Doing grief

Have you ever heard of someone feeling alone in a room full of people?  That’s how it is for me sometimes.  I’ll be standing there, with the world swirling around me, and I can’t seem to hook in.  I can’t figure out how to engage.  Me.  A talker.  A connector.  An extrovert with a need to tell my story.  I can’t figure out what to say or how to say it.  So, I stand there with people.  And I feel alone.  Grief, for me, is active and passive twisted together.

I feel alone because my anchor is gone.  How silly does that sound?  How trite?  But, it’s true.  My mother, who was my anchor, is gone.  She left us, she left me, 9 years ago, and though I am so much better at handling it and I feel good so much of the time, sometimes, the movement of the world around me is no match for all the twisting inside of me.  I have to give in, I have to let myself feel it.  Normally, my emotions rotate slowly and I can prepare for what’s next.  I can brace myself.  But, recently, as they always do in January, the revolutions speed up.  I wish to slow them down again.  I wish to feel calm, to remember happy thoughts, and know that the pain, or sadness, or anger, or frustration, or hurt will go just as quickly as it’s come, but I can’t.  I feel stuck.  And alone.  

I used to think that the stages of grief were linear.  I used to think that if I could just make it to the end, I would be done and I would be “good.”  I used to be pissed at people around me who seemed to grieve better than I did.  I used to add insult to injury; compounding my pain with self-doubt and insecurities.  I still feel insecure about my grief.  I still feel like when these waves wash over me, will other people wonder when I will just get over it?  And then I wonder how to get over it.  I don’t know that I will.  I don’t know that I can.  If we’re all being honest, I don’t know that I want to.  I know if I get over it, that doesn’t mean I stop loving her, but………….I don’t know…that makes me uncomfortable too.  Honestly, I think there will always be sad days for me.  Sad times.  

A few months ago, when I was going a mile a minute and needed to talk, I picked up my phone, and then I put it down.  I wouldn’t have said it out loud at the time, but I picked it up to call my mom.  A sharp pain exploded in my heart and receded just as quickly.  I miss her.  As I sat there, staring at my phone, I wondered about her phone number… Do they recycle phone numbers?  What is the waiting period on the phone number of a dead mother?  And then since the phone debacle, I have gone down a rabbit hole of wondering.  I wonder what she would be doing now?  I wonder where she would live?  I wonder what she would think about my decision to work part time?  I wonder what kind of mother she would think I am?  I wonder if she would still make me chicken salad sandwiches with melted cheese even though I make them for my daughter now.  I wonder how she would have danced at my wedding or held my babies?   I wonder what she would say about the world, about me, about my friends, my family.  I wonder…a lot.  For me, that’s part of doing grief.

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To Sir With Love

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the world around, these are some of the best people.

In the summer of 2002, I left my home country and moved to Japan to teach English with the JET Programme.  I knew about 10 words in Japanese, didn’t know my supervisor or co-workers, had never seen my apartment and didn’t know anyone.  It was a daunting adventure, but it was just that…and adventure.  One of the many I have taken in my life and I will forever be greatful for that awesome year for many reasons, but mostly because of the family that I created while there.  Like most families there are peaks and valleys, lulls in communication, farting (oh the farting), and a wee bit of dysfunction, but these are people I would go to the mat for.  They made that year unforgettable.  Because karaoke is king in Japan, I have many memories associated with music.  One of the songs that will forever remind me of that year is To Sir With Love.

As much as I am indebted to my “Japanese” family for being in that place with me in that time, I am also indebted to my parents for that time.  The beginning was hard, as beginnings often are.  Every day after work, I would ride my bike to the pay phone at the end of my block and call collect from Isesaki, Japan to Rochester NY.  My parents would each pick up a line and we would talk until I was ready to venture out for the evening.  The calls got shorter and less frequent, but every Sunday, we would check in and catch up.  They taught me I could go out and conquer the world, but I always had a home to go back to.

