all the things that are out of my hands

When I was a child in France, the remedy for all minor scrapes and cuts was mercurochrome. The liquid, applied with a little brush like on a nail polish bottle, would leave my knee or finger candy apple red with a golden metallic sheen, and it would stop the bleeding almost immediately. It was in the medicine cabinet of every home and you could usually see mercurochrome red spots on the bodies of at least a few kids at school each day. Mercurochrome is no longer sold in the U.S., France or Germany because it contains mercury (thus the name). I didn’t know this until recently, when I looked it up to see why I’d never encountered it in the 11 years I have been a parent.

Mercury? Really? I was an active kid and I got a lot of scrapes. I vividly remember watching the bleeding stop as the mercurochrome dried on my knee. That’s at least seven years (possibly longer, as I’m pretty sure a bottle of mercurochrome made its way with the rest of our belongings when we moved from France to the U.S.) of mercury regularly making its way into my bloodstream through open cuts. Great.

I’ve never had a desire to have my levels of heavy metals measured. To be honest, I’m pretty sure I’m walking around with heavy metals in my body just as most of us are. Lead from the old paint in that gorgeous Victorian I lived in during my mid-twenties, and the gasoline in cars when I was little; mercury from mercurochrome and dental fillings and tuna salad and sushi and probably some of the vaccines from when I was little and they hadn’t changed the formula yet to avoid thimerosal. I can only imagine what the process is to eliminate these metals from our bodies – if that is even entirely possible (I’m dubious). I got my share of cavities when I was younger and those mercury fillings hung out in my molars for decades, until I had them replaced with white fillings as they began to wear and crack during my thirties. I know that’s not a benign procedure, that dentists can only do their best to keep that mercury from getting into your system as it is being removed with a drill.

Every time I take my daughter in for a cleaning, the dentist brings up coating her very back molars with a plastic resin to prevent cavities. And each time I let him know I’m not interested – that I don’t like the thought of her slowly absorbing the chemicals in plastic without knowing the possible effects. Since it’s a relatively new thing in children’s oral hygiene, they don’t yet know what they now know about mercury fillings. So I remind my daughter to spend a few extra moments on those back teeth each time she brushes.

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When we moved to the Midwest from California in 2009, I met the head of neonatology of a major children’s hospital. We sat in his office for over an hour and I told him about Tikva, how she had been diagnosed with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) in utero and lived for two months after she was born. CDH is less rare than many other congenital conditions, but it is less researched than it could be because few babies survive, and those that do are often too fragile to have their bodies poked and prodded any more than they need to be to support them. As I sat with the neonatologist, he told me about CDH research they were participating in with a university in Australia. The research was being done on sheep, and diaphragmatic hernia in fetuses was induced by injecting a concentrated amount of a regularly used herbicide into the amniotic fluid while the sheep were in utero.

An herbicide. A chemical that is toxic to plants and is used in gardens to destroy unwanted vegetation. Injected into the amniotic sac of a fetal sheep, it quickly induces the forming diaphragm not to form correctly, completely or at all. 

Shortly after I met the neonatologist, my husband was bemoaning the growing amount of crab grass on our front and back lawns. He wanted to spray it with some kind of weed killer and replace the crab grass with new healthy grass seed. I listened to him complain about that crab grass for the entire four years we lived in that house, but I wouldn’t let him spray. Instead, my head spun with thoughts about when my body could have unknowingly taken in enough herbicide chemicals to eventually cause my baby’s diaphragm not to form completely.

I had hoped to get a job at the children’s hospital during our time in the Midwest; give meaning to my daughter’s short life by putting my management skills to use on behalf of others like her and the medical staff who care for them. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t. Sometimes knowing too much is not helpful.

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So what do we do with all that information? What do we do with all those lists of things that are out there, all those things that are or might be bad for us, that can harm us? What do we do with the fears they bring up? Can there be a balance between fearing everything and making the best choices we can with all the things we know and the exponentially larger number of things we don’t know?

