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.

To Sir With Love

Scan 2

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.

264234_10100438982352649_4288034_n

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.

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