I Was Perfect, And Other Lies My Father Believed

Image uploaded from iOS (27)My earliest memory involves my dad.

In the memory, I am standing outside of my house in Cleveland, Ohio, on our lawn. I’m hurt and petulant about a dust-up with my across-the-street neighbor that ended in mutual bite marks.

My father gently encourages me to mend the fence when my playmate offers me an orange creamsicle as a peace offering.

I remember his kind assurances, and warm arm around my waist.

I refuse the peace offering – as my mouth waters and I imagine the golden creamy taste in my mouth.

But my father does not push me. He does not laugh, either.

He just accepts my stand and, probably, smiles sweetly.

* * * *

My dad recently told a dear friend of mine, in a conversation they were having about parenting, that he always thought I was a perfect child.

I was not a perfect child.

But I tried very hard to be.

I tried very hard to be sweet and quiet and peace-loving and encouraging and diligent and a great student and a good athlete. I was persistent and dedicated about my role in my family and I even gave thoughtful effort to holding my own space in my family. I wanted my presence and perspective as the only girl to be seen, to be understood, and to impact the men around me.

I did mess all that up at times, of course: Mostly by being very emotional and too tender and by allowing my temper to get the best of me.

I did bad things, too. Normal stuff and mild stuff. Stuff that made my Dad mad, and things he had to come to the rescue on.

Yet, some 22 years since my most rebellious times, my dad still holds to the idea I was perfect.

* * * *

It’s a miracle of life that when you have children, you have had no experience being a parent and you have no idea what you are doing.

The miracle part is that you do it anyway. You manage to learn on the job, and become better and better at it.

Even though I had great parents myself, the idea of becoming a parent terrified me.

Until I held 6 pounds and 8 ounces of my firstborn daughter in my arms, I was really, really scared of being a parent. Always slow to make a decision, it was the biggest, most irreversible thing I had ever done.

My husband didn’t seem a lick scared.

If he was, he never let on.

Even before our baby girl was born, his parenting energy was all confidence and excitement.

He has been the best father since before that day, and from that day, on.

Whenever I have been at a loss for what to do as the official source of parental guidance for these incredible humans entrusted to us, I tune into his instinct, into his love for them, and dive into his insight and huge heart, to determine the way.

In the last few years, I’ve witnessed such a beautiful evolution in his parenting of our children. He’s gone from the protective and possessive father of young children to a dad as comfortable joking with them as he is laying down the law on the things that matter.

In return, they have an abundant tenderness for him, and a trust in his love and strength that melts my heart and reminds me deeply of how I feel about my own father.

Isn’t that something? Another surprise gift of parenting.

The gift that sometimes, the halcyon, never-ending chain of love that began in the hearts of two lovers, two parents, can pass down in the love of a father to a child, who grows nurtured by perfect love, and one day finds love of her own, with a husband, a whole man, and then has a child, who is loved and adored as she was – in a way her father once did.

There are not many cycles in life that illustrate as much complete and pure beauty, as much smoothly realized potential as that.

This is the highest blessing of fatherhood. This is the fruit of men who dare to show the gentle and powerful among them, alike, the strongest and most vulnerable versions of themselves.

Advertisements

Are You A Not Enough Time Person?

Not Enough TimeWhen was the last time you could not wait to leave the presence of another person?

Do you remember when? Do you remember who? Do you recall that feeling of, ‘I cannot wait to get out of here and I don’t really care if I ever spent time with this person again’?

I do.

Now what’s important here is not really who that human was. That, dear reader, would undoubtedly lead us down a path devoid of positivity.

And I have another path in mind for us today.

So go back now, and grab on to that feeling of being done, of wanting to leave this person.

Be there. Feel it. Watch yourself retract. See how your heart leaves the room? How your spirit drifts and your mind begins planning your escape, then your next move, then how you’ll recover from it all?

Okay.

Now.

What I want you to do today is to consider its opposite.

Consider the feeling evoked by a recent email from my dad, marking the sixth anniversary of my mother’s untimely death at age 62.

