Mothers Hugging Daughters Hugging Mothers

The mothers and daughters I saw hugging at the airport didn’t look cheesy like this. If they had looked like this, they wouldn’t have made me start crying.

No, the mothers I saw hugging their daughters as they came down the escalator at LAX looked more like this…

One after another greeted each other with broad smiles and tight hugs, each one like a bucket of pin needles on my heart, pulling me closer and closer to completely losing it. I wondered why the arriving flight had so many moms waiting, then I realized it was spring break — these were college kids coming home for their week off and their excited moms, most of them alone without dads, stood there waiting for the best part of their year.

I remembered my mother standing at the bottom of the escalator at Oakland Airport, smiling like that, excitedly waiting for me, how loved that look on her face made me feel…and without much control, I just started crying. I couldn’t hold it back. The daughters kept coming and the mothers kept hugging. I tried to pull it together for the person I was picking up, hoping at some point the passengers would transform into weary business men and European tourists. Eventually the stream stopped. And by the time I saw my familiar face coming down that escalator, my cheeks were dry.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Missing Mannequin

The closets in my dad’s house are stuffed with dead people’s things, a tomb of items we have yet to sell, can’t bear to get rid of, and can’t stand looking at. The house has become a museum in hiding — a modern interior at first glance that crumbles into decades past once you open any closets or drawers. Things like the 40 clocks my grandfather gifted my sister and me in his will filled every nook alongside my mother’s robes and wool sweaters, my great Aunt Fredi’s decorative egg collection and lots of furniture from a farm in South Dakota belonging to one of my mom’s great Aunts.

We’ve got to get rid of this, I think every time I go home. But it never feels like there is enough time or a time when all of us can come together and agree on what could go and what could stay. We’d done it twice already with mother’s things and sort of burned out on the heartache of it all.

One morning this Thanksgiving trip, I opened the closet to the study looking for clothes hangers. And that’s when I noticed the handful of buttons. Political buttons. My mother’s political buttons: “Nixon Eats Grapes.” “Clinton ’92.” “Jane Fonda for President.”

A panic seized me. I raced into the guest room where I last remembered seeing my mother’s antique dressmaking bust, which she had covered almost entirely in political buttons. The bust or as we called it, “the mannequin,” that had sat in the family room my entire childhood next to the TV, proudly wearing its hippie beads and political views. Then later migrating to the living room next to my mom’s guitars where it stayed until I went to college. After my mother’s death, my father started moving it around like everything in the house. The last I’d seen, it was in the guest room. But it wasn’t there anymore.

This is what the antique dressmaking bust looked like. I do not have a photo of the actual one with the buttons on it.

This is what the antique dressmaking bust looked like.

“Where’s mom’s mannequin?”

“Don’t freak out,” my sister said calmly. “We took it apart and saved all the buttons. It’s in the closet in the study.”

“No, it’s not,” I said, digging through the closet.

“I gave it to Del’s girlfriend, Linda,” my dad shouted from the kitchen.

I gave my sister a death stare. Linda. Who the fuck was Linda? He gave my mother’s mannequin to a woman I’d never met?

“Oh,” my sister said. This was news to her as well. My sister laughed when she saw the look on my face, “Nicole is not happy.”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to get it back. I just loaned it to her to do her dressmaking. It was the perfect size for her body,” he argued, justifying his unpopular decision, painting me as selfish for wanting to keep the mannequin with the buttons in the exact spots where my mother had placed them.

The bust was a signature item of my childhood. My mother used it to show me the importance of caring about elections and standing for something. We’d buy buttons each election cycle, then pin them on the mannequin after the election ended. There were sad buttons — Mondale/Ferraro. Happy buttons — Clinton/Gore. And more sad buttons — Gore/Lieberman. Buttons that stretched back to campaigns before I was even alive.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to get rid of it? I would have taken it,” I said.

“Like you’d have room for it in your one-bedroom apartment,” my father scoffed. This knowledge didn’t stop him from dumping my mother’s entire paperback book collection on me with a “take it or donate it” policy last April. I still had the boxes strewn about my place because he could no longer stand letting them inhabit the built-in bookshelves at the house.

“I told you I wanted it. It’s stands upright. How much room could it take?” I argued.

My dad didn’t respond. I looked at my sister. As usual, she wasn’t that upset. She was his accomplice. She had taken apart the dressmaking bust with my father over Labor Day when I wasn’t home and didn’t see its significance. I was all alone in this — the “sensitive,” “sentimental one,” trying to hold onto yet another creative thing my mother had done that mattered little to the uncreative members of my family.

A few days later my sister went home. My father and his new girlfriend took me to “The Hunger Games” sequel. And all I could think about was what my father had given away and how I wanted to walk out of the movie and go call Del — tell him it wasn’t my father’s right to loan out this mannequin that meant so much to me and that his girlfriend Linda was a grown woman and could afford her own dressmaking bust, one that didn’t have as much sentimental meaning to me, that hadn’t sat in my mother’s bedroom in Minnesota since she was 14.

But instead, I tried to remember the importance of not flipping out. It never produced the results I wanted. And I wanted this item back. When we returned to the house, I said in the calmest voice I could muster, “Would you maybe be able to ask Del for the mannequin back? I know it seems silly but it was sacred to me and I would like to have it. Maybe by January?”

“Sure thing, pal,” my dad said. “Linda has another one.”

Then why the fuck did you give it to her? I thought. But instead, I stuffed this thought away and said, “And do you know where the other buttons are?”

“I put them somewhere safe. Follow me.” I followed my father into the garage where he unfolded the flaps of a plastic box and revealed hundreds of buttons. He had saved them all.

“Oh, I guess that these just got separated from the rest,” I said, dumping the buttons I’d found in the closet in with the others.

Before my trip ended, I was determined to find all the other things of my mother’s I wanted to save and to give away the items that I didn’t. I photographed clothing items and texted them to my sister asking if we could donate them so she wouldn’t be victimized as I had been.

