inheritance of laughter

 

Bday Smile

I have her voice, exactly. Her laugh, too, is the same as mine. Hers hits me most deeply of all the voices I hear on the cassette tape I have unearthed from a box in the basement.

She’s laughing so much. She sounds so happy, so present, so engaged.

It is a recording of my mother interviewing my great grandmother – her mother-in-law’s mother – about her young life during the first half of the twentieth century. They are speaking French. My great grandmother’s voice is exquisite – exactly as I remember it from the years I knew her, maybe a little stronger than it was at the end of her life, when she was in her nineties. I think she is 85 in this tape, visiting us in California from France. Her sense of humor is contagious, she is witty and opinionated and she makes my mother, my father, and her daughter, my grandmother, laugh constantly. It’s been 27 years since she died and I can still feel the soft skin of her incredibly clean, porcelain white hands. I can still see the twinkle in her blue eyes that could no longer see the world outside of her memories.

I was 10 years old when this tape was recorded, and I am not there. But every time my mother speaks or laughs, it is as if I am. Her voice is mine. Her laughter too. She is younger in the tape than I am now, but we sound so much alike.

I am struck by the palatable joy in my mother’s voice, how amused she sounds by the stories my great grandmother shares, how curious and inquisitive she is. I am reminded that there was a time – before the storm that started a few years later – when we were all really happy. That’s what I remember when I go back that far in my memory – a feeling of ease together.

Side one of the tape ends and the tape player I had to borrow from a neighbor to listen to it clicks off. I open it, flip over the cassette and press play again. For a few minutes, they continue talking, and then the recording ends and there is silence, but the tape keeps playing.

Then a new voice: My own. I am 13 years old and I have decided to record myself reading the family history project I am writing for my 8th grade social studies class. I have no memory of this, but I am so glad I decided to record myself because the information I collected over 30 years ago about my family is priceless.

I stand next to the tape player on the kitchen counter with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. That’s me, young me. Funny little animated me. Already a lover of stories and words. I am so cute, so lovable. I think my daughter would like 13 year old me, too. It’s been a really long time since I’ve reconnected with my younger self in such an intimate way. It’s a little like rereading my old journals, but different because this is my voice.

I put in the next tape and it is 1997 and I am interviewing my grandmother. Her voice is strong, too, more raspy than her mother’s because she was a smoker for more than half of her life. Her memory is sharp and she clarifies some of the questions I have after listening to my great grandmother’s stories. I didn’t remember that I’d interviewed my grandmother, but again I am so thankful. Five years later she had a stroke and she could no longer tell me her stories. I felt like I had lost one of my closest friends; this grandmother who was not even 50 when I was born. So young and beautiful and so present in my life for so many years, in spite of the distance between California and Italy.

She’s been gone for seven years. Her sister, who was like my third grandmother, for three. Their mother for 27. My maternal grandmother for 30. But it’s not their absence that I feel in this moment. What hits me most deeply is their presence in my life, still. Like they’ve settled in somewhere deep inside me and they’re always there for me to connect to.

To hear their voices again just brings me back to them more suddenly.

 

 

(im)permanence

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Last night was the first StoryWell storytelling event hosted by The Well, a program of The Temple in Atlanta, GA. I was honored to be among six storytellers sharing personal stories based on the theme of permanence. Here is my story, both the audio and the text.

(im)permanence – StoryWell audio

I had a dream that she came out of my belly. She came out to tell me that she was a girl, and that her name was Tikva. She came out to tell me and then she went back inside.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the dream. In the morning I asked my husband, “What do you think of the name Tikva?”

“Hope,” he said. “That’s nice.” That was it, in that moment. It was still early, I was only halfway through my pregnancy. We put the name aside – a possibility. We didn’t know if she would be a girl or a boy.

Ten days later we got in a cab and drove to the other side of Jerusalem for the ultrasound – the big one you have in the middle of your pregnancy. The one to make sure everything is okay with your baby.

We took our older daughter, she had just turned four. It never occurred to us not to bring her. At her ultrasound the doctor had happily told us, “Everything looks perfect. Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy.”

There are three words you never want to hear from a doctor. Three words that change your life forever:

“THERE’S A PROBLEM.”

We had told him we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, that we wanted it to be a surprise. But as soon as he told us something was wrong, it became so important to know this simple thing that would allow us to connect with our baby.

