Earth Day Again

Five years ago, today, my daughter, Susanna Elizabeth Freer Sanchez, died. She was being prepared for a brain scan following the rupture of an aneurysm which no one knew about and a subarachnoid hemorrhage on the left side. The night before, she had fallen asleep in the car after visiting her grandmother on the day after Easter. As she slept the rupture probably occurred, her brain bled and her heart stopped. We did not know anything had happened until her Dad carried her in from the car, and I saw her face, without Susanna living and breathing behind it. I wish this were a softer story, one with rainbows, butterflies and angels. There is room for those things, but this story is about my little girl abruptly dying. It is a story full of excruciating pain and bitter confusion.

Susanna spoke in sentences before she was a year old and never mispronounced words. Sometimes, she would fake moods and tantrums in order to experience them, because she did not encompass much angst. She could sing and dance and draw, as if a pure channel. She had a precocious depth of understanding of what is important in life. This was especially true regarding being kind and loving toward others. This was not learned but natural, like breathing, for Susanna.
Susanna died, on the table before the brain scan, on Earth Day, a little more than three months past her fifth birthday. Her most recent joys had included planting flowers at her school, the day care center she attended since she was a tiny baby. She had been registered to begin kindergarten the next September, but would not discuss this. She said she was not going, because her school was “the best school in the world,” so she had no need. About a week before her death, we were walking by the proposed future school and I tried to make conversation about how exciting it was that she was growing up and would be starting something new at PS277. She stopped on the sidewalk, started to cry, and said, “I want to go see Grandma!” We did, and she never went to kindergarten.
Miss Rachel, Susanna’s amazing care provider and teacher, and second mother to my whole family, related the following story a short time after, which I will paraphrase.

 
The children are sitting at the table for a lesson about Earth Day. Miss Rachel is describing Earth. Earth has blue skies, green grass, oceans, animals.
She asks, “Who wants to live on Earth?”, and before her question is finished Susanna is raising her arm up high shouting “ME! ME! I WANT TO LIVE ON EARTH!”
Susanna did live on earth, so fully and richly and in a way that accomplished so much, in such a short time. I will never understand why this had to happen, this loss of someone so precious to me. After my return to work later that spring, five years ago, a coworker from another generation and a faraway place said to me only this, in a whisper: “These are things we must bear”. I did not find this comforting at all. I did not want to bear this. Now, I do find its simplicity comforting, because no one has to make sense of tragedy. We just bear what happens.

 

I do know more, out of necessity, than I used to about the afterlife, the other side. A few weeks after Miss Rachel had told me about the Earth Day lesson, I had a series of dreams where Susanna described where she was. She mentioned kaleidoscopes, and pinnacles. I wanted her to come home with me in one dream (as I always want) but this upset her. She had been promised an adventure and said “But I want to go!” I am sure that she is somewhere, and in that somewhere she is still embracing her life. More to be revealed.

I miss you Susanna. I love you, forever and ever.

Some Disney Stories

Icy rain laced the snow, coating the sidewalks between the Times Square subway station and the theater. My son and I pulled hoods close to our faces and minimized our activities other than claiming our seats for The Lion King. There were things we knew ahead from watching segments on YouTube. Stilts, eclectic animal costumes, familiar songs with words in Zulu and Swahili. But a live, human performance was something we have sorely needed these past winter months. Life and school seem drenched in inescapable drudgery. We painlessly turned off our phones for the day, held close to each other and received the artistry. There are not correct words to describe live theater.

When my son was about three years old, and Susanna about two, we obtained an old VHS version of the animated film and popped it into a player. When we reached the middle, and Mufasa was ascertained as officially dead, Susanna lapsed into inconsolable grief. She sat on the sofa and wept for a long time. She refused from then on to watch that film, and never saw the rest. Memories like this make me wonder about the things only our souls know, leaking out just a bit, mysteriously. I wonder if Susanna was remembering her mission in some small way. I wonder if she was knowing that our foursome, full of cartoons and frivolity, was going to be gone abruptly in a few years and never regained, due to her untimely death. This is a sad and irreparable situation, still.

