the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

for b.

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There are two trees in front of the house next door. They bloom twice a year, once in the spring along with all the other trees, and again in the fall after they have lost their leaves. I never knew trees could do that, and even though I’ve seen them bloom twice before, this year again it amazes me. It feels rebellious, audacious. Generous. These beings of nature that do their own thing but manage to give of themselves in the process.

I’ve been connecting with some very old and very dear friends the last few days, some with whom I haven’t spoken in years, following the passing of a friend we all shared. It hit me that I am at that age – when friends my age start to go. I’ve lost important people in my life – grandparents, friends, my child. I’m not new to death or loss or grief. But this hit me differently.

Life feels tenuous today. I feel hyper aware of something I know but manage most of the time to ignore: that nothing is guaranteed.

And yet here we are. We bloom when we can, we fall when we can’t stay up. And then sometimes we manage to bloom again, like those trees.

Like those trees, we reach out to each other, but sometimes not enough. Sometimes it takes a loss to remind us.

This is for you, B. Thank you for your adventurous and generous heart, for your wit and humor, and for all you gave of yourself to all of us who love you.

 

on cankles and self love

ClavicleExcerpt from Shrill, the amazing book everyone should read, exploring our views about fatness, by the incredible Lindy West.

Dear 15-year-old French boy I had a crush on the year I was an exchange student,

I still remember your name, I probably always will. I can almost remember your face 30 years later. You were adorable and you had a nice smile. You wore v-neck sweaters and button down shirts and nice pressed jeans like French boys did then, in the eighties. You were popular, you made your friends laugh, you made me laugh as we all sat in cafes after school and drank coffee from small cups and shared cigarettes, like French teenagers do. You and that one other guy, you were like the ring leaders, but no one seemed to mind because you made us laugh.

I doubt you remember me. I was only there for one semester, visiting your school all the way from California. The American girl who spoke fluent French because she had lived in France as a little kid. The one who wanted so much to fit in, to be as French as she possibly could be, who bought her own v-neck sweaters and smoked her first cigarette and drank coffee along with you and all your friends. It was so exciting to feel like I could fit in, like I could belong, even for just a little while.

You were nice to your friends, you were nice to me. Until that day you weren’t. But I doubt it even registered. I doubt you even knew what you did was hurtful.

You don’t remember, but I do. 30 years later, an amazing life, an amazing partner, an amazing family and an amazing community of my own, and I still remember.

We were sitting in a cafe with our friends and I was sitting next to you. I’m sure I was beside myself with excitement that you had sat next to me that day. I’m sure my heart was beating really fast. I’m sure it was the moment I had written to my friends back in California about, the moment I had hoped for. When you would notice me. You looked down at my legs next to yours, and you put your hand on my thigh, and you looked at me. I can’t remember exactly what you said, but the look on your face said everything: Look at the way your thighs expand when you sit. 

I can’t remember what I said or did in response. I know I must’ve been stunned. I know my heart cracked into a million pieces. I’m sure my face turned red. Nobody noticed. Nobody said anything. I think I looked at you questioningly and you laughed it off, the cruelty already dissolving in your mind, I’m sure. Then you started to tell a story to the group, and I sat there, still next to you, invisible but stuck in that booth between you and the wall.

I should have fucking hated you. I should have slapped you and asked what your mother would do if she heard you talk to a girl that way. But I didn’t. Instead my heart cracked, and I looked at my thighs, and it stuck. For life. The way my thighs expand when I sit. As all thighs do, by the way, even your skinny little French boy thighs in your pressed jeans.

I hope you grew up and never hurt another person like that. Or if you did, I hope you got shit for it from some girl more confident, at 15, than I was.

****

Dear friend from freshman year in high school who invited me to your slumber party,

Some years ago I was watching 30 Rock for the first time, catching on to the Tina Fey craze a few years later than everyone else. There was an episode where Tina Fey made a comment about a part of the body I’d never heard of before: her cankles. I laughed so hard I cried. And I cried, too. That’s it! I yelled to my husband. That’s what I have! Cankles! 

I didn’t know whether to be happy, relieved, proud, or incredibly sad that I had cankles. But at least, in that moment, I didn’t feel alone. If there was a word for it, if Tina Fey had them too, clearly I wasn’t the only woman on earth with thick calves and not-very-defined ankles.

Did you know that word 30 years ago, even though your legs were the opposite of mine? Even though you had thin legs and thin calves and thin lovely ankles, and you could wear heels without feeling like a duck? Do you remember what you said to me at your slumber party, when all of us were lying on your bed and we had our legs up against the wall?

This is what you said: “Ohmygod! You don’t have ankles!” You probably don’t remember, and maybe you can’t believe you even said it. Maybe you would feel terrible now if I reminded you. I hope so. But I remember. And it stuck. I’ve held it for all those years. My ankles that are barely ankles. My fat calves that go right to my feet. My cankles.

