Now I Know

Yesterday was an emotional day for me.

What I didn’t mention in my previous post about the race I’m putting together is that it has two components:  a main 5K and a kids’ fun run.  The fun run has always been kind of an afterthought to the race, and almost didn’t even happen last year.

When I heard that one of the Sandy Hook kids was an alumni of our kids’ race, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think of putting that part of our race on in his honor this year.  Because his parents grew up in our town, they’ve all been part of the race.  In fact, this little boy’s grandfather has worked on the 5K for years as part of our volunteer EMS crew.

Several of my friends know the family, because their kids went to preschool with this little boy here in our town.  I asked one of them to reach out to the family to see if they would be interested in having our kids’ run be in honor of their little boy.

They were.

So for the last few months, I’ve been quietly putting together this part of our run with a group of women who know the family.  One of them is a good friend of mine, the rest I’d never met before.  In a matter of three weeks they’d raised thousands of dollars for the event.  They reached out to local and national business to gain sponsorships, donations, you name it.

I’ve tried to focus on the nuts and bolts of it, because this?  I don’t get to feel sad about this little boy.  He’s not mine, he’s not part of my world.   I didn’t know him, didn’t know the family.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, I went to a meeting with a member of their foundation that our race will benefit, and this little boy’s mom.  I was nervous.  How would I introduce myself?  Was it appropriate to say how sorry I was?  How much I’ve thought about them, prayed for them, ran for them?

In the end, it was like meeting someone you have always known.  She is friends with my good friend, so the odds were good that we’d end up getting along just fine, and we did.  It was a little awkward at first as she and my girlfriend caught up (they hadn’t seen each other in a few months), but as we all got more friendly, the conversation flowed more easily.  There was a lot of laughter, a few tears, and a naked honesty that I was impressed with and humbled by.  There were stories.  There was determination.
There was even a little gossip.

We spent two hours sharing thoughts and food.  I thanked her for meeting with me and she drove off, in her minivan, moving on and forward.  But I stood there in the parking lot, wanting to burst into tears.  I could feel the weight of what had happened to her, to her child, to this community, just hanging there all around me.  And I felt so wrong for feeling that way:  if she could be so positive and energetic, I certainly had no business wallowing in my emotions.

So I will take that sadness, that frustration that we all felt in those dark days after December 14, and I will use them.  I will use them to make this race, the kids’ run and the main race, as wonderful and as successful as I possibly can.  I will honor this little boy with this race, with this day, with this event, in every way that I can.  It’s the thing I can do.  And I will do it.

Love In Many Forms

My son and his wife of seven days (typing that just seems amazing) are somewhere in Jerusalem right now.  In Israel.  Yes, the one that is seven hours time difference from where they live in Alexandria, VA and where I live in Connecticut. I was pondering that the other day.  For my honeymoon, my husband and I went on a Carnival cruise.  We went to Grand Cayman, Cozumel and New Orleans.  It was the first time I’d been outside of the US save for Canada (because every good Detroiter has gone drinking in Canada).   My son has been now to Spain, to Croatia, and to Israel.  He’s passed through France for connecting flights, twice.  What a different life has than I did.

What a different life he has than I ever imagined for him.

At my son’s wedding last week, after he and I shared our emotional mother/son dance, I walked him back to his new wife and hugged her hard.  Then I went back to sit at my table, with my husband and our two much younger children.  Within a minute, there was my father, red in the face and clearly just as emotional as me.

Maybe more so.

“I remember the day he was born,” he struggled to tell me, tears flowing from the corners of his eyes.   And he was right.  Of the hundred or so people standing in this room with us, there were only three of us who were there the day Zach was born.  My sister, myself and my father.  My brother was in the Navy in basic training at the time, and met him about a month or so after he was born.  Everyone else in the room met him sometime later in his life.

It was hard, at that moment in time, staring at my son and his lovely wife in this gorgeous hotel ballroom, with everyone dressed in their finery, to imagine what those days were like.  My father had literally been there since the moment this boy was born; he’d been my Lamaze coach.  He’d watched this young man come into the world, take his first breaths.  He’d been ultimately supportive after his initial skepticism  regarding my “situation”.  I was 18 and alone when this little baby came into all of our lives, and life could have turned out very, very different than the moment we were all experiencing together.

But what was overwhelming all of us, as my sister had now come to join my father and I, both redfaced in the front of the room together, was my mother’s absence.  “She should have been here,” my father said next, putting his head in his hand.  “She would have been so proud of him.”