I opened my bedroom closet and saw an old PC computer tower and a keyboard. “Can we get rid of this old computer?” I asked. My dad was silent. “If it’s mom’s, we can just transfer the files onto an external drive.”

My dad yelled from the kitchen, “No, I still want to hold onto it. Makes me think of your mom.”

The tower looked like this one only without the binder.

The tower looked like this one only without the binder.

I stared at the yellowing plastic, the clunky keyboard and remembered my mom clacking away in the study across from my bedroom while I was trying to sleep. Why’d he want to save this old thing? Besides, my mother hated it. She hated all the cheap computers my dad had pieced together. (One of the hazards of marrying an I.T. guy who ran his own computer business.) When the power button would get jammed down or the thing would run slowly my mother would complain about why we couldn’t just get something new and I’d joke, “The shoemaker’s kids have no shoes.”

I slid the PC to the back of the closet against the wall. I respected what my dad wanted to keep, even if I didn’t understand it.

The morning I left, I did one last look through the closets for any other keepsakes that I might miss, knowing their contents would change again by the next time I was home. But there wasn’t enough time. There were too many boxes.

I drove home knowing that everything was now fair game as my dad tried to give away his grief — to Del’s girlfriend Linda, to Goodwill, to other people we had never met. He had asked to give away our baby clothes that my mother had saved for our future children a few years ago. Would he ask again next time or just ditch them? It had been five years of living with closets stuffed with memories like time bombs. He had stopped asking permission to feel better.

Posted in family dynamics, grief, letting go, moving on with your life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two out-of-place grievers at a “Real L Word” party

It was the end of the summer, technically fall, but still warm enough to wear a tank top along with a pair of overpriced skinny jeans to an afternoon party in Highland Park that my younger friend Jordan had invited me to. She was hosting it with friends who had been on “The Real L Word.” Jordan admired these women for making good money, landing hot girls and knowing how to “get it in” (a term that, according to Jordan, did not have an implicitly sexual meaning).

And then there was me…

I wrote personal essays about my dead mother. Followed politics. Meticulously maintained my GoodReads account. All qualities that women like these found unbearably hot.

As I parked, I spotted a middle-aged butch-femme Latina couple looking for the house. Since I was flying solo, I quickly joined them on the sidewalk and asked if they were going to the party. They didn’t look perfect or hip. They looked down-to-earth. My worries about being out of place immediately abated. This isn’t going to be so bad, I thought.  Then I turned the corner with them down the driveway into the backyard…

The party consisted largely of lesbians in their late 20s acting out some “Gin ‘N’ Juice” fantasy. A DJ spun hip-hop records next to partygoers sporting tattoo sleeves, bandanas and multi-colored Ray Bans. Baseball caps sporting words like “Puta” were worn with flipped-up bills or backwards.

Awesome. I was at some sort of lesbian gangsta party and not in a wink-wink nudge-nudge sort of a way. A middle school-esque responsibility fell on me to prove that I was relevant, that I could hang — and dropping a dime on why the Republicans wouldn’t let us fall off the fiscal cliff wasn’t going to cut it.

I found Jordan as quickly as I could. We hovered by a plant wondering if it was a palm tree with one of the only guys there, and then I made a beeline for the bar, doing what any respectable person would do in this situation: I got drunk very very quickly. I filled my party cup from a bottle of Chimay I’d brought and made my way out onto the patio.

The one friend of Jordan’s I knew was bobbing her head like an extra in a music video. I sat next to her in a semi circle of plastic chairs. “You have a fine array of magazines in your bathroom,” she said. Jordan had brought this friend over to my house for a Cards Against Humanity game night a week ago.

“Yeah, my collection is pretty expansive,” I said. Hello, I’m the well-read friend who’s known for the library in her toilet. If that’s not game, I don’t know what is.

The two-tier basket of reading materials next to my bathtub included but was not limited to a PostSecret book, an old New York Times Modern Love article, three Entertainment Weeklys, a Rolling Stone, a copy of Writer’s Digest, a book on how to make your dog stop barking, and an edition of MORE magazine, which magically started arriving in my mailbox the moment I turned 35 to shame me .

“That Psychology Today had some really interesting articles,” she said.

“It does,” I said, wondering just how long she’d sat on the can flipping through it. She was referring to the sociopath issue, the one with the article about how forcing yourself to smile actually made you more miserable.

“You can have it if you want,” I offered. She seemed to like this prospect. Why not give her a gift? This friendly early 20-something who had pronounced with surprise, “Drew Barrymore used to be hot?!” when I’d thrown on “Poison Ivy” after the card game.

Jordan approached me and asked if I was hungry. There was a bunch of Mexican food in the dining room if I wanted. I wasn’t hungry, but I usually fared better in quiet areas of parties where people could actually hear me, where I could try to talk my way out of things.

Inside I found a spread of Spanish rice, beans, grilled steak, chicken and tortillas. The homemade food made me feel more at home, welcome. Even the people on “The Real L Word” had mothers, and this one supported her gay daughter so much that she hosted all of her wannabe lesbi-gangsta friends in her home and fed them. And it seemed like she’d been doing it for years. I stacked my plate high and sat at the dining room table with a handful of women. To my right was a gal who had driven up from Long Beach. She resembled Mindy Kaling and was noting how the best thing to say to your significant other when they are totally pissed at you is, “Are you mad?”

The girl across from her was androgynous and complaining of how she was so hungover she barely made it to the party. She, too, had driven up from Long Beach. It dawned on me that I lacked the partying stamina of nearly every attendee of this fête . Two glasses of beer in, and I was already drunk. I cleaned my plate, hoping it would help me sober up so at some point I could have the prospect of leaving.

That’s when I noticed the middle-aged Asian lesbian with the short black hair talking to the mom who had prepared the meal. She was telling her that her partner had died in the spring. Then she burst into tears. “Don’t cry,” the mom said, not in an uncaring way, but in a “it’s life” kind of way. Everyone stared, the responsibility to nurture this woman dissipated in our numbers. The woman’s body heaved in earth-wrenching sobs, sobs that made my heart weep. And in my drunken state I decided to do something about it.

