Category Archives: memory

A Course in Healing

1. No one wants to be here, and here we are. Exactly where we’re required to be. So welcome to an experience you never asked for. Welcome to an experience you did not choose. Welcome to “A Course in Healing.” I’m glad you’re here.

2. By the way, the word “glad” (above) is an example of the feigned positivity that will become a norm of your grief experience. Get excited. That was example No. 2.

3. There are no clear learning outcomes for this course, although learning will soon be projected onto your experience. “What have you learned?” People will ask in clipped, expectant tones.

4. “Misfortune is a great teacher,” they will say, and you will learn how to nod wordlessly.

5. It is considered bad form to respond, “I have learned that in the face of my discomfort, I am expected to comfort other people.”

6. It is equally bad form to say, “I have learned that when people ask me how I’m doing, I must say something like okay or fine because those are the only acceptable responses.

7. Do not say, “Sometimes I sit in a dark garage and weep.” Do not say, “I configure my day around ‘Growing Pains’ reruns.”

8. In short, during “A Course in Healing” you will learn how to be a good faker. Some people will even say faking is a key ingredient to your healing. We will cover this dynamic during our unit on Erasure.

9. It’s okay to wonder why the expression of vulnerability upsets the relationship non-grieving people have with permanence and/or the performance of happiness.

10. You may have figured out by now that “A Course in Healing,” should be renamed as “A Course in Lying.” I have brought this suggestion to the Curriculum Committee, and its chair reminds me that “lying” doesn’t resonate, but “healing” has cache. Healing is rainbows and holidays and sparkly love magic. Grief is blech.

11. Now you might be wondering: “Will there be any tests?”

12. Each moment of your life is a test, and there are no grades. Only choices and questions. You pass no matter what choices you make. You pass even if you choose to eat potato chips for every meal, even if you listen to that one Jeff Buckley song until the CD player skips.

13. There is no extra credit. At the end of this course, you will not be a better person. You will be a different person. You might be a person who can tangle with competing truths. You might be better at letting go of appearances, other people’s expectations, your own miscalculated dreams.

14. If I do my job well, I will impress upon you that there is no bright side where your pain fizzles out forever. There are black holes of sorrow. There is dark matter we live inside of and between. There are moments when we wish to disappear forever, if only to stop the pain.

15. There are the people we would have been without our losses, and there are the people we become because of everything we have lost.

16. There are the futures we claim.

17. There are the dreams we rewrite.

18. Take me as a case study: Before my mother died I kept a diary. My college roommate gave it to me one Hanukah. She wrote a quote from Oscar Wilde inside the front cover. “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

19. And that is what I thought life was back then –– sensation for the taking. A nonstop adventure romp. The long weekend between adolescence and middle age.

20. I was twenty and twenty-one in the last years of my mother’s life, and I wrote sad poetry in that journal. And I wrote about boys I thought I loved, who maybe loved me, who didn’t love me as much as I wanted them to love me.

21. And I wasted my time with these boys. Wasted my worrying. And then my mother died, and I lost interest in boys. I ignored them, avoided them, until I fell hard for a man I never expected to meet. He lived an ocean away. But I wrote to him every day the way I’d once written to my mother. And he wrote back to me.

22. “Hi Sweetie,” his e-mails began. It was the same cheerful salutation my mother had used daily with me. In my first year without her, this man was sunshine pouring down after a night where I believed I’d never see light again.

23. He was the first proxy I made for my dead mother, and he would not be the last.

24. Even though it was not his job, he championed me the way my mother had. He made a big deal of my birthdays. He said, “I love you” without choking. He mailed me mix CDs with heart wrenching songs I’d never heard.

25. He knew where I was at night and in the morning.

26. When we were together, he held me until I fell asleep, the same way my mother had held me long ago.

27. But –– but –– a lover and a mother are not the same thing. A lover cannot be a mother. Such a burden will crush the most sincere loves.

28. One night we both cried, and I boarded a plane alone. I can still hear the sound of my suitcase scraping the pavement on the way to the airport. I thought I was leaving him temporarily. But it turned out that my leaving was permanent. I just didn’t know how to say that yet.

29. I didn’t want to leave this man, and I had to leave this man.

30. I’d never find my mother in another person. If I wasn’t careful, my search for her would destroy every chance at love that came my way.

31. I could never save her.

32. I could only save myself.

33. When I walked away from a man I loved, I walked toward a life I couldn’t imagine, a life he could not walk for me no matter how much he wanted to. I had to walk alone, toward a motherless future awaiting me.