I have no idea what caused the hole in my daughter’s diaphragm. It wasn’t the shingles I had while pregnant, the doctors assured me, because by the time I got my first blister her diaphragm had already formed. Was my body not ready to grow a healthy child because I had struggled with an auto immune condition and taken medication for almost two years until my symptoms healed just before getting pregnant?

Shortly after Tikva died I read something in the book, Healing With Whole Foods, that really angered me. Among other prohibitions to ensure successful conception and healthy pregnancy, the book instructed: Do not conceive if either partner is weak or sick. That hit me like a brick on the back of my head, and I almost threw the book across the room. I have barely picked it up since, and this is why: I think it is completely arrogant to think that we have much control over any of it. I used to think that the reason my older daughter was born so healthy is because I did “everything right” while I was pregnant with her. But I was wrong. She is radiantly healthy because that is the constitution and the spirit she brought with her into this life. Would she have been born as healthy if I had been an IV drug user while carrying her? Doubtful. But beyond not ingesting knowingly addictive and harmful drugs while pregnant, beyond eating enough good food and drinking a lot of water and getting good rest – to take care of both my unborn baby and myself – I think the rest is just random luck. Nobody warned me about avoiding deli meats while pregnant, and I spent a good month of my first trimester eating turkey sandwiches daily. I ate soft cheeses daily for five weeks as we traveled through Turkey during the second half of my pregnancy. And she turned out completely fine. (And honestly, do women really avoid sushi in Japan when they get pregnant?)

A babylost friend I met shortly after Tikva died wrote about the random shitstorm of life, and how when our babies died we were caught right in the eye of the storm. I know, now, what an incredible random miracle it is when everything goes “right” and a baby is born healthy and easily. I know more about the thousands of ways babies can die than I wish I knew, and yet there is something freeing in that: Because I am not in control. I know that for every one danger I can try to protect my children from, there are ten I cannot even imagine or predict.

I hope more than anything that my children always remain as healthy and strong as they are now. I hope they will thrive free of illness and challenges. I hope tragedy stays far away from them and those they love, and I know that about 99% of that is not in my hands. I will continue to feed them well, good and healthy food, teaching them healthy habits that I hope they will embrace as adults. I will make sure they wear a helmet when they ride a bike. I will take them for their pediatrician and dental checkups regularly. I will sign them up for softball and soccer and (gulp) even football. I will kiss their booboos and hug them when they fall, carry bandaids in my purse at all times, bring home popsicles when they get sick. I will give them their vitamins and, if they need fillings, get the white ones. I will teach them self-care and self-love. And I will love them unconditionally.

Beyond that? I’m not so sure any of the rest is in my control. And to be honest, I find that liberating. Something about knowing I am doing my best as a mother, as a human being, and that is enough.

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seventy-five percent: on nourishment and fear

Nourish

Image source: Nourish Raleigh

Do you like kale? I mean really truly love it? Kale is one of those foods that has two staunchly opposing camps – the kale camp and the anti-kale camp – I have yet to meet someone who is neutral about kale, who could take it or leave it. You either love it or you can’t stand even the thought of it. I’m in the kale camp, but not because I totally and completely adore the taste and texture of kale in my mouth, or its bitter flavor before I drench it in salt, pepper and lemon and saute it in coconut oil. What I like about it is the color and what that dark green (or purple) tells me: I am really good for you. If it’s cooked well, I can even enjoy the chewy grittiness of it. I like the sensation of literally chewing on and swallowing iron and the other nutrients that come in dark leafy greens. And I love kale chips for the salt and pepper and crunch they are vehicles for. But would I eat as much kale if it had the nutritional value of iceberg lettuce? If the experience didn’t come with a message of nourishment? I’m not so sure.

