Tag Archives: mothers

You Should Frame This

Guest Post by Holly Aldrich

When she started hospice, my mother chose to go home rather than getting her care in the hospital. It sounded nicer, she said. Cozy. She was an optimist, even as her besieged body sunk her to the rude depths of these options. I was 27 and terrified and my mother had brain cancer. I was ready to throw myself at any shred of familiarity hiding in the bleak clinical narrative of her discharge paperwork. I convinced myself that we would be okay if we just went home. I tried to silence the insistent bleakness of words like malignant and terminal and palliative, because that is what she taught me to do.

I still had a lot to learn about the expert gaslighting of death, how it can use benign words and glossy pamphlets and fake smiles to lull you along. How tumors can grow slowly at first, and so can coups. But as mother and daughter, we soon found ourselves unsettled and bewildered, subjects of a strange new establishment. Home was no longer home.

Here is what I mean: Close your eyes and picture your bed. You know its shape and its place in your room, its small tactile histories. Feel your limbs weighting the mattress. Notice the particular scents of skin and sweat and sleep. Imagine the way your linens look when you wake in the morning, their customary jumble. See the way the light slants through your window. Now put on your most comfortable outfit. The touch of the fabric on your body, the way it knows you, how it outlines your place in the world, is perfect. Answer your everyday hunger and fill your mouth with your favorite food. The flavors dance. Delight in the textures, the pageant of spices and seasonings. Be there, in that sensory nest of bed and clothes and food.

Now rip the nest apart, piece by modest piece, and replace it with a clinical model pumped out by Big Med. When my mother came home, there was a huge sledge of a hospital bed with metal guardrails and a touchy remote for adjustments, stacks of adult diapers, a hoard of orange medicine bottles, and gowns with ties in the back. An oxygen tank hulked in the corner. For meals, there were big gray trays and children’s sippy cups. Staff began bustling through on their rounds, taking temperatures and scribbling notes about pain levels and possible UTIs.

I clung to the hope that none of it was real, like it was some peculiar game of Hospital. We would try out the accessories for a few days, buzz the bed up and down just for kicks, play nurse with the pills, and then my mother would become my mother again. She would ease up from the bed, pull on her customary jeans and tee shirt, and walk into the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee and get back to normal. Her hair would grow back, her steroid-puffed limbs would smooth out, and the ugly tumors would slink from her skull and disappear. She would be 55, and healthy, and unremarkably alive. Everything would be fine.

That same day, I caught her gazing at me with the monk-like forbearance that was becoming so customary with her. Her eyes protruded from the steroids, but they weren’t manic. They were still calm and brown and warm. “It’s weird to think that I’ll never wear real clothes again,” she observed softly. And that was when I knew, with a sudden lurch in my stomach. None of this was a game. She was going to spend the rest of her life lying in a hospital bed, swaddled in diapers.

Until she died.

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Until she died, and I was left here. Without her. Without my tether to goodness and compassion and love, but somehow still here, floating in the world like a tiny piece of thread.

As much as I squirmed against this reality, I had no way of changing it. I was helpless to prevent the tumors from growing. But I knew from some fierce internal place of fundamental justice that I could not let her spend the rest of her life in the generic gowns from the hospital. No way in hell. The greenish one was the color of a swamp, and the other was coverall blue. Their pattern was essentially the textile equivalent of institutional linoleum floor tile, soured with the antiseptic smell of the hospital. They reminded me of a hostage huddling away from life. And that kind of apathy was simply not her.

My mother was an observer, a modern Hestia of the hearth minding the connection between home aesthetics and feelings. Color, texture, and form held meditative significance for her, especially in fabrics and furnishings.  When she was growing up in Chicago her father owned an antiques shop. Some of her fondest memories, she told me, were of accompanying him on trips to track down new items for resale. Weekend treasure hunts, she called them.

She sewed most of her own clothes in high school, and in later years she made my Halloween costume dreams come true with the same rickety seventies Singer. I was Tinkerbelle, Ariel, a medieval princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My junior high years were stereotypically anguished, but she got onboard. She gamely stitched getups for a bloody bride, a mad butcher, and a dead Victorian maidservant. As labor-intensive as they were for the busy mother of two kids with disabilities, those costumes were also evidence of impressive skill, a sharp eye for detail, and genuine maternal love. They proved her belief that all of my feelings and fancies should be honored.

Our 1920s Tudor bungalow was my mother’s sphere, and she always honored its harmonious soul. One of her only personal indulgences was a pricy subscription to American Bungalow magazine. Issues came in the mail four times a year, and she spent hours wandering the rooms on their pages. I can still picture her in the comfy armchair in our living room. Sometimes she got excited and called me over, pointing out the turn of a stately wooden bureau or the pattern of a tablecloth. These things mattered to her. They spoke to some sense of balance in her own soul.

Making her face death in tasteless hospital garments seemed like a needlessly cruel cosmic joke. It was beyond the fraying edges of my tolerance.

I also suspect that, layered beneath my understanding of my mother’s sensibilities, a lot of my attitude toward the hospital gowns had to do with shoes.