I thought about my cankles when I took a walk this morning. I thought about the way they hold my legs up, help my feet move, allow me to be able to take my morning walks. They work well, as well as your thin ones, I’m sure. Sometimes I joke that in my next life I’m going to have kick-ass amazing ankles and thin lovely calves, maybe I might even wear 4-inch heels. But does it really matter? Do I really care, or was a seed just planted that night at your slumber party that no longer belongs there?

****

Dear cute guy I had a mad crush on my freshman year in college,

Somewhere on some ancient diskette somewhere I have a computer diary I kept during the year I knew you. Probably 90% of it is about you, and the insane all-consuming crush I had on you. I don’t think you had a clue how in love with you I was, partly because I was only one of probably a dozen girls – maybe more – who felt the same way that year. But also because you didn’t see me.

I don’t mean you didn’t know I existed because you did. We were friends. You were nice to me. You were nice to everyone. You shared your beautiful smile generously. You flirted generously, making all of us who adored you feel like maybe, if only…

But for me there was one problem with that: You didn’t see me. Not that year, when I carried 60 extra pounds on my body, more than I felt comfortable with. You didn’t see me that year, after I had spent the previous year emotionally eating Ben & Jerry’s after my parents’ divorce. You didn’t see me when I was fat. You didn’t see me because I was fat.

Then one day, during my junior year, I ran into you on campus. I had lost much of my extra weight by then and I wasn’t fat anymore. You noticed me as I walked by and you invited me to sit down. You asked me how I’d been and you gave me your undivided attention. You were still nice to me, but in a different way. Because for the first time, you could see me.

I was flattered. I probably ate it up. But it hurts now, when I think about it. Because nothing about me had changed in those few years except my exterior. Well, maybe one other thing had changed: I was more confident without those extra pounds. But should I have been? Could I have learned to be a big girl and also love myself unconditionally? Could I have been a confident fat girl? Would you have seen me, sooner, then?

****

I have been the fat girl. I have been the thin girl. I have been somewhere in between. Regardless of my weight, my thighs expand when I sit. My ankles aren’t fat and neither are my calves, but I am built a certain way and I didn’t get well defined ankles this time around, and my calves are thick. But the thing is, even when I was fat, when I wore a size 16 and not a size 4, I was still me. I was still beautifully perfectly me.

Here’s another part of my body I discovered I had as I got older, as the weight came off: clavicles. It’s true, well defined clavicles are for thin girls. When you’re fat, they hide. My clavicles now can hold oceans. I love them. I used to love them because they meant I was thin. Now I love them because they are part of me.

And I love my flabby thighs that expand when I sit, with the stretch marks that remind me, each morning when I get out of the shower, that I was once fat. They used to make me cringe, my stretch marks, and fill me with regret. If only I hadn’t eaten all that Ben & Jerry’s… If only. But they don’t make me cringe anymore. Because they’re mine, part of me, and they tell a story.

I used to tell this victory story about how I gained weight really fast because of what was going on emotionally in my life, and then lost the weight in a healthy way; how I refound the body that felt like me. But I don’t tell that story anymore, it no longer serves me. The only victory, I understand now, is that I learned to love myself.

I think 90% of why I was miserable when I was fat was because I felt invisible and unworthy of love in that body – ashamed, ugly, hidden. We are cruel about fatness in our society. I’ve been cruel about fatness – my own and others’. And we raise thinness way up next to holiness, that thing we should all aspire to be: Thin. And if we get there, all of a sudden we are seen.

Take a moment to question why that is. Take a moment to question whether we can do better. As women. As men. As a society. Toward ourselves and toward others.

****

Dear 15-year-old girl I used to be,

One day you will be 45 and you will be thin. You will have clavicles that can be seen and they will hold oceans. You will be seen. You will see yourself and know you are beautiful.

You will also wish your boobs were bigger, not smaller. You will wish you had more curves, not less. You will still joke that one day in your next life you will have kick-ass ankles and wear heels. You will still wish your thighs were more firm.

But you will love your body. And you will appreciate all that you can do in it. And you will find comfort in that. And you will feel gratitude for all that you are. Because you are amazing. Your body is amazing.

Trust me. I know. And I love you.

the beginning

Jewish Couple

(Photo: Rudi Halbright)

****

Look how young we look… Look at my hair, that’s my natural brown.

Look at my hair. It was so full and thick.

Mine too, long and curly and brown.

Look at my arms. I’ve got to start lifting weights again.

Look at our skin.

All that natural collagen.

Remember that night, when we stayed up all night and danced and then watched the sun rise in the desert?

Wow, look at us. We’re kinda hot.

And so young…

Scene: My husband and I are looking through photos on the computer. Photos from 2000 to today. We’re looking for something in particular but we keep getting sidetracked, distracted by how much younger we looked… when we were 15 years younger.

