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.

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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.

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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.

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almost time

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

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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.

the way we birth

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When I was preparing to give birth for the first time more than 11 years ago, I made a birth plan with my husband and our midwives. I deeply believed in my birth plan. I was going to have my baby naturally and at home. I was going to eat and drink if and when I wanted to. I was going to walk around my apartment freely, unencumbered by an IV. I was going to trust my body and my baby to know how to do this. I was going to breathe, as I’d learned in our homebirth class, for as long as it took. I was going to avoid bright hospital lights and cold floors, doctors I didn’t have a relationship with. I trusted myself, I trusted my baby, I trusted my partner, and I trusted my midwives.

And none of that trust changed. But the plan did.

I did labor at home – for 32 hours. In between contractions, which were all in my lower back, I took occasional bites of bagel with jam and drank juice diluted with water. I sat on the exercise ball in the shower with scalding water aimed at my back for so long that I had scars afterwards. An acupuncturist friend came around hour 28 and put 16 needles into my lower back for the pain. I got to 8 centimeters but no further, for hours.

Then I looked at my husband and our midwives and said with 100% conviction and clarity, “I want to go to the hospital.” It was noon on a Tuesday.

I left the dark cocoon of our bedroom for the first time since the previous day at 5:30am to get into the car. It hurt. And the outside world – going about its business as usual all around me – felt surreal, like it was moving full speed while I was in slow motion. My sister dropped us off, my husband got a wheelchair that I didn’t use because it hurt too much to sit and I’d already been sitting for 20 painful minutes. I walked into the room and lay down on the hospital bed. I got an IV and a monitor was wrapped around my belly.

When the anesthesiologist walked in, it was as if an angel had just entered. “You’ve been laboring for how long?” “32 hours,” I replied. “Let’s get you that epidural. We’ll skip your blood work and get on with it.” All these years later, I can’t begin to describe the sensation when the medicine began to take away the pain I had been in for a day and a half. All I remember is relief, and the colorful woven hat that the anesthesiologist wore on his head.

Finally able to relax, I dilated to 10 centimeters and the doctor said I could push whenever I felt ready. Then she stepped back and let me do the work, guided still by my midwives. My daughter came out an hour later, pink and beautiful, head covered in black hair, right hand coming out “fight the power” style immediately after her head. She was pregnant herself, the doctor, 32 weeks with her first. She was a third year resident so less experienced than my midwives, who had between them attended so many births. She watched the whole thing, respecting the relationship I had developed with my midwives during my pregnancy, and the work I had done already at home.

My daughter almost did a flip off the little metal table as they checked her Apgar scores. They gave her tens, clearly this one was just fine. Four hours after she was born, the three of us were back home in the bed where I had labored. Parents. A radiantly healthy energetic baby who hated swaddles and slings and anything constricting from the second she was born. We were a family of three.

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With everything I’ve experience related to birth since then, I can’t help but view my first daughter’s birth through rose colored glasses. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it had turned out so well. Immediately following her birth, however, I gave myself a tremendous amount of grief that I had given up” and stopped laboring at home, that I had chosen to have an epidural and go to the hospital. I told myself that if I had just kept going, I could have had the homebirth I had planned.

I held this disappointment for two and a half years, until I took an 8-week midwifery course with one of the world’s most renowned homebirth midwives. I sat with her during one of our lunch breaks and told her my daughter’s birth story, and I asked her if she could tell me what had happened – why I hadn’t been able to progress past 8 centimeters no matter what I did, no matter how much time went by and how many contractions I endured, no matter what my midwives tried or what position they guided me to labor in. And her eyes got wide and her body got really still and then she popped out, “Deep transverse arrest!” “Deep transverse arrest?” “Deep transverse arrest! Go home and research that this week and you can teach the class about it when we meet again.” And I did.

A deep transverse arrest is when the baby’s head is engaged a little off in the pelvis so that its head doesn’t hit the cervix quite right. This means that the cervix, which relies on the pressure of the baby’s head along with the mother’s contractions to open fully, can’t open fully. My daughter’s head was turned just slightly, and her right hand was next to her left cheek for most of my labor (causing the painful back labor). Her head was engaged enough to get me to 8 centimeters, but no further. And with each contraction, instead of relaxing to open and create space for her to move, I literally contracted and tightened and she got more wedged in.

