Tuesday, January 2, 2018

For Mom, Twenty-One Years Later

I lost my mom twenty-one years ago today. She died from complications related to a long battle with chronic-progressive multiple sclerosis. I was a week away from turning twenty-one. Which means I have not had her as long as I did have her.

It used to make me unique among my friends, to have lost a parent at such a young age. But I’m no longer young and many friends have joined this depressing club. The dues are astronomical and no one prepares refreshments.

People, moms are important. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Whether you were once a child or are currently a mom. They are the sun, moon, and stars, even when they are completely obscured by darkness.

I wish she mattered less. She doesn’t. She matters more than almost anything: that first hit of love, that childhood sense of safety, that initial understanding of what it means to be a woman in the world: mom.

Mom in 1974-ish



Memory is funny when it comes to dead people: I can remember her any way I want. Which means I can also mis-remember her any way I want. I could make up stories and say, “She would have loved this,” but I don’t know that. She was a person changing too: perhaps by now, she would have very different tastes. For example, a memory circa 1994: she didn’t want to tell Dad that she no longer loved the country-style of gifts in blue and white that he would buy her. She used to love that aesthetic, but it was no longer her favorite. She appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the gift, more than the gift itself. So she gave me one comment about it, perhaps in an effort to conscript me into educating Dad on her new aesthetic or simply to influence my own gift-giving and gift appreciation. I remember at the time being horrified that she didn’t get exactly what she wanted. But now I know she did, if at a slant. Being able to deeply appreciate the intention behind things is very wise. So is being able to tell someone what you like and don’t like, but that was a lesson I’d have to learn on my own.

Other lessons she taught me: My brother and I were homeschooled for a spell in southern California; third through fifth grade for me, sixth through ninth for him. Our homeschool education was supplemented considerably by trips to the local museums: La Brea Tar Pits, the Smithsonian, the Botanical Garden, the Natural History museum, each an exciting discovery for a thirsty mind. She loved them too. Her soaking up of the experience was a lesson in enjoying the things you enjoy. What a valuable lesson.

Twenty-one years with, twenty-one years without. A transitional tipping point. Having her meant being cared for, but also fighting with her. Mothers and daughters know exactly how to strike a match that lights up the others’ fire. As a teen there were moments that simply the way she breathed sent me into a fury. I can only imagine the same was true for her. I knew exactly how to hold up one finger to indicate “A moment please” that drove her to the brink of madness. Those are memories I cull when writing fiction; that particular strain and pain. Other memories I pull for comfort, like being read to as a child (Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit), and reading to her in my late teens as her disease rendered her more and more incapacitated.

The trajectory of my twenty-one years since has included close to a decade of a life in response to illness and death, followed by a decade of living my own life. As I hurtle toward the age she was when she died I am horrified to understand just how young she was, how inadequately short her life was.

I can miss her now without the loss of her cutting me in two. Closure isn’t necessary; finding a way to live well with grief is. What used to be a grief so enormous and singular I now know is part of a much larger tapestry of pain in the world.

I haven’t had her as many years as I have had her. Except, that isn’t true at all, is it? Physically absent, she is still a daily presence in my life. I take comfort in reports that even certain bacteria on my body are from hers and will never be erased. I can wear any of the pieces of jewelry she made and feel I’m carrying her out into the world with me. Today I am wearing a sweater of hers that is as old as I am. I have the wooden rocking chair she rocked me in as a child. I carry these things through life in much the same way as the lessons she taught me: treasuring them, trying not to get mustard on them, and letting them live beside each new lesson the day brings. 




