About Me

Thanks for being here! I am a mom of three (two girls, 15 and 13, and one boy, 8) and a teacher of many (thousands during my more than 17 years teaching high school English and Spanish in Philadelphia). Forever a student, I love learning - whether through talking to others, reading, watching movies and documentaries, or traveling. I also love running (slowly), hiking, and practicing yoga!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Got To Go Through It

I am 40 years old, my mom died three years and eleven months ago, and I am still finding my way. I write this thinking about my cousin, my mom's niece, who lost her first born son when he was two years old. I write this thinking of my aunt, my mom's biological sister (my mom was adopted), who lost her husband when he was 69, after nearly 50 years of marriage. And I write this thinking of all the dear ones lost by my sweet students over the years, students who have returned to class bravely, or not feeling brave at all, but facing the same terrible monster nonetheless. I am sure they are still finding their way, too.

The family makes its way through the big, dark forest in
Going on a Bear Hunt. Image from The Guardian.
Click HERE
My mom was diagnosed with the Stage IV melanoma that would take her from us in April during the summer, right after we had returned from Madrid, where we shared an apartment with her friend Jill and she helped me care for my kids while I worked. Jill gave my two-year-old son a book that summer, Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury's We're Going On a Bear Hunt, a children's classic that quickly became his favorite. I read it to him countless times that year, so many times that I could recite it to you now, nearly five years later. We're going on a bear hunt. We're going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We're not scared. Oh-oh! Grass! Long, wavy grass. We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Oh, no! We've got to go through it! The next page is a picture of the family making their way through the long, wavy grass. And then the book repeats. We're going on a bear hunt. We're going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We're not scared. Oh-oh! A river! A deep, cold river. We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Oh, no! We've got to go through it! We then see the family wading their way through a deep, cold river. Then there is mud (thick, oozy, mud), a forest (a big, dark forest), and a swirling, whirling snowstorm. Each time, the family wants to go over it, or under it, or around it. Anything but face it. But they have to go through it. There is no other way. And they do. Over and over again, on their way to the bear. We've got to go through it. Six times they stop, six times they don't know what to do, and six times they continue on until they are in that narrow, gloomy cave with the bear. And when they see him, when they come face to face, they realize what they are looking at and run back to their house, where they run up the stairs, jump into bed, and hide under the covers, together.

To me, this is grief. It seems impossible sometimes. Other times, not so bad. I am with people I love. I am going through it. But then, in the cave, face to face with the bear, it's too much. Back to the house! Back to the bed! Under the covers! And on and on, as bravely as possible.
This image is not from the book but rather from the
TV adaptation of the story, which
apparently left many children in tears when they
watched it Christmas Eve, 2016.
Click HERE for the image and story. 

The last page of We're Going on a Bear Hunt is an illustration of the bear, with slumped shoulders, walking back to his cave by the light of the moon on an empty beach. Perhaps he is not so scary after all. Perhaps, if we were to meet him, he would even be a friend, the picture seems to suggest. I like thinking of it that way. The bear as friend, the cave as shelter. No reason to be scared after all. The journey to meet him is an adventure, and we've got to go through it. Yes, this is how I like to think of it. And deep down, when I am not running scared, I even know it to be true.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

My Life in Three Goya Paintings

This is my first post in more than a year. Last April, we marked three years since losing my mom, and as I move farther away from losing her, I find it more and more difficult to put into words what it means, and how it feels. This is an attempt: My Life in Three Goya Paintings. Thanks for reading.

El quitasol (The parasol), 1777
I first learned about Francisco Goya when I was studying abroad in Granada, Spain my sophomore year in college (apologies to my high school Spanish teacher, Señor Duffy, who most likely did teach about him -- as a high school Spanish teacher myself, I now know how that feels). I had come to Madrid on a chartered bus from Granada with the other 19 and 20-something year old kids in my program (and one man, probably 30, who we thought of as very, very old). I knew very little about Spain (but thought I knew a lot). By the time we went to Madrid, I had attended countless festivals and danced many a sevillana as our tipsy Spanish friends laughed (You are twisting the peach off a branch! my and my roommate's dance instructor had yelled at us, trying to no avail to teach us the hand movements). Once, the father of the family we were staying with dared us, during a festival in which men dressed in traditional Andalusian wear rode their horses through the streets, to go down and ask to ride with them. We did! The men said of course. And off we rode down the street, Blas, our family's father, laughing hysterically from the apartment balcony above. We also frequented El Refugio, the bar owned by our Spanish sister's boyfriend, and sometimes, between all that, we went to classes. And it was during this time in my life when I first came across Goya's El quitasol. Such carefree happiness. Such lack of worry. Such lightness of being. I bought a postcard in the Museo del Prado's gift shop and tucked it into my journal, to be scrapbooked later next to a picture of me in awesome 90s jeans. That was life before losing my mom.