“You were right to go to the hospital and have an epidural, because then you could relax and make space for her slightly turned head to shift into the right position. Your body knew what it needed and you listened,” she told me, this decades-long experienced homebirth midwife. In that moment, all of my doubts and disappointment in myself dissolved and I felt peace.

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It amazes me how much we are capable of torturing ourselves as mothers about the ways in which we failed to follow our birth plans, our supposed hopes and dreams for the beginnings of our babies’ lives. It amazes me how deeply my ego was invested in the outcome of my plan – and how much of it all is just that: ego. The idea that we can actually plan how our children’s births will go, that we have any control.

I planned two homebirths and had none. A few years after my daughter was born, I miscarried another pregnancy at 10 weeks. A few years after that, I was pregnant again with Tikva, and again I planned to birth at home. And again the universe laughed. Tikva was diagnosed in utero at 21 weeks with a life threatening birth defect. She would not only be born in the hospital, but she would be born in the operating room, so that a team of neonatologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and nurses could be prepared for anything she needed. So that she could be put on a ventilator within minutes of her birth because she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.

An hour into my labor, I asked for an epidural. My labor was short – just a few hours long – and for weeks after Tikva was born I second-guessed myself again, thinking I had not needed that epidural, could have birthed her without it. But this is the thing: In that moment, I was terrified. I was about to release from the safety and warmth of my body a baby I knew would not be able to breathe or eat on her own. Inside me, she had been safe – I breathed for her and ate for her and could hold and protect her; outside, she was not. She could live for just a few minutes after her birth, or she could live a whole lifetime – none of us had any idea what was ahead, and I was scared. And I was stressed. And I did not want to be distracted by the pain of labor. And I didn’t think this through in actual thoughts, I just knew. And I fell instantly in love with that anesthesiologist too, an amazing third year resident who was so gentle and precise, and who gave me just enough medicine so that I was still able to feel the moment when Tikva came out.

The second she was out and the cord was cut, she was whisked away through a window in the wall into another room where she was put on a ventilator and given paralytic medication so she wouldn’t destabilize herself. I would really see her about an hour or two later for the first time, intubated, feeding tube in her nose, IV in her arm. My beautiful girl.

And then, our real story together began. 58 days long and every day since she breathed her last challenging breath almost 7 years ago. For those few months we were a family of four.

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Three years later I was pregnant with twins. Twins! Twins that came to us with help and with work. Twins who were all promise, all hope, all healing – for their mother, their father and their sister. Twins who would bring a beautiful whirlwind of baby energy into our home. Twins who would be closely monitored to ensure a safe pregnancy, ultrasounds and amnio and bloodwork and frequent appointments. Ten weeks in, one of them stopped growing. At 18 weeks – on Valentine’s Day – I no longer felt the other one move. A few days later, I went to the hospital to be induced and 24 hours later I delivered my very small babies-to-be. And a few hours later, after holding the one who had grown enough that he was fully formed, only just the size of my hand, we left the hospital without our babies. These beings I had also labored to birth, whose ashes I would sprinkle on the same beach where I had walked during the very beginning of my very first labor so many years before.

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I birthed my son in my heart, and another woman that I will forever be grateful to conceived and nurtured and birthed him from her body. He came out 6 weeks early by C-section. He was tiny and he was perfect. He always breathed on his own and he learned to take a bottle in a few weeks and we brought him home. He never breastfed, but I nourished him with my love and formula till he was ready for food. Two years later, he eats like a teenager and is so heavy I can barely carry him.

And we have been, once again since his birth two years ago, a family of four, surrounded by the beloved spirits of the babies we lost.

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This is the thing: You may be able to set an intention for how you’d like things to go, and you may be lucky when it all goes “right,” but it’s all just so random and out of our hands. I thought I was responsible for how healthy and strong my first daughter was, that it was all because of how well I had taken care of myself during pregnancy. But then that means I was also responsible for how fragile and sick my second daughter had been. I have no idea why her diaphragm didn’t form correctly, and neither do the doctors. I have no idea why my twins didn’t make it, or why I miscarried all those years ago and again before we adopted our son. What I know now, though, is that when it does work out well, and that healthy baby is born – it’s an incredible amazing miracle of life. And that miracle is as arbitrary as when things go another way.