34. My mother taught me there are no escapes.

35. My mother taught me I could withstand being sucked back into the long, lightless night.

36. Her wisdom lived beyond her, lived:

  • in the cat I rescued a few months later, a stray I didn’t want but took, lived
  • in the man I married, and a home where I made my own light, lived
  • in the stairwell of a college, where I sat one afternoon with a student who told me about a man who hurt her.

37. When the student finished her story, I told her a story about my mother.

38. I told her courage means walking toward our worst fears, walking toward the truths we don’t want to say.

39. Then we both walked toward the counseling center.

40. Each time I listen to another person’s hard story, each time I tell my own hard story, I carve another notch on the shrine I built for my mother, a shrine called memory, a shrine called love.

41. Healing is a word I avoid. I’d rather be changed, remade, reborn.

42. I’d rather hold a broken heart in my upturned palm, marvel at a heart that beats in spite of its cracks.

43. In this course, we will be who we are. We will be everything we are afraid to say. We will be the whole story of our pain.

 

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

A Gift, a Burden

I bought my mother a journal with a bird on the cover. We were in an Urban Outfitters near The Ohio State University, and my mother was threatening to buy penis-shaped pasta to serve the next time I or my sister had a male friend over for dinner. And I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Inside, I left an inscription. I encouraged her to write down all her dreams, her hopes. When she died four years later, I found the journal under a pile of sweaters. She’d never written a single word.

_____________

The morning my mother died, I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I reached up and pulled my journal off the coffee table. I opened up to a blank page, wrote the date in a top corner, then scrawled one giant word on the page. WHY?

I’m embarrassed that my first response to my mother’s death was this question, a half formed “Why me?” At the moment I lost her, my head spun with a thousand questions, and the most persistent one rose to the top.

 Why? I asked as if I could find an answer.

Why? I asked and knew I’d never find an answer.

_____________

I have lived for nearly seventeen years without a mother. I was 17 when I bought her the journal with a bird on the cover. Every year, my relationship to her life changes. My relationship to her death changes. Grief changes. Sometimes grief is a bundle that weighs me down so hard I can barely walk. Other times it’s smaller than a speck of dust, something I can almost brush aside, let drift away. I close my eyes and remember what it was like to have a mother. This memory is a dream that escapes me. If I graze the surface of this dream, it shatters.

_____________

 

Grief, from the Old French grever means “burden.” The word grever derives from the Latin gravar, “to make heavy,” a root of the word gravity.

_____________

My mother was my gravity, my ground, my root. Without her, I am rootless.

_____________

 Grief can be an experience of rootlessness, just as grief can be an experience of being weighed down.

_____________

Two contradictory things are true at the same time. That is grief.

_____________

Why didn’t my mother write in the journal with a bird on the cover? What was she afraid of? Or did she not care? Or was she saving the journal for me, because she saw me as the writer?

_____________

 A year after she died, I went to Greek island of Crete. I took her journal. I slept in a room that looked out on the sea. I filled the pages she left blank. I am still filling those pages. I will fill the pages for as long as I am able, which is to say until I die.

_____________

Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” There it is again. That word. Burden.

_____________

 My mother’s legacy is a burden, and it also a gift. Neither of these ideas – burden, gift –erase the other. They exist side-by-side, like twins, like my sister and me.

_____________

 My mother’s death did not make me a writer, and I could not make her a writer. I responded to her death with a question because death is a question. I can never know why she refused to write in the pale blue journal with a blue bird on the cover, or why I even bought her the journal in the first place.  Now the pale blue cover strikes me as an important detail. Blue. The color of sky and water. The color of expansion. The color of dreams I cannot touch.

_____________

Birds mediate heaven and earth. I love that word. Between. My mother lives in my memories, my dreams. She inhabits the in-between of her life and her death. She lives in that sentence, in the conjunction and, a bridge between two words, two worlds. Once I had a mother. Once I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Once I wanted to capture her hope in a book emblazoned with a quintessential image of hope.

But she left all her pages blank. She left all her pages for me to fill.

_____________

Do you hear the suggestion of the word “grave” in that sentence, an echo of gravar? I do. I can’t stop myself. Her burial, her resurrection live together on the page, where I recreate her and say goodbye, make her into a memory, a ghost.

I can see her now, standing in the Urban Outfitters aisle, sunlight glittering on the edge of her chin. She holds up the pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. She smiles, as if she knows something I do not yet know.

 

Angel of Grief

I have the good fortune to spend a few weeks in New Orleans this summer. This city feels like home to me, even though I have never lived there. I am drawn to New Orleans for the same reason I am drawn to “Hamlet.” The entire city is a living, breathing memento mori.

Also, there’s another reason. And here it is: My mother dreamed of visiting New Orleans. But she died before she had a chance to make the trip.

