Thursday, April 2, 2015

Please, let me remember

Oscar likes to put goggles on in the tub. He calls them his “gobbles”. He pronounces r, l, and w as “w”, so he’ll say, “I wuv you Dowa” or “woki” (for his friend Loki at school). He uses m at the beginning of many words that begin with a hard consonant sound, like “mestruction” for construction, or “paw matrol” for Paw Patrol (a show he likes to watch). He replaces the “g” at the start of gymnastics with a “t” - tynastics! Breakfast is “bressie”. Watermelon is “memo”. Lighting McQueen (and all cars) used to be “Aye-Rum-Rums” and then he was “Lightning Taqueen”. Oscar snuggles up to me and says “I want to be “ta-next” to you”. 

I pray that I can remember every one of these little speech impediments and quirks as they slowly disappear. Recently I found  video of Dora before kindergarten, talking about how excited she was to go to “kindewgawden”. All of that baby voice and baby pronunciation is now gone from her speech. Some of our favorite things she used to say - “lalybugs” (ladybugs), “montey” (monkey), and “furfy” (Murphy)….these are gone. It is a heartbreaking thing that these little signposts of infancy slowly disappear. I know my kids can’t go on to successful careers in business, medicine, or the arts using a “t” where a “k” is needed…but I can barely stand to see these markers of early childhood slowly fade. 

I was gone all day yesterday and when I arrived home Oscar greeted me excitedly. “How was your trip, mommy!?” It sounded so exceedingly grown up, even though he was watching Finding Nemo and eating macaroni and cheese shaped like pirates and ships. I put him in his footie pajamas with sharks (his request) and snuggled up with him on the couch, watching the last half hour or so of Nemo. At the end, when Marlin and Nemo are reunited, I started to cry…thinking of both my precious kids and the way they are slowly, surely growing up and pulling away from me. I cried more as I put Oscar to bed, burying my face in his sweet smelling hair, tears rolling down my cheeks and onto his pillow. 

The irony of this is that I have more time with my kids now than I ever had. When Dora was a baby I was working away from her 40 hours a week, driving down terrifyingly unsafe Leicester Highway every day to my job, frozen solid with anxiety and fear, wondering if the way the sun reflected so brightly off the other cars was a sign of me losing my mind completely. I traveled and, when she refused a bottle, Dora came with me..hauled from unknown babysitter to unfamiliar daycare in every corner of North Carolina, snuggling together in some unknown hotel room after a day of work and separation. Once, a caretaker tried to feed her before she was old enough for solids, and I cringed in my hotel room alone with her that night as I scrubbed dried cereal from her baby face and hair. 

The further irony is that instead of weeping over the fact that my kids are growing, I should of course just be rejoicing that we are all healthy and relatively happy and whole to enjoy and love one another. A wonderful friend who I love and respect dearly lost her son to war. A woman I never knew but whose writing I admired died recently, and her 4 little children now grow up without their mother. My own mother, who had just begun to get sick when I watched Finding Nemo for the first time, is 10 years gone from this Earth. I watched the movie at my parent’s house, and tried to get her to watch, too, telling her it was quite good even for a kid’s movie. She watched some, standing and pacing at the back of the living room, the pain in her back from as-yet-undiagnosed cancer already too painful for her to sit down. Life is so fucking unbelievably unfair, inexplicable, and unrelentingly painful that I’ve no real right to weep over the perfectly normal growing up of my children. Or have I? 

The truth, I guess, is that all of life holds some exquisite pain for those who choose to live it fully. Even the happiest moments and joys bring with them a tinge of sorrow at their fleeting, like that last full day of vacation when you want to just have fun on the beach but in your heart you are sad knowing that tomorrow you go back to reality. If I wasn’t weeping into my son’s sweet smelling hair once in a while, perhaps I would just not be caring about his life at all. Perhaps the fact that I can cry over my kids losing their silly pronunciation quirks is a sign of (a bit of) mental health, a sign of emotional fitness whereby the beauty of life is not just appreciated but felt, noticed, loved, mourned, held on to with tightly grasped fingers praying for time to slow. 

