A few days ago, my sisters texted me that they’d be visiting my mom’s grave.
Why today? I wondered, before it hit me: I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten March 4 was the day my mom breathed her last breath. The day she was, as a text message I received March 4, 2010 stated, finally at peace.
I felt terrible. How could I have forgotten? How could I have failed to mark such a hugely important day?
A message from my friend Emily helped me see things a little clearer. At Joshua Tree the weekend before, she’d made a point to have our friend Briel take tons of oops-I’m-falling-off-a-cliff pictures meant to make her mom–who had helped deliver my son into this world–break into a sweat. Every time Emily posed, I giggled, remembering how I used to (mostly) lovingly push my mom’s buttons just because I could. And I remembered my mom, too.
My mom, whose mischievous ways meant she sometimes couldn’t understand how she’d raised such straight-laced children. Who took my brother out for ice cream the only time he got detention. “One of my kids has it in him!” she rejoiced.
Who once pierced her belly button, exclaiming mirthfully, “This way I’m rebellious and no one at church has to know!”
Who always made me giggle when she busted out her superhero antics, and made me want to be a superhero, too.
On Monday, Emily delivered the photoshopped cherry on her panic-picture pie:
I laughed from my belly when I saw it. As I laughed, I felt like my mom was chuckling with me. “I like this girl!” I could hear her saying.
Later in the evening, I got choked up when my sisters sent me pictures of my niece and nephew standing on Mom’s grave. I cried while walking the dog later still, feeling guilty anew to have forgotten. After a few minutes of sniffling self flagellation, I revisited something I’d written earlier in the day:
Feel terrible that I forgot it’s been three years today since Mom died. Feel glad, too; better to remember life & birthdays than a death day.
Seeing those words, I wiped off my tears, loaded Emily’s picture again, and giggled. Again.
Just like that, my mom felt near . . . nearer by far in the laughter than the tears.
My new doctor interrupted me just as tears began gathering in my eyes.
“Good timing,” I told her, stifling sniffles. “I was just about to get to a really sad part of this book, The End of Your Life Book Club.” I gave her a brief synopsis of the non-fiction book, in which a son writes about the informal book club he and his mom shared during the last two years of her life.
“Hmm,” she replied, before asking how I was doing.
Twenty minutes later, I thanked her profusely. “I just can’t tell you how thankful I am for you. I mean, where would I start?”
She smiled. “I’m in this line of work because I want to help heal people.”
I thought of our meeting as I trekked out to my car, but I was too ravenous to think very clearly. I downed some much needed protein and iron in a Del Taco parking lot before beginning my forty-minute drive back home. I flipped on the radio and was immediately catapulted back in time by the opening notes of a beloved song. Read more…
Today I got something remarkable in the mail.
I knew it was coming. I’d commissioned it, after all.
And yet, there is a difference between envisioning something in the abstract and seeing it with my own eyes, which are currently full of tears.
There were few traditions in my household growing up, unless you count my mom’s antiquing and Dumpster diving. One tradition I could count on was periodic weekend walks to the comic book store, where my mom would set my siblings and me free with a dollar apiece. She’d buy the comics that interested her, while we’d rummage through the ten-cent comic bins for our personal favorites. Mine were horror episodics, a la Creepshow, as well as Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld and Superman.
In law school, I got my sister the full set of Amethyst comics as a birthday present. I hadn’t had much cause to think of that, or the comics themselves, until a couple of weeks ago. I’d walked into an antique shop in search of a dresser. There were no dressers available, but I did find excellent conversation with the store’s owner, who reminded me so very much of my mom I felt as if she were standing just behind me, too intent in her own rummaging to chit-chat.
Another prospective customer came in and interrupted our discussion with a question. I examined the jewelry in a nearby case for a moment; when I looked up, my eyes landed directly on comic book magic: Amethyst and Superman in the same comic!
I coughed up $10 and decided that, for that single afternoon, I believed in signs.
