Goodbye, My Brother

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Last Friday, my brother David went deep sea diving in Turks and Caicos with a guide and a small group. He never came back to the boat. They found his body on Saturday. We don’t know what happened—we’ll have more answers once we get the autopsy report back.

I’m not even sure how to begin processing this loss. With my mom, we knew for months that she wasn’t going to make it. Not that the knowing made her death any easier to bear—it didn’t—but there is something to be said for being prepared.

But this? This was fast and furious and shocking on every level. As of Friday morning, I had two brothers on this earth. Now I only have one. Just like that.

David only lived in the same house as me until I was three years old, and after that he moved to California, where he would reside for the rest of his life. One of my earliest memories is of me begging him not to go. “I’ll stay if you lick my feet,” he said. Then he shoved his foot in my face. Ah, big brothers.

Although we were on opposite ends of a very large sibling age spread—he the eldest, me the youngest—people always told us that we had the most similar personalities out of any of the siblings. As children we were both energetic, fiercely independent, spirited and not afraid to speak our minds. In this way, I’ve always felt a special connection with him. He got me and I got him.

One thing I most definitely did not share with my brother was his sense of adventure. The man was fearless. He tried every extreme sport known to man, and he excelled at them all. I am a total wuss, you guys. One Thanksgiving I went quad riding with David in the California desert. After riding around on some baby dunes for a few minutes, I stopped the quad and started crying. I was terrified of tipping over and dying. My brother turned around, comforted me and then escorted me back to the campsite. He and everyone else in the group spent the rest of the trip riding on serious dunes, and I drove around on the flats near our campsite. This was A-OK with me—my brother could be adventurous for both of us.

In addition to being a badass thrill seeker, David was many things—tough on the outside and a sap on the inside, determined, kind, always up for a good fart joke, outrageously charming, mischievous and the most generous person I’ve ever met.

One day he was all of that, filling the world with his larger-than-life personality, and now he is just gone. I still can’t believe it.

The last time I talked to David was a few weeks ago. He called and said, “Did you notice I haven’t called in a while? I didn’t want you to think I forgot about you.” I’m pretty sure I said something jokingly and unintentionally salty, like, “Well it’s not like you usually call a lot.” He was on his car phone. The connection kept cutting out. I felt like I had to yell so he could hear me. It was, quite honestly, an overall awkward conversation. But damn, am I glad he called. He seemed happy, content and at peace. We talked about how much he loved being a stay-at-home dad. We lamented over our kids growing up too fast. Best of all, I got to say I love you to him, one last time. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

So here’s my one request to you. It’s nothing new. People always say this when someone dies, but I don’t think it can be said too much: call your parents or your sister or that friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Hug your babies. Give your dog a nice, big squeeze. Leave a sweet note for your spouse or partner to find. If you love someone, let them know—as often and in as many ways as you can.

Because life is too precious. And far, far too short.

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My two brothers at my wedding.
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David and his son.
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Hanging with my mom at a Padres game.
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A back-in-the day shot with my sister.
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Family shot at the beach. This was taken the summer Tim and I got engaged.
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David and Lettie.
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David having a moment with his son. This was taken at my mom’s grave site. We all hung around for a while after the service and shared stories about her.
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Goof.
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Last summer: the last time the whole fam was together.
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This is one of my favorites. My siblings, minus one sister.

38 Years Of Being Alive

Shortly after I turn 38, we fly to San Diego. We arrive at 2 am east coast time. When we emerge, bleary-eyed, from baggage claim into the warm night, Lettie points to the median in front of us and says, “Is that the jungle?”

“No, baby,” I say. “Those are palm trees.”

She turns to Tim and says, “Daddy, there are palm trees here,” and her eyes shine like she’s in on a secret.

**

The next day we gather at my brother’s house to celebrate my dad’s upcoming marriage,  because it’s never too late to find new love or old love or any kind of love. This is one thing I know: there is always more love.