One of the reasons why my mother loved New Orleans is because she loved Anne Rice. She wanted to tour St. Louis Cemetery No. I, site of the Vampire Lestat’s empty tomb. She wanted to take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, the way the vampires did in the movie that came out when I was in middle school. She wanted to have her Tarot cards read in Jackson Square.

I moved to Louisiana two years after my mother died.

But I lived in the northern part of the state, a region populated by Baptists and Pentecostals. The fastest way to get to New Orleans was to drive through Mississippi, and even that was a four-hour drive.

Still, I went whenever I could. When I met Carl, he went with me. He keeps going back with me. If I wanted to, he would go every year.

We don’t do that. But each time we visit New Orleans, it feels like a new experience, like I am seeing the city for the first time. Like I am seeing it through my mother’s eyes.  I take none of this for granted. I know how much even one trip would have meant to her.

I keep going back because I can, and because she cannot.

_____

A few weeks ago, I started working on an essay about the iconography of grief. It’s a hard essay to write, one that forces me to confront truths I would prefer to ignore. It’s an essay where I need to reveal aspects of my life around which I feel tremendous shame. It’s an essay where I disclose something that embarrasses me deeply.

I have a draft of the essay completed. I know the essay’s bones. I know its themes and title. But there is too much exposition. Not enough scene. The ending does not work. No ending I have drafted works.

This is because I’m holding back. A part of the essay’s story terrifies me. And I am not as brave as I want to be.

Sometimes I think writing should be easier than it is. But writing is the hardest emotional work I have ever done. It demands honesty. If I am being dishonest, I know it. And the reader does to.  Right now, I’m not ready to be fully honest. So the essay is suffering.

When I get stuck in an essay like this one, I am full of negativity and self-doubt. I do not see all the progress I have made. I focus on what I have not yet done. I worry I will never finish.

Fortunately, research helps me get unstuck. New Orleans has become the focus of my research.  I know I will finish the essay there.

_____

Another idea that this essay engages is how grief can haunt our bodies.

My body is haunted by my mother’s illness and death. This haunting manifests in certain odd behaviors I enact with my body, as well as an autoimmune disease that binds me to her in a strange and familiar way.

In New Orleans, I feel at home because grief is inscribed on this city, on its body.

_____

After Hurricane Katrina, Day-Glo orange and yellow “X-codes” appeared on a majority of the city’s structures. The X-codes documented a FEMA crew’s search and rescue efforts. The number of people found alive or dead was written at the bottom of each X.

We saw the Xs when we drove down for the first Jazz Fest after the storm. I gasped when I saw them. For me, each X held an apocalyptic power. The symbol evidenced a biblical level of human suffering and endurance. Pain that could not be erased. Or so I thought.

Now many people have painted over their Xs. Or the houses that once bore them have been replaced.

Some artists and academics have documented the Xs and the stories they tell. A few Xs may even remain more than 10 years after the storm, a distant echo of its roar.

I plan to find them during my visit.

_____

I like to enter New Orleans from the west. Interstate 10 takes you past Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery (known as simply as Metairie Cemetery), and you can see its marble tombs and mausoleums rising alongside the road.

I’ve toured other cemeteries in New Orleans, but have never visited Metairie Cemetery. As part of my research, I will visit the cemetery this summer. I’m drawn to the Angel of Grief, also known as the Weeping Angel, located in Chapman Hyams’ monument.

Hyams was a prominent New Orleans businessman, and the statue he commissioned is a copy of the 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story, the same sculpture that marks Story’s grave in Rome. Copies of the statue exist throughout the world, but Hyams’ statue is the only one in New Orleans.

Although it is not an official tourist site, Metairie’s Angel of Grief attracts visitors each year, some of whom have documented their journeys online.

For me, the statue is a pilgrimage site, and I suspect other visitors may agree.

I am compelled by the angel’s body stooped in grief. One arm bends beneath her forehead, while the other one hangs down. I read desperation in her posture. Animal vulnerability. I read myself into her pose.

When I learned my mother had died, I fell to the ground.

Sometimes, I think I’m still there.

But that is a half-truth. After my mother died, I rebuilt my life in Louisiana. Each time I visit, I am farther removed from my mother. I am farther removed from the person I was when I lost her.

This does not mean I am okay with the loss, just as the city of New Orleans is not okay that Hurricane Katrina happened.

It means I’ve learned to live around the loss, or in spite of it. But there’s a part of me that will never be the same.

In New Orleans, I do not have to hide.

Galatoires 2012.jpg

Me at my favorite NOLA restaurant Galatoire’s in 2012. Don’t let the Bourbon Street address fool you, Galatoire’s is a classy joint.