I wept a lot during the live performance. I did not start when Mufasa died, but at the beginning of the first number as the performers entered the stage from all sides. I wept mostly in relief, because I have felt so far apart from life lately. Amidst the music and energy, I realized that life was still waiting for me. Things have been difficult, but I have not died. The stress and problems have not evaporated, but I feel a bit more accepting and a bit less alone since this.

When the play reached its midpoint, and again Simba’s father did in fact die, I glanced around to see if any children were crying. We were in proximity to many little girls. Mufasa was pushed to his death and I heard one girl in front state, matter-of-factly, “That was mean”.

Another little girl behind me asked, innocently, “What happened?” I did not observe any children crying, but it was a huge sea of red velvet seats and I could not see everyone.

This brought to my mind an exercise I learned in therapy. When I fear that my child is going to die suddenly (this happens quite a bit, since I have experienced this firsthand), I picture two adjoining screens. To the left, there are the few children who die, like Susanna. On the screen to the right are the many billions of children who do not die. There is a typical journey. It is the few and certainly not the many who leave so early. It helps sometimes.

If we all continue after our death, as I am sure we do, and we reunite with loved ones on the other side, there is nothing left to genuinely be afraid of. Mufasa himself tried to make light of this, in his royal way of describing that he will join his ancestors in the cosmos. That is fine, masterfully demonstrated in the starry stage props, but I want more. I will keep seeking Susanna and how she remains with me, though I accept that I have purchased one velvet seat beside me instead of two. It is a messy and uncomfortable process.

We returned home on the subway. As it was rush hour, we were in seats but separated. I looked at my son sitting on his own and noticed how in between things he is, his body nearly adult sized but his face obviously young. I am not him, but I imagined the enormity of how that must feel. Growing into his adult throne and kingdom of sorts, whatever it will be. He is at the point where baby Simba becomes adult Simba and searches himself beyond the borders.

Later at home, we remembered more about watching our animated The Lion King. For days we had called my S.O. Mufasa, and he had lifted my son, Simba, above the imaginary cliff as if beginning the circle of life. I also remembered more things about Susanna and Disney cartoons. How she refused to stop rewinding and searching Bambi because she wanted to see the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother. She could not accept having that happen without seeing who was responsible. My son and I kept explaining that the shot came from a hunter, and she kept saying, “But I cannot see him!”

It would be a couple of years past Bambi and the mystery shooter, when Susanna would often sit quietly in front of a screen, watching Frozen and singing “For the First Time in Forever”. In my memory she was present in body, but also ethereal, like we all are. Her eyes reflected her deep concentration, her body was taken into the song. This was happening right as we approached the door, the day between then and now. That song from Frozen became my constant companion in the early time after Susanna died, playing in my mind throughout the days. I hoped she was singing to me from a broader and grander ballroom than I could offer here.

The White Tiger

There are things which have been taken from the earth. Species extinct, clean waters defiled, shorelines eroded, ice caps melted. These things may never return. Still, I can wake up in the morning and see the sun coming up, though always it is the earth which has been moving. There is what is gone, what has remained, and what will likely be destroyed at some time.

In 2012, at the end of October, flood water entered my house during a storm. This shattered a certain sense of security I had been accustomed to. I had lived my life without fear of water gushing in, of cars floating and residual mud soaking my belongings. Yet, this is a time in my memory where I snuggled two small children against me. They slept close to me the first night, in a twin bed at the home of relatives, as the water came in and lifted the floor boards in the living room. They giggled as we wandered Park Slope for a few days, before we could go home. We picked up leaves and stones for our “nature box”. We went out for donuts and spoke to strangers about our displacement. We returned home, to clean and dry things and figure out what to do next. I would trade anything to return to those days, because Susanna was here and had not died yet.

About a week before Superstorm Sandy, I dreamt of a grey cloud which turned into a white tiger in the sky. This tiger said to me, “Don’t worry, help is on the way”. In retrospect, the tiger did not manifest the way I wanted it to. I wanted it to be an exclusively auspicious omen, not one involving a natural disaster. Yet, help did come eventually. No one was able to stop the flood from entering, but I was never alone and was frequently offered kindness. Strangers knocked on the door to bring us things, for months to come. Help was on the way and help had always been there.