I come back, again and again as an adult, to how lucky I am to have had the parents I have.  They taught me to be brave and smart and thoughtful.  My mother was a kind, smart, funny, beautiful soul and a dear friend that I miss.  My dad?  Well…. fathers and daughters, right? 178512_10101228587657289_1747002579_o My father has taught me a mixture of practical and emotional lessons.  He taught me that sometimes you want quality and sometimes you want quantity.  He taught me to change a tire.  He taught me that sometimes the feelings of those you love take precedent over your own.  He taught me to stay sober and go to class.  He also taught me to cherish and value the relationships in your life.

If you know my dad, you know he is a hybrid guy.  He is an emotional man and then a stoic one.  He is a smart guy and just as quickly…a little bumbling.  He loves with his whole heart and gives hugs just as big.  His words, when he chooses them carefully, can, and have, meant the world to me.  They can also cut to the quick.  I am lucky for all of it.

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Happy Father’s Day, padre.

With Father’s Day coming, I recently got to work on his present.  Every year, for the past 5 or so, I have given him a Top 10 list of why he’s a great dad.  Top 10 reasons he’s a great dad; Top 10 things I learned from him I want to pass to my kids; Top 10 things I never thanked him for, but should have.  In writing these lists, I have come to reflect on lessons from the past and hopes for the future.  My dad will be the first to admit that mistakes are a part of life…but for the most part, he and my mom did one hell of a job.  I hope, years from now, my kids feel as connected to me and have as much love for me as I do for my parents.

So, how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?  It isn’t easy but I’ll try.  Here’s to you, Daddy.

I feel pretty?

Rewind the clocks back to a nine year old version of me sitting on my grandmother’s bed watching her zipper up her dress, cinch her belt around her waist, and fasten her clip on earrings to her lobes.  Her waist looked so small, her fingers were so delicate.  “Grandma- you’re so pretty.  You’re so skinny.”  “Sarah,” she said to me “I’m slender.  Skinny is for crack whores.”

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My slender, lovely, loving Grandma.

Now, some find this story funny.  Others find it a little concerning.  To me, it’s an honest and endearing reminder of my grandmother.  The one who, good and, let’s face it, brutally honest, loved me to the moon and back.  But, it is also, in my adult years, a curious glimpse into body image and self awareness.

Like almost everyone I know, I struggle with my body sometimes.  I wish I was thinner.  I wish I could find clothes I feel good in.  I would love to take care of that underarm jiggle.  And I am taking steps to make positive change.  I’m working to feel better in those clothes.  I have taken stock of what I eat and feel good about how I have changed my daily intake.  I go to the gym and enjoy my workouts.  I play with my kids and run around in our backyard.  And here is where my quest for “slender” has taken on a different tone in recent years- I have these kids who soak up what I say and how I say it.

If you know me well, or honestly if you don’t, you might know that I come close to idolizing my mother.  She was smart and funny and kind and beautiful.  She taught me to be an independent and thoughtful person, but she did have faults and, one in particular, she passed on to me without even thinking about it.  She struggled with her body image.  In passing comments, in trying on clothes, in dressing for formal events- she had much the same struggle that many of us do.  And when she talked about it, or tugged at her clothes, or bought things without trying them on to avoid a different size, I heard her and worried about my own body.  I am now responsible for how I think and I am trying to change it, but those nagging concerns about my hips, my belly or my arms linger.

Another story.  In February 2012, joined by my husband and my father, I found out that our first baby was a girl.  I was so excited- I knew she would be a girl and now I had confirmation.  Justin and I already knew her name- she would be named after our mothers.  Nina Patricia was already a source of joy and pride.  And then, I started to overthink having a girl.  I started reading article after article about how to talk to girls about their bodies, how to love themselves.  She wasn’t even born yet and I was telling people to make sure not to call her cute or pretty or beautiful first.  “Isn’t it interesting,” I would say, “if we just make sure to call her kind or smart or thoughtful first, her whole self worth will change.”  ……

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My hope for my children is that they see what I see.