I put on red lipstick and take pictures with my brothers and sisters. A mariachi band plays in the background. Lettie trades shoes with her cousin and together they set about the very important work of filling pails with landscaping rocks. Later, I will wash her dress and find tiny rocks in her pockets. Everywhere I go, I hear the sound of my sister’s distinctive laughter, a sound I have not heard in three years. Listening to it makes me feel two and ten and thirty-eight all at once. It is a reminder that wherever she is, wherever they all are, is home.

**

A couple of days later, I lounge sleepily by the pool with my twenty-two-year-old niece. We pass cans of chips back and forth. She takes pictures on Snapchat. I don’t even fully know what Snapchat is, but it doesn’t matter. We are two halves of kooky whole, her and I, always have been.

There is not one speck of white in the entire sky. The sun is hot, but the air is breezy. It is, quite possibly, the most perfect day in all the days.

“California is the worst,” I say.

“It really is,” she says.

One of my brothers, who has been busy in the kitchen, walks outside and heads to the lemon tree at the edge of the yard.

He pulls two lemons off the branch. “Can you believe it?” he says. “If you need lemons here, you just go pick lemons from a tree!”

I completely understand his excitement. It’s freshness and light, right at our fingertips. To me, it feels like this: in this magical place where tiny suns grow on trees, it’s almost like we are invincible.

**

On the ride to LA to visit Tim’s sister, fresh off a stop at In-N-Out burger, we get the news. Our close friend is losing his battle with brain cancer. It won’t be much longer now. Weeks, at most. I start crying in the backseat, where I am sitting next to Lettie. Tim keeps his eyes on the road, stoic as ever. Dry, cracked hills whiz by the window.

Lettie says, “What’s wrong, mama?”

So I tell her about cancer and dying and losing someone you love – all the things you wish you’d never have to explain to your child.

She looks at me with serious eyes, and then says, “Am I allowed to get cancer?”

I want to tell her, “No, you are not allowed to get cancer, not ever.” I want to be the Great Allower, the one who has control over All Things Terrible, so that I can keep her from them, so that I can keep everyone in the world from them, but I’m not. Not even close. So instead I tell her that it’s mostly older people who get cancer, and most people die when they’re old.

Then she says, “But I don’t want you to be old. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want you to leave me.”

I can’t tell her that this is the stuff of my nightmares — something happening to me, leaving her without a mom. Or something happening to her, leaving me with a moon-sized crater in my heart.

I can’t say any of that, so I say, “I promise you I will do everything in my power to stay with you for a long, long time.”

She points at me with her chubby, stubby finger and says, “Me too. I will do everything in my power to stay with you for a long, long time.” She stumbles over her words a little bit, but I hear her loud and clear.

There are seven stickers on her leg. An In-N-Out hat sits crooked on her head and she has ketchup on her fingers. Looking at her like that, I’ve never been more grateful that in this life where there is always more love, but never more time, she is mine for as long as the Great Allower allows it to be.

**

At the Santa Monica beach, the water is just chilly enough to feel refreshing. I hold Lettie’s hand as the waves wrap themselves around our ankles. Whenever one hits, she yells, “Heeee-YA,” and squeals with delight.

After a while, I pass her off to Tim and walk deeper into the ocean – something I haven’t done in years. I loved swimming in the sea as a child, but as I grew I got nervous about rip tides and creatures lurking in the depths. Today, though, I do it for our friend, who will never swim again. I dive beneath the surf, into the salty cold, feeling wholly alive in a way that I haven’t in a long time. I come back up for air and the sun is putting on a show, reflecting off the waves. It’s as if everything, everywhere is sparkling.

The View From Down Here

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A quick peek inside my head.

Well, here I am. A little less than two weeks post surgery. I’m feeling much better physically.

But mentally, yikes. If you could see my thoughts right now, you’d be like, whoa. They’d be all black clouds and evil robots and scary vintage dolls with those flip-lid eyes and I don’t even know what else.