I rose to my feet and embraced the woman in a tight hug. She didn’t hug me back. She just stood there sobbing, separate from my body, from my well-intentions. I had intruded on her unintentionally public grief experience and somehow made it worse. I released her and marched back to my rice and beans.

The woman left the dining room. I tried to change the subject and discuss the food with two women from Malibu. One by one Mindy Kaling and her hungover friends trickled out until I had no choice but go to back outside.

I exited to the top of the stairs above the patio. The music was about 40 decibels louder. Jordan approached and introduced me to her closest “Real L Word” cast member friend. I extended my hand and said, “I’ve heard wonderful things about you.”

Jordan interjected, “You’ve heard horrible things about her? Come on!”  The woman made an indifferent face and said nothing.

“No, I said wonderful…” I said. I looked over at the DJ. The music was booming so you couldn’t hear someone yelling an inch from your face.

She and Jordan drifted off to raise a Corona-shaped pinata, and I noticed the Asian woman sitting alone on a plastic chair. She refused to make eye contact with me. I went back to the bar and finished the bottle of Chimay and stood behind a group of partygoers as they tackled the pinata without blindfolds until the “Real L Word” cast member I’d met tripped on the candy and fell on her ass. Jordan howled in laughter. I picked up a lollipop from the ground, unwrapped it and placed it in my mouth as the group took photos to commemorate the good time they were having. I stood behind them as they mugged like badasses.

That's me. In the background. With the lollipop.

That’s me. In the background. With the lollipop.

One of the Malibu women approached me. “I don’t feel like I belong here. You look like you don’t belong here either,” she admitted.

I laughed. “Hey, at least the beans were good,” I said.

I looked over my shoulder at the Asian woman. She was still sitting alone on the plastic chair, not drinking or eating anything, not trying to connect…smart woman. My strategy for this party had been entirely wrong. I sucked on my lollipop. My work here was done.

Posted in drinking, friends, grief, house party, LGBT, moving on with your life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Chosen Loss

The MG's home while my mom died.

The MG’s home while my mom died.

I didn’t want to sell the MG. It was my first car. I’d driven it through high school, college, my first years in Los Angeles as a struggling musician. I’d dragged it from apartment building to apartment building covered in dust, driving it so infrequently that I sometimes had to replace cracked tires that had only been used a few times. I spent hundreds in repairs — first in an effort to restore, then in an effort to maintain — leaving me with a puddle of credit card debt that stretched from my college years into my early 30s.

The inside of my MG.

The inside of my MG.

Every time my parents begged me to sell the car, I’d walk outside and sit inside of it. Despite all the places I’d lived over the last 17 years, it was the constant. It felt like home. The dash looked like a cockpit. The smell of dust and grease reminded me of all that was good in the world, the hope I had in high school, the belief that everything would work out. The car grounded me in this feeling, in a time long gone that I hoped to recapture. I didn’t want to let my 16-year-old self down: someday I would be that successful person I imagined and restore the car. The nostalgia seemed worth all of the inconvenience. I couldn’t face letting it go. It would break my heart.

So when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I decided to move home to help care for her, I stored the MG in a generous friend’s garage, expecting to be back in three short months. But after she died, I was in no shape to return to L.A. A year later, when I finally did, my new apartment building had only one parking spot and street parking was competitive if not impossible. I dawdled and procrastinated dealing with the car until my generous friend finally tired of storing it.

I drove over that week and called a tow truck. As I stood in front of the MG, I felt all the years we had between us and how after all I had put into it, I was back at square one: The car, caked in dust, wouldn’t start. The tow truck driver and I couldn’t roll it out of the garage. “The parking brake is frozen,” he speculated. I pulled the lever up and down.

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “I think it’s the flat tires.” I felt guilty, embarrassed, angry. The car seemed to show no gratitude for my loyalty and I felt guilty, like an owner with a pet I forgot to feed.  But the guilt was also about something else: I had learned to live without it.

After three years in storage, the car didn't resemble the one I had fallen in love with.

After three years in storage, the car didn’t resemble the one I had fallen in love with.

Without the cool car that garnered me attention. Without the appearance of new leaks under the chassis. Without the stress of watching the temperature gauge rise to “H” while I was stuck in gridlock traffic. My identity was no longer tied to this vehicle. It was tied to something else: the death of my mother.

Once I got the car home I called my old MG mechanic in hopes he could resurrect it enough for me to sell it. The number was disconnected. He had gone out of business. I had to find a new mechanic. My father grumbled at the idea. “Just sell it! Take $500 and walk away.”

“Are you kidding me? Get nothing for it? I’ve put so much money into it over the years.”

“That thing is a money pit. It’s going to keep nickel and diming you to death. You get that thing fixed, you’ll never recoup what you put into it.”

But I couldn’t let it go. Not in this state. It’d be destined for the junk pile for sure, to be a parts car sitting rusty in some garage. I couldn’t bear the thought.

I found a mechanic in the Valley, who at $110 per hour was the cheapest I could find — the cost of labor now double what it had been when I had moved to L.A. I had it towed to his shop where I learned the brake cylinders had leaked, freezing them onto the wheels, and that the entire fuel system needed to be refurbished including the carburetors which were fouled by old gasoline sitting dormant inside them for years.

My father agreed to pay for the carbs to be rebuilt by a guy he trusted at home and so I shipped them off. The rebuild was $600. I took the new car to the new mechanic hoping the cost of fixing the rest of it wouldn’t be more than $1,000. It was $2,600. The day I picked up the car and realized I not only was being swindled for double the estimate I agreed to, I drove the MG to a gas station and cried. My credit card debt, which I’d managed to pay down while living at home on unemployment, was back to it’s previous levels. The car had fucked me again.

