Lesson 32: You may not realize it, but she is the strongest one.

turtle

As daughters, we all developed a very special and individual relationship with my mom. Settie, for example, had a strong friendship with her, unlike the rest of us. Perhaps that stemmed from being the oldest and having a birth-order responsibility to look after us. Whatever the case, it was so unique to her and Mami, that as much as I observed it I could never relate to it. This is something I hold so valuable and admirable about my mom. She knew us—each of us as only she could and that dictated how she raised us.

I will, normally, stand by my statement that I was the most loved, of course, out of us four. But today, I reflect and I appreciate that my mom didn’t have favorites. She had relationships. All different. All beautiful. All important. When you spoke with my mom about any of us, she defended us from her perspective of who she knew us to be.

My focus on this much overdue blog is on the second oldest of the four of us: my sister Nettie.

I was inspired to write this after reading an entrepreneurial blog: http://joshkaufman.net/resilience-survive-anything/. It is worth the read, but for the short-cutters, essentially it is about the traits that many in society have been trained to perceive as weakness and how those qualities can actually help you be more resilient in the long run. We (my sisters, brother-in-laws, and I) often tease Nettie by telling her she has “turtle-like” qualities. When we are meeting somewhere and Nettie is running a little late, I like to shout “Turtle Speeeeeeeeeed” as though it is her superhero mantra.

Yeah, I tease her a lot, and that probably says more about me than it does about Nettie.

She is the nice one, who will take being the punchline if it brings others happiness. Seriously, she admits to this. She is TOO NICE which makes me feel guilty for not being that nice, so then I make fun of her and she just laughs too, and then I am defeated. She is a cunning minx, that one. I digress, though. This is an excerpt from the above mentioned blog:

“Turtles aren’t the sexiest creatures in the animal kingdom. They can’t run fast. They can’t fly. They don’t have big sharp teeth or claws. They can’t puff themselves up to look menacing. Compared to the raw power of a tiger or a falcon, turtles are kind of lame.

What turtles do have is a variety of protective strategies – swim away quickly, use camouflage, snap with jaws, and if all else fails, retract into the shell and wait. Creatures elsewhere in the animal kingdom are pretty much screwed if they’re cornered by a predator. Turtles have a fighting chance – they win because they’re the armored tanks of nature. They can also eat many different things and go into hibernation when times get tough. That’s why they tend to live so long.

Tigers, on the other hand, rely on their strength, power, and speed to chase down their prey. When times are good, tigers are the kings of the jungle. If prey becomes scarce or they lose their hunting prowess due to age or injury, death takes them quickly and mercilessly – no second chances.”

Boom.

My mom never defended Nettie when we would tease her, sometimes she would even laugh and join in. Our house was kind of a if-you-can’t-take-the-heat-get-outta-the-kitchen type environment. Nettie always stayed in the kitchen. In quieter moments, though, when reflecting on all of us, my mom would boast about Nettie’s internal strength. Mami identified that resilience in Nettie that other’s overlooked. My mom knew that Nettie was quiet, but determined. Slow, but thorough. Non-menacing, but if you attack someone she loves… you experience the snap of her jaw. It was not a question in my mom’s mind that when the going got tough, really tough, Nettie would be the strong one.

I think at this point, we’ve all realized this to be true, except maybe Nettie.

Nettie is the reason I survived the past 9-ish months. Beginning from the moment my mom went into emergency surgery, something clicked in my sister. I had breakdowns. Almost immediately after I would leave my mom’s room, rushes of emotion would overtake me as a paralytic force. Nettie reminded me to first and foremost to remain hopeful. As much as people say that hoping for the best will make dealing with anything, other than the best, harder, that wasn’t true for me. Hope was all I had, and I was grateful for it–I still am. This was Nettie swimming quickly underwater and holding me by her side to keep up. The deeper we went, the more I struggled, but she never faltered. In those depths I was reminded of everything Mami would tell me about Nettie. She told me that when Nettie was in labor with Gavin, she had never seen more strength in someone’s eyes. She told me that when Nettie was sitting in the NICU next to Dylan, that she knew everything would get better simply because of Nettie’s determination. I saw all those same things and more in my sister. She lives her life un-harmfully and quiet, knowing when to stand her ground.

I am thankful for the turtles. We could all learn quite a bit from them.