If I have learned one thing during the past four and a half years, it is that having bad things happen does not make me different from other people. It makes me the same. We either lose everyone or leave everyone, life here is temporary and loss hurts. I am no longer free to ignore this, nor do I want to.  I will never understand how someone so wonderful, genuine and selfless can die and not be here anymore. I have lost someone whose presence was immeasurable. But there is a lot that cannot be taken by misfortune. Love and the memories that go with it, those cannot be. I carry Susanna with me, this I know.

storm photo tigers (2)

 

Cicadas

 

The salt marsh across the street from the park was overgrown today. Plush, shaggy and sodden. I decided to take a lap around while out walking in the rain. I was calling it a “mist” in my imagination, planning to use this word if anyone questioned my being out, but it was raining. I needed the walk more than I needed to be dry or to appear sensible.

The path dribbles off to the side in a few places, providing spotty benches for couples or cyclists to sit and look at the marsh. This path is not a circle, it wavers, rises and dips over hills, and even provides forks in the road where you must decide which way to go.

I have walked through here many times, but this was the first during which the opulent overgrowth completely obstructed the view of the gravel path. I was surprised by this but felt drawn in, as if I had been invited by some unseen force to be here. I put one foot in front of the other and used my memory to direct me, because I could see nothing but the rich grasses and a little piece of foot path right in front of me. This made me think of my coursework about teaching the visually impaired. If one is congenitally blind, there is no knowledge of what something looks like so navigation is all about using the other senses. If one is adventitiously blind, memory of sight can provide a roadmap of how to move. I was following blindly but this territory was not new to me. The long grasses reached all the open places in my trench coat and brushed water across my legs. This was the most spectacular walk I have been on for some time.

I listened for cicadas and katydids, the sounds that remind me of being a kid going back to school in early September. A couple of years ago I wrote this haiku:

 

Cicada season

Crying outside the closed door

Only one comes out.

 

By some standards, I know, haiku is supposed to be about nature. Me, a school door, picking up one child instead of two. I believe this pain has brought me to a place better understood by the cicadas and the deep grass than by any human means. Nature, and nature only, can swallow loss and put it in perspective. One cicada does not live long, but the song of cicadas will be there for the long run.

It is a rough time of year, September. There is no longer time to clean my house or ponder or just be. Susanna is not here to go to school and add to the list of stationary supplies I need to pick up. Susanna is not here to pick out new clothes. Susanna is not here to cheer me up. Susanna is not here. I feel full of cement. I feel full of toxins. I feel full of tears. There may be any number of things to complain about or to deal with, but nothing compares to her absence.

 

 

Samsara, Nirvana and Cosmic Mishegoss

Samsara. I am not a scholar of eastern religions, but I know that samsara is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This is a cycle you want to complete so you can get out of here, this world of suffering. I want this completion. I want to use the rest of my time here gainfully, so I can complete my mission. I do not want to keep coming back here to lose the people I love anymore. There is love and beauty here but from what I understand there is even more of that when you get to nirvana. I can not know how many lifetimes I have left but I want to move it along.

This has been a long and confusing week to end a long and confusing summer, one characterized by things I did not expect. I feel trapped in a cosmic mishegoss, to be honest. Spell check does not recognize that word, it is a Yiddish word my sister said recently that she likes to use. But I mean I am upside down, backwards and do not have the energy to rectify my position.

In agricultural societies, summer ends with the promise of the harvest. Work coming to fruition with bushelfuls of whatever you planted. I await this as I await cooler, drier and less odiferous Brooklyn air. I have asked the universe for help and I believe help will be coming, in its own time.

In these days of photographing children on their first day of school and showing these photographs to the whole world, I choose not to do so. I have a living child I am terribly proud of. As all children starting back to school, he is approaching adulthood at an earth- shattering speed. He is preparing to enter the magnificent and horrifying world of being a grown person, with all of that living ahead of him. I do celebrate this.

I do not want to take his picture because (in addition to the fact that he does not like to be photographed) I still look at him through my camera lens and see a brother who is missing a sister. I can not create a picture without a gaping hole in it. This image does not go away, it just gets more complex and harder to explain. If Susanna were here, she would look so strange next to her brother. I have no pictures of her any older than five, but I absolutely feel like she was here five minutes ago. Hard to explain. But I do not want that type of picture without her in it.

