I want to tell you something, but you probably won’t want to read it.
No one wants to. It’s not a pretty flower or a puffy heart.
Recently, you-know-who has been standing in the corner over there, watching. I don’t want him to be there, but he has been, so ever-present in the lives of my family as of late. Even my husband Mike has commented on his recent ricochet around us – its seven degrees of separation. The 50-something dad of my daughter’s friend hit & killed by a car on Bailey & Washington, just short walk from our home; Mike’s engineering colleague and his teen son in Kalamazoo (“I didn’t know him at all, but still! They made an announcement at work, You hear about these shootings all the time, but god . . ); then, my mother’s friend Barbara drowning on remote Easter Island.
all in one week.
My beautiful daughter Katie, as a 5 year old, once whispered to me, as I lay beside her after bedtime stories: “Oh, mama! I can’t wait to go to heaven! Won’t it be wonderful?” I assured her that yes, of course heaven would be would be wonderful, but that I hoped she’d stay a long time here with me and her dad and her big brother Ben.
I don’t know what happens when you die. I wonder about it a lot though.
I know my mother does too, especially now, after losing one of her best friends, who was more like a sister than friend. My heart aches thinking of it.
Such is the threaded placental connection of mother to daughter (and to son) to mother – each feeling the other’s suffering and joy like waves racing between shores.
In some ways, I am many stone skips ahead of my mother, having danced with death a while already, for a decade now if you can believe it. You do that when a nurse calls you while you are at work and tells you the doctor needs to see you about your test results. And then it’s an early spring day in March, with your husband beside you, in hard plastic chairs “I’m sorry” the doctor says telling you news your heart already knew. And you do that dance – when your oncologist guides you from the treatment room to her office “here let me show you” as though you were her work colleague, to look over her shoulder at graphs on her computer of 5-year mortality rates for various treatment combinations.
To be honest, this wasn’t what I intended to write this morning. Not at all. Not even close. Yet, sometimes the page calls us to be brave, and speak of things others might be afraid to. For example, I was afraid to write the word “cancer” here. I thought by writing it, I would be wooing it back somehow. My grandmother Gloria wouldn’t say the word “cancer”. Wouldn’t allow its utterance in her home. That was how afraid of death she was. (She also would not stand for any picture of a bird in home – these harbingers of Death – she thought, always so superstitious)
To be human is to be afraid and not to know.
To be brave (and to have faith) is to walk forward anyway, with your raw heart open, and sometimes to share what is inside it, without understanding why.
Sometimes I write because my heart is too full and the desire to set beauty on the page feels like a song rising up, unrehearsed.
Last night, I stood among faces I knew from long ago, the ones that filled my high school classrooms, sifted through halls, this colorful blur of velour and Jordache jeans, standing tall, yet awkward, spinning combination locks right-left-right, hip-checking grey/green lockers closed, arms laden with textbooks, covered in brown paper, scribbled with hearts.
I remember you. You touched my life, whether or not you knew you did.
We were tumbled together like this haphazard mix of pretty aquarium stones – not because we chose one other, but because we lived in the same small town, for the same 4 years – the town with the pretty white church on the long triangle of lawn, where each June, all would gather to eat strawberries, this annual Festival marking the close of one school year and the beginning of summer – something delicious to mark time passing – so sweetly, juicily, stickily.
Yet, our town seemed split across by railway tracks, this jagged old scar, littered and gravelly, overgrown. On one side, there were these white Quaker stones sitting low, almost invisible in the block-wide field where the town clock once stood and the giant Sycamore, shedding its papery brown/white bark.
These remembered lives. This litter of Life passing.
It is gratitude I feel for having grown beside you – during years I was not yet the woman I am now (and still becoming), but the seed of her, I’m guessing.
Thank you for nurturing me while also toughening and strengthening me, through times marked by struggle, mostly the hidden kind. I didn’t know then, what I know now. That none of us felt like we fit in. Even the cheerleaders, even those who lived in wedding-cake mansions on Chester Avenue, even football players who scared us with big bellowing voices, even the field hockey beauties, in their black and gold skirts, and pony tails swinging – no one felt at ease, as though she belonged.