Things were ok for a while. Initially after the surgery I felt relief. It’s over, hooray! I have endometriosis, hooray! It may seem strange to feel relieved upon finding out you have an incurable disease, but I was just glad that we finally had some answers. So many things were explained: the spotting before my period (endometriosis on my cervix), frequent urination (endometriosis on my bladder), the pain in my lower right side that doctors had been dismissing for years (endometriosis on my ovary) and my crap-quality eggs (endometriosis everywhere). And even better, all of it was removed! (P.S. the surgeon did remove the endo on my ovary – in my anesthesia-addled state I misheard the him.) For the moment at least, I am endometriosis free!

I was also feeling happy with myself. Happy that I kept searching and digging until I finally got some answers. That I didn’t give up. That I trusted my gut and listened to Dr. Braverman when he told me to get surgery after a ten minute phone consult. I was like, well, this is totally crazy, but I think he’s right so I’m going for it.

And he was right. We both were.

So yeah, I was feeling pretty good for a few days, despite the pain.

But then, I don’t even know what happened.

Maybe it was the fact that recovery was worse than I’d expected.

Maybe it’s because, as relieved as I was, it started sinking in that I have an incurable disease. Yes, the endometriosis is gone, but it usually comes back at some point.

Maybe it’s because, despite my very best efforts, I can’t seem to get my stupid teeth situation under control. Like, I can’t remember a time when my teeth didn’t hurt. One gets fixed and another one gets jacked up. It’s never ending.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been going at this babymaking crap for over two years.

Maybe it’s because I’m staring down the barrel of our last IVF. One final chance and that’s it.

Maybe it’s because after all of our talk of adoption, I don’t know if that’s truly going to end up being a valid option for us. We don’t have the cash up front right now to make it happen, so we’d have to either borrow money, clear out our dire-emergency-only funds, save for years or a combination of the three. Not to mention the fact that this fertility journey has already taken a toll on my relationship with Tim. We’re not headed to Divorce City or anything like that, but I think we both agree that we’ve seen happier days. What would another two or so years going through the adoption process do to us? Yes, I want another child more than almost anything, but not at the cost of my marriage. I’m not saying adoption is off the table, but it’s certainly going to require further discussion and exploration.

So when all is said and done, we may end up without another child. Which means we would have spent years on this journey with nothing to show for it — nothing good anyway. Two dead babies. A sharps container full of needles. A strained marriage.  Not to mention that I’m now the kind of person who rolls my eyes when I see a pregnancy announcement — so essentially I’ve become someone who begrudges others their happiness. And I’m sure I’m a worse parent to Lettie than I would have been if I didn’t go through any of this stuff. How many times have I been obsessing about my fertility, or lack thereof, instead of being in the present moment with the amazing child that I already have? How many times? Just thinking about it makes me want to cry my eyes out. She deserves better than that. Tim deserves better than a wife who’s anxious, upset and preoccupied all the time.

And there it is, the root of why I’ve been feeling so low lately: maybe I’ve fought valiantly for the last two years, but I’m not sure I like the person I’ve become.

IVF #2: One

And that’s what we’re left with: one embryo. The other two are still alive, but she thinks that they will arrest by tomorrow. And that one “good” one? It’s not even that great. It’s two cells at day two, which is the minimum you can have at this point. The embryologist says that if we want to do a transfer of that one it will have to be on day 3. And that means no genetic testing.

I’m trying to get a hold of my doctor to discuss all of this before making a decision about a day 3 transfer, but it’s been over three hours and she hasn’t back called yet. I get that doctors are busy, but SERIOUSLY?

And that’s it. I don’t understand how this could’ve happened. It went from a pretty good cycle the first time to a really bad cycle this time. No minor variations here. Good to total crap. What the HELL, you guys?

I’m so disillusioned with this entire process. I have no idea if I can ever go through this again. It just breaks my heart. I’m so tired of grieving. I’m so tired of picking myself back up.

