Magic in Mirrors

More things of Mom’s keep finding their way into my home.  Just the other day, Dad brought me some odds and ends of hers, including her old stapler.  Apparently, it was something she had before they were married.  Dad loves staplers, so either he was being quite unselfish by passing it on to me, or he feels that he has entirely too much stuff since Mom died and he consolidated two households.

Another item he didn’t have room for, or didn’t want, was her full-length mirror.

“Do you want that mirror?” he asked when he called.

You bet I want it.  I knew exactly which mirror he meant.  Mom always spoke of mirrorwanting a full-length mirror, and she finally ordered this one from Pottery Barn.  I’m glad she got to have it…one small dream realized in a lifetime far too short to grant all her wishes.  But aren’t all lifetimes too short for that?

“Where will it go?” my husband worried.  After eight months of assimilating countless books, an impressive array of heirloom furniture pieces, and an extensive collection of decorative throw pillows, it was a fair question.  The mirror is tall and rectangular with an espresso-colored wood frame: simple, modern, elegant, and timeless. (Do you think Pottery Barn should hire me to write copy for their catalog?)  And it is large.

“In the corner, I guess,” I replied.

The mirror was placed in the corner, where it stands, working its magic.  I love mirrors.  They add depth, light, and mystery to a room.  They show us new angles of ourselves, but they are also enigmatic by nature.  Somehow, they seem to represent an answer and a question, all at the same time.  In this way, mirrors both frighten and reassure me.  There I am, but then again, there I am not.

As I look in this mirror, I imagine Mom standing before it, elegant and willowy, giving herself a sharp, appraising look.  Now that it is in my house, I shuffle past it wearing the new fleece monkey pajamas I received as a Christmas gift.  The beveled glass has been anointed with dog slobber.  My elegance, I suppose, is more sutble than hers.

Still, I’m glad the mirror is here.


A Newly Grieving Person


My mind feels splintered like a pencil I chewed on because I was nervous.  Now I can taste the graphite, and there’s yellow paint between my teeth.  I understand this is how it is for a newly grieving person.  Anxiety, irritability, distractibility.  It’s all part of the game.

I’ve done okay so far.  Everybody keeps telling me how well I’m “handling it.”  Like each day without a nervous breakdown is some notch in my belt.  Buying into this, I’ve even become a little cocky, proud of my highly evolved coping skills.  “Watch and learn,” I think to myself.  “You, too, will be tested in this way.  Your time will come.”

People are undone by the fact that my 60-year-old mother has died.  Because of my familiarity with oncology, I’m not.  Cancer doesn’t honor our chosen timelines or expectations of a long life.  Cancer doesn’t give a shit what anybody wants.  It doesn’t care that you exercised every day and ate cottage cheese instead of French fries.  It just grows and grows.  The rhabdomyosarcoma Mom had was particularly relentless.

I won’t get too puffed up with pride at everyone’s admiration of how I’m getting through this.  It’s just how I’m built.  I thrive in the face of crisis, though I don’t go looking for it and would do my best to avert it.  When the crisis is unavoidable, I am in my element.

With Mom’s illness, there were decisions to be made, medical situations to be managed.  I could do those things.   Superficiality went out the window.  I was comfortable with the unflinching emotional intensity.  I was diplomatic but firm.  I was confident, thorough, tireless.

But now it’s over.  All that stimulation is gone; my sense of purpose has evaporated.

My mom died three weeks ago.  I cry sometimes, usually in the presence of strangers, which is awkward but somehow makes sense.  I don’t need to be strong for people I don’t know.  Most often, though, I don’t cry.  I walk through my days in a state of hollow expectation.  Mom was dying, and it was such a profound process.  It can’t just be over.  I want it to be, but I don’t want it to be.

I don’t really want to do anything.  I want to sleep, eat, and go shopping.  These are the only things preoccupying enough to be “fun.”  With the rest, I’m just going through the motions.