See, on the first day of hospice, I was wearing blue and white running shoes with rubberized treads and soft mesh construction. They were the latest in the long line of similar shoes. I have a disability called cerebral palsy, and I wear orthotic braces for support and range of motion. Knee-high plastic supports with Velcro straps and metal buckles, they amp my shoe size from 6 to 10, and any shoes I wear have to accommodate their width and the inch of foam lifts boosting my shorter left leg. I have become adept at honing in on comfort and durability. I track down the grandma shoes sitting plush and quiet in the back of the store, while pointy stiletto heels and chic flats preen on the display shelves. I am a master of practicality.

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And yet my shoe history is far from tragic. I can recall a long succession of well-loved footwear. I was the proud owner of baby pink high-tops with black trim, soft brown loafers with moccasin trim, classic saddle shoes, purple suede oxfords with a fun-to-rub embossed logo, and bright red leather pioneer-style boots. The boots were my personal favorite, and I felt invincible and sassy when I wore them.

All of those shoes were special to me not just because they were cute, but because they were an indication of my mother’s dedication to me, and what she knew I deserved. Finding those shoes was a monumental effort. Every new pair of orthotics was slightly, maddeningly, different than the last, and there was no easy way to find shoes to fit them.

So we pumped ourselves up for a trip to the shoe store, determined to find a good pair no matter how long it might take. We spent hours hunkering down in the aisles, wrestling with tongues and laces, taking wobbly test trips, squishing in lifts and taking them out, and remaining alert to any pressure or pinching.

Our trips were an anthropological study in the range of reactions to my braces, a constant and visible accessory in the outfitting of my life with a disability. Some salespeople were cheerily overzealous. Manufacturing caring expressions, they offered to help with adjusting my braces or wedging on a stubborn pair of shoes. They came from back rooms bearing measuring devices, shoe horns, and their own orthotic-friendly suggestions. Some pretended we didn’t exist, avoiding eye contact from the moment we walked through the door.

Other people wondered about my braces, too. Children stared and asked questions while their mothers vice-gripped their arms and answered with measured words. We either got strained smiles because it was “just so great” that we were there, or evil eyes for basically conducting grisly foot surgery next to the Keds.

Even staff sometimes asked us to move to a more secluded corner. This was for our own convenience, allegedly, but it was also a way to keep us hidden away. My mother always maintained that we were just fine where we were. When salespeople tentatively suggested that we might have better luck in stores carrying “special” shoes, she fired back that we wanted these shoes. I was entitled to the same shoes as everybody else, thank you very much.

She was talking about shoes, but she was also telling me something. You are important, she was saying, so take the time to find the things that feel like you. Remember, my daughter, that you are entitled to beauty and comfort every day. You deserve the same things as everybody else. Be persistent. Never be ashamed of who you are or the life that you live. If people have a problem with your disability, with your body, with you, then it is their problem, not yours. You do not have to hold their filth.

There is nothing wrong with you.

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My perspective on these messages evolved over the years, but they shifted sharply into focus against the bland backdrop of those hospital gowns. That evening, after my mother had fallen asleep, I started Googling. After rejecting overpriced patterned options and depressingly tasteful neutral tones, I stumbled upon a cheery Etsy shop owned by a geriatric nursing assistant.

I smiled when I saw the cute fabrics and perky colors of the gowns, already thinking fondly of the owner making them for her clients. Whoever she was, she was using her time and energy to stitch together swathes of brightness against banality. She was a seamstress warrior fighting the encroachments of bedpans, medicine spoons, and Miralax. I silently thanked her for her courageous compassion and added two gowns to my cart – one in purple paisley and one in jewel-toned floral.

When the gowns arrived in the mail, the tingle of happy anticipation that came with simply touching the lumpy white package was almost startling, a fairy tale magic stone glinting up from the grit of our days. I watched my mother’s face as I tore it open and pulled out the gowns.

For one wild moment, the magic stone worked. The cancer was a beanstalk we could scale and the fear of her death was a giant we could slay. That moment was gold. Her eyes lit up, and her mouth made a small O. The fabric was beautiful. She loved the color. She would feel so much better wearing them. The next day, when her assistant, Dolly, came to change her into her freshly-washed new gown, she started up all over again.

When she was finally clothed in her purple paisley, she was radiant. She kept touching the edges with her cancer-clumsy fingers and a little smile hitched the corner of her lips. And even though her face was swollen and shiny and her hair was nothing more than baby bird fuzz, she was somehow much more like herself again.

In that color, I saw her on our front porch nestling purple mums into a pot of dirt. I saw her on Christmas Eve, the rainbow lights of our tree twinkling off her favorite amethyst pendant. I saw her settling a plum-colored chenille pillow against the back of the sofa, then stepping back to admire her tidy living room. I saw her. She was still there. I could tell that she felt it, too.

The gowns did not change everything, of course. They did not stop the uncontrollable seizures or loss of motor control or pain. They did not keep her from weeping on bad days. They did not vanquish the ugly words and exhaustion and resentment of a family rapidly losing its center. Some days I was not a giant killer. I was nothing more than a daughter-shaped pile of ash and shit and memories, the Little Match Girl with her desperate flares against the dark.