I got the car waxed and detailed for $130 and it cleaned up better than I expected. I quickly set out to sell it before this feeling of disgust dissipated. I placed an ad on the MG Experience and on Craigslist but I quickly learned I had two options: selling it to some naive idiot who had no idea how to maintain the car or cutting my price tag steeply down from the $4,900 I had named to recoup my costs.

After I got the car waxed, polished and detailed.

After I got the car waxed, polished and detailed.

I took various owners on test drives. Some I rejected upon first look at them — a couple so overweight that they could barely fit in the driver’s seat. A 22-year-old who had totaled his last car.  A guy in Ohio who told me a woman shouldn’t own a car “like that” despite the novel-length description of all the work I’d had done to it, including repairs I did myself. A neighbor’s friend who was always drunk when I saw him. “How much you want for it? Would you wait to sell it while I save up? It’s sooooo cool,” he droned.

They don’t deserve to own my beautiful car. 

None of them seemed right and the ones who did, didn’t work out — the middle-aged car aficionado who wanted an MG for his teenage son took it on a test drive and rejected it without explanation. The woman online in Canada who couldn’t justify the shipping expense backed out. The high school teacher who needed a daily driver in Fresno where the car would overheat on him every day.

A Brit from New York came and saw the car. He would have been perfect aside from wanting to put a Miata engine under the hood. But he dropped out because he had his heart set on an earlier model. I was just about to sell the car to a 30-year-old computer programmer but then another buyer swooped in from Long Beach.

He knew MGs. In fact, he owned the exact same model in the same color as mine. In fact, he had restored that exact model and showed me pictures.

It was my car — as I had always dreamed it would be. Fully restored and in mint condition. My heart began to race. This was the guy. This was the buyer. He described to me how he would cover the car with three layers of tarp and canvas to shield it from the sun. He praised how it had the original seatbelts and windshield. He loved the car the way it was. He loved the car because I hadn’t had the money to replace things.

He stopped by again and we agreed on a price — $3,500. My heart raced a little more. Was I actually doing this? Giving away my dream, my connection to high school, to happier days? I thought of my mother and how she had begged me to sell the car, to let go, to stop dragging it around. I thought of my future and how I hadn’t made the money I thought I would and how if I wanted to keep living as an artist, I might never. I thought of the fact that I was 36 and had never had a life savings because of this car. It was time to let go. And the grief process began.

The night before he came to buy the car I had a mini-meltdown. I sobbed at my failure to fulfill my dream, to afford the luxury of keeping something simply because it gave me pleasure. I cried at the injustice of losing my mother and then having to give up something else I loved for financial reasons. But most of all I cried because it was the end of an era.

The new owner was supposed to pick up the car from me at work during my lunch break but I changed it to before work because I wasn’t sure I could emotionally hold it together after saying goodbye to it. He completely understood and told me this was no goodbye. That I would have visitation rights. That someday if he decided to sell the car he would offer to sell it back to me first. I really had picked the perfect buyer.

The morning arrived. I went out to the car and warmed it up for him. I revved the engine for the last time. Then I removed the University of Oregon license plate frame from the front of the car with a screwdriver and took my maroon college graduation tassel from the glove compartment. And then the tears came. I raced inside with that raw, hollow feeling you get from an unwanted goodbye. Like the day my pet rat died or when my out-of-state grandparents flew home after a long visit when I was in elementary school. The feeling of something being torn away…

In the middle of crying about the car for the fifth time in 24 hours I suddenly realized after all of those years of memories — of driving it with high school friends, on rainy streets in Oregon during college, of being broken down all over L.A. — I had not one photo of myself with the car. The sole image I had was of me and my sister standing next to it in 1995, and that photo was blurry.

I raced outside, wiped my tears and forced a smile onto my face and took this picture…

The last and only picture of me and my MG.

The last and only picture of me and my MG.

I was sad the only shot I would have would be inside my carport next to the dumpster but it would have to do. I was too busy living my life in the car to document my life with the car, and this was something I was proud of. (My ownership pre-dated digital cameras and selfies.) 

Fifteen minutes later, the buyer showed up and came inside. He gave me a miniature model of our exact MG in the red damask color and said he knew this was hard for me but that the car would be in good hands. I thanked him. We kept it brief. I handed him the keys. I waited until I heard him rev the engine and drive away to go to work.

A few days later he sent me an email explaining how much he was enjoying the car — waxing the floor panels and removing the engine to see what work it needed. He loved working on it so much that he threw his back out repairing it and had to take a break. And there our correspondence took a rest. I came home from work and parked my Honda Fit in the parking spot it had been missing for over a year. One part of my life had become easier. This loss, unlike all of the others, felt right.

Posted in cars, classic cars, grief, letting go, MG, MGB GT, moving on with your life, selling your first car | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Best Way Out is Always Through”

Image courtesy of Simply Better Photos Blogspot

I really wish I could say there’s a day you finally wake up and don’t miss your mom. Where you don’t feel like you’re stuck in some “Twilight Zone” existence where the landscape of your family no longer looks like a crooked trail leading to a dead end. Where you don’t look at your life and see it staring back at you through a funhouse mirror.

Instead there seems to only be that baseline level of pain you wake up to each morning and must learn to live with. On good days it doesn’t feel as unbearable as the others. And then there are times when I close my eyes and remember the complete feeling my life had with two parents, and it burns. The simplicity that will no longer return replaced by the never-ending familial dramas that continue to unfold in unnatural ways without her.

“If mom were here, that never would have happened,” my sister says. The phrase becomes like a mantra. We call each other outraged with our new reality and repeat it when we feel injustice, a lack of support, a lack of empathy emanating from our living relatives. “If mom were here…” But she’s not. All we have is the bond we’ve formed through that recycled thought.

But we want so badly that slice of happiness we feel we deserve. The redemptive, phoenix moment that comes in movies. Instead, we find ourselves battling bitterness and frustration with peers who have no idea what we’re going through but consider us “glass half empty.” If they could wake up to that pain, they would be surprised there’s anything in that glass at all.