So, here’s my question as I consider my body image and how to talk with both my children, daughter and son, about our insides and our outsides- what’s wrong with being pretty?  When my daughter asks me why we go to the gym, I tell her that I exercise to be strong and healthy.  Which is true.  But I also exercise to be pretty.  Pretty as I see it.  I am DEFINITELY influenced by media and what popular culture thinks of as pretty, but I know what makes me feel good.  A hard work out, the right jeans, and a little make up helps me feel pretty.  And along with pretty comes confident and strong- when I feel pretty, I feel more prepared to take on the world.  It’s a loop really.

So, here’s where I am.  I want for Nina and Ryan to learn how to be confident about themselves.  But I also want for them to know how to use the tools at their disposal responsibly.  I want to teach them good eating habits, sure.  But almost more than that, I want to teach them how to move their bodies, how to feel good about their clothes, how to be proud of their appearance.

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Feeling pretty is important and fun. It’s just not the only thing.

I am happy when people tell Nina she’s smart and kind and funny and brave because she is those things.  But, I also like when people tell Nina how pretty she is, how gorgeous her hair is, how great her smile is.  Because both will be important- in the right measures.

High for sure, but Low? Really?

In college, I went to see a movie with a friend.  The Story of Us starred Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer, and was mostly unremarkable, except that it gave me and my friend, Halbe, a short-hand way to check in with each other.The Story of Us  Over the course of the next years, I would run by her room, answer a phone call from her or see her on campus and one would say to the other “High, Low?”  In other words, what was the high of your day and what was the low?

I like checking in about the day with my loved ones.  My parents had a hectic schedule when I was growing up, but always wanted to know about my day.  And on Friday night, we would recap the week.  My husband and I check in with each other by ourselves and, then, with our children.  When my daughter gets in the car after school, I ask what she did, what she enjoyed, who she had fun with.  When I chat with Halbe, even now, we look for a run down of the goings-on in life.  But, I often ask about challenges in addition to the successes- with all my loved ones.  I am interested not only in the good, but, also in the frustrating, the challenges and the problems.  Why?  It sounds a little messed up…

After much didactic and practical experience in graduate school, we were finally tasked with writing a statement of professional philosophy.  After reviewing all the theories we had studied, broken down and talked about, I chose a relatively simple one to focus my philosophy around.  Nebit Sanford wrote about challenge and support.  Simply put, he wrote that if we can provide challenge and support in an appropriate balance for the student and situation we will facilitate development in that student.  In fact, he posits that challenges, given varying levels of support, will result in different developmental trajectories.  Sanford’s theory was my focus because of its truth and simplicity, but also, because of how fully I felt connected to this theory personally.  I, therefore, rely on it in my professional life, but have come to use it in my personal life.

through highs and lows...we've had some great moments

through highs and lows…we’ve had some great moments

So, lest you think that my life is just one big lab rat situation…it isn’t.  I am intentional, especially in my parenting, in trying to provide support to my children to match the challenge they are facing.  But, to me, and apparently to the writers of The Story of Us, the lows in our days also provide a goal for tomorrow.  What Halbe and I did in college, checking in about the best and most frustrating of our days, made me more mindful about challenges in general.  Were they often similar?  What could I do to change or fix the situation?  AND what could I do to support Halbe with her frustrations?

Wearing our babies in Central Park

I recently told Halbe about this post and shared with her that I ask Nina about her highs and lows…it turns out, she does the same with her daughter!  Not only does that give me warm fuzzies, but it also makes me hopeful for our daughters.  I’m hopeful that both our daughters will grow up understanding that the great in the day is great, but challenge is a part of life, and so is problem-solving through them.

I’m thankful…

…for all the women in my life.  Those who are close, those who haven’t been a part of my life for long and even those I don’t know yet.  Those who are mothers and daughters and sisters and friends.  Those who have children and those who don’t.  You have all helped me to be the mother I want to be.  To all the women who lift up other women, I send you love this week, this Sunday and always.