But those flares mattered, so I kept up my orders from Etsy. She watched as I scrolled through the listings and then she made the final pick.

Every few weeks, a new gown or two came in the mail. Those days were not perfect, but they had at least a frisson of magic. The gowns assured a smile, a moment of appraisal, and a sense that life could still be exciting. Sometimes, in the middle of reading to her or feeding her a snack or asking how she was feeling, I caught her gazing at her gown with that same little smile. When her nurses came, she asked for their advice about what to wear next, and she loved telling the story of how her daughter had ordered the gowns especially for her. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked. “Holly got those for me.”

New gowns sometimes garnered embarrassingly sentimental praise, especially as her illness and medication turned her into someone softer, more emotionally porous. One particular gown was white with a pattern of flowers, butterflies, hearts, and birds. When she saw it, tears came to her eyes, and she couldn’t stop touching it. “This is like a work of art, Holly,” she breathed. “You should frame this so that you can keep it nice.” When I tried to convince her that I didn’t need to frame it because she was going to wear it, she couldn’t stop saying how lucky she was. I told her I was the lucky one, but I don’t think she believed me. It was a touching and bittersweet moment, but it was quickly sucked into the ocean of her illness. Later, after she was gone, it would resurface.

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If the beginning of hospice is a no-nonsense medical takeover, the end is a beloved house falling to ruin. It goes like this: One day you wake up and the air is filled with the stench of spoiled milk and bad meat because the refrigerator went bust overnight. Moldy water makes the floor slick. You should care, you should get up and clean, but all your energy has sapped away. And besides, you aren’t even hungry.

The next day you discover that the toilet clogged up and sewage flooded everywhere. It’s brown and stinking in the bathroom, but also in the living room. There is something wormy and acid green wiggling on the couch. Plump gray bugs crawl out of your favorite armchair, the place where you always used to read, but you could never concentrate on a book now.

Maybe you are a little bit hungry? There are still some things in the kitchen cabinets. A can of tomato soup with a Best Before date from 1998. A re-jarred quantity of dark green dried herbs with the word “Sage” on the cap in black Sharpie. The handwriting is yours, from before your letters got shaky and misshapen. An open box of multigrain crackers with the corner chewed off. In the shadows you see strange, obese rats with elephant skin. No, not really hungry at all.

And then the power goes out altogether. You are left in the dark, and everything smells rotten, and you can’t see or move. What if something happens? How will you charge your phone? Where is your phone, anyway, and could you even manage the technical map of buttons and screens? You don’t even know who you would call, or why, so it doesn’t matter. You just want to sleep.

And then someone touches you, so gently. Someone pulls soft fabric over your body. Someone takes your hand, and someone begins to read. From very far away, you hear a story about a girl and a pig and a spider.

You don’t really understand the words, but you are sure that the story is about love.

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Her last gown arrived just a few days before she died. She was starting to lose her appetite altogether and she spent more and more time sleeping. Talking was an effort. But she often rallied for Dolly and her nurses, as if she wanted to put all of her remaining energy toward being a good patient.

As usual, Dolly clucked over the new addition to her wardrobe. It was ocean blue, with an opulent array of Hawaiian hibiscus and vines. “I love it,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m going on vacation.”

Aloha.

Maybe it was an innocent comment, but I suddenly remembered reading about how people nearing the end of life sometimes talk about going away on a trip, or needing to get ready to leave. A chill flickered up my spine even as I smiled and gripped her hand. “You’re right,” I said. “It does. You look gorgeous.” She smiled her trembly smile, the one that looked like a sideways J on the unparalyzed side of her face. “You know, Holly,” she said, “These gowns have made all the difference.” All I could do was protest dumbly and blink back the brine of tears.

She was the one who had made a difference for me. That old cliché. But of course she was.

She died a few days later, in the early morning hours of a Wednesday in late May. She was wearing her favorite lavender paisley gown. Her face in death was like a blurry photograph of a long-ago relative. She was a stranger until I looked closer, and then familiar features began to emerge. The slope of her nose. The curve of her eyelids. The shape of her lips. I kissed her and touched her face.

When her body was gone the nurse on duty said, “You did a great job, you know. You did the hardest job you will ever have to do.” I felt in my bones that she must be right. What could possibly be worse than watching the most loving and wonderful person in my life sicken and die?

The months after her death were barren, and I soon realized that their sterile drip was going to be worse than the months I had just survived. There was no more magic. It wasn’t that I was clinging to idealized nostalgia. I was just stuck. If there is a place where nothing shines, I was there. I woke up not knowing what to do without her presence in the world, and I longed for something – anything – to reconnect us. I wanted to make her toast with butter and jam and feed her Jell-O. I wanted to talk to her about what she was like in college. I wanted to bring her medicine. I wanted to read her Charlotte’s Web. I wanted to discuss her excrement, if it meant hearing her voice and seeing her chest rise and fall and touching her skin. I wanted to do anything to show her I cared. I just wanted her.

I could no longer order new gowns for her, but I kept the old ones. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. In purples and pinks and blues and greens, there she was, smiling at me. “Hello, my little pumpernickel,” I heard her say. “I love you.”