El perro semihundido (The Half-Buried Dog), 1819
I found myself in the Museo del Prado again in 2013, when I was in Madrid leading an exchange for my high school students. My mom came with me that time, to help care for my three children, who were 9, 7, and 2. She had come to visit me in Spain when I was there studying abroad in 1997, but only for a week. She had never seen the Prado, or Goya's paintings. That afternoon, we found ourselves in a room with his "dark paintings," which were painted in his later, disillusioned years, after he had seen the horrors of war and gone deaf (though I did find this interesting post indicating that perhaps it was Goya's son who painted those images on the upstairs wall of the house, and not him at all: The Enigma of the Black Paintings). As we stood in that room, one painting in particular caught my eye: El perro semihundido, or The Half-Buried Dog. Later, in the gift shop, my mom bought a matching game of Goya's paintings for the kids. Two weeks later, back in the United States, she was diagnosed with the stage IV melanoma that would take her from us in a matter of months. There was the shock of losing her, and there was, in the immediate months after, the immense outpouring of love that carried me through, that still carries me through, but then there was also me, el perro semihundido. That was--and still sometimes is--life after losing my mom. "I remember the world feeling much lonelier," Father Michael Doyle, my priest, said to me about losing his own mom. "It's never quite the same again."

El tres de mayo, 1808 (The Third of May, 1808), 1814

Life now. El tres de mayo, 1808. I have always known this painting, I realized as I tacked it to my bulletin board last year, having found a postcard of it among my collection of Spanish-related trinkets. It may have even hung in my Spanish classroom back in high school. I didn't know who painted it then, or what it was about (Goya was depicting the execution of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon's armies during the occupation of 1808), but I have always known the painting. And I have always admired the man in the white shirt, hands up, defiant in the face of certain death, ALIVE. Because what else are we to do, all of us, as we face the tragedies, our own and others', than stand up the best we can? I don't always stand up, of course, but I do my best, and already I have been blessed with some quitasol days, belly laughs and sunshine on my face and good friends, and love, and I wear those days like the man in the painting above wears his white shirt. With a bit of defiance, and pride, and hope.
La gallina ciega, 1788

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Gabriel in the Cubby (The Gift of Laughter)

"Why was there a Gabriel in my cubby?"
This morning I woke up earlier than usual to attend a before school meeting. I had to drop off my 5-year-old Joseph first, and of course he was not at all interested in getting out of bed, putting on his shoes, or buckling his seat belt, so we were running a bit late (as usual). I was focused on everything but the present when laughter brought me back. I am so grateful when that happens.

Here's the story: Once at school (about ten minutes later than I wanted), Joseph was cold so did not want to take off his coat. He also did not want to walk across the hall to the other room, where his teacher was. Trying to hide my stress (because we all know that makes children more stressed, and therefore more difficult) I offered quite cheerfully (I thought) to get him a sweater from his cubby, and that reminded him of something. "Mom!" he exclaimed. "Why was there a Gabriel in my cubby yesterday?"

I looked at him with confusion. "What? What do you mean, a Gabriel?"

He scrunched up his face. "Um, no, not a person, you know ... a .... a ... what do you call that thing you wear on your boobies?" (Yes, I know, we are supposed to only use the correct terms for body parts with children, but I guess in my house we don't ... )

"Joseph, do you mean a bra?"

His face lit up. "Yes! A bra! Why was there a bra in my cubby yesterday?"

"There was a bra in your cubby yesterday?" I had a sinking feeling. I knew exactly why there was a bra, along with his blanket and sheet, in his cubby. I went over  and pulled out the bin, and then the sweet blanket with his name and birthday on it, and the sheet with the sailboats. There, folded within, was the bra that had been washed with them over the weekend. Ah, indeed. A Gabriel in the cubby.

I discreetly folded the bra and put it in my coat to carry back to the car. Joseph and I giggled. And there it was -- the crack of laughter in my life that I needed to return to myself. Joseph walked across the hall with me, coat still on, and I gave him a kiss goodbye. "Love you, Bud, see you this afternoon."

"Love you mom," he answered, and then ran off to play with his friends.

I carried that laughter with me all day.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Cardinal

We were in my parents' kitchen on a cold winter evening when the hospice nurse said the words we
didn't want to hear: "I think it's time." Her words were no surprise; we had called her after the last devastating CAT scan results asking her to come, knowing this was probably the conversation we were going to have, but they were shocking nonetheless. This was happening. We were stopping treatment. I was going to have to say goodbye to my mom.

