Death on Facebook

Death on Facebook

As I was going through some unpublished drafts of things I meant to write, I came across a post I began almost a year ago, after the funeral of a friend who died at the age of 35.

It started like this:

“Today I attended the funeral of a friend from back in the day. She died on Saturday, at the age of 35. Her name was Sarah Higgins, and she was a good human.

When I say Sarah was a friend from back in the day, I mean she was a friend from way back in the day. Specifically, from elementary and middle school. I hadn’t seen her for 22 years.

I hadn’t seen her for 22 years, and yet her death has hit me hard. Harder than I thought would be possible — I miss her presence in my life, even though that presence existed only virtually, through the seemingly shallow channel of social media.”

And it ended here. I couldn’t get past this point. I was feeling too raw and too confused: I felt a deep sense of grief, and yet I didn’t feel entitled to that grief. I felt guilty for grieving someone whom I hadn’t seen face-to-face for over two decades, as if I were taking something away from those who truly knew and loved her.  I felt as though a Facebook friendship, even though it was based on a childhood friendship, didn’t measure up to the “real life” relationships she had with others.

But a year later, I still find myself thinking about Sarah, missing her quips and anticipating what she would comment on certain Facebook posts. She is still the first person I think of when I need advice on plants or have a story about backyard vermin. And the fact that I still miss someone I knew almost entirely from social media suggests that there is more to be said.

My friend Julie wrote an insightful piece on how much she values social media as a tool to maintain relationships. She talks about how people tend to scoff at the idea that there can be anything truly meaningful in our connections with others through Facebook or Twitter. But she disagrees with this notion, and so do I.

It is true that nothing can replace the connections we create through face-to-face communication. But that fact doesn’t take value away from other means of communication.

The origins of human interaction were intimate: we could only communicate when we were in each other’s presence. But from the moment our most ancient ancestors figured out how to scrawl drawings on the wall of a cave, our communications have constantly been evolving and expanding in scope.

And now we are able to pick up a tiny machine that contains our lives and have a real time conversation with someone as far away from us as the other side of the world, or as close to us as the room downstairs.

Even though our words pass soundlessly through cyberspace, the value of the connection between people is still there. We can get more than just news or updates: we can reach out to one another for advice and comfort and inspiration. We can unite behind a common cause. We can be present for those we care about, even if all we are doing is holding space in our hearts for someone we only ever see on a screen.

I still miss Sarah. Her wit, her quirky insights, her unfailing support for the LGBT community (and really for anyone who was marginalized by society), her compassion for animals, her prickly kindness filled my newsfeed and became part of my daily life. I missed her presence when she died, and I miss it still now.

Human connectedness is a sacred thing, and we like to hold it to traditional standards. But the way we connect with one another is changing. We can be devastated by the loss of a hero or icon we’ve never even met — think of the global heartbreak so many of us shared with the passing of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and Mohammad Ali. And we can grieve someone we haven’t seen in decades, but who was present in our lives nevertheless.

 

That Last Baby

sweet newborn norah

There is something bittersweet about a last baby.

When any baby arrives, you know that she – and no other – was the person your family needed. Each child of any family, no matter the number, adds a new dimension, filling a space that was empty. But your last baby completes your family. She draws the final line of the cube; she is the last missing piece.

And while there is joy – and a measure of relief — to be found in this completion of your unit there is also a feeling of loss. Each milestone your last baby passes is the last milestone your family passes. Knowing this brings you a constant, often irritating, urge to feel the fullness of your time with your child: to burn the magical moments into your memory so that you never lose them.

On the other hand, that same urge to brand moments into your brain is also there when you are waking up every hour to nurse that last baby for seemingly endless months. It helps you “treasure” those less pleasant moments, like when that last baby turns two and finds the Sharpie you thought you hid, or when she turns three and you are carrying her kicking and screaming out of a store. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing you will never have to buy diapers again.

*  *  *

Today, my last baby turns five and the yearning to be able to bring back her babyhood, to revive the time when I was everything to her has been strong.