When we were visiting family in Cape Cod recently, we saw a little girl in an ice cream parlor who, my son and I agreed, looked like Susanna. She was carrying a bottle of glittery nail polish. I wished that she could have been Susanna and we could have taken her home with us. This would not make sense, but my heart does not observe time and logic the same way we are expected to here on this earth plane.

That little girl, with the bottle of nail polish, was with a few other curly headed children and a couple of fathers. I noticed that she wanted gummy bears on top of her ice cream, but this was denied. “No, we are not getting toppings, just a nice big scoop of ice cream”, explained the rational father. There is nothing wrong with this, not allowing some extra thing for whatever reason such as expense, sugar and chemical content, or risking a stomach ache. Yet I inwardly wanted to intervene and tell that father that life is short and there should be gummy bears. I sometimes want to scream into the world that today might be the last day you can give your child a one hundredth hug, or some candy, or a trip to the playground after dark. This may be the last day you will hear that cranky preteen yell at you and blame you for something you do not understand, so maybe you should let that go and apologize blindly. Most of the time, children grow up. But in my cosmic mishegoss, one of mine did not and this will always affect my viewpoint.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I do know this: when I can choose to allow my own suffering, when I give up on outrunning the tears that fill up inside and make me feel like I am drowning, I start to feel like my suffering is not mine alone. I feel not just my lonely pain but the pain of the other parents who are not sending their child to school this week. The mother and father who wanted a child so badly but lost their children to miscarriage. The family that has no child to send, because the child they lost was their only child, or they lost more than one. Maybe someone’s child is in the hospital fighting a disease. The situations and the tears are endless. But when I open myself up enough to know I am not the only one who hurts, this seems to make room for some of the tearful joy and sweetness to creep back too, ever so slowly.

When I head back to work to be a teacher again, I will bring Susanna’s pink plaid backpack, the one with the little suitcase tag on which she had written her name. I have done this every year. The backpack is showing signs of wear, so I bring it for a week or so then revert to my own. I do this because I miss her. I do this because Susanna loved her school, her daycare center. She called it the best school in the world and told me she never wanted to go to another one. She never did. I carry it and I remember that my daughter was here, she existed, and she woke up cheerfully every day eager to be kind to her friends and learn to write letters and numbers. If we all lived as well as she did, we would not have much karma to deal with at all. I miss you so much, Susanna, my beautiful baby, and wish you were here. I will see you again. Peace.

A Ghost Story

Before we lived here our house had grown wild. We do not know all the details. From what I understand, there was a span of time when no one lived here.  There had been some attempts at restoration, and some repairs made in the living room, first floor bedroom and bath. It was obvious, however, that no heat had pumped through during some New York winters since we discovered multiple holes in the steam pipes and chunks of coarse, crumbled metal where the boiler had disintegrated. We did not know anyone to ask how long the abandonment had lasted other than the stray cats in the backyard, who did not welcome us.

After the minimal initial repairs and arduous mortgage approval, we moved in to make it our own. The first night, Susanna in utero and my son approaching his first birthday, we slept on a mattress in that first- floor bedroom. We had moved from one neighborhood over, walking distance. This new neighborhood had pieces of open, star spattered sky. Somehow the air was cooler. Somehow this house had become our destiny. On our first Thanksgiving, we were awakened to a surprise parade going right by our house, including Sesame Street characters and a marching band. A unique neighborhood tradition we could not have foreseen.

There was first a restoration of the kitchen, which had a big hole in the floor where the refrigerator and washer/dryer needed to go. This preceded the biggest part of the makeover by about a year. The crux was when S.O. decided to use his adequate savings to tear off the roof and siding and rebuild the entire second floor. Rented dumpsters filled with scads of house flesh. Worn brown outer walls were replaced with pale blue vinyl. By now, Susanna had arrived and grown old enough to complain that she wanted a pink house. The most exhilarating point was when I arrived home from work one day to see many extra workmen using compressors to grind and tear into everything that needed to go. This preceded coming home to a house so transformed it seemed a new one. The house was rebuilt, thoroughly almost to the bone, but there was destiny yet to meet.

During Superstorm Sandy there was the flood water which rose up under a full moon at high tide, to reach far enough to unexpectedly wash in. Afterward we scrubbed away mud and replaced tainted flooring and sheetrock. I greeted a new sadness, a mistrust of the universe and would have thought it a low point. I was disheveled and looked at videos posted of those floodwaters sometimes and cried. My two small children noticed and would ask that I not watch the flood anymore.