Is it the human condition to constantly look ahead without grounding themselves in the present? I read a quote today:

“Even if you fall flat on your face, you’re still moving forward.” –Victor Kiam.

I smiled when I read it. I’ve recently acknowledged the fear within myself of failing, causing a stagnation that results in an instant forfeit. That isn’t unique to me, though, I simply muse on it, maybe more than others. This creates a glaring lag in time, while simultaneously speeding it up, so that your perception is that you can never complete what you aim to do, but instead, are constantly waiting for a better opportunity to do it.

I don’t know the answer to how we avoid this or if it is worth it to avoid. I do know that a daily, conscious appreciation for where you are and what small (or big) pleasures we find in unexpected moments, is better than a lifetime of looking to fix our inadequacies.

Lesson 31: You ARE the architect of your own destiny.

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Mother’s Day approaching has felt a little like a ticking bomb that may or may not detonate. My guess has been as good as yours as to my reaction. My instincts, right now, tell me to tell you to love your mother more. Hug her more. Take pictures. Share stories.

I think that it is an understandable emotion to wish to redo moments. It’s okay to wish to go back in time to hug a little longer. That fleetingness of life and love—that’s what makes it so perfect.

When I was little, it’s no secret I used to wake up in the wee hours of the night to scurry to my mom and dad’s bed. I never feared the dark, per say. Rather, I feared the partial moonlight that would cast into my room and create shadows on my wall. I would look at them and see the silhouettes of trees and know they were trees, but I was always a little worried one day I’d open my squinty eyes and see something else. So I’d jump out of bed with my eyes closed and run directly to my mom’s side of the bed. She must have just expected me by that point because there was always a spot open for me. While I’d climb into bed with little grace, my mom would open her eyes and ask in a shallow awareness if it was me. I’d respond in a whisper “Mami, can I sleep in your bed?”

No answer was needed, I was already snuggled up to her.

My favorite moments were Saturday or Sunday mornings. I’d wake up but lay still with my eyes closed. My mom and dad would be awake and my mom would quietly talk to my dad about me while gently stroking my hair. I’d pretend to sleep as long as possible, but eventually, I would open my eyes and smile.

“Mami? How do you make pancakes?”

She’d laugh. “Do you want to make pancakes? Or do you want me to make you pancakes? You’ll make a mess! I’ll just make them today.”

Those moments will live infinitely in my mind. Each time I think of them I will smile and tears will collect in my eyes. I’ll never have those moments again, but I’m so beyond happy I had them when I did.

My mom would always say “I am the architect of my own destiny.” This came from a very favorite poem of hers titled “At Peace” by Amado Ruiz de Nervo. I never knew that until after she passed away, at which point we used the poem for her memorial. It was strikingly apt:

 

At Peace

Very near my setting sun, I bless you, Life
Because you never gave me neither unfilled hope
Nor unfair work, nor undeserved sorrow/pain

Because I see at the end of my rough way
That I was the architect of my own destiny
And if I extracted the sweetness or the bitterness of things
It was because I put the sweetness or the bitterness in them
When I planted rose bushes I always harvested roses

Certainly, winter is going to follow my youth
But you didn’t tell me that May was eternal
I found without a doubt long my nights of pain
But you didn’t promise me only good nights
And in exchange I had some peaceful ones

I loved, I was loved, the sun caressed my face

Life, you owe me nothing, Life, we are at peace!

 

 

What I’m reflecting on for Mother’s Day is how beautiful a philosophy that is, and how beautiful my mom was for loving and living this. I’ve thought about my part in my life—in constructing something sweet and good. In harvesting only roses.

My mom was extremely good at being the architect for not only her destiny, but for mine, as well. (I won’t speak on behalf of my Dad and sisters, but I imagine the feeling is similar.) She could draft up a destiny on a whim. In fact, occasionally she would toss her blueprints in the air and only visualize what she needed. She laughed, she loved, and she LIVED. Then near her setting sun, she slowly began to pass me the drafting paper, little by little, but continuously. Eventually all the tools were in my possession: instructions learned over the course of 27 years. While that was not enough time for instruction (it will never be enough time), she made sure I was fully prepared to take over as architect.

Tomorrow I will clutch my “blueprints.” I will clutch them in my arms as tightly as I can and be grateful for what she left me and the memories I will always have because of the beauty she had in her. I will spend my time celebrating that and allowing myself the responsibility to take over and create something wonderful for the future. MAYBE I’ll even try to make some pancakes.

That is my choice for tomorrow. Tomorrow WILL be a Happy Mother’s Day.

 

<3 Meet you on the beach someday, Mama.

Old Thoughts Week

I came upon some old journal entries of mine from the spring before I moved to Tucson. I thought I’d share a few of them over the next days for some insight into what went through my mind. Going through them was surprising even for me, now.

 

It recently occurred to me that everyone else is the constant in my life. You would think that I would be the constant, because no matter who I’m with… I’m the only person that continues to be the same. But I am not the same. I am a new person with everyone. This is why I lack perception of myself. I don’t know which self to perceive myself as regularly.
I’m comfortable with that right now, but I shouldn’t be.

 

 

 

This time of year sparks my memory of summers at my Grandma’s house. They were always fun because the pool would be filled and my cousins would come over. I’d wake up early and change into my bright green swimsuit, I’d stick out my baby fat belly between the pieces and I’d forget to comb my hair. I was 6. I’d stand in front of Marllette’s bed and my short stubby legs would propel me through the air on top of my sister and she’d scream.

“Hey, wanna go swimming before everyone else comes?”

“No. I want to sleep.”

“Can I sleep with you?”

“No! Your bed is 3 feet away!”

 

I’d lay down and pretend to snore. My swim suit smelled like old pool water and Marllette would be irritated until she’d finally get up and change. She’d stomp outside and drop 2 towels on the floor and lay down on the pool deck. I’d lay down next to her with my legs crossed and sunglasses on, and by noon the cousins would come and Marllette would find her energy. We’d tire ourselves out and wave good bye until the next day. I’d wipe my nose with my hand and touch Marllette. Why was that gross? Watermelon stained suit and all, she’d shove me in the shower and remind me to put shampoo in my hair. We’d eat popscicles, watch I love Lucy and go to bed. At 2 AM I’d move to her bed. I don’t know why it was safe, or why she was any more able to protect us at 10 than I was at 6, but her bed seemed softer and warmer and farther from the shadows of trees on the wall.

 

 

I’ll see you and you’ll smile, confused as to what I’m thinking. But I will know what’s on your mind. I’ll prepare for the silence once again, and when you do speak, I won’t reply, because you won’t want my answer.

Lesson 30: Let out your tears.

“This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.” – Rumi

Needing “a good cry” today. Oh this journey, this journey through the chasms of my miiiiiind.

Life doesn’t get any easier. She’s gone. Five months later and it’s even less okay than it was at first. She’s gone and I can’t find the magical door I’ve dreamt up that I can walk through to hug her again. I look in the mirror and I see her sometimes: the green eyes, the same nose… but it’s fleeting, because then I stand there… this person with her eternally but without her forevermore.

I remember sitting in the conference room at Mercy Gilbert, staring at a doctor who I will forever remember as “cankles” because I was too angry at her to look at her face. I remember telling her mid staccato-like gapes of breath between cries that I understood that she lacked the ability to offer me hope, but… it. sucked. It. Still. Sucks.

This past month has been emotional, or at least, it should have been. I managed to stuff that emotion somewhere deep inside until I felt I could take a minute to think it through. I’ve neglected to write for the same reason. But “it” never goes away. It grows like a vine around you until it’s got you in a sleeper hold.

It’s okay to cry. My mom would always tell me not to bottle it up. She’d tell me to wait, if possible, and not let the advantageous see me, but in a quiet moment I should take a shower and let it all out in there. I should cry until the tears are gone.

The truth is, I want to scream at the world, right now. I don’t care if anyone hears or sees. My heart is on my sleeve, and the pain is very, very deep. I’m not hope-less and I will be okay, but there is a slice of my heart that is gone, and words can’t heal me, and I think that’s important to me because I don’t want to be healed. I don’t want to ever be “okay” with my mom being gone. I want to let the tears out and know that tomorrow will be a new day–perhaps with a freshly sodium cleansed face–and that I can resume walking with my head held high and a smile on my face.

Lesson 29: It’s Okay to Bloom, Little Ones.

I had wanted a short winter. I spent many nights with my eyes clenched shut before falling asleep–as a child does when they’re trying to tell themselves there is no monster under the bed. Throughout August and early September I’d do this, intending to ask the powers that be for something profound, but feeling at a loss for what to ask with respect to my mother’s illness. It seemed that outright asking for her cure was too ambitious in those moments and I’d seem whiny and desperate—I wanted to plan that request out. The most logical thing to ask for was a shortened winter. I had honed in on words my mom had spoken in April: “The sun is finally out and it’s perfect to go outside to my garden and stretch out on the hammock. The winter made me sad, it was so dark.” Her treatments started late April, as well, so the turnaround in her attitude and overall condition seemed to improve with the temperature increase.

The October weather was perfect. Warm afternoons would cool into breezy nights filled with an aroma that could only be described as Arizona autumn. It gave a sense of tranquility that contrasted my emotion; in fact, the entire hospice was a mental battle between feeling comforted and panicked. I preferred to demonize the nurses in an attempt to ease my confusion. In truth, they were not gentle and a little too happy to numb and quiet, which made it easy. There is also the distinct possibility that the hospice itself was no more welcoming than any other home colored in crèmes and coffee browns, but that my family’s unique ability to make ourselves at home regardless of where we are, influenced the atmosphere. During the couple of weekends we spent there, when the whole family came into town, we’d sit, gathering food around on the coffee table, in front of the fireplace and laugh about silly things. Chris would entertain us with stories of his adventure of the moment, while keeping a caring eye on me. He’d stay far enough to give me space, but close enough to hug me if he saw the cloud of fear that would often pass through my eyes.

Taking turns spending time with my mom gave us the ability to give her the best that we had, each of us. We could rotate giving smiles, hand squeezes and reassuring kisses. She slept mostly, waking up few times to look around for familiarity. My preferred spot was in a chair to her left, laying my side on her bed so that she’d open her eyes to see my lying next to her.  Then, I could remind her that I was there and she was okay, and her face would change from confused to content and she’d smile at me, “Okay baby, I love you.” The words were almost indiscernible, but I knew exactly what she was saying.

Yes, it was I who asked for this short, warm winter. I saw my mom like the flowers she nurtured so well: blooming in the spring only to wither with the cold. Maybe I was mistaken, though. The flower isn’t burdened with the coming winter… it doesn’t want to push through the freeze. Rather, it will give itself to the earth to nurture and raise a whole new set of seeds that will grow strong in the spring, holding in fragments of the generations before.

bloom

Semantics

There’s this word…

It conjures fear in my depths that no other word can do. It rattles my soul, and yet, for fear of saying it… I am still unable to avoid it. I still don’t say it. I think I did, once… with a stutter. It felt cold. My mouth didn’t quite know how to speak it, and after I meekly spit it out, I looked around nervously as though it would have awakened a monster. Did it? Could it? Should I be afraid?

Death.
Death.
Death.
It starts as a cough and ends in a whisper.
As if it is one’s last exhale.

Why are you so peculiar, death? When I come to understand you, I’ll be in the company of all who already know you.

Still, here I find myself pondering the intricacies that my mom has become well acquainted with over the last 4 months. I’ve tried not to say the word itself or its conjugations. Dead. Die. Death. De-breath? I know they are only words, but they feel so harsh. Distant. The euphemisms don’t seem to console me, though. She’s passed away. Passed away to where? This is something I am unsure of. I believe she still exists in some form… I feel a sureness of that. It is physics. She was energy and energy cannot just disappear, it transforms. It must still be somewhere.  But where? I don’t know. That is a certainty I didn’t have that I thought I had. I hope that energy is tangible here; that her last breath, her de-breath, nourished one of her nearby plants as she would have wanted.

And so herein the beauty is found—the silver lining. I am no closer to understanding death, though I no longer want to struggle over its name. I can’t tell you that I believe my mom is in a pearly white kingdom above, because I promised myself that through this blog I would share honesty. With that said, I know there is more to it all than my mom’s ashes. Every time I fall into Savasana I do my best to shut off all thought and release all tension that I’ve held throughout the day. It’s then that I feel her most. I don’t allow myself to think. I only feel what I can only recognize as her. I don’t think that is irony or coincidence. We can’t know all of life’s mysteries. Why would we want to? But we can connect to them and accept that life, love, death, hope, fear, fate… these are all just words we have created to express what, in our humble humanness, we know but cannot explain.

Death.
Death.
Death.
It starts with a cry and ends with a breath.