“She’s a girl,” he told us. Of course she was.

“Tikva,” I said to my husband. “Hope. That’s her name.”

We went home broken. Scared. The known had become unknown. My vision of what awaited my family was blurry. Frightening.

Would Tikva live past the moment of her birth? Would she overcome this imperfection that made her wellbeing so tenuous? Could modern medicine save her so that she could live a long, full life as our daughter?

How long could I keep her inside me, safe and held?

My husband walked to the Western Wall to pray. I gave him my prayer for my daughter on a tiny piece of rolled up paper.

Please, God, don’t make me bury my daughter. I won’t survive.

It snowed outside that January in Jerusalem. The city shut down as its single snowplow struggled to clear the streets. Somehow I made it for a second ultrasound and an amnio.

I made phone calls to specialists all over Israel. I sent emails back home, to San Francisco, connecting with experts there who understood our daughter’s condition. All of them encouraged us to come back home.

I cancelled our lease and packed our suitcases, and we landed in San Francisco the day before Valentine’s Day.

****

She was born 4 months later.

MY TIKVA. MY HOPE.

The moment I pushed her out and my husband cut her umbilical cord, she was swept away to be put on a ventilator.

I developed a love-hate relationship with that ventilator – this machine that kept her alive, weakened her airways, required a feeding tube so she could be nourished by my milk, and made holding her so complicated.

There was a brief period that started around day 30 when she didn’t need the ventilator, only oxygen. The doctors talked to us about what it might look like when we brought her home, how she would need oxygen probably for many months. We were ready for anything.

Please God, just let our daughter come home.

We held so much hope.

Tikva struggled. Our tiny seven and a half pound girl fought for her life. She wanted to stay, I really believe that. But her body was too fragile. She could never get enough air.

On the morning of day 58, as I pumped my milk for her, showered and got dressed, I had a feeling it was time. I didn’t say anything to my husband about what I felt, but later he told me he also knew. I headed to the hospital, and after taking our older daughter to preschool, he met me at Tikva’s bedside.

She had had a rough night in the critical care bay of the NICU. Her oxygen numbers had dropped frighteningly low. Twice the doctors and nurses rushed to her bedside as the words “CODE PINK” resonated over the hospital loud speaker. This time the code pink was for her.

I looked down over her and asked for her guidance. She opened her eyes to look at me and she told me she was done struggling, and it was time for her to go.

Please Tikva, please know how much I will always love you.

We took her outside for the first time in her short life, and her last breaths were of fresh misty air, no ventilator.

I held her as she died, and I did bury my daughter. And I survived.

****

She came out of my belly in a dream that winter to tell me her name was Tikva. She came out of my belly again in summer to teach me these three things:

She taught me how to hold onto hope when everything is unknown.

She taught me that all I needed to do in my powerlessness was to love her unconditionally, for as long as we had together, and forever after that.

And she taught me that everything is both finite and infinite. That nothing is permanent except love. That impermanence makes each moment so incredibly precious. And that we survive our losses and our struggles because even those don’t last forever.

In that time each fall when the milkweed seeds float around, or when I look up to see a red tail hawk flying overhead or perched in a tree, I feel like Tikva is there.

And as soon as those brief moments end and the milkweed and the hawk float away, I know she is still there.

Infinite.

My greatest teacher.

 

women’s bodies, women’s power

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I’ve watched Beyonce’s Formation video several times. It’s amazing. I’ve read the lyrics. I’ve followed along with the lyrics while watching the video, just to make sure I really heard what she was saying. I recommend watching it more than once to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time(s). It’s challenging. It blows me away every time. It also makes me a little uncomfortable, which I experience as a good thing. I like getting out of my comfort zone, especially my white girl comfort zone.

I saw Beyonce own the Super Bowl halftime show, preaching black empowerment – on television – in front of millions of Americans. And was that a stadium full of rainbows at the end, in support of the freedom to love whoever you want? At the Super Bowl in the San Francisco Bay Area? Perfect.

I read discussions in my social media universe and in the larger media among women who were disturbed by how revealing Beyonce’s outfit was in the halftime show. These are intelligent, sensitive and feminist women, and they were understandably troubled that their children had to see a woman dressed in so little – showing so much skin, so much leg, so much ass, so much cleavage – while expressing her power. They wished out loud that we lived in a society where it was okay for women to be powerful while also fully clothed. I get that, I really do. And I agree – women should be able to be powerful and regarded and HEARD however they want to dress. I will never deny that our collective culture dishes out some messed up and contradictory messages to women and girls about our bodies and our voices.

