Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Residual Aching....

My mom was alive a month ago today.  She was in a hospital bed with enough tubes to play Double Dutch with, but she was most definitely alive.  Her absence doesn’t feel real yet, but I know that it is.  And I know that at some point in time her non- presence is gonna hit me like a Mack truck.  The beauty of living 6,000 miles away from family is that distance can at times at least, make the heart grow fonder.  I’m not sure how many miles away her soul is now, but I am certain this greater distance between us is having a powerful effect.

Grief is a funny thing.  I am technically “grieving” but I am, in full disclosure truth, sitting at my computer with my chirping cell phone and hot cappuccino nearby.  Odds and ends of my life, my husband’s, and our kids’, are on the table at which I’m typing.   I’m surrounded by pale yellow walls, our son’s bright artwork, a blue bowl, my own multi colored nails, and a bright red Krav Maga T-shirt.  Nothing around me screams GRIEF.  Everything inside me does.

The last almost 6 months were so amazingly “mom- centric,” which is funny since so much of my life was, too.  Crisis after crisis turned my thoughts inside and out in a way I can only compare to that scene in The Exorcist. You know the one where Linda Blair’s head spins around and you wonder how her head hasn't actually fallen off? Yeah, that one. It seemed like every time I turned around, despite the brief periods of calm, a doctor was calling, I was authorizing a procedure, or something life threatening was happening- or was about to.  My mom’s blood pressure would frequently drop so low that doctors and nurses alike wondered how anyone with those numbers could be talking.  There was respiratory distress, necrotizing fasciitis, a strangulated hernia, a couple of rounds on a ventilator, a heart attack, infections with minds of their own, and a feeding tube that simply refused to stay put.  As always, mom kept me on my toes, making me wonder when the next “thing” would occur and when I’d be able to find a modicum of sanity.  I know now that no more “things” will happen but I’m still searching, more desperately now than before, for my sanity.

I am left with tears and a sadness that runs deeper than my soul.  My parents weren’t supposed to die and my parents were just going to get sick, and then better, like they’d always done.  Well, someone rewrote the script because my parents are now gone.  For a time I was fixated on the term “orphan” seeing as how it’s what I’ve become.  Yes, yes, I’m much more than that and I’ve accomplished things and have a beautiful family, but the brass tacks of it is that I’m parent-less and that stinks the big one.  In fact, it stinks the biggest one there is and I’m not too grown up to admit it.

So many times during the year people said, “Wow, it must be so much harder for you with you being here while she’s in New York.”  I tried to poo-poo that a lot and I think that there were indeed times when it was harder.  But in no one’s and everyone's defense I have to say, losing a parent isn’t easy no matter where you live, how close you live, or how many miles and oceans separate you.  The pain knows no boundaries, and my complicated grief seems to know how to find me.   What makes it really hard? The fact that my mom and I didn’t share a warm and fuzzy kind of relationship.  We enjoyed that when I was younger, but as life happened, and it does tend to do that, our differences became more evident and our sensitivities, ironically enough, worlds apart.  As I got older I learned to do a lot of “uh huh- ing” instead of asking her why she didn’t listen for my answer after she’d asked me something.  I learned to avoid as much confrontation as I could, listening to her tell me about what she had for dinner, the movies she’d seen, the work she did with a disabled boy she’d worked with for what seemed like forever, and all the things that existed in her universe.  I learned not to tell her about my ailments, all thankfully minor in the grand scheme of life, because I knew that hers were worse.  I stopped telling her when the kids got sick because she’d call day after day, sometimes more than once a day, as if what they really had was The Plague.  We often spoke around each other, though we occasionally enjoyed talking about family lore and silly stuff.  Her tone would change when we discussed easier times and I liked that.  I miss that.

My mother was not an ogre, but she was a frightened woman who let life break so much of her spirit.  I understand more of what happened and how she reacted to it, and I hurt differently than I used to; now I hurt for both of us. And I’m not talking about some drippy, self-indulgent, woe- is- me kinda’ pain, but a pain that lets me know that I see both of us as more human, more real, and more fragile than I did before.  My mother hid her torment in food, a habit that became a condition that became an illness that ultimately led to her demise.  She hid her fear in anger and her love in apathy and self- loathing.  She was abandoned by her dad when she was 10, verbally and emotionally abused by others, and her first husband beat the bejeebers out of her.  A survivor?  No doubt about it.  A confused little girl who wanted and deserved to be taken care of?  No doubt about that either.