My mom wouldn’t want us  still to feel so empty. She’d want us to have hope. To go out and find love and success and stability. To blossom into the brilliant young (well, almost young) women she knew we were. And everyday I fight becoming that dark, angry person who’s waiting in the wings because I know I cannot change the course of history. I know I have a responsibility to my mother, to my remaining family and to myself not to let this one negative experience sap me of all of my hope.

But I also know that I listened to my maternal grandmother mourn her own mother’s premature death of an aneurysm in her early 50s until the day she died. I never knew her before the loss, but given how frequently she talked about it, it was clear that she was never recovered. I watched my own mother burst into tears over and over again because she had to face terminal cancer without her mother there to console her as she had during her past cancer diagnoses. I never saw these women with my same D.N.A. recover from the exact same loss that’s beleaguered me. But I have to be different. I have accept this new landscape, this new baseline level of pain and get on with it. Despite how much time passes. Despite how many people forget. Despite how much I’m expected to seem normal. I have to move on. Somehow.

Posted in depression, family dynamics, grief, hopelessness, moving on with your life | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Last Insomniac Standing

Insomnia or Nocturnal Awakening by George Grie

“Sleep is the fuel of life…It’s nourishing; it’s restorative. And when you are deprived of it, you are really deprived of a basic kind of sustenance.” — Gayle Greene, author of Insomniac.

To say I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since my mother’s death would be inaccurate. I go through periods where I sleep solidly for a month or two. But then the insomnia returns…that half empty feeling that seeps in at 2 a.m. and leaves me brittle and restless, turning the light on and off until the dog gives me dirty looks. I read chapter after chapter in whatever book is on my nightstand until my eyes are stinging, waiting for my mind to pass out.

Instead it wanders from thought to thought like a bee pollinating hopelessness. I am behind in my life…in my career…in love…in building a life for myself. I think of where my mother was at my age — she had an 11-year-old, an eight-year-old, a house and a husband. She was in grad school, studying to get her M.A. in Child Psychology. I remind myself of how old she felt in comparison to her classmates. Then I wonder if the time is too late for me to go back to school. To change my life somehow to make it feel better. Then I remember, very little has felt better since she died.

Then the worries arrive. I worry that I haven’t had the baseline mammogram I was supposed to have 10 years before my mother was diagnosed. I worry about the cough I’ve had for over a month that never seems to go away. I worry about blood tests I haven’t taken for my annual physical…I worry I have cancer already.

Insomnia by Joanna Wędrychowska

I take an Ambien. I do not know if I’m depressed or just exhausted from night after night of getting five hours of sleep. Pill sleep. Fake sleep. I miss typos at work. Co-workers correct me. They are sharp, energetic, they sleep well at night. They work out each day. I try to ride my bike, do yoga, to implement the typical insomnia solutions  — melatonin (weak as shit), exercise (makes me more wound up), turning off the television and computer a few hours before bed (pointless). Nothing works…except the Ambien on my nightstand.

I know  I share this problem with 60 million other Americans. And at 2 a.m., I try to remember I am not the only one involuntarily awake. But what’s missing is some sense of hope. Hope that I will get to sleep. Hope that my life will feel complete again. Hope that I will see some progress, some upward mobility, something other than this crippling fear that I have become a dark person. A cynical person. An unhappy person.

When I couldn’t sleep in 3rd grade, I remember padding down the hall in the middle of the night to my parents’ bedroom after lying awake for hours. I’d hover in the doorway, listening to my parents breathe, waiting for one of them to shift, to show some sign of wakefulness. Then I’d call out, “Moooom???” And I’d hear no reply. (My mother wore earplugs — she was a horrible insomniac as well). “Mooooommm!!!” And she’d jump, and hastily jolt upright. “What?” she’d ask. Her tone would slice through me, make me wish I’d never come to her for help.

She’d walk me down to my bed and crawl inside with me. Once safe in her arms, I felt I could finally relax, finally pass out. And just at that moment when I was about to fall asleep, she’d pull her arm from under my neck and leave me there. The emptiness would return, and I’d lie there, entirely awake, wondering how long I had to pretend to be asleep before I could get her again.

Now when I’m tired and I want to call someone who relates, I have to remind myself there is no one at the end of that hall. That somewhere in other ends of the city and the state my sister and father fell asleep hours ago, the moment their heads hit their pillows. That I am alone in this problem.  That I am the only left in my family who is up at 2 a.m.

I remember standing in a dark kitchen in front of an open fridge with my mother over Thanksgiving, in our pajamas at 1 a.m., digging through leftovers with mussed hair, discussing the various pills we had taken to get to sleep that had failed, finding the last piece of pumpkin pie. My mother had insisted that I eat it. “But it’s the last piece,” I’d said. My mother pretended like she didn’t even want it. “But I’ve already got this cookie,” she said, shoving it into her mouth. “Mmmmm.”

And those are the moments, the selfless moments…that keep you up at night.

Posted in depression, grief, hopelessness, insomnia, mental health | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My Fifth Birthday…Without Her

I don’t remember much about my fifth birthday or any of my birthdays, really. I have vague images of cakes — a clown cake, a cake shaped like a guitar with frosting-painted strings, one resembling Oscar the Grouch made out of dyed green coconut. My best friend Brian from kindergarten eating an upside down ice cream cone with a face made out of gumdrops and red licorice…recollections more from family photos than actual memories.

My 5th birthday cake.

My 5th birthday cake.

My mother always handmade my birthday cakes. A stay-at-home mom, she thought it tacky when mothers served store bought desserts, and the cakes delivered something I wasn’t allowed to have most of the year — sugar.  My mother was into nutrition and crystals in the ’80s and my grandfather was a dentist, which pretty much meant I only got sugar when I raided the pantries of friends’ houses during after school playdates. I fondly remember skateboarding with the 15-year-old kid across the street because he let me drink a lemon lime Hansen’s one day after making some sharp turns. But yeah…I digress. I was raised on carob. The trauma still hasn’t abated. Anyway, the cake was the part that came after the presents, the last hurrah before my birthday was over. And because my mom made my cakes, they impressed the crap out of all of my friends.

