Two Weeks Past Imbolc

When meditating yesterday, during this coldish winter break, I received some late winter advice. “It is not time to gather a bunch of flowers yet, but still time to gather a bundle of firewood”. I have stretched this message into urban life, no fireplace here but I continue to ride out some winter. Winter has almost skipped us in Brooklyn this year, barely any snow and frequent warm temperatures, but I still feel dry and sniffly. I have needed the introspection and lived in some shadowy respite just the same.

My mother passed this winter, four days after Susanna’s birthday. I have made it through this so far without finding many words. It is not a matter of avoiding things but of access.  I have been grieving through dreams because there is dream language where words fail me.

Last night there was a recurring theme. I was traveling alone with my son and tending to his fever (he did not have one in waking life, just the dream). Susanna had never died but was resting safely somewhere, well cared for. This is the part that repeats lately in my dream life. I do not write about my son much, he needs his own private life, but I will say only that I am disappointed by what life is giving him often. This is not a secret. My beautiful Susanna, she does not need me in the same way. I wish this were not true, but it is.

By day I walk in nature even when it is cold, this saves me as it has for nearly six years now. The crocuses and daffodils are emerging. I worry briefly about snow coming to freeze them, but I believe they are resilient. After I leave the park or pass the allotted bits of soil near the sidewalks, I also catch some fledgling Easter displays in storefronts. Some sparkly yellow marshmallow Peeps or a white bunny eared head on a pole, to stick into a front yard. I still panic at the sight of this. I need to think myself through the scenarios. Easter will come, the day after Easter, too. April 22nd will come. The Tuesday after Easter and April 22nd will not be the same day as they were in 2014, complicating and elongating things. All these days will come and go but that does not mean I will have to live through losing her again. In my mind, I will live through it as I often do. But chances are the people I love will remain alive throughout the holiday. For now.

I am appreciative of the healing that has happened. I am appreciative that I lived through Susanna’s abrupt and shocking death. Lately, though, I see a paradox. I survive, but one day when I cross over, at whatever age I am, I will still be aching for my daughter. No matter what the situation is, there will be a part of me waiting for the pain to stop. There is a part of me that died with her. There is a part of me that dies a little more each day.

My mother, who lived to be nearly 92, lost one of her own children. He would have been my older brother, Michael, who passed before he was born. My mother carried him to full term and knew by the day of his induction that he was not alive anymore. I knew about this from as long ago as I remember. To me, Michael was a relative on the other side, like an ancestor. To my mother, he was her child. At some point I saw a TV movie about stillbirth, in which Minnie Driver’s character and her husband awaited the birth of their son who had died. The doctor asked them if they wanted a deck of cards to pass the time. This made me think of what I had heard my father say about what happened. “I don’t know how she went through with that. It was awful. I give her a lot of credit.”

I can not say when I had the last conversation with my Mom before her dementia set in. But she was here with me, to see Susanna’s life and play with her, to watch Susanna put on performances for her in the living room. To write letters to her and send them in the mail. To give my son Matchbox cars she had collected over the years. To spend the day with us, all day, on the last day of Susanna’s life. It was later than that, the day that I spoke to her on the phone and she confessed to me that she did not remember my son’s name. “Say hello to the little guy, and the big guy. I don’t remember their name; I know it is the same.” The names and the words were less important than the well wishes. When I close my eyes to find her now, like I do when I want to see Susanna, it is the creaky but calm voice of her as Grandma that I hear. It is love. Mostly she says, “There is nothing to worry about, it is all going to be alright.”

I have a different scope since Susanna died, however you want to interpret that. I do not believe in death and time the same way; I think love supersedes them. I think love lasts. It is like finding oceans when inland, green grass when the ground has browned and frozen. Love is not what makes you any different than someone else, it is what makes you the same.

 

Dreams, and my Mom

feet original

 

My Mom passed a few days ago. There is much to be said about her, I loved her very much. But I am going to write about a dream I had. My Mom’s passing is the end of one story but the beginning of some others.

Last week, my Mom lie resting in an exceptionally loving hospice center in another state, where her care included live harp music. My sisters sent me videos, I listened to her breathe and saw her face, different than it used to be, but still deeply familiar. I listened for text notifications as I taught my art classes. At home, my son helped me make an altar including the quilt she had made for Susanna, still resting on her bed, and candles, in hopes she could see the light on her way.

The last morning, before her death, I woke from a painful dream. It went like this: I was trying to type in a request for a substitute teacher on the “Subcentral” website, which had to be sent 90 minutes before school started at eight. I missed the deadline and was frustrated in my hectic morning household. This could have been a real- life situation. However, in this dream world there were four people present and Susanna had never died. That was certainly not the painful part.

In the dream, I went to get my French Bulldog, Zorro, who had been sleeping in his bed. He was alive, but he was obviously ill and covered with a disturbing orange bodily fluid of unknown origin. I scooped him up and ran with him to a set of spiral stairs, knowing I needed to descend the stairs and try to save him. I wanted my mother to help me, and screamed for her, but I knew that she was dead. This fact struck me painfully, I woke up with it. I did make the Subcentral deadline, but was left with this dream of Zorro, with the orange liquid, and myself screaming for my mother who was never to be there again.

This dream, I knew, was really about Susanna. Forgive me the graphic nature of this, but in waking life, Susanna was covered with orange liquid when we found that her heart had stopped, after the rupture of the aneurysm. I never have known the medical reason for this. There was more liquid as her father and our neighbor resuscitated her with CPR, and I fumbled to call the ambulance and run screaming for help into the street. After I helplessly watched my daughter die in the hospital the next day, I wanted to return home and scrub that liquid from my floor, to be rid of it. I did that. I also looked at her dirty clothes in the hamper and wondered aloud what I was to do with them. I washed them, folded them, and put them away in her drawers. What else could I do?

 

I have been grateful for the opportunity to raise a puppy the last few months. Zorro has thrived. The dream illuminated in me some of my deepest fears. Inside, I have felt inadequate and undeserving. What type of mother cannot save her little girl from death? How could the universe trust me to care for even a dog? How could the universe trust me to mother my son?

I called out, in my dream state, for my mother. No mother can save anyone from imminent death. Mothers do save their children, from illness or accidents, often. But when a person needs to leave, love of any kind does not stop this. I could not save Susanna.  I could not save my mother as she spent the last years of her long life descending into dementia. That was not fair. These are the things we experience; these are the things that humans bear.

Six times now, I have crossed through Susanna’s birthday without her. I miss her terribly every day and have accepted a certain level of terminal sadness. What a gift though, to learn so much about healing. Dream language comes from the deep places, the ones that connect to the divine. The earth, the past, the dreams of everyone the earth has welcomed home before us.

Yesterday, it was hard to hold a close view of a casket draped in flowers again, from the front row of a church and a cemetery. But once again there was the presence of family and friends from long ago. Some of us commented on how we should get together more often, not just for a funeral. We stood in small circles, and in the spaces between us, I am sure stood all the loved ones passed on. Their shoulders secretly touched ours and they silently nursed us through the day. There were ancestors there, perhaps even angels. This may be my personal interpretation and different than someone else’s, but the point is that we are not alone. We are not born alone, we do not die alone, and this is far from all there is.

Last night I had another dream. I was baking a chocolate cake. I had been given instructions by an employer who wanted to try a new recipe, one that was supposed to be simple but delicious. There were special notes handwritten in a script that resembled my mother’s. Again, I struggled with a deadline, but I woke to the dark sweetness of life. My daughter and my mother are somewhere else today, but I am still here. I will talk to them, certain they will hear me.

 

 

 

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.