Two years later, Susanna’s brain aneurysm ballooned and ruptured. There were no signs of this, no symptoms. I am writing about that night these days. That occurrence, my discovering what had happened to my daughter when I saw her face, in the living room, that is a crucial turning point in my life. I wonder if my wild house absorbed the shock and pain, whether some of it will speak from inside the walls when we no longer live here. I wonder if that pain was so great that it will outlive me.

If walls can soak up emotions and experiences, my family and I have contributed much to layer upon the veneer. There will be the giggles and mirth of two happy small children playing and watching cartoons. There will be the courageous and energetic laughter of a young man who has learned to live well in honor of his sister, so much work that a child should not need to face. There will be a love and romance which repeatedly transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and an unthinkable common tragedy. There will be more than the anguished cries of three people in pain, but that will be here. I can not erase it or scrub it off, so I will honor it as a most important part of our history.

There is no point in the story of my house where I was alone. Nor when my small family was alone. There were the workmen who painstakingly took the house apart and replaced its body. There were the people in the marching band who paraded by our house that Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving since. There were all the people who came that night, the crucial night, to help revive Susanna and get her to the hospital. And the people who came to stay and try to soothe us when she did not come home. I am convinced that we come here not just as a part of one tribe but a multitude of tribes. There are the great many humans we can see, plus the great many other discarnate we cannot. There are the connections we make with the rest of the world plus all those which happen beyond our understanding.  Just as Susanna’s story did not end after the five short years she was a resident of this wild house, my story does not end here either. There is more to be lived and more to be revealed. Peace.

Grief Sandwich

subway photoI have been watching “The Perfect Storm” today. Not the finest cinema, but I love to watch water and especially waves on film. I do not swim, and have not often been in the ocean, but looking at it makes me feel things that I know are eternal. Colder than cold, bigger than the biggest things. I am crying as the fishermen die. I imagine a next scene where they wake up in another room as if nothing has happened. They are still wearing their fishing gear, perhaps, but any cuts, injuries or illnesses have been healed. They joyously compare notes on dying and reunite with countless loved ones. Honestly, I think it is like that.

My mother is dying. We all are at some time, but she is ninety and has advanced dementia. Her death is approaching. She was calling me at times until a couple of weeks ago, without knowing who I was. After picking up I would hear her usual cheerful “hello”, and I experienced the sound of that as precious testimony to her soul still being here. Somehow, and I do not completely understand this, I have felt as if I am talking to a very young baby who has just been born into my family. Her voice sounds prescient and her existence seems miraculous. We are all evidence of a magnificent force, but we do not remember this most of the time. Also, I cannot understand why my mother is experiencing this illness. It hurts me. I do not know why anyone suffers in this way, confused and alone and afraid. It is not fair.

It is different for the sick and elderly to die than for a young child to die. Susanna was perfect, healthy and joyous. No one knew that she was going to leave so suddenly. When an old person has been suffering and lost her independence, we say death is a blessing. When a family loses a child, we say this is a tragedy and nothing is ever the same. These are big truths.

This summer I am feeling like I am the center of a grief sandwich. My mother, my daughter, me in the middle. I am going to survive both, and I need to live. I dare say that there have been some moments during the last couple of years, as my mother began to undeniably slip away, that I felt jealous of her for being able to leave soon. I long so much to reach out to my little girl, touch her and hold her and speak to her. My mother, also, has a baby on the other side, a little boy, my older brother. I imagine that after losing him she may have envied the dying as well. I am so happy for her that she will see him. I know with everything I have that there is reunion.

One time I had a dream that I was sitting at a table talking to some people who had crossed over. I do not remember who they were. One of them said, “I love being on this side, because it is much easier to help people from over here”. I do not know if everyone becomes so selfless, maybe we need to choose that like we do when we are here alive. My mother was a nurse for many decades in her community. She worked often on weekends to care for those who were old and sick and difficult to be around. (My older sister does the same thing. As did many of my ancestors, according to a spirit medium I spoke to, but that story is for another day). This is her turn now, to be cared for. But I do not think any acts of love and kindness are lost, they somehow get absorbed into the ethers with all the other love. And eventually love comes back. Peace.