I was leaning against the kitchen sink. My mom was across the island from me, by the window. My sister and dad were on the other two sides of the island, forming a circle. The conversation wasn't long, and soon the nurse was gone. My mom walked quietly to the living room and retrieved the program from her own mother's funeral, ten years before. When she returned my sister and I sat with her. "This is what I would like," she told us. We picked the readings, a quote for the back, the music. Ken Carter would sing For The Beauty of the Earth. Eileen, she hoped, would sing Morning has Broken (this version, by Art Garfunkel and Diana Krall, is a favorite of mine: CLICK HERE). Other than that, I don't remember what else happened that night. Time -- two years as I write this -- has washed away the pebbles. I am scared it will wash away more.

Photograph by Jo Pierson, my mom's sister. 
After my mom died a friend of my parents' from the beach told my dad, "You know, cardinals are the souls of our loved ones letting us know they are still with us."  Though I have no idea why she said this, I know that she did because my dad, a tried and true agnostic, told me that she did. He then made a point of telling me every time he saw a cardinal at his bird-feeder.  A few weeks after my mom's death, I, too, found myself staring at a sparrow that had perched on the windowsill a little too long. Mom! The sparrow flew away and my trance was broken. I am losing my mind! I thought. It is easy to lose your mind after losing someone you love. Your grief is so deep, the mind so desperate. A butterfly would linger by my shoulder. Mom! A certain song would play on the radio. Mom! I both felt her and didn't feel her everywhere.

Sometimes I didn't feel her at all, and those were the worst times. This year, right before starting school again, I couldn't sleep. Many nights, I would wake, my mind racing, my heart beating fast, and always, after hours lying awake, I would arrive at the same question, as much as I tried to avoid it. God? My despair was a deep reservoir, and I was at the bottom. Mom. One night, after hours of lying awake, I visited each child's bedroom to make sure they were all ok. They were, each breathing softly, calm beneath the lovely cloak of childhood.  Afterwards I sat with the dog, on his beanbag next to the bookshelf. It was two am, my third night in a row of not sleeping. To my left was a shelf of books collected over the years, including one that had been my mom's. I don't know if it was of importance to her or not. IN THE SANCTUARY OF THE SOUL, it read. I opened to a random page. Ask with all your heart, again and again. So I asked. If I am going to be ok, I said, I need to know that my mom is ok. I need to know! I repeated this plea for what felt like a long time. God? I felt nothing. I went to bed and eventually fell asleep.

The next morning was a school day. I woke to my alarm, as usual. I showered and dressed, feeling as much like a robot as ever. Another day, another year. I shuffled to the kitchen to make the lunches. There was a strange noise coming from the laundry room. A cricket? I thought. I closed the refrigerator and stood still to listen. What was that? I had never heard a noise quite like it before. I moved to the back room to investigate. In the laundry room, the noise was farther away. I moved again towards the kitchen. Finally, I realized it was coming from the very back of the house. Persistent, and loud. A chirp like a cricket's, but deeper. I walked towards it. At the window, I saw it. Perched on one of the wrought-iron chairs, and singing towards the house. It did not move when it saw me, not for several minutes. Instead it looked right at me, seemingly puffed out its chest, and chirped louder. A female cardinal, trying to get my attention. My heart lifted. It was just an ordinary cardinal, like so many of those that often flew through the yard, but on this morning it had stopped to sing just for me.

"Did not our hearts burn within us, while he walked with us by the way ... " (Luke 24:32)
A female cardinal like the one that visited that morning in September. 
Another photo by Jo Pierson, my mom's sister. In her words, "Unfortunately I only have these two photos of a cardinal, and they are not the best. There are several that reside around my house, but they are faster than I am when it comes to getting a good shot." 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Great Short Stories That Changed My Life

Me. Longwood Gardens, Spring 2015. Photo by Genevieve. 
I was a junior in high school when my English teacher gave me a book of Raymond Carver short stories, told me to read them, and then sent me and a classmate to see the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, based on the book. We took the train to Philadelphia to see the movie at the Ritz, a first for me, and I fell in love. Even as everything else on the surface stayed the same (friends, a boyfriend, tennis, studying) I felt something in me shift. I was aware of the world in a way I hadn't been before. Now, more than 20 years later, I still think about the stories in that book (and movie). So Much Water So Close to Home, Neighbors, A Small, Good Thing ...  The last one was my favorite, offering as it did a sliver of hope in the midst of the worst tragedy (and there is a lot of tragedy, and desperation, and strangeness, in Raymond Carver stories, something that startled me as a 17-year-old but that I just nod at, now, at 38). There are other short stories, too, that have equally broken open my world and helped me see it more clearly, some as recently as last year.  In the book store with Grace and Joseph this morning, my heart aglow with all of the stories surrounding me, I started thinking about those that really changed my life, if just in some small way. Below is my "Top 5" list of short stories.