Aside from the cakes, my birthdays are a blur. I mostly remember the disappointments… a Double Dare– themed party that flopped when my friend discovered she could climb up the edges of whipping cream covered slide in half a second to claim the prize. A water park debacle where I got food poisoning. A Sweet Sixteen surprise party with an awkward group dynamic. All that stands out now was the last birthday I spent with my mom after her Stage IV diagnosis. My mom and dad flew out to L.A. and we all tried to pretend we hadn’t learned that afternoon that my mom was given two years to live and a terminal diagnosis. That evening, my mother put on her sarcastic charm and humored me and my friends by playing Guitar Hero (though she seriously didn’t get why anyone would play fake guitars when you could play real ones).

I remember my first birthday without her in 2009. I was still living in my parents’ home with my dad, shellshocked and exhausted with grief. It was five months after her death and everything still felt really raw. My dad asked me what I wanted to do. I decided to spend my birthday with him at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, though I admitted to him I would rather skip it. But because he was excited to get to be the sole guest, I acted excited, though I didn’t know how my birthday would feel without my mom and I was worried about spending too much time in public in case I ended up involuntarily weeping in some fois gras.

Fog City Diner

Fog City Diner

That first birthday was an oddly sunny evening in San Francisco. We found a parking spot right in front. The meter was so full of coins that I scooped out an entire handful and pocketed it. I took it as a sign. My mother always said she thought my grandmother who passed away was saying hello when she found a penny on the ground. The coins in the parking meter felt like her, and when your parent’s just died, you see signs everywhere — in places where folks who haven’t experienced loss see coincidence. You look  for comfort in parking meters. We went inside and I remember trying not to look upset as my father gushed about his new girlfriend for most of the meal.

Today is my fifth birthday without my mother, and given the way I’m feeling, it will still feel empty and lacking…of her phone calls, her cards, her presents that were rarely on my list but more stuff she wanted for herself or thought I would find cool. I tell ya, you will miss those dorky mom gifts more than you can imagine. You run out of granny panties and white socks and that day you go to Target and have to buy them for yourself is a sad day. And you miss the surprises — like the time my mom gave me a camera filled with film that I developed to revealed a bunch pics she and my dad had taken at arms length grinning like idiots. And the disappointments — a ceramic lantern with a piece of paper on which to write your wishes… already filled out by her. At the time I had been annoyed she’d had the nerve to write my wishes. She’d even burned the edges of the paper for authenticity (of what? The genie’s power?).

My mother provided the wishes

My mother provided the wishes

Wishing you

Now I cherish that silly hippy dippy piece of paper. I reminds me to wish for those things for myself as my mother once had.

Then there were the Runes she made me from stones she had collected from Stinson beach. She had used a permanent marker to write all of the symbols on the rocks and stitched together a burlap sack to hold them.

My homemade runes

My homemade runes

Too cheap to buy me a Rune book, she Xeroxed her own (how that was easier than buying another book, I never knew), three-hole punched it and put it in her old University of Minnesota binder. On the other hand, the stones for her Runes were from England. She’d sewn a bag for herself out of leather.

Mom's runes

Mom’s runes

I felt slighted at the time. Why did I not merit a leather satchel or a real Rune book? Why did she always seem to go the extra mile for herself but not her kid? Now I realize all she did was go the extra mile for me but all I could see were the few times she didn’t. Now that she’s gone and I’ve inherited her Runes, I prefer the old binder and the burlap sack to her fancier personal set. Because she made them for me. She stood in Kinko’s Xeroxing every page of that Rune book for god knows how long — just for me. I can’t think of anyone else in my life who would Xerox an entire book for me.

Though it’s the fifth time I’ve done this, celebrated another strange year without her, I suppose there will always be this lingering sadness around birthdays, and that acceptance doesn’t make the birthday feel any better. When the person who gave you life is no longer around to wish you a happy birthday, the whole song and dance feels half-hearted. No one will ever be as excited about your birthday as your mother. And though in birthdays past you might have been shaking your head at your mom thinking, “What the hell’s the big deal?” trust me, once that person isn’t there, your birthday will never feel truly happy again.


Posted in birthdays, grief | 2 Comments

The Perils of Rebuilding

When do we become adults? When we turn 18? When we get married? When we have children? When we buy a home? Perhaps we become adults when we realize that someday our parents are going to die and we will have to take care of ourselves (or find someone else to do it <— not recommended).

So self-sufficiency is a must. Building your own family and support system is a must. But what if grief and the new responsibilities grief has imbued you with impede your ability to build this life for yourself?

I recently tried to have my second post-grief relationship. And it was going swimmingly. My heart was filled with hope. My head, with visions of a future that actually involved another person.  I was smiling so widely at the airport before a flight to see my mother’s 90-year-old father that the TSA agent told me with a laugh to wipe that grin off my face or I’d be in trouble. I was a dopey lovesick idiot. I was…happy.

Then I flew to Minnesota to host the 90th birthday party for Grandpa Bud I’d been planning since February. I’d made invitations on Zazzle, invited the neighbors, even talked my father into going despite how verbally abusive my grandfather had been to him last August.

I pictured an informal get together, something to celebrate one of the few things there is to celebrate about very old age — that you get more life than other people. I knew two weeks before the trip that the party was too much for my grandfather. He had lost his ability to sleep and eat because he was so worried about whether people would show up, if the steaks would be good, if my father and I could be trusted to prep the house for 20 guests. “I can’t do nothing,” he’d lament, noting his legs had grown numb from the knees down and that his balance was so bad he couldn’t move around without a hand on every surface.