This is the thing, though. I read recently that eating raw kale is not good for you. Raw kale can inhibit the uptake of iodine needed by the thyroid gland, which can lead to hypothyroidism. And it is high in oxalic acid, which binds with minerals in the body and makes them crystalize. These crystals can damage tissues and cause inflammation. So it’s best to cook your kale before eating it.

Okay, I can do that.

But I wonder what the raw food people would say to that. What does that mean for all those amazing “massaged kale” salad recipes out there? What does it mean for the big world of green juices and smoothies? Seems like it is impossible to win if all of a sudden a leafy green vegetable, which even my children’s mainstream pediatrician promotes, is suspect. This is the thing, and the reason I’m thinking about kale at eight o’clock in the morning:

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us. 

There will always be a hundred different theories about whether that thing is really bad for us, good for us or benign, and another hundred theories about why. Back in the early eighties when tofu was relatively new to the American grocery scene, pre-Whole Foods when it wasn’t in every store and instead a rare ingredient found in Asian restaurants, it became the new greatest thing, the healthier option to replace meat. At the small health food store in our town, you could find soy products in a hundred forms, but no meat. It was around the advent of soy in our home that the fried steaks and breaded filets of sole my French mom was so good at cooking disappeared and were replaced by spanakopita that was made with ground tofu instead of ricotta, and whole wheat crust instead of filo dough. I actually liked it, though it was definitely not true spanakopita like my Sephardic grandmother made.

But we know now that all that soy is actually not good for you because of the way soy mimics estrogen hormones and confuses the body. The paleo camp has soy at the top of its do not eat list for this and a dozen other reasons, and the paleo diet has in its presentation and coolness factor replaced vegetarianism and veganism as the new hot health trend. In the same way that all the “healthy people” in Hollywood used to be vegetarians, now they are paleo. Please rest assured I am pointing this out for its irony, not because I believe there is any one way for all people to be healthy. I’ve done the paleo thing and I like it for the most part, but for me it’s too much meat – I’m a 3-4 times a week carnivore, not 3-4 times a day. And I actually feel better when I eat some grains on a daily basis. And I love dairy and the goat milk yogurt I make myself is one of the most nourishing things I love most in the world, filled with good, fresh probiotics. And this: I’m not convinced that just because we’ve only been eating grains and dairy as a species for 10,000 years and before that we ate just meat, vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds for millions of years… well, I’m not convinced that 10,000 years isn’t enough time for our bodies to adjust to consuming grains and dairy. But mostly this: I am incredibly resistant to the idea that ALL OF A PARTICULAR THING IS TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY BAD FOR ME. (Except maybe a Twinkie, but there is a big difference between a fluffy yellow thing filled with white stuff of dubious origin with a half-life of a million years and a bowl of homemade yogurt.)

It makes me want to say, Prove it! Prove it for MY body. Prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt that YOUR way will bring me complete healing and consistently radiant health. Forever.

It’s hard to keep up, and I can assure you that I have tried. But not toward a blind goal of generally wanting to feel “better” or do the “right” thing, but to address an auto immune condition in my gut that has been an on-and-off challenge for 20 years. People will ask me, Oh, you’re not eating that, is it because you’re gluten free? To which I once replied, Sort of, about 90 percent of the time. I think it helps, but I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s been literally years since I’ve eaten a sandwich so I’m not sure what would happen if I did. A sandwich. Years. The food I pretty much lived on for the entire 17 years of elementary school (when I wasn’t sent to school with a slice of tofu spanakopita), middle school and high school, and much of college – though by then I had become a vegetarian and incorporated bagels, burritos and pizza to my healthy collegiate diet.

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At some point early in our marriage, probably around the time we had our first child, my husband and I incorporated what we call The 75% Rule. Mostly it applies to what we eat, what we clean our house with, what we clean our bodies with. It also applies to how we parent and to bigger life decisions. I think it’s a very kind and gentle approach to ourselves – guided by the idea that perfection is a trap, an endless black hole that has no end, and if we can aim for doing our best 75 percent of the time, that’s pretty great.