A Little Bit Lost in Washington, D.C.

When my mother died, I lived two blocks from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro stop. I turned 21 in that apartment, which I shared with two other women who were interning with me at Scripps Howard.

They did not like me. I didn’t know why. I learned not to care.

That winter, I had one real friend in my internship program, a Chilean student who had roommate troubles too. In our own ways, we were both “other,” and I think that sealed our bond.

At night we met for dinner at a Chipotle between our apartments. We hung out together on the weekends too. The Newseum had just opened, and we went there once. He took a funny photo of me outside the main entrance. My arms are outstretched, like I’m trying to hug the sky. I found the photo a few months ago, and it made me laugh because I remember the last few months of my mother’s life as deeply unhappy. I’d forgotten tiny moments of joy that seeped through my sadness.

–––––––––

I threw my friend a birthday party when he turned 20. My mother met him that night. But it’s been so long, I can only remember what she wore, a red vest and blue jeans. I can’t remember if she liked him, or if even he liked her.

In retrospect, it seems odd that this boy and I did not date. We spent so much time together. But I was on the verge of losing my mother. I had no capacity to date. I froze him out when he got too close, which I regret to this day. I couldn’t handle another person needing me. I couldn’t be available to his need.

Still, he met me on the stairs when I went back to the apartment a week after my mother died. He held a box full of my notebooks and the last Jimi Hendrix CD I’d listened to at work.

He’d cleaned out my desk for me. He’d carefully packed my possessions. He did not know I’d soon throw the box away because I could not bear to look at its contents. He did not know I could not even stand to look at a newspaper. Grief turned me upside down, inside out, unraveled all the threads that had once tied me together.

He kissed my cheek, then turned away. I never saw him again.

–––––––––

I’d only come to the apartment to retrieve a few things. I’d go back once more, and then never again. Then I’d leave for Scotland, then Syracuse, then Scotland again, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.

I had a few brief trips to D.C. in between all the years I lived away from Maryland, but I could never stay for more than a few days. I could never live there again.

When I walked the pavement or negotiated traffic, I’d feel like the person I’d been before my mother died. Dread tightened my chest, turned my skin to ice. I’d feel like I was grasping for something I desperately wanted, something just out of my reach. Yet, I also felt certain in my steps, like the person I was before she got sick.

Each time I came to D.C., these two selves collided. I was both the person I’d been when my mother was healthy, and the person I became when she got sick. The question of who’d I have been if she hadn’t died haunted me.

I fled from facing the person I became because she died, the person I am now.

–––––––––

I’m in D.C. this week for the AWP Conference. Each night, I’ve walked the streets near my old internship office.

These are the streets I walked everyday when my mother was dying. These streets are the last places where I ever heard my mother’s voice. I used to walk them when I couldn’t concentrate in the small office space I shared with other interns.

The last time I walked these streets, I didn’t know it was the last time. I left my internship on a Friday afternoon. I went home for the weekend thinking I’d be back on Monday, ready to file a story I’d worked on all semester and was ready to publish in a national newspaper. But my mother died on a Sunday. So I never went back to that office. I never filed the story I’d worked on for three months.

The other night, as I walked, I realized I no longer recognized this place. All the buildings look different, more antiseptic and cold. I felt disoriented, the same way I felt after my mother died. Like I had no sense of forward or backward, no east or west.

I realized I needed to go back to the internship office. I needed to see it in the light of day.

–––––––––

Today I walked in circles initially. I couldn’t orient myself. But as I neared the internship office, my right ear ached, and I knew I was getting close.

I thought I’d feel something when I stood in the doorway, peered into the sterile lobby. But the force of self protection is powerful. I just felt numb, like this building could have been any building, insignificant and anonymous.

Only when I reached McPherson Square Park did something break open. My knees wobbled. A wave of dizziness sailed over me. I had to sit down on a bench.

This park was where I most often talked to my mother. She spoke to me from her living room sofa, from hospital beds, from dialysis breaks. We talked about my articles, about my Chilean friend, about the interns who didn’t like me. We did not talk about her death. We never even said the word.

Against the clamor of cars on K Street, I strained to remember the sound of her voice. Was it nasal? Was it high pitched? Did she elongate her Os in the standard Baltimore fashion?

But I could barely remember the answers to these questions.

Now her voice is not even a whisper. It’s an echo at the edge of fading, the sound a leaf makes when it falls to the ground.

Two tears slid down my face at the exact same time. I cried for what it was to be barely 21 and motherless, and what it is to be almost 36 and unable to recall the most primal sound of my life, the voice that called me to this world, the one that assured me I was safe. I was loved.