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.

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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.

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Creating Grief

Sometimes the hardest grief to overcome is the grief that we create in our own lives. The revisiting of past relationships that caused us pain. The insanity of doing the same thing and expecting different results. The losses we create ourselves — in love, in a career. The inaction that leads to inertia. The pulling back when we feel overwhelmed and the missing out that results.

How can we escape this never-ending repeating pattern of behavior? How can we implement moments of change and stop past actions from informing future actions?

What is our story arc? We ride along happily (or unhappily) in our own lives thinking we know what problems are, then someone dies and we realize those former problems really weren’t problems?

And what does that mean for us moving forward with the decisions we make in life? Does it mean those other problems no longer bother us? That an insensitive comment or a failed job interview don’t matter as much as they did in the past because it’s all been put in perspective? Or does it mean we are more vulnerable to hurts and disappointments and need to protect ourselves more viciously?

These answers, I do not yet have.

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Sometimes People Don’t Have Cancer

Another one of my friends had a breast cancer scare, a bad mammogram, a shadow, a fear, and found out — it was nothing. Sometimes it’s nothing.

Good reminder. Wishing you a long string of nothings.

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Not Her

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like cancer’s following you around. Or sitting on your shoulder, waiting. Like a gargoyle or a crow. During the last 16 years, I’ve only had two consecutive years without worrying about someone I love dying of cancer. That streak ended with the discovery of Tara’s brain tumor last spring and continued a month ago when my best friend Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cheryl’s not an online friend. We’ve known each other since 2000 when we were co-workers at a fledgling online publication called Zap2It and navigating the L.A. lesbian bar scene ineffectively: “Should I go up and talk to her?” “I don’t know. If it were me, I wouldn’t have the guts to go talk to her.” “Maybe I’ll have another drink and then go talk to her.” “Yeah, another drink then maybe… talk to her?”

I wanted Cheryl to be bisexual like me so when she said she was a lesbian I was like, “Are you sure?” Then I tried to help her. I forced Cheryl to sit next to a gay girl I knew in The Good Luck Bar and soon she was in a relationship with someone as dominant as me.

Cheryl was passive. I was aggressive. I thought her new girlfriend was walking all over her. She didn’t. We decided to go on a friendship break, which accidentally lasted four years.

When I saw her on Friendster and noticed her status was “single” I wrote her an apologetic email about judging her former girlfriend and she thanked me for being her first queer friend. When we met for drinks, I learned I had missed more than Cheryl’s failed relationship — I had missed her mother’s death.  I was horrified.

Despite my absence during her time of need, when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer Cheryl sent emails, made phone calls and dropped by with the consistency of a family member. When I told her I was afraid of what the cancer would bring, she told me insightful things like, “You’re scared your mom will no longer resemble your mom anymore but she’ll still be your mom.”

Cheryl and her partner came to visit me at my dad’s house after my mom died. She helped me transition back into living in L.A. when I returned jobless and struggling. I had to rebuild almost everything in my life, except my friendship with Cheryl. It was always a consistent, unwavering arm of support.

Nowadays, I see Cheryl at least once a week. We go for hikes. We get drinks. But mainly we eat dinner in my apartment and talk about life — what it’s like not to have moms, dating and relationship troubles, and our fears. Both of our mothers died of cancer in their 50s – hers of complications surrounding ovarian cancer, mine of breast cancer. Like most women, we have a hard time distinguishing our mothers’ paths from our own. We worry dying young is more probability than possibility.

When Cheryl’s doctor told her she didn’t like the looks of two lumps in her breast, I knew what to say. This wasn’t my first time at the cancer scare rodeo. “Consolation mode” was like slipping into a comfortable suit, using a familiar skill set that had gone dormant for awhile: I told her it wasn’t cancer. That she was too young. That her mother’s journey wasn’t destined to be hers. I Googled and emailed her statistics and stories of false alarms but the resounding thought in my head was not her.

There’s a kind of grief that starts when you sense an impending battle, one that you’ve seen people lose before. Your sadness is anchored in a knowledge of what they will lose in order to win  — a pair of breasts, a head of hair. And then there are the parts of their soul that will never be the same — their sense of safety within their bodies, a mortality that will suddenly feel forever closer, their fears once deemed irrational permanently cemented. You try to remind yourself that just because some people die fighting this enemy it doesn’t mean they all die. But it’s hard to find comfort in that when you know cancer survivors always have to sacrifice major parts of themselves to win.

I went to Cheryl’s apartment over the long weekend while awaiting her results. We watched “Jennifer’s Body” and then talked about whether or not it was ominous that her doctor’s office gave her a card. “They don’t even know I have cancer yet, and they’re giving me a card. That’s gotta be bad, right?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just preemptive sympathy.”

It was not.

I got a text message at work Monday morning from Cheryl: It’s cancer. Waiting to learn more. I love you.

And then we waited some more — a week to find out what stage the cancer was. Another week to find out if the cancer was estrogen-positive or aggressive. Another to find out whether the MRI showed it had spread. Doctors don’t care about the emotional damage that the waiting inflicts. Doctors talk about wrapping muscles around implants to salvage them from radiation with the same tone they use to place their lunch order. They set surgery dates weeks from diagnoses, not caring that patients have to live with something slowly killing them in their lady parts through Thanksgiving and most of December. They don’t care that it makes some aggressive friends scream and shout for second opinions to hurry things along.

By the end of the month we knew that Cheryl’s prognosis was already better than my mother’s — her cancer was Stage II with an 80% survival rate. It was estrogen-positive, not HER2+, which my mother had. Apparently there were things I didn’t know — like that estrogen-positive cancer, unlike HER2+, is slow growing. That you can take drugs for it for years to control your hormones and prevent recurrence. That Cheryl’s journey was not my mother’s journey.

But it’s hard to believe facts. Once you know that someone so important can be taken from you, everyone’s up for grabs. And each time Cheryl asks whether she will be OK, the only answer I hear in my head is You’ll be OK…because you have to be.

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Overwhelmed…but in a good way

Wow… Who knew so many people had experienced a loss on Facebook? Thank you for sharing your stories of grief that you experienced both on and off-line, for your encouragement and support. I am blown away by each and every comment and all of the new followers, and if I had time I would respond to each and every one of you.  I am sorry for all of your losses, for your battles with cancer, for your friends and family members who are no longer with us.

You know, I created grieftastic as a sort of secret blog to privately deal with my grief. I didn’t even tell my family about it. Then somehow, someone at WordPress noticed and now I don’t feel like I have to keep my grief so private.  Your outpouring of response inspired me to tell my family about the blog. I also posted my last piece — where else — on Facebook (surprisingly, it didn’t garner very many likes or comments. I think it was too “heavy” and people wanted to hear about my dog taking a nap or something).

When we hide our grief, we empower it to grow. When we are brave enough to grieve in groups or publicly, we can find support and understanding that would not otherwise be possible. I hope all of you who are experiencing loss and grief, who are battling cancer, who are just having a fuck of a hard time know that I am thinking about you and enjoyed discovering your blogs over the past few weeks. Much love to you all!

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