“Six years without my Soulmate. Six years without your Mother. Even though she was in our lives from 32 to 48 years, it was not quite enough.”

Those words pierced me with the sharpest edge of their truth.

My time with my mom was not quite enough. Not for me, not for her. Not for my younger brother, who had 32 years with her, not for my oldest brother, who had 38. And not, heartbreakingly for my dad, who knew her almost his whole life, dated her off and on for six years, and who was married to her for 42 years.

Nope, it wasn’t enough. Not even close.

Wow. How lucky were we to have a mom and wife we could not get enough of.

This idea placed me into a whirl of awareness of the relationships in my life. How would they stack up to the idea of having enough time?

I examined.

From a full glass perspective, I could count seven people in less than a beat of my heart I could never have enough time with. Then another seven more, just as quickly, who I felt the same about. And on, and on.

There will never be enough time with my Dad. Never enough with my brothers.

I’m still charting my map of my husband of 15 years — the deep lakes of his soul, the valleys of his heart, the jagged terrain of his brain, the twisting canyon of his behavior and the winding ways of his peccadilloes, and I’ve known him for 19 years.

It’s fascinating work of which I am deeply and fervently engaged.

And that’s it. That’s the crazy thing.

Despite all we “know” as humans — about science, about the universe, about medicine, about disease, about the planets, about our solar system, about our ecosystem, about animals, about technology, about economics, about business, about art, and about history and about thermal dynamics and nanotechnology — we seem to be endlessly fascinated with one thing above all else: one another.

To the extent that spending a lifetime in a chosen person’s presence — is not enough for us.

And there’s ugliness in that time, too. There’s depression. There’s frustration, and hurt, and anger, and ineptitude and selfishness and meanness. In any relationship of depth, in moments, there are all those things.

I think I used a type of this Not Enough Time idea as a rubric when I was a young woman: I suddenly began to realize that if I didn’t really see the guy I was falling for as “boyfriend material” or — in my later years — as “husband material,” it was sort of a waste of my time to continue.

My challenge to you: how many of your relationships would fall into the Not Enough Time category?

How many people in your daily arm’s length can you say, confidently, you would not have enough time with? How many are the Not Enough Time types?

And are the people on your Not Enough Time list actually in your arm’s length on a regular basis?

It’s not a question designed to compel you to judge yourself, just to give you a new lens for how you are using your energy, how you are giving your heart, in what relationships and with what people.

And here’s a final one for you: Consider if you are the type of person who others assign that Not Enough Time label to.

I can say, in my time considering this one, it’s a big, deep, jarring question. It’s kicked my life, and the investment of my energy, into perspective.

Here’s hope.

My mom, a regular person with her faults and foibles, who suffered from deep states of melancholy at times, and experienced a rough home life as a child, and who came from a small town and a middle class upbringing with not a lot, and who occasionally yelled at us as kids and admitted to screwing up here and there as a parent, is on a lot of other people’s N.E.T. lists.

I know because these people, her Not Enough Time people, contact me.

They call me on the anniversary of her death and tell me how dearly they miss her, voices cracking. They visit me in my hometown when they come through. They tell me, openly, how being around me connects them somehow, to her, and thus feeds the part of them that misses her daily. They bless me with the compliment that being around me feels a bit like being around her, that I resemble her, that I echo her at times.

They write me notes and emails and cards and call me on my birthday all with the clear desire or expressed intention of having vicarious more time with Judy.

Not a few people, but at least a dozen — the ones who reach out regularly. And I know there are probably a least a dozen more who don’t reach out.

So, if my perfectly broken mother could inspire that connection to others, so can you. And so can I.

And we can do it with the time we have.

45 Things I’ve Learned on My Way to 40 (That I Wished I Knew Much Younger)

Image uploaded from iOS (15)My brain, and heart, and my vanity are a bit bruised with the realization that I’m stepping on 41. (This is how my father used to greet each year we celebrated a birthday. “You’re stepping on 14!” he’d announce with a huge smile, since birthdays mark the completion of the age you are turning.)

But I am.