The only real answer I seem to have is to say it - to speak it or write it down and allow the tears to roll down my cheeks, allow myself to say openly that watching my children grow up is as painful as it is beautiful. I have no choice but to admit to the world that there are evenings when I cannot wait for them to just be asleep so I can have a moment alone, and there are also nights when I can hardly pull myself away from watching their sweet slumbering faces. I am as far from an ideal parent as one can be, at times, but the love I have for Oscar and Dora runs through me like my blood, like an energy source, like something unstoppable that has to move and flow and, at times, break free of its bonds through my tears, to drip onto the pillow of my slumbering son like the tears of all the others mothers in the world, past and present, whose unstoppable force of love cannot be contained. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What I've learned so far

I am slowly realizing that it’s ok if things aren’t perfect. I know this sentence sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s really true. I have spent so much time - way too much - pondering and lamenting and generally feeling bad when things haven’t been “just right”. Is it possible that it is finally sinking in that life itself is a process, that to be moving forward in a generally positive direction is the goal, as opposed to some unrealistic, perfect endpoint that doesn’t exist? 

A couple of years ago a high school classmate of mine died of cancer, at a ridiculously young age. Her two little girls, nearly the same age as my own kids, left without a mother before any child should have to face such a thing. I spent so much time thinking about her, and those little girls, wondering how on earth they would be ok, wondering who could possibly comfort them in those moments when only mama would do. I see through mutual friends that they are, of course, doing ok - because grief may feel like it can kill you but it actually doesn’t - but I can only imagine how much they yearn for their mother’s arms. 

And recently I’ve witnessed - from very afar and without even truly knowing the people involved - another young mother die of cancer, far before her time. She had the same birthday as Brian, and was a year younger than me. The youngest 2 of her 4 children are close to my kid’s age - though I think Oscar is actually older than her youngest. A child younger than Oscar has lost her mother. This fact is unbearable, unfair. I see photos of this beautiful, smiling woman, full of life and love, taken at a time when she did not know that the full experience of her life would be only 38 years. 

I wonder if there is some sort of tiny perfection in all of this, however. Because perhaps what we can see in these lives cut short is that perfection does not exist. What does, though, is doing our best to love fully, to forgive ourselves and others, and to take notice of the moments that matter. My children are growing quickly and the moments of their littleness seem to be fleeting and ethereal, nearly like the comet’s tail that you cannot really see. I have moments when they won’t listen or are fighting when I just want to walk away, sit in the backyard with a glass of wine and let them tear the house apart while I check out. There is no getting beyond the fact that parenting is an inherently messy thing, and there will be lots and lots of imperfect moments. What IS perfect, however, is that I love my two littles with my entire, imperfect heart. I love them so much it feels like my heart could burst into a thousand pieces. It feels like a love that could damage one of my internal organs, the way I used to worry that Dora’s screaming as an infant would actually permanently injure her somehow, that the pressure of her cries would cause her spleen or liver to burst inside of her. 

I am learning to see and accept and forgive myself for the things that I need: time to myself, time with the kids, time to create - to write, to imagine, to take photographs, to cook, to (sort of) clean the house. Not every day allows for that time. Not every shoot is perfect, not every image is in focus. Not every moment with my kids is without flaw. In fact, most of them are flawed. Maybe that is what love really is - perseverance in spite of imperfection. Loving our children - and ourselves - deeply and imperfectly. Accepting that life is about progress, and imperfection is inherent. 

Those who die young are no more perfect than anyone else. But their terminal diagnoses do push them to the borders of love and relationship. They make clear all that really matters. And I know from walking through death with my own mother that imperfect moments occur even when knowledge of imminent death is present. You might think that if you know someone is dying, you will be nothing but kind and understanding to them, and never pick a fight. But it isn’t true. Life is messy and imperfect to the end. 

Perhaps a terminal illness or a premature death allows us to see - all of us, not just those in the midst of such trials - that love in all it’s imperfect, messy, inconsistent beauty is all that matters in this life. That to love the best you can, to create beauty in your own way, and to try for progress where possible, is all that we are really called to do. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A year ago, I sat on a plane to Salt Lake City for the job I had at the time, worrying about flying and trying to distract myself with two new books I had purchased just for the trip. One was "The 100 Foot Journey" by Richard Morais (which I loved). The other was "Wild", by Cheryl Strayed. I started with Wild - I had heard it was wonderful. And on about page 15, as the details of the author's mother's demise from cancer became clear, I closed the book with tears in my eyes. Not ready. 9 years, and I'm not ready. 

