The One Who Makes You A Mother

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Every mother, no matter how many children she has, knows the enormity of the gift she has been given in the form of her first child. That first baby makes us mothers, and there is nothing more precious or more transformational. It’s a gift we share with our future children, who add to it and enhance it and who share equally in our love. But it is our first child who gives us the gift of motherhood.

My first baby, the one who made me a mother, turns 8 today.

I remember the first time I held her with remarkable clarity, and with the same welling up of emotions I felt then. She was tiny – full term, but only five pounds – and swaddled like a burrito.  She opened her eyes to me right away and as I met her gaze, her lower lip pushed out into a pout and an expression of bewilderment came over her face. I remember thinking that it must have been tough for her; that everything she had ever known had changed in an instant.

If I could distill my becoming a mother into one single moment, it would be that one. Not because it was the first time I held her in my arms, but because it was our first time experiencing the world together.

Looking back over the last eight years, the best moments of motherhood have been exactly that– sharing the experience of the world around us. And I have been so lucky to have such an incredibly cool person to share these moments with.

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My girl is deep. She’s complicated. She’s tough and persistent as hell and one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever known. She wakes up in the middle of the night worried about growing up and dying. Life can be a little too big for her sometimes. She is like me in so many ways that I can almost feel my own fears and insecurities within her. Sometimes, that scares me.

She is a one girl justice league, and if I have to tell her a dozen times a day that life is not and never will be fair, I’m proud that she has a strong sense of equity. She gets angry quickly and thoroughly, but her temper is matched many times over by the strength and fullness of her love.

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She tells us stories, with chapters and in series, but she doesn’t have the patience to write them down. There are times when her creativity astounds me.

She takes people as they are, for who they are, which is a rare and precious quality I hope she never loses. Over the years, I’ve imagined her growing up to fill a number of different exalted professions — a famous writer! a dolphin trainer! a CEO! — but as I come to know her better, I think she would change the world as a teacher of students with special needs.

She is a proud Hufflepuff and will not tolerate bullies, but she slayed as Cruella DeVil in her drama class play.

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I love this kid beyond words. She made me a mother and she gave me the gift of herself. She’s not my baby any more, but I am overwhelmingly grateful that she is my girl.

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What Grief Has Taught Me

what grief has taught me

It’s January 6th again, the day that I dread. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t dread this day, and I think I will continue to dread it as long as my memory is intact. I’ve been dreading it more than usual this year, because January 6, 2016 is kind of a big deal.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer. I don’t know why this number seems so significant. There is something about a quarter of a century that feels substantial.

And I don’t know why measuring the time that has passed is so important to me. It’s something I just do, automatically. I can say with certainty, though, that these 25 years have changed me. Looking back to 1991 from 2016 feels like looking from one world to another. To me, it is a different world. I’ve grown up.

I’ve grown up, and I’ve grown in understanding. The roles that cancer and loss have played in my life have never been far from my mind. I’m a thinker (and an over-thinker), and I’ve never stopped thinking about the parts of my life that have so fundamentally shaped the person I’ve become.

So, small though my pool of knowledge might be, I do know this:

Cancer is a family disease.

I’ve never had cancer, but cancer is a part of me.

My mother was first diagnosed when I was four. I was young, but I was very aware of the fear gripping my family. I used to have this nightmare, over and over and over, so often that 32 years later I can still remember it in near-perfect detail. I was in my parents’ bedroom – pale blue walls, bed covered with a white, tufted chenille bedspread. My mother was standing at the foot of the bed packing a suitcase. My father was in the corner of the room crying. I was squeezed between the bed and the wall, watching, hidden. Behind my mother a bear hovered — it wanted to take her away. I knew my mother was scared but didn’t want to show it, and I knew that my father was crying because he was helpless.  This scene would repeat itself in a loop, and it scared me stiff.

Chronic illness — when it carries with it the potential of a death sentence — is terrifying for the person fighting it. It is also terrifying for those who love and need that person. During the long seven years of my mother’s illness, in my heart I was fighting alongside her. The time that has passed since her death has done nothing to diminish my sense of having battled and lost to cancer.

Sharing death with someone is an intimate, profoundly affecting act and everyone should do it once.

My mother died at Christmas. Technically, she died on the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. But really, her death began on the 26th when she fell into a coma that only broke when her pain became uncontrollable.

I was there the whole time. I was with her when she lost consciousness. I heard her when she emerged only to moan in pain. I learned what dying breaths sound like and I stood beside her as those breaths ebbed to a stop. I could almost see her soul depart her body.

Four years ago, when I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I sat in another room with another person I loved as cancer took his life away too. This time, it was my uncle – one of the best humans I’ve ever known – who was making his surrender. With my aunt and my cousins, I held his hand through a death that was not peaceful.

The memories of my mother and my uncle dying are among my most painful. But I also treasure them. There was an inexplicable beauty in those moments, a sense of connectedness and love. I’m better because of them.

Grief grows as one body.

When you first experience grief – not just great sadness, grief – it creates a sort of nerve in you with the cause of your grief at its core. And once that nerve exists within you, you can’t experience loss without it being touched.

Shortly after my mother died, my grandfather died, also of cancer. I grieved my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, but his death renewed my grief for my mother. As death took more of the people I loved, an uncle, my grandmothers, an uncle again, I grieved each individually and all of them together.

When my second uncle died four years ago, I felt the loss of everyone who had gone before him. But oddly enough, the grief I felt was also a kind of resurrection. Grieving them together somehow brought them back to me individually. For a time they were all with me again.

People die, but grief doesn’t.

Grief is a gut punch like no other. It shatters you absolutely. People tell you that it goes away with time, but it doesn’t.

And as much as you wish in the early days that it will go away, that it will release you and let you go back to being the person you were before it took over your life, you end up not wanting it to go away.

Time makes living with your grief more bearable, but it also takes you further away from the person you have lost. Eventually, grief becomes the strongest connection you have with them.

In 25 years, the world has changed. I’ve changed. And with every year that passes, it’s as though time has taken my mother further away from me. I don’t feel her presence anymore. The memories I have of her are pitifully few. I take them out like treasures now, cherishing them, guarding them, but lacking a sense of their relevance in my daily life.

And now that the grief of missing her in every moment has lessened, a new grief has taken its place – the grief of not missing her in every moment. It’s a quieter grief — and more bearable — but it’s grief all the same.

After 25 years, what I know above all things is that grief never dies.

Mom

 

 

My Italian Leprechaun

The whirring and humming and thump-thump-thumping of a sewing machine will always remind me of one person: my dearly loved, and deeply missed, Italian-with-an-Irish-name grandmother.

This lady:

If you knew her, you loved her.

If you knew her, you loved her.

Even though it’s been over 20 years since I sat in my grandparents’ family room watching Dukes of Hazard while my grandmother sewed, the sound of a sewing machine still brings her presence back to me. I spent so many hours in that room with her, especially during the long years of my mother’s illness, that I think I will always associate the sound of sewing with my grandmother, no matter how many decades separate me from my memories of her.

I have been thinking about this, and her, frequently over the past week, as I struggled to make a matching set of St. Patrick’s Day dresses for my daughters. After one failed (and un-saveable) attempt and many, many mistakes, I finally succeeded in creating two decently cute dresses that actually fit the child each dress was intended for. A minor miracle, in my opinion.

A St. Paddy's Day Miracle!

A St. Paddy’s Day Miracle!

I’d like to think that she would be proud of my effort, but I know better. I’m pretty sure my technique (or rather my lack thereof) would have driven her crazy, had she been there to witness it. I’m not very good at sewing.

Still, she loved St. Patrick’s Day, so I know she would have entered into the spirit of things, and she would have emphatically approved of the final product once she saw how adorable they looked on her great-granddaughters.

The other one ran away from the camera. -- but this one is pretty darn cute!

The other one ran away from the camera. — but this one is pretty darn cute!

For an Italian lady, she really did get a kick out of St. Patrick’s Day, even though her attitude toward the Irish was ambivalent at best during the rest of the year. She was born a Mastromonica, and she was proud of her Italian heritage. But she married an Irishman deliberately, because she refused to marry an Italian one: Her father used to make her mother, his subordinate, walk behind him in public. My grandmother was determined to walk right next to whatever man she married.

Still, it didn’t stop her from telling us, after her diabetes got so bad she couldn’t use her legs, that she was Irish from the waist down and Italian from the waist up. Her mind was spry, her legs not so much. She may have spent 60-odd years as a Fitzpatrick, but her heart pumped Italian blood.

But on St. Patrick’s Day, she was all Irish. She had her sweatshirt emblazoned with the Fitzpatrick name, and her green pants, which she paired with a jaunty felt shamrock hat and green beads. She wore that outfit every St. Patrick’s Day for years. And every year, with her short, round stature, her sprightly smile, and her twinkling, mischievous eyes, she looked just like a leprechaun. A laughing, Italian leprechaun.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you and yours, and as the old blessing goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy's Day.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy’s Day.

We Are All They Need

Today is Janurary 6, my mother’s day. It became “my” mother’s day 23 years ago when my own mother, after a nearly eight-year battle, lost her life to breast cancer and when I became aware of how vitally important a mother’s presence is in the lives of her children.

For many years, whenever January 6th arrived, I thought about my own losses. A first, I missed her with every nerve; I felt flayed and exposed to a host of things that were beyond my understanding. Gradually, my piercing grief was replaced by a longing that was no less intense, because it contained the realization that with each passing year I was separated even further from her.

But now that I have children of my own, when January 6th rolls around I find myself thinking less about my own losses and more about what my mother lost when she died.

She was so beautiful.

She was so beautiful.

Parenthood is a future-thinking endeavor. When we first breathe in the newness of our just-born child, we look forward, far forward, to decades of moments with that brand-new baby. Yes, we marvel at their smallness, their freshness, their perfection. We revel in the tiny yet immense gift we have been given. But we also envision what that baby will be like as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult. We see them on birthdays, on holidays, at graduations and weddings. We see their children.

We plan to be with them until they are grown, and to experience life with them after they have reached their potential as adults. We don’t plan for our relationship with them to end when they are children.

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms.

As her daughter, and as the mother of my own children, it breaks my heart to know that this face…

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…and this face

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…are wholly unknown to her.

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

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This is not going to turn into one of those “enjoy every moment with your child because you never know how many you have” posts. I could go there, but I’m not a hypocrite. I would wager large sums of money that, when my children are grown and gone, I absolutely will not be longing to re-experience the prickly-hot feeling of panic spiked with shame that comes over you when your five-year-old is publicly behaving like a spoiled toddler, while your toddler is running in circles like an untrained dog smelling distinctly of eau de poo. There are many moments that I won’t miss.

I’m not even saying that we moms (and dads!) should be doing anything differently. If anything, I am saying we should all do less, or at least that we should worry less about what we should be doing. Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

What I am saying is that the sum of moments that we have with our children is probably the best thing that we, or they, will ever have. And that if we are able to look forward to a future of these moments, when we and they are all present together in this world, then we are damned lucky.

Elves on Shelves from Hell

It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. The time when the Internets make parents of young children feel like it is our sacred duty to make every single second of the four weeks that precede Christmas Magical, with a capital M and a Disney-esque flourish.

We have the old standbys to get through, the breakfasts with Santa, the viewings of holiday movie classics, the parties, the socials, the cookie baking, the awkward gift swaps. And then we have the Pinterest traditions, which technically aren’t traditions, but the Martha Stewart perfection that we see all over social media makes us think that they are, or at least that they SHOULD be. And if we aren’t doing these things, we are, at best, Christmastime failures, and at worst we are irrevocably harming our children and, instead of college funds, we should be starting therapy funds. Which we probably should be doing anyway, because if we can’t get Christmas right, then we most likely aren’t getting anything else right, either. At least, that’s what Pinterest is telling me.

Chief among these non-traditional traditions is the Elf on the Shelf. You know who I mean. That blue-eyed imp who gets up to all kinds of yuletide shenanigans, while watching and reporting on our children.

We joined the Elfin fray two years ago, inspired by the ever more creative Elf exploits that my Facebook friends were posting. There were prayerful Elves in Nativity scenes, adventurous Elves in airplanes, silly Elves hanging from fans, addict Elves mainlining sugar, and naughty Elves doing naughty things with Barbie dolls.

I knew that getting an Elf meant committing myself to him and his nightly activities for a full month, every year, for as many years as I had kids who believed in Santa. I knew the costs, but I had to take the risk. It was for the children, after all.

The first year was a moderate success. My younger daughter was still an infant, but my older daughter was three, and, although she didn’t fully get the Elf concept, she enjoyed looking for him every morning. We named him Santa, and he was mostly tame.

Our second year was more exciting. Our girls were four and 18 months old, and the little one had a blast following her big sister around as she searched for Santa. He joined us on a trip to Disney World, which was quite the event, and he started to get more creative in his hiding places.

And now we are into our third year. Santa has been with us for a full week now, and, oh, what a week it has been. My older daughter is now five, and if there is a child who has been drawn deeper into the Elfin lore than she has, I would like to meet him.

She LOVES the Elf. She regularly offers to tell me “nonfiction” stories, as she calls them (because they relate true events, she says), about Santa the Elf, his family, his history, his adventures, and his aspirations. When I ask her how she thinks Santa has gotten into his various hiding places, she acts out every move she thinks he made, hopping gleefully around the house. The Elf on the Shelf was made for children like her.

And then there is the little one. Now two, she seemed to be as excited as her sister when Santa made his first appearance. But then, things changed.

On Monday, she told me that Santa the Elf was “scawy.” On Monday night, she woke up screaming and told me the Elf was watching her. On Tuesday, she refused to be in the same room as the Elf and by Wednesday, she had become so fearful in our house (but only in our house) that I had to take her to the local mall before she would let me put her down without crying.

Her fearfulness and clinginess continued until I became convinced that this was no longer about the Elf, that she probably had some sort of cancer and that OMIGOD, she needed to see the doctor and/or be taken to the ER. And yes, I tend to overreact, but seriously, this kid was acting WEIRD. I had never, ever seen her behave the way she has been behaving the last few days.

So this morning, I took her to the pediatrician. He checked her out. It’s not cancer. It’s not even a cold. Apparently, it’s just a fearful age. In my doctor’s words, she probably experienced a traumatic nightmare, possibly involving the g-ddam Elf, and that her daytime fearfulness is a perfectly natural effect of an extremely upsetting dream.

And no, he said, it really isn’t odd that this fearfulness has lasted a full week. In fact, he would be more surprised if it ended in just two days, as I thought it should have done. Actually, it would be more likely for it to last a full month. That’s just how things go with kids in this developmental phase.

So let’s hear it for Pinterest, and Facebook, and the everloving Elf on the everloving shelf.

Hi! I'm just your friendly scout Elf, here to make Christmas extra Christmasy!

Hi! I’m just your friendly scout Elf, here to make Christmas extra Christmasy!

There’s nothing scary about ME!

Yep, just a friendly Elf. Here to make Christmas fun. Oh, and I'm going to watch you. All day. You know, just so I can tell good ol' Father Christmas how you're doing.

Yep, just a friendly Elf. Here to make Christmas fun. Oh, and I’m going to watch you. You know, just so I can tell good ol’ Father Christmas how you’re doing.

Yep, I’m just watching you. All day. All night, too. Juuust watching.

Did I say Father Christmas? Whoopsie! I meant BIG BROTHER Christmas.

Did I say Father Christmas? Whoopsie! I meant BIG BROTHER Christmas.

You better close those bedroom doors, Christmas lovers, because I will stab you in your sleep.

Nice Things, and Why We Can’t Have Them

Sunday was the first night of Advent, and I decided that THIS year, our family was going to light our Advent candle and say our Advent candle prayer every. single. night.

This laudable resolution was challenged from the get go. First, I only had white candles. The proper purple and pink candles were nowhere to be found. But that didn’t matter; what was important was that we would light those candles and say our prayer together, as a family.

So I set our white candles up in the lovely Celtic-knot advent wreath I inherited from my grandmother. They didn’t fit in the holders, and I didn’t have time to rig them up with paper towels, so they leaned awkwardly in four different directions. Still, no matter. It was dinner time and we were doing this Advent thing, candles be damned. I mean darned.

All four of us gathered at the table. The lights were low; the single candle was lit. It was a solemn scene, which lasted approximately 15 seconds. Then, my two year old, Norah, started singing Happy Birthday and blew the candle out.

But I was determined not to let my plans be derailed by a toddler. I moved the wreath out of her reach, re-lit the candle, and said the first line of our prayer:

“O God, as light comes from this candle…”

While my five-year-old, Michele, sweetly repeated after me, Norah shot out her Go- Go-Gadget arms and yanked the wreath toward her. She blew out the candle, grabbed the two candles closest to her, and started drumming.

Teeth clenched, I removed the priceless heirloom to the top of the fridge and confiscated the candles. But still, I persevered. With or without candles, we were DOING. THIS. THING.

I moved onto the second line of the prayer.

“May the blessing — ”

“MOMMY! No!” Now it was Michele’s turn. “You can’t say the next line. My FLOWER didn’t get a chance to say the FIRST line.”

And so, in a tiny, screechy voice, the sparkly flower that had fallen off of a Christmas decoration said her part of the prayer. We moved through the next two lines, slowly, as each was repeated three times, but steadily. Norah was quiet. Too quiet.

As the little flower was squeaking out her repetition of the fourth and final line, Norah could contain herself no longer.

“PooPooPeePee! Butt! Snot! Boogers!” She shouted out her entire potty vocabulary. My husband started man-giggling, laughing harder and louder the more he tried to contain it. Michele didn’t even try to hold back her laughter, and, playing to her audience, Norah repeated her repertoire, adding in animal sounds and random words.

“Moo! Baa! Hair! Nose! Shirt! BUTT!”

I know when I am defeated. But I finished my prayer anyway. Because even though we can’t have nice things, I can still pretend.

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O God, as light comes from this candle,
May the blessing of Jesus Christ come to us,
Warming our hearts and brightening our way.
May Christ our Savior bring life into the darkness of this world,
And to us, as we wait for his coming.

 

Remembering The World We Left Behind

When we were on vacation this summer, my cousin went into premature labor with her third baby. It had been a difficult pregnancy, which ended in a challenging labor, and I felt awful that I wasn’t there to help her through it.

My older daughter overheard me telling my husband how bad I felt that we were away — and how much I was looking forward to meeting the newest member of our extended family — and told me she had an idea for something we could do to welcome her brand new baby cousin.

Her idea was to take pictures (of everything) so we could show the baby what his new life would be like. I had never let her use our camera before — I’d already broken it myself and trusted her five-year-old fingers even less than my own– but her offer was too endearing for me to resist. So I handed it over and off she went, recording her world as she saw it.

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My daughter kept up her photography project after we got home, and I had the best of intentions to upload and make prints of her pictures so we could give them to my cousin for her son. But the last few busy weeks of summer led us into the even busier weeks of a new school year and I kept putting that project to the side. It wasn’t until just a few days ago that I finally had a chance to sit down and really look at the images my girl had recorded.

I may be viewing the through the lens of motherly pride, but as I went through my daughter’s pictures, I grew increasingly more impressed by what I was seeing. That’s not to say that her pictures are masterpieces of composition — we’re not raising a young Ansel Adams here. But they are expressive photos, and they reminded me of how different the world is for us when we are small —  they reminded me of the way we see things before others start telling us what to look for.

My daughter took pictures of shadows. She took pictures of feet — the toes of her own shoes pointing toward the toes of her father’s. She took pictures of her sister, capturing her silliness, zooming in on the curve of her chin, highlighting the brilliance of her blue eyes. She took pictures of the texture of the clothes she was wearing, of the wrought iron of a patio table, of her own reflection in the side of our car. At dinner one night, she photographed the family sitting around her, the items on the table, and the room we were in from the perspective of someone who is just over three feet tall. (And for the record, ALL adults, when photographed from below, have double chins. It is a law of physics.) She indulged enthusiastically in the art of the selfie, experimenting in expressions and recording them at arm’s length.

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May daughter’s pictures were in distinct contrast to my own, which were dedicated to recording the moments I wanted to remember — not so much for the way they really happened, but so that I could string  them together and present them in beautiful color to my future self. My pictures were a collection of the images I wanted myself — and others — to see about the life we are living.  They said things like, “the beach is fun!” Or, “Look! We saw dolphins! Aren’t we cool?!” Or, “My kids are beautiful and smile a lot and this life we are living is really awesome.” They are, and they do, and it is, but I have profited more from looking at things from my daughter’s perspective than I have from trying — often in vain — to capture and preserve the best moments of my life.

My daughter’s pictures are simple. They are entirely without artifice or intent. They are just a reflection of a child’s world, recorded by one child for another. There is no need for embellishment because the world to a five-year-old is magical enough without it.

***

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