At 40 I still consider myself young for several reasons. First, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and people read my obit, they’d say, “Oh! She was so young!” Second, I feel like I have so much more to learn about life, love, and the universe. Third, I’m only beginning to grasp the things that are most important to me.

And yet. The lines on my brow are more pronounced. My skin isn’t what it used to be. And I have a sideways Z-shaped scowl crease in between my eyebrows from using my deep-in-concentration face far too often.

Lighten up, lady!

I have lived here on Earth, in this body, for four decades.

Along the way, the one thing I’ve most consistently been (besides a female human) is a learner. Most of what I have learned has shocked me, challenged me and made me more whole. And still I persist in humbling myself to the incredible untouched knowledge that surrounds me daily. I am starving with the desire to devour it all.

Yet, learning comes at its own pace, in its own time, when we are ready for it.

As a tribute to the experiences of learning I have had, about six months ago I decided to try to document them, mostly because I wish I’d known most of these a bit younger. Like all my daring intentions begin, this one also started as an experiment. I figured once I documented them, I’d peruse my little experimental list to determine if it was worth sharing. (This is how I trick my ego mind into letting me do stuff without judging me to death.)

I’m not fully certain these are worthy of sharing, but what the heck? I’m 40 now, so who the hell cares?

Full disclosure: these have come from my own experiences as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a business owner, and an employee, and numerous other shoes I’ve stumbled around in thus far. That is to say, these ideas/recommendations/musings are unique to my perspective and not at all comprehensive or definitive. So don’t take them that way. I know I don’t.

They are the things I’ve learned along the way that may or may not be helpful to you.

One other detail: since I’ve been compiling these along the way, when tonight came I realized I had 45 to share. Instead of pursuing perfection and editing them down to a more cohesive 40, I got lazy and sassy and ornery, so there are 45. Ergo, in no particular order:

1. Choose your friends very, very carefully. Pick people who know how to handle a fragile heart, rampant self-doubt and are dedicated to helping you find the best version of you.

2. Comparing yourself to other people is a form of self-judgment. It’s highly addictive and highly toxic.

3. At least once be the homeroom parent.

4. Take some photos of yourself pregnant (each time) until you have one you would like to keep. (I’m not talking pre-arranged cheesy photo shoots. Just you, just being. Pregnant.)

5. Don’t stop developing yourself — separate from your spouse, your kids, your family or anything else. You are your best investment.

6. Buy Magic Eraser, OxiClean, Febreze, baby wipes, Clorox Wipes and club soda. They can basically handle any house/clothes/child/spouse/pet/red wine/Sharpie emergency imaginable.

7. Hire a cleaning service and protect it fiercely. Let it be the last thing you cut when times get tough.

8. Times will get tough, whether it is money, family, children, sex, friends, career. When it does, you may get bitter. That’s OK for awhile. But when you are ready, the best antidote to bitterness is to accept the choices you made and then infuse gratitude for the experiences you had because of them.

9. You don’t have to buy a house. You think you do, and it’s nice, but you don’t.

10. The messy, un-manicured moments are the ones you want to capture.

11. There is no formula for your faith. You must eventually create it on your own terms. It might be in the form of a religion. Or not. Either way, your connection to God is what matters most.

12. Take the time and huge personal investment required to teach your children meticulously good manners. This is one of the most useful, productive investments you can make in your kids.

13. Expect that what you will learn in your marriage is that your spouse is flawed. Deeply. And probably not in the way you think. Also, so are you.

14. Understand the unique needs you have as a person. Then create boundaries to protect and minister to them.

15. It really does not matter that: your house is messy, your kids’ socks match, your child’s lunch represents a balanced meal, your Christmas tree goes up on Dec. 1. It just doesn’t.

16. As much as you are able (and even if you don’t especially like them) get to know your parents, and their stories. Writing them down is a bonus. Ask the tough questions and dig into some family mysteries. Once your parents are gone, they will take it all with them.

17. Write lunchbox love notes to your kids as much as you can remember. These small gestures of kindness make a big impact.

18. Whenever you don’t know what to say as a parent: tell your son or daughter you love them no matter what they do or who they are.