I cry tears of joy and relief every time I learn about a baby who has been born healthy. If I know a friend is in labor, I take a deep breath and I exhale when I hear that all went well.

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There’s a way we talk in our culture about birth after it’s happened, and I think that way is skewed. I’ve heard it from men who have witnessed and supported their partners’ labors, referring to the women as warriors because they labored naturally, at home in a birthing tub, without pain medication or medical intervention, and gave birth to a healthy 9 pound baby that immediately knew how to suckle and nurse. I’ve also heard it from women who have been through labor – talking, like I did, about the ways in which they felt they had failed – because they hadn’t been able to do it naturally, because they had needed help, or because their babies had died. So we are warriors if it goes one way, and we are failures if it goes another. Or we are warriors in the eyes of everyone but our own critical selves.

But this is the thing: We are all warriors. We are warriors when we birth, however we birth. We are warriors when we need help to birth. We are warriors whether or not we nurse. We are warriors whether we wear our babies or sleep with our babies; whether or not they sleep through the night. We are warriors when our babies are conceived with assistance. We are warriors when we are not able to conceive or carry a baby to term. We are warriors when someone else carries our babies for us. We are warriors when we miscarry. We are warriors when our babies are born still. We are warriors when we mother by caring for our babies’ graves. We are warriors when we choose not to have babies and we love in other ways. We are warriors when we are allies for other women. We are warriors in how we nurture the world.

We are warriors because, in some way, we choose to love. Whatever that love looks like. However it is birthed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the warriors out there. I hope you know who you are.

wired for love

Love is all you need

“The only map of your right life is written on your soul at its most peaceful, and the only sure compass is your heart at its most open.” ~Martha Beck

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What did you come here to do? What is that thing at the core of your being that most vividly expresses who you are?

Did you come to dance with confident abandon? Did you come to nurture others? Did you come to make the world more beautiful with your art, with your poetry, with your song?

What drives you? What pulls you? What moves you along the road of challenge and growth and expansion?

Are you driven by connection? Are you drawn to success? How do you know you have succeeded?

Are you wired for love?

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I know this about myself: Love is what guides me, it is my North Star. In everything and always. Love is at the heart of all that matters to me. I think I have always know this at my core; but at this time, in this place, I am sure.

In the weeks leading to our wedding, my husband and I were asked by a Jewish teacher, What is the one word that best describes the other person for you? My husband, in my eyes, was calm. To him, I was caring. I believe in these, believe that they are more than just a representation of what each of us needed from the other.

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Beatles music was the anthem of my childhood. I spent hours lying belly down on the shag carpet of our living room, Beatles songs playing while I looked at every detail of their vinyl album covers and followed along with the lyrics. George Harrison was my favorite, for me the most handsome Beatle. I preferred Paul’s voice to John’s, but some of John’s songs were my favorites. I could sing along to practically every song on every album with every member of my family. We always joined together on the shoop in Come Together, no matter where we were in our one-story house, where the walls were paper thin and sound traveled freely. I remember shooping together in the car on road trips when I was very little in France. I took to heart John’s reminder that love is all you need. Paul guided me to let it be when life felt heavy. Rocky Raccoon would invoke images in my mind inspired by the westerns I watched on TV with my dad. One day I might have to write a book titled, The Story of My Life in Beatles Songs, something like the Sgt. Pepper movie from 1978, which caused a short-lived crush on Peter Frampton when it played on TV in fourth grade.

In the months after my daughter Tikva died 58 days after she was born, we asked each other what should go on her headstone besides her name and the dates of her short but huge life. As the mother of a dead child, creating my daughter’s headstone was a way in which I could express my love, a way I could still mother her, call out to the universe that she will always be my child. A way of honoring the greatest lesson she taught me – I believe the most important lesson I will ever learn: how to love unconditionally.

Following our first meeting with the owner of the headstone company, sitting at an all you can eat salad bar with my husband, it was clear what those words would be:

Love is all you need.

The Beatles had played in the children’s hospital OR the day the doctors took our fragile daughter to another floor for an echocardiogram. Hey Jude, Let It Be, and All You Need Is Love, one song after another guiding the medical team. Her eyes were open so wide during that procedure as she experienced the shock of being in a place that wasn’t her small warm bed in the NICU, doctors and nurses all around her. I was afraid for her, I wanted to hold her and comfort her, put her at ease – something I couldn’t do because she was in such fragile condition most of the time and even a mama’s hug could do her harm. I had to step back against the wall and let the doctors do their job in that room.