How I wish I knew that back then. How I wish I did.
Yet, perhaps that is the way it must be. Perhaps we aren’t to know those things, when we are young and not yet fully-grown. Perhaps the discomfort is necessary and crucial for our lives’ unfolding.
Honestly, I don’t know.
Yet tonight, having returned safely to my home, here in Chicago, my heart full – to have been welcomed back, embraced again, by those I knew growing up – to have danced and laughed and eaten cake with them – all that remains is gratitude – this overwhelming gratitude that unlocks my voice.
When I let myself remember and feel the good, it brings up the not-so-good too. To be here, back in the suburban Philadelphia town I grew up in, from 7th grade to 12th grade, I am feeling is this sickly sense of dread, of why did I do this to myself, when I told myself I wouldn’t. (“I’ll never go to my high school reunion. I mean, never. I’ll never go back”)
I am scared to be with people I knew 30 years ago, when I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. When I held feelings down and deep inside, this gurgling-green, invisibly waged war I caused, this self-destroying, controlled battle – that is bulimia and perfectionism.
Coming home, I reluctantly greet that sad & broken girl again, and it unsettles me, but I am not that girl.
Tonight, I hold that fearful girl I once was, in loving arms. And I let myself remember her.
I survived breast cancer. My first marriage did not.
No one talks about that.
How when cancer comes, your life suddenly snaps into sharp relief, and what you thought you could do if you just tried hard enough, for just a little while longer, until the kids get through high school, you can’t. With cancer, you find yourself dropped into an ocean, choppy with waves, no land in sight, and all you can do is grasp for things solid, those things that are dependable, trustworthy. You hold onto them, literally, for your dear life.
Everything else – all clever artifice – must fall away – as though turning to ash, impossible to be held, a powder blown into wind and gone.
* * *
My daughter Katie is in Disney World this week, on a school field trip with her sophomore Marketing class. Katie has been so excited in the weeks leading up to this excursion. She is a Disney lover for sure, she has been to the Florida theme park twice in her life – first as an almost 4-year old donning her sparkle princess gowns, traipsing park-to-park-to-park in pink Mouse ears. The second and last time was in January 2007, after my first 9 months of breast cancer treatment – two surgeries, 6 weeks of daily radiation and then a series of monthly shots of a some super-expensive drug that sent my body cruelly and immediately into menopause.
That Disney vacation was like a “Make-A-Wish” trip, something happy to share with the kids, on the brink of our marriage’s terminal diagnosis. For I already knew inside my heart, before uttering a word to anyone else, my husband included, that our marriage was over.
That was to be our final journey together as a family, to play in that magical place we always found the most joy in, the most love. In fact, my first husband and I honeymooned there, spending our first night upgraded to the Vice Presidential suite of the Grand Floridian hotel. [But, you know, you can’t tell people this story anymore. After divorce (and a beautiful & healthy remarriage) you’re not supposed to speak with sweet remembrance about another relationship’s beginning (even one of nearly 15 years resulting in 2 children who fill your heart everyday with more love than you can bear). It feels socially inappropriate to speak of the happy parts, the love-filled, hopeful parts, the “once was” parts – when a county court has deemed the marriage dissolved (and more than that, you were the one who filed the petition to end it, to sentence it to its long and painful evisceration of a death.]
Both of us were actors.
I, his Cinderella, he, my Prince Charming. The year of our engagement, we were actually cast in a play of this fairy tale. We took to the stage – waltzing together at the Ball – creating this beautiful illusion for an audience of children who believed so strongly that we were really these characters. Maybe we did, too.
This man I loved (and still love) breathed life into me, into the stories I was writing and imagining. On our first date, he set them up there for me to see – there on some grand movie screen in his beautiful mind, casting the roles, telling me how the costuming would be, the colors, the music. Together we were a whirlwind of creativity and magic and storytelling and the art of imagination.
