On the morn of my 49th birthday

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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.

Home coming

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One hour before my 30th high school reunion

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.

 

 

 

 

Inside the lines

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pure joy

snow sparks
the day’s brightness
hair, icy wet,
against cheek

we race
holding children
in circled arms
our too-small sleds spin out
toward each other

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I wrote this poem in December 2013, but my heart remembered it today when walking the dogs with my husband Mike on the icy pavement, the morning after the first snow of the season.  There was sun, but it wasn’t warm (and certainly not melting anything!), and the morning sky was this bright Virgin-Mary blue against the silvery white of snow on all the branches – and  I could hear, but not see, the sound of children sledding in the school yard, which is near our home – their laughter and shouts like bells, heralding memory in sweet beautiful waves, of childhood and joy and hope – the sound, I have to believe,  the same for all time of children at play in a first snow.

[But then, Dear Reader. if I were to be even more honest with you, which I guess I am being – the seed of this poem hearkens back a million more years to a similar day, in our first family home on Julian Street, when all the kids were small and the idea of racing outside in the snowy cold, dragging sleds and snow-suited children, was not an entrancing idea to most adults.  But it was to me, this absolute need to be outside in it – to be en-wrapped in the magic and beauty of it.  And he, my best friend, but a man married to another, a similarly practical, more sedentary spouse, said “yes, let’s go!” and off we went towing the kids behind us – sledding down hills ourselves, laughing for the pure joy that it brought us and our kids.

It is a memory of love that my heart forever holds – this moment of reveling in life with another, of being truly alive in the world.  It was (and still is) a North Star moment for me.  Its the image my heart holds, reminding what it feels like to be true to myself, what it means to love, to journey with another, and what it means to truly be alive in the world.

 

 

Stories you aren’t allowed to tell

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.

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A staged photo and feature story “Supporting Roles: Fox Valley actors cast lots together in marriage” published in The Beacon News on Sunday, August 8, 1993

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.

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January 2007

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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.

What if?

What if you  could draw a circle around your whole life, as though you were some giant dragging your walking stick behind you, pulling it through gravelly dirt, just to see if you could?  How wide would your circle be?  Would it even be a circle?  Could you then, do you think, make yourself stop and put down the stick and instead just walk that one cleared line, slowly, deliberately, as though in some sacred meditation, tracing its uneven curves, stopping, turning, peering every so often to look far into its center, trying to take it all in – all this you’ve known, all this life you’ve lived – suddenly right there in front of you – held within this fragile line of your own creation?

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One beautiful life

And then, oh!  How your senses deceive you! And what at first seemed fixed and touchable, is miles away and fathoms deep and still changing  – yes, always-and- ever-still-changing!

A vista so vast – leaving you breathless, in awe – yet still wondering, always wondering at the beauty that is one’s life . . .

Gratitude rising

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a tumbling heap of gratitude

Sometimes in late September, when it is gray and growing colder, you feel the sun of gratitude rising in your heart, because your child is safe and home and still that goofy and charming too-tall teen he was leaving for school on Monday, or maybe it is something else for you today, dear Reader. . .

One Sentence/One Beautiful Life
with gratitude to the Satisfaction Finder by Jen Louden