So I stood back and listened to the music. I listened to Paul’s reminder and thought about the irony that a Jewish girl would feel such a connection to Mother Mary because of her lifelong connection to a song. I focused on love and I watched my tiny daughter in that big space, and I looked at my husband who had also been listening beside me.

Of course the Beatles are playing, my husband’s eyes told me. Of course, my eyes spoke back.

I rely on love with every fiber of my being. I rely on the love of others who have guided my way through their example and caring for almost 44 years. I rely on the love within to strengthen me during trying times. I rely on the love that I am in order to find my way forward. I try to shine love, reflect love, be love.

Sometimes I forget. Other times I remember. I know I have succeeded when I feel peaceful, trusting, connected.

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I traveled back home with my family recently to celebrate Passover with everyone. Back home is where I grew up, where my husband grew up, where our daughters were born. It’s where most of our extended families live. Back home is familiar, the place that will always hold a piece of my heart. Back home is one of the most beautiful places on earth – I will never deny that. But it’s not the place that pulls me anymore, because for me home is where I am now, where my husband and children are, where we have made our home. What pulls me now about back home is our family and those I call my framily. My people whom I’ve loved for a very long time. And the Pacific Ocean.

IMG_6144I went with my father to visit Tikva’s grave during our visit. It was a sunny spring day with only a few clouds in the blue sky and a small breeze. As is his tradition, my father read Goodnight Moon to his granddaughter, as he had during his visits to the hospital. As is my tradition, I brought a rose from the bush we planted with her placenta in the garden of our aunt and uncle. There was a golden beetle taking a walk around the base of her headstone, like the scarab that represented eternal life in the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings.

Of course.

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My father told me the most beautiful story one day when I was with him. It had been a tiring day for him, but the grandchildren playing around him – my daughter and son and niece – brought light and peace. At one point we sat down together, away from the busy-ness, and he asked, “Do you want to hear a story?” His dark eyes got incredibly clear and focused and he started. It was a love story from when he was 21 years old, on his way from Greece to Israel. It was the mid-1960s and a romantic and revolutionary time to be moving to a kibbutz in Israel. He told me about a young woman he met on the ferry who lived with a disease she’d had her whole life. He didn’t remember what exactly, but it required ongoing care and blood transfusions. He saw her just a few times after they arrived in Israel, then fell out of touch.

Listening, I marveled at the clarity in my father’s eyes, which had seemed tired earlier that day. His words came easily as he told me this long and beautiful story, more easily than they come sometimes because of the Parkinson’s he courageously lives with. I wondered why this experience had come back to him then, 50 years later. He spoke about this woman, this young love, as if with some regret that he had not done more to love her for a longer time. I reminded him that he didn’t know then what he knows now, that he was only 21 years old, barely out of his teens. There was such compassion in his telling, as if now he understood what it is like to live with a disease.

I love my father more than the world. I always have. Without knowing it, he created for me from very early on my idea of the perfect man. Loyal and nurturing and dedicated and worldly and smart and soulful and handsome, so very handsome. He introduced me to westerns and science fiction, taught me history and politics and multiplication tables, brought me with him on planes to Europe, hung a basketball net above the garage for me to play with, brought me Playmobil and Legos and Kinder eggs from Europe on his business trips, took us to get donuts and sit on the roof of the car to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, took me on a bike ride around town to teach me how to navigate using a map, helped me buy my first car. After my mother left him alone with two daughters when he was about my age, he did everything in his power to keep our lives stable. My father helped teach me what it means to love.

It’s not easy to watch your parents age. It’s hard to do so without being hit with the thought that one day they will be gone. I know many who have already lost parents. During our visit back home, my husband pointed out to the extended family how much was the same as when he was a child, except that now we fill the shoes of our parents, and they fill the shoes of their parents, and the kids… well, they are the new generation who get to be the kids. The constant throughout time is the gaggle of cousins – this time ages two to eleven – playing together and chasing each other around the house; good and abundant food; and love.