So it means we don’t go into debt buying the $4.00/dozen grass-fed eggs at the farmers market – because even though they are really beautiful and delicious and I wish they were in the budget, our children’s 529 college savings account takes priority. It means we make sure our meat is free of added hormones and antibiotics and splurge on the local, grass-fed stuff once in a while, and we don’t eat meat every day. It means we get some of our fruits and vegetables organic – in particular the ones that are at the top of the eat only organic list – and others non-organic, again because I prefer this to credit card debt of any kind. It means the products we clean our house with are natural, except for the bottle of bleach we keep in the cabinet for unexpected totally gross messes like the dead squirrel one of our cats dragged into the basement last week. It means we don’t spray our lawn with pesticides or chemical fertilizers but will do a non-toxic spray against mosquitoes before they return in the spring. It means we keep a frozen pizza in the freezer for babysitter nights. It means there is always chocolate in the pantry because if any camp believes chocolate is bad for me, I don’t want to know.

It means we do our best without making ourselves crazy, because I know from years of experience that making myself crazy is the #1 worst possible thing for my auto immune condition. Not to mention crazy is not good for my self-esteem or my sanity, and I value my self-esteem and sanity a great deal.

There is always going to be something out there that’s not good for us.

We can spend our lives chasing after the next great thing, the surefire solution to all of our physical ailments or challenges. We can feel constantly like we are never doing enough. And the Enough Trap is in close collaboration with the Perfection Trap in conspiring against us.

Or we can do our best, follow the good feeling that leaves room for the enjoyment of all that is out there, and remember that anything we fear – even if it’s organic, grass-fed, homemade, artisanal, all-natural – as long as we fear it, it will not nourish us. I probably would be fine if I had a sandwich like the kind I used to eat back in high school – roast beef on a French roll with tomato and mayo. I probably would love it, too. Especially with really good bread and really good roast beef and a juicy organic tomato. As long as I could let myself enjoy it fearlessly, just for the purely delicious experience of savoring something good. I’m pretty sure it would taste better than a bowl of kale.

almost

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I wrote something on one of my earlier blogs about lemonade. It wasn’t really about lemonade; lemonade was just a metaphor. I wrote it almost four years ago about something that happened exactly four years ago today. I wrote it about the day I birthed twins who had stopped growing, one at 10 weeks and the other at 18 weeks. So I went searching for that post today to reread it, the first time I have reread it in at least three years. I didn’t wake up aware of this strange anniversary; I realized it a few hours into my day. I realized I felt neutral about it, not triggered, not emotional. I realized that four years feels like longer. It feels far away and yet I can bring myself right back to that hospital room where drugs administered through an IV slowly convinced my hesitant, mid-pregnant body that it was time to release my babies.

A lot of hope left me that day. Hope for the promise they brought after the loss of Tikva two and a half years before. Hope for siblings for my older daughter, who had waited for so long to be a big sister. I wrote that post with both sadness and bitterness, holding a white flag of surrender.

And yet hope came back.

I can’t say exactly how or when, but it came back, slowly, over time. We chose a different path to growing our family, to bringing into our fold another child to love and hold and help to become himself. There was a point when I let go of the need for that child to come from my body, and with that release came a calm I hadn’t felt since I learned about Tikva’s condition when I was 21 weeks pregnant with her seven years ago. And here I am, four years since I delivered two almost babies who had died, with a feisty, smiley almost-two-year-old kicking soccer balls and throwing footballs to his big sister, laughing as they tackle each other on the rug.

On February 22, 2011, I wrote:

You don’t get to love the way you think you’re prepared to, but you do get to love the way you discover you can.

Somehow even then I knew I needed to understand this, or at least come to believe it. And I was right.

I wonder what life would be like if three-and-a-half-year-old twins were running around the house right now. Or if Tikva had lived, and a six-and-a-half-year-old was playing with her older sister. I think of how I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with the twins if Tikva had lived; how we wouldn’t have adopted our son if any of them had lived.