But I wasn’t outraged because my 12 year old daughter was watching with me, seeing all that skin Beyonce was showing. To be honest, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Wow! Check out her strong-ass legs!” Followed by, “That woman is a total BAD ASS.” Followed by our own discussions in the week that followed about what the messages were in her performance, and why it’s a big deal that she is daring to and able to share those messages.

How often are women told it is beautiful to have real legs, thick legs, muscular legs, even short squat legs? When does it feel safe to show off those legs to the whole world – knowing the whole time that you will either be critiqued for your flaws, dismissed as the victim of a system that controls you and tells you what to wear and how to look, or condemned for being a slut?

Apparently it’s not that safe for a woman to be sexy and proud and loud and powerful. A Google search for “Beyonce post-Super Bowl backlash/commentary” shows that. Thankfully I’m not the only woman defending a woman’s right to be powerful and to make a statement in public – in whatever she wants to wear; the same Google search leads to some great commentary against the backlash. Commentary that also acknowledges and honors Beyonce’s blackness, rather than fears it.

****

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail this week, one out of 52 issues that is not about sports. Well, sort of not. They actually had real athletes in this issue – female athletes with strong bodies. No lengthy stories about them, but photos of athletic women in the same skimpy bathing suits worn by the issue’s other models, along with short blurbs and quotes. And they had “plus size” model Ashley Graham, who in her little blurb spoke about cellulite; even if said cellulite was airbrushed away in her photos. She may be proud of her body exactly as it is (as she should be), but clearly we’re not quite ready to communicate a larger message to the public that cellulite is actually okay. I would love to see us get there.

The SI swimsuit issue made it to the bottom of the recycling bin before my daughter could see it. And I thought to myself as I buried it underneath flattened cereal boxes, “Why am I hiding this from her? Is there a difference here between the messages conveyed in the magazine and what Beyonce was saying in her halftime show when she bared her skin? If so, what is the difference?”

There’s a lot of sex in the SI swinsuit issue. The message is sexual, tiny bikinis cover large breasts, women posing in a way that makes their boobs and booties stick out the most. Waists are Photoshopped to be extra narrow so that everything else looks extra wide. There is desire in their faces, girlish innocence mixed with come-hither looks. They are sweaty, their hair is wet. It’s sexual. It’s confusing. And it contributes to the ways in which boys and girls grow up confused about how to relate to each other and to their own and each other’s bodies. I don’t want my daughter to grow up afraid of sexuality; at the same time I want her sexuality to develop in its own right time, in a healthy way.

She is 12 years old, almost an adolescent. Do you remember adolescence? Am I the only one with such deep imprints from that time, still, 30 years later? That time when girls and boys start to notice each other – girls noticing boys noticing boys noticing girls noticing girls. Girls competing with other girls, boys competing with other boys. Insecurities. Bodies starting to change, many girls finding themselves suddenly a head taller than many of the boys around them. Flirting starts, shyness grows and is overcome, first crushes happen and happen hard. Young hearts break for the first time. Sexual identity starts to form, in all its complex layers.

I don’t envy my daughter that she has to go through adolescence with social media everywhere – and I’m postponing letting her have her own phone for as long as possible because I’m not ready to navigate that yet. But for some reason I’m still trying to understand completely in myself, I don’t worry about her sense of herself and her body and her self-confidence. Maybe I’m mistakenly not preparing myself enough – or her – for the years ahead, maybe there are things she thinks about herself that she doesn’t share with me. I doubt I’m missing the important things, though. She and I talk about things, these conversations began many years ago.

And my daughter is different than I was at her age.

She is confident – in her skin, in her sense of herself, at school, in the world. She is outgoing, friendly, and not remotely shy. She is loud and funny and full of energy. She is athletic and active. Basically, she’s totally cool. Cool to her core, from the inside out. She is unique, she has always had her own style. And she is whip smart, strong willed, opinionated. She questions what she sees.

She has understood since she was little that women don’t look like Barbie or Bratz dolls. She knows that models in magazines are airbrushed, that their bodies have been manipulated by Photoshop. She knows what eating disorders are, and calories for her are units of strength and energy, not things that need to be counted or measured or controlled.