It’s the love that is eternal.

the day we met

To My Beautiful Son,

Two years ago today we met for the first time. You were two days old, and we had known about you for just one day, since the adoption agency director had come to find me the day before to tell me that a baby had been born whom she believed was meant to be our son.

Two years ago today I met your father in the hospital lobby – I was coming from work and he was coming from school. We walked into the same hospital we had walked out of together just two years before – after I delivered the twins who had stopped growing inside me – heavy with grief in spite of how hollow I felt, into the grey cold snow of Midwestern winter. In the moment we walked back in to meet you – hopeful, excited, curious, nervous – the wound from that day two years before healed more completely. Because of the gift of you.

Two years ago today we got into the elevator, arrived at the third floor and told the special care nursery receptionist that we had come to meet our son. Our beloved adoption agency director met us there too, perhaps as excited as we were after waiting and anticipating with us for a year and a half. There had been other possible babies during that time, all with some real and serious challenges we were not prepared to take on after all we and our older daughter had already been through. We knew that we could have done it, that we would be an amazing family to any child, but we recognized and honored our limitations. We knew that any adoption is complex, and that transracial adoption was something we were prepared to take on with pride, respect and responsibility for our son.

Two years ago today we walked into your warm room in the nursery and saw the tiny swaddled bundle that you were. You were so small, six weeks early and less than four pounds. But healthy and breathing on your own.

Two years ago today the nurse took you out of your warmer and placed you into my arms. You were so beautiful, so darling, so tiny, so light and so present. You looked at me with big dark eyes as if you recognized me already. Your eyes said, Are you my mother? I looked back at you and said, Are you my son?

Two years ago today a thousand thoughts ran through my mind and a thousand emotions swarmed my heart. After all the waiting for you, I asked myself, Am I ready for this? Can I do it? I looked at you thinking, Can I love you as much as you deserve? Will it be harder than if you had come from my own body?

Two years ago today I handed you to your father. Your head fit completely in the palm of his hand. You were so peaceful, already you knew you were safe, held and loved. The adoption agency director noticed your perfect ears.

Two years ago today the nurse asked us your name and when we told her, she wrote it on the white board in your room, along with our names and phone numbers. Already they were caring for us – your adoptive family – showing us that they understood that we were as much your parents as if I had been recovering from delivering you in a maternity room nearby. I think they helped me to believe it, too. To trust.

Two years ago today I looked at the agency director with tears in my eyes and said, Thank you. I told you I would be back every day to hold you and love you until you had learned to take a bottle and were ready to come home.

****

Two years ago tomorrow was the day your birth mother signed the permanent surrender of custody. I was there in the lobby of the building where I worked, the building that also housed the adoption agency. When your birth mother left after signing, I watched her from afar as she walked out the exit into the snowy parking lot. She wanted a closed adoption and didn’t know I was there. I watched her from inside the glass doors as she walked slowly to her car, as if I was looking into a snow globe, wondering about all of the emotions that must have been running through her. This woman who had made probably the hardest decision of her life and had given us the greatest gift. I promise you that I will love him with all my heart, I whispered to her from the other side of the lobby doors.

Two years ago tomorrow we got to tell your sister about you. We got to tell her that she was going to be a big sister, at last, to a healthy living baby who was going to come home. It would be two weeks before she got to meet you – children who hadn’t had a flu shot were not allowed in the special care nursery – but she was so excited she couldn’t stop laughing. She hugged me, hugged your father, hugged the agency director whom she adored, and kept laughing. She drew a picture of herself playing with her little brother; it is still hanging in the agency office. She drew pictures for you, too, and they hung next to your name and ours on the white board.

****

Two years ago our life with you began. You changed everything with your arrival. You brought more love into our family, the love we get to give and the love we get to receive. Because you are a lover of the highest order – as if you came with one mission in this life: TO LOVE AND BE LOVED.

Two years ago you brought healing. While there will always be a space in my heart from which Tikva is missing, and while you didn’t come to replace her or the twins, you bring healing every day to fill some of the empty spaces. You bring laughter and silliness and comedy already at age two. You bring the hope of all that is ahead in your wondrous life. You keep me on my toes and you make me laugh. With you it is impossible to feel heavy because you are pure joy and light.