I still haven’t read that comic. It’s not important that I read it, just that it exists. It reminds me of my favorite times with my mom, my Thunder Thighs, my forever superhero.
Every time my eyes landed on that magical crossover comic, I thought of another piece of comic art I was waiting for. I’d commissioned extremely talented, conscientious comic artist and friend Sina Grace to draw a piece borne from my blog “Becoming a Superhero.”
Because my mom’s life was so full of strife, I struggled to figure out how to do her memory justice. How could I help other people see her not as just a crazy bird lady but as the source of my own love, hope and wonder, not through accident but through emulation? How could I remember her that way, recalling not only her life’s many tragedies but also its victories?
“Becoming a Superhero” was the turning point for me. It was my answer. As long as I remembered Thunder Thighs, I was remembering my mom–my real mom, not not-Mom, the way she’d want to be remembered.
And as long as I not only remember but live the best parts of her, her love and laughter endure.
At some point I decided I wanted not just words but an image to serve as my reminder to remember my mom and use the remembering well.
I described to Sina what I envisioned, though that envisioning was in blurs and blobs. He asked bunches of questions and set to work, sending me a “blueline” (or very preliminary sketch) a few days ago to make sure he was on the right track. I loved it, and I said so. I was prepared to be enchanted by the final product, but again, I couldn’t really imagine what that enchantment would feel like.
Today I received a snapshot of the final image. I laughed and cried all at once, enveloped in the rush of remembered comic book shop visits, Thunder Thighs adventures, and the imagined forays of Dark Moon and Silver Star. My mom would love the image. I sure do.
The print one will be in my hands in a week or two’s time, but what’s important now is that it’s in my heart. Right there with my mom, my Thunder Thighs, my forever superhero.
If Tori Nelson had never guest posted here, I would still have been delighted to guest post for her today.
But she did guest post here. And she rocked me so deeply with her beautiful words about being grateful for even absence and lack that I feel the ripples of goodness more than a year later.
It’s thus not only a delight but an honor to guest post for her today, and to do so in a way that almost pays homage to her guest post: by sharing one tiny spark that sustained me through dark times. Many sparks have lit my way, including Tori herself, but the flame kindled by this picture burns bright three years after I first found it in my inbox.
Read about it at “Photographs of the Heart“
The post might sound sad, but I share it with joy. The thing about loss, after all, is that it is preceded by having . . . a having the goodness of which can never be undone.
I have lost, but I have lost because I have had.
Buffy Summers may not slay sickness the way she does vampires, but she and her gang comfort me through sickness in other ways.
Buffy, Xander and Willow on VHS were my most reliable companions through my lonely season in South Korea. They held me through my law school years in Los Angeles, and a later move to Japan. Unlike the friends and family with whom I loved watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I could pack them up and ship them with me, a portability I cherished. Being with the latter Scooby gang far away from home made me feel not so far away from home at all.
I’ve mentioned I was a fangirl, and that I worked as an extra on the show several times, but I haven’t really talked much about the specifics of my fandom. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to remember how devoted I was to a television show. Most the time, though, I just smile and shake my head at my younger self, all the while remembering to be thankful she led me on such interesting adventures.
This morning, sick and happily lost in Buffy marathon, there’s no embarrassment, just gratitude as I remember one specific fangirl encounter. Read more…
Anna is a longtime friend of mine. Although she is not a blogger, her words in handwritten letters and emails alike have moved me for more than a decade.
I knew she would do well by the series with anything she submitted, but did not know just how deeply what she eventually sent would rock me. The moment I read her post’s concluding words, I knew hers would be the post to close out the FTIAT series. I have reread the post at least a dozen time since, and my conclusion is always the same.
I want the words Anna has written here to be the ones indelibly etched in people’s hearts when they recall this series. I want them to send long-lasting ripples of love and grace through those hearts the way they have done with mine.
And I want to thank Anna for not only writing but living by example, and for always, always loving without strings.