It’s kind of funny. We can’t help but laugh at ourselves as we do it. Realizing the cliche of longing (just a little) for plumper skin, flatter abs, hair free of grays, a few less cracks in our souls.

And yet… We’re never going to be as young as we are right now. We laugh that in 20 years we’ll be doing the same thing, except the photos we’ll be looking at will be from 2015.

There are definitely times when I would love to be able to dance all night again. I’d even love to dance for a few hours somewhere besides my kitchen, to music louder than what comes from my iPod speakers.

But what I couldn’t do then that I can do now is dance in my kitchen with my daughter. And she’s so fun to dance with. And in between moves she grabs me to give me huge bear hugs.

And that man, the one I met in the desert, we made her together.

I think about all we’ve done together since we met more than 16 years ago. Everything we’ve lived. What we’ve created. What we’ve lost. What we’ve built and rebuilt. The love we’ve brought into our family. The children we love and help to grow. The grownups we have become and the way we help each other shine.

We were just beginning, then, in those photos. And God willing, we’re still just at the very beginning.

how love smells

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I washed my hands in the restroom of a doctors’ office the other day and smelled it instantly. It lingered on my hands even after they were dry. The smell of that particular kind of medical antimicrobial soap, I will know it forever.

In a flash, for a moment, it is 7 years ago and I am back at the big sink outside the NICU, the one whose water flow is controlled by foot pedals. Or the sink inside, right next to my daughter’s tiny bed. The one only nurses are supposed to use, but which they let me use as well. That same soap. That same smell.

For a while it unsettled me to encounter it. Just over a year after my baby died in that hospital, I found myself at the sink in the bathroom of another children’s hospital in a city 2500 miles away. I had just interviewed for a job managing a research project in their NICU, and before returning to my car in the parking garage, there I was washing my hands and that smell… I almost collapsed as I watched the tears flow down my face in my reflection. In a daze I found my car, and I sat privately and cried, doubting that I was ready to be working in such a hauntingly familiar environment. Wondering if my desire to create meaning from the loss of my baby girl would be overpowered by the raw emotion of having so recently lost her. I didn’t get the job, and perhaps it was for the best. I would have been so good at it though. Good for the right reasons.

Then one day that same smell surprised me – in the moment that it went from being unsettling to comforting. It was February 2011 and I had come to the hospital to deliver the twins who had stopped growing mid-pregnancy inside me. They gave me – the grieving-mother-to-be – the largest room, the nicest room, and also the room furthest away from the other mothers (those giving birth to living children) in Labor & Delivery. I went to wash my hands at the big hospital sink and there it was… that smell. With tears in my eyes I said to my husband, “It’s the same soap.” And I just stood there and smelled it. I washed my hands at that sink many times that night, and the smell remained the strangest kind of comfort throughout.

The smell doesn’t haunt me now. Whenever I am in a medical office, I smell the soap to see if it is the same one. When I encounter it, I take the time to smell it, and I travel back for a moment and return to a time and place where my daughter is still alive. Where the possibility of her survival still exists. Where my entire purpose each day after washing my hands up to the elbows is to sit by her side and love her.

****

I keep my baby daughter’s things in a wooden chest in our home. It’s amazing what accumulates from such a short life. Not just things she touched but things that came afterwards. Like the little shrine I made in her memory for Dia de los Muertos that first fall, with three friends who had also lost their babies. Like pictures her sister drew as she navigated her own grief. Like the shirt I wore at Tikva’s blessing way when I was still pregnant, the sweater that kept me warm throughout the second half of my pregnancy, and the nightgown I wore when I delivered her.

The tiny blanket that lay over her during those weeks is in a jar, along with the hat that covered her head when we took her outside to breathe her final breaths. The stuffed lamb and the stuffed duck that lay against her fragile body are in another jar. I open those jars sometimes and take a deep inhale. The smell is the same, a little musty but so familiar. Perhaps it’s not exactly her smell, and whatever it is has replaced the familiar in my memory because I would open those jars to smell it so frequently in the months immediately after she died. Like the soap, it brings me a tiny bit closer across the divide between the living and the dead.

****

It’s been more than 7 years since she lived and died. That’s a long time. And yet there have been times during those years when her loss feels especially present. There is no rhyme or reason to why and when that happens, it usually catches me by surprise. The loss of her is very present for me right now. It’s not a stabbing pain, more like a dull gnawing to remind me. I said to my older daughter the other day, “What do you think life would be like right now if Tikva had lived?” She replied that we probably wouldn’t have my son, her brother. She’s right. We always wanted two children and Tikva would have been the second. So this little being who came and went so fast and will forever remain a baby, she will eventually come to represent something to the little boy who came afterwards, her brother.