#1. A Small Good Thing, by Raymond Carver. As I reread the last paragraph, I am once again sitting in the movie theater, 17 years old, watching Lyle Lovett as the baker comfort grieving parents Howard (Bruce Davison) and Ann (Andie MacDowell). I am reminded that small, good things may be the only good things. "It was like daylight." Amen. 
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

#2. Death Constant Beyond Love (Muerte constante más allá del amor), by Gabriel García Márquez. I read this story, about a senator (Onésimo Sánchez) who finds "the woman of his life" with only six months and eleven days left to live (he is already married with children), when I was in college. It scared me,  I remember (the death, the solitude, the infidelity), but it also induced in me a sort of urgency for living. I wrote a paper on this one. A-. 

#3. Brownies, by ZZ Packer. I first heard this story when Anthony and I were driving cross-country from San Francisco to Philadelphia, back in May of 2001. We had a few books on CD, including the "Best American Short Stories 2000," and this one came on as we were still driving down the California Coast, on Highway 1 (we first drove from San Francisco to San Diego to see friends, and then zig-zagged our way back). Laurel, the story's narrator, a fourth-grader on a camping trip with her African-American Brownie troop, is both hilarious and whip-smart. Racism and human nature are held to the light, and seen. A beautiful, important story, perhaps especially so now. 

#4. The Scarlet Ibis, by James Hurst. I am not sure if it is the writing on this one that got me. It was more that, while reading it with my 9th grade class at Central High School in Philadelphia nearly 10 years ago, one of the students in that class, a lovely girl, wept openly and even cried out when Doodle, the narrator's younger brother, died. She told me later it was because her own younger brother had special needs, and the story hit so close to home. I will never forget her love for her brother or how much the story moved her. 

#5. In a Tub, by Amy Hempel. My 26-year-old niece Sam gave me Hempel's book (The Collected Stories) for my birthday a few weeks after my mom died. We were at her house for an Easter celebration with more than 50 people, and I snuck to an upstairs bedroom to read the first story.  I need to post the whole thing here. Sam's gift was the small good thing (one if them) that got me to breathe again after my own loss. Thank you, Sam. 

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. 
It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. 
I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. 
Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Loneliness of Our Losses

I haven't written since January, and it's because I haven't been able to find the words. Since my last post, April 7th has come and gone. A year without my mom. Tomorrow, July 9th, is her birthday. I know I will forever mark these days - July 9th, April 7th - but I also know that I am not really supposed to talk about it anymore. I understand. I do. But ... it's still there. It will always be there. As my mom's sister said about losing her husband, "It gets easier, but it doesn't get better."

In April, I ran into an acquaintance who knew about my mom but who I had not seen in a while. We made small talk, and then she paused. "So ... how are you dealing with losing your mom?" I took a deep breath. There was a physical ache that I could not explain. She continued, "I mean ... are you over it yet?"

This felt like a punch to the gut. I struggled to say a few words, "You know ... it was just a year a few weeks ago ... I'm ok ... I just miss her ... "

"Well, you had all that good time together."

July 9th, 2013. My daughter, my mom, and me. 
She was right. She was. This woman with whom I was talking had lost her own mother when she was just a child. She hardly knew her. My husband lost his mother before our children were born. Students of mine have lost mothers or fathers -- or both -- and have had to find a way to go on. I know I am incredibly lucky to have had the mom I had and to have had her for nearly 37 years of my life. I know.

And yet ... the words (of this woman, who I knew to be kind, and who did not speak without sympathy) were cruel, despite their truth. And I think that cruelty came from her own huge loss decades before. She was still not over it.

None of us will ever be over the great losses of our life. Of that I am certain. They crack us open. There is a new loneliness. No one will ever truly understand what we have been through.

More than a year after losing my mom, I still wake in the middle of the night and relive that last morning with her. Or I see her ashes, disappearing into the water. And yet I know it is time for grief to pack its bags and move from public me to private me. It is no one else's job to understand my loss. Perhaps I can be kinder because of this. Perhaps. Or perhaps, someday, I can find the words, the words that make the loneliness of our losses a little less lonely. Until then, goodbye mom. A million goodbyes. I will love you and miss you forever.

