Crescendo

“And then I felt sad because I realized that once people are broken in certain ways, they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one. You wonder when your turn is going to be, or if it’s already happened.”
― Douglas CouplandLife After God

 

Fall is coming tomorrow. Agricultural time is even more suited to me as I get older, nothing inside of me obeys a linear system. I must stop and think a bit to remember the season, to try to grasp where I am. I am reveling in the two days off for Rosh Hashanah, though I am not Jewish. I am sorely in need of some time off, and reflection, and I always need a new year.

Autumnal Equinox, for pagans, is the balance of day and night and the point of certainty that death is happening. When I am teaching my art class, this is the season we stream Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I skip ahead to the Autumn passage. The floating leaves represented in notes make the most sense to me. Time to turn on the music and let go as I stare at the complex sea of situations that is my job, newly scheduled and followed to the minute in linear time.

In the bigger picture, the crossover line at death is an illusion. I do not say this to try to be clever but because I know it is true. We arrive here with a mission, and make choices as to how we complete it. I have no time for or interest in activities which involve denying or ignoring this. We all come from the same place, and no one here escapes the cycle of birth/death /rebirth. No one wins. It is not a race.

PTSD (the way I understand it, I am not a doctor) is kind of a state of having trauma frozen in your body and mind. I might be carrying on with my day as I need to, but little pieces of memory float to my consciousness and make me fearful and anxious. It has been a big relief to see it this way, very unsticking. I believe I have healed some. Looking at frozen fear is the best way to turn it away.

In my nonlinear fashion, this is something that happened to me three years and five months ago.  I am in the hospital room at Maimonides in Brooklyn. Susanna’s body is still breathing, but attached to tubes and machines. This is before the attempted brain scan which would not be completed. This is after the conversation with the brain surgeon who has told me there is nothing he can do. He has hesitated and floundered over those words, a part of his job no one would envy, and my jaw as well as my heart and soul have dropped through the floor. Somehow, I have sat in this room and decided that I will move my body and walk across the street to buy coffee. I have said this to my Significant Other, but he has not heard me. He is millions of miles away from me, and I believe he will always, from this day forward, hate me because of what I have done. I have not saved Susanna, and I have remained alive. I must be a horrible person, as I have always suspected. As I walk through the lobby and into the street, and back again, I am sure everyone is looking at me and knows my daughter has been sentenced to die. I have been forever changed by this day. This will always be true.

An hour or two later, I have been consoled by a nurse in front of the room where the brain scan is to take place. She has given me cold cranberry juice. I have also been consoled by a couple from Bangladesh in traditional dress. They have told me their son, who is nineteen, is in a similar situation, and they have prayed for me. These are memories of love from strangers which have sustained me, in retrospect.

Soon after, I have said good bye to Susanna. I have held her hand and said this: “If you can come back, I will be waiting, but if you need to go I will understand. I will always be with you, and I will never forget even a minute of the time we have been together”. A man working has overheard me, and has softly mumbled “Oh, God!” and is crying.

In the time since, I have realized that if you witness someone cross over, this is a part of your mission. This is intimate, and important. If someone tells you about being present for death, this is sacred as well. These are the thresholds, the places where we can feel our true home.

My daughter was here, and when I was sitting in the hallway, having been given the cold cranberry juice and the prayers, I watched across glass as people who had come running tried to start her heart again. They tried for a long time, but she had to go. She died. This did not happen because I am a bad person. It just happened. I could not save her, any more than the sad brain surgeon, and I survived.

Fall again, and Susanna’s brother has just called from downstairs to inform me that he has lost a tooth, a molar. He is four feet and nine inches or so and will be joining his school band. We are here and Susanna is there, for now. We will see the leaves turn, because that happens on this part of earth. We will listen to them fall, crescendo, and be gone until next time.

Home

This morning I watched a video on TED Talks. Pico Iyer is an author who writes about travel, in a contemplative way. In the talk he discusses how people of multiple nations and cultures define “home”.  I am someone living a state border away from where all my relatives and I were born. I am not a traveler or a well-travelled person, but this spoke to me. There is indeed a difference between the structure and soil I occupy and what my soul calls home.