My grandmother had a signature chuckle that I recognized as such only after I started to hear it from my mom.  I remember noticing it one day and telling her, “You have the laugh!  You do the laugh!”  She laughed again and said, “What laugh, Rachel??”  I tried to describe it, explain it even, but couldn’t until she did it again and heard it too.  I started to hear that chuckle within the past year, except it wasn’t from my grandmother or my mom- it was from me.  It’s a strange heirloom to describe, but I do like sharing it.  I feel like I’m the Keeper of The Laugh, and I like that.  When I hear it, I feel like the best parts of my mom and grandma are within me.  It’s one of the more comforting lessons I've been afforded. 

I’ve made an officially unofficial decision to let my grief take me wherever I need to go.  I’ve felt anger over missed opportunities, pain, jealousy, and fear.  That fear by the way, is a heartbreaking kind of thing.  When it strikes I feel like a lost little girl whose mommy and daddy are nowhere to be found.  As a parent, I feel terribly for that little girl and want her to understand that she’s not lost at all- but I can’t get to her to tell her that.  My grief is so different from what I experienced with my dad for many reasons.  Some of those reasons are obvious, and some are becoming more so as time moves on.  When I lost my dad 16 years ago, we had two kids and their biggest issues in life were being fed, clothed, and having clean diapers.  This time, there are four of ‘em and I have to remain cognizant of their grief, too.  I hate seeing them in pain and I hate that they’ve seen me in so much of mine.  It’s hard for them to understand, despite the fact that they’re not babies, that I’m still grieving.  Yes, grandma’s gone, Shiva is over, Shloshim is over, but I’m still grieving.  And while they won't generally find me huddled in a corner crying my eyes out,  I feel like I’m moving slower, listening slower, doing everything slower.  I find that grief hits at weird and unexpected moments; some days the fog’s there and some days it's not.  It’s a nagging, soul- sucking, draining feeling that has planted itself in every cell of my body.  Some days it physically hurts and others, it just hangs out and stays quiet.  I don’t know how else to explain the feeling especially since I'm certain my “Look, today’s she’s happy… Uh oh- now she’s not” shifts must be maddening.  For whatever its worth, I’m not a fan of them either.

Life will go on and I know that time and love really do help.  I know that I’ll think about my mother every day, just as I’ve  thought of my dad every day for the last 16 years, and that I’ll carry them within me always.  I'm grateful that the ability to forgive my mom has started so early on in this process and that I’m doing what I can to be kind to myself.   We are on the cusp of Sukkot and like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah before it, the holiday feels like it’s happening around me, at me.  The emotions are still too raw, the energy too lacking.  I have a year and a lifetime beyond it to process my grief. And when I’m ready, the residual aching will free itself so it too, can be healed. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day 2013

I'm sitting at my mother’s bedside in Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, not remotely liking Mother's Day or the fact that today *IS* Mother's Day, as she moans and makes noises while awaiting a nebulizer and chest X-ray. I'm not sure if this is worse or better than hearing her talk to folks that aren't in the room, including old neighbors and former relatives. She just prepared lox and bagels for someone and has been fixated on the laundry. Suffice it to say these moments are anything but 'Downy soft.'

My children have wished me a Happy Mother's Day from Israel, where we now live, and I so appreciate that. Truth is, Mother's Day is the penultimate Hallmark holiday which is why there is no such day, that I know of anyway, in Israel. I think my kids know that while I'm grateful for their Mother's Day greetings, it’s the care, concern, and devotion those greetings encapsulate that speak volumes to me. They know how much I am struggling and hurting and doing everything they can to keep me smiling. When we lived in America, I was not the day's biggest fan. It's nice to be celebrated, but that's what my birthday is for. I remember telling my husband awhile back that I didn't want to go out to eat on Mother's Day because sitting in a crowded restaurant listening to other families celebrate, while others pretended to celebrate, hardly made it a fun day for me.

Today's cards and greetings and Facebook posts are all about the positive; for the best moms in the world, the ones who would do anything for their kids, the ones who are amazing grandmothers and save the planet in a single bound, capeless. There are no celebrations or cards for moms who have been hurt or hurtful, moms who have been beaten down and never learned that they didn't have to relive the pain. Nobody gives flowers to the most stubborn mom or the one who hasn't always chosen her words carefully. Hallmark hasn't figured out how to celebrate those moms.

