The Forever Feeling

mami3

The years following a loss are unexpected and confusing. That is perhaps the understatement of the year, but in sitting here and attempting to summarize them, that is the best that I can do.

At this point, a part of me wanted to be able to say “I changed the world for her.” Because in some way, that would help me rationalize my loss.

I no longer have my mom, BUT I did something amazing. That isn’t how it happened though.

I no longer have my mom and sometimes I sit on the couch in silence, imagining a completely boring conversation that I could have with her.

“Guess what, Mommy??”

“Yes, princess?”

“I made dinner tonight, and it was delicious. Jonah is licking my arm. Also, I switched shampoos, and I feel like this new one reminds me of when we went to Rocky Point when I was little, even though that is all I remember of that trip, just that one smell… that is in my new shampoo. Also, Stella says hi.”

She would make the most ordinary things something for me to be proud of. But in her absence, I must make myself proud. The funny thing about me, or maybe all of us, is that is extremely hard to do.

The truth about the lessons from my mom, is that they are no longer so singular in nature. There is no themed capsule of thought that encloses my daily experiences, rather, they all float arbitrarily above my head. If I dare, I reach above and grab one and treasure it until it slips away. Sometimes I even grab a few.

Be brave.
Stand up for yourself, Kiki.
Don’t freak out!
Check on Papa and, also, buy him socks.

But more often I lose my grip on them and they float above me once again. Never far. Never gone. Just not quite within my ability to hold on to.

Then there are the moments when I think my life is “normal.” When I’m picking Jonah up from his babysitter, and I tell her I’m traveling to see the family for Thanksgiving.

And then she says “That’ll be nice to see your Mom, I’m sure she spoils Jonah.” So I smile, and try to hide the shake in my voice, and say that yes, my whole family loves him and wants to spoil him.

Mostly, over these three years now, I’ve learned that those difficult moments are not streaks of bad luck. They are not temporary. With all good things, there are bad things, and while I don’t like to experience the pain, I have to allow myself to experience the pain. Because I do become braver. I stand up for myself. I still freak out, a lot. But damnit, I will buy my dad some socks and have conversations with my mom, and still keep reminding myself that I need to change the world.

Roommates

He’s here now. You can’t see him, because, well, he is now part of me. He clings to my back with arms wrapped around my neck—not in a chokehold—but rather a tight embrace. The embrace is a warning, though, that it could easily become a choke. I wonder why he chose me and if he’ll move on at some point. As time passes, his arms tighten slightly more.

He said hello at the dog park, but he didn’t have any dogs with him. But who was I to judge when I was there with a pet rabbit? Tony grazed the grass outside the gates where the disorderly dogs ran and played. He always preferred the wild Bermuda to even the most exotic prepared salad. The dog park was in my neighborhood. A calm space, lush with green grass, aged trees, and a long stretch of meadow, gated off where dogs could run to their heart’s content. A place where I could get to know my neighbors, in the safety of our shared surroundings. Almost everyone had a dog here, except of course, for me.

So this guy walks up to me, and he says hello and he doesn’t have a dog, but I’m distracted watching my rabbit. He says Tony is the cutest he’s ever seen.

“Thanks. He is the best companion I could ask for. He is even house trained! He uses a litter box.” I said this proudly, as though it defined the type of person I am.

He was impressed. He was new to the area and had taken a temporary residence nearby. He needed to know the best places to go and where to look for houses.  Though he never told me what he did for a living or where he came from, or really anything about himself, I felt a strange closeness to him. He was a stranger that I knew well; someone that knew me, too.

“This neighborhood is actually quite nice. I live very close by. I know of a house for sale that is worth checking out.” I gave him directions to my street, because that seemed like the right thing to do, and I trusted him more than I could understand. Tony had grazed his way to this gentleman’s toes, nibbling nearby, and showing an incredible confidence and ease with him. I picked him up, scratching the fuzzy connection of fur between his brown floppy ears, as I said goodbye to my new familiar friend. As I walked away I thought it strange that I never even asked for his name.