I’ll be glad I did when I feel better, though.  I’ll be glad I “handled it well.”

Processing Grief: Acceptance

(June 17, 2012)  It is nearly the summer solstice.  I love these summer evenings when the sky glows almost unnaturally into the late hours as if lit by a neon city glow just beyond the horizon.  When the temperature outside feels the same as my skin, I seem to be melting, dissolving into the warm night air.

This year, though, I greet the passage of time a little reluctantly.  Each day takes me further from my mother.  When the weather is almost exactly like a day when I remember seeing her, speaking to her, I can imagine we have just been together.

But now summer is here.  Mom is gone, and the days don’t even resemble the days that she was in.  I can’t imagine us together now.  I am writing a new history, and although she is in it, her role is quite different.  She is not mother, tyrant.  She is not mother, supporter.  She is not mother, I-wish-she-would-be-less-self-centered-and-place-more-emphasis-on-family.  She is a mother of memories, of tearfully discovered pictures, of family members’ sometimes tiresome monologues.  Mom, gone.  What is that?  I am finding out, day by day.

It’s not like when I was little, and I would think about my mother dying and cry and cry.  Just the thought of her being gone registered in my body, a terrible hopeless ache that I couldn’t bear.  The reality of her death is a different kind of sadness, one that is at once awful and bearable.

Even when she was sick, I knew I could bear this.  I was almost certain I would be asked to.  I applauded her efforts at wellness – she never gave up, and I never gave up on her.  But intuitively I did not believe she could be well again in this life.  I believed she would succumb to the cancer.  I don’t feel guilty about this.  My thoughts did not make it so, just like many prayed for her and those prayers did not change the outcome, either.

Cancer is a process that does not care one whit about our wishes or our dreams.  It is simply a biologic sequence of events that, once taken hold, is extremely difficult to eradicate.  Is this tragic, wrong?  It seems that way when it is happening, but no.  It just is.  I have no blame, no anger.  Just the sort of acceptance that is needed to face things I cannot change.

Chicken and a Walker

I was cleaning out my car the other day when an old sticky note clogged the vacuum nozzle, sucked up from the crevice between the seats.  On the paper were written two words:   chicken and walker.

Finding this, I had to laugh at my discovery.  Just as my messy car represented the way I’d had to prioritize my time away from taking care of myself while my mom was dying, this short shopping list stood for something else: the way life goes on, even in difficult times.

The particular day on which I wrote that list doesn’t stand out in my mind, but I remember well the tricky high-wire act of balancing my mom’s needs and my regular busy family life during her illness.

Clearly, on that day, I needed to get Mom a walker, and I needed to decide what was for dinner.  Participating in everyday activities was a challenge during Mom’s illness.  I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to get done, but at least attempting to do ordinary things kept me sane.  Instead of being consumed by the crisis, I had an excuse to dip back into normal.  Even when it was inconvenient and there were more pressing needs over at Mom’s house, it felt good to momentarily surround myself with the mundane treasures of everyday existence.

When I located a walker and brought it to my mother, she gave it dirty looks like she was trying to set it on fire using pyrokinesis.  The rest of us were glad she had it.  She had grown quite unsteady.

Watching Mom lose the ability to do even the simplest things (at one point she fervently told me she would rather be scrubbing toilets) helped me appreciate “the little things in life.”  Sometimes even vacuuming is a luxury.  Or cooking chicken.

I don’t specifically remember making chicken that day, though I’m sure I did. People had to eat.  At times I felt surprised and even a little guilty to find myself hungry, like my desire for food meant I had lost sight of the more important things going on at the time.  But food is important, too.

My dad and I quickly discovered that as caregivers, we couldn’t give much unless we took care of ourselves.  There were a few encounters with the bedside commode that extinguished our appetites, but for the most part we ate.  We drank.  Sometimes we ate too little.  Sometimes we drank too much. But sometimes we were even a little merry.