My father and I arrived in the middle of a May snowstorm to a man who was deeply depressed, impatiently barking at us to move objects that he couldn’t name. “Put the thing on the thing.” “What thing on what thing?” “THE THING ON THE THING!” he’d shout, frustrated. We hurried about to put up decorations, set up tables and chairs, trying to make everything perfect to calm my grandfather’s nerves. But nothing was enough.

The day of the party I woke up to learn my father and grandfather had already had a fight. My grandfather had barked at my father to do something and my dad said, “You need to be nicer to people.” My grandfather responded, “YOU NEED TO BE NICER TO PEOPLE!” Then my dad disappeared into the back bedroom for the rest of the day. And I was left with an ornery old man, telling me everything I did was wrong, trying to prep the party.

Guests arrived to a house filled with tension. My father slipped into the garage to cook the steaks with my mother’s cousin. When the food was done my grandfather took one bite of the steak and said, “It’s tough.” The partygoers disagreed. “No Bud, the steaks are great.” He shook his head and lowered his fork and knife. “I can’t chew it. I wouldn’t feed this to a dog.”

I went and fetched him another one. “Try this one, grandpa, maybe you got one that was overcooked.”

Grandpa took a bite. “I wouldn’t feed this to a dog,” he said again, loudly, this time making sure my father heard. My dad took his bags and left for Minneapolis with my mom’s cousin before the cake was served. I watched him go, knowing he’d never return to my mother’s hometown, that those were the last words my mother’s father would ever say to him.

I had two more days with my grandfather after my father left. (I had planned to leave after the party, but my grandfather begged me to extend my trip because he needed help.) One morning, I woke up at 8:30 and wandered into the kitchen to tell my grandfather I had placed a message with the social worker to see if he qualified for free services and he laid into me for sleeping all day. “I’ve been up since 6, done three loads of laundry already.” I reminded him that he had told me not to do the laundry the previous day because he liked to do it. At the time, I had not realized this was a passive-aggressive game, that no matter what I did, I could not avoid punishment or criticism. “Are you obtuse?” he asked me.

I remembered my mother flitting about my grandfather’s house like a nervous bird, startling each time he called her name.

I had become that nervous bird.

I texted the girl I was dating about the dysfunctions of my family and the burden of caring for my grandfather. I needed someone to be there for me, to get me back to that feeling of hope that the heaviness in my life was lifting. Her responses were sparse: “That’s awful.”  “Come home.”

But I carried the darkness back with me. I arrived home a different person, beaten down, like I’d gone into war and lost a limb. And everything I had lost pulled on my face, my body, dragging my lips into a frown, my shoulders into a defeated hunch.  I felt invisible, irrelevant because I had let this situation erase the part of me that had the power and energy to feed my own life. My grandfather’s depression had been contagious, and it all hung on me like a blackness that I no longer had the ability to hide, poisoning my relationship and my happiness.

In the weeks after, I was operating on fumes. My tank was empty. I had nothing left to give, not even to this woman who had made me so happy. But I faked it and then I gave some more. I raced all over town buying her presents and getting fresh ingredients from the Farmer’s Market to cook her birthday dinner. I drove to Hollywood in rush hour traffic to attend a concert with her. I tried to smile.

The weekend after my return, I prepared food for her birthday barbecue, defrosting burgers so she would stop placing frozen ones directly on the grill, skewering squash and veggies for guests. And then when I realized my affections were being rebuffed at the end of these long days, I started to feel resentful. My perfect girlfriend started to seem insensitive. Comments I had previously taken with a grain of salt grated like a knife. She started to say things like, “Maybe we rushed into this too fast.” I pretended not to hear them. I didn’t want to know she couldn’t handle this overwhelmed, stressed side of me.

One night in bed, she joked about us breaking up. I told her to stop. She’d found a button to press and kept pushing it. Don’t worry, after me you’ll find the love of your life, she ribbed. I burst into tears — and I am not the kind of girl who bursts into tears. Then it all poured out like a flood —  how I’d lost three years to my mother’s death and was still trying to recover, how my career and life had been neglected because I was caretaking other people in my family, how my grandfather repeatedly asks me to move to Minnesota and take care of him because my life has no value in his eyes since I have no husband or kids.

She listened and told me I was not alone. She listened and told me the responsibility was too much for me. She listened and made a mental note that she no longer wanted to be with me. She stopped calling me on her drive home from work, asked me to stop texting her during the day, she asked for her key back for “a houseguest.” I had turned into that needy girl that I hated, and my depression was contagious — it was infecting her.

Her words kept saying she loved me but her actions mapped a steady withdrawal, a need to rid herself of this dark person. I lost my ability to eat breakfast, waking up with a knot of anxiety that propelled me through the day. My TV job started up again, and I felt shaky. She dropped by over the weekend when I was feeling down and said, “If you need a couple weeks or a month to stabilize, just let me know. I will still be here.” Her offer of support was to withdraw. I was with a person who wanted to distance herself from my troubles and I worried that no one I was ever in a relationship with would be willing to stand by me as I dealt with these unusual caregiving responsibilities I had inherited.

Two days later I took her up on her offer and asked for a two-week break. My appetite returned as soon as I hung up the phone. During our two-week sabbatical I realized I didn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t support me through the more challenging areas of my life. I needed someone with compassion, who wasn’t scared when I admitted managing these end of life scenarios  — the kind that most people only had to confront once they were middle-aged —  was hard for me at 35.

But her criticism of the way I handled these responsibilities still resonated. I needed to figure out a way to handle caring for other people so it wouldn’t overwhelm my next relationship and once again prevent me from building a life for myself. I made adjustments — replaced my daily calls to my grandfather with emails to distance myself, I returned to therapy to figure out how to manage how much I emotionally took on, I ordered cable TV to distract myself. 

