Comfort

In sixth grade, I strode into your bedroom to find you situated on your bed with your Stephen King book in hand. Eyes almost closed, but not quite.

Settled.

Still.

Scruffy flannel pajamas snuggled your body. Antique quilts swaddled the bed. Your glasses had slipped to the bottom of your nose, like always, and you hadn’t yet shoved them back up.

Snug.

Safe.

Soft white light whispered to the shadows in your corner of the room. I didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to. But I needed to be close to you. At your side. A daughter needs her mother.

So I slid into your bed. Opened my R.L. Stine book. Exhaled.

It would have been different had we known what was to come; cancer.

Chaos.

Chemotherapy.

At that moment, we would’ve had conversations about life. About close family I never had the chance to meet. About what you were like as a child.

You’d show your candor, your true colors. But that knowledge, that experience, would’ve come at a cost.

No quiet.

No calm.

No comfort.

But we didn’t know. Not yet. Instead, only our steady sighs and the shooshing of turning pages swept against our ears. Everything else turned silent because it was our space, our time.

Serene.

Sound.

Had we known, we would have gained something. But we would have lost so much, only to watch the clock.

Photo by Umberto Del Piano on Unsplash

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Sticky Notes

I bought some sticky notes today, a lesson I learned from Mom.

***

When I was in my early twenties, she worked ten-hour shifts as a hospice nurse. Before that, she worked in the Transitional Care Unit as the Activities Director playing balloon volleyball and chair yoga with sick folks. And before that, she folded and stocked women’s clothes at a discount clothing store. Even earlier, she was the night manager at Video Connection where she got to bring home life-size cutouts of Dick Tracey and Roger Rabbit. Mom worked hard.

She also attended every home varsity basketball game so she could watch me dance, and every football game to see my sister twirl her flag. For dance competitions she made matching bows for all my teammates.

Our tiny house would have been in shambles had Mom not managed it with the precision of a surgeon. She swept the floors twice daily, folded my stepdad’s shit-stained underwear into perfect squares, hand-washed the dishes to a pristine shine, and often she yelled.

Her temper short-circuited daily. She ripped the phone cord from the wall after I dragged it into the bathroom to talk friends one too many times. She threw bills into the air, chain-smoked her menthol light one hundreds, and cried.

She cried too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

My mother’s mother and father had both died, so she put everything she had into us, her job, and the house on Custer Drive to keep herself busy. But she wasn’t great at delegating chores, or maybe we just refused to listen to her. I would rummage through the pantry for pretzels and Pop-Tarts, forgetting to close the cabinet and leaving a trail of crumbs that led to the couch. Jim would leave his dirty dishes on the living room end table and used undershirts balled up in the corner of the bathroom floor next to his wet towels. My sister never filled the toilet paper when she emptied it. Instead, she ’d rest the new roll on top of the old. Just writing all this stuff makes me cringe.

This lack of respect and help went on for as long as I can remember, until one otherwise normal day when I walked in from the bus stop two long blocks away, seventeen and too lazy to get my license. I tossed my backpack in the middle of the living room floor next to one of our three miniature Lhasa Apsos, and bent to rub her belly. That’s when the first note stuck to a case on top of the DVD player came into the corner of my vision. Put away after watching. “Huh?”

I stood and walked into the kitchen, at the time decorated with flying geese, Mom’s latest kitchen craze. In the midst of all the geese, yellow notes with permanent marker scribbled on them clung to everything. Throw me away after you drink me on the milk inside the fridge. Don’t leave me open on the pantry cupboard door, and don’t leave your junk here on the counter, cluttered with unpaid bills.

In the bathroom, replace me when empty above the wooden toilet paper holder and flush me on the toilet with the cracked seat.

Take things up with you on the steps, next to my pile of clean clothes. 

“My mom has lost it,” I whispered. But before finding her, I reconsidered my decision to drop my crap in the living room, jogged back to grab it, then scooped up a pile of clothes on my way upstairs and placed them on my unmade bed.

“Mom?” I hollered.

“In here,” she called from her bedroom, the room next to mine.

I found her clipping hot rollers into her hair in the master bath, a cloud of smoke surrounding her and a cigarette burning in the filled ashtray on the back of the toilet.

“Where are you going?”

“Out for dinner with Dad,” she said, smearing burgundy lipstick across her lips.”

“On a date?” They never went out. Especially on school nights.

“Yes. A date.” She added mascara to her eyes, applied some rouge to her cheeks. “You’ll watch your sister. We won’t be long. I need some…time.”

“You okay?”

“Yep. Just great. Why?” Mom sprayed a bit of perfume.