By sunset, I was walking to my front door. My house was small, but appropriately sized for me. Red bricks comprised the body, matching the other houses on the street. Underneath each window hung planter boxes filled with herbs—a definite no crossing zone for Tony.  The light from outside, now dim, coated the living room in a hazy aura as I entered. I bent down to put Tony on the ground and when I stood back up, everything looked different. As the sunlight continued to fade, I tried to recognize what exactly had changed, but everything looked odd yet nothing was out of place. The couch was still covered in plush pillows, wrapping around the living room, surrounding the coffee table. Picture albums were still on the bottom shelf of the table, and a single flower stuck out of a vase on its surface. The bookcase that rose up the wall, filled with trinkets and books, stood in the same spot as before I left. I walked in further and turned on the lamp next to the couch. It was all exactly where it should be, but everything felt mockingly unfamiliar. I curled up with Tony on the couch, and turned on the TV. I convinced myself that nothing was amiss. Living alone I often found myself overthinking the smallest things. A sound coming from outside, or the flicker of a light, could mean something more. But in the ten years I’d been on my own, it was never more than a trash can falling over or a bulb burning out. I usually found comfort in being home, nothing externally could harm me, and I was safe within its walls. At some point I drifted off to sleep, only to awake as the first wave of infomercials began. Tony and I made our way to bed, accidentally running into the couch, and sheepishly moving out of its way and into the bedroom.

Tony slept with his head buried underneath my neck. It must have made him feel safe, or reminded him of a rabbit-hole that his undomesticated ancestors lived in.  He had done this since the day I brought him home from the pet store as a small bunny that fit the exact curve of my neck. That morning, I felt whiskers tickle me, but it was his sudden leap onto my chest that woke me up in a panic. Tony sat on me, staring down my face, with his nose scrunching up and down faster than I’d ever seen it before.

“What has gotten into you, buddy?” Just then the distinct smell of coffee fluttered by me. “I am so tired, my brain is actually dreaming the smell of coffee.” Another consequence of living alone, I often found myself in deep conversation with a rabbit. As a cat scratched my bedroom window, I realized that must have been what scared him, and scooped him up to hug him. “No kitty can get you, cutie pie!” I said in an annoyingly high pitched voice, generally reserved for any human or animal under 15 pounds. Still with the smell of coffee on my mind, I made my way out to the kitchen.

Now recalling how it all happened, this is where I get confused, because there he was in my kitchen, drinking my coffee and eating my breakfast. I hadn’t let him in, I thought. I hadn’t even given him my exact address. But there he was. He sat on my stool on the kitchen island, scooping up a forkful of eggs, my eggs, and eating them. He smiled at me an eerie smile of sympathy and control that made me realize, I had already lost this battle. He wished me a good morning and pulled out the stool next to him. He was a good looking man, but not particularly someone who would catch my eye. In fact, everything about him looked basic and familiar, someone I had walked passed in the grocery store hundreds of times. But there he was in my house, but I could only focus on how he got in, it never occurred to me to ask him to leave or even scream and call the police. He seemed too natural in my house, more so than I did in that moment and I found myself questioning my presence more than his. When did I let him in?

“Thank you,” I said in a daze as he poured me a coffee and left the remains of my breakfast for me to eat. He seemed proud of himself for reserving the last three bites. Had he always been there? Without a single word, he enclosed Tony in the bedroom and let in the black cat that had clawed its mark on my house. It was just Muffin, he calmly told me. I knew this cat’s name, but not the man who let him in. Was Muffin his? She was gentle and would never hurt Tony, he reassured me. I couldn’t tell if he knew the cat well enough to know, or if he knew me well enough to try and calm my racing thoughts.