I have been considering my relationship with my own physical house lately. As usual, I have been using some of my summer break to dig through clutter and eradicate dust bunnies. I have noticed, within myself, some missing boundaries, some nondescript holes in how I occupy my life here. There are layers to uncover, sections and coats of many colors.

My first memories of being in this house are of a day when my Significant Other, my son and I spent a few hours patching some holes, the first in a series of repairs leading to a complete restoration. S.O. brought wood and spackle. I, grateful that my toddler had fallen asleep on a blanket and pillows, and about halfway pregnant with Susanna, started cleaning some closets and floors. I could describe page upon page what was damaged here. We focused instead on what was possible, and what S.O. (an exceptionally talented individual) knew he could create. I was more of a witness to what I knew could unfold, and it did.

There are no perceptible holes here now. There are clean walls and restored floors, all systems functional. The house occupies the same shape and shell, but is made of our own history. There are stories to tell. There is the shocking memory of when the ocean swelled into the house during Superstorm Sandy, and the aftermath of cleaning wet mud as FEMA dropped off boxes of self-heating lasagna. Heartbreaking, to know that today as I write this people in Texas are experiencing a storm and flood entering their homes. Sometimes, we learn how what we think we have made solid is fragile, like we are.

These memories are the easier ones, because they are followed by memories of two smiling kids running around. I have photos of them playing on the underfloor S. O. exposed on his own after the storm, just before he repaired beams and installed a rich, dark wood in time for Christmas. We had reached even further into the underbelly of the house. Their smiles were wide enough to span to South America, love emanating through the pixels.

This big world, with its beautiful people of all kinds, is a scene of incomprehensible healing. I will never stop believing that we all have a purpose here, despite what we live through. I have not healed from the memory of Susanna in the living room, on that worst night of my life, when I saw that she was not going to wake up. Much healing has occurred, as I live each day and do my best, but the universal forces which can heal those memories, still stuck in places inside of the walls of the house as well as the walls I have around myself, will have to come from beyond the scope of this earthly home.

My family, as I describe it, lives in multiple nations and dimensions. I do not think in terms of walls and borders. S.O. carries with him the memories of a distant place. I carry within myself many homes, not as far away on the map but gone over time. My son will remember being here as a brother to Susanna. He always will be, though no one can see them together. Susanna still lives with us, though she does not occupy physical space.  Someday, as I have learned so deeply through my daughter and her destiny, there will be another home on the other side. I cannot picture it, but I know who will be there.

TED Talks

 

Strega Nona and the Golden Ball

WP_20140510_015

Strega Nona is an alter-ego of mine. She was a “strega”, an herbalist and a witch. A crone, nestled in  rich old Italian locale and culture, using her wisdom to help others through magic (which is my biggest aspiration right now). Being that Tomie dePaolo’s original story was published in 1975, it is possible that I read it or heard it as a child. This I do not remember. I do remember that Susanna was no longer here when my son and I began to read all the Strega Nona story books we could acquire, every night, over and over. There was the story of Strega Nona taking a vacation, which plays in my mind during the summer. Strega Nona, alone, enjoying her beach house, collecting and steaming fresh mussels. Another describes an inexhaustible harvest which Strega Nona and Big Anthony, another amazing character, shared with their community. Our favorite by far was Strega Nona’s Gift, her holiday extravaganza of magical foods and gatherings. I believe we read it every night for months, a book which can almost be eaten.

Some things I have collected from the Strega Nona stories which I particularly love:

  1. Gardens should be planted by moonlight, and carefully organized in rows (if I ever own a property with soil I should know this).
  2. Strega Nona accepts as her assistant Strega a girl named Bambolina, thus rescuing Bambolina from a life of running a bakery single-handedly for an ungrateful, selfish father who tried to hang out in cafes all day. No dice for him.
  3. Strega Nona takes a vacation after being told to do so by her grandmother and mentor, who has died and come to her in dreams. And it was a good idea.
  4. Salt water taffy. Pretty much tastes like candy, but delicious because it comes as a gift from someone visiting the sea.
  5. Not only can Strega Nona feed her whole town on holidays, she can provide everyone with delicious dreams of colossal food which keep them sated for hours after waking up.
  6. Carrots for her rabbit, corn cakes for her dove, turnips stuffed with greens and beans for her goat. This is to make them speak well of her on the Eve of the Epiphany, the one night  they can speak, but anyway, yum!