Life with my mother wasn't always a picnic. In the last few days and weeks though, I've acknowledged that there are things I will forever be grateful to her for. Her artistic rendition of a pigeon in the second grade, her ability to pull me onto dance floors at weddings to get me to boogie even when I thought I didn't want to. Her love of books and pretty jewelry, her strong sense of identity as a Jewish woman. Her advocacy when I was bullied in elementary school and her pride when I won an award, got a good grade, and became religious. Our relationship has very much been on her terms because she could not understand or even try to understand mine. Ours has not been a relationship of listening and sharing and respect. I have grieved that for years, but more so recently. We have argued and fought and I have often wondered if it was even worth it. Disagreements that result in little more than promises to never do "it" again leave one feeling truly unheard and disrespected. They leave you breathless in all the wrong ways.

Though I've been a mother for almost 18 years, today I feel very much like a daughter. Feeling like a daughter at this moment, in this place, hurts. My mother's roommate's amazingly loving and attendant daughter is primping over her as I type. She keeps telling her mom, who lay in bed contracted, with mitts on her hands and the inability to speak after suffering multiple strokes, that she's gonna get better. This adoring daughter is telling her mom that as soon as she gets better, they can go shopping again. That mom will be able to tell her what she likes and what she doesn't when they hit the stores the way they used to. This daughter is praying for her mom's strength, assuring her that she is right by her side. She is crying and telling mom not to worry and that all will be alright, though it is pretty clear that she is trying to convince herself of that. There are even moments when it seems she believes her own words. All of their moments, especially the ones I've been given access to, make me hurt for all of us. Two elderly, ill, frail moms, with their tired, emotional daughters at bedside. 

I guess I hate Mother's Day because I can't stand all those cards and flowers and balloons and sales that are seemingly in my face. I don't begrudge those who are happy, most of the time anyway. But the constant reminder that today is a day to celebrate moms seems almost cruel right now. It hurts because I can't celebrate my mother- celebrate that she's laid up in bed with an increasing amount of bed sores, congestion, confusion, and irritability? Celebrate the mom she was before her health went down the drain? Celebrate the mom in the next bed who is trying desperately to communicate with her children? I guess I don't have much celebration in me right now. 

I love being a mom. My husband and I have four children who make me cherish being a mom more than life itself; their birthdays are my real Mother's Day. Each celebration of their lives reminds me of when I became a mother for the first, second, third, and fourth time. They are my life and soul, beings who turned two young marrieds into two young marrieds- turned-parents. I adore watching them develop into the extraordinary individuals they're becoming. 

As for Mother's Day? I'm still not a big fan. Somehow though, I'm grateful my mother's here today, still breathing life that is celebrate-able. The fact that she is here despite the ailments that plague her is pretty miraculous. In that sense, I guess today is noteworthy. Any day where life is present is a good one. Any day where death is not ready to swoop in can be considered a good one. So mom, today, in some sense or another, is a happy day. Happy day to you, mom. Happy Mother's Day to you.

Monday, April 8, 2013


Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  My Facebook feed is teeming with sad, despair-filled, morbid images and writings about the Shoah.  There are also pictures that depict strength, both physical and mental, that are infrequently showcased in Holocaust collages.  This year I find myself focusing on both survival and strength, as opposed to the misery and pain.  Truth be told, there aren’t enough pages in enough books or Kindles to hold all the images of the death, destruction, darkness, and horror that occurred during that time. But sometimes, and may I not be struck by lightning for saying it, the pictures become too much for my weary head.  After a while, I feel like I’ve seen so much bad, that my brain tunes out, shuts off, and might as well announce, “Rachel is on standby.” This year I told myself I wouldn’t read every story or article featured, watch every movie shown, or immerse myself beyond reason in all things Holocaust.  Maybe that makes me selfish, but this year it feels like mental self-preservation. 

Let me clearly state that I am NOT, N-O-T, comparing my life to the Holocaust.  While I am certain that I lost relatives in the Shoah, I know of no survivors in my family personally.  But there is something about the collision of today and recent family events and discoveries that have made me feel like I survived something and have received way more than say, a lousy T-shirt.   

Families are very, very funny things.  They provide endless hours of amusement, entertainment, stories for upcoming wedding videos (kids, you have been forewarned), insanity, pain, incredulity of the highest order, and a ginormous mix thereof.  None of us, OK- most of us, do not come from cookie-cutter, sitcom-like families.  Don’t know about you, but my challenges growing up were never solved in 30 minute intervals accompanied by background music.  There was no laugh track, no scripted silences, and life continued without anyone ever reminding me that it was to be continued.  My childhood was not necessarily a nightmare, though there were times it looked a lot like a battlefield.  To quote one of my favorite people in the world, my awesome friend Orin Hahn, “I used to have a great deal of anger and resentment about the lack of normality and care I got. I realize now as I engage with so many people …. [that] I was receiving training. For how to be with myself and how to be there for others. To face the fires and frailty of being human. Sometimes we get a gift when we think we're cursed.” 