19. In a business meeting, hone the art of knowing when to stop talking.

20. If you are the only woman in the room in a business meeting, you must consider this an advantage.

21. Beware the ones who tell you that you can’t. You’ll notice they’re the same ones who haven’t ever.

22. Never apologize for your gifts. Never.

23. Examine your relationship with conflict like a researcher might. Unlocking the pattern of it is likely to lead to greater happiness in life.

24. Hold your spouse accountable for his/her own happiness.

25. Great rules of thumb for kid birthday parties: never on a Sunday, no more than 2 hours and coordinate the number of invites to the age the child is turning.

26. Teach your children: you are not always going to be invited and we can’t always invite everyone.

27. Take time for yourself alone.

28. It’s a huge pain in the neck to pump the tires and keep them inflated, but take family bike rides.

29. Your lady parts will stretch significantly during childbirth. But don’t despair, with a little work, they will bounce back.

30. The best sex you have will be after you are a mother.

31. Keep a mental list of ridiculous things that make you laugh so hard you cry. Refer to them when times get tough or mundane and let go.

32. If you cannot find your ideal work situation, make a careful plan to create it. Test your plan. Then test it again, then test it some more. If it’s profitable, make the leap.

33. When you lead a team, learn something deep about each person involved. Appreciate that in them.

34. Naps are magic golden balm elixir, not signs of weakness. Even 15 minutes lying down with your eyes closed can completely shift your perspective.

35. Develop and regularly revisit shared inside jokes with your spouse, your best friend, your kids. Use these cues to evoke laughter — particularly in the times of life when you are facing the direst situations.

36. Consider the friendships you develop in early adulthood — particularly those formed when your kids are very young — as your family and treat them as such. These are the people who are walking at the same pace you are.

37. Fall in love as many times as you possibly can — with your spouse, with friends, with your kids, with your work, with mentors. Open up to it. Let love be a thing of beauty and a source of energy.

38. Figure out the type of clothing that works for your body type and then invest in pieces that make you feel confident. But play with your clothes. Experiment with trends. Your appearance is a way to find joy in who you are throughout your life.

39. Take videos or make recordings of your children when they are young. I recommend interviewing them about their age, friends, favorite activities as they grow.

40. Stash plastic shopping bags in the door wells of your car. They come in extremely handy with barfy children and over-served friends.

41. Death doesn’t end your relationship with someone you love.

42. Others may expect you to set aside your own needs. But don’t you dare agree.

43. Always clear aside urgent or pressing matters for a friend, employee or colleague who is in pain. There’s nothing more important in that moment than showing love and care.

44. What you are obsessing about in your [fill in the blank: options include child, spouse, best friend, business partner, parent, brother, sister, kid’s teacher] is really about you. Upshot: if it’s about you, you can fix it. Usually by thinking differently.

45. Learning how to breathe is half of getting through life’s most difficult moments.

There. Looking forward to the next 40 years, but mostly, just looking forward to bed.

Why I Gave Up Coffee: Mind Hacks + Memories

35mm_12302_ 023I recently gave up something I loved. It was something I thought I needed to function. It was something I was subtly and happily routinely dependent on.

 

I didn’t give it up for a religious reason or because someone confronted me about it.

 

I did it, as I do many things that I ponder long and hard, as a temporary experiment only.

 

I take this approach, I think, to trick my ego into releasing an established habit on a short-term, no commitment basis only. This little mind hack is super helpful for me because once I am committed to something I am, like, moon-landing committed. So I tend to tiptoe around commitment for a good long while, hemming and hawing, until I know either I am totally ready or I am terrified that I might not be. Either way, it’s that time when I jump.

 

Back to the regularly scheduled confession: For a few important reasons, about a month ago, I gave up drinking coffee.

 

Full disclosure: I still drink a cup of coffee once in awhile. Maybe once a week. Maybe.

 

But that’s it.

 

I used to be a 1-cup-before-I-leave-the-house, then espresso, then maybe an afternoon iced coffee sort of lady.