On my still intact shelves of children’s books (I have attempted to give them away, but am not ready to complete that task) is Tomie dePaolo’s retelling of an old Italian folk tale called The Clown of God, which revolves around, of all things, a golden ball. It tells of a poor boy who becomes a master juggler. In his act, he gradually adds colored balls and culminates with a golden ball representing “the Sun in the Heavens”. The juggler’s life brings him back to poverty and depletion, ultimately making his last act a miracle involving a statue of the Christ child. This book still waits on the shelf for me. I do not completely grasp the connection of this story to the story of Susanna and me, and our Golden Ball, but I know there is one, just as I know there is a sun in the heavens.

This post brought me through Strega Nona and the Golden Ball because of another of Tomie dePaolo’s books called The Art Lesson. This one is autobiographical, the story of young Tommy’s compulsion to draw and reach the age of the mythical art class in his school. Adult Tomie draws the art teacher, Mrs. Bower, with upswept hair, dangling earrings and a smock-like dress, carting supplies to art class and presenting her subject matter, obviously having been to art school herself. She is pretty much me, perhaps a bit younger, even with the same shoes.

The Art Lesson brings me to what I wanted to reference and what I wanted to say. Before young Tommy has finally become old enough to be in Mrs. Bower’s class, he has suffered some feeble attempts by his teachers to pull off a proper art lesson. They have some issues with the materials, such as flaky powder paints. One teacher, with blue-washed hair, has instructed the children to not wear down the points on the designated “school crayons”. How do you function this way, with no signs of use? What is this strange vestige of perfection, the school crayons which retain their points forever? We all had teachers who said such things.

Preservation of anything is futile. We all wear out and break. I know this every day and I live and breathe and function, while my heart remains broken. Perhaps there was an innocence destroyed when I lost my daughter, but if we live long enough we all get there. There is still the same range of emotions, things to love in this world abound, but it is not forever. You must find a way to make peace with that. Avoiding the reality of death by focusing on achievements and perfection. Futile. Trying to feel only the emotions you want to feel, futile.

A picture of Susanna sits on that bookshelf, with the children’s books I cannot yet part with, beside my bed. This picture was a Christmas gift from two friends. One put it into a beautiful frame studded with gems. The other snapped the background photo, Susanna’s name drawn in the sand, by me, to be gently washed away. We were both on the beach when I wrote it, and she saved the moment, then pasted in a photo of my baby’s beautiful face. Two nights ago, that picture fell to the floor as my significant other was coming to bed. It was undamaged, and it was not explainable in any natural way. I wonder if Susanna, or someone, has encouraged me to shape this blog. I do not pretend to understand any happenings on the other side, I can speculate but I will know more when my time comes. I just know there is another side. More to life than life. And there is magic for those who see it.

Tear Dryer

This summer has been somehow indescribable, I have been at a loss for words. I think I have been waiting for sunnier times to relate, being that I have worked hard lately to change my life. The sun had poked into places where it was missing for a while this year. I thought I may have reached some type of painless place, but, no.

Tears avoided do not dissolve. They cannot be positived away, or refused entry into one’s life. This is something I know but occasionally disregard, because pain hurts. I know this story well but it is part of the dance. I stay busy, but at some point, I am debilitated until I can cry.

One of the times I had a reading with a medium (there have been many, please process this information in the way that is best for you) there was this message from Susanna: “I have the best Mom. She always made sure I looked pretty and she always made me smile.” Thank you, my beautiful Susanna, for appreciating my efforts and knowing that they encompassed the deepest parts of my love.

I would have done anything to make you smile. I would do anything to make your brother smile too, and your father, but things get different here on earth when you get older. Life inevitably becomes supremely disappointing. You learn that you must do many things which feel contrary to what your soul wants in order to survive. You lose people you love and see them suffer unfairly. You observe behavior in others that baffles you and makes you feel like you belong on a different planet. You trudge along, longing for escape sometimes, and all you can do is sob and commiserate with your friends. That last part is the part that saves you. I cannot make anyone smile always, but I can be there.

