and I keep disappointing them with clammy, sad facts, because I’ve become lousy at sugar-coating things. I had started to feel like I’d suffocate if I didn’t say what felt true today out loud, so I do it, and almost always immediately feel lighter because there are so many people who can understand or relate to some piece of what’s going on here, no matter how small. They honor me by listening and offering help and I feel totally selfish each time they do because I am so overloaded with my own stuff right now I don’t listen the way I usually do. I usually pride myself on my ability to listen.
Life feels inverted. I cry the most when good things happen. Each offer of help is a salve. Each small solution that I see hospice offer my mother chokes me up. Joyful moments make me so, so grateful. Each expression of love and friendship, each person who has said “you are doing better than you know” to me, each person who looks at me like I’m hemorrhaging but knows she isn’t a surgeon and offers some small kindness to me anyway has been a gift this year.
I’m turning 40 in three weeks and I don’t remember a more difficult or uncertain time. I also don’t remember feeling more blessed or more open-hearted. On bad days, I feel very alone, but on the good ones, I am less alone than ever. I am more grateful than ever.
A couple of Sundays ago my stepbrother put my little, strangely nonfunctional family unit on the guest list for his big music festival. The three of us saw Michael Franti and Spearhead, who we’ve loved for a long time. The band brought little kids onto the stage for the encore, “Say Hey,” and my son danced, jumped, pranced, twirled, sang and ran next to Franti, apparently without an iota of fear or apprehension in his body. He told me looked for me but couldn’t find me in the crowd, where I was smiling so hard that my face should have cracked open.
When he came down from the stage, he asked, “could you hear my little tiny voice up there? I was singing as loud as I could so you would hear me.” And while I couldn’t literally hear him, I could hear him, and see him, and feel him up there, so fully himself, there to enjoy more than perform, so full of energy and faith and confidence that he is, in fact, loved. That he was certain his mother was out there somewhere listening for his voice made me feel like a pretty good mom.
The next morning, I woke up with him clinging to me the way he has every morning since we’ve been in this place — like a life preserver. He snuggled up to my ear and sang the song, punctuating each line with a hug around the neck: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
My blogging has been lighter than usual because a couple of weeks ago, I saw my doctor and she told me that my right shoulder is so much lower than my left, she would have thought that I had a severe curvature of the spine. My typing has been slow, my sleep has been poor and and my breaks have been many. Unless today’s snow dump somehow derails it, I’m going in for an evaluation with a physical therapist early this afternoon.
The last couple of months have been a revolving door of reminders about mortality and health. We’ve been second-hand witnesses to the passings of three people, one far too young, the other two simply too young to die. I’ve interviewed young people who know too much about things like homicide and psychological abuse (for projects I am working on). I felt helpless as I stared at images of the fields of bodies in Haiti, keeping the television mostly silent because my boy already spends too many bedtime hours resisting sleep, trying to solve the puzzle of death.
In a little over a week, the Year of the Tiger begins, and it feels far more like a ritual time of reflection and reassessment than January 1st this year. I’m making lists, trying to finish projects and clearing away clutter. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to bring my physical, personal and professional carriage back into alignment. I want to be on the tiger’s side.
And I would be oh so grateful to see her clear our collective house of fire, thieves and ghosts.
As we drove home from school today, Declan told me that he knew nanodiamonds could keep our dog Arrow from dying. Now, Arrow is barely six years old and pretty robust, so I’m not sure why this was on his mind (other than the fact that a National Geographic special about spatial relationships in the universe schooled him on the nanodiamonds stuff), but he was insistent.
I told him that nothing could keep Arrow, or anyone, from dying sooner or later, but that Arrow seemed very healthy and happy to me right now. He was angry with me and pretended to sleep for a while. I let it be until the next question comes.
I’ve only watched the news after Declan is asleep or when he is elsewhere this week. It takes my breath away to watch the devastation, the human suffering, the chaos happening in Haiti. At this death-sensitive age, I can’t imagine him being able to process much about this, so I haven’t figured out what to tell him. Meanwhile, I feel helpless and grateful for every little thing I have here – fresh air, clean water, a roof, a car, family, schools for my son, food, music, books, love, jokes.
This afternoon, the father of one of his schoolmates passed away after a short battle with cancer. The boy Declan shared a class with last year was the older of two and their third child is due in less than a month. The preschool’s community and friends of the family have rallied to do everything from laundry to childcare to grocery shopping to help them during this tragic time, but this is just heartbreaking news. I wish him peace.
This is a loving and kind family. The mother is a young and passionate wife and parent. I can’t fathom the stress of being self-employed, almost nine months pregnant, parenting two young children and losing your spouse. So if you’re listening, and you’re feeling generous, you could help them out a little bit financially to help ease some of their material stress as they begin to grieve and await this new birth.