I am spent.

We’re Still Us

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Tonight, our dear friend came over for dinner. He mentioned that he was planning on taking a trip to Iceland this summer. There are few things that Tim and I get more excited about than Iceland — we’ll talk about it with anyone who will listen. We traveled there in the summer of 2011 and it was the vacation of a lifetime. We, of course, had to immediately show our friend the photo slideshow we had made of the trip.

I hadn’t watched the slideshow in years. My first thought upon viewing it was, Who are these people? The couple in the video looked relaxed and carefree. They looked insanely happy.

They looked madly in love.

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I am undeniably still in love with Tim, but I can’t remember a time when we last looked that happy. We looked as if all that mattered in the world was each other. And it’s not like we were untouched by sadness during that trip — in fact, Tim’s childhood best friend had just died suddenly a few days before. I remember stopping on a black sand beach outside the town of Vik so Tim could drop a picture of his friend into the waves. We watched and cried together as it drifted out to sea. But even with that loss, I remember the trip as a time of sweetness and light.

To me, Iceland belongs to the time of Before. Before we lost my mom and our babies, before needles, endless doctors visits and drugs whose names I can’t pronounce. Of course, many happy things have also happened in the years since that trip — the most notable being the birth of our sweet Lettie. Despite all the good we’ve been blessed with, I’ve noticed that over the last few years our love has started to have a heaviness to it. What used to feel buoyant is now weighted down by our shared loss.

But here’s the thing I realized tonight. Although my first thought after seeing that slideshow was, Who are these people?, my next thought was Oh! That’s still us! And I started to feel excited. I began to feel hopeful for the first time in weeks.

Underneath all the grief and sadness, we are still those same two people who are madly in love. Our circumstances may have changed, but we didn’t. I believe that the core of who we are as a couple is still solid. We might not feel that giddy Icelandic happiness this very minute, but we’ve felt it before, and that alone is promise enough that we can feel it again. There’s no getting around the fact that we’re in a season of grief right now, but you never know:

A season of light could be just around the corner.

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Two Years Down, A Lifetime To Go

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of my mom’s death. She is buried in a beautiful cemetery in Vermont. Surrounded by trees, her plot sits on a hill overlooking the river. I can’t imagine a more peaceful spot to rest.

We visited the grave at the end of our trip last week. We had just spent the week in the condo that my mom and dad had bought over 25 years ago. That place, more than anywhere else, is home for me. And all those memories, over all those years, include my mom. She is everywhere up there—in the secret corners of the closets, in the small wooden angel on the night stand, in the brook across the parking lot, in the black-eyed Susans that dot the hills, in the view from the top of the mountain, in the sound of the crickets and the strange birds that call to each other in the dark.

After feeling her around me for an entire week, visiting her grave felt like saying goodbye all over again. As we stood by the stone, Lettie said, “I wanna go grandma Peggy’s house, I wanna go Grandma Peggy’s house!” in the escalating way that only a two year old can pull off.

I then asked her if she wanted to tell Grandma Peggy she loved her. So she yelled, “I love you Grandma Peggy!” and looked around as if she was hoping that Grandma would somehow walk out of the trees and show herself.

She didn’t, of course. But maybe, just maybe, the sun shifted a little bit and the leaves lifted off their branches as if to say, Here, I am. Right here.

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A Death, A Birth, A Silent Night — My Messy Beautiful

Three weeks after my mother’s cancer returned, I found out I was pregnant.

While I was growing life inside my body, my mom was dying. Her body was broken down by chemo and radiation. The cancer spread to her intestines. She spent many a night in the hospital for excessive vomiting. Eventually, she couldn’t eat anything at all except jello and popsicles. She drank cans of Ensure. She talked about a time when she’d be able to eat everything again. She talked of new treatments, new diets, new philosophies, but eventually, those came to an end, too.