I stood up hesitantly, “Can I take a quick shower?” it struck me as extremely peculiar that I was asking this stranger for permission to shower in my own home, but this house now seemed foreign to me. I felt as though I had stumbled into his house. This thought made me progressively angrier over the next hour as I got ready. “Who does he think he is, Tony?” My voice began as a shout, and then hushed into a whisper upon my realization that he could still be sitting outside of the room in the kitchen. Tony sat on the marbled counter top in the bathroom, staring at me through the mirror. He lifted one of his floppy ears in a gesture of compassion that I took as a distinct statement that something must be done. We decided the only answer was to make my home inhospitable. If this man wanted to live there so badly, I would make it a terrible place to live. I noticed an extra toothbrush next to mine, and threw it in the trash as the first act of my uprising. Stomping into the kitchen, my bravado returning, the air suddenly left my body as I looked around the entire house outside of my bedroom which had somehow shifted. Was I even still at home? The island seemed smaller, farther away. The living room now stretched longer, with my couch still wrapping around it, but in all the wrong dimensions. Two cats appeared from underneath the coffee table, one orange and the other calico. Different from the black cat from earlier. I shooed them outside, and regaining my composure, gathered all the pillows from the couch and piled them into the hall closet. With him out of sight, I took the opportunity to grab any item that seemed small and inconsequential, and stuffed it wherever I could. I busied myself with this rearranging until suddenly he caught the corner of my eye as he sat perched on the edge of the couch, looking through my photo albums.

The couch was next to go.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I emptied out my house piece by piece. First, it was the couch, of course, and then the coffee table. The bookcase, the television, the dining room table, and the lamp were all given away to friends and neighbors who were willing to take it in. My house became open, stretched out in its awkwardly changing measurements. I sat on the floor, victoriously outstretched on the tile—the rug having been taken out days before—I wiggled on the ground as though I was making a snow angel, laughing at the face I envisioned this man would have when he realized that there was nothing left. Just as I turned to my side, with a smile splitting across my face, reaching out for Tony, I realized my joyful victory had been premature. He sat there next to me on the ground eating a bowl of popcorn. He didn’t say a word about the missing furniture. It almost seemed as though he felt even more at home. It wouldn’t be long, though, I reassured myself. Eventually, he would have to leave. Watching him out the crack of my bedroom door, I plotted with Tony late into that night as six cats meowed outside the window.

Hope was what I clung to at this point. I didn’t know how I had let this man get so close, close enough to enter my home and make it feel strange, but I knew that I couldn’t let him stay. Part of me thought that I should get to know him, as familiar as he seemed, maybe we could have found humor in the miscommunication that had occurred. I considered finally asking for his name, asking who he was and why he chose me of all people. But then I worried it had already been too long, and he would wonder why I hadn’t asked him before. I couldn’t understand why I cared so much what he thought of me.

One morning soon after the house had been emptied, I woke to the smell of coffee and knew he was still there. I lifted my head and let it drop heavily against my pillow a few times as I whimpered a pathetic cry. “Why Tony? What can I do?” But Tony’s head wasn’t buried underneath my neck where I expected him to be. I frantically checked underneath the sheets. I checked the closet, the bathroom, and under the bed. That was all that was left in the house, there was nowhere else to hide. This man wordlessly searched the house with me in vain. He rarely left my side and always checked the same spot as me immediately after I checked it. He echoed my every movement only a second behind me. I walked with him to the dog park and checked Tony’s favorite areas of Bermuda. I asked some of my neighbors if they’d seem him, with his brown floppy ears and white tail. I showed them his picture, but no one had seen him. But this infuriating man, following me around, had now started finishing my sentences. But he’d get the details wrong. Tony didn’t have a white paw, as he said he did. Tony wasn’t last seen nibbling on a carrot. Slowly, with each neighbor, he would start sooner in the conversation with his mistaken details. He told Phyllis, from the neighborhood across the park, that Terry, his chipmunk, had gone missing. I filled in the truth behind him, a muffled cry that no one listened to. Phyllis just shook her head, offered us a freshly baked cookie, and closed the door.