Seeing my father cry about my mother is truly a humbling experience for me. While my father has been with his partner since before my parents’ marriage ended, it’s clear to me that he truly did love my mother.  While the demise of their marriage was fraught with difficulty, fighting and anger, eventually everything settled in to the way things were supposed to be.  In fact, I always kind of thought that my pregnancy at 18 and my parents banding together to support me and my child truly was the last step of pulling them back together as a family unit, if not a married one.  And when my mother passed, my father was there to hold her hand along with us kids.  It was my father who helped us eulogize her at her memorial.  They had a clear and deep connection, and it is easy for me to forget that on a day to day basis.  I suppose I deal with my grief often about my mother, but my father likely doesn’t.  So it is in these family moments where it comes roaring to the surface for him, still raw and harsh, even twenty years later.

In some sort of awful way, it made me feel good to see him that affected by her absence.  That while his life is very different now, the affection he had for her was real and true and honest. I held him and told him about the wedding song, and how sure I was that she had a role to play there.  That I was sure she was watching all of us here, this night and smiling from wherever she was, happy to see her beloved first grandchild so successful, so sure of himself, so clearly in love.  “She loved him so much,” I said to my father and my sister, which gave them both a fresh set of tears, but gave me a strength and surety that stopped my own.

Because You Loved Me

Well, just like that, it’s over.  The lead up, all the stress, the fights, the craziness of getting ready for my son to be married is over.  He’s married and off on his honeymoon in Israel.

There are many things bottled up inside of me that I want to say about it.  They’ll all have to come out, one at a time.  But for now, I guess I’ll share my favorite story of the weekend.

About a week before the wedding, my son asked me to select a song for the mother/son dance.  I’d honestly forgotten there was such a thing, and I was stumped.  We don’t really share a lot of the same music tastes, have never really had music in common as our thing.  We don’t have “a song” per se.  I didn’t know what to do.

I thought about it for a few days, and finally did what I always do when I don’t know something.  I consulted Google. And sure enough, when you type in “mother son wedding dance”, you’ll find several sites suggesting music.  I clicked on one that was supposedly from some DJ that does a lot of weddings, and looked at his Top 100 Mother/Son Wedding songs.

Some were weird and inappropriate.  More like for a couple.  But there were enough on there that made me think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve always liked that song” or “Oh, that one has always reminded me of Z.”

I wrote out a list of song titles, and put a little sentence underneath each one about why I picked it.  There were eight songs.  I asked him to listen to each one, look up the lyrics and decide which one connected with him the most about our relationship.  In the end, I deleted my descriptions of why I chose each one, not wanting to prejudice him.

When I asked him a few days before the wedding which song he’d picked, he wouldn’t tell me.  All he said was that one of the songs on the list I’d provided was one of the songs he’d been thinking of too, and so that would be the song.  I couldn’t imagine which one he would pick.  Here’s the list:

  • I Hope You Dance, Lee Ann Womack
  • Devil Knows You’re Dead, Delta Spirit (this is an Irish blessing put to song, don’t be scared off by the title)
  • You Raise Me Up, Josh Groban
  • Because You Loved Me, Celine Dion
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Iz”
  • The Prayer, Bocelli/Dion
  • What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
  • Forever Young, Rod Stewart

I figured he would pick What a Wonderful World.  Or maybe The Prayer, or You Raise Me Up.  I hoped he’d pick either I Hope You Dance, which has always made me think of him, or Because You Loved Me, because it has always been my song for my mother.

Z and his new bride danced their first dance, and we all cried.  They looked so happy and in love.  And beautiful, even though my poor boy really can’t dance at all.  Then his new wife danced with her father, very sweet, and they looked so happy together.  I knew my turn was coming.

And all of a sudden, when I heard the first notes of the song my son had chosen for our dance, I couldn’t believe it.  I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it.

He’d chosen Because You Loved Me.  I wasn’t sure if I’d ever told him that it reminded me of my mother.  It’s a pretty girly song, and I never imagined he’d choose it.  As we awkwardly moved in circles around the dance floor, cameras popping off everywhere, I told him:  “I’m not sure you know this or not, but this song has always reminded me of my mother.”

He looked down on me and responded:  “This song has always reminded me of you, Mom.”

And then the tears really started flowing.  A bittersweet mixture of happy and sad all at once, overwhelming.  I kept myself from sobbing right then and there on the dance floor.

Only later, alone in my hotel room, did I succumb to the emotion and cry the heaving sobs that my heart had to release.