It was a poignant time.  Caring for someone in such an intimate way is a profound privilege – and an enormous responsibility.  There we were, my original nuclear family – my mom, my dad, and myself – together, making it work one last time.  I cooked the chicken at home and brought my mom the walker she needed.   Nobody starved, and nobody fell.  I did the best I possibly could.  And I think it was enough.

My Mother’s Shoes

My mother’s high heels were way too big when, at four years old, I put them on and clumped down the hallway, lurching dangerously, trying to look big.  There is an old photo of me wearing them, smiling at myself in a full-length mirror.

When Mom wore her shoes, they made a grown-up click-click sound on the pavement as we crossed Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.  Even in my own well-fitting shoes, my short legs had to hurry to keep up.

There is a reason why Mom always wore sophisticated “click-click” shoes.  When she was about four, doctors pronounced her pigeon-toed and prescribed orthopedic shoes. My mother started kindergarten wearing unfortunate white lace-ups to the offense of pint-sized fashion police everywhere.  She was, of course, the most offended of all, so when given the choice she filled her closet with everything but practical.  As an adult, Mom didn’t own a pair of athletic shoes save for one pair of black Reeboks, a reluctant concession in the name of walking for exercise.

Later, when my mom worked as a marriage and family therapist, she was attacked and nearly killed in her office.  Her shoes were found in her car although she lay inside, unconscious; just one more puzzling detail in an unfathomable crime.  But to me it wasn’t that weird: Mom routinely liked to drive barefoot, so her high-heeled shoes on the floor of her car weren’t really that mysterious.  She had thought she was going to drive somewhere, that was all.  She didn’t end up driving for another two months.

After recovering from a subdural hematoma, multiple fractures, and a couple of surgeries, Mom was doing pretty well except for numbness in her right foot.  Due to this, she wore shoes even less often than before.  There is a humorous story about Mom driving to work to facilitate a group and discovering that she had not brought any shoes at all.  She had to borrow some from a colleague.

Even with the residual balance and proprioception difficulties stemming from her injury, Mom still refused to wear practical shoes.  High heels, pointy toes, treacherous slip-ons – her shoes weren’t purchased for comfort or ease of wear.  They were purchased to look good, and look good they did.  She didn’t shop the sale racks, either.  Mom wore nice shoes.  Always.

I sold my mother’s shoes at a garage sale about two months ago.  My dad and I had the job of cleaning out her house after a rare cancer caused her to suffer in ways we’d never conceived of, then took her life on April 2nd.  She was 60.

My mom’s fabulous shoes never did fit me.  She was taller than I am, with bigger feet.  Alone in her closet shortly after she died, I slid a couple pairs on for old time’s sake.  They were still too big.  I glanced in the mirror and for all the world looked like a kid trying on her mother’s shoes.  I guess some things never change.

I could see the excitement in the eyes of the women at our garage sale when they discovered Mom’s shoes were their size.  Some of the pairs had hardly any wear; none were even approaching worn out.

I don’t feel too badly about letting Mom’s shoes go for only $3.00 a pair.  She certainly doesn’t need them anymore, and I can’t use them.  As the months go by, though, and I settle more deeply into the ample armchair of grief, I wonder: should I have kept a pair?

No, I conclude.  They’re just shoes.  The feet they were molded to are gone.  I’ll always be my mother’s daughter, but I’m not a little girl anymore.  It’s time for me to step into my own shoes and walk on.

Reconstructing Faith

I have had ample opportunities recently to consider the precarious balance in which we hold our faith.

Faith takes maintenance.  It is not something we unwrap one breathless Christmas morning as children and keep for always.  It is more like a model airplane, delicate and fragile, painstakingly assembled using toothpicks and glue.  Then along comes an accident or an illness – or a mischievous little brother – and our faith is nothing but a pile of sticks and must be rebuilt.

