Category Archives: Grief seeds

I want to tell you about our Christmas

 

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My mom, with stockings

When I was a kid, my family always did Christmas the same way.

The setting was the house my dad built—a Lincoln-log cabin deep in the Vermont woods. Christmas Eve, we’d go to bed too excited to sleep. In the morning, the three of us—my brother and sister and I—would thunder down the stairs to see a tree piled high with presents; stockings hanging from nails on the chimney, stuffed to overflowing. We’d tackle the stockings first, make tea for our parents and then fall on the presents like hungry animals. And at night, we’d feast.

When we were kids, it was magical. When we were adults, we kept the tradition going. My mom would hunt down most of the stocking stuffers—funny gag gifts from Newbury Comics; little gourmet mustards and hot chocolate packets; useful kitchen implements from Board and Basket, where she kept a seasonal job just for the discounts. Some of the few happy memories of her childhood involved giant piles of gifts under the tree, so she’d always buy massive stacks of presents.

She’d also take the lead in cooking Christmas dinner. As adults, my brother and sister and I would contribute appetizers and side dishes and desserts, each of us fighting for kitchen space. My mom was the ringleader. She’d hover over us with cooking tips and admonitions to dry off the knives and put them in the rack and don’t put that in the dishwasher.

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My sister’s gift-wrapping masterpieces

 

Over the years, we added to the traditions. My sister and dad started a Christmas village, which grew more elaborate as the years went on. While the rest of us were haphazard present-wrappers, my sister would wrap hers with artistry and precision. My brother had his memorable cheese ball recipe and I brought my dark chocolate pie back every year. There was boozy Mad Libs, moonlit sledding runs, and spiked Egg Nog during the Lord of the Rings marathon. My dad would make popcorn in a giant bowl, perfectly balancing the salt and the butter; stirring it all with his hands.

Every so often, one of us would come home trailing a Christmas orphan; a sweetheart or friend who didn’t have anywhere else to go, or who’d lost the fight over whose family to spend Christmas with. My mom welcomed them all with open arms, buying them presents and making them their own stockings.

These were our traditions. And every year, no matter how far we traveled, they brought us back together.

I never would have thought before my mom died that our Christmas would die with her. I believed it was all of us keeping it going; not just one person. But I’ve learned that when you have a loss like this, there are only two things you can do: reproduce the traditions in exacting detail, or run away.

This year, we’re all scattered. My brother lives in Washington DC with three kids and a demanding new job. My sister’s in Boulder—too far to get back easily. They’re staying put this year. And I can’t stand the idea of Christmas without my mom, so I’m running away. It’s my first Christmas away from home, and I went as far as I could go.

One of my fears is that as the years go on, it will be harder and harder for all of us to find our way back to that cabin in the woods. I hope that isn’t how this goes. But in the meantime—for the first time—I’m replacing snow with sand. Spiked hot chocolate with lime in my beer. I plan to sit by a beach and pretend Christmas isn’t happening; to forget about presents and see if a human being can survive a whole week on tacos alone.

I’m not promising anything, but I may even make this a tradition.

 

 

Living without my mom

While my mom was dying, my biggest question was how I was supposed to live without her.

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My mom and me, on one of our last days together.

I came back to New York in August for two weeks, before coming back more recently for good. On my first return, everything felt surreal. I felt like I no longer belonged in my old life. There’s still a little of that feeling, but I’ve gotten a chance to reconnect with my friends—so many of whom have lost loved ones of their own. I’ve gotten to see how they go through their days, laugh and smile and love, while always keeping a part of themselves in honor of those loved ones. I’ve seen that I can do the same.

Sometimes I’m just going about my day, grocery shopping or working or walking somewhere, and it’ll just hit me. This happened to her. It happened. Then I cry, no matter where I am. I’ve cried in cafés; in the subway and on the street. In the soda aisle of the grocery store. What I love about New Yorkers is they mostly leave you alone when you’re on a public crying jag.

I have projects coming up that I’m excited about. A podcast, a music video, a party to plan, a few photo shoots; a new writing adventure and the same one I’ve been in love with since the beginning. And readings.

I was having a conversation with a friend earlier, and just had the thought: what if this is how I live without her? What if life just goes on, and it’s friends, and projects, and work, and occasional crying jags, on and on through time? What if the other shoe doesn’t drop? What if I never wake up crippled by grief? What if living without her isn’t something I need to know how to do—it’s just something I do?

My mom was the closest person in the world to me. She is never coming back. If I’m not crippled by grief, it doesn’t mean I didn’t love her and that I’m not devastated by this. It means we are all built to survive profound loss, and grief does not ruin us.

I’ve been back in New York for three weeks, and what these weeks are teaching me is that life goes on, whether you want it to or not. I don’t want to live without my mom, but I don’t get the choice. There is no “how.” The question is meaningless. You just live.

A Eulogy for My Mom

One cold day last year, I stood in the parking lot of my parents’ lawyer’s office. I was the executor of their will, and we’d just spent a bracing afternoon talking about nursing homes and do-not-resuscitate orders and how we’d divide up my parents’ accumulated detritus after their deaths. We were joking around–I remember saying something like “Don’t either of you dare get dementia; anything but that”–it was stupid. I barely remember what we said.