Two years ago your story began – not just as our son but as YOU. I know that there is so much ahead that I cannot imagine, predict, know for sure. But I know that you will continue to thrive. Because what I have known about you from the moment your eyes met mine is this:

You came into this life knowing that you are held and that all is well.

And you are. And it is. And I love you completely and forever. My sweet, sweet son.

Happy birthday.

a confluence of events

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Confluence: An act or process of merging. A coming together of people. A flowing together.

There is a confluence of events happening in our home right now. It involves three things: The Terrible Twos. Adolescence. Perimenopause. All happening at the same time, under the same roof. For the sake of his sanity, there are times when I am thankful for my husband that he works long hours outside the home.

I have done zero research about the hormonal changes that go on in a toddler as he approaches his second birthday, but I would bet money that something similar to puberty is going on there. I have vague memories of going through this nine years ago with my daughter. Since I actually remember my own unreliable moods and total annoyance with all things parental during puberty, I know for sure there are hormones involved when my 11 year old rolls her eyes at me. Since my own mother left when I was 15 and she was 38, I missed her forties and I don’t know how they were for her, or how they would have been had she been going through perimenopause with children around. Only in the last few years did I really come to understand that it is actually the decade or so leading up to menopause – perimenopause – that can be so challenging. More than a few friends and family members in their fifties and sixties have told me that once you finally get through perimenopause and actually become menopausal, things calm down hormonally and get more even again. I was by no means old when I had my daughter at 32, but if I’d had her at 22 perhaps we wouldn’t have been going through hormonal changes at the same time.

All this is a good reminder to be especially patient and understanding – compassionate – not just of my children but also of myself.

I am deeply and unapologetically merged with my children, both the adolescent I birthed and the almost two year old whose eyes I gazed into for the first time when he was two days old. They need me so much and, some days, they are determined to resist with all their might everything I try to do to help them. I know that is exactly how it’s supposed to be, that children of all ages push against boundaries as a way to stretch and learn and grow fully into themselves, and that my job is to maintain those boundaries in a consistent and calm way.

(Moment of pause to emphasize the word CALM.)

I’m pretty much 100% sure I pushed against my parents’ boundaries too. I know I argued plenty with my mother as a child. My father told me, years later, that he never understood why my mother would keep an argument going with me rather than nipping it in the bud early and saying something like, “Because I said so, end of story,” which was my father’s more common response. I think he sensed that there was only so far arguing with a child would get him.

So I recite this mantra: I will not have an argumentative relationship with my daughter. Sometimes I succeed, other times I’m less successful. Because, wow! Adolescents can sure be relentless. I understand now why my father would tell the younger me that I should become a lawyer. My daughter may physically take after her father, but I think he’s got a point when he says that, at her core, she really takes after her mother.

I need a new mantra, though. Because I will not have an argumentative relationship with my daughter is filled with triggers: The trigger of my own complicated relationship with my mother; the illusion that I can be exclusively in charge of our relationship if only I can keep my cool all of the time; the reminder of just how alike my daughter and I are. And the words in this mantra focus on  what I don’t want, not what I do want. What I strive for with both of my children is that flowing together that confluence can bring.

We are at our best when we are flowing together, and thankfully those moments are abundant too. When we I can laugh and remember not to take ourselves myself too seriously – because I am the leader, and my children look to me for guidance – we flow better together. When I take time out to breathe deeply and notice I am being triggered, we flow better together. When I am able to be as kind, gentle and patient with myself as I can be with my children, we flow better together. That’s not always easy – I think as mothers it is really easy to default to condemning and criticizing ourselves during our not-so-fine moments. But that’s when compassion towards ourselves is most important, and it’s that compassion that we can then share with our children.

After an especially emotional day recently, I told my daughter what I appreciate the most about days: That each one ends and the next morning, after a good night’s sleep and with a clear head, we get to start fresh. Every single day, for all of our lives. In our home, when we know we could have behaved better, we practice the fine art of telling each other we’re sorry. Parents included. To me, that is huge, because I know my children will grow up knowing that everybody makes mistakes, and everybody is worthy of forgiveness. I adore my children. When we are flowing together – and even at times when the crescendo in the kitchen reaches a louder and higher pitch than any of us intended – the constant that is always there, no matter what, is LOVE.

 

 

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.

****

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.

****

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.

****

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.

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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.
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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.
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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.