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.

Letter To My Little Lady: Love Magic

FairyTaleDear Little Fish,

Your dad and I saw the movie Cinderella a few weeks ago — not the cartoon version you know, but another version directed by this guy named Kenneth Branagh. It got a lot of criticism for being blonde-centric and sexist and some other words you don’t know the meaning of yet. I admit, those things are pretty much all true, but I still loved it.

I love all fairy tales. I always have. It’s not the princesses or the knights in shining armor that I adore — what I love most is the dark and the light, side by side. For every happily ever after, there’s a stepsister slighted, a servant left crying in the garden, an overprotective mother, or an evil queen who would give anything to stay young forever. And if you think about it, that’s just how life is. Sure, there is so much joy in this world, but behind every happy occasion there’s someone, somewhere feeling sad or lonely or left out.

The cure-all for sadness in fairy tales is always the same: magic. A swipe of the wand or true love’s kiss can make it all better. Sounds good, right? Must be nice for those storybook characters to have all their woes cured by some silly wand.

Here’s a little secret, though. There’s magic in real life, too. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.

In the stories, it’s often a prince that rescues a princess, but in real life it’s even better. In real life, we rescue each other. We fight for each other. I see it every single day. You’re too young to know about this yet, but one of our friends is battling brain cancer right now. Let me tell you, his wife is one bad-ass dragon slayer. I’ve never seen someone fight so ferociously. She will do anything in her power to make sure he gets the care he needs, to give him as many happy days as possible. Or when your grandma Peggy died, people sent me cards and flowers. They dropped off meals, came by to walk our dogs and gave me countless hugs. All of those little rescue attempts made a really tough situation so much more bearable.

And don’t even get me started on you. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe. I’d crash through briar thorns, release genies from bottles and battle a thousand giants. I’d walk the earth to find you if you were lost. I’d sprout wings and grow a pair of googly eyes if I knew it would make you laugh. I’d even give you my last piece of chocolate, if you reeeeeeally wanted it.

All of that adds up to one very specific type of magic — love. Just like fairy tale magic, love really does make the world a better place. Every time you act out of kindness, you blot out some of the bad. You make the darkness recede, just a little bit. We can’t stop bad things from happening, but we can love fiercely and faithfully. We can make life beautiful, even in the hardest of times.

Sounds pretty magical to me.

And yeah, love doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after.

But it sure does make us happier.

Love,
Mom

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.

grave2

 

 

The Holiday Spirits

I’ve been a mute blogger lately. There have been some good days and some bad days. As always, my sweet Lettie is bringing me joy times a million.

Overall, I think I’m doing ok.

The holidays, though. Oh, the holidays. On the one hand, I’m incredibly excited for Christmas. Lettie sill has no idea who Santa is, but she’s going to love all the boxes and wrapping paper. I have no doubt that she’ll get caught up in the happy energy of Christmas morning. I can’t wait for that.

On the other hand, these December days are dark. They are literally dark, of course, thanks to the approaching solstice, but they are also dark inside my mind. Despite the beauty of the season, it feels like a season of missing to me. Missing my mom, who I spent every Christmas with for 35 years. Even her last Christmas, a Christmas that included an ER visit because she couldn’t stop vomiting, was still better than the alternative—her not being here at all.

Then there’s Gabriel. I should have been about six months pregnant now. I should have a big pregnant belly. I should have spent this season dreaming of what it was going to be like when our family welcomed a new member in a couple of months. I should have had a newborn this April.

But Alas. I was not meant to spend this Christmas with my mom or with a baby growing safe inside of me. If I were, they would both be here with me. Not meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t miss them, ache for them, cry for them.

I love my family. I’m grateful for them, always. I look at Lettie in wonder every day. How is she here with me, in this world where life is so fragile? How did I get so lucky? But underneath all that gratitude is a sadness so wide and deep that it takes my breath away.

Even if you’re not a Christian, the story of Jesus is still a beautiful story of enduring love. Christmas honors His birth—a day full of joy, no doubt. But Jesus left this world too soon, long before the world was ready to say goodbye. Many grieved His passing, but the truly faithful believed—and still believe—that He was still with them. They knew that His love was not lost.

I love my mom. I love Gabriel. If I didn’t love them so much, I wouldn’t be so heartbroken. And somewhere in this great big universe, they love me right back. That’s the thought I’m holding onto in the middle of all this sadness: their love is not lost.

True love never is.

The Pink Socks

There’s a suitcase full of my mother’s clothes on the bedroom floor. Everything in it smells like her. It smells of every hug she ever gave me.

In the living room, a beast on borrowed time rests on her dog bed. She sleeps peacefully, but a few days ago she was moaning from a tumor-extracting surgery. Her cancer is gone for now, but there’s no telling if it will return and when.

In the kitchen, there are mice banging around in the cabinets. Their strangely loud clangs and shuffles remind me that unwanted things can creep in at any moment. They make me wonder if life is just a fight to keep the bad things out.

There are pink socks scattered in the hallway, belonging to tiny feet. There’s a pint-sized washcloth drying in the bathroom, no bigger than my hand. These things remind me of the little girl tucked in a crib next to my bed. They remind me of all that’s good in the world.

They remind me of hope.

Missing Person Report

Mom,

What I wouldn’t give to hug you right now. To smell your magnolia perfume and feel your short, baby-fine hair against my cheek.

I want to go over to your house and sit amongst your billions of Halloween decorations. There’s the black cat hand towels with the feather tails, the fiber optic skull candle, the string of pumpkin lights slung across the mantel…

I want to sit on your bed, legs tucked underneath me, while you show me the outfits you recently bought. Four pairs of the same crazy pants in different colors. Three identical shirts in different prints. A handful of sparkling costume jewelry to match.

I want you to see my daughter, to hold her in your arms. I want you to marvel at her long eyelashes with me. I want you to experience what it feels like when she looks you directly in the eye, opens her mouth wide and smiles. The fact that you will never know the joy of her is unfathomable to me.

Mostly, I just want I miss you to mean that you are off on a long, glamorous trip somewhere or that you moved across the country. Not that you are gone forever.

A Life Well Lived

I’m writing with a heavy heart to let you know that my mom passed away yesterday morning. My dad was by her side, holding her hand.

How do I feel? Pretty numb. It’s hard to believe that I’m not going to see her again in a month or two. I mean, she’s my mom. She’s always been there. She should always be there.

Right?

I’m glad she’s not suffering any more, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t devastated that she never got to meet my little girl.

But like the bib says, her heart belongs to grandma, even though they never met in person.

And it kills me that I wasn’t able to be by her side in her final days. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined that I wouldn’t be with her. But my dad said that she was ready and not scared, so I will have to take comfort in that.

To the very last, she kept her sense of humor. The other day she told my aunt that she wanted us to throw a fucking-ass great party. Only she transposed it and accidentally said “an ass-fucking party.”

My mom was many things: go-getter, cat lover, collector of tsotchkes, wife, mother, daughter, sister, potty mouth, pedicure enthusiast, sincere, perpetually right, girly-girl, straight shooter, loyal as they come, beautiful, honest, computer genius, skier, heath nut, partier, lover of bad chardonnay, the best dressed woman on the east coast, full of life, an open book, a fighter, my biggest fan.

You can’t quantify a life, of course. But all of that adds up to one seriously amazing person. And a life well lived.

So what do we do now? We do the only thing we can do. Throw an ass-fucking great party. And celebrate her very wonderful life.

Peg and Chuck 39 years ago. What a dish she was, feathered hat and all!
Mom and my bro at her 60th birthday celebration.