I’m not talking about faith in a religious sense, although it is that for a lot of people.  I mean faith in a more general spiritual sense.  For those who are deeply contemplative, faith is intimately personal.  We may be given the model kit by our parents or other respected adults, but we choose the paint colors, the embellishments.  We make our faith our own.  Later, when it is knocked down and needs rebuilding, perhaps we paint it a different color than before.  We make it new.

Hope is another story.  I’m still struggling with hope because at first glance it seems so fundamentally selfish.  Webster’s New World Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling that is what is wanted will happen; desire accompanied by expectation.”

For this reason hope is a slippery slope.  It assumes a lot – for one thing, that we know what we want.  I have concluded, though, after much careful thinking (deep contemplation, if you will), that the selfishness of hope depends on what it is we have decided to hope for.  This is what I believe: if we are attached to a specific outcome, such as having an illness cured or winning the lottery, then we are impressing our naïve human will upon the wisdom of the universe and are likely to be disappointed.

If, however, we hope for something broader and less defined, like inner peace or my perpetual vague favorite, “the best possible outcome,” then there is hope for our hope.  It is still just a tiny raindrop on the surface of a vast lake, but there are those ripples to consider.

This version of hope is congruent with the spiritual concepts that make sense to me.  As for my faith, I’m working on it.  It’s been through a violent storm (or at least a terrible temper tantrum from a destructive little brother), but I’ve repainted the pieces, and they are drying.  I probably can’t put them back exactly the way they were before, but that’s okay.  My relationship with my faith is evolving.  Change is inevitable.

Putting my faith back together is an endeavor that cannot be done in a hurry, and it can’t be done out of order.  Painstaking.  Deliberate.  Frustrating.  Rewarding.  Ever-changing.  Faith is all these things.  It may be constant, but it is also dynamic.  At least, this is the way I see things right now.  Even that may change, which will, of course, be okay, too, when the time comes.  I have faith that it will.

In the Gaps

I’m focusing on living in the gaps. It’s been a little over two months since my mother died, and when she was sick everything was gaps. She was hanging in a gap as if suspended over a gorge, halfway between earth and sky. Nothing was clear-cut when Mom was dying, and oddly, that somehow made sense. As if that’s what dying is: slipping into the gap.

Here’s what I mean by gaps.  Recently I e-mailed a poem to someone. The poem was called “Trying to Raise the Dead” by Dorianne Laux, one of my favorite contemporary poets.  My reader replied, saying that he found the poem, like most poetry,  “cryptic.”  I have never been of the mind that Laux’s poetry is circumspect or obscure with a difficult-to-delineate meaning. This reader was hung up on the details. The narrator is at a house. “Whose house?” my reader demanded. She’s at a party and she doesn’t know the people that well. “Why is she there? Why doesn’t she know them?” She’s outside, and the others are inside, singing. “How come? Why doesn’t she go back inside with them?” (To this, I answered, “Maybe she was smoking a cigarette.”  Geesh.)

Poetry leaves gaps. I’m comfortable with them. Not the esoteric, overly academic puzzle poems people love to praise, probably because they figure something so convoluted must be intelligent. Laux’s poetry isn’t pretentious or overworked. It just leaves open space so that when I read it, I can make it mine.

My mother loved poetry, understood the gaps, was in her element in them, actually.  But she loved music more.  She used to say that music speaks to that for which there are no words. So does poetry, I say. Good poetry, anyway.

Now that Mom is gone, I’m left trying to articulate to people what made her special, what it is that I miss. What I miss is that she knew a deep truth. That knowing was her unique gift. I will miss her facility with gaps.

I suppose my mother can be found only in those spaces between things now.  Wherever, if anywhere, the essence of her exists, it is not on this physical plane. At least, this is what I tell myself so that I don’t keep looking here. I look there – in the gaps. I listen to song after song, read poem after poem, trying to find one that makes me feel just the right way. Makes me feel like she is still here.