After Tikva died, on one of the nights of our shiva, as friends and family filled our home with love and food to share in our mourning, three amazing women came through our door. Two of them had been the midwives we’d worked with during my first pregnancy with my older daughter, and it had been years since we’d seen each other. The third was an acquaintance from many years before whom I’d gotten reacquainted with when I donated some of my breast milk for her baby. I had freezers filled with my pumped milk from the two months of Tikva’s life, more milk than she was able to drink through her feeding tube, and I wanted it to go to babies who needed it. This woman who came to our shiva with our midwives was one of them. It’s hard to explain the connection you have with someone who was able to nourish her baby with the milk you pumped for your own baby who is no longer living.

She walked into our home carrying a basket of warm muffins wrapped in a beautiful napkin, and I hugged her with tears in my eyes. She did not take her basket and napkin with her when she left, and they have followed us in the 7 years since. This little basket that is perfect for small corn tortillas, and this beautiful single cloth napkin.

And you know what? It is my son’s favorite napkin. He calls it “My Napkin” and it is the only one he will use, even when it is filthy and needs washing. He throws a fit if anyone else picks it up.

And I love that. I love how it is all connected – this baby who came and went too fast, this mother I reconnected with whose baby drank my milk, this napkin that has followed us from that time and which didn’t end up in the trunk of Tikva’s things, but instead fell into the hands of my son, the one who came into our lives as the culmination of everything that began when Tikva left us.

The connection between them all is love. It’s that same connection I feel when I smell that hospital soap. It’s in the musty smell inside the jars in Tikva’s trunk. It’s the connection to love – my love, the ones I love, the love from others. The smell and the feel of love.

 

the moment

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I was out last night when my children when to sleep. They had pizza and watched football with Daddy, jumped on the new trampoline we brought home yesterday. As I left for my book club, they were dancing in the living room. I came home a few hours later and went into each of their rooms to kiss them – as I do every night – before heading to bed myself. Each of them opened their eyes briefly when I came in, recognizing me in a peaceful haze of dreamy sleep, then closed them again and rolled over. They don’t usually do that;  they are usually so deeply asleep I can hold my face to the tops of their heads  and breathe in  their smells or kiss their warm necks without a single stir.

This is it, that future I imagined for myself when I was still a little girl. This is the place where I am surrounded by love, presented with purpose, in a house filled with noisy chaos. This is the family I couldn’t even have dreamed up, but which found me nonetheless.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

Before I left for book club last night, I stood at the table with my daughter and looked into her eyes – those hypnotic, deep, dark blue eyes embraced by the thickest, blackest eyelashes, those eyes that droop a bit at the ends, so kind and so sparkly and so intense at the same time. We stood facing each other and sang  John Legend’s All of Me to each other, spontaneous, unrehearsed, perfect. The entire song, from start to finish.

As I listened to her voice and mine, how they are similar and how they are unique, the way they go together, I noticed how powerfully my daughter sang. She sang each word with clarity. Confident, expressive. I thought about how she is ascending in her life, finding her voice, harnessing and embracing her power and her place in the world. I could hear my own voice singing with hers, also clear and loving, but a little more timid. Not because I am afraid to sing loudly, but because that is not what I was there to do in that moment. As I sang with my daughter I allowed myself to be her reflection, so that she could see how brightly her light shines. It is not my time to overshadow her, it is my time to raise her up, to help her shine, to support her growth into the amazing woman I already have glimpses of.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

It takes daily acceptance to age gracefully, without resistance. I have not mastered this – let’s just say it’s where my ship is pointed, my intention. Lately I’ve been unable to look in the mirror without noticing the way my eyes are changing. They’re still big and wide and dark, my eyelashes still long (though not as thick as they were when I was my daughter’s age). But they are more sunken than they used to be. Tiny lines reveal themselves in the light and the shadowy thinning skin underneath them is persistent, highlighting the sunkenness. I know I am the only one noticing these details about myself; we tend to dissect ourselves with the greatest diligence and scrutiny. Yet I feel aware of the subtle yet persistent whisper that reminds me, You are aging.

My husband reminds me that I am younger in this moment than I will ever be again. Maybe so, but I don’t feel (or look) young anymore. And it’s kind of caught me off-guard.

My children are young. Everything is open to them, everything is possibility. Their skin is unblemished, their foundation solid. Their eyes are wide and aware. They are assertive and fierce. Everything is a question, everything is desire. There is so much that they need, and they trust completely that it will all be provided. By me, by Mommy. By Daddy.