I don’t speak around her about the parts of my body I don’t love – and being her mother makes me question why I feel that way about those parts in the first place. I am very aware that I was even younger than her when I started hating my thighs.

My daughter once asked me why I never wear shorts. My answer is always the same: I prefer skirts. Maybe when she’s older, or maybe soon, I will tell her the truth and we can talk about bodies and women and all the complexities of being a woman in a body. I will tell her honestly that I am constantly remembering to love and cherish my body exactly as it is. That I care for my body because of that self-love. I will tell her that if I had Beyonce’s legs, I probably would wear shorts.

It’s so confusing being a woman and a girl. The messages are constant contradictions:

Be feminine. Be sexy. Be smart and unafraid, speak out. Don’t be too loud or people will think you’re bossy or whiny.

You are flawed. You are imperfect. There is always something you could improve about yourself. Get fit. Get strong. Get thin. Get toned. Watch what you eat. Dress in a way that flatters your body type.

Love your body as it is. Accept yourself as you are. Natural is beautiful. And if you try to fix something about your body so that you feel better about yourself, you will be judged for being shallow, insecure, vain.

I’ve done it, I’ve judged. I confess. Women and girls are each other’s finest critics. And we are hardest on ourselves.

****

So I’m watching the Super Bowl with my family and out comes Beyonce and her shorts are shorter than her backup dancers’, and no one can deny that she is a beautiful woman who looks completely hot. She dances and she sings while the whole world watches – and her music has a message, a powerful message. Her costumes even have a message. And all I notice is her POWER. That this bad ass BLACK woman (with real, strong legs) has all eyes on her in that moment, and she is communicating something powerful, something that challenges the status quo. At the Super Bowl.

It’s been 25 years since I took Women’s Studies in college, even longer since I woke up to the concept of feminism. I was a photographer for the women’s newspaper in college, met female students who were putting themselves through school doing phone sex in the evenings. I learned about the first wave of feminism, the second, the third (my generation). I’m not sure what wave we’re in now. But feminism has changed, it has evolved, it is constantly evolving, and it cannot be just a movement of and for and directed by white women.

This is the thing I know now that I didn’t know in college: Nothing is black and white. You can’t say that women are always objectified if they are showing skin. I’d bet money that Beyonce felt amazing in that stadium a few weeks ago, or when she saw the final cut of her Formation video.

And then there is the race and color piece: White women or men – or the dominant white culture – don’t get to tell black women or men – or black culture – what they should or shouldn’t wear. Period. Bootie shorts or black hoodies. Skin or no skin. I don’t care how much of a feminist I have always considered myself to be: It will never be up to me as a white person to have an opinion about how Beyonce should dress or what’s appropriate for her. And I don’t want to dismiss or ignore her power because it is delivered in clothing that might make me blush or might feel inappropriate. The only female I’m in charge of besides myself is my daughter (until she is 18), who doesn’t wear short shorts because she is 12 years old.

I don’t see Beyonce as a victim of the messages she has been taking in all her life, thrown at her by our mysoginistic society. I see in her a powerful, successful, intelligent, iconic superstar who actually gets to decide – herself, for once – what she wants to wear when she shares her message of substance on the national stage. Maybe we can spend less time debating her clothing choices, and give more attention to HEARING what this empowered black woman is trying to tell us. Recognizing that her message is one we need to hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

In the very last line of Formation, Beyonce says, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”

Think for a minute about the power and feminism in that statement…

let’s talk about trauma

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trauma: 1. an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects. 2. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.

Big, powerful word. It summons up thoughts of war, genocide, violence. Veterans who come home with the invisible wounds of PTSD after having fought in wars. It makes me think about my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and what they carried deep inside them from what they had lived, from all they had lost. It makes me think about friends who have battled cancer, friends who have lost spouses, friends who – like me – have lost babies. It makes me think about all of the ways life can turn on its head in an instant, when we least expect it, and change us forever – change us down to our very cells.

Did you know that our cells carry our traumas?

I’ve been thinking about trauma lately, naming it, recognizing it inside myself. I’ve been looking at the trauma I still carry – even now, when I am feeling so much better – from the years I felt like such crap because of the auto-immune illness I live with. From the years I was so sick and struggling so completely to feel just a little bit better.