You are a mother

You are a daughter

You are a sister
You are an aunt
You are an “aunt”
You are like a mom
You never tried to be a mom
You are a friend
You want children
You want more children
You don’t want children
You have had infertility issues
You have had a miscarriage
You are celebrating with your mother
You are missing your mother
You have taught me
You have learned from me
You have loved me when I needed it
You have told me the truth when I needed it
You have listened to me vent
…And told me to shut up
You have laughed with me
You have heard me cry
You have held my hand
You don’t mind a little sarcasm
You give it right back
You have had wine with me
Or tequila shots
Or a quiet cup of coffee
You believe in me
You love my children
…and they love you
You love me
…and I love you.

Why Honor Sad Days?

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach on a Sunday night? The one that reminds you tomorrow is not like today and it might be a little hard to handle? January 28th is like that for me every year. But I’m not staring down a Monday, I’m anticipating the anniversary of the day my mother died. This day is hard for me and, admittedly, sad. So, if it’s hard and sad, why would I choose to honor it every year? Why do some of us choose to take a day and let the sadness and the history wash over us? I think the answer for me, at least in part, is not just to honor the loved one, but also to remember the path taken back from grief.1931411_675265510349_2181_n

On January 29th, 2009, I was sitting in a statistics class not really paying attention. I was day-dreaming (even though it was a night class). My parents were heading to California to see my brother and sister-in-law and I was jealous. I wanted to go (insert childish foot stomp here). So, when my phone rang and I saw that it was my brother, I had two immediate emotions; embarrassment because my phone rang in the middle of class and annoyance because my brother was going to tell me how much fun they were having. I turned the phone off and let it go to voicemail. At our break, I called back, ready to hear about how they were preparing to go to dinner, have fun and enjoy a glass of wine.  Assholes. Instead, my brother’s somewhat panicked voice answered- “Have you talked to Mom?” No, I replied. I hadn’t since the previous night. Which, as my wheels started to turn, was odd. She would normally have called from the airport in the morning and then again during her layover in Chicago. Why hadn’t she called? Why hadn’t I thought to call her? These two questions would become some of the basis of my guilt and frustration.

Over the next few hours, communicating back and forth across the country, calling friends and neighbors, trying hospitals, cab companies, and airline operators, I finally got a call from my dad.  “Mom’s dead.” What. The. Fuck. How could that possibly be fucking true? I cried. I fell on the floor. I lost control. My then boyfriend, called my boss- “Sarah won’t be at work tomorrow.” He called the airlines- “We need tickets as early in the morning as you have them.” I called my friend- “Halbe? It’s Sarah. My mom died. What should I pack? What do I take home when my mom died?”

Somehow I got home. I threw up a few times on the trip home. I cried every few minutes. And then, I stopped. And I started to methodically make the calls that would take up 3 hours of my time on January 30th. “Uncle Ted? Uncle Keath? Uncle Jeff? Ann? Sean? Mrinal? etc etc…Mom died.” I started to forget how hard it was to say. I felt like you do when you eat too many sour patch kids…my tongue was numb from repeating this awful phrase. Then came the family, the friends, the calls, the flowers, the casseroles and the hugs. None of them helped. I just wanted my mom.

The next three weeks flew by like a blur- memorials, pictures, plane flights, car trips, dinners out staring at each other, tears, anger and more fucking hugs. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw a tantrum. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to stay in bed with the blanket over my head.  But, instead, I put on my big girl pants and marched right into the sea of well wishers to receive the love they brought. I hugged back but it was robotic. I was on autopilot.

It wasn’t until everyone had gone home and the flowers started to die, that things started to get really bad. I stopped showering. I stopped eating properly. I called in sick for work. I didn’t call anyone and rarely returned calls when people called me. I watched TV and cried. My, now husband, saved me. He gave me time and then gently pushed me back towards the world of the living. “You don’t have to stop being sad, but you have to be healthy. Let’s go on a walk.” I love him with every breath in my body.