But I’m not giving in to it. Because this last baby of mine is becoming a person I want to know better. The depth and beauty of her personality are just beginning to show.

norah 5 post

She has spirit and charm and an irresistible spark of impishness. Her voice is cartoonishly cute: sweet, with a hint of rasp, and she uses it all the time. She notices things that other people don’t. She craves the comfort of her parents’ arms, and she hugs her sister with crushing love. She does nothing by halves. She is kind and curious and spectacularly bright. She growls when she is angry. She has brilliant blue eyes, but it’s in her smile that you can see her soul.

She is my last baby, and today she is five. In a few short months, she will start kindergarten, where the path to independence begins. The heartstring connecting us will stretch, steadily, irreversibly, as she comes into herself.

The urge to etch moments into my memory won’t go away. I don’t want it to. There are years of last moments — precious and painful and irritating and fun – ahead of us.

norah horse 2

What Donald Has Done for Us

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Earlier this month, Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the Republican primary race, leaving Donald Trump the presumptive nominee.  The day Kasich made his announcement,  I turned the radio to my favorite NPR station, hoping to catch a little more news about his withdrawal. Instead, I tuned in just in time to catch the end of a news story about a man with stomach troubles who, frustrated with conventional medical treatments, attempted a DIY fecal matter transplant as some sort of homeopathic digestive cure-all.

I’m not a DIY fecal matter transplant expert, but from what the reporters said, the process involved soliciting donor poop samples, making gel caps from the sample selected, and consuming said capsule, thereby introducing “healing” bacteria from the donor poop into his guts. In other words, the guy ate someone else’s shit with the expectation that it would cure him of his ills.

Disgusting, yes. But it was also a remarkably apt story to hear on the day the world learned that a Donald Trump presidency could very well be in our future.  It’s a solid metaphor for what I perceive as the mindset behind those who support Trump: through dissatisfaction with the state of our country combined with mistrust of the establishment, people are ready to swallow Trump’s BS, fully believing — despite a total lack of evidence — that Donald Trump is the one man who can solve our problems.

I cannot fathom ever being inspired to perform a fecal matter transplant, DIY or otherwise, to treat my very real and persistent GI problems. I equally cannot fathom ever being inspired to support Donald Trump as a person who can lead our nation through our very real and persistent socio-political conflicts and economic turbulence. It is next to impossible for me to understand how any reasonable person could be inspired by the person or politics of Donald Trump.

To be perfectly frank, Trump supporters are an enigma to me. They appear in my imagination as gun-toting bogeymen, who are either ignorant hicks, racist xenophobes, or opportunistic arseholes (or some combination thereof). After all, only people who don’t know any better, or who really hate brown people, or who care more about the advancement of their own ideals than they do for democracy or peace could support a foul-mouthed, disrespectful, unstable narcissist like Donald Trump.

Right?

Maybe not.

It’s easy for people like me who live in progressive, diverse, and relatively economically secure communities to be dismissive of – or afraid of, or prejudiced against — those who find merit in Trump’s blustering confidence and so-called policies. In many ways, I come from a position of privilege. Society hasn’t failed me, or my family, and I don’t feel as though social changes have violated my core values: I don’t feel powerless in a system that is rigged against me. Donald Trump doesn’t appeal to me because I don’t need what he is selling.

Trump’s personality is a magnet for bullies and opportunists, for the Crabbes and Goyles of the world, and I feel no guilt in consigning a large number of his supporters to a category of people I cannot respect. But I also think there is more complexity among his followers than many of us would like to admit.

I was listening recently to an interview with a man who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary but who plans to vote for Trump over Hillary in the general election. To him, Hillary represents a corrupt status quo that has not and will never work for the benefit of the people.

In another interview, I heard a Trump supporter say that, although he did not agree with many of Trump’s policy proposals he did trust his strength of character. Trump’s brash self-confidence, and his fixedness of purpose were appealing to him, and they trumped whatever reservations the man had about the kinds of policies Donald would pursue.

Donald Trump’s popularity among so many people hasn’t come out of nowhere. We have been paving his road with gold for years now. The last few decades have been marked by upheaval on every level – in politics, in our economy, in technology, in communications, and in our social mores.

And as we have progressed through this upheaval, swaths of our citizens have become disaffected with our political system –  a system that, I think, many of us increasingly fail to understand. We have also  fallen into the habit of “otherizing” those who insist on taking a path that opposes our own. Rifts have become ravines, leaving a vacuum of space perfectly fitted to a person like Donald Trump.