I have spent years – literally years – guided by my primitive/ancient/reptilian brain, living in fight-or-flight mode. I have spent years being cautious, fearful, and so completely careful about every bite of food I took, worried about how each bite would affect my body, frustrated to the point of rebellion that I couldn’t just fucking eat. I developed a superpower during these years: It’s an internal radar that allows me to find a bathroom – anywhere, anytime – within minutes if not seconds. I learned how to manage my condition in often obsessive ways that allowed me to trust my body just a little bit while taking away my ability to ever completely relax.

I developed other superpowers living as a sick person with a hidden illness: I got really, really good at managing my medical care, managing medical paperwork, getting reimbursements. I am the master of customer service calls, especially to health insurance companies. I got really good at researching EVERYTHING and taking what I had learned and the many resulting questions to my doctors. I got really good at developing supportive relationships with those doctors.

Do you see the theme, here, though? I am a fighter, a survivor. If shit hits the fan, I’m exactly the kind of person you want on your team. I fight. I’m persistent. I’m smart. I think 10 steps ahead at all times. I consider all possibilities in advance and I’m always prepared for anything.

But this is a crazy exhausting way to live. Especially when I was already feeling physically unwell. And especially now when I am feeling better.

(Do I even dare write “now that I am feeling better?” Am I really truly feeling better, for real? Can I trust that to be true?)

It’s a difficult lifestyle to unlearn because the trauma is still there – all the way down into my cells.

I was first diagnosed with this condition 19 years ago, after several years of other body challenges. I’ve had years of terrible illness and years with no symptoms at all and no need for meds. I’ve been surprised repeatedly when the symptoms returned, until eventually I came to expect they always would at some point – at least that’s what doctors tell you when you have a chronic condition. I’ve wrestled with whether or not to go on medication, felt frustrated when medication didn’t work or stopped working, and felt tremendous fear at how the medication might be hurting more than it helps.

I am so accustomed to living in a constant state of alert!-caution!-prevention!-attention! that it’s really difficult to turn off. To relax.

To trust my body. To trust that I am well.

The irony: Stress worsens my symptoms. That has always felt like a cruel joke. Just relax and you’ll feel better, I’ve been told, usually by people who are not living with an illness. I ate paleo – gluten free – grain free – vegan – raw – macrobiotic – (whatever) and healed! Try it, it will heal you too! This never helps me, just makes me feel like I’m chasing rainbows. Like I am never doing enough. And it makes me even more terrified of food. And I really enjoy food, a lot. And it’s not like I can just stop eating. Another cruel joke.

So how do we do it – how do we unlearn the fight-or-flight response once it is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in us? Is it possible to release, to heal some of the trauma, to lighten our load?

This is how I start: By writing these words. By naming it. Calling it by its name.

I think we all hold trauma in some form – big or small. I think when we keep it to ourselves, inside ourselves, we allow it to grow bigger, big enough to overwhelm us and drag us down. We are all fractured in some way, aren’t we? We are all imperfect and vulnerable. There is no shame in that. No need to hide our cracks, our scars, our wounds. Our traumas.

****

And you? Is there a wound you hold that you’d like to name, to diffuse a little, even to release? How do you do it?

 

 

look for the helpers

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”     – Fred Rogers

You’ve probably seen this Mr. Rogers quote before. It comes up here and there, especially in times of national or global crisis. It shows up in a Facebook post after a tragic murder or some other senseless event that is difficult to understand. It comes when we are scrounging for hope, for faith in humanity. For faith in each other.

I thought about that line, Look for the helpers, as I read an email late last night about the passing of a very special man. The email was from his incredible wife, and I could feel the love and the heartbreak in her words.

He was a minister, a leader, a father, a grandfather and a friend. I met him and his amazing family during the most difficult time in my own family’s story  – during the period surrounding the short life and death of our infant daughter, Tikva, almost 8 years ago.

We didn’t know them at first, but we knew their daughter who had been a fellow parent a few years before when my older child had started preschool with her children. She reached out to us, and with her, so did her parents.

They offered their love. They offered their help. They offered the support of their incredible community. They collected furniture from their community for our empty home, baby clothes for our still unborn child, linens for our beds and bathroom, pots and pans and silverware and dishes for our kitchen. With grace and unconditional generosity of spirit, they held us when we needed it most. They brought ease so that we could focus on our family.