Friday, November 17, 2017

The Thankful List

I make a decent attempt at gratitude on the regular, but I love how this season makes me think about it specifically. Even in the midst of all the holiday hoopla and the days of generalized anxiety we currently live in, there are genuine reflections of thankfulness everywhere. Way more so than say Valentine's day prompting people to really reflect on their love for someone. I've been keeping a list in my notes app on my phone to record the things that are currently immense suppliers of joy in my life. Here's an incomplete list:

My dental hygienist.
This is not a product placement disguised as gratitude. This is my genuine, heartfelt gratitude for a woman I see every six months who I have complete trust in, and who makes an otherwise unpleasant experience as humane and awesome as possible. Yes, yes, my dentist is also great. Absolutely. But making a teeth cleaning a pleasant experience is a gift not many hygienists possess. It's a combo of demeanor, the exact right amount of cheerful small talk which needs to cease as soon as you need to stick your hand in my mouth, gentleness combined with precision, and the offer of headphones if I want them. I usually want them, enjoying the out of body experience in lieu of paying attention to which tooth we are on with the scraper, but this last visit I went without because I felt so zen in the chair, which was entirely my hygienist's doing.


The 31BX bus.
My morning commute is as delightful as public transportation in San Francisco gets. I like to walk to the beginning of the line so I get my first choice in seats (window, forward-facing). The walk also wakes me up just a bit. Once on the bus I enjoy the luxury of going wherever my brain wants to while I'm shuttled to downtown: book, podcast, meditate, stare out the window? There is an unwritten rule on the morning express bus that no one will take a call. Sometimes it is broken. When it is, the rest of the bus gives that person dirty looks and can't avoid eavesdropping because the conversation so thoroughly interrupts what would otherwise be silence. In my 4 years of riding it I have yet to incur a dirty look.


Warm cats on a cold day.
My two tuxedo fuzzballs make me all manner of grateful all year round. Triply so when the weather turns extra cold and I can snuggle under a fleece-cat-combo. My fuzzy furnaces are way more effective than central heating in turning a frigid day into a grand excuse to hang out on the couch.


Podcasts that have genuinely added value to my life.
Auditory inspiration has become even more welcome in these last couple years. It's a relief to not use my eyes after a day in front of a computer, book, pen and paper. My peepers love the break and I ingest the information in a different way than words on a screen or page. I did some trail running training over the summer which entailed a fair bit of time for podcast listening. I like podcasts that make me learn and/or inspire me. The podcasts that have enriched my life this year are: On Being with Krista Tippet, Trail Talk by Rock Creek Runner, Write Now with Sarah Werner and Death, Sex & Money. Other notables are Midlife Mixtape, Girl in Space, AnthroPod, and Make Me Smart.

Gooooooood books.
Reading fantastic books has been one of my main coping mechanisms this year. The fact that a book takes years to write and that the relevance and resonance can last decades to come gives me a very deep sort of reassurance that counteracts the tweet-by-tweet hysteria I would otherwise feel. And I've read some delicious ones this year: The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal (follows a young man's heart from it's last moments as his through all the lives it touches through donation...without ever being sappy).


my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorry, by Frederik Backman (imagination galore). Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Seawomen of Iceland by Margaret Willson (a freaking fascinating read...there have always been seawomen in Iceland even if Iceland hasn't always recognized them. Also, I'm totally not tough enough to be a seawoman).

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond (what a fun read this is!!!! A newly married couple accidentally joins a creepy marriage cult).

  You Can't Make This Stuff Up, by Lee Gutkind (I'm trying to little by little extend my non-fiction skills).

We Were Witches, by Ariel Gore (fictionalized memoir...that category would normally make me gag, but this was so spectacularly creative and a great example of making art of your life).

And even some parts of the The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert managed to inspire while also terrify with FACTS. Also Atul Gawande's Being Mortal (cried every other page; not the best read for the bus).


I am grateful for a myriad of other things: big things (family, including this year's introduction of a niece!), necessary things (friends: holy cow, what would I do without you?), everyday things (coffee, you've stood by me for decades), tiny things (the way even only a few minutes of meditation resets my entire day), and more. I'm grateful for the exercise of gratitude to remind me to remember all the many wonderful realities in my life.