And so, here we are, with a man despised by millions of people across the political spectrum dominating the American political stage. We tell ourselves that this guy is NOT American; that he does NOT represent who we really are; that he has vaulted into popularity in spite of us.

But, as much as I hate to admit it, Trump does represent us, and he is here because of us.

And that is what Donald has done for us: along with all his swaggering, all the cocksure, embarrassing BS he has brought to the forefront of national politics, he has brought something else too — he has given us himself as a mirror, and shown us that he is really nothing more than a reflection of who we are becoming. This is his gift to us.

It’s depressing for people like me to think that we have done anything to deserve Donald Trump as a candidate for president. It’s depressing as hell to think we might actually deserve him as a president.

But there is also a perverse sense of hope that arises when we accept responsibility for the Donald. It means that  Donald Trump (and everything he represents) hasn’t invaded our politics in some sort of hostile takeover– we invited him in. And if we invited him in, we can kick him out.

donalsdolored

Trump’s candidacy also gave us this image of him as Dolores Umbridge and it never fails at making me laugh. 

 

Bath Time is Crazy Time

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There is something about warm, unchlorinated water in a porcelain tub that brings out my kids’ inner Kraken. I don’t know what it is.  Maybe the opportunity to be fully, freely nude releases inhibitions along with common sense. Maybe, like a lion tracking its prey, they can sense that a long day has weakened my defenses. Maybe they just really enjoy the thrill of saving their wildest antics for the one place in the house in which they could drown.

All I know is that bath time is crazy time.

My sweet little water monsters insist on bathing together. They are terrified of the shower, so they bathe exclusively in the tub. I let them, despite the havoc they wreak, because honestly you have to choose your battles.

They use this shared bath time as an opportunity to do things they can’t do anywhere else, like fight over whose side of the tub has more water, or who is stealing whose bubbles. They take advantage of the bathroom acoustics to practice their most blood-curdling, bone piercing screams, joining their voices into a wail like the death omen of a banshee.

I say things like, “don’t drink that! Why are you drinking that?! Bath water is butt water.” And “stop laughing at your sister drinking butt – I mean bath – water. It’s not funny. Seriously, it’s not funny.” Or, “God made our bodies beautiful but please let’s keep our private parts to ourselves.”

By the time they get out, I am done – but the bath time/bedtime marathon is not. They still need to get dried and into pajamas. And it is at this point, when I am at my feeblest, that my younger daughter unleashes the full power of her inner demon.

Released from the confines of the tub, she moves to the second phase of her bath time ritual: the escape. Yesterday, I turned my back on her for two seconds and she was gone. I followed her soggy footprints into her sister’s room, where I found her hiding behind the curtains, her little butt pressed up against the floor to ceiling window.

It’s a cat and mouse chase of Tom and Jerry proportions, and by the time I finally catch and clothe her, I am spent. I am nothing more than a shell of myself.

But then this happens.

Norah Sleeping

 

And I am overwhelmed with love and in awe of the fact that these little Krakens are mine.

 

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

 

 

Grieving the Almost

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A Facebook friend of mine once shared a post on grieving the almost. It was a beautiful and thoughtful essay on the paradoxical idea that we have the ability to miss something that never really existed, except in our perceptions or in our imaginations.

On the surface, grieving the almost seems impossible. How can you feel the pain of the loss of something that was never yours to lose? It shouldn’t be possible – God knows we have enough grief in this world from the losses of what we can feel with our own five senses. And if reality were just what we can see and touch and hear, it wouldn’t be possible.

But of course it’s possible. Because we all know that just because something happens in our heads, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. We can grieve the love we thought we felt, but didn’t. We can grieve the marriage that was never really a marriage. We can grieve the job we never got, the dream that was never fulfilled, the potential we never reached. We can grieve the child we never conceived and we can grieve the one we lost but never met.

These days, it’s the grief of that final almost which has been foremost on my mind. I’m posting this in October, the month dedicated to bringing awareness to pregnancy and infant loss – and social media is ensuring that memories of my own loss remain on the edges of my thoughts.

I can say from experience that anyone who has lost a cherished pregnancy, no matter how early, knows what it means to grieve the almost.