 

 

Celebrate Life

Well, it’s here.  The big one.

Today my mother has been dead for twenty years.  A perfect, round number.  A really big number.

It’s a long time.  A long time to be without her.  I’ve done this now, twenty times.  Lived this day, twenty times.  Each time Feburary 13 rolls around, I I have mourned for my mother.  Relived that day so long ago.  Remembered each last moment.  The gift and the wonder and the terror or watching someone pass from this life to the next.  I have thought of her and remembered with sadness all I lost when she died.  All she lost when she died.  All that she missed out of her life, how much she never got to do.

Nineteen other times I have woken up, my first thought being of her, and spent the day mired in sadness and memories and what ifs.

This year, it feels different.  Or maybe I want it to feel different.  Perhaps I will it to be different.

I am not sure why.  What has turned inside my heart.  But it feels lighter this year.  I want to spend the day celebrating her, not mourning her.  Thinking of what a wonderful, strong woman she was, how much she persevered through the difficult times of her life.  What a wonderful model she was of a strong willed, determined woman.  How smart, determined and thoughtful she was.

She was a lawyer during a time when women who worked mostly were teachers or nurses.  She was subject to discrimination in her work.  She used to joke about wearing low cut blouses on hearing days with certain judges; she wasn’t above using what she had to get what she needed for her clients.

She was fiercely loyal to those she loved, offering a place to live to anyone who needed it.  We had extra people sleeping on the sofa or in the spare room from time to time, sometimes for months.   My mother didn’t have a lot, but whatever she had, she always shared with whomever she loved.  She was a kind and generous friend.

She was funny, smart, but also knew how to have a good time.  We used to joke that she had a more active social life than I did.  She had great girlfriends, and they loved her just as much as she loved them.

She loved our dog, initially having reservations about getting a rescue animal from the shelter.  In the end, he was her companion and confidante, and wouldn’t leave her body after she passed away at home on the sofa.

While my mother wasn’t a perfect parent, she always was honest and fair, and did her level best in sometimes very difficult times.  She was wonderful at withholding judgement and treating us children with respect and trust.  Even though she was a working mother, and therefore not always available, I never once felt as if she wasn’t 100 % there for me and my champion, always.

I miss her.  I love her.  But I think it is time to put away my heavy heart when I think of her.  She missed much, I missed much, but I also was so lucky.  Lucky to share those last moments with her.  Lucky to say all that I wanted to before she passed.  Lucky to take care of her when she needed me to.  Lucky that she passed onto me her determination and strength.

I know that she would not want me to think of her with sadness in my heart for the rest of my life.  So today, I choose to be happy.  I choose to celebrate her 53 years on this earth rather than gnash my teeth over the twenty she’s been gone.  I will raise my glass to her, smile, and appreciate all that she was and all that she gave to me in her too short life.

Love you, Mom.

A Long Slow Sigh

It’s been twenty years since I celebrated this day with my mother.  Her last birthday.  She turned fifty three that day, and would die five days later.  It’s hard to imagine that, that it has been twenty years.  Twenty years, a lifetime between then and now.  She knew me as a child, even though when she died I was doing very adult things:  I was a single parent taking care of my terminally ill mother.

But now, when I look back on those days, I realize how very young I was.  Twenty years will do that to you, of course.  But still, I just wish somehow that I’d been able to know her as an adult.  The way I know my father now.  The way he comes to me sometimes, seeking advice, counsel, as equals.  My mother and I certainly had much more of that type of relationship than any other 22 year old I knew with their mother, but still.

I was selfish.  I was twenty two.

When I watch my father these days, taking care of his aging mother, worrying about her health and her mind and how to manage the eroding of both, I marvel that I won’t ever have to do that with mine.  She used to joke, of course, that the cigarettes she was insanely addicted to were her way of getting out of the maladies of old age, but it was one of those things that was never really funny.  Because sadly, in the end, it was all too true.

I wonder what my mother would be like, these days, if she had lived.  Would she still be working, at age 73, or not?  Would she approve of the life I’ve built for myself, of the ones my siblings have built for themselves?  What would she look like these days?   Would she be one of those mothers that visited often or not so much?  What would she think of these grandchildren of hers?

Questions I’ll never know the answers to.

I miss her.  When friends of mine lose their parents, as they are starting to, I try to help them with some kind, encouraging words from someone who has been there.  But when they ask if you ever get over it, the answer I always give them is a tough pill to swallow.  You never do.  You never stop being sad about it, feeling that a piece of yourself is missing, wishing that life had not been so cruel.  You learn to live with it, you find eventually that the white hot pain becomes a slow, deep ache that you can almost forget about if you try hard enough.  But it never goes away.  Not ever.