A family friend is a quilter, so now the gowns are stitched together and folded at the foot of my childhood bed. Deceased Mother Quilt has never been on my wish list, let me be clear. In some ways, I can’t help but think of it as a shroud. Those gowns clothed my mother’s body when it was aching and messy and ridden with the cells that would eventually take her away from me. Two of them clothed her body after death. But those gowns also clothed her in dignity. She taught me from childhood about maintaining grace and gratitude even when fear seems easier.

With plastic and metal on my legs and this soft quilt on my bed, I am living our shared history. I am the barest thread unfurling in the space between us. Most days I still falter.

But I am still here, tending that space, because that is what she taught me to do.

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Holly Aldrich is a disability services professional working in higher education. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her amazing cat, Gracie. She is an introvert, a listener, and a disability rights advocate. Her mom, Meg Aldrich, died of brain cancer in 2014. She will always be her mother’s daughter. You can contact her at hmaldrich@gmail.com.

“You Should Frame This” first appeared at Entropy. 

After You Died

We cremated you. Without a will, or any written instructions, this was a difficult decision to make. I wasn’t sure of your desires, but I believed my sister, who said she recalled your final wishes were to be fully released from your captor body. So I signed my name on a piece of paper the day after you died. Your funeral would be the next day, as per Jewish custom. Your cremation horrified me, but not because it bucked tradition. I could not bear the image of your body burned to a cinder, your ashes mine alone to scatter. Still, you would have laughed at the funeral director. Instead of mom, he called you mother. Very Norman Bates. Had you been there, we would have giggled until our stomachs ached.

The other night I told my husband I felt like I have lived two lives, the one before you died and the one after. We were both falling asleep, and I can’t remember what he said back to me but I think it was, “You have lived two lives.” He has only known me in my second life. He never knew me in my first life, as a person with a mother. He never knew you. But he has carried the weight of your absence with me for the past thirteen years I have known him. He has never once told me to get over it. He has never told me to be a person other than who I am. We met on your birthday, by the way. You’d been dead two years by then.

Around that time, I took in my first stray. He was a black tomcat, like the one you used to have before I was born. He appeared near my apartment in the Louisiana delta. At first, I didn’t want him. But my sister, who was visiting, forced me to adopt the cat. She put her hands on her hips the way she did when we were kids and played “Business Women.” (You should remember she was always the boss and I was always the employee.) She convinced me I could take care of something else again, that I could stand to be needed. So I adopted him that very afternoon. He opened the heaviest door I shuttered after you died, the one marked LOVE.

It felt wrong at first, to love beyond you. But the moment I started, I couldn’t stop. I have four rescues now. No child. For a long time, I was afraid to become a mother, afraid to lose a child the same way I lost you. I was well past 30 when I realized losing you taught me I could bear anything. Losing you taught me not to withhold love. Fingers crossed, I’ll give you a grandchild in the next year or two. Maybe twins :-).

By the way, you are already a grandmother. I know: You look like you could be my sister! But your other daughter already has two sons and a daughter. The eldest looks exactly like you. He makes all your most hilarious facial expressions. Like you, he loves music, loves to sing. He’s particularly fond of The Beach Boys & Billy Joel. His sister has a thing for Taylor Swift. You should hear her sing “Firework.” It’s really something. The youngest isn’t talking yet, but he has the chubbiest thighs we’ve ever seen. If you ever had the chance to squeeze them, you’d never let go.

When I awoke this morning, I remembered the morning you died. I was the same age as many of my students are now. No wrinkles then. No grey hair. At first, I mourned the big things, such as how you would not be at my college graduation –– on Mother’s Day that year. Ugh. But I felt your absence in the small things, how there was no one to tell me to be home by 10 p.m. or to complain that I’d used all the hot water AGAIN. I missed you most in the mornings, that time when we used to sip coffee and read the newspaper. I still miss you in the mornings. This is when I resurrect write about you.

Today is an anniversary, but not the kind that requires flowers or chocolate. Today you are fifteen years dead. My sister will likely light a candle for you, say Kaddish. She has been so good about honoring you on the terms of your faith. I will go to my Spin class, grade papers, prep lessons, steal an ordinary day from the impossible shadow of your absence.

After you died, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t want to go on. But here I am, missing you as much as I did on my first day without you. Only now, I can balance the unbearable loss of you on my head, walk beneath it without sinking.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ & Other Tales We Tell

A savior complex is at the heart of most fairytales. Usually, it’s the woman who needs to be saved. But sometimes, it’s the woman who both needs to be saved and who has to do the saving. This is what happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” which in full confession I know only from film.

I saw the 1991 version when it opened in theaters. This was one of the first films I was allowed to see at the movie theater with friends, without my mother. I remember sitting in the theater with 10 of my closest friends, and watching the candlestick try to make out with the feather duster, and thinking, “This is weird.” But the songs were catchy. (Be our guest. BE OUR GUEST!) For better or worse, the lyrics and story have stayed with me.

I watched the 1991 film last Thursday in preparation to see Disney’s remake during opening weekend, which sold out in my city. I’d forgotten that the beast is a scary, shouty, beating-on-doors beast dude. I had also forgotten that the word “consent” is not part of Gaston’s limited vocabulary.