And yet, some of those gifts came with rather large price tags.  I thought I’d dealt with most of them, yet some seem to have recently cropped up like weeds.  I will not go into the minutiae of what’s going on, but I can best describe it as the makings of one heck of a reality show.  A reality show so unreal, that I presume ratings would be sky high and my family, millionaires.  Nothing screams business opportunities like family stories I suppose. I’ll try not to think of the money I could make off of our secrets, despair, fragmentation, and pain that sometimes feels like it could fill a bottomless gulf.  I have spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing about my mother’s health and, hopefully, short stay in a nursing home, family I’ve never met but hope to be able to one day, and the generations who have changed and I pray can change, their personal legacies.  I realize that I haven’t just cried, but mourned, grieved, over missed opportunities, relationships, and the things that could have been.  I came across a meme that reads, “Don’t look back.  You’re not going that way.”  Those are wise words, ones I must keep in the fore. 

I cannot change what has happened and anyone who judges me on the trials of my past has no place in my present or future.  Dwelling on why things happened, why they were orchestrated by the players involved, and why the stage was set for so much unnecessary grief,  does me no good.  As I reflect on these instances though, I find myself, sometimes despite myself, understanding that maybe the conditions I’ve rallied against weren’t unnecessary; perhaps there is a purpose to them.  And perhaps one day I’ll find out what that purpose is.  Or not.  Had my past been different, the foundation on which I’ve based my future would have been too.  I might’ve chosen a different husband, had different kids, lived in places I have not.  There is a price we pay for the things we hold dear.  Maybe I already know some of the why’s of my youth. 

All this remembering, reliving… it’s not easy.  Lots of feelings have been stirred and many have led me to a place of gratitude for being in Israel.  Living here not only connects me to my Judaism, but my personal, spiritual, and existential roots.  This is a powerful place. 

I came across a quote by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor.  His words speak to me deeply for reasons I think I understand. These words describe what I hope to accomplish in my personal life as well as a member of the Jewish People; to take responsibility for knowing what has happened so I can propel myself forward. The soul endures what G-d bestows upon it, even if the burden seems like more than we can bear.  Perhaps if G-D has that much faith in me, I should too. 

Here are his words…
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—hourly and daily. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”

May the memory of the 6 million serve as a blessing and may we all go forward with the strength that has always lay within us.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Denial- It Ain’t Just a River South of the Border!

The joke used to go, “Denial- it ain’t just a river in Egypt!” but now that I live closer to it, I figure describing it as “south of the border” is in fact more accurate. Denial, related to the act of denying what is really happening, though perhaps the river as well, can be really comforting. 

When we moved I banked on a few things, which is what, in part, lead to my denial. When I worked for an American company, I was in denial about our finances.  Good money, for a (new) Israeli family anyway, was coming in and we didn’t have to worry too much.  My husband and I have three degrees between us so I figured we had our “smarts” to fall back on as well.  I mean, who wouldn’t want two adorable, stubborn, sharp tongued (mostly in a good way) Americans to work for them- who weren’t too shabby in the brains department, either?  And for a long time I was in denial about my health.  I’d been fat for so long, that another candy, treat, Shabbos meal, or half a cake couldn’t possibly do any damage. 

I have always been a dreamer, though sometimes to my detriment.  I occasionally find myself believing in things that even I think are crazy, but acknowledge that I need to believe because it’s what’ll get me through that moment, that crisis.  I think my religious and spiritual beliefs are pretty grounded, though on occasion they’ve been known to dance that fine line between TRUTH and Seriously Rach? Long story short, I believe in G-D, that He is guiding all of us, that things do not happen by coincidence, and that there is a purpose and a plan and a reason for everything, from birth and death to why the leaves on the trees blow in one direction vs. the other.  

Some of the things I once believed have proven to be less-than-true.  I cannot say that life has come crashing down, because in reality, it has not.  I believe strongly that living in Israel, having the merit to live here, raise my kids here, and be connected with everything that IS Judaism, is a far cry from a bad life.  But naiveté has worn thin and life’s realities have, in some significant ways, smacked me in the face and not-so-nicely told me to wake up. 

