The World Is Too Much

angel of greif

I began writing this post with this sentence: “whenever our society experiences an incident of extreme violence or injustice or an epic failure of leadership, I find myself feeling overwhelmed; my thoughts scramble and collide; eventually they collapse.”

I deleted it, then I rewrote it, and then I decided to reframe it. What I wrote about myself is true, but the context is  inaccurate– it implies that the violence and injustice and incompetence I’m describing are aberrations, that they come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end.

What we are experiencing now – the near-constant gun massacres, the violent mob mentality rooted in hate and fueled by rhetoric, the rapes that go unpunished, the racism that goes unchecked, the total failure of our leaders to lead, the feeling of impending crisis – these are not “incidents.” They are our norm.

And the fact that this turmoil is a defining characteristic of the age in which we live only serves to intensify the chaos of my thoughts and feelings. My anger and frustration and grief and despair and fear struggle for pride of place until my mind becomes exhausted and defeated; stymied by its own excess of activity.

So as much as I wish I could come up with something balanced and meaningful, or at least coherent, to say about Orlando, or gun access reform, or racism, or Republicans, or the fact that Donald Trump’s face keeps popping up in my nightmares, I can’t.

I just can’t. The world is too much.

All I can do is grasp onto the tiny moments, and listen to the whispers of what is good in our lives.

Like a conversation with my five-year-old, in which she told me that she was BORN to make people laugh, and the pride I feel in knowing that she believes her mission in life is to bring others joy.

Or the “I love you more” argument I have every night with my 8-year-old, and the powerful gratitude —  the sense of awe — I feel that despite my mistakes and imperfections as a parent my daughter loves me as fiercely as I love her.

These moments aren’t much. They come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end. But they are everything. They have to be.

 

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 Two Moms

The other day in the grocery store, my daughter asked me to tell her, again, how it is that I have two moms. This question is hard to explain to a six-year-old even in the best of circumstances. But in an extremely crowded Wegman’s on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while trying to maneuver a cart and a child through the turkey aisle, it was damn near impossible. But still, I endeavored.

In what was probably the most crowded location in our entire town at that particular moment, I stopped to explain one of the most complicated aspects of my existence.

“The mommy who carried me in her belly, your Nana,” I told her “was too young to take care of a baby. And the mommy who raised me, Grandma Michele, who is in heaven, was old enough to take care of me, but she couldn’t have babies of her own. So your Nana gave me to your Grandma and Grandpa, so that they could take care of me instead. But they all loved me very much.”

That story is about as deep as you can go with an elementary schooler. But even in the midst of the chaos and my own distraction, I was very aware of what I was leaving out.

I didn’t mention how hard I always knew it was for the woman who gave birth to me to have had to let me go. I didn’t tell her how the only time I came close to crying right after she was born was when I thought about what it would have felt like if I’d had to give her up to be raised by another woman.

I couldn’t tell her how, although I always saw my birth mother as a hero, there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder how she could possibly have left me behind. And I couldn’t tell her how, despite the incredible  love I have for the family I know as my own, I still wondered — just sometimes —  what it would have been like to be a part of a family of people who were related to me by blood.

I couldn’t tell her how fiercely angry I feel when people suggest that the mother who made me her own wasn’t my “real” mom. And I couldn’t explain how the joy I felt when I met the mother I’d lost at birth didn’t lessen the grief I will always feel for the mother I lost forever.

I couldn’t explain how incredibly fortunate I felt when the mother who gave me life was one of the first people to meet my daughter after her own birth. And I couldn’t explain how much it sometimes breaks my heart to see the genetic stamp of my adoptive mother on my cousin’s kids and not my own.

And I don’t think I will ever be able to explain to her how, even though I have been blessed with the love of two mothers, there have been moments in my life when I have felt motherless.

There is so much that I can’t explain to my children right now about the reality of my family history. Adoption stories are always complicated, and the fact that I lost the mother who raised me just muddles things further.

But in spite of the complications, it is a story I like to tell, and one that I think is beautiful.