Not even twenty years later.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

The Hardest Thing

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I took our children to Mass, as we do every Sunday.  I wasn’t born Catholic, and I haven’t always been a regular churchgoer even after I became one.  But we love our church here, mostly thanks to the wonderful priests who run the place.   I originally became a Catholic because I felt that there was something I got during a Mass that I never was able to find anywhere else.  Our current parish carries that sentiment to the nth degree for me.  There’s always a peace, a message, a hope that comes over me during the service.  I’m able to put the petty worries of my life aside and just breathe.

During this week’s service, our priest talked about how so much of our time is spent running.  At first I thought he was going to rail on about the evils of this high impact exercise that I’ve come to love, so my dander was up (plus we went to the 7:30 service to avoid the crowds, so I was uncaffeinated as well).  But then as he continued, he made it clear that he was talking in much more of a figurative sense.  We’re running towards a financial goal, or a material one; we’re running from some horrible event in our past, or a person we were hurt by; running so fast, all of the time, that we don’t take the time to do what I do at church.

Breathe.  Reflect.  Be calm.  Remove the cobwebs and prioritize.  Figure out what is truly important.

Later that day, my husband asked me what I was running from.

“Excuse me?” I asked the tone I always assume when I feel my husband is making an accusation or a critical statement.

He was referring to the amount of traveling I’ll be doing in the next little while.  In a few days I am loading my children into our SUV and driving out to Michigan to see my brother and sister.  And I suppose it doesn’t make a lot of sense to him that I am doing this.  After all, neither of my siblings ever comes out to see me.  And most of the time when I drive out to see them, my brother and I get into some sort of fight that ends up in months of silence between us.  Why would I want more of that?

But my brother and sister have both had some trauma in their lives recently.   And frankly, they somehow seem less equipped to deal with the hard stuff that I’ve always been.  I’m not sure why that is.  For me, I thought the hardest thing I would do would be having gotten pregnant and 18 and have the father leave me.  And it was, until three years later.  That was when the woman who had supported me and helped me through that experience, my mother, was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer.  I was her caregiver at home, while finishing my student teaching and raising my two year old son alone.  She died eleven months after being diagnosed, and then I was left alone with a college degree, a part time substitute teaching job and a pile of bills.  My father moved across the country six months later, weeks before I started the only full time teaching job I could find; teaching in the inner city.   The next few years were a mixture of fear, despair and worry that covered me and everything I did like a blanket.

It was different for my brother and sister.  My sister was married and independent.  Where I was 21 at the time of my mother’s diagnosis, she was 27.  She was an adult, and had been for a while.  She had gone to college for a while but quit when she started dating the man who later became her husband.  When my mother was diagnosed it was devastating for her as well, but she wasn’t expected to provide round the clock care.  She was helpful, very helpful.  But not responsible for everything, like me.

My brother had dropped out of college and was floating from job to job when my mother was diagnosed.  He had partied his way through his late teens and early twenties, barely scraping by.  He had friends, and they drank and smoked through the weekends as lots of kids that age do.  When my mother was diagnosed he was working part time at a gas station.  He actually lived with us briefly but found his own place nearby later.  Again, it was an awful thing for him when my mother was diagnosed.  But the only responsibilities he had at the time were to himself.  He would show up, sometimes.  When he was able to.

I think for my brother and sister, while their lives too were sad and hard in the aftermath of our mother’s passing, it wasn’t going to change much in their lives.  They would still live where they lived, work where they worked, and go back home to a house that was going to be the same as it was before.  I didn’t have that.  Everything in my life changed.  It was horrible.  When I read back in my diaries or the words I’ve written here about it, I still can’t believe that I made it through, that I did everything that needed to be done.  That I went on to have a pretty normal life, despite the scars that I carry with me every single day.

Now, both of them are going through some pretty life altering experiences.  Different, for both of them, but still harder than much of what they’ve ever had to deal with before.  They are scared.  They are paralyzed.  They are unable to cope.  And so I am running, I suppose.  Running to give what I can in the hopes that it will help.  The same way that they “helped” me when I needed it, during my most difficult time.  I won’t know what it is like to live in either of their lives right now.  But I can be present, lend a hand or a shoulder or a few bucks, and try to make the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do a little easier.