I found myself holding my breath during tense moments between Gaston and Belle, when he appeared close to assaulting her. Rape is the subtext of these scenes, and I certainly didn’t see that in 1991. Nor did anyone point it out to me. In our family, Disney was not questioned. Its myths were pure.

Still, I found the remake stunning. Emma Watson as Belle conveys a human, no bullshit, no fear female power that a cartoon Belle could never accomplish. When it comes time to save the beast from Gaston, Watson subverts the Prince Charming trope by riding a white horse into the castle. That is one cool detail, even if Belle is tasked with saving the beast. (He’s already saved her from wolves, so this makes them even.)

Their romance is complicated by the pursuer/pursued dynamic and caretaking, with Belle being the prime caretaker.

During one caretaking scene where Belle nurses the beast after the wolf attack, we learn that his rage stems from Mommy and Daddy issues. This backstory was left out of the 1991 film: After the beast’s mother died, there was no one to protect him from his wrathful father. So he became wrathful like his father, and only a woman’s love can change him back to his best self. This is a dangerous myth. Yet we all are meant to celebrate the myth. The film’s final dance scene gives us a sense of order restored, the tragic turned comic. We can all leave relieved. Everything works out in the end.

Except the few curses that can’t be reversed, or the dead who will not come back to life, no matter how fervently they are wished for or loved.

Belle’s dead mother is absent from the dance, from the whole story. Her absence is an unacknowledged detail in the 1991 film, but the remake delves into backstory. Thanks to a magic mirror and the beast being in a good mood, Belle learns her mother died from Plague. The loss has been her life’s unspeakable secret, a secretly actively cultivated by her father.

Maternal loss binds her to the beast. It is the bond that seals their fate, the first magic to erode the witch’s curse long before the last petal falls from the rose.

“Beauty and the Beast” is not unusual in this sense. Mothers are absent from many fairytales. But they are often present too, either working magic from beyond the grave or being invoked through the caretaking roles their daughters assume.

Fairytales testify to the influence mothers enact in children’s lives across time and history and culture. The dead mother has incredible power. Her death is the root of deep transformation. Her love defies death, propels magic.

I am still obsessed with these tales, even “Beauty and the Beast,” despite its flaws. Not because I believe in magic or Prince Charming or happily ever after, but because I believe in my mother’s love.

I need to believe her love survives her.

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My mother told me my first fairytales. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. She read them over and over, rented their cartoon film adaptations from the library, took me to see them staged at a children’s theater near our apartment. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at ages three, or four, or five, I would have said “princess,” even though I knew the stories were make believe. I wanted them to be true, as in factually true. I wanted to believe in magic.

In fairytales, everything works out in the end. The comatose princess awakens. The abused, neglected child finds true love. The hovel becomes a castle. The wicked are punished.

As a girl, I knew my mother was sick. I knew her health was imperiled. But we never said the word dying, despite our close calls. My sister and I never acknowledged how we lived our own bleak fairytale, saving our mother from death in the nick of time, year after year, day after day. Until the the day we couldn’t.

After our mother died, my sister and I faced the merciless task of placing her clothing and personal items in giant trash bags bound for Goodwill. But I saved one book from the trash bag heap –– her worn copy of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales published by Nelson Doubleday in 1960, when my mother was eight.

I’d taken this book for my own as a girl, coloring on its pages and then highlighting lines from my favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.”

“The Juniper Tree” has typical Grimm gore, but I read the story obsessively. The plot goes like this: a wicked stepmother beheads her stepson. She boils his body and feeds it to her husband, the boy’s father. The boy’s sister, who has been tricked into believing she killed her brother, buries the bones beneath an enchanted juniper tree. This act allows the boy to become a bird, who then flies around singing the truth of his murder. Ultimately, everyone but the stepmother lives happily ever after: the bird becomes a boy; the father never finds out that he ate his son; the stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head; father, son, and sister return home to eat dinner, likely not human remains.

This morning, I reread the story and realized one root of my obsession. “The Juniper Tree” acknowledges grief –– the boy’s sister cries nonstop until the bird (her dead brother) gives her a pair of red shoes –– and the story makes death impermanent, if only in the case of the boy. Both his mother and stepmother remain dead through the last line, which actually includes the words “and they felt very happy and content, and went indoors, and sat at the table, and had their dinner.”

If only real life could work this way. If only we knew the spell to bring our dead back to life.

I will mark the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death in two weeks. Sometimes, I still wish she could come back. I still wish I knew the magic words to save her.

Conditions of Power

 She died a famous woman denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds came from the same source as her power – Adrienne Rich

 

A few years ago, I posted this selfie on Twitter.

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I was annoyed by a Vidal Sassoon ad campaign that connected “styled” hair to a good selfie. My tweet went something like this: @vidalsassoon behind every good #selfie is a woman who refuses to connect selfhood to her hair.

I took the photo after I’d finished 35 uphill minutes on an elliptical machine. My hair is unbrushed, unwashed, and full of sweat. I’m not wearing any makeup.