My husband and me in Montreal last week. I am one of the lucky ones. I am blessed and grateful for my broken, beating heart, and for those I love still around me. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lessons from Fifth Grade Basketball: Nothing is Impossible

Grace had a basketball game tonight. They had played this team before, in the first game of the season, and lost 36-5 (this is their first year in the "A Division," and let's just say it hasn't been a walk in the park). "Mom, we're doomed," Grace said to me before the game, as she was filling her water bottle in the kitchen. Grace is about as competitive as you get, but losing multiple times by more than 20 points has a way of making a realist out of you. But doomed?
"I love watching her play." -my mom

"Wait a second!" I laughed. "I know it's going to be a tough game, but at least believe you have a chance. Your team has gotten a lot better since that first game!"

Grace was silent for a moment, and then, not sounding convinced, conceded, "OK. Nothing is impossible." Still, we both knew it was highly improbable.

The rain poured down as we drove to the gym and ran inside, shivering, but inside was cozy, and Grace and her teammates warmed up enthusiastically, despite the doom that lay ahead (in addition to having lost 36-5 before, this time they were missing one of their best players, Grace's good friend Ava). 

And then, the game started. Here we go, I thought. The other team looked tough. 

But then, something happened. We made the first shot, and then another. We were tough, too. 4-3, 5-3, 7-3, 9-3, 9-4 ... my texts to Anthony (who was home with Joseph and Genevieve) and my dad (who was taking my cousin back to school at Ursinus) became more and more enthusiastic. And, well, while I know this is just fifth grade basketball, it is also, like all sports, so much more as well. When Grace stole the ball and raced downcourt to make a basket and bring the score to 11-4, I realized, with astonishment, they actually might win this. And, though it would have been just a tiny little miracle in a tiny little gym in a tiny little town, it would have been just the little miracle that my heart needed tonight. 

Sometimes the impossible becomes possible, I thought. Sometimes you win when you don't think you can. 

After my mom died last year, I stood up and spoke at her service on April 11th.  That morning, I told the story of a different basketball game, a terrible, unfair game that Grace had lost. It was the last one my mom was able to attend. 

"My mom ... came to many of [Grace's] travel basketball games this winter, despite how she was feeling. Just two months ago she was at a heated basketball game of Grace’s, as both of the teams were undefeated coming into it. The other team was extremely rough, and obnoxious, and the ref wasn’t calling anything. Finally, when the ref didn’t call perhaps the 5th time that a girl on the other team blatantly pushed down one of Grace’s teammates, my mom couldn’t hold it in any longer: 'Come on ref!' she screamed, 'Call the foul!'." (full eulogy posted here: http://nanadays.blogspot.com/2014/04/my-mom-and-truth-adoption-and-otherwise.html)

Though I was telling the story to describe my mom's competitive spirit, I think for a long time I've also thought of that game as a metaphor for my mom's fight with cancer. It wasn't fair, and in the end she lost. It made me angry. It made me feel as though God weren't there, calling the fouls.  

So tonight was a chance to change the metaphor. And I realized that that bird of hope in my heart 
(my heart, which is protected now as it never was before by a thick wall of realism) still flutters about, wanting to believe the impossible. You can win the game. You can beat the cancer

I could practically feel my mom sitting there beside me tonight, cheering Grace on. "Sometimes, when I am watching Grace play and she breaks away and is sprinting downcourt, I am only in the moment and nowhere else," she told me last year. "It is my goal to have as many of these moments as possible." 

My mom would have loved the game tonight. 11-8, 18-14, 20-16, 20-20 and Grace, racing downcourt, trying to make the winning shot (time ran out). The girls found themselves in overtime, and even went up 21-20 at first, but in the end the other team was just too tough.

26-21. Going to cry, I texted Anthony at 6:15, moments before the game ended. Be strong, he texted back (and then, a few minutes later: Give G a big hug for me, and don't forget the milk). 

In the end, there were no miraculous wins tonight, but I have a new metaphor nonetheless. We all want the impossible, and that's ok. Sometimes it even happens. Miracles abound. But when it doesn't, when the game's unfair, or just too tough, if you can meet the buzzer racing downcourt, taking a shot, well, then ... 

Grace at Whole Foods. "I think it was my best game."
After the game, Grace and I went to Whole Foods for the milk, and we sat down to eat something, too. She relived a few of the painful missed opportunities of the game, but overall she was feeling pretty good about herself. In fact, she probably handled the loss better than I did. "I actually think that was my best game yet," she said. I agreed.

I wish she could have won -- because she played so tough, and because she deserved to as much as anyone (and, oh, Mom, in this metaphor, of course, you are Grace, and I am me) -- but I agreed.

Mom, July 2013, in her "Life is good" t-shirt. It might not be fair, but it is good.