As we walked back into the house, three cats ran by me. The thought of Tony, alone and scared, surrounded by cats broke me. Here I was, in my house. Devoid of my possessions. Searching for my rabbit. Encircled by cats. While this weasel put his arm around my neck and attempted to silently commiserate with me. I screamed. A guttural, blood curdling scream as a rage built from the bottom of my belly and into my arms as I opened the front door and thrust this man-creature out into the street with a kick of my leg. Shutting the door, locking it, dropping down onto my knees in a dramatic manner, mostly reserved for Broadway actors, I melted my face to my hands and tears filled my palms.

Not more than a minute after this theatrical display of aggravation, a rough, sand paper-like tongue licked my arm. That was when I knew for sure that I had lost. Slowly pulling my eyes from my hands and looking up, I saw him. There he was, holding his hand out to me. I attempted to barter with him, I’d give him anything if he’d leave. I’d give him the house and I would leave. He just wouldn’t be able to follow me. He said nothing and pulled me into a strong hug that I was too afraid to break.

That is where he has stayed since then. Always present, but never really there. Slowly tightening, but never choking. Always familiar, but never more than a stranger. We spend all our time together now. We rarely leave the house. The two of us together seem to spark too many questions that I can’t easily answer—or want to. I realize now that I never let him in, rather he was just a part of this house from the beginning or perhaps even a fractured part of me. He was always lurking just out of my view, but never far away, until the day he decided to emerge and take hold of me.

Lessons from my Mom and Son/#34-infinity

Dear GB, Dear Mami,

I decided to do a hybrid blog to both of you because the two of you share this quality of spaces in my heart that I didn’t know I had, until I had them. I’m sorry it has been so long since I’ve written. I’m sorry Mami that my Lessons from you have stayed mostly in my head. I’m sorry Jonah that these beautiful, wonderful, special almost 5 months of your life have gone by without many written documentations. Mostly, though, I am sorry to myself, because I am the one at the disadvantage when I don’t do this; when I don’t sit down and capture THIS MOMENT, then I am the one who loses it. Truly, the art of capturing a moment is the most difficult thing to do, because once you’ve paused to enjoy it, it has passed. A photo, while a wonderful contributor to this, can’t always do this. At least not when I take the picture… that was never one of my strengths. But here. Here is where I do my very best to put down the magic that will no longer be one day. I reread my letters to my Mom and I am instantly taken back to the instant they happened. I can never have those moments back, not even in my dreams—though I try—this is as close as I can come. I can’t not take advantage of that.

I’ve learned so much from my Mom watching Jonah grow up these past months. More than anything, I’ve learned to trust myself. Those first few weeks of his life, I felt so scared of every decision I made. Something so strange and sad, yet wonderful, to me, was this parallel that I felt between losing my mom and having my baby. Life, being a cycle, has remarkable similarities on each end. Jonah learning to move his limbs, taking in his new world, unraveling from fetal position into being not just a baby, but a little boy. I constantly thought of my Mom, losing the ability to freely move her limbs, reflecting on a world going dark, becoming so dependent. That sounds so sad, and sometimes it was, but it was also amazing. I can’t explain why I felt so moved and impacted by the similarities. Perhaps that contributed to my fear: remembering my loss. I didn’t want to not have you, Jonah. But every day you grew stronger and I got to know better and better. Now, we feel in sync. We get each other. You hugged me when I struggled to make it through the 26th of this month, thinking about losing my mom. You call to me, in your own type of words, and I understand it just as if you spoke. I trust in own intuition to know how to take care you. That is something I was given by my Mom, despite her not being here to speak to me, in a similar way to my conversations with Jonah, I know she’s helping me in some greater, indescribable way. Through memories, through years of growing up under her guidance.