They weren’t the only ones. Friends and family left meals daily in a cooler on our doorstep for the entire two months of our daughter’s life and for two months after that. Relatives came through for us in uncountable ways. The Jewish community opened their arms and gave us a place to land. The parents at our older daughter’s preschool instantly loved her and cared for her and brought her home with them after school so we could stay late at the hospital with Tikva.

And a vast community of parents who had also lost babies – some further along on their own journeys and some right where I was – held me as I grieved, for as long as it took. Tikva’s loss brought the gift of new friends to my life, friends I cannot imagine my life without.

The helpers.

I didn’t have to look for them or seek them out; they just showed up. I didn’t have to ask; they just knew. Because of them, I know how good people are. Because of them, I survived. Because of them, I knew I was held and never felt alone. Because of them, it is impossible to lose faith in humanity.

 

 

 

resilience

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We not only care for our children because we love them, but we also love our children because we care for them. The process of taking care of our children is in fact immensely bonding. Our experience of difficulty altogether is where we come to know ourselves.  

~ Andrew Solomon

Writer Andrew Solomon has a TED talk called Love, no matter what. It’s my favorite TED talk ever, at least a dozen of its 3 million + views are mine. I first listened to it two and a half years ago, during a drive across three state lines with my baby boy sleeping in his carseat in the back of our packed car – we were driving behind my husband’s car, headed to our new home in a new city.

The description of his talk on the TED website reads: “What is it like to raise a child who’s different from you in some fundamental way (like a prodigy, or a differently abled kid, or a criminal)? In this quietly moving talk, writer Andrew Solomon shares what he learned from talking to dozens of parents — asking them: What’s the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance?”

I cried as I listened, thinking of Tikva, my daughter who had lived such a short but powerful life. I thought about how, in the 58 days she lived, she taught me my greatest lesson; she taught me about unconditional love and unconditional acceptance. Because I had only to love her as she was, for as much or as little time as I would have with her. Because I had to completely surrender every idea I had had about what she would become, how she would grow up, even that she might survive more than 58 days.

All Tikva needed was my love, pure and present. Unattached. Relinquishing any idea of being able to fix, to rescue, to save her. It was all bigger than me, I was whittled down to my core – and at each of our cores there is only love.

As I listened to Solomon’s words on the headset of my phone, I looked in the rearview mirror at the tiny boy asleep in his 5-point harness, a blanket wrapped around his brand new little body. He had been alive for three months, for just three months he had been my son. I thought about how before those three months I didn’t even know he was coming, I didn’t even know how he would change my life. I thought about how intricately connected he was to Tikva, how her story had become his story, how all of our souls were already intertwined.

I thought about what it would mean, for every year of my life until my very last breath, to raise a son, to raise a black man, to mother a young child again, to be an adoptive parent. To love again. To love unconditionally.

****

I think of myself as a resilient person. I have experienced pain. I have sometimes survived and sometimes overcome loss and illness, heartbreak and grief. I have been cracked and stretched in ways that have not always been comfortable. I have grown, hopefully evolved in good ways. I have learned – I continue to learn – about what really matters, and about what I can let go.

After Tikva died, I had such little patience for petty complaints about trivial things (those of others as well as my own). I wanted to make a t-shirt that read, Remember what matters, as a reminder to others and also to myself. When you experience great loss, as you experience the deepest sorrow, the really important things come into the sharpest focus.

Would I be the same person if life had beat me down just a little bit less, if I’d had to put myself back together a few less times? Was I born resilient, or is it something I learned? Where did the optimism I have always seemed to carry come from? Is resilience a gift? Is it something I can teach my children, or will they learn it on their own through their own challenges?

There is comfort in knowing that the challenges have had some value, that out of them I have come to know myself.

Resilience is peaceful. When I allow myself to feel my resilience, I experience calm, acceptance, confidence, trust, strength, hope, wisdom and compassion. Resilience isn’t blind faith; for me it holds the knowledge that, while more shit will surely happen, I have the experience – the resilience, the ability – to get through it.

When I first learned about Tikva’s birth defect 5 months before she was born, almost 8 year ago, I didn’t think I could ever survive losing my child. But there it is – resilience. I survived because I had no other choice. I loved the only way I knew how – completely. I learned to love the only way that is worth loving – unconditionally. No matter what.