Maybe some people are born into this world to help others avoid tears or mask them. Some people might not even acknowledge sadness much. I think I see now that I am here to witness tears. I am here to accept and validate. If you feel ready, maybe I can help clean some tears from your new dress. But always, losing Susanna will have cemented my capability to defend your sadness. I will never shame or disregard anyone’s grief, or my own.

All of that said, I am spending this summer not in my usual idle and languorous fashion (I miss that), but I am working on the next phase of my career by student teaching. Every morning, I drag my tearful self onto the Q train, facing the shore and the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel and greeting another day of life without Susanna. I still wholeheartedly refuse to give up on the future. I will weather, I will survive.

coney q

Deben Morir

Walking again tonight, like most nights. To accrue weight watchers fitness points, partly, but I will save that for another blog. I went the other direction than the park and salt marsh this time, so I also accrued some city street juju. After my errands, I crossed a street corner which made me think of Susanna, and pushing her in a stroller to shop on a girls’ outing. This was the day we bought her navy blue dress with a sash and white swiss dots. This outing happened only once, but I sincerely remember every day that she was here (as I promised her I would in the hospital, on the day she had to leave). I do not, however, remember anything else we bought that day, other than a Beyblade for my son, who was elsewhere.

Summer is starting. The temperatures are lagging this year, but the heat is slowly setting in. This is the fourth summer without Susanna here. I realize, crossing this street, that three years is more than half of Susanna’s lifetime. In two more years, I will almost have  lived as much time after her as with her. And, I will have lived 47 of 53 years on earth without her here (I included en utero as her being here).

Thinking of this made me feel the continuum again. Our lifetime spans are not the whole story. When you love someone, you know they never leave you, and you know that you were born to be with them. Our birth and death events are like the markers for 4 and 5 on a ruler, not the edges before 1 or after 12. Our lives are Wednesday on the week’s calendar. No beginning and no end.

I walked by a corner bodega. Its awning was made of tin, and two pigeons were scuffling and chasing each other back and forth on it, making such delightful tittering sound that my heart leapt in joy. The loud clawed feet tapping the tin, the pigeon banter, together. I do not feel that way often. Sometimes, I think my girl jumps into my body so that she can enjoy something and make me laugh. I glanced in the window and saw a man with a pocked face, who looked somehow intelligent, putting his wallet back into his pocket. I saw a few frosted cakes and cupcakes sitting on a shelf near the window. This seemed a strange place for them, I doubted that they would be sold before they spoiled. I love my city.

When I arrived home, just past dark, S.O. was watching an old Mexican movie. He pressed the info button to show me the title, which had amused him because it contained his surname. I do not share his name but our children do. It was “Los Sanchez Deben Morir”. Those named Sanchez Must Die. We all must die someday, but so what.

Losing My Religion

My year of graduate school is almost over, the end in sight and the glorious weeks of steamy weather and solitude coming into view. I have rediscovered television again, already. Except for I Love Lucy or Roseanne when I am drinking my coffee in the morning, I have not had the time or patience to watch anything. I have settled into The Handmaid’s Tale on this long weekend and sucked the last drops out of the six episodes available so far, getting lost inside and looking up details about the cast, production and soundtrack on my phone during the commercials. No wonder I do not watch TV like I used to, this is how involved I get.

I read Margaret Atwood’s novel during a television- free time in my life, when I read books and went places and spent more time with people in cafes (pre-internet). I checked it out of the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza, where I used to hang around when I had no money but time to spare. This was before I met my S.O. and had a family, and before I knew firsthand about life ending in death. I did know about the dark side of human nature but I had a narrower perspective on it.

So much to become irate and disgusted about in the story. But this is a story of the world. Fiction, but with real correlations. I do not watch this and feel grateful to be free as much as I feel revolted about how humans full of greed and evil damage each other. Freedom from this is not a privilege, abusing and exploiting others is crime. The world is a hotbed of corruption and unspeakable abuse, and this seems to have always been true. Sometimes I feel done.