I had the realization recently that one day my children won’t need me in the way they do now. One day they won’t need to talk to me every day, to ask me a million questions. One day they will remember to wash their hair and clip their nails and do their laundry all on their own. One day they won’t need my hugs and kisses to begin their days. One day they will find their own answers.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

My father is a very handsome man. He was a handsome boy, a handsome young man, a handsome middle-aged man, and now he is a handsome older man. The older he gets, the more he resembles his father, whom I only knew as an old man. My father grayed late, but now his hair is almost completely white. His skin is thinner, more spotted. His body, affected by Parkinson’s, more unreliable. His hands still feel the same as those younger hands that held my tiny little girl hands. His own eyes are more sunken. But those eyes… They are the same eyes. Dark and deep and alert, reflective, loving. When I look at his childhood photos I see the same eyes. When I stumbled onto the black and white studio portrait from his twenties where he is dressed in a black suit, holding a cigarette like a classic movie star, I see the same eyes. When I close my eyes and find myself at my desk in my bedroom reviewing multiplication tables with my young father, I see the same eyes.

I see them now, within his older, more hazy, more sunken eyes that are somehow the same and different together. Just like my own familiar yet different eyes.

I think of the fragility of an aging parent, how I connect to this and also to my own aging. How one amplifies the other. I think of the contrast between my children and my father, and the place on the spectrum – somewhere in the middle – where I find myself.

This is it. This is the moment. The moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

meeting myself in time

Journey

(Artwork from the book, Journey, by Aaron Becker)

I just got back from a trip through time to my teenage years. I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my book club, and as I’ve read, my mind has jumped back to being on stage in my high school auditorium, performing in the play as Miss Maudie Atkinson my senior year. Even with my bit part, the experience made a significant imprint in my psyche – I remember feeling like I was a part of something. After four years in high school theater, I felt like this show was IT, the one with meaning, the one that everybody came to see (even the jocks), the one that moved people. I was telling my daughter about it a few weeks ago, trying to remember the names of some of my classmates who had also been in the play. This led me downstairs to one of the endless plastic bins in our basement – this one held my yearbooks and my high school and college diplomas. I brought my senior yearbook upstairs and it’s been floating around the house since. I can’t seem to get myself to bring it back downstairs.

“Look Mommy! You’re on the first page of the senior photos. You look so pretty Mommy!” my daughter said to me as she looked carefully through each portrait.

Really? I thought. That’s when I had already started gaining weight after my mom left. And my eyebrows are so bushy. I didn’t say this aloud, but it was the first thing that went through my mind when I saw myself again. I also noticed that I looked kind of sad. She said it several times over the next few weeks as she picked up the yearbook again: “You look so pretty, Mommy.” I know she meant it completely – she isn’t the type to say things she doesn’t mean.

“Take that in,” my husband said to me when he heard her say it the second time.

I sat with my yearbook over the next few days, reading the notes people had written inside its covers and pages. It’s been years, possibly decades, since I’ve reread them, and I tried to put myself in my almost-18 year old shoes to remember how they affected me then.

The words of my best friend, surprisingly unsentimental. But then again, we had only known each other for 8 years then. (That felt like centuries, 8 years, when we were not even 18.) Now all these years later, she has stood by my side and held my hand for 34 years. She knows me like only someone who has been consistently present for 34 years can know you.

Then this jumps out unexpectedly: A single message from a guy I remember knowing only barely, who nailed me probably most perfectly. I’m sure it made me uncomfortable to read at the time. Or maybe it made me feel seen. However it felt then – understanding my younger self as I do now, with the perspective of all the years that followed – he got it. The essence of his words was, You are such a giver, you care so much about others. I hope you will let them give back to you. I hope they will.

I kept reading and found this several times in the words others had written: Never lose your optimism and idealism. They are the most special thing about you. 

I sat at the dining room table with tears in my eyes. I felt as if I were sitting with almost-18 year old me, getting to know her again. Discovering how much she already was so completely the person she could only dream of becoming.

Already I was exactly who I am still. 

****

This past week I read a work of fiction written by someone who had known my father shortly after my parents divorced. They had known each other well for several years, and kept in touch in the years that followed. She had known our family during a difficult time of enormous transition, and she had known that same teenage me I had just become reacquainted with through my yearbook.

While her work was fiction, there were some familiar pieces in her story. And it took me back. Back to how it felt to be figuring out what it meant to be a family after one-fourth of our family had disappeared. Back to driving my little white VW Rabbit – anywhere that was away from home – to get some space from what felt heavy. Back to finding a home in theater, a place that gave me meaning, community, confidence. Back to eating Ben & Jerry’s at 11 o’clock at night watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter.

But there was also this: The perspective of someone who had known not only my father, but also his daughters. She had had her own experience of me as a teenager, her own view of that younger me. Hers was another lens through which I could revisit myself, another impression of the person I had been. Just like the words of those kids in my yearbook. I was seeing me as they had seen me.

****

I felt warm towards her, that teenage me, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. Already then, she was mighty. Already then, she was finding resilience, she was finding joy and meaning amid loss and sorrow. Even then, she was unescapably hopeful. Even when she felt alone in her heart, she continued to care for those around her.