My heart cracked open into a million tiny pieces. Each day I recognize and connect with my resilience and I put one more of the pieces back together, polishing the rough edges, re-forming myself into something new, something better. Choosing to thrive.

Isn’t that what we all do, in tiny ways and huge ones? I think this is the opportunity offered by our resilience: Choosing over and over to love – ourselves and others – unconditionally, no matter what.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

notes from the mothership

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I had the most amazing dream this morning between 6:32 and 7:00 a.m. I won’t describe the vivid convoluted details; I know how boring it is to listen to the play-by-play of another person’s dream. Plus, after a few minutes of trying to hold on to the feeling it left me and capture the details on paper, it started to fade even for me. But I was left with this:

A woman in her twenties or thirties or forties. From a country with an oppressive fundamentalist government, one where women’s voices are silenced through violence. She is rebellious. She is a threat to them and wanted by them and she lives in hiding, somewhere in another country where she can be more free, or sometimes underground in her own country. She is followed the world over by fans and friends via social media. She creates videos that celebrate women’s voices, men’s voices, freedom and sexuality. People support and celebrate her courage by sharing their own videos, speaking out about things that are taboo, things that bring up fear, things that keep us down. I get lost down the rabbit hole of her social media universe, read her words, watch her videos and those of others who are drawn to connect with her. I follow the connections all over the internet and the world, realizing that there are so many people out there who are listening and sharing what she has to say. Social media is so powerful it cannot be silenced by governments. Her statement is about rebellion, but not mindless rebellion without a cause – rebellion that is about celebration. Celebrating freedom of expression and existence and diversity and sexuality. Celebrating the power of connection and love.

****

Once the house is quiet after the kids and the husband are off to school and work, I sit at the computer with my tea and let myself noodle around on the mothership (my laptop) around the universe (the internet) for a while as I wake up. Sometimes it’s boring – you know those days when your email inbox and your Facebook feed are just REPETITIVE and DULL. Other days, like this morning, I stumble onto some gems, the kind that launch a thousand thoughts and stories of my own.

A courageous young woman telling her very real story about the ways she has been degraded, threatened, controlled, and violated by boys and by men. I read her story and remember the two boys in first grade who would run up and kiss my cheeks as I waited to go back to class from recess, how I dreaded ending up at the end of the line, their easy target, and how their unwanted kisses would make me cry. We all have those stories. I won’t rewrite her post with my own stories, but I could. I’m pretty sure every woman I know could.

I sit with my tea and I think about what it means to me to be a woman. I think about how complicated it can be, the mixed messages, the struggle to find your own voice and the freedom and courage to use it. I think about bodies and food and fear, about weight gained and weight lost, about being unsure about what I see sometimes in the mirror. I think about sexuality and fertility and motherhood, things that as a girl I imagined would be easy, things that are actually complicated and wondrous at the same time. I think about grief and pain and depression, how we sometimes hold the weight of the world in our beautiful cracked hearts. I think about illness and health and fear. Again the fear. I think about connection and friendship and love.

I think about my adolescent daughter and all I want her to know and believe and trust about how amazing she is. I think about what stories I will tell her that I have lived, what the lessons are that I want to teach her about what it means to be female. I want her to know how to exist proudly and safely in the world as a woman, how to hold on to that incredible wealth of confidence she has always had as a girl. I want her to always allow herself to shine her bright light – powerfully – in the world. I want her to trust herself. The mama bear in me wants to shout out to her from the rooftops: Don’t ever let anyone push you down!

Then I find the video below. Another courageous young woman says everything that needs to be said about our allowing ourselves to be BIG in a culture that wants us to keep ourselves small. (Take the three and a half minutes to listen to her poetry, it’s worth it.)

And I think about my young son and all I want to teach him about being a man, about how to engage with women in a world that tries to dismiss and control us. I think about what I want him to know about being black, things I cannot know first hand as his white mama. But things I can try to understand. I think about everything I still have to learn about raising a son, about raising a black son. I think about the forces conspiring against black men today, here, and I worry for him. I think about how, like my daughter, he is all possibility. I see the greatness within him. And I shout out: No! You will not push down my black son.

****

It’s as if the protagonist came out of my dream this morning, and she’s really really real, because she is actually every woman. Every human. She is me. She is my children. She is every human drawn to connect, to share stories, to speak out. Drawn to rebel and to celebrate. I swear she’s out there somewhere. So many versions of her.