At our story’s beginning, we were these things. We were hopeful and in love.
Two days ago, I texted my 15-year old daughter when she first arrived at the Magic Kingdom, her first day at the park:
“Disney has a special place in the story of your life. Your dad and I were always happiest there. Grateful we could share that joy with you.”
Later, I received the following texts back from her.
“Tonight was a lot harder than I thought” “What do you mean?” “Just thinking about how our family used to be” “I know” “Made me sad” “It makes me sad still too”
“Yea it was just a little hard watching the fireworks because that’s the part I remember the most with you guys” I know.
It was just really hard to think about how happy we were and now it’s so different. It is hard. You wish it could be back that way, I know. It was just something that hit me while seeing happy families at the park.
And sometimes feeling everything is a blessing but also a curse because feeling everything messes with your head a lot. I love you. And I am glad you feel everything – even if it is difficult. Thanks mom.
Oh, and I love you too.
A reflection written (hesitantly) after yesterday’s visit to the Loyola Cancer Center for my annual mammogram, which was clear. My husband Mike drove me there, and waited with me, because he knows how scared I am, even when I try not to show it. I am still scared. I think I always will be scared. For when that cancer diagnosis happened, my whole world changed, as did the world of my children. As did the world of my first husband, whom I loved (and whom loved me as best he could, with what he had to give, having lost his mother to ovarian cancer less than a year before meeting me.) Seriously, the two of us had no business getting married. We were young, and hopeful, and believed in the fairy tale so much. I will never regret the choice to marry him, foolish as it may look now. I regret nothing. Even sharing this story with you today, as hard as it was for me to hit the Publish button now.
Sometimes you parent all wrong and end up building bigger walls between you and your child who last night just needed you to listen and love and reflect back that his anxiety was seen, understood, and okay to feel. #onesentence
It is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance, and I am remembering.
It used to be when our kids were small, we would put on our best red-white-and-blue clothes and stand, tippy-toed, watching the parade pass through our town. Anxiously we’d peer down the street to spot the first firetruck
“It’s coming, it’s coming. I see it! I see it!” the kids would inform us falsely several times.
What a tease to hear the faraway sound of drums and sirens and old-fashion car horns “ahh-oooing, ahh-ooing” but not yet behold the bright and gleaming ribbon that is a parade: the flashing police-car lights; the white-gloved waves; the pretty girls, in sparkles. tossing up silvery batons, spinning high in the air, like fireworks.
My parents would have saved us a spot on the parade route, having set their picnic blankets out early: “Can you believe it was 7 o’clock and spots were already being saved?” my mom would tell us every year.
I’d sip coffee from a travel mug, the kids poke straws in their juice boxes, and we’d slather on sunblock if the sun was feeling hot and was rising high in the sky.
When the veterans and soldiers would pass, all of us would stand and clap.I always felt like crying. I was remembering my grandfather, my mother’s father, and how much he would have loved to have marched in such a parade. How proud he would have been to wear his uniform again, to have people clap and stand, and salute, and be honored in such a magnanimous way. I hadn’t known this about him, however, until after he died.
My grandfather served in World War II and was in the Army Air Corp. He flew on B-17 missions and was a technical sergeant and waist gunner. The stories he told us as children seemed like romantic movies, and we loved hearing him tell them. But they were just the stories about war and combat you could tell people, you know? There was so much more he never spoke of, protecting us still, as soldiers are taught to do.
My grandfather died of emphysema the night before my 30th birthday. He died in the VA hospital he trusted and was so loyal to. That night, someone at the VA made a mistake and didn’t read the instructions we’d left not to call my grandmother. Someone called her in the middle of the night and my grandmother answered that ugly green phone in her bedroom and the nightmare she’d been dreading for decades came true and she fell on the floor and my uncle found her and she was rushed to the Somerville Hospital and then transferred to Mass General and she could not speak or walk because she had had a massive stroke.
Life changes in moments like this one.