Now today, I lay down with my gummy bear, and his chubby little arms wrap around me while he sleeps. He is no longer in my belly, but he is still a part of me, in a parallel to my still being a part of my mom. He wakes up, and his little hands travel up to my face, exploring my nose, my mouth, my breath with tiny extremities and curious faces. It sounds simple and ordinary, but this exact moment, I needed to write down. Because it is life. This is what my mom has given me. What I hope to give Jonah. What I wish to all my friends and family. This moment needs to stay ever present in my heart.

Something a little different

I will still be posting here, and will as always keep this as strictly a memorial blog for my beautiful mom. In fact, I have been wanting to update on her past birthday spent with family.

Until then, I am sharing with you a new part of my life that will be documented here: http://hellogb.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/first-comes-love/

Please enjoy, this will be kept to mostly “family and close friends” for now, until we make our “official statements.”

Lesson 33: How to Achieve Your Happily Ever After

Almost exactly a year ago, I sat at the foot of your couch massaging your feet. You always told me I had a very special way of massaging the perfect pressure points that no one else could seem to match. I assumed you were Mami-how-do-you-make-pancakes-ing me, but I was happy to play along. Your feet were so small in comparison to mine.

We sat on the couch and watched “Mamma Mia.” Dancing and singing through the songs and then we cried as they prepped for the wedding, as we slowly slumped closer and closer together. It occurred to me, as the credits rolled, that “Thank You for the Music” was the perfect song to sing to you for your birthday. Your big 60th. Your only wish from me was that I sing to you at your party.

I hadn’t seen you so happy in such a long time, and maybe that was where I was thrown off… you were so happy planning your party, I didn’t see the pain you were in. You wanted such a big celebration. “I want everyone to be there to celebrate that I’m alive!” you told me with the widest, glittering eyes. My heart still warms and then breaks when I remember the look on your face when we talked about it.

If our life were a musical I would have broken into my epilogue right after that moment. The audience would have seen our plight over those preceding 6 months, and though left hanging about our outcome, they would have visions of that potential celebration in their minds. A remission.

But you taught me that life doesn’t always go my way. It shouldn’t. Somehow those words coming from you were always so comforting. Words that now hollow in my mind and make me feel cold.

Life is a never ending story with plot twists and villains, but hopefully along the way, you find your heroines and true love. But the happily ever after comes not from Prince Charming’s kiss, but from picking yourself up and carrying on when you thought you couldn’t on your own.

Sitting in my own room a year later, wishing I were in your company, I can’t help but worry about how I will spend your birthday. I know you’d be angry at me if there wasn’t some sort of celebration. A commemoration of how amazing of a Mom you were. That your impact is so imbedded in my life that every single day I discover something new I had no idea I learned from you.

I think I’ll be watching “Mamma Mia” and reminding myself of all the ways I carry you with me.

Lesson 32: You may not realize it, but she is the strongest one.

turtle

As daughters, we all developed a very special and individual relationship with my mom. Settie, for example, had a strong friendship with her, unlike the rest of us. Perhaps that stemmed from being the oldest and having a birth-order responsibility to look after us. Whatever the case, it was so unique to her and Mami, that as much as I observed it I could never relate to it. This is something I hold so valuable and admirable about my mom. She knew us—each of us as only she could and that dictated how she raised us.

I will, normally, stand by my statement that I was the most loved, of course, out of us four. But today, I reflect and I appreciate that my mom didn’t have favorites. She had relationships. All different. All beautiful. All important. When you spoke with my mom about any of us, she defended us from her perspective of who she knew us to be.

My focus on this much overdue blog is on the second oldest of the four of us: my sister Nettie.

I was inspired to write this after reading an entrepreneurial blog: http://joshkaufman.net/resilience-survive-anything/. It is worth the read, but for the short-cutters, essentially it is about the traits that many in society have been trained to perceive as weakness and how those qualities can actually help you be more resilient in the long run. We (my sisters, brother-in-laws, and I) often tease Nettie by telling her she has “turtle-like” qualities. When we are meeting somewhere and Nettie is running a little late, I like to shout “Turtle Speeeeeeeeeed” as though it is her superhero mantra.