Passage

I tried to write out every little thing I could remember about my great aunt last Saturday.  I think because it was the right thing to do, to ponder and think and remember all of the things that I hadn’t thought of in so long.  But more, I think, because I felt lost in what should be a bone crushing grief:  this was essentially my surrogate grandmother, my last link to my mother’s parents and family, the one woman left on Earth who had known my mother all of her life.

Except I wasn’t feeling it.

There was a moment in church last Thursday (my daughter is an altar server and she had to serve during this special prayer week we have going on) when the strains of “Be Not Afraid” wafted from the organ where I felt it.  “Be not afraid,” the lyrics go.  “I go before you always.  Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”  I felt a pull in my chest, whispering the words to myself, words that I sent out into the universe to my great aunt, struggling at that moment to live or die. But you’d think I’d have felt more, in church, in that moment.  But I didn’t.

I felt the tiny pin prick of tears and I gasped and sighed when I got the email from my cousin telling me of her death.  I’d been waiting for that moment when I thought I would just….know….that she wasn’t with us.  As it turns out it happened late at night while I was asleep.  I’d walked three miles with the dog and cheered my daughter on in a soccer game in blissful ignorance.   There was no cosmic knowledge of what I’d lost.  It was gone, she was gone, and I had no idea until technology worked its magic to confirm it to me.

My sister cried, of course.  In fact, she called me out on the fact that I wasn’t crying:  “Why aren’t you more sad?”

Good question.

I responded, blithely, that I’d cried my tears already, earlier.  In reality, this is so much more deeply true than my flip comment would suggest.  I’ve been sad for years knowing that my aunt was still alive in the world and that we were no longer a part of her life.  She was so much to me and mine growing up, but in the last twenty years?  She missed my wedding, hasn’t met either of my younger children, and the only times I’ve seen her since 1993 are the times I’ve traveled to see her.  So little has she been part of my adult life, in fact, that when I told my mother in law that my Aunt Katie died, she had no idea who I was talking about.  She’d never really heard mention of her in my day to day life.  Of course not.  She hasn’t been there.  Which is weird, because when I was kid, she was always there.

I don’t know what to do with that, my oblique sadness of a relative who ostensibly was lost to me a long time ago.  I don’t know where to place my grief that is riddled with an anger I am embarrassed to even speak of.  I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m lost.  I’m crestfallen that this woman who I idolized, loved, respected so much has no idea who I ended up to be, how much I grew and matured.  How selfish is that?  Me, me, me.  But yet there it is.

And to add to my feelings of confusion on her death, there is no funeral.  My aunt was cremated already, but her children don’t really know what else to do with her.  I find this a little strange, as they’ve known her health was declining for so long.  They’re in their sixties, these two:  they couldn’t figure this out ahead of time?  I did it when I was just twenty two.  We’d planned her arrangements with her before she left us.  But maybe that’s the problem.  Losing my mom at twenty two meant I knew how fragile life was.  Having your mother around your whole adult life means you take her for granted.

Lucky them.  They’d gotten to take her for granted.

I don’t know what I am looking for really.  Peace, I suppose, as always.  Closure.  To find that somehow, what I thought I shared with my aunt did somehow exist, that it mattered, that it wasn’t all just in my head.  And too, somehow, that she missed me over the last few years as much as I’ve missed her.  And I know, I know I can’t look outside of myself to ever find those things, that those things need to come from within myself.  I’ll get there, I am sure.  I hope.  Well, maybe.

Until then…I’ll comfort myself by remembering.  Remembering Aunt Katie.

She baked brownies, drank white wine spritzers at 5 o’clock every day, and knit baby booties for everyone she ever knew that had a baby.  She joked about forgetfulness (“I’ve had a series of small strokes, you realize….”), made homemade pies and knew how to make everything look easy.  I always remember her voice in my head when I roll out and cut cookies:  “Try to get as close to the edge as you can so you don’t waste any.”  She was big on not wasting things.  She washed and saved her aluminum foil.   She would root peach pits on the sunny kitchen window in glasses.  She taught me how to scrape every bit of batter out of the mixing bowl with the rubber scraper:  “If you’d lived through the Depression you’d realize that all those scrapings could make a whole other serving.”  Every Christmas she sent us a huge gift box full of at least a dozen different kinds of cookies and Christmas treats.  My favorites were these round ones that I think had almonds in them that crumbled into a million pieces when you took a bite.  She made this tomato relish every year that my mother loved to eat on her hard boiled egg sandwiches; I’ve never seen another concoction like it anywhere.

I miss her.

 

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