The day after, there was to have been a surprise birthday party for me, which my now ex-husband reluctantly, though lovingly, chose to tell me about. We went through the motions of the party, but no one knew how to be, or to act, and I felt so guilty about having ruined everyone’s good time, especially given how much planning and expense had gone into it.
Maybe this is why I told my ex-husband it was okay for him not to travel to Massachusetts for my grandfather’s wake and funeral and to visit my grandmother in the hospital, when we still had hope she would recover and be herself again (she never was). I told him that I could do this on my own, that I didn’t need him there. How adept I was at keeping him on the periphery, of putting on a brave face, of not allowing him opportunities to be a loving husband.
After my grandfather’s funeral mass at his beloved St. Anne’s, we were driven in limos, behind the hearse, on city streets and highways that were at first dirty and crowded and then slowly became open and soft, framed on both sides by forests of scotch pines.
I opened a window for air and let it blow on my face, eyes closed.
I remember the journey itself feeling exciting and special, which is a strange emotion to have travelling to a cemetery. We drove for a little more than an hour to Bourne, with its high grey-white suspension bridge and the rotary with the manicured hedges that welcome you to Cape Cod.
Before following the signs completely around the traffic circle, my uncle’s family, who were travelling in their own limo ahead of us, stopped for doughnuts and coffee, which is something my family recollects aloud and laughs about whenever we drive through Bourne on our way to Falmouth, where my parents live now.
I didn’t have any idea how important it was to my grandfather that he be buried in a military cemetery. To me, he was a pharmacist and a tailor, and a grand & long-winded story teller, who had trouble knowing when to end a story no matter how grand. (God help the poor soul at my grandparent’s kitchen table at midnight trying gracefully to exit one of my grandfather’s stories!)
The afternoon at the cemetery was a sunny one, but still cold, and we were gathered in a small, sacred-feeling, outdoor place, at some precise-to-the-minute time that the funeral home had arranged for us. The space felt like a garden in a convent with stone walls and old shade trees and ivy growing. Birds were singing and you could hear the wind and it smelled sweet like honeysuckle in rain. I remember there were comforting words spoken by someone official, then startling rifle shots, then, “Taps” was played, on a lone trumpet, from some faraway place I couldn’t see.
I stood reverently and tall, and I cried.
Written in honor of my grandfather William Joseph Meehan, who looked like Ronald Reagan and believed him to be our best president ever, and who thought I might be a communist when I was in “that liberal woman’s college”, but who still showed off my high school graduation photo to any one who would stop long enough for him to pull out his wallet “Isn’t she beautiful? That’s my grand-daughter” I miss his teasing, smiling “Meehan eyes” the most and of course, hearing his stories.
Today I hold the tranquil peace of that place in Bourne, where he, and 62,789 fellow soldiers, ‘safely rest’ and are mourned and remembered on this day, and on other days, the more ordinary ones, the days without parades.
It is morning and from the chair of my hotel room, I am watching seagulls and planes taking flight in regular intervals.
Boston Harbor is donning a pretty cape of grey sequins and the sun is bright in my eyes, as I type.
Yes, there was a 7 am work call and yes there is a document due at noon (nearing completion, but not yet done). Yes I still need to shower and dress and figure out just where the Boston office is so I can walk there for a 1/2 day meeting and then catch a flight back home tonight to Chicago.
Yet, I am here. I am choosing to show up at the page. And you know what? It was an easy choice.
Someone wise once told me that if you have a dream, do just one thing everyday to touch that dream. Even if it is the smallest thing.
Today, I sipped coffee and watched Boston Harbor awake. Like a bird, I viewed from above its cement-grey zig-zag of roads, its thin slips of just-greening trees, its water taxis trailing shining ribbons of sea in their wakes, and planes, full of people, lifting up and up and up through sky and cloud then up beyond my view . . .
There is beauty here,and I showed up to witness it. And by sharing it with you, I was able to touch my dream in the smallest way.
May you find beauty today in the view from your window. And may you show up for what (and who) matters.