Recommended post: This one
A Love Without Strings
(Note: Out of respect for the recovering, some names have been changed)
I met Gabriel in my living room, where I was sunk into a fat flowery couch with my right foot propped up, recovering from ankle surgery. I was four months sober at the time and had been scared to death of general anesthesia– not because I thought I might not wake up, but because I was terrified I’d like the drugs so much they’d pull me back into the hell I’d just climbed out of.
Gabriel was a 28-year-old French-speaking guitar-playing wisecracking heroin addict. He was tall and cool, slouching down in the chair in my living room while his recovery teacher Mark chatted with me about God and friends and the world outside my living room. Read more…
Thanks to What I Had Really Meant to Say for this opportunity to visit with hope today as part of the Hope 2012 blog relay.
The summer my mom snapped, I didn’t understand “hope.”
What I understood that summer was that I might never talk to my mom again. That the resources available to assist the mentally ill and their loved ones were woefully inadequate. That a woman could struggle through hardship after hardship only to find new hardships where at least one iota of peace ought have been.
I pieced hope together slowly over the years that followed. Shopping for hardware with my boyfriend one Mother’s Day, I found a colorful card that reminded me of my mom. I wrote on it that she’d always been a little colorful, but that her colors made the world brighter and richer. I delivered the card to her house only to have her scream and wave a shovel at me.
My boyfriend held one of my hands in both of his own as I cried in the front seat of his car. But I, like my siblings, kept at it. I believed something might happen to change the game tomorrow, or the day after it.
I passed by my mom on a run a couple of years later. Instead of screaming at me, she told me about all the neighborhood squirrels she was caring for. I slowed my run so I could accompany her all the way to the town’s bus station. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment like that, so I wanted to prolong and savor it.
Hope came a little easier after that.
Conversations were a little stilted when they happened, and my mom still occasionally accused her neighbors–and her children–of bizarre crimes, but conversations did happen. It seemed, after years of struggling, we might be getting somewhere.
Then, in the middle of 2009, my sister Rache called to tell me Mom’s doctor was concerned our mom might have “the C word.” My sister couldn’t even say it the first couple of times we spoke about Mom’s early appointments, so that I misunderstood what “C word” we were talking about. It hit me like a train to the stomach when Rache finally said the word: “cancer.”
That evening, I wrote my dearest friend:
I feel like I lost my mom several years ago, so I didn’t think it was possible to feel greater sorrow on that front. But hearing that physical death may also be imminent, it’s clear there are degrees of loss. Intellectually, I understand that there’s very little hope my mom as she existed while I grew up could be regained. Apparently, though, my heart has been holding onto hope that there might be some movement that direction. With physical death, what once was and what is now are all wrapped up neatly and concluded, with no chance of semi-happy endings.
When my mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, I was devastated. For years, I had hoped, and that hope had been destroyed by a single word spoken in a single second.
I thought and thought, and I fought with myself over what was and wasn’t reasonable in light of my mom’s diagnosis.
I’d trained myself to hope. I couldn’t not hope. So what, then, could I hope for?
I hoped that my mom would live long enough to meet her first grandchild, with whom I was seven months pregnant. It was a hope replete with moments of agony and frustration that I should be limited to such a small and fleeting hope, but I clung to it. I needed it to sustain me.
My son was born. Tickets home were purchased. My mom held her grandson.
She hated how she looked, but I saw only the love.
After my mom met my son, I invested my hope in the possibility of my mom’s recovery. And yet, there came a time where it was clear that hope would not be translated to truth.
I hoped my mom would get to see my son again, but I was struggling. It was easier to tell myself to hope than to actually tend to its tiny embers and set them full aflame again.
My mom did see my son again. He brought her great joy through suffering written so clearly on her face that I couldn’t help but feel its echoes, and despair.
He brought her so much joy that, occasionally, she’d grit her teeth and try climbing unsteadily from her bed, saying, “I will survive. I will live and see him grow up. I will meet my other grandkids.”
I would smile at her and try to calm her enough to get her back in bed, and then retreat to the cold bedroom down the hall and cry, and cry, and cry.
I didn’t know what to hope, but I knew better than to share that fleeting, wild hope of hers.
A week after the last time she told me this, I wrote my friends a letter that began:
At 2:35pm yesterday, my mother breathed her last breath in the loving arms of my sisters.
The letter described many things that brought me joy, and great love for those who’d helped me through the last months of my mom’s life. What it didn’t describe was hope, for I felt hopeless, even as I wrapped up that letter thusly:
Next October 30, I will celebrate alone the birthday I shared with my mother. But she’ll be in my heart, and the gifts she bestowed upon me will carry her spirit forward in my every action, every day.
At my mom’s memorial, I caught sight of my son sleeping and felt the slightest stirrings of hope.
My mom’s final chapter had been written, but my tiny man’s life had so many chapters remaining. Imagining those chapters filled me with joy that couldn’t be touched by words, and kindled those stirrings so they began to take on their own vibrance.
As I worked with my siblings to clean out my mom’s house, I thought about all the chapters remaining my son. I saw that I, too, had many chapters left in my own life.
I chose hope. Even as I bawled, and cursed, and listened to music I hated to know my mom would never hear again, I chose to believe that there was good ahead.
I would edit one of my books. I would nurture my son’s passions. I would lend a hand to others as often as I could. I would focus not on what had been taken away from me, and the inevitability that still more would be taken away from me with time, but on all the possibilities left open to me, my son, and my loved ones. They were so, so many.
In August 2009, I believed hope was lost. In August 2012, I see that hope was simply hiding then. She was clenched tightly to herself, nestled deep within me, keeping herself safe until once again free to expand to fill me.
Hope has since unfurled and stretched herself into every piece of my life. Sometimes she retreats, but I know she will find her way back to me, and I to her. She needs me to give her my voice in this world; I need her to remember why I have a voice, and how to use it.
Hope was never lost to me. She just needed to be freed from the constraint of being tied to one place, to one situation, or to one person; for, indeed, she thrives best of all when her feet are untethered and she is allowed to wander as free and far as the human imagination extends.
Instructions for Hope 2012: A blog relay
Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.
Melanie Crutchfield will be holding “Closing Ceremonies” around August 10 and will gather up little snippets from people that wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay
I call on:
“People are like stained glass windows; they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Many years ago, my brother asked me to picture a mutual friend of ours.
After I had her image firmly in mind, David asked, “Do you see her scars?”
I did not. Her face had seemed perfectly reconstructed in my mind before he asked; in light of his question, I felt ashamed, as if I’d been caught in the act of surreptitiously editing a work not my own.
My brother’s take was different. “You don’t picture it for the same reason you don’t really see it when you’re with her. It’s irrelevant. Her beauty shines from within, not from the specific arrangement of features on her face.”
The conversation was much more extensive than this, and my brother’s overall approach much more nuanced, but this is the part that has stuck with me. It was the part on my mind after I shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s last month.
I expected to be a wreck during the actual shaving. I also expected to be mildly chagrined by how baldness emphasized my already prominent forehead. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel more beautiful than I ever had before.
I also didn’t expect the staring.
The day after I shaved my head, I caught a couple dozen—yes, a couple dozen—adults staring at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. I felt confident and gorgeous with my newly fuzzy head, so it was easy for me to smile back at strangers even while my discomfiture grew.
I wondered: What if I had lost my hair to cancer treatments? What if I were struggling to feel beautiful and strong in the face of the fight of my life? A fight for my life?
My stomach knotted at these thoughts, yet despite my initial chagrin, I quickly stopped noticing the stares. I even forgot that I’d shaved my head. A neighbor asked, “What did you do?!” following which I launched into an explanation about how she’d heard my son, Li’l D, screaming because I’d forced him to get off the elevator. (The nerve!)
My neighbor gestured to my hair and said, “I mean, to your hair!”
I laughed and said I’d had it shaved for a charity. With her hand to her heart, my neighbor said, “Thank God. I thought you were going through chemo.”
Once in a while, though, someone’s attention is so obvious it’s impossible not to notice. In these cases, I’ve continued my strategy of simply smiling back, an astonishingly effective means to get someone to stop staring.
Out to get lunch in the middle of a recent workday, I caught a woman staring at me with a mixture of sadness, dismay and pity so blatant, it totally disarmed me.
After a moment, I smiled at her and she looked away. For about two seconds. She then resumed staring, looking away again for only as long as I gazed and smiled directly at her.
The scenario played through my head for hours afterward. I wished I’d piped up, as recommended by blogger Counting Caballeros, “Thank you for staring. I shaved my head to raise awareness for childhood cancer, and since I obviously have your undivided attention, would you like your donation to pediatric cancer research to be cash, check, or charge?”
I don’t know what it’s like to fight cancer firsthand. I don’t know what that encounter would have felt like if I were fighting cancer right now. All I have is my imagination, and in my imagination, the feeling was horrible.
The feeling wasn’t about the hair. It was about what hair, or the lack of it, seemed to automatically represent: the presence of illness. The reminder of human mortality.
I felt an invisible wall of “otherness” being built around me as I recalled the emotions reflected in that stare, and those I witnessed right after I shaved my head.
I wondered: Would I be so different if I were fighting cancer? Would I somehow be less human, or less worthy of the common courtesies afforded someone with a full head of hair? Or would I still be me, Deb, just trying to enjoy a bite of lunch without being reminded that I’m not only fighting cancer but that I’m also now set apart in the eyes of those around me?
I can’t go back in time. I can’t redo that lunchtime encounter. But the next time I experience this, I’m going to say something. I don’t know what, exactly, or if it will be inspired by the above recommendation from Counting Caballeros, but something. Something that reminds others that I am human. That we are all human, whether tall or short, skinny or round, black or white, bald or hairy, fighting cancer or cancer-free.
And now, here, I’m going to ask you to say something if you find yourself caught in the act of staring. If you’re curious, or concerned, or just want to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re so radiant, it’s impossible to look elsewhere,” please do. Say hi. Embrace the awkwardness, for words like these connect even as they potentially embarrass us. Instead of building invisible walls between people, they are part of our building bridges of understanding.
I’m glad my neighbor asked what happened to my hair. Her words opened a dialog that brightened my day. In both asking and the way she asked, I felt that no answer I gave would’ve scared her or inspired her to treat me differently, apart from perhaps to share words of support.
If the thought of talking to a stranger terrifies you, consider offering a smile. The power of a smile is enormous.
It’s that smile that shows the light within, and all those beautiful lights within reflected outward that brighten the world for all.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.
Although this post begins with a tragedy, it is a post about hope.
I was thrift store hopping in 2003 when I missed a call from a girlfriend. Stepping out from the thrift store I’d been shopping at, I dialed my voicemail access number. I knew something was wrong when my new voicemail began not with “Hi, Debbie!” but “Oh, Deb.”
Only a handful of seconds later, I sank to the sidewalk and thought, “No. No, this is a terrible joke. This can’t have happened.”
But it had.
Months later, I continued to struggle with how suddenly lives could be ended. I found solace only in my long nighttime runs, during which my thoughts ran even further and wider than my legs.
One evening shortly before the 2004 marathon that would be my first, I noticed a car passing by me slowly and repeatedly. I started getting anxious about how dark it was, how long it had been since I’d seen another person, how if someone managed to get me into their car, there’d be no one around to notice.
I ran in the direction of the nearest police station and I prayed. The car fell away, eventually, but the adrenaline didn’t.
I wondered about what would have happened if the ending there had been different. Would my friends remember me for all the happy memories we shared, or would they remember only how my life ended?
The thought horrified me. As I wept while running homeward, I thought over and over again: We are so much more than the ways that we end.
Afterward, I endeavored to remember those who had died not for how their lives concluded, but for who they were while they lived. For their lives.
And yet, when my friend Karin began daily posting links to a blog series about a young girl’s struggle with cancer, I thought, “Gah, why would I want to read so extensively about a girl’s death?”
It was only when I read Karin’s husband Chris’s Freshly Pressed entry about why they are going “Blissfully Bald” that I understood just how much I had misunderstood. This wasn’t a story about a girl’s death to cancer.
It was a story about a girl’s life.
As I read Chris’s post, I knew I’d have to read Donna’s Cancer Story. If her life story had moved him so, so very much that this post flowed from its reading, I had to experience it myself.
Friday evening, I started reading her story.
Saturday morning, vision blurred from crying, I finished reading it.
Notice what I did there? I didn’t say I finished the story. I said “I finished reading it.”
That’s because Donna lives on in the things we do to remember her.
On March 24, my dear friends Chris and Karin, subjects of my first stick figure animation, will shave their heads to raise money for St. Baldrick’s. I’ve donated, which you can do via the “Blissfully Bald” link below. I’ve tweeted. I’ve posted it on Facebook. Now, I must share their fundraising efforts here, in the place I’m freest to explain everything they mean to me.
It’s been almost two years since my mom died of cancer. I remember daily the strength I feigned to cover the helplessness of watching her fade.
I remember deciding to run a half-marathon to raise money in her memory. It wouldn’t bring her back, but it was something I could do.
When you’re watching cancer steal away someone you love, there is painfully, wretchedly little you can do.
In running, I found a way to look forward instead of backward. I couldn’t bring my mom back, but I could take very literal steps toward ensuring someone else’s life didn’t end the same way.
So I ran, with my siblings, for Mom. When we were done, we placed our congratulatory roses on her headstone, and I felt a fluttering of peace. It faded quickly, but feeling it made me know it was a beginning. It was another step in the right direction.
This afternoon, as I drove home from brunch with girlfriends, I marveled at how deeply interconnected are things and lives whose connections we can’t always see: a pediatric cancer charity, a dojo, my mom, a scary encounter running, a pair of Michigan bloggers, and a little girl who filled the world with so much brilliance in the four years she was given to do so.
I thought about the 21-year-old woman the memory of whom inspired the memorial scholarship that enabled me to finish law school. I recently sent a note, via the law school, to let her family know that she continues to inspire me, although I never met her.
I remain grateful to this woman, and the family whose steps to remember her so tangibly impacted me. My life would not be what it is today but for her blessed memory.
Our bodies will cease. That is inevitable. But we will live on in the hearts of those who shared the journey with us, and whose lives we touched with our actions. In the hope that we helped build through these actions.
It’s thus I leave you with the words I shared on Facebook right after finishing reading Donna’s Cancer Story:
Last night I started reading Mary Tyler Mom‘s blog series “Donna’s Cancer Story.” This morning, through tears so abundant it was hard to see, I finished it.
I hope you’ll consider reading the series yourself, someday if not today. But if you don’t think you can read the whole thing, I’d recommend you read this last entry. It’s full of thoughts about what you can do to help Donna live on in the good things you do today.
If you are able to donate to From the Bungalow‘s team “Blissfully Bald,” that’s one thing. There are many more that don’t cost a thing but will help make life easier or brighter for someone else. Check out Donna’s Good Things for more on this, even if you don’t read this entry or the series.
Like its name suggests, it is full of good things, but there’s always room for more.
After I post this, I’ll greet my little man for the day, and be grateful. And I’ll remember these words, this morning and always, as well as the little girl whose story brought them to me:
“Choose hope. Live until you die.”
In doing so, you’ll live on further still in the memory of those blessed to love and have been loved by you.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.