But I do remember my mom got this serious expression on her face. I think I was asking her if she wanted to be buried or cremated. She said something like “I just want you to eulogize me.” We’d been laughing and joking about this, but in this moment, my mom was not joking. She seemed suddenly very sad.

I said the only thing you can say to that. “I will, mom.” It felt like a promise. That wasn’t very long ago, and I thought we had so much time.

My mom died of cancer on May 30, 2017. She was feeling under the weather for months before I even knew; her stomach was upset and she couldn’t eat. For a large part of that, I didn’t even know she was sick–when I mentioned her in my post about dyeing my hair purple in February, she was feeling the cancer and I didn’t know.

Finally a gastroenterologist admitted her into the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. It had metastasized to her liver, lungs, stomach lining, abdominal wall–it was everywhere. She lasted a month and ten days.

I’ll have more to write about this later. For now, I want to share the eulogy I promised my mom. (I also wrote her obituary, which I called her eulogy in a Facebook post; I’ve since realized that a eulogy and an obituary are not the same thing).

So here you go, Mom. Just like you asked.

There’s a lot of lore in my family about my mom. There’s the story of how she used to run ten miles every day, even when she was pregnant, right up until the day she had me. There’s the one about how she rappelled down El Capitan when she was young—the truth of that one is disputed, though my brother and I both remember that story. There’s the one about how she rode her horse into her dorm in college, and cooked a turducken to impress her mother-in-law. Yes: a turducken. But the one that’s always felt the closest to me—that’s lived in me, always, is this one. When I was born, my mother knew me.

She said I came out as babies do, red-faced and loud and probably ugly (I am not a baby person) and I opened my eyes. And her first thought was, “Oh. It’s you.”

Sometimes she’d tell that story like a joke, with a sarcastic tone. Other times she’d tell it like she was trying to say I was my own person, even then, with my own personality. But I always believed that what she really meant was that she recognized me. That we’d known each other always, down endless lifetimes, and this was just our latest meeting. I’m not religious and neither was she. But this was always the meaning I took from it.

My mom was my best and closest friend. She was the first person I told about all my successes; all my heartbreaks. She used to joke that I’d probably need to see a therapist to talk about all the damage she caused, but not till I was 40. But I was lucky. My mom loved me, and I always felt that love. She didn’t try to hurt or control me with it. Somehow, through some herculean feat of excellence, she managed not to damage me. (My siblings are another story. I’ll let them speak for themselves.)

Herculean feats of excellence were my mother’s baseline normal. But she wasn’t obnoxious about it. It was just how she did things. When I was young, my mom had a garden—it was just behind you, by the trees. The vegetables that came out of that garden tasted like real vegetables. Like summer and sunshine. I took this completely for granted as a kid, but as an adult, I’ve come to realize this is why I find supermarket vegetables vaguely depressing: because I remember what they’re supposed to taste like.

My mom made pickles, and they became legendary—especially the dill beans. My aunt Laurie told me that my mom read about how to de-bone an entire turkey once, in a magazine—and then proceeded to do it flawlessly, with no rips, so that the bird deflated like an old balloon. Like she’d done it a thousand times. This, if you’ve never done it before, is hard. Everything she did, my mom did well.

Eventually, my mom drifted out of domestic goddesshood and into other interests: horses and the law. Horses were actually an old interest. My mom had a beloved horse when she was young named Jack Flash. She took him to college and boarded him in a farmer’s field, fed him corn husks and rode him in the dorm and loved him as hard as she possibly could; as hard as a troubled teen can love her lifeline. When I was eleven I got my own horse, also named Jack Flash. Pure coincidence. Our lives were full of weird parallels like that.

My mom and I would gallop over the back roads and trails of Hartland and Brownsville and Woodstock, me often hanging on for dear life. I was a Pony Club kid; a trail-riding, three-day-eventing, muck-out-the-stalls-in-the-backyard-stable kid. My Jack frequently ran away with me, sent me sailing into arena walls and fences and water hazards. I didn’t care because True Love, and my mom never, ever suggested we sell him and get an easier horse. When I fell off, she didn’t coddle me. She told me to get back on.

My mom with Mel.

My mom went from an opinionated quarterhorse mare to an opinionated thoroughbred mare until finally she swore off mares and found Mel, a Percheron-thoroughbred gelding. She then began a fifteen-year relationship I can only describe as a love story. My mom and Mel adored each other. She put him in dressage training, and his trainers took him all the way up to Prix St. Georges. Mel performing at that level was a sight to behold—all arch-necked, glossy bay, muscles popping out everywhere, brimming over with joy and power. He won nearly every show he entered in. My mom was so proud.

She saw the extraordinary in Mel before anyone else did, and she saw the strength in me until I could see it in myself. She taught me excellence as a baseline normal; taught me by example and not through pressure. Taught me to always get back on the horse. The only thing she couldn’t teach me was how to live without her.

I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in organized religion, or anyone else’s idea of an afterlife. But I believe my mom knew me the moment our eyes first met. I believe we knew each other before, and we will know each other again. I believe she isn’t gone. I believe she isn’t gone like I believe in the ground beneath my feet.

My mother saw me into this world, and it was my great honor and privilege to see her out.