I think we can choose how we tell our stories. I have told mine in many different ways, but I don’t like the version of the abandoned daughter anymore. That one doesn’t serve me, it hasn’t for years. Neither does the one about the girl who never felt cool enough, the one who was always overly self-conscious and insecure. And the story about the girl who got fat from grief, and then overcame that anger and sadness and released the weight? That one doesn’t really speak to me anymore either. There is no victory in overcoming our pain – only the important experience of letting ourselves truly feel it, and the peace that comes out of that.

They have all been my stories, though. Even if I no longer tell them the same way, I have told them, and they remain a part of me. 

I used to feel regretful that I had wasted so much time in all those self-pitying places my soul has taken me. But I know now that this is where I needed to go. That entire sophomore year in college that I spent on the rooftop of my apartment building, feet soaking in the hot tub, writing furiously about my sorrows and my rage in a dozen journals? I had to go there too. Those journals – however depressing and endlessly circular – are also a part of my story.

What comforts me now, all these years later – here where I am surrounded by the love  of others, blessed by family and home and a life of great meaning that I dreamed into being – is knowing that she was there already, that much younger me, even when she thought she had barely begun being herself. I don’t know that we are here to become ourselves, so much as  our journey is about returning to our essence.

Maybe she is the one who traveled through time to see me. Maybe she doesn’t need me to go back in time to comfort her and tell her she will get there. Instead, perhaps she is the one with the message for me:

You are already there. You are already you. Your destination is inside you and you have been carrying it all this time.

another day in paradise

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Summer has felt elusive this year, like New Year’s Eve in the way that New Year’s Eve so often feels anticlimactic, idealized and seldom as satisfying as we hoped it might be. It’s the middle of July, school starts again in 3 weeks, and I don’t feel like I’ve had a summer yet. On Facebook, it seems like everyone I know has taken their families to Italy this summer. I traveled to Italy many times to visit my grandparents there when they were still alive, so it’s not the novelty of it that I crave; mostly it’s just the desire to be somewhere summer-like, to be on vacation.

I was home from California with my son for five days, and on the sixth day I was on a plane again – unexpectedly – heading back there, this time on my own. I landed in San Francisco late in the evening after the unfamiliar experience of traveling without children (I felt like an impostor, as if I was play-acting the role of solo traveler) and headed straight to my father’s bedside. I spent the night holding his hand.

While in California, I learned that I appreciate the people who care for the elderly and the fragile with the same profound gratitude that I appreciate those who cared for my infant daughter in the NICU. I learned that – after years regretting that I had never gone back to school to become a social worker or a nurse, and that now I felt too old to do so – I have no desire anymore to become a social worker or a nurse. I learned that sitting by the bedside of a loved one feels the same, no matter their age.

I learned that plans change. And change. Constantly.

****

I spent some time in the apartment my father has lived in for several years, and got lost for a few hours in photo albums of his childhood and my own. It was cathartic, reminding me again that much of my childhood was easy and free, stable and good, filled with so much love. It reminded me that the love I have for my father is built on the unconditional love he has always had for me.

I don’t think our essence changes between childhood and old age. I think at our core, in the purest version of ourselves, we are always the same. I could see in a six-year-old version of my father, in his 22-year-old portrait, in the 40-year-old man who carried ten-year-old me on his shoulders, the same person whose hand I held that week. His dark, striking and loving eyes, his serious brow, his warm, sometimes mischievous smile are the same.

Walking up to his apartment, I met one of his friends, a woman in her nineties who told me part of her story of survival during World War II. She told me about the concentration camp where her brother had been, the one she had survived, the one where, in her own words, her father’s body was burned. She was beautiful and I felt compelled to touch her soft hair as I told her how sorry I was for all she had suffered, and how thankful I was that I had met her.

Afterwards, I went into my father’s apartment and sat in his recliner and cried. I thought about things – literal physical things, the objects we gather and accumulate in a lifetime, some of which get passed on, others that are given away, still others that are lost or taken from us. I thought about a four-bedroom house that had become a studio apartment; and about my own boxes and bins of things gathered like treasures in my own basement. Will somebody one day read the dozens of journals I started keeping when I was ten years old, which have followed me in their boxes all these years? Will my photo albums or digital photos accurately tell the stories of who I was and who I became? Is there such thing as a true story, or are we constantly curating our memories, filtering what and how we want to remember through the lens of each present moment? How was I experiencing my father in that moment in his apartment, in light of where we were now and what still awaited us?

Do any of those things matter, or is it only the less tangible that will be remembered – distilled down to that one pure thing: LOVE?

That day, everywhere I turned there was music from the 1980s playing. I haven’t been able to escape the pull of my home town in the past month, so it seemed only fitting that the soundtrack following me matched the reality that every corner I turned held a memory.

I have a sewn-on patch of a rainbow on the knee of my jeans in that picture of my father carrying me on his shoulders. It reminded me that I always had patches on my pants, sometimes patches over patches. It reminded me of the transparent rainbow sticker I stuck on my bedroom window, which made things rainbow in my room when the sun shined through just right.

When I told my father about the photos I had looked through, he remembered the brown and yellow tie he wore as a child in his kindergarten more than 65 years ago. He remembered the name of the school.

****

Heading to his apartment, I passed a man as I crossed the street who smiled hello. He said to me, “Another day in paradise.” It was warm outside and smelled like flowers, and as I kept walking I spotted a single tropical orange-yellow flower that, indeed, belonged in paradise.

The ten days I spent back home again weren’t easy, but they didn’t feel insurmountable. I may not have had much of a summer so far, but I knew I was exactly where I needed to be and that gave me peace. There was work to do there – big work, loving work. I am in awe of the things my sister and I have achieved as a team on behalf of our father, and the love and trust that made it safe and nurturing to have even the most difficult conversations. Once more, I was held and nourished and housed by my closest friends, the ones who know me most deeply, the ones who brought dinner and wine and chocolate at the end of a difficult day.

I couldn’t argue with that man as I crossed him in the street – he was right, it was beautiful there on that gorgeous perfect day in that lovely place where I grew up. I’m not sure what paradise is supposed to look like – I imagine the picture is different for everyone – but I wonder if maybe it is meant to contain some of the messy difficult stuff as well as the beautiful things. Maybe, even, the muck is the place where the beauty is able to reveal itself – like the love in my father’s eyes or the softness of his hand. I miss him now that I am so many miles away; I got used to spending each day with him. I am grateful for that time and it comforts me even more now to speak to him on the phone.

****

When I finally returned home again to my family, my daughter hugged me for at least five minutes. She’d been at camp and we hadn’t seen each other for a month and it felt perfect to just hold her and stare into her sparkly eyes. Then I went upstairs, where my son was just falling asleep, and I whispered to ask if he wanted to cuddle. “Yah,” he whispered back, and I held him on the rocker for a long time, my nose nuzzling his curly hair and my hand on his soft cheek. It was the same softness as my father’s hand, and I felt in that moment the way in which there is no separation between my love for my children and my love for my father. And I cried quietly and exhaled all I had held since the beginning of summer, the surmountable-but-still-challenging stuff that called on my very best self to reveal herself.

It’s better with Mommy home, isn’t it?” my husband asked my son this morning. “Yah,” he replied. Then he said to me, “Mommy not going anywhere? Mommy stay here?

Yes, my love, Mommy stay here.

on humanness & love

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Far within me, where the memory of what I am is still unclouded, a little child is waking up and making an old man’s mask weep. (Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue)

I just got back from a two week trip back home with my son. Back home is where I’m from, where I grew up, but it’s not really home anymore, hasn’t been for a while. My sister and I moved our father into a skilled nursing facility during these two weeks, and I realized that I had just let go of my last remaining tie to my home town since he was now living in another city. It’s been twenty years since I’ve actually lived in my home town, but my childhood – both the easy breezy years and the more complicated ones – still reverberates so deeply there. Almost as if time travel is a possibility, in that way that all time is happening at once.

I walked outside there one night around 9pm and inhaled, and I immediately started to cry. It was the air, warm but not yet hot evening summer air. The smell of the place where I grew up. So deeply familiar it hit me within my cells and all of a sudden I was 10 years old again, riding my bicycle home from playing at a friend’s. I could even smell the swampy wetlands miles away on the bay, mixed with the bay leaves and pine and eucalyptus of Northern California. The smell of the dry golden hills around my flat suburb.

It wasn’t all messy, it wasn’t all complicated. There were some really good and simple years when I swam and biked and made mud pies and drank Slurpees from the 7/11. Ate ice cream from Baskin Robbins. Bought gum balls by the handful from the drug store back before all drug stores were chains.

I grew up in an insanely beautiful place. Large mature trees forming a ceiling of green as they meet each other in the center of a street. Green nestled by golden hills spotted with giant knotty old oak trees. Foggy mist cooling off very hot mornings, seagulls a bit off their course, reminding me that the ocean is just beyond those hills.

I could never afford to live now where I grew up, but I feel lucky that I got to be a kid there.

****

I was struck daily during those two weeks away by this: That we are all so fragile and also so incredibly strong at the same time. I thought repeatedly about resilience, about the way life pushes and shoves and beats us down – and how we manage to bounce back up, hopefully stronger, wiser, kinder. I thought about kindness and love and patience, how much patience is required by compassion. I thought about being gentle with myself, because I am always reminding those I care about to be gentle with themselves.

It’s incredibly hard to watch my father lose his independence because of a degenerative disease that is not going to get better. It’s hard to see him need so much help to do basic things. I want to lash out at the son-of-a-bitch that is Parkinson’s for taking away his ability to trust his body, the strength of his legs, the words in his mouth. I want to make it all better but I can’t. The words of a geriatric counselor ring repeatedly in my ears: Remember to let your father have his own experience.

Something about the container of my childhood home town, reminding me of my father when he carried me on his shoulders as we flew kites, hung a basketball net above our garage, biked with me to get deli sandwiches or ice cream. Those memories were formed a long time ago but they remain deep in my cells. I imagine myself in my nineties able to summon them as if they were yesterday. My 96 year old great aunt could do that, become a little girl in her parents’ arms again just by closing her eyes.

****

I turned 44 while I was in California. My son sang Happy Birthday with me in bed that morning and I opened cards from my husband and daughter who were far away, and from family near and far. I spent the afternoon with girlfriends I’ve known for many years, women my age and older who personify the grace and beauty of being able to hold strength and fragility simultaneously.

Our Supreme Court did the right thing today and voted in favor of giving all couples the right to marry and have their marriages recognized by every state in this country. Using the language of justice and freedom, they voted in favor of love – all love. I smile-cried reading about their decision.

That’s what it keeps coming back to for me – LOVE. My connection with my sister. The holding of my husband who video chatted with me while he was on another continent. The way my husband’s aunt and uncle supported and reassured me as my sister and I made big decisions for the care of our father. The love I feel for my father, which makes watching him struggle so damn hard, and which brings me peace knowing he is safe and cared for. The holding of my girlfriends who cared for (me and) my son on the days I was so busy with my dad. The compassion and understanding and unconditional love of some of my oldest friends, the ones who just know me regardless of time and distance apart. The love and light of my son, who is all smiles and cuddles, who kept me focused on goodness and laughter and silliness when I needed it most.

I think we get to be human – that we have no choice but to be human – with each other when we can see that it all comes down to love. I think when we let our humanness show – our fragile, delicate, vulnerable, messy, honest humanness – we give each other permission to do the same. To be both fragile and strong at the same time. To ask for help and also give support. To be genuine, sincere, real, even when we’re messy.

Especially when we’re messy.

almost time

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A mandala I made of my favorite quote by Leonard Cohen from the song, Anthem

****

It’s almost June 10. Almost my Tikva’s seventh birthday. Almost the beginning of the two months of summer between the day she was born and the day she took her last breath in our arms.

During the first few years after Tikva died, those two months each year felt like they were engulfing my summer, taking away from me the possibility of truly savoring what had always been my favorite time of year. I wanted more than anything to just get to August 8, to return to the 10 months of the year that weren’t a daily reminder of the child I had lost. To be in a place where the loss of her didn’t overtake every cell of my being, every second of every day.

It hasn’t been like that in recent years. For the last two summers, in fact, I didn’t even realize it was August 7, the anniversary of her death, until I received a text or an email from a loved one wishing me a peaceful day and remembering my baby girl with me. It always moves me when someone remembers, when they reach out; and it surprises me when they remember before me.

But really, I am not so surprised. Her birthday will always matter, but the day she died holds less weight now. I think it’s because I don’t relate to Tikva simply as my child who died. She is my second daughter, one of my beloved children. She is the one I got to touch and hold and love in her body for a only short time, the one I will continue to love in my heart always. She has become – or or perhaps she always was – a part of every cell of my being. Because of that, the loss of her no longer overpowers me.

She is with me and absent. Inside me and very far away. Her story is in the past and will forever be told. I think that’s just how it is when your child dies before you.

Sometimes she feels more like an experience than a baby – I find myself talking about that time as, “During Tikva.” Because I was completely transformed by her, by her life, by the loss of her, and by the process and stretching and struggle and growth of the years since. I am not who I was before June 10, 2008. I am not who I was before January 23, 2008, when we first learned about her condition in-utero. I think I am better because of her. I think she helped me drop more deeply into who I get to be in this life.

It gets easier. The cracked and jagged edges get smoothed out a bit more with each year – like beach glass, eventually polished smooth and shiny after years of travel in both tranquil and tumultuous ocean waves. The sharp pain transforms into something that feels less raw, less fresh, as if it has been diluted with love.

On January 23, 2008, after the ultrasound that diagnosed the difficult and unclear road ahead for our daughter, I prayed in the classic sense probably for the first and only time in my life. I cried out, “Please don’t make me bury my daughter. I don’t know if I can survive burying my child.” But I did. I loved her and I buried her. And I did survive, and almost seven years have passed, and I am here. Still standing. Still loving.

And now, with the time that has passed, I can hold the hand of a friend who lost her child more recently and promise her with all my heart that she will get to a place where the jagged edges soften and the pain is consumed by love.