 

So it wasn’t obscene or gallon-ic level intake. It was probably modest caffeine-ism at best.

 

Honestly, it was the routine of this brown-eyed beverage that I loved the most. I loved the filters, the scooping, the brewing, the miracle of water into coffee dripping, the first pour, and, like many pleasures of mine – the smells. Coffee has the best roasted, earthy, rooted, caramel, smoky, tucked in scent possible.

 

One inhale brings me the full-bodied ideas of mornings of possibility, of standing espresso bars in Italy’s early light, of the care of another for me, of in-depth post-dinner conversations around crammed tables mostly cleared of food, of moments of reassuring sound, when all you hear is a sip and swallow and sigh.

 

I remember as a child, lying half asleep in my grandparent’s cool, dark basement on the sheet-covered sofa as my grandmother, up at 5 or 6 a.m., would put on the stovetop percolator coffee maker, just up the stairs. I would listen to her day beginning and feel intensely comforted. The shuffle of her slippered feet on the orange and cream-colored linoleum tile in the kitchen, the whooshing of cabinets opening and their soft close. The front door creaking as she went to fetch the paper, the tinkling of the cups being set out as the soft pop-pop-blop of the coffee perked on the stove and I drifted back off to sleep.

 

Coffee meant safety, home.

 

I recall watching my mother measuring out the coffee in the maker before guests arrived for dinner, so that all she had to do was hit the button as she cleared plates and – voila! – fresh coffee would pair with her homemade pavlova or pumpkin roll or angel food cake, to her guest’s delight and comfort. When my mother entertained, which she did regularly, her focus was always on her guests’ delight and comfort. My job in this coffee caravan was to fill and set out the cream and sugar in the delicate ceramic coffee service with the painted roses and dessert teaspoons with enamel handles. If she was totally on her game, I served sugar cubes out of a clear crimson glass sugar vase with vintage miniature silver tongs she found at an antique housewares boutique.

 

Coffee meant care, comfort.

 

I tried to like coffee on my own terms in high school and college, but I only pretended to. I drank it to stay awake to study for my AP exams, or to finish a paper. I masked my dislike of the way it hit my stomach and turned it a bit sour. I pretended being shaky after one cup was a fun feeling. I took the gateway cups and fancied them up with flavored creamers, flavored coffees, with cinnamon and raw sugars.

 

Then, I slowly drifted away from my consumption.

 

It was a secret relief.

 

Until 2003, when my daughter was born and coffee became pretty much the only way I was going to survive being a sleep loving, yet sleep deprived, mom of a child who only slept in 4-hour increments until she was 4. Not an exaggeration.

 

From then on, and throughout my time as a mom who works and raises kids full-time, coffee has been my wingman.

 

So why did I give it up?

 

There were health reasons I could have ignored. There were also the memories of shaky hands and sour stomachs that had been so keenly present when I first started drinking it.

 

There was the sense that I wasn’t even feeling those things anymore. Then, there was the notion, needling ever deeper into my heart, that I might not be feeling them because my mind was no longer taking my body’s phone call that coffee and I didn’t really get along. That perhaps all those symptoms were still going on, but that my mind was blocking them.

 

I began to wonder what it would feel like not to drink coffee. How would my body, my blood stream, my temperament respond? What if I could stop that phone from ringing from my body to my brain?

 

I had worked so hard to convince myself over the last 13 years that I needed it, but maybe, when it was all said and done, I didn’t.

 

Ultimately, that’s what made the experiment permanent.

 

Because the notion I couldn’t shake turned out to be right. I felt much clearer, calmer and less sour stomached without coffee. Without it, my hands didn’t shake. I felt less dizzy.

 

I didn’t get as snappy around mid-morning.

 

And I was just as alert, just as on, without it.

 

It was a welcome discovery.

 

It felt right – for me.

 

As I reflected on all of this, I acknowledged we were raised, more than anything else, on tea.

 

My mother was an avid tea drinker before my older brother married a Brit. Every single night when dinner was cleared up, she would put a kettle to boil on the stove. Warming water in the microwave for tea was always out of the question. A piping hot cuppa would accompany her to bed, perching on her stack of books, or would settle her down at the dinner table as she sewed loose buttons or reviewed someone’s final essay or sat you down to talk about your grade in math.