I think a lot about parallel universes that might exist side by side with the one I exist in; other roads I was on that did not continue because my life took one detour, and then another. What it would be like if… And if those realities are perhaps still happening somewhere in time.

I’m remembering those little ones today, my almost babies who got away. How much I wanted them and loved them for the time I carried them and held them. How different it is to mother them than it is to mother my living children. How I will love them always.

 

courage and fear

I’ve learned a few things about myself in the past week since my January 26 post about my personal process around immunization was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in a shorter version as a Sunday Op-Ed.

I’ve learned that I am courageous. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, but I think we spend waste a lot of time doubting our own courage, keeping ourselves quiet. And we are often courageous in small and unexpected ways that are important to recognize. I’ve done plenty of that – keeping myself smaller than I know I can be.

I’ve learned that I have a voice and that I should use it. A sincere voice that speaks to more than my family and friends, but also to people I don’t know. Several older and wiser people in my life have told me that your forties are the best decade because you’ve released many of the insecurities of your previous decades, you know who you are, you have less tolerance for bullshit, and you’re not afraid to speak up. I accept their wisdom as permission to believe I know a few things and should make use of what I know.

I’ve learned that I am a peacemaker, that I take seriously the desire not to offend, not to condemn, not to alienate, not to preach. I’ve learned that I am sensitive to criticism. (Is there anybody out there who’s not?) I’ve learned that when your piece appears in the Washington Post and generates 557 comments (or comments to comments), it’s a good idea to stop reading those comments after about 50. I’ve learned that some people love a soapbox from which to speak preach rant and attack, and that it takes very little courage to do so from an anonymous ID in the comments section of a major newspaper. I’ve learned that fear (and prejudice) can sometimes lead people to be really nasty to each other.

A piece by David Brooks on Conflict and Ego in last Friday’s New York Times was helpful.

I’ve learned that it takes great courage to share a very personal story in such a public way; and that it’s much easier to criticize or dismiss someone’s personal journey, and to project your own fears, judgments and beliefs onto them. Reading what some of my commenters – critics and supporters – projected onto me when they read about my experience was shocking, in a way, and I had to remember that their words spoke more about them than they did about me. It took turning off the computer, putting down my phone and going outside to garden and play with my children to remind myself of who I truly am at my core. To remind myself of where my heart is. I don’t think I will ever read a personal essay in quite the same way again. We are capable of being so deeply moved by a piece that, in the best of circumstances, we connect and feel understood; and in the worst of circumstances, we manipulate what we read to simply prove our biases, prejudices and fears.

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There is so much fear around this conversation about immunizations. I won’t even point out that the fear is on “both sides” of the conversation (which I think is obvious to anyone who is reading anything about it) because I think the fact that the story is being told as “this side vs. that side” is a symptom of fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t seek to understand what we fear. It can be easier to place ourselves in contrast to the other, to see ourselves on one side while “they” are on the other side. The problem with that simple equation, though, is that there are never just two sides. If you see it as a debate, it is two-sided. But I see it as a conversation, one that we are all a part of. 

In an interview with Vox last Friday, On Immunity author Eula Biss spoke to how this conversation, the responsibility we have to protect each other, involves all of us. Even those of us who are not parents making vaccine decisions for our children. She spoke about the “complicated backstories” that lead each of us to make very personal and often complicated decisions, and how in the case of vaccines our decisions go beyond ourselves. That, right there, is what I think makes this whole discussion incredibly complicated (and fascinating) – it’s messy; like debates about abortion or circumcision, the personal becomes political. But unlike abortion and circumcision, we immunize ourselves not just for our bodies but also for others.