At the time, I thought my selfie was funny and a little bit brave. It meant I could be real. It meant I could present my face the same way men do every day –– without augmentation. It meant I didn’t care if people thought I was ugly. But the truth is there’s a part of me that still cringes each time I look at this photo. There’s a part of me that feels messy and ashamed of my mess. There’s a part of me who fears being ridiculed for my bare face, or for publically presenting an unadulterated version of who I am.

My mother wore makeup until the day she died. Even without makeup, she was a truly beautiful woman. But she tied her self worth to how others perceived her beauty, and she taught me to perceive myself the same way.

When I break these rules, I feel like I’m violating a fundamental code of womanhood. I feel like a failure because of all the beauty standards I inherited from my family and culture, and also because I lost my mother just a few weeks after I turned 21. She died at the moment my life as an adult woman began.

I had no one to shop with on the eve of my college graduation, no one to call to talk “outfits” with before my first job interview, no one to ask if my hair was too short or my lipstick was too dark or too bright.

I had to figure it all out on my own.

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This week, I facilitated a dialogue on my campus. A week before the event, my friends started asking me what I was going to wear. They offered to give outfit consults or to lend me professional clothes. But I hate suits, even pantsuits. I hate the word “blazer.” I feel like a fraud in clothing that’s designed to hide my female body. I prefer dresses, especially dresses with wild and colorful patterns.

In the end, I decided to wear a safe black dress Carl picked out for me and a jade necklace I bought during our last trip to New Orleans. I wanted to focus on the substance of the dialogue. I did not want to think about my clothes or how I appeared to others. I wanted to feel comfortable.

But an hour before the dialogue, I started getting nervous. Was my lipstick too bright? Was my dress too casual? Too low cut?

I found two female colleagues and asked them my questions. They relieved me of my doubt. One gave me a hug. Another let me use her office mirror to fix my hair, then she ran a lint roller down the back of my cardigan, which was covered in dog hair.

Even though my mother has been dead for almost 15 years, I still crave her approval. I still look for her in other women. One day, I hope I will look to myself first.

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My thinking about female selfhood and beauty is motivated by the amount of time I spend at the gym –– in mixed gender exercise classes where women are encouraged to become powerful in our bodies, and where we literally exercise our power.

For me, these spaces are one place where women are affirmed in resisting narrow beauty standards. At the gym, we sweat. We have bare faces and messy hair. We run. We climb. We lift. We bike. We get strong.

My mother was once strong, too. After her transplant, she began jogging on a treadmill her cousin bought her. She competed in two U.S. Transplant Olympic Games held in Columbus, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah.

These competitions were a way to publically reclaim power over her body in the wake of chronic illness. But in the last months of her life, she lost that power. She suffered stress fractures in her feet after walking barefoot on a beach. She needed a wheelchair to run errands.

Other mothers expressed panic when they saw my mother confined to a wheelchair. (Their daughters shared this panic with me.) My mother’s aging and diseased body could just as well be their own. I do not fault them for these fears. I often harbor the same ones.

Like my mother, I exercise to reclaim power over my body, and this is why I felt compelled to tweet my workout selfie to Vidal Sassoon, and why I still need to be in-your-face about my post-workout face.

When I exercise, I condition my body and break down my female conditioning. I become more fully myself, more fully alive. I become a woman who is a little less self conscious, a little less approval seeking, a little less afraid, a little less worried about her clothes, her makeup, her hair.

 

Not Everyone Will Like You

First grade was hard for me. We moved to a new neighborhood, and I started first grade at a new school.

I’d finished Kindergarten at a Jewish nursery school in Baltimore, and I read way above grade level. I also read on the bus, at the bus stop, and under my desk in class. When other kids played outside, I stayed inside to read.

Another girl started teasing me. She called me a bookworm and told other kids to do it too. Bookworm! Bookworm! They yelled. I cried about the whole thing to my mother.

Here’s what she told me:

“Not everyone will like you. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

She said these words simply, with no explanation. She did not tell me that these children were wrong not to like me. She did not tell me I was wrong for wanting to be liked. She simply spoke the truth as she understood it.

Not everyone will like you.

Of all the things my mother ever told me, these words are among the most important. She freed me to be myself. She freed me to not waste time winning over people who were never going to like me. She freed me from good girl conditioning that leads to the toxic trifecta of people pleasing, repression, and resentment.

Still, I didn’t learn the lesson immediately at 6. That day, I sat on her lap, while she ran her fingers through my hair. I breathed her Youth Dew. I sobbed into her dress with the floral collar.

I said, “Mommy, why won’t they like me?”

“They just won’t,” she replied.

I wanted everyone to like me. Sometimes I still do. But I also know that likeability is a trap for women. And I am coming to believe that my health depends on risking not being liked.

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This has been a hard week for me. I had lab done work last Friday. My endocrinologist’s office left a vague voicemail message on Tuesday, asking if I could come in as soon as possible. (Don’t you love those messages?)

Short story: my TSH is increasing, even though my endo upped my dose of Levoxyl in December. My TSH has been increasing since I started Levoxyl in September. After six months, my TSH is still too high for me to safely sustain a pregnancy. My body is not responding to one of two medications I can take to treat this condition. My choices are limited because the widely prescribed meds contain ingredients like gluten and sugar that are not safe for me.