A parent is able to love – overwhelmingly – the baby whose proof of life lies only in the faintest of pink lines. A parent can see the child of her heart in the sprout-like form and nubby limbs of an 8-week fetus. A parent can feel the downy hair she never nuzzled; she can know the soft weight that never warmed her chest.

A parent who has lost a pregnancy has grieved – and will always grieve – the almost.

I’m writing this post not so much in the name of awareness, but in remembrance. Because I think the hardest part of pregnancy loss is the knowledge that we (or someone we loved) once carried within her the potential for a life that will not only never be lived, but which will never be known.

And so, this post is for all of the almost babies, the shadow children, who exist in the hearts of so many mothers and fathers.  Your presence is felt in a world you never saw, because you changed those who loved you without ever knowing you. We remember you. We miss you. We grieve for the world that will never know you.

In Honor of Our Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so it seems like a good time to put into words a post I have been writing in my head for weeks.

The state of our schools is on the minds of parents across the country. We hear about oppressive testing regimens, disinterested teachers, the much-maligned common core.  We hear far more complaints and criticism than gratitude and praise. More than that, we hear about a system that is broken, in which excellence is the exception to the rule.

***

On paper, our local school does not look promising. Our Great Schools rating has dropped from an eight to a four. Sixty percent of our students receive free or reduced price lunches – the highest percentage in our (wealthy) county. We have a significant population of parents whose first language is not English, so many of our students enter Kindergarten unable to understand their teachers.

If you look at just the numbers, ours is a school that some people would choose to avoid.

Some people would, but thankfully, we didn’t. Because numbers and metrics and the problems so many people like to discuss don’t tell the whole story.

***

For me, the story begins with our teachers.

When my daughter started Kindergarten last year, I was worried. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was three. Since then, different doctors have agreed and disagreed with that diagnosis, but on one thing there is a clear consensus: she has some quirks. School, with its many transitions and social challenges had the potential of being really tough for her. Full-day Kindergarten looked, to me, like a minefield.

It wasn’t. My daughter’s teacher seemed to have an intuitive understanding of exactly what she needed to thrive. She made their daily routine clear and guided my daughter through transitions. She recognized the triggers that made my daughter especially anxious, and she made sure to work around them.

And she did all that while dealing with a class of 17 other children, who were all over the developmental spectrum. Some were struggling with the basics of reading, others were reading chapter books. Some came to school barely understanding English. Some had never been in a school environment, and several struggled with the restrictions of being in a classroom all day.   Her special understanding of my daughter wasn’t even special – because she had the same commitment to meeting the unique needs of each and every other student in her classroom.

And this teacher, as good as she is, is not an anomaly.

Back in December I had a meeting at our school to talk about my daughter’s handwriting, which was terrible.

Because her fine motor skill development was concerned, the meeting included her first grade teacher, the lead special education teacher, the school psychologist, an occupational therapist, and her principal.

I began the conversation discussing some of my daughter’s history, expecting to have to explain her quirks and how they affect her in the classroom. But I didn’t have to, because her teacher had such insight into her personality, her anxieties, and the way she learns that she was able to contribute more to the conversation than I was.

The special education teacher picked right up on what her teacher was saying, and put together a plan that was not only tailored exactly to my daughter’s needs, but which was creative and empowering.

Her principal looked over her handwriting samples, and understood immediately what our concerns were, adding in his own interpretations and recommendations.

Everyone in that room cared. They cared about my daughter as a person, not just as a student. They liked her. They wanted her to succeed in becoming her best self. It’s a gift beyond value — beyond any kind of measurement —  to have people like these in your child’s life.

***

Our teachers have an incredibly difficult job, especially at the elementary level. They aren’t just imparting knowledge. They are teaching our kids the basic skills that form the foundation of all the learning they will do in the future. And they are doing so for a classroom full of children with vastly different learning styles, family backgrounds, social statuses, and personalities.

My family is fortunate to be part of an exceptionally good school district and to be assigned to a school with excellent teachers and a strong community. I know how vastly unequal school districts across the nation are. I know that we are privileged.

But the story of our education system starts with our teachers. And if we want that system to be great we need give our teachers the support, the gratitude, and the respect they deserve.

So to all the teachers in my life: Thank You.

S