“We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually white, well-educated parenting culture, that really encourages and supports fear and fearfulness. Fear is understood as a sort of intelligence in this culture. Promoting fear in another parent or mother is seen as a kind of favor. If you don’t think somebody’s feeling afraid enough, your job is to scare them. I think the other way into empathy is to look at how scared people are, and to think about why they’re scared, and what’s happening culturally to support and encourage that fear.”

That’s Eula Biss in the Vox article. I spent most of my Monday following the Washington Post Sunday publication hyper aware of my own fears. I poured out the remaining contents of a bottle of mouthwash because its neon blue color had been haunting me, as if screaming out, “I am filled with chemicals and they are getting into your body and you don’t know what they might do!” I chewed on a piece of gum my daughter gave me, then spit it out about 3 minutes later because I worried what artificial ingredients were responsible for making a piece of chewy stuff red and cinnamon flavored. I questioned whether I had sold out my belief in all things natural, beliefs I never questioned very much until recently. I don’t question those beliefs because all of a sudden I think chemicals are better for me than natural ingredients – all the cleaning and beauty products in our home (except for the blue mouthwash) are still free of that long list of offensive ingredients you see everywhere these days. But I take medication daily and weekly for my auto-immune condition; I have to prioritize what is most important in terms of organic and grass-fed when I buy groceries because I don’t make $1 million a year; I drive a 12 year old car that isn’t electric or hybrid; and I’m not going to keep my kids from eating pizza and cake at a birthday party because the cheese contains hormones and the frosting is made of partially hydrogenated oils.

I think we do what we can to make the best decisions possible – decisions that have to feel right not just in our heads but also in our hearts. We make choices based on what we know in one moment, and cannot blame ourselves later for what we didn’t know then that we do now. Sometimes our decisions change, and to me that is a good thing. One of those same elders in my life once told me when I was in my late twenties, “Consistency is overrated.” There is no medal given to the person who succeeds in holding the same beliefs their entire life. We are here to grow. Our thoughts and understandings evolve, and sometimes we surprise ourselves with where we arrive. And then when we think we’re done because we have arrived, we continue to change.

That takes courage, and courage is defined as “a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.”

my mother, my self

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“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”    ~Anne Lamott

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mom took me out to lunch, just the two of us, at a crunchy food court place downtown. We went often; I got beef teriyaki with green onions over rice and she got vegetable tempura or something with tofu from the Japanese place. Then we’d find a table and eat our meal.

That day, as we waited for our food, I saw another mother out with her grown son. He was probably about 20 and he had no hair. His eyes looked sad, maybe tired, and they stared off into the middle distance. I didn’t know why he had no hair, or why his mom, who was smaller than him, held his arm and helped him walk. But I wanted to know, I sensed that there was a story there and so I watched them as they ate their lunch near us. I didn’t say anything to my own mother about it until we had left the building and were waiting to cross the street. I remember exactly where we were when I did – in front of the Woolworth’s that for a while became a Long’s and which is now long gone.

“Did you see that man with no hair who was eating with his mom? Something about him felt so sad. What do you think was wrong with him? Do you think he was sick?”

My mom became noticeably tense from my words. Her face got very serious and she grasped my hand tightly. Then she looked at me and said, “Be careful. You need to keep your energy separate from others’. Don’t take in their pain, their feelings. That energy can hurt you.” There was a very real fear in her words and in the way she spoke them. I don’t remember responding.

This is one of those moments from my childhood that I remember with such clarity that it could have been just last week that I was the age my own daughter is now. I don’t remember having a longer conversation with my mom about this, but I do remember thinking deeply about what she’d said, not just that day but for years to come. As her own story as a mother unfolded, her words began to make sense in a way I hadn’t truly understood them before.

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I’ve often thought that the story of my mother’s departure from our family just a few years later would make a great work of true-to-life fiction, but I have hesitated to write it. I remember a conversation with my husband when he was just beginning his studies to become a rabbi. We talked about how the Torah doesn’t command us to love our parents, but it does instruct us to honor and respect them. Even in the years when contact with my mother was elusive, I always had a desire to respect her need for privacy, to respect the parts of her story that were solely her own to tell (or not to tell). I still do.