Financially, we’re not in a great spot.  Perhaps that’s not something one should say aloud, but there, I said it.  I mean, we’re not paupers, but we're not rakin' it in either.  My husband and I are trying hard to make our way here, to establish ourselves in fields that are new, as well as those that are familiar.  The trek to financial security is a tough one, particularly since financial security was perhaps taken for granted when we had it in the States.  And like Dorothy when she and Toto find themselves in Oz, I know that we are most definitely not in Kansas (or Chicago) anymore.  At this very moment, it simply is what it is, but it is our mission is to make it much more.  And not necessarily to be gazillionaires, but to get to a place where we don’t have to worry as much.  

And then there’s health.  I have, thank G-D, been in good health most of my life.  I have a string of chronic-but-not-terminal-or progressive conditions, but I’m pretty healthy.  Still, being in better health has become a family mission, especially since I learned that three of the six of us have high cholesterol, one has a fatty liver, and four of us need to lose weight.  I have reached that wonderful moment on the great journey we call aging where my body’s needs and my mind’s smugness can no longer afford to ignore each other.  My days of “just one bite, lick, nibble, taste, etc.” need to stop.  My focus has become, because it had to become, “choose what will keep me alive longer” vs. “this tastes good right now."  Is it a struggle?  Well, some days I dream about chocolate covered anything, but I feel better, my waist line has come back, and most of the time my spirit feels stronger, too. 

My health choices and need to keep making good ones have hit me like a ton of bricks,  much like the reality of my mom's poor health.  My mother is in the hospital as I write. When I called her room yesterday to find out how she was, I was met with a nurse who told me they were in the middle of an emergency, that the doctor was on his way, and that they’d call me back ASAP.  Nothing makes your heart sink quite as much as intercontinental panic.  After a small forever, I called the hospital back and learned that my mother’s blood pressure had dropped to an all- time low of 60/ 35.  Even if you don’t know what “good” or “bad” blood pressures are, trust me when I tell you that her numbers were BAD.  One of the reasons this happened?  My mother was retaining fluid and didn’t know it.  And why did she not know it?  Because she is morbidly obese and was unaware that the increased bigness in her tummy was anything different than the bigness she feels on any given day.  In short, her weight was starting to kill her.  The hospital staff did what they needed to remove the fluid and within a somewhat short amount of time, her blood pressure started to climb.  She went into the hospital because of back pain, but hasn’t walked or moved in nearly a week.  She now requires physical and occupational therapies as well monitoring for skin breakdown, range of motion, and cardiac function.   Nothing screams REALITY like this.  

I’m not sharing this to embarrass my mother, to make fun of her, or anything of the sort.   In a way, I hope this tale makes someone, anyone, really think about their health and the folks who depend on them.   See, denial is no longer an option.  My mother is a cautionary tale; being bigger than your body can maintain taxes your heart, your lungs, your digestive system, your urinary system, your skin, and every organ in between.  I can no longer afford to dream about losing weight “one day.”  I can dream about being a tall, blond, rich, stiletto’d model, but healthy and fit simply have to be my priorities, my realities.  I owe that much to myself, to my children, and to my husband.  

I can also no longer deny the need to hit the ground running -hard- when it comes to improving our financial situation.  It’s not like we’re getting massages and eating (low-fat, high fiber, miraculously tasty) bon-bons all day, but my anxieties have to give way to greater action, and ultimately greater success.  Yeah, yeah, Israeli society is tough and I already know this is gonna be yet another challenge to face.  But the point is that I need to put my big girl (but shrinking) undies on and move forward.

I will always be a dreamer.  Not an ethereal, life- is- like- the- wind- and–the-planets-now- light- some- candles- kum- baya- m’ lord, kind of dreamer, but a dreamer who tries desperately to stay positive and see things from others' perspectives.  Learning to choose hope over despair, humor over angst, progress over rumination generally serves me well.  And while these don’t always come easy they do eventually come, because I've decided that I'm gonna be happy even if it kills me!   

About 3 years ago, and I can’t believe it’s been that long, I dreamed of a life in Israel, a place where I knew I needed to be.  I liked, oh heck, I LOVED, the nice things we had in Chicago, but my kishkies kept asking me why I was waking up to the view of Sacramento Avenue instead of the Judean hills.  I’ve learned that you really shouldn’t fight your kishkies because they always win.  And if you try to pull a fast one on them and don’t listen, they'll torment you for the rest of your days.  Ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to be tormented and so eventually, my ego was told to shut up and listen to my heart, soul, and the dreamer inside. Once upon a time, I dreamed a dreamed in time gone by, but hope still remains high and life, certainly worth living.  I continue to dream that love, and hope, and goodness, and positivity will never die, and that is something, like the beauty of Les Miserables, that I simply cannot deny.