 

Tea greeted us on cold mornings beside bowls of grits or oatmeal or cream of wheat with brown sugar.

 

For my 8th birthday, a formal tea party was held and all the attendees wore gloves. For real.

 

For my mother’s 50th birthday, friends threw her a surprise birthday tea party. I was roped into bringing her to the cute cottage-like tea place for the surprise. She had no idea and was tickled to see her closest friends gathered for her. Surprising the best hostess in the group was never an easy task.

 

For her 61st birthday, we held a tea party for her once again.

 

She had just found out her cancer was on the march again. And I mean crying-in-the-car-all-the-way-there – just. None of her adoring guests, those who came in fancy dresses and ridiculous hats, knew yet that she’d just received her death sentence.

 

She wore one of her mother’s vintage pillbox hats with faux wild roses in pink and orange around the brim. Her hair was thin, her skin was yellowish and she was gauntly thin. But she would not cancel.

 

What I remember of her on that day were her wide smiles, her tears of joy, the sound of her throaty laugh, the one where she clapped her hands together in delight as she tipped back her chin and bellowed.

 

I remember giving her my gift — the ham-handed “MOM” child’s level cross-stitch I had made for her over the last two months – an attempt to be more of the handy daughter I thought she really wanted when I was a kid. I remember how she welled up then and I felt so deeply in my bones that this $5 token was successful at expressing something of the total devotion of love I felt for her.

 

I remember how all her friends fawned over her, showered her with gifts and generally made her feel as if she was the queen herself.

 

She loved tea. And she loved tea parties.

 

It was the last party we had for her that really mattered.

 

We all have to learn to let go of the things we think we need in this life.

 

When we don’t want to, when we can’t imagine ever doing it, and when we choose to and when we can.

 

Whether it’s coffee or tea, or a bad habit or a good friend who’s done you wrong.

 

Whether it’s something you use to cope with life or the someone who gave you life.

 

At 40, I think I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how we let go – if we use mind hacks, denial, dextox or heart-pouring mourning.

 

It’s only in the letting that we go.

 

 

 

Why I Love Reading the Obits

Reading paper

One thing I inherited from my parents and grandparents is a love and respect of the newspaper. Like, the actual printed one. (Yes, I still get the local printed paper, delivered to our door, two days per week.)

One thing I inherited directly from my mother was a love of the obituaries.

During her 62 years, she read them religiously. Especially the Sunday obits. Those she would pour over.

Yes, it was sad. Yes, she would cry.

When I moved out and eventually got married and took the paper at my house a few miles away, she would call me on Sunday morning, in tears.

“Have you read the paper yet? You must read this obituary,” she’d manage between tear-cracked tones.

So I would. Sometimes I would read it as she waited on the phone. Sometimes I’d read it and call her back, in tears. We’d swap highlights and pine, together, over it all.

Since she’s been gone, two things.

First, I took extreme care in writing her obituary. I felt it was a masterpiece and a ridiculously incomplete sliver of a tribute to a woman so much richer, fuller and more complex than those thin lines of ink and newsprint could bear. I think it was decent, though, because I received several letters from complete strangers who were moved enough to send me a note of their condolences.

Second: I still read the obituaries whenever I get a chance.

I cry to myself, inevitably tearing up and shedding saltwater over long lives, short ones, loves lost, details missing and those present. I trace the life lines of each individual’s path through the world, via careers, moves, re-inventions, second and third careers, pre-deceased children, rich relationships and charitable pursuits. You see so much in these concise pieces: meaning and measure, risk and failure, secrets and scars, and love, and love, and love.

It always overcomes me.

My husband asks me why I do it to myself, as my teenage daughter turns on her heel and storms out, embarrassed, and my youngest cuddles up with comforting hugs.

So imagine my delight when coming upon this Ted talk by Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, who shares our devotion to the obituaries and who used his company’s technology to analyze 2,000 New York Times obituaries to see what the data would reveal about the achievements of those featured – famous and common.