“Oh, you know…the yellow notes. They’re everywhere.”

“Those? Oh, nope. Just tired of yelling.”

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

The Bitches – A Micro

Your voices are sweet syrup, but you cut with razor blade tongues. I hear your slimy snickers and see your wicked eyes. I watch my back for stones and sticks hidden in your Prada bags.

You don’t have to pretend. I don’t like you either.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

The Moment I Learned to Really Love My Child

My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.

***

She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.

I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.

I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.

“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”

I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.

“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”

Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”

I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.

***

We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?

***

My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door.  Was it God? Was it my own conscience?  “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.

I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.

I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.

I knew I had to love her.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Flight of the Monarch

I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.

My mom died.

My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.

I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.

The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong. 

The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.

My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand. 

After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.

Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun.
It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.

It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.

I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.

I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.

In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.

On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”

My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.

It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.

My mom was free.

Photo courtesy of Mathias Reed/Unsplash

Sea Glass Mosaic

you.

you are a seaglass mosaic.

don’t be fearful of your imperfections. they are what make you.

i know the resiliency of your skin is being tested. a seemingly never-ending current of depression is sweeping up, splashing the places you’ve reassembled many times.

let the wave reflect your courage rather than shadow your beauty. stand strong. let it wash over you. embrace the tide rather than bracing for it.

your finish will crack. maybe even break. but it’s okay. each crack represents new wisdom and love for life. each break will expose a new facet of your Self.

let sadness rinse away anything unnecessary, leaving only the important pieces.

after the tide, pick up what’s left, rebuild, and glisten in the sun once more.

photo courtesy of Seth Doyle/Stocksnap.io

When a Friendship Burns

After high school, I moved in with the person I considered to be my best friend. She and I had the same blue corduroys, pixie haircuts, and infatuation with Brandon Boyd from Incubus.

We were inseparable. We’d go out dancing three nights a week, get wasted, and take turns vomiting in the bathroom after too many margaritas. We screamed Linkin Park songs as we drove around aimlessly in her little white pickup truck smoking cigarettes. She was my soulmate, the Thelma to my Louise.

During the height of our friendship, we made a promise that if we never found love, we’d be there for each other, no matter what. We thought we’d end up two old kid-less ladies in a flat downtown with one cat and two dogs. We’d be chain smokers with curlers in our hair and sparkles on our cheeks. A couple of cougars on the prowl, we’d hit the bars night after night getting trashed and having fun.

Oh, the dreams we have when we’re young and stupid.

Our wild behavior only managed to last so long, before we ran out of money. When that happened, I regretfully returned home to my parents. She started dating a guy she met at the club, and stopped spending time with me on the dance floor. There were no longer midnight cruises with our favorite rock bands. Instead, she stayed home watching movies with him.

I’ve learned over time that one person cannot be the sole communicator in a friendship. Without taking turns listening and talking, without being there emotionally, there isn’t much left to hold it together.

Our friendship was losing importance to her, and our communication was dwindling. Each time I asked her to hang out, she claimed to already have plans. It was a sign that she didn’t want me as her friend anymore. I kept trying, leaving her message after message, but she stopped returning my calls.

Eventually, I stopped dialing her number.

Cherie Burbach, a friendship expert, says lack of communication is “one of the biggest reasons” why friendships end. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t figure out how to put the pieces back together. Especially after we had already put each other through hell, and made it through without a single burn.

She took boyfriends from me and lied about it. I took jewelry from her and kept it. We fought over who got to wear the neon pink leopard halter almost weekly, and who got the last beer in the fridge every time we were running low. But we always picked the friendship over the fight. Nothing could tear us apart, until we didn’t have that willingness on both ends to communicate anymore.

Then we had nothing.

Today, we both have kids roughly the same age. We’re both married. We both have our version of white picket fence perfection. Our paths have been similar, but in opposite directions.

I wonder if our relationship would have lasted, had she and I had been raised today. If she could have texted me when she didn’t feel like talking, or messaged me on Facebook, would we have been better off? Or would it have only delayed the inevitable? In my heart, I know even in modern times with better access to communication tools, she would have eventually stopped responding.

So many times I’ve sat in front of my computer with a half-typed message to her, asking simple niceties. But my fingers hover over the enter button, never quite ready to reopen that line. We weren’t destined to be forever friends.

Our relationship was like throwing kerosene on a bonfire: it was intense, fun, and full of energy. But a fire like that can only get so crazy, before someone has to suffocate it. 

Maybe after all these years, I don’t want to find my matches.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Earle/Stocksnap.io