When the scenes turn, in the first few episodes, to times “before” and “after”, I follow the emotional shift. I too have had my little girl taken from me, and console myself in reverie of carnivals and making pancakes. I want to hate the government, or someone, for this, but my enemy is none other than death and destiny. They are here and now and not dystopian. Death and loss are everyone’s fate. But eventually I do feel grateful that I have experienced this loss in the world I live in, where I have a job and home and a good deal of personal power.

I live with my beautiful, healthy surviving child and a partner who loves me from across cultures. He has seen things which I cannot understand, and never will, about human nature and injustice. These are his stories to tell, and sometimes he tells them to me. None, though, are as heartbreaking as what we have survived together. The cruelest part of the universe is the part which gives you a child to love and then that child is taken away. We found each other and had a son and a daughter. Susanna’s life was very short, and we remain.

Is life worth fighting for? I know it is. Whatever falls in my path I do believe I have a purpose, and I am equipped to follow it through until the last day. During these last years of my life, during which I have been bruised and broken, I have lived the most real days. Life is temporary and difficult and painful, and no one here gets out alive. Still, there are things to be done and justices to be served. And, in the bigger picture, there is a plan which cannot be seen from this plane.

Last night I was involved in my Hulu marathon, and S.O. uncharacteristically came upstairs and offered me one earbud attached to his phone. “Listen to this. This is beautiful. Maybe you know it”. It was REM’s Losing my Religion, and that is beautiful. My man has discovered the same band I discovered I high school, on this night so many years later, in a language and country which are not his first. I can only say to him that they are from Georgia and do not play together anymore. I want to explain how Michael Stipe’s voice makes me feel when I hear it, but words escape me.  He does not need words, he hears it himself. Because of these moments I am hopeful. Sometimes I know we will survive.

Hating April

April and Easter have appeared again, without me feeling ready. I have not yet hung the pastel egg wreath on the door. I have not yet opened my heart to the warm air and indiscernible buds and blooms. I have been dragging my feet. Hoping my initial protest will be fruitful, healing is sometimes wrought with resistance.

I have been known to be optimistic at times, but I am not a poster child for innocence or pep. I speak for the contemplative set dressed in black, who just could not bring themselves to the pep rally. (Like Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club”). I think we all are made up of a range of personae. What is most important is how we love and tolerate others exactly where they stand, which starts with loving and tolerating our own selves. Easier said than done.

This has been a busy year. Part of my resistance has to do with moving forward in my life. When you have lost someone very close, the future is a big problem. It is hard to see past the gaping hole in the pictures. The future I can foresee has a looming hole shaped like Susanna. Immeasurable, unfillable. It is hard to open myself to the bright and rich things life has to offer, because I am afraid I will forget her, that she will disappear. I have been assured that this is normal. Fear does not have to stop anyone’s plans, but it needs to be acknowledged.

In my more peaceful dreams lately, I see open spaces, flat grassy meadows, empty rooms with the inviting expanse of wood floors and a walk-in closet. There is really no way to greet the future without leaving extra room for what is unknown. These dreams are not devoid of my daughter. She is present in all of them. Sometimes she has left a drawing, a single pair of sparkly shoes or a birthday card. I know she is present because I feel her, I hear her singing, and I know that she is the one inviting me. In the times when I can relax and allow peace, the line between here and there dissolves. This is the point where the separation is an illusion. This is the place where it gets real.

I will never forget Susanna. She is my daughter, and for me the sun rises and sets for my two children. She existed, and to me she still exists. She lived a wonderful life for five years and three months, and then she died. We all die someday, but Susanna died younger than most, calling attention to our mortality. None of us is perfect. Except for a tiny weak spot in an artery, which no one could have known about, she was closer to perfect than anyone I have known. Perhaps she only needed five years to get life right.

Others may avoid thinking about what happened to Susanna and my family, dismiss it as an unfortunate tragedy fading into the past, and this I understand. But that is not the truth for me. Even though the pain is sometimes so big that I feel too small to contain it, I go forward with open eyes and open heart to the very best of my ability. My hope is always to let the pain transform into something else, more to be revealed. And whatever the price for knowing her, I would choose my daughter again, a million times over, in the blink of an eye or a fraction of a heartbeat. Peace.