You should watch the Ted talk, it’s only 6 minutes.

Here are three things about what Lux and Unmetric found that jumped out at me.

First, the average age people made their first major accomplishments. There was only one age in the late 20s (sports), just one in the mid-30s (art, film, literature) – and the rest of the first major accomplishments (business, medicine, engineering, law, academics, science, politics) were made in the early to mid-40s.

For a lady about to turn the big 4-0, who has lots more she wants to accomplish, this was welcome news.

Second, of all 2,000 obituaries analyzed, the most significant words tended to be creative ones: Artist, Singer, Director, Writer, Pioneer. Also among the top: Leader, Led, Founder, Reporter, Advocate, Activist, Survived, Transform, Creator, Music, Author, Fight, Fought, and my person favorite, Voice.

How sweet it is that the artists, the rebels, the transformers are those we revere once they leave us.

(Spoiler alert: Here’s what wasn’t on the list: spreadsheets, timesheet, hours worked, stable, safe, corporate, retirement, insurance, follower, accept, allow, same.)

Here’s the last of my many takeaways: Narayan also did a side-by-side comparison of the famous obits and the normal people obits, looking at the significant and most frequent words.

Here are the top 7 for each:

Famous

Year

Art

One

World

Help

American

John

 

Not Famous

Help

Year

Time

One

John

Music

First

 

Three words are common between the two lists: Help, Year, One and, oddly, John.

(If you’re named John, good on you. If not, you won’t be offended that I don’t comment on that interesting tidbit.)

Help. Year. One.

What do these three words tell us about people who make enough of an impact to be featured on the New York Times obituary page?

Here’s my take:

They were compassionate doers.

They used their time wisely.

They exercised their courage enough to do something different, something that made them stand out.

That’s it.

As I approach my fourth decade, I am characteristically reflecting on my four decades. I’m sifting through my accomplishments and cross-referencing goals. I’m paying homage to the difficulties I’ve experienced and for the chances they gave me to grow. I’m getting a bit anxious over the pending “to do” list.

Since my mom died unexpectedly at 62, I realize time is short.

But this is welcome navigation.

Care.

Do – now.

Be the one.

Oh, and, keep reading the obits.

Family Dance Party in a Hopeless Place (Love)

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Three years ago my entire family gathered in the wake of my mother’s death for a full family reunion.

That equates to my father, our beloved patriarch, four couples, and eight children, most under the age of 13. It’s a lot of people.

We stayed just two hours from home and rented hotel rooms in the mountain town my family spends a lot of time in.

There was wiffle ball and swimming and meeting up at the hot tub in the evenings. There were hikes and flower collecting and late night movie watching and a couple of very nice meals out.

There was a bit of friction, as there is likely to be when you gather that many related people in one place for several days.

But by far, the highlight of the trip for me was the night we held a talent show.

The talent show was the idea of my then 13-year-old niece, the eldest of the brood. When she first suggested it, I groaned inwardly. In the wake of my mother’s death, just getting everyone together seemed challenging enough. Planning something relatively organized that required all parties (my niece and my ever-eager daughters insisted all must participate) to do perform honestly seemed at worst impossible and at best sickly unpalatable.

And yet.

How do you deny a 13-year-old with an idea to bring her family together? Answer: you don’t.

Hand-drawn fliers were created immediately and distributed by doe-eyed girls eager for a smile and unbridled enthusiasm in return. Prima and my niece amazingly uncovered a clipboard and went around signing people up for the talent show. Like their overachieving parents before them, they were focused on 100% participation.

Soon, instead of reticent retreats, there began to be a bit of a buzz about what everyone was going to do – would my super athlete sis-in-law run a mini boot camp? My youngest nephew had an Adele song prepared. What would I do?

Mid-week, the evening of the talent show arrived and we gathered in the family room of our mountain house to take in the festivities.

Stories were told, songs were song, back-breaking exercises were attempted, and poems recited. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a thing of relieved, pure beauty. After a year under the afghan of grief, it seemed as if we were all, collectively, able to have fun again.

