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.
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.
I probably haven’t left comments on your blog recently.
Or replied to your last email, or seven.
Or tweeted you.
This doesn’t mean I’m not thinking of you, or wondering what you’re up to. It just means my only internet is phone-based at the moment. If I’m posting online, it’s because I have something I really, really want to say before I forget. Or, like now, because it’s 4:30 a.m. and I’ve already streamed my quota of The Mindy Project on Hulu.
I’ve missed being online, a little, but I’ve savored it, too. Instead of constantly wondering what I am missing online, I have been immersed in savoring the offline. Instead of arising and running straight to the computer, I’ve laid in bed and listened to the trio of snores filling the air around me.
I’ve washed the dishes, made my rice, read my daily chapter of Just One Thing, and sat on the living room floor savoring a sense of home greater than the one I felt at my last place. There, two friends anxiously began a journey of seeing if they could build a family from friendship. So much was uncertain then, and is certain now. Read more…
En route to Christmas dinner with my fiancee’s family, we pulled over at a convenience store. When Ba.D. left the car, our son asked me a few questions.
“Mommy, are we going to see your family?”
“No, sweetheart. We’re going to visit Daddy’s family.”
“You don’t have families, Mommy?”
“I do. They’re just far away.”
“Hey, I’m your family, Mommy!”
The other flaw in my explanation struck me only when I read the exchange to Ba.D. a couple of minutes later: We were going to visit family. Our family, not just Ba.D.’s.
It should have been clear to me earlier, thanks to text messages still fresh in my mind from the beginning of our drive.
We had just begun driving when my phone alerted me of a text message. I unlocked my phone and read a text message from my sister, Silver Star, before seeing the picture attached to the message. 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:
My new ebook, Memos from Your Closet Monster, is free for Kindle through Sunday evening. Download your own copy here.
Don’t have a Kindle? Don’t need one! You can read with your browser or download a free Kindle app to another device. More on that here.
The Saturday before last, I posted a vlog mentioning I’d done an interview on my experiences with indie publishing. That interview is now posted here. At 12 minutes, it’s not as short as the other couple of vlogs I’ve posted here, but it is good background listening as you go about your blogging business today.
Speaking of indie publishing, Memos from Your Closet Monster (previously touched on in this blog) went live on Amazon yesterday afternoon. I’m still entranced by Mack’s gorgeous cover. More than being entranced by it, I’m soothed by it. Its center photo was taken on my mom’s porch during a period of mental illness induced estrangement, so that the empty chair behind me felt like so much more than an empty chair. Seeing that photo worked into something physically beautiful transformed the picture for me. At its taking, it was a sorrowful photo from a sorrowful time; now it’s been reshaped into one small piece of something bigger and much more complex than any single word could possibly encompass.
My morning writing time is rapidly dwindling, so I’d best wrap this up–after a quick note on my recent reading! I tend to rate most books I actually finish at four stars, but the last two I read and the one I’m reading now all get five stars. Which books, exactly? More on that here.
What are you reading today?
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.
It’s little wonder I grew up wanting to be a superhero.
From the time I was little, the woman I most admired deemed herself “Thunder Thighs,” with the power to destroy villains by such seemingly innocuous things as body odor and thigh-ripple shock waves.
I don’t remember all of her powers or all the villains she coaxed back toward goodness, but I do remember my giggles. I remember how, in these moments, the world was only mirth and closeness to the funniest, silliest, smartest, prettiest mom in the whole wide world.
Thunder Thighs has retired now, but her cape is stretched forever across my proverbial heart.
I’ve been thinking of her a lot these days. I’d like to be worthy of wearing her cape.
There’s only one way to earn it. It’s not by being skinny enough, tall enough, eloquent enough, smart enough or bestselling enough. Not even a little.
I’ll earn that cape by making my son laugh from deep in his belly, and by showing him there is no sweeter music to me than the sound of that laugh. By making him forget the rest of the world exists, for a few moments, and letting him know that the rest of the world has ceased to exist for me, too. By letting him know I am not near him, but with him.
Thanks to The Hands Free Revolution, I’m getting in touch with my inner Thunder Thighs. I’m looking at my cell phone and wondering, “Would Thunder Thighs read that email, or would she swoop up her child and take him for an impromptu airplaine ride instead?”
I know what she would do. She might not have been the most practical of superheroes, but she was the most loving.
I have a choice. Every time my phone beeps, it’s beeping a choice. I choose my son. I choose my family.
I choose to do my best to be remembered by my son as I remember Thunder Thighs.
I will be worthy of that cape.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.
“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.