Now, there is a movie. The book has been sitting untouched on my bedside table for a year. I am still not sure, at 10 years out, that I'm ready to delve into this story that - excluding the heroin and copious sex with strangers - feels remarkably like my own. But, a few nights ago, I went to the movie with a friend who has also lost her mother. She had ended up reading the book after seeing one of my posts about it, and when the previews for the movie came out we made a plan to see it together - knowing it would be hard thing for both of us to do. 

me, probably on my first day of kindergarten, photo by my mother 

The movie was wonderful. I cried, a lot, as I knew I would. A few times, I thought I might have to step out so as not to disturb the other viewers. I watched it all and, though I am quite sure I will never hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, I do think falling on my knees in the wilderness and screaming "I miss you" might be really therapeutic for me. 

Primarily told in flashbacks of Cheryl's childhood and the loss of her mother, one thing that surprised me about watching the movie was that it made me as weepy about my own children as it did about losing my mom. Maybe it's that the movie kids are an older girl and a younger boy, like mine. Maybe it's that, though they seem to be poor and uprooted a lot, the mom is really happy and always loving with the kids. She doesn't seem stressed out, worried about money, or frustrated with her kids. Maybe I will understand this when I read the book - will see she was actually more flawed, or that she has been accepted into the sainthood of the dead and just appears perfect in memory - but I found myself worrying if my own children have as many sunny memories of me. When I am gone, will Dora think fondly of when we say goodnight and blow each other kisses? Will she remember how much she loves my chili? Will she think of all the times she told me I'm the best mommy in the world? Or will she remember my tired, stressed out, overworked self, easily annoyed and nowhere near as patient and nurturing as I would like to be? 

my mother's coffee mug and turquoise ring, which I wear every day. photo by Dora 

After the movie, I sat in my car in the parking garage of the Aloft hotel and wept, loudly, covering my face with my black fingerless gloves. The pain of missing someone you love - of missing your mother, the one who nurtures, cares for, and protects you - it is a shitty, relentless, ominous beast of grief that patiently waits for you to feel slightly ok before jumping out and beating you up again. It doesn't go away - at least not in 10 years - and strangely I wouldn't really want it to anyway. As another friend told me recently, in the remembering and grieving the one we have lost is kept alive. 

The movie transported me back to the feelings of total helplessness, fear, and exhaustion we felt when my mom was sick. It reminded me of how we started out hoping for big things like trips and ended up just hoping for a pleasant meal together. It reminded me of that claustrophobic little room where the doctor tells you it's terminal cancer. In the movie, Cheryl's mother asks, "can I still ride my horse?" My mother said, "You know, you're really ruining my dinner plans right now." Sigh. 

I sat in bed with Dora the following night, helping her fall asleep. I scratched her back as she closed her eyes, brushed her hair away from her face so I could watch her relax, so I could stare adoringly at her 7-year-old face that still looks like the infant I remember. I was flooded with an unexpected memory of my own mother, sitting on my bed and "checking me in" - drawing little checkmarks along my back with her fingernail as I fell asleep. I wondered, did she sit and stare at my face, wondering over my beauty, wondering about my future, feeling her heart swell with love for me? Did she stare at me and see my infant face hidden in my childhood features? Did she weep with love for me? 

first pair of rollerskates, being put on by my mom at my 8th birthday party

The day my mother died, there were a lot of phone calls to make. We divided them up and plodded through them, letting family and close friends know she had died. I don't really remember who I spoke to, or what I said, or even how I got through those calls. But I do remember one conversation. I called the bookstore where my mother had been working when she got sick, and told the store manager that she had died. "You were the light of her life, you know?" was his response to the news. What he said to me meant more than nearly anything else I heard on those calls, or in the wonderful cards that were sent, or in the thoughtful embraces at the funeral and beyond. To hear from someone else - someone outside our circle but who knew my mother well - tell me how she loved me, was a gift. It was so priceless - so meaningful, as meaningful as my own flashbacks and memories, as meaningful today as it was 10 years ago. 

Where am I now? I'm not doing heroin, I'm not a famous author, there hasn't been a movie made about my story. I'm not hiking thousands of miles by myself. I never will. But, I'm on my knees, in the wilderness, crying out how much I miss my mother. I'm in the wilderness trying, as much as I can, to ensure that my kids have happy memories of me when I'm gone, that they know they are the light of my life in every possible way. 

And, I'm finally reading the book. I'm not really ready, but I'm reading it anyway.