And then, the best thing happened.joyous dancing on beach

Someone had an iPhone, and someone put on music and a dance party began.

The next thing I know, our broken and rebuilding, hurt and hopeful, soulful and silly herd of a recovering family was dancing like maniacs to the persistent syncopation and perfection of that year’s biggest song.

As Rihanna crooned, “I found love in a hopeless place,” I jumped along with the herd, as high as I could, as long as I could and with as much gusto as I could. I screamed the lyric. My legs burned and my lungs ached. And my soul caught fire. And I sobbed.

For despite the despair of loss, in spite of what our mother’s death had broken in each of us and for all of us, we managed, in all of our neediness and selfishness and willfulness, to find love – and joy, and hope (that bastard) — and we managed to dance.

 

1095 Days Later: ‘I’m Here, No Big Whoop’

“What is so significant about today?” my husband and I wonder.

Today is the day my mom’s spirit was released from her suffering body. Three years ago today, she died.

“Is this a day we want to mark?” we both wonder. And in the parlance of exam essay

It's 3 a.m. and I'm wide awake.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake.

questions, “Why, or why not?”

For the last three years, in the wee morning hours of May 7 I have awoken. I rarely awake during the night. If I do, it is usually to roll over and resume sleep. The last three years though, near 3 a.m., I awaken. Fully.

It does not escape me that in these same wee hours, my mother’s spirit made her escape.

Is it a shift in the energy of the universe, revisited at this time, that wakes me up? The extraction of her physical presence and the vacuum that created in my life and the lives of so many others that rouses me from slumber? Is it some spiritual clock my soul has set within me, to go off once a year, a recollection, an alarm.

Is it her thumbprint on my soul, the smooth river stone she placed in my heart, which anchors my soul, full of all her teachings, her love, her goodness and complexities, pressing ever deeper into my memory, my being? Is her spirit nudging it deeper, each year?

I get up hours later and rush to Mass to meet my father and honor her. I’m doing OK until the priest mentions her name, her full name, during the intentions. “Shut up!” I want to yell at him and cover my ears. “Don’t you dare say her name as being gone, departed, dead. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Instead I sob and think, “My mom is dead. My mom is dead.” 1,095 days later this still seems unreal — and unreasonable.

The priest talks about the dispersal of the apostles after Jesus’ death.

Painting titled 'The ballerina' by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

Painting titled ‘The ballerina’ by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

I think about the many people who loved my mom, who were deeply touched by her love, who treasured her friendship, companionship, her loving heart. Siblings, cousins, her husband, her children and children’s spouses, grandchildren, other family, the families of her children’s spouses, her dear and loyal friends, distant relatives, childhood friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, children of friends, friends of her children, priests, nuns, volunteers, caregivers, doctors, nurses who cared for her, fellow patients, fellow church members, people who have read about her in my writing, before her death and after, the friends who I made simply because we both had dead mothers — all of these part of the diaspora of Judy’s love.

All of these people (and more) came together when she died three years ago, pulled inward by the transition of her spirit. Brought together to commune because of the magnetic energy and power of her love and how she made people feel. And then, they dispersed to all their different nooks, carrying with them that piece of Judy’s love and spirit.

Sometimes I feel sad about the dispersion. But more often I feel impressed.
I feel as if that’s the way it is supposed to be — and maybe the way my mom’s love was always destined to travel.

I am beginning to think that we only fully share what we receive from others, the gifts loved ones instill in us, after they are gone.

When they are living, we can imitate and approximate, but when they are gone, their intention of love becomes part of us, we own it. It activates and becomes a part of who we are and what we are now empowered to bestow on others.

A week ago, I had a dream my mom came walking back into the kitchen of our childhood home, after having been dead for three years. In the dream, I knew she was coming back to life!

She looked great, young and fresh and very calm. I stroked her cheek and marveled that she was whole again, all put back together, in health and beauty and peace.

While I felt shocked and awed in the dream, she was matter-of-fact and serene. Like, “hey, honey girl, I’m here, no big whoop.”