I believed there was no way my baby would survive. How could she live when my mom was dying? My pregnancy was not happy or magical. It was nine months of gut-wrenching anxiety. Yes, I reveled in the joy of each kick, but I also wondered if each kick would be the last.

On July 22nd, the day before my mom’s birthday, Colette came into this world. She was healthy, beautiful and perfect. She was a little ball of life. She was mine. I could hardly believe it. I talked to my mom that day. This was a rare gift—she was often too tired to talk on the phone anymore. I talked to her the next day, too, on her birthday. Two days in a row! Maybe, I thought, things are looking up.

Three weeks later, she was dead. Because my mom lived in San Diego and I in Philadelphia, she never met my baby. Not once did she get to gaze into Colette’s eyes or kiss her sweet face.

_____

I attended my mom’s memorial service in a sleep-deprived haze. I read a poem by Mary Oliver. I wore a new dress that barely fit my post-partum figure. I plugged my breast pump into a meeting room and pumped while everyone else ate lunch. This obviously isn’t real, I thought. As a matter of fact, nothing is real. Not this baby, not this family around me, not this husband, not this beautiful Vermont sunshine.

I don’t remember crying much. Not then and not when I returned home after the service. There’s no time for grief, I remember thinking. I have to take care of that baby.

And that baby? She cried enough for both of us. She was relentless, wailing all hours, except the ones when she was sleeping, which were perilously few. I developed tricks to make her stop crying. One involved swaddling her, cradling her in my arms and bouncing her on an exercise ball. This worked like a charm until the second I stopped bouncing. Often I would catch myself nodding off on that exercise ball out of pure exhaustion, about to topple us both onto the wood floor.

What hell is this? I thought. Why is this all happening to me at once? How am I supposed to deal with this loss and this miracle without breaking open? It was too much for me, so I shut down. I cared for my baby. I went back to work after maternity leave. I scrunched my hair and put on mascara. My loving mother-in-law took me shopping and I bought striped sweaters and striped shirts and jeans one size up because I thought they would make me feel better about my new life as a mom, without a mom. They didn’t. I got by, but I was going through the motions.

During this period, I talked to my sister a lot. She was in the middle of a rough patch of her own and she often said, “I feel mom around me. I know she’s with me. She’s helping me.”

Other people, even those not so close to my mom would say things like, “I felt Peggy with me the other day.”

But me? Never. I never felt her, not even once. For whatever reason, she didn’t want to make her presence known to me. It took me a long time to realize that the problem was not that she wasn’t there, but that I wasn’t opening myself up to her.

_____

After about six months of this not-feeling business, I went to therapy. That was the beginning of both my grieving and my healing. I was also getting more sleep at that point, which helped tremendously. I began to let myself feel.

Eventually, I saw the timing of Colette’s birth and my mom’s death for what it was: a gift. Yes, it was hard growing a baby while watching my mom die. It was even harder caring for a newborn knowing that I would never see my mom again. In the end, though, the timing saved me. Every year around my mom’s birthday and the anniversary of her death, I will grieve for her, but I will also be reminded that in the midst of this death came life. A little girl was born—a girl who needs me, who loves me and who is the greatest joy I have ever known.

_____

One evening in late December last year, about a year and a half after my mom died, I rocked Colette to sleep like I always do. The last few nights I had been singing Christmas songs to her in honor of the season. Colette, often distracted during bedtime, was staring straight into my eyes. I began to sing Silent Night, a song adored by both my mother and me. Anyone who knew my mom knew that she loved to sing. She also happened to be the worst singer I’ve ever met. She was loud and proud and totally off key. As I sang to my daughter in that dark room on that cold night, I heard my mother signing with us. I heard her out-of-key voice, right in my ear. I felt her arms around us.

I knew with certainty that even though my sweet baby and my sweet mama had never met in this world, in that moment the three of us were, finally, together.

All is calm, all is bright, indeed.

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This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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