And little by little I got healthy again. I stopped being sad every day. I saw a therapist who validated my grief and helped me push through it. I started living my life and loving it. I got engaged to this amazing man who used my mother’s ring to ask me to marry him. I got married. I changed jobs and changed houses. I had babies. And here I am, a whole person, missing a huge chunk of myself. As I heal, a scar remains where my mom left me. I cry sometimes, but not a lot. I tell stories about this amazing woman who gave me wings and I laugh. I remember the good…and the bad.  But every now and then, I need to give myself more completely to this healing process, which is still ongoing.

I honor this day because I need to. I reflect on what I have, what I miss and what I cherish. I choose to sit and drink my coffee in the morning while thinking about all the mornings I did that with her. I choose to tell my kids stories about their Grandma Nina. I choose to cry if I feel sad, laugh if I feel happy and be upset when I, inevitably, get mad about the fact that she died.  Do I limit myself to January 29th every year for those emotions and actions? No. But it is a good release for me. I choose to honor the day she left me for the same reason I choose to honor the day she was born- those moments have meaning for me.IMG_5360

“It” Happens

What is it?  Shit.  And, it does happen.  A story:

A few nights ago my husband was working an evening shift and so I was home to feed the kids, bathe them and put them to bed.  Dinner was a success- homemade Sesame Chicken, broccoli (only son ate it) and yogurt (only my daughter ate it), but overall, I was a happy mama.  After some playing, we trooped off to the bath.  I got them undressed and in the tub.  As I was turned around to get towels, my daughter screams, “Mama!!!  What IS that???”  Oh man.  It’s poop. photo 1 It looks like a medium-sized tootsie roll and I was relieved.  For anyone who has never had a kid poop DURING bath, let me tell you that this is the best possible of all scenarios.  There was no water, no toys out, kids were still dirty.  Perfect.  I popped them out, spot cleaned the tub and praised my luck.  Stupid move, mama.

So, kids are back in the tub, water’s running and I begin to wash my son.  I soap up and reach down to wash his feet.  Then his legs.  And as I washed his butt, I CAUGHT the second deposit.  Seriously, it dropped right into my hands.  Now listen, I am immune to a lot of mom disgusting-ness, but this is pretty serious.  I’m not in the business of handling my kids’ feces, but I have two small children in the bath, so now is not the time to freak out.  I calmly tell myself I will call my friend later and quietly (because the kids will be asleep) shriek about how gross this was.  But, again, not the end of the world.  I throw the new tootsie roll in the toilet, wash my hands, pop my son out, wash his butt in the sink, and pop him back in with his sister.  Again, very little harm, very little foul….. and then….

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It’s like a really gross “Where’s Waldo.”

I don’t know why I didn’t catch on that this might be a theme.  I don’t know why I dumped out our ENTIRE toy bucket into the tub at that moment.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  But, as I began to lather up my daughter’s hair, I notice my son squatting.  Yup, he’s pooping- rapid fire now.  Little rabbit pellets are all over the tub.  Now things go into serious mode.  I get them both out, sit my son in the sink, wash off his hands and feet quickly to make sure nothing goes into his mouth, wrap him in a towel and put him on the floor, then turn my attention to my daughter who is screaming on the bathmat.  She’s naked, soap-y and her favorite bath toy is now covered in shit.  Great.  Another battle for another day.  I turn on the shower, and, fully clothed, step into the bath tub (avoiding the poop) and hold my daughter under the spray to wash her off.  She screamed the WHOLE time, but now, at least she was clean.  Next up, the offender.  He was also unhappy about the situation, but I got him showered off and both wrapped in towels into the bedroom.  I left all of my wet clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor and, wrapped in my own towel, made sure the kids were distracted.  Phone for my daughter, who subsequently FaceTime’d about 7 people, and a book for my son to chew on.  And then I had to gather the toys, get the poop.

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The morning after “the incident.” He’s fantastic.

Needless to say, after they were both asleep, I drank a big glass of wine.