I turned 36 on February 16. My window of fertility is closing.

I received this news at work because that’s where I spend most of my time. I closed my office door. I texted some relatives and friends. A few wrote back. A few haven’t. It’s hard to hold other people’s bad news. It’s hard to face the truth that not everything works out in the end. Not every illness can be remedied.

Before class, a colleague asked me how I was doing. We were casually chatting in the bathroom. I told her the truth about the news I’d received. I said, “I know a lot of people say ‘fine’ when asked that question, but I’m not feeling ‘fine’ right now. I’m sad.”

I risked not being liked for being an oversharer. I risked her potentially saying, TMI and dismissing me. I risked her potential silence.

She said: “That’s what I love about you. You say what’s actually on your mind.”

I am so grateful to work with women who have the emotional capacity to be present to one another in times of distress. I am so grateful to work with women who do not hide who they are.

________

Last week I also spoke up about an ongoing issue at my gym.

Short story: I’ve fallen in love with Spin. (Spin is the best thing ever!), and I love my spin instructors. I am steadily increasing muscle mass while decreasing fat because they push me.

But something is happening to make me feel irritated, annoyed, and bitter in Spin. This something is this:

Class members are engaging in behaviors that gym policy doesn’t allow. They’re getting to class 15 to 20 minutes early, saving bikes with towels or other personal items, then leaving the room, sometimes entering late to mount a “claimed” bike. These behaviors appear entitled, even if that’s not their intention. These behaviors might not bother most people, but they bother me. I perceive them as unfair. I perceive them as degrading shared community space.

I needed to speak up about my feelings because repressing emotion negatively affects me. I’m also afraid it is affecting my thyroid health. This is not magical thinking. Countless studies support that stress adversely affects autoimmune conditions. My thyroid is located in my throat, the seat of my voice. I believe self-silencing damages me.

This morning, a person with the power to enforce gym policy told me that people would complain once the policy was enforced. They wouldn’t be happy. They might not like me. (Because I publically removed gym towels from a bike this morning, I will likely be known as the instigator of the policy’s enforcement.)

I said, I understand. I don’t care if people like me.          

 And I really meant it. I truly did not care. This doesn’t mean I’m not a compassionate or empathetic person. I care deeply about other people’s thoughts and feelings. But I can hold my own truths alongside those of others, even when our truths contradict. I know disagreement does not necessarily equate with delegitimization.

My mother’s words, spoken so long ago I barely remember them, came back to me this morning, as I left Spin. I thought of how her voice, which I can no longer remember, still instructs me, still shapes and forms me.

Not everyone will like you. There’s nothing you can do about it, I thought, as I walked to my car, buoyed by relief, feeling pressure in my chest dissolve. Feeling free.

Meeting the Dead in Dreamland

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung

I woke up at 3 a.m. from a nightmare that my sister’s infant son had gone missing. It was a terrifying dream, full of caves, masked men, and all consuming darkness. In the dream, we never found the baby, but I searched for him until I awoke to heart palpitations. Then I couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind wandered to the worst, worst case scenarios I could imagine, to the kinds of unfathomable losses that no one ever wants to think about. The kind that I cannot even bring myself to write.

You see, I’m afraid if I write them down, I will make them real.

The thing about surviving an earth shattering loss is that it opens you up to the probability of future earth shattering losses. Nothing is safe. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Death traces a shadow across every good thing. Even happiness feels false. You learn to distrust joy. You learn to distrust peace. Life can feel like a never ending production of “Hamlet,” which (big surprise) is the play that formed the basis of my master’s thesis.

Before I did my MFA, I immersed myself in what is arguably the most depressing literary text ever written, a tragedy centering on two children maddened by grief. I was obsessed with Ophelia –– motherless, fatherless, suicidal Ophelia. I, too, was a little mad at this time. I was afraid of everything. Driving at night. Rain. Walking from my car to our house. Most of all, I was afraid of Carl’s death. I thought about it all the time. What would I do if he died? How would I cope?

I needed the answers to these questions because I needed to know I could survive beyond him. I read “Hamlet” and wrote about Ophelia for hours each week. Still, I wasn’t soothed. If Carl was late coming home, I convinced myself he’d been in a car accident. I’d call him repeatedly until he answered the phone –– perplexed, but patient. Sometimes, I’d awaken in the middle of the night just to check that he was still breathing. Sometimes I still do.

But, at a certain point, it’s reckless to allow fear to pollute the present. At a certain point we have to live our lives. At a certain point, “Hamlet” stops being fun and starts being a depressing tragedy that the students I now teach don’t want to read. So I started writing about my own grief, and about my mother.

On the page, I found I could resurrect her. I could bring us both back to life. I found a therapist who taught me how to recognize intrusive thoughts, and how to distinguish catastrophic thinking from reality. I recommitted myself to the meditation practice that has sustained me for the past decade. I found my way into an MFA program and kept writing my way back to my mother, which ultimately saved me.

Yet, death still haunts my dreams.

