About Me

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Welcome! This is a blog about life after losing my mom (on April 7th, 2014), running (or not, depending on injuries), being a 'mama' to Grace, 13, Genevieve, 11, and Joseph 6, and teaching 13-18 year olds in Philadelphia. Thanks for being here.

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.