Yeah, I tease her a lot, and that probably says more about me than it does about Nettie.

She is the nice one, who will take being the punchline if it brings others happiness. Seriously, she admits to this. She is TOO NICE which makes me feel guilty for not being that nice, so then I make fun of her and she just laughs too, and then I am defeated. She is a cunning minx, that one. I digress, though. This is an excerpt from the above mentioned blog:

“Turtles aren’t the sexiest creatures in the animal kingdom. They can’t run fast. They can’t fly. They don’t have big sharp teeth or claws. They can’t puff themselves up to look menacing. Compared to the raw power of a tiger or a falcon, turtles are kind of lame.

What turtles do have is a variety of protective strategies – swim away quickly, use camouflage, snap with jaws, and if all else fails, retract into the shell and wait. Creatures elsewhere in the animal kingdom are pretty much screwed if they’re cornered by a predator. Turtles have a fighting chance – they win because they’re the armored tanks of nature. They can also eat many different things and go into hibernation when times get tough. That’s why they tend to live so long.

Tigers, on the other hand, rely on their strength, power, and speed to chase down their prey. When times are good, tigers are the kings of the jungle. If prey becomes scarce or they lose their hunting prowess due to age or injury, death takes them quickly and mercilessly – no second chances.”

Boom.

My mom never defended Nettie when we would tease her, sometimes she would even laugh and join in. Our house was kind of a if-you-can’t-take-the-heat-get-outta-the-kitchen type environment. Nettie always stayed in the kitchen. In quieter moments, though, when reflecting on all of us, my mom would boast about Nettie’s internal strength. Mami identified that resilience in Nettie that other’s overlooked. My mom knew that Nettie was quiet, but determined. Slow, but thorough. Non-menacing, but if you attack someone she loves… you experience the snap of her jaw. It was not a question in my mom’s mind that when the going got tough, really tough, Nettie would be the strong one.

I think at this point, we’ve all realized this to be true, except maybe Nettie.

Nettie is the reason I survived the past 9-ish months. Beginning from the moment my mom went into emergency surgery, something clicked in my sister. I had breakdowns. Almost immediately after I would leave my mom’s room, rushes of emotion would overtake me as a paralytic force. Nettie reminded me to first and foremost to remain hopeful. As much as people say that hoping for the best will make dealing with anything, other than the best, harder, that wasn’t true for me. Hope was all I had, and I was grateful for it–I still am. This was Nettie swimming quickly underwater and holding me by her side to keep up. The deeper we went, the more I struggled, but she never faltered. In those depths I was reminded of everything Mami would tell me about Nettie. She told me that when Nettie was in labor with Gavin, she had never seen more strength in someone’s eyes. She told me that when Nettie was sitting in the NICU next to Dylan, that she knew everything would get better simply because of Nettie’s determination. I saw all those same things and more in my sister. She lives her life un-harmfully and quiet, knowing when to stand her ground.

I am thankful for the turtles. We could all learn quite a bit from them.

Is it the human condition to constantly look ahead without grounding themselves in the present? I read a quote today:

“Even if you fall flat on your face, you’re still moving forward.” –Victor Kiam.

I smiled when I read it. I’ve recently acknowledged the fear within myself of failing, causing a stagnation that results in an instant forfeit. That isn’t unique to me, though, I simply muse on it, maybe more than others. This creates a glaring lag in time, while simultaneously speeding it up, so that your perception is that you can never complete what you aim to do, but instead, are constantly waiting for a better opportunity to do it.

I don’t know the answer to how we avoid this or if it is worth it to avoid. I do know that a daily, conscious appreciation for where you are and what small (or big) pleasures we find in unexpected moments, is better than a lifetime of looking to fix our inadequacies.