Because even though there is so much I can’t explain, there is so much more that I won’t have to explain.

I won’t have to explain how aware and deeply appreciative I am of the love my mothers had for me and of the sacrifices they both made on my behalf. Because those gifts, which came to me doubled, are now mine to grow and to give to my own children.

I won’t have to explain that family is so much more than sharing a genetic bond, because by the time they understand what it means to be related by blood, they will already know how little those ties matter when it comes to love.

And I won’t have to explain how much love is capable of overcoming, how time and distance and loss and sacrifice only make it more powerful, because the one thing that is clear from my story is that love was behind it all.

This is love.

This is love.

* * *

November is National Adoption Month. Although I tend to shy away from Awareness months in general, I’m glad adoption is something people are talking about.

I have heard people describe adoption as something that always comes from loss. And in a sense, this is undeniably true. People who are adopting are often, though not always, doing so because they cannot have a child any other way. And people who are giving away a child are always losing a part of themselves. Adoption is not an easy option.

But adoption is also a gift of love, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t always the best choice, but when it is, adoption enriches the lives of everyone it touches and it creates a legacy that lasts for generations.

* * *

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Above all, as I am every year, I am thankful for the story of how I came to be, for where I was planted, and especially for the love that made me who I am.

And if anyone who is contemplating adoption reads this, let me share one final story with you, one that my grandmother told me many times over the years.

My grandmother had a terrible time when she was in labor with my father. The birth was so difficult, in fact, that her doctors told her she would probably die if she tried to have another child. She was devastated because she’d always wanted at least four children. So she asked my grandfather if he would consider adopting. He said no, because he just couldn’t fathom being able to love a child that wasn’t his own, especially after having a child that was.

30-some years later, after my parents had adopted me as a six-week-old infant, my grandmother came across my grandfather holding me. She used to say that he looked up from me to her and said, with awe in his voice, that he couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than he loved that baby in his arms.

Adoption is easier than you think it might be.

 

 

 

The Future is in Good Hands

A few weeks into this school year, my first-grader came home talking about a boy. It was a boy she had never mentioned to me before, and she told me that she loved him.  Before long, every story she brought home from her day seemed to involve Daniel* in some way.

“Mommy,” my daughter would tell me, “Daniel is new and he is just sooo cute. I sat next to him at lunch today.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel loves Sponge Bob. It’s his favorite thing in the whole world. I’m going to draw him one and give it to him tomorrow.”

Or, “Mommy, sometimes Daniel has a hard time following the rules during recess, so I help him”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel has the cutest smile.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel is so lucky because he gets to have a teacher to play with him all the time.”

I was a bit bemused by her passion for Daniel.  As I have mentioned before, she already has a fiance, a backup fiance, and a back-up back-up fiance. She also has a best friend at school, who is the Diana to her Anne. And although she talks frequently about all of her friends, never before had one person dominated so many of our extracurricular conversations.

* * *

Then one day I finally met Daniel, the boy I thought I had come to know so well. It was during pick-up after school , which is always a crowded time of day. My daughter pointed toward the building and said, “Mommy, look! There’s Daniel! Isn’t he so cute?!” Looking around the group of children, I saw a blonde boy with a red shirt near the place she had indicated. I waved, and said hi, but my daughter just laughed. No, she told me, Daniel was the boy next to the building, who was holding his teacher’s hand.

And in that moment, I realized two things: First, that Daniel has Down Syndrome. And second, that my daughter has no clue.

My daughter has no idea — none — that there are many people in this world who view Daniel as being different, or slow, or limited. To her, Daniel is a boy who loves Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo, the one child in her entire class shorter than she is, the kid with the magnificent smile.

I don’t think I have ever been more in love with my daughter than I was in the moment when I had that realization, because it was such a powerful indication of the person she fundamentally is. When she was first diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I knew that she had superpowers. And one of those superpowers is the ability to see people without being distracted by the buzzing of social perceptions and prejudices that those of us who are neurotypical are so keen at picking up. My daughter sees what people show her, and in Daniel, she saw a friend.

* * *

The story could end here. It probably should, as far as good writing goes. But I went on a field trip with my daughter’s entire first grade class and I realized something else, something far more important, and I can’t end this post without mentioning it.

Those kids? They love Daniel. It’s not just my daughter, who is special in her own way. They all like him. They all wanted to spend time with him, to make him laugh, and to hold his hand and help him when he needed it. I can’t say whether they perceived Daniel’s differences or not. The point is, it didn’t matter. He was as much a part of their group identity as anyone else. And that, my friends, is beautiful.

My daughter doesn’t attend a private school. She isn’t in a rich school either — more than half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Our test scores aren’t fabulous, mainly because so many of our students are children of immigrants whose first exposure to English has been in their kindergarten classroom. GreatSchools.com rates us at a six out of ten.

But I don’t think I would want to send my daughter anywhere else. What her school offers goes far beyond what can be measured. There is a community there, an understanding that we are all in this together. She is being educated — and educated well — but more importantly, she and her classmates are learning what it means to be a part of a group, to value differences, and to respect what makes each of us unique.

So the next time you hear that our schools are in crisis, remember Daniel, and let yourself believe that the future is in good hands.

 

*We will call this young man Daniel, because I don’t like using real names, and Daniel is what I would have named a son if I’d had one.

 

Three Things I Learned on my Summer Vacation

Summer is over and fall has begun and I know this because people on Facebook are talking about pumpkin spice. But before I embrace sweaters and falling leaves and the extra holiday pounds, I would like to reflect a little on what I learned during my vacation under the sunny skies of Virginia Beach.

1. My Older Daughter Cannot Be Trusted Around Boys

One day I will write a post about my six-year-old’s romances. But for now, let me just say that she has a fiance, a boy who proposed to her when they were both three. And although she has remained steadfast in her plans to marry this boy for nearly three years, she also has a back-up fiance and a back-up back-up fiance. The girl likes boys, and boys like her.

She might be a bit too into boys for my liking, but she has always picked the sweet, smart boys. Her fiance (the main one) first won her heart by offering to take one of the big-wheel bikes from their preschool and ride it to find me when she told him that she missed her mommy. Her back-up fiance was reading at a 3rd grade level and building DNA models in kindergarten. And her back-up back-up fiance stuck up for her when she was being bullied by a girl in their class who is bigger than both of them.

And then, we went on vacation. On our first day there, my husband took our girls to the beach while I went shopping for groceries. When I joined them later, I came upon this scene: my six-year old, bobbing neck-deep in the ocean, talking to an older boy with sun-kissed skin and shiny golden hair. When they came out of the water, I saw that he was not only handsome in the surfer-boy style but that he also wore an actual shark-tooth-on-hemp necklace. This child was the Benjamin-Buttoned version of my teenage fantasy and he was chatting up my baby girl.

She told me later that she was talking to him because he wanted to see her beautiful seashell. So, she gave it to him and they talked and then he gave it back and they just hung out in the water afterward.

I have to admit that after she told me this story — about how the strong and shiny surfer boy talked her into sharing her precious seashell, I was sorely tempted to grasp her by the shoulders and tell her that no boy — ever —  has the right to have her beautiful seashell if she doesn’t want to give it to him! But I resisted because maybe (just maybe) I was reading a little too much into the situation.

It's too soon for this!

It’s too soon for this!

2. If You Put a US Coast Guard Approved Flotation Device on my Younger Daughter She Will Swim ANYWHERE. 

My three-year-old is tiny. I weighed her today and, for the first time ever, she has broken 25 lbs. She is a small kid.

But if you put this little half-pint of a girl in a life vest, there is no body of water that she won’t try to conquer. She was wearing her Puddlejumpers out in the waves where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean and she was owning them. If you give her a boogie board along with that life vest, she will wrap her little arms around that thing and ride the waves like she was born in them. Not only is she unafraid of the bobbing of the water, but she was actually managing to propel herself through it. She was swimming in water that I was afraid to go in. In the wave pool at the water park, she positioned herself in the deepest water, where she could be sure that she would get hit by the waves at their most powerful.

There is a certain amount of pride that you feel when you see your own personal tiny person out in the world doing brave and difficult things. In fact, the feeling is almost overwhelming. I can’t stop myself from scrolling at random through the pictures I took of her, marveling at how my fierce little toddler is taming the ocean.

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3. Beauty Is in The Eye of the Person Who Believes She Will Find It

Like most beach vacations that take place with children in tow, I spent a good part of ours walking along the shore line looking for seashells. I focused on finding the ones that were whole, with the traditional opened fan shape. I was looking for the pretty, perfect ones. I only found a few.

My daughters, on the other hand, picked up shells indiscriminately, or so it seemed to me. Their buckets were full of the broken bits and pieces that were everywhere, the ones I overlooked when I was looking for my perfect specimens.

But when they were showing me their finds after we finished, they were as enthusiastic about them as if they had found true treasure.

My older daughter would hold up a battered-looking  piece of shell and say, “look, mommy, at how this one has bumps and holes all over it. Isn’t it beautiful?” And then she would grab another broken piece, saying “and look at this one! Do you see the color? It is so shiny. Isn’t this one so beautiful too?” And so it went, with each and every shell she found. They were all broken up bits and pieces, but to her they were all beautiful.

And they were beautiful not because of any intrinsic sign of hidden beauty she saw within them. They were beautiful to her because she had set out to find beautiful seashells and so — she did.

The magical thing is that when I was looking at the shells on my on later that night, I no longer saw their brokenness. All I saw was their beauty. And I realized that sometimes, finding beauty in life and looking for it are the same thing.

 

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Locker Room Bodies

Between my return to running and my daughters’ swim lessons, I have recently been spending a lot of time in women’s locker rooms. And during this time, I’ve observed a few things about the locker room subculture: Mainly, that the older women get, the more confident they seem to be in their own skin — and in nothing but their own skin. Also, women who exercise together talk to one another. We talk in the showers and in the toilet stalls. We talk while toweling off, while adjusting our undergarments, and while applying deodorant. We just talk.

Once, while I was dressing my three-year-old after her 11 am swim lesson, an elderly woman wearing nothing but beige underpants started a conversation with me about modern methods of preschool swim instruction.

“My granddaughter in Ohio puts life vests on my great-grandkids when they swim in their pool! I just don’t hold with that kind of nonsense,” she told me. “You just throw ‘em in. That’s the only way they learn! They don’t use those vest things here, do they?” She paused for a moment, and then continued talking. “Don’t mind me, now, I just have to blow dry under my bosom. I find that they get a bit chafed if I just let them air dry.” And sure enough, she lifted each breast, waving the hair dryer underneath and around it.

At that moment, the thinking part of my brain froze completely, leaving my socially awkward self without a working filter. Words came out of my mouth. I started describing in detail the horrible sores my daughter got as a newborn from her diapers and how we, too, had to blow dry her private bits whenever we changed her. My elderly friend just looked at me funny and finished her blow drying.

Why yes, I did just use the word bosom in a sentence. Does that make you uncomfortable?

“Why yes, I did just use the word bosom to refer to my breasts. Does that make you uncomfortable?”

* * *

I don’t do very well with locker room talk, mostly because I am shy around naked people. So when I find myself in a crowd of women in various stages of undress, I tend to do a lot of quiet observing. And in addition to noticing how freely other people seem to behave in a situation that makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I have noticed something else as well.

The women I see in the locker rooms are fit. They work out. They swim. They pump their bodies and they Zumba and they lift. They are active, and they are real.

But none of them – not one of them — possess a body that would be featured as is, with no retouching, in a fitness magazine. There are curves, and lots of them. There are smooth and generous curves, wrinkled curves, and lumpy curves. There are bodies with angles and planes, and there are bodies with definition and obvious strength.

These are beautiful bodies, but not one of them resembles in every particular the tanned, toned, impossibly long and lean examples our media gives us of what women who are “in shape” look like. And yet, these women are the most genuine examples of what it means to be living a healthy, active lifestyle.

It would be easy for me to give in to the temptation right now to rant about how the media flaunts utterly unattainable standards of what women’s bodies should look like. There is no question that the images of what is perceived as the definition of feminine beauty that we see in print and on screens are rarely anything other than airbrushed, elongated, and enhanced images of women whose profession is looking beautiful. It is hard not to get angry that these false images have so much power in our society.

But I am not going to go that route. Because we women are smarter than that. We are stronger than that. We are better than that.

We don’t need the glossy pages of magazines to tell us where our beauty lies. We have the power to decide for ourselves what it means to be fit and healthy — and beautiful.

Images are just that – images. They are as deep as the paper they are printed on, and last as long as the time it takes to scroll past them on your computer screen. But we are real. We run, and walk, and dance, and lift, and stretch, and we have careers and we mother children and we tend to relationships and we live. Above all, we live.

Some of the women I see in the locker room are marathon runners who wear double digit sizes. Others are tiny and toned, with a padding of extra skin around their stomachs as a reminder of the fact that they made another person. Many of the women are elderly, with bodies that will never be firm and young again. All of these women inspire me. And even though they probably don’t realize it, all of these women are beautiful, in their realness and in their strength.

 

A Milestone Moment

Last night this blog hit a milestone moment: I got my first thoroughly negative, personally insulting comment. It was yesterday’s post that brought it in, and I’m looking at it as a good thing — first, because it means that people other than my relatives and friends are reading what I wrote, and also because it means that I’m touching nerves and writing about important things.

My comment was from a person who called himself Cliff, and this is what he wrote*:

“Thankyou for nothing, I am a grandfather, I do watch kids at the park, have even picked them up when they have fallen from the play aminities. Big deal, if you think that every grand father is a sick sod well thats your life, but dont taint us all with your warped mind. just because I enjoyu watching kids have fun, should not open me up to your tirad. not all men are out to harm children. as for your icecream man, poor sods wondering if a complaint from you will end his job.
Do your self a favour, go back to the doc and tell him your sick of the meds you have been buying on the street and you need help.” 

I am going to ignore his unkind personal remarks about me and respond to what I think is his point — that he is offended by the idea that, as a perfectly innocent grandfather who enjoys being around children, he might be stereotyped as a pedophile. Fair enough. I can see where he is coming from — people tend to consider pedophiles to be the scum of the earth and I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t one would want to feel as though he or she is being classed as one.

To clarify my own point, however, I don’t think that all older gentlemen who find joy in watching children play are pedophiles or weirdos. In fact, I generally welcome kind words from men (and women) young and old when they compliment or show benevolent interest in my children. It wasn’t my intention in yesterday’s post to suggest that I feel otherwise.

Still, “Cliff” has a point, which, though I don’t think he realized it, highlights the sort of internal conflict that I was trying to convey. I don’t want to stereotype people. I don’t want to think that all old men are untrustworthy and I don’t want my children to think that either.

But I am my children’s one and only mother and it is my job — my most vitally important job — to keep them safe. And I won’t apologize for the times when I become overly cautious because someone, man or woman, young or old, black, brown, or white, human or non-human, makes me feel uncomfortable.

From the other comments I have received, both here and on my Facebook page, I can see that most other parents feel as challenged as I do when it comes to developing both confidence and caution in our children. But I have also seen that, as these very wise people have pointed out, the most important thing is that we foster communication about these issues with our kids. There is no single path to follow. We will always be challenged with the task of keeping our kids safe. I’m 35, and I can tell that my own father has been worried about me ever since I posted about the shady contractor trying to take advantage of me and my husband. I suppose we won’t ever have all the answers, but, thanks to those of you who have shared your insights with me, I now understand two of the most important things we can do for our children: constant — and compassionate — vigilance paired with constant, and two-sided, communication.

 

* I copied his comment directly. You won’t find it with the other comments on my earlier post because he wrote it on my Contact Me page.