Last night’s dream was the second baby dream I’ve had in a week. The first dream goes like this: Carl and I awaken to cries coming from a back bedroom of our house. We find a boy –– presumably our son –– standing in a dark room. He’s wailing and holding tiny hooks in his hands, the kinds of hooks that we use to hang our Christmas tree ornaments. Given that we’re currently childless, I’m astounded to see this beautiful, blonde boy in our home. But removing the hooks from the boy’s hands feels like a life-or-death situation. I’m terrified he’ll swallow a hook. I’m only a mother for five seconds, and already I’m afraid of losing our son. Already, I’m thinking of all the seemingly innocuous things that can kill him.

In the dream, panic swept over me. It wasn’t an omygod I’m-not-ready-to-be-a-mother! kind of panic. It was an ohmygod my house is a death trap! kind of panic. And now I’ve had a second child loss dream.

Carl spent years studying Jungian dream work. He’s meditating right now, but If I interrupted him, he’d probably tell me that the lost child –– or the almost dead child –– stand for a hidden aspect of myself. Some buried subconscious fragment is breaking through to the surface. He’d say the panic connects with the difficult emotional work of knowing ourselves, of being truthful about who we are and what we want in life. There are no answers in dream work, only questions. But I think he’d also tell me that darkness cannot be separated from light, that facing the darkness is what makes us truly conscious.

I interpret the dreams from the edge of mother loss. A mother who loses a child never stops being a mother, but that implication is unavoidable, and it complicates the grief that mothers who lose children feel.

My grandmother lost two children. The first loss was her firstborn infant son, who died at four months. The second loss was my mother. She died on April 7. Three years later, my grandmother fell into a coma on that same day. She took her last breath on April 8.

I was with her when she died. I spent the entire day holding her hand, reading Rumi to her because his words felt like the only appropriate response. Watching her die made me less afraid of death, more open to the beauty that can arise from our most feared moments.

I read to her from “Say I Am You”: I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy, / the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, / and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t. The poem’s images focus on interconnection, on how we are all dust and sunlight and stars, on how everything that is alive comes from what is also dead.

One of the greatest gifts of my sister’s children is how they bring the dead back to life. My mother is dead, but she continues to live through this genealogy. My sister and I both resemble her, but I can’t see her features in us the same way I can see them in her grandchildren. My eldest nephew has her smile and sense of humor. My niece has her courage and strength. My dream child had her eyes. Even in the darkness, I could see them clear as day.

Grief Observed: Lessons from Binge-Watching “Six Feet Under”

Carl and I started watching Six Feet Under this summer. This is my first time watching. When the pilot aired in 2001, I knew my mother’s death was inevitable, but neither of us could face that truth. We pretended she’d recover, that kidney failure in a type-one diabetic was just a temporary thing. I, along with much of the nation, had also watched the twin towers collapse on live television. Death hung over everything that year, but I thought Six Feet was weird and morbid. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Carl, who lived across the country from me, was starting seminary. He loved the show, all its rituals and questions about life and death and truth. He watched weekly with his friends. At the time, we didn’t know each other. But back in 2001, one of my good friends was a Six Feet fan, and I’d hear about the show’s weekly episodes from her. She loved Six Feet because her father worked as an undertaker in central Pennsylvania. Funerals were their family’s business, and it had been that way for generations. When my mother died in April 2002, this friend was studying abroad. But that didn’t stop her from reaching out.

The day she learned of my mother’s death, she sent me yellow roses and a card. In the subsequent weeks, she left me thoughtful voicemails. She responded to my e-mails without missing a beat. Never once did she attempt to comfort me with irritating platitudes or vague offers of prayer. She understood there was no reason why my mother had to suffer, or why I had to face the rest of my life without a mother to guide me.

What I needed was to get through each moment, each day. Through it all, this friend stood by me. We didn’t know the term holding space back then, but that is what she did for me. She held space for my grief, and she didn’t flee, like many others did. I don’t blame them. Grief is terrifying, especially to twenty-one year-olds, many of whom have never even lost a pet. My mother’s death, and my own grief, reminded others of what they stood to lose, and many could not bear to look.

One of the reasons why I think Carl and I are drawn to Six Feet now– we binge-watched half of season four yesterday –– is because death feels like our family business, too. We both lost parents young. As adolescents and young adults, we saw our parents lose control of their bodies and hope. We stood at their funerals. We received diplomas and awards without them watching. Any child we have will grow up never knowing two essential grandparents. We will mourn our parents again and again. There is no finish line for grief.

Had I watched Six Feet back in 2001, I’d know how grief “comes and goes,” as Nate says in season four. I’d know grief feels more like an ocean than a highway. I’d know how unexpressed grief leads to greater pain, and that numbing through sex or drugs or alcohol does not lessen our suffering, but only ushers in greater despair. I’d know death stops for no one, but it is also not contagious.

I hope I’d understand that, at 21, I could not bring my mother’s body back, no matter how long and deeply I mourned. But I could return to her essence through my work as a writer and teacher and friend. Now I feel my mother’s spirit –– not her ghost, but the core of who she was –– when I hold space for others. When I make room for another person’s grief, I make room for my mother. In this way, I honor her death and her life. Rather than confining her to a grave or a memory, I make her expansive, like my own heart, which is one half hers, still beating, still alive, in the world.