But her story is also my own story. Her choices, her actions, her needs and her mistakes – they have formed me. In ways I’m not sure she really knows, my mother has shaped me – during her years of presence and her years of absence. While I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her who became such a central part of my identity during my teens and twenties – the years when I was either burying my anger and sorrow in Ben & Jerry’s or working through them in therapy – I am still and forever my mother’s daughter. So, in the words of Anne Lamott, perhaps if my mother had wanted me to write warmly about her (or not write about her at all), she should have behaved better (and not encouraged my writing since I was a child). This is probably a good time in my life to look at that story because all these years later my anger has mostly dissolved. I don’t know if warmly is the word I would use, but there is love there. Forgiveness even. A loosening of the entanglement that binds me to my mother.

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I understand now that the words my mother spoke to me that day in front of Woolworth’s were a reflection of her own fears. Even then, several years before her need for independence pulled her from our lives, I think she may have been consciously separating herself from the heaviness she felt in the world around her. The thing is, I didn’t understand then how what she was telling me to do was even possible. Not feel the sadness around me? Not feel compassion for those in pain? Not feel incredible joy when those around me felt joy? How do you do that – not feel empathy – and why would I want to?

My mother, I also understand now, is a lot like me – highly sensitive to everything around her. But we are different, too: What I feel, what I take in because I am sensitive, doesn’t scare me. I feel like it is why I am here in this life this time around. If I’m not here to connect deeply to those around me, to everything around me, then what’s the point? Is there anything more important than connection? Is there anything more juicy, more fun, more thrilling, more real?

We are permeable, emotional and connected beings, even the most reclusive, the most aloof, the most removed among us. We can’t help it and sometimes we fight like hell against it because it can be scary to connect, terrifying to truly feel each other. We might hurt each other and we might be hurt. We might also be cracked open in the most magnificent ways.

During the years just before my mother left when I was 15, she was already beginning to withdraw, to hide out. After she left, there were many years when I allowed myself to disappear into the loss of her. Who was I without her guidance, without this woman who had so often been my best friend? Was I still her daughter? Was she still my mother? Food quickly became a comfort and I ate a lot after she left; and while I got bigger as a result, in many ways I felt smaller, more invisible inside my new larger skin. (That’s another post, though, about the ways in which we see each other differently – or don’t notice each other at all – because of size, color, age.) I hid in that new body for several years, hid from the loss of my mother, from the pain she had unleashed in me, from my anger towards her. I was absent without her presence, and so I became the daughter whose mother left her. This became my new identity.

I imagine that it wasn’t always easy for my mother to be a parent, even during the years when she was a really good mom. I know it couldn’t have been easy for her to leave, to dismantle her life and build a new one, to miss all those years in the lives of her children. But something made the separation necessary. I think she needed the space to figure out who she was. And while as a mother myself it’s hard to imagine how anyone could leave her children, because I am a mother there are days when I get it. Mothering is hard work and requires both the deepest connections and the clearest boundaries. I have yet to meet a mother who has mastered this. (If you are out there and have advice to share, please let the rest of us know.)

Maybe, though, it’s less about mastery than about compassion and gentleness – mostly towards ourselves as the nurturers, and also towards our children when our very last button – you know, the REALLY BIG RED one that reads, DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON OR ELSE! – is about to be pushed. We’re never going to be perfect, I’m not sure there is such a thing as the perfect mother.

I am deeply entangled with my children – in good ways, in ways that stretch me, in ways that trigger me (my daughter still has to get through middle school), in ways that create space for our relationship. There are days when it’s easy to feel like I am disappearing, as if without my children I’m not entirely sure who’s left. A few weeks ago at dinner, asserting my motherly right to sit at my usual place at the table next to my toddler son on a night when my daughter wanted to sit there instead, I heard myself saying, “I exist too! I have needs too!” My husband and children held the befuddled looks on their faces for about one tenth of a second before bursting into laughter, and about two tenths of a second later I joined them. I am at my best as a mother – as a human – when I can remember not to take myself too seriously.

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While it has loosened over the years, my mother and I are still deeply entangled. It’s been more than two decades that my voice has sounded like hers. My cheeks are hers, especially when I smile. I have her big eyes that smile along with my mouth. My hands look like her hands, especially as they age. We have had the same laugh for a very long time. I am a good mother like she was during those early years, and since some of the pain of her abandonment has dissolved, I can let myself connect with those times. I am sometimes prone to worrying like I remember her worrying, like I am sure she still does. But I am conscious that her fears are not my own, and I know how to assuage my own fears when they show up. I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her, but her leaving is forever a part of my story.

And what I became afterwards… well, that is the real story.

 

 

honoring the healers and the helpers

 

A few days ago on February 1, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital moved from its original home on Parnassus Avenue to its new standalone children’s hospital in Mission Bay. The intensive care nursery, labor and delivery, and the fetal treatment center are no longer on the fifteenth floor of Parnassus, nestled so often in the thickest fog and boasting spectacular views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and the eucalyptus trees that are home to so many red tail hawks.

On February first, one of my second daughter Tikva’s two primary neonatologists during the 58 days of her life posted a picture on his Facebook page that gave me chills. In it, an endless row of ambulances was lined up in front of the hospital on Parnassus, departing every five minutes with a child who was moving from the old hospital to the new. Once they arrived at Mission Bay and the child had been moved to their new space, the ambulances returned to Parnassus to continue. Can you imagine what went into coordinating that effort? I hope you’ve never had a baby in the NICU, but if you have, you know how complex a baby’s space in the hospital can be, how many machines, wires, tubes, IV bags of medications and other wonders of science and medicine are necessary. Picturing those babies, each in their own ambulance for the ride across town, accompanied by nurses and EMTs and I imagine in some cases doctors, is what gave me those chills.

UCSF Sunset

It’s been six and a half years since Tikva died. 40 times as long as she was alive. During the year after she died, when we still lived in San Francisco, that 15-story hospital on Parnassus was a haunting presence – the place where she lived, the place where she fought to breathe, the place where we loved her unconditionally, not knowing how much time we had, the place where we said goodbye and sent her spirit on its way. Sometimes I would drive by, from near or far, and the hospital would be buried in fog so thick you couldn’t see the top floors. Other times, as if honoring its namesake neighborhood, it would be showered in the glow of the sunset. Now when I visit the city of my heart, I feel a sense of peace and awe at this place that was the setting for a chapter in my story that changed me forever into who I am.
UCSF Close
In Tikva’s nurses and doctors and social workers, I saw angels walking on earth. Something about people who choose to care for our tiniest and most fragile beings… I’ve never met anyone like them before or since. They loved my daughter as if she were their own. They celebrated good days with us and cried with us during the hard days. They ran to her bedside en masse during a code pink and did everything to help her. They held our hands, helped us hold her even when she was so fragile that leaving her little bed was dangerous. They took pictures of her, prints of her tiny hands and feet. They gave her sponge baths and changed her diapers and blankets, reinserted her feeding tube when she would pull it out, monitored her numbers, her x-rays. And on her last night, they helped us bring her outside to breathe fresh air for the first time.
UCSF Lincoln
For me Parnassus will always be a place where magic happened. Not just for the families of the babies who make it home, but for parents like me whose babies lived their entire lives there. I can’t say every parent feels like this, but I do. I am forever grateful to you, Tikva’s caregivers – Allyson, Elaine, Robin, Sue, Chrissy, Roberta, Tom, Stephanie and everyone else who loved our daughter and who held us through. Thank you for your wisdom and your big, big hearts. Thank you for all you are and for all you do each day. I know your work continues across town.