And what I learned in therapy transformed this painful experience into one of the most meaningful ones of my life for it helped me realize that when people don’t appreciate what you give and you respond by giving some more — hoping someday it will be enough — that it will never be enough. From some people, your giving will always be taken for granted and expected. And the neglect your life suffers in this attempt to be acknowledged and appreciated will be longstanding because someday these people will be gone and all you will be left with is your neglected life: The remnants of a career not fully pursued. An empty apartment rather than a house filled with love. A constant anxiety about money and the future because you spent so many years investing in someone else’s present…

I kept giving — to my grandfather, to this girl, to everyone after my mom died hoping it would be enough. I kept giving because her death left such a giant hole — in my heart, in my family. I kept giving to try to avoid punishment because that’s what I watched my mother do — until she was exhausted and resentful and aching for alone time. But I do not have to spend my life trying to fill the giant hole my mother left in hopes someone else will try to fill mine. I cannot give and give to my grandfather, trying to be my mother so he won’t feel his loss as deeply. Because now I know that when you try to be another person, you will never be enough — and most importantly, you will never be yourself. And though it’s hard to admit, it’s easier to face that aching hole each day and all that is missing than to frantically try to fill it.


Posted in depression, family dynamics, hopelessness, LGBT, moving on with your life | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

This Song of Mine…

This weekend I went home to Marin for my half-aunt Allison’s baby shower. (You might be wondering how I have a half-aunt — my grandfather got remarried and had kids in the 1980s and the result is that I have an uncle and aunt that are younger than me.) My father, sister, and I are quite excited about Allison’s baby because it’s the first positive thing to happen to our family since my mother’s death. The baby is especially optimism-inspiring because Allison was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma four years ago and though she is now cancer free, we weren’t sure she would be able to conceive despite the shot she’d gotten to shut down her ovaries during her chemo treatments.

The evening before the shower, my sister arrived at my father’s house with her friends who had driven her home from the airport. When she came to greet me in the living room she handed me a small card with a drawing of a teapot on it. “I found this card mom gave me when I was going through things. You should read it. It will totally make you cry. It’s so beautiful.”

mom's card

I opened the card…


Dearest Vanessa,
As I sat tonight looking at the beautiful book you gave me for my birthday, I realized that I didn’t tell you much I LOVE the LOVE book. I am reading it each day as part of my meditation. There is one poem I love:

This song of mine will wind its music 
you, my child like the fond arms of love.

Sadness gushed up inside my chest and I closed the card. Beneath the grief was a nagging jealousy that my mother had written a card like this to Vanessa and not to me. I remembered the LOVE book Vanessa had given my mother — hardcover, expensive, about 700 glossy pages. I had cynically never opened it. I went in the other room to join the others.

The trip home lingered on. I took my grandmother to dim sum in San Francisco. I watched Django Unchained with my father. I went for a hike at China Camp and saw a large king snake on the trail. Then one evening at 1 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep, I remembered the card. I assumed my sister had gone home with it.

I went into her bedroom and turned on the light. And there it was — on her nightstand, leaning against the lamp! I picked it up and took it to my bedroom.Mom's card


Dearest Vanessa,
As I sat tonight looking at the beautiful book you gave me for my birthday, I realized that I didn’t tell you much I LOVE the LOVE book. I am reading it each day as part of my meditation. There is one poem I love:

This song of mine will wind its music

you, my child like the fond arms of love.

This song of mine will touch your forehead
like a kiss of a blessing

When you are alone it will sit by your side
and whisper in your ear, when you are
in a crowd it will fence you
about with aloofness.

My song will be like a pair of wings
to your dreams, it will transport your

heart to the verge of the unknown.

It will be like the faithful star overhead.
When dark night is over your road.

            ~Rabindranath Tagore 
             The Crescent Moon.

That is the way I feel about you and about Nicole –
you’ll know when you have children of your own.

                                                                              I love you!


I’d been wrong to believe this card was written only to my sister. This was a love letter to both of us, written at a time when my mother was fighting her second bout of cancer. Like a song, we could replay the words in this card when we needed a reminder that her love was still with us, guiding us at times even when we felt forgotten.

Posted in grief, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Some days, it doesn’t take much

My black leather purse died the other day. After seven years of use, it had grown tired of my shoulder but since it’s hard for me to find purses that aren’t too bulky or girly, I’d kept it by my side for far too long. And it rewarded me by falling apart. The metal that had held the strap in place had just grown loose and despite attempted fixes with rubber bands I finally admitted our time together was through.

I dug through my closet for my mother’s old Longchamp bag — also patent leather, also not too girly. It was functional, roomy and nicer than anything I’d buy for myself. I had avoided using it because it reminded me of my mother.  I reached inside, assuming I had cleaned it out long ago.

contents of mom's purse

I found two pairs of her sunglasses, a half eaten packet of ricolas, a pen from her bank and the Carmex she had always used as chapstick. I hadn’t been expecting to find this. A moment frozen in time with her things just as she had left them. So few items like this remain. Untouched by time, waiting patiently for her. I started to cry, thinking about my mom going about her day, rubbing some Carmex on her lips, taking a Ricola for a sore throat. But that would never happen again. These items had sat in her purse for the last four years. Something about the glasses struck me as particularly sad. There’s something so personal about glasses. I remember my grandmother’s glasses, sitting on her dresser after her death and how attached I’d felt to them, how upset I was when my mother donated them without asking. When I’d looked at them, I saw her looking at me.

I placed the sunglasses on my face, knowing I would never wear them yet I’d be unable to give them away. They would go in the closet with her sandals she wore when I was a kid, her denim shirt she rolled up over her arms while doing ceramics, the old sundress she gave me when I was 18 because I am unable to let go of these objects, though looking at them makes me sad. I want to stay connected to my mother, to her physical form, to her presence in this life. I want to remember those moments when she went about her day in a flurry from errand to errand or class to class as she grocery shopped or taught college students.

I unwrapped a Ricola and placed it on my tongue. I’d woken up with a sore throat today. And in her own way, my mom had inadvertently taken care of that, taken care of me. Again.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments