Tag Archives: grief

Yuletide Blues

Christmas-time is a difficult time of year for everyone, it seems. All of the togetherness, peace, and good-will toward men comes with a grand helping of isolation, sadness, and guilt. Without meaning to, the holiday season does its damnedest to remind us all of what we’ve lost.

Christmas was a big deal to me when I was growing up. My mom was positively possessed of the holiday spirit. Every inch of our five-bedroom house was decorated; the banisters festooned with garlands, mechanical singing-and-dancing merry-go-rounds on the landing, and an eight-foot-tall tree front and center in the living room. Our hand-made stockings were hung with care o’er the fireplace with limited-edition stocking holders care of the Disney Store. Special towels and holiday-scented soaps were strategically placed in the bathrooms. Stuffed polar bears, reindeer, and Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat were my once-a-year friends. These artifacts became integral to my experience of the holiday season. Without them, the holiday felt pale, lackluster, deficient.

The year I turned eleven was the last of the great Christmases of my childhood. You just can’t stuff a two bedroom apartment with yuletide glee the same way as a two-story home. Being a child of divorce made it happen that Christmas time was more “hum-bug” than “ho-ho-ho”. As I grew, I came to realize that this meant there was no home-base to return to. No childhood bedroom filled to the rafters with relics of my past. No safe-haven to return to after a bad break-up or a fight with the roommate. There was no longer a place to safely store the artifacts my my childhood until such a time came for me to pass those things on to children of my own.

Things disappeared gradually, so much so that I didn’t realize they were missing until it was too late. I assumed the ubiquitous storage units my parents each rented when they moved separately into sad-divorcee apartment blocks would be kept in perpetuity. I assumed that both my mother and father knew, instinctively, that I was counting on keeping my great-grandmother’s china, our family albums, and other assorted pieces from around our home. I assumed that my mother’s horde of Christmas decorations was just as sacred to the adults around me as it was to me personally. In retrospect, perhaps it was all wishful thinking: I wanted these things to be true.

Things were jettisoned over time, in part out of necessity. When my mother and stepfather moved from California to Hawaii in 2003, they could only afford to ship so many things with them, and my grandmother only had room in her garage for so much. Again, I assumed that the things that were being saved and stored were the things that mattered so much to me. In the end, I won’t ever know for sure if that was true.

I came to live with Mom and Al in November of 2004. By Spring of 2008, they were both gone, consumed by separate but voracious illnesses. When Al went, we kept everything. A closet full of aloha shirts, a silver menorah, and a baby grand piano neither of us could play. When Mom got sick two years later, the decision was made that she would move back to the Mainland for treatment and stay with her mother. The piano went with her, but a great deal of Al’s other belongings were passed on to his daughters or donated. We boxed up our whole apartment, including most of my journals, photo albums, and knick-knacks — I was going to live in a much smaller place with a roommate and I wouldn’t have space for it all. I assumed (what was that thing your mother always said about assuming…) that everything would be stored at Grandma’s house, next to great-grandma’s china and Mom’s Christmas Horde. After Mom was gone, it gave me comfort to know that once I was a real grown-up, I could go retrieve those vestiges of our shared past.

We lost a great many things in that fire that consumed my mother’s life. She was more than just the person that gave birth to us. She was our home and the lynch-pin that held our family together. Our greatest cheer-leader and supreme boo-boo kisser. When she went, I lost my friend. My siblings and I, we lost our memory-keeper. And in the intervening years between losing my mother and having a family of my own, I lost my history.

It’s all gone, you see. Every journal I kept from age 13 until 20. Every note and token of love from my first love, which I saved in a (literal) heart-shaped box. Crappy candids of my friends and me in school. Baby-blankets and a sweater knit for me by my Grandy. All of the tangible pieces of the first twenty years of my life. Great-grandma’s china. And all of my mother’s holiday collection.

I frequently force myself to remember that these are just things. Things are not love and they can’t replace the people that you’ve lost. I try to remind myself that I don’t need to cling to these fragments of my past or of my family, because I’m making a new family and building new memories. But it’s hard. It’s hard to decorate a Christmas tree with my daughter and think of a legacy of joy that I won’t be able to pass on to her. It hurts to sit around a table of my in-laws and listen to them tell stories about my husband as he was growing up, knowing that I can’t reciprocate by sitting him down with my mother and having her relive my history for him. It’s sad that so much of what we all seem to take for granted as being permanent and unchangeable, is in fact completely fragile.

I have had to let go of a great deal, but I carry on with traditions and hold my new family close. I’m M’s mommy now. I’m her history-keeper, and I take this appointment seriously. Her stories are written down in baby books and documented in photos. We are building a life and a foundation for her to jump off from and I will make sure that it persists in case she ever wishes to return. Every year, we buy a new ornament and add to our Christmas collection, rich with fondness for what we have and bittersweet joy for what we lost.

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Wrong. All we can do is learn to float.

 

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Some days

One year, my brother sent our mom a birthday card that really made her smile. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark deals with corny poetry and glitter — it was just a cheap little card. It had a photo on the front of a little boy sitting on the steps outside of his school, with his lunchbox beside him and his head on his lap, as if he were crying. Inside the card it said: “Some days, I still just want my mommy.” I think she loved it because she loved feeling wanted.

I think about that card a lot, particularly the sentiment printed inside: I just want my mommy. That thought wandered into my head the other night, as it often does, when I suddenly realized the date. March 8th. March 8th, the absolute worst day that ever was, ever.

In the seven years that have passed since she died, I have never gotten into the habit of honoring the anniversary of her death. March 8th is not the day I choose to remember her. It isn’t the same as those birthdays, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Or any of the other happy occasions that bring her to mind and make me wish she were with us. The anniversary of her passing is a black mark, a day that got knocked off the calendar in sheer repulsion. A day too sad to commit to memory.

A pattern has emerged in the last few years. The anniversary goes by without my paying any mind — no more than usual, that is, because I think of her every day — but I don’t think about holding her hand in the hospital bed, listening through the night as she struggled for breath and the morphine slowly stole her life away. I elect to avoid that place whenever possible. It is as if I am walking down memory lane, the branches pulled aside to clear the path ahead. The coast is clear and then smack! One of the thin, springy branches snaps back and whips me in the face. I often feel guilty for having forgotten: I mean, here I am years later, still locked in a prison of grief. Should I not have kept count of all the awful days that have gone by and how many times I have needed her? I am forever affected by her death, but somehow, I sometimes forget that she died.

When the realization hits me, I count on my fingers — how long has it been? Seven years? Seven. Years. How it that possible? How I am still walking around with this hole in my gut, like the umbilicus that once tied me to her never healed? But then, maybe it didn’t. What is the shelf life of a mother-daughter relationship after the mother is dead and gone? At what point do I cease to be hers?

When shall I no longer wish to curl up beside her warm, soft body, my head in lap as she strokes my hair? When does a child no longer want or need their mother? I can’t fathom it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to let go, because she was mine and I was hers and whatever wrong she did — and there were wrongs — and whatever I took for granted — and I did so, regretfully — she is mine. And I am hers: a mournful child crying on the front stoop, waiting for my mommy to pick me up and make me feel good again.

A work-in-progress

One of the biggest take-aways I ever received from my first interpreting mentor is that we are all, each and every one of us, a work in progress. We never stop learning, growing, developing, and becoming more of the people we are meant to be. For interpreters, this is a fairly common precept: in order to remain relevant in your field and to maintain your credential, you must earn continuing education credits in order to show a persistent commitment to professional development. In our personal lives, though, people tend to think that at a certain age who you are ought to be fossilized at a certain stage in development: your tastes, predilections, personality, mannerisms, et cetera shouldn’t change too much past an imaginary point in time. It’s true, to an extent, that some things tend to remain stable over time. My taste in music, for example, hasn’t been drastically altered in the last 15 years, though I’ve come to appreciate alternatives to my favorites. But what about our looks? At a certain age, if you deviate too much from what people have come to expect of you, you are branded a midlife crisis or said to be “going through a phase”. Change just freaks people out once we get beyond our formative years. But, honestly, shouldn’t all of our years be formative?

Case in point: my whole life, I’ve been more of a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl because it’s easy, if not fashionable. I’ve always liked make-up and looking pretty, but never enough to put a whole lot of effort into it. My idea of professional dress is “a nice top, and nice bottoms”. I don’t accessorize a whole hell of a lot because I can’t be bothered.

And then this happened.
And then this happened.

In the last year, I’ve started getting into vintage fashions, hair, and make-up. I always enjoyed the look of the 1950’s pin-ups like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, but it didn’t occur to me to try it until I was well into my 20s. This morning when I was getting ready for work, I looked down at my pencil skirt and monochromatic saddle shoes and thought, “Boy, I’m in full costume today.” But it isn’t a costume. Not really. Just because I’m altering my outsides doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it to match my insides — what my insides have been all along.

I don’t think we ever complete the process of becoming who we are, even when we are suffering ill-effects in that process. I recently began seeing a new therapist, and while going through my medical history and listing my various small-kine crazy behaviors on my fingers, I mentioned that it was only in 2012 that I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, likely as a result of untreated long-term depression and anxiety following my parents’ deaths. My new doctor said with a smile, “Ah, well, you just hadn’t fully bloomed yet.” I found that very profound. I like the idea that my endless struggle with mental illness is actually part of the process of becoming more of, not less than, myself. So many people think that their internal struggles — depression, anxiety, mania, self-harm, OCD, what have you — detract from their true self. I beg to differ: embracing and managing my illness is helping me achieve a new level of self-actualization that I hadn’t considered before. My pursuit of happiness, I realize, is a journey fraught with pitfalls and set-backs. The long and sometimes treacherous walk down that road has imbued my being with both good and bad, and has made me, Me.

I had to get pretty sick in the head, and come to terms with my ailment, before I could start really liking myself. How’s that for a kick in the pants?

Today is an appropriate occasion to turn to this discussion: April 16th is for the Semicolon Project, a social media movement for those that suffer from depression — who self harm, are suicidal, unhappy, have anxiety, or are living with grief — to embrace their story as on-going. Semicolons represent a sentence the author chose not to end. We are the authors and the sentences are our lives. My story doesn’t end here. I am a work in progress.

I remember you,

But the day that marks your absence is not the day I choose to honor your memory. I have worn the loss of you like a shroud, a heavy blanket to curl into on harsh, friendless days. Daily I attempt to commune with your spirit and resurrect your voice in my head — “Please Mommy, tell me what to do.” I miss you with a palpable need, one that starts in my toes and reaches up to my fingertips, reaching out for you. It triggered in me a irreversible reaction, a sweeping depression, an ebb and flow of mania and sadness. I have been lost in those tidal waters for years.

I remember you. I miss you. I am not alone.  The loss of you means our cups will never quite be full — all love is not created equally when you’re aching for the love of someone who can’t or won’t love you the way you need to be loved. All the love in the world, good people that surround us and carry our will, cannot replace what was lost when we lost you.