Thursday, December 18, 2008

From a special guest blogger: "I miss buying my mom Hanukkah presents!"

Hi, my name is Michelle Hersh, and Marisa has kindly offered to let me share a little bit of my story with you.

I am an almost 40 (shhhh!) year old living in the Midwest and Marisa is a 20-something living on the East Coast. What we have in common is that we both lost our fabulous moms to pancreatic cancer. It is rare even at my age to find other people in my general age category who share the pain of losing a parent and even rarer to find someone who has lost that parent to pancreatic cancer. We would rather have our moms here and never have heard about pancreatic cancer, but since that is not the case, we are making the most of it and are becoming fast friends!

My mom, like Sally, was the life of the party, my biggest cheerleader, and the center of our family. My mom Barbara died at 65, two years ago on November 27, 2006. Even amongst tragedy and death the calendar keeps moving on and so do others around you. When a death first occurs, you just want to scream to people in general "Don't you know my mom just died, how can you be carrying on with your life?" Well, carry on they do and in time you find yourself joining them.

Hanukkah was always a fun time at our house. As kids, my sister Marci and I would sneak around for weeks ahead of time trying to find my mom's hiding places. Seeing if we could cajole my dad into giving up a little hint as to what we could expect in our pile of presents. We would light the menorah and open a present (or two!) for eight nights. What I remember most was that my mom would be as excited for us on the eighth night as she was on the first. She delighted in gathering the perfect presents, festive wrapping and seeing us happy. It did not matter if we were 2 or 32 – her enthusiasm was the same.

As I got older, my gift giving to my mom turned from hand made cards and school projects to finding her equally coveted and thoughtful gifts. Apparently she thought the cards to be most important because as I went through her things after she died, she had kept every single card or letter she ever received from not only me, but my sister, my dad, her parents, her siblings and the list goes on. I don't think that she looked at them very often but she had them.

Now, I have them and I do look at them. Each time I do it is like a little present for me because I get to share a memory with my mom even though she is not here to laugh with me. On second thought, she is probably laughing at me, since that makes me more sentimental than I would have ever let on!

Since my mom died, we have tried to move forward with holidays to the best of our ability. It is very hard not having the one person who was most excited about everything here with us but we are settling into a new groove – another part of our "new normal".

We still buy piles of presents for each other, not necessarily extravagant, but a volume of things because that is what mom did. She liked to see the floor covered in presents and seeing that space bare would be too much bear.

Enjoy your holidays! Remember time spent with your loved ones, make new memories as you will cherish them in the future and I promise you that if I can get through it, so can you!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I wear the (Christmas) pants in this relationship!

I promised I'd tell you about my holiday plans, so here goes...

Even though I'm 100% Jewish, I've always celebrated Chanukah and Christmas. Whenever friends tease me that Jews order Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas, I say defiantly: "Not me! I celebrate Christmas!"

It started when I was a kid. My cousins Susi and Julia celebrate both holidays, so every Dec. 25 my family traveled from Long Island to Brooklyn to take pictures by the tree and exchange presents. I even had a pair of red and green plaid pants (stylish, I know!) that I dubbed "my Christmas pants!" After my mom passed away, we continued going to their house. Each year, at least one relative would say how strange the holiday felt without my mom. Who knew a Jew would be missed on Christmas!

As a teenager, I also started celebrating Christmas Eve. My best friend Laura's family invited me to their house to indulge in homemade Italian food, Christmas carols edited to include family jokes, and the most delicious cookies I've ever eaten. My favorite were the peanut butter-chocolate kiss ones. Yum!

Last year I began a new tradition. I traveled to Colorado to spend Christmas with my boyfriend Mark's family. On Christmas Eve, after Mark's 6-year-old nephew went to sleep, we all tip-toed downstairs to put our presents under the tree. Never before had I been able to play Santa! The next morning we woke up to a white Christmas. A foot of snow covered the yard and giant snowflakes fell slowly from the sky. It was the most picturesque scene. Imagine me -- a little Jewish girl from Long Island -- seeing a white Christmas in Colorado!

This year Mark and I will travel back to Colorado for round 2 of Christmas with his fam. Tingles of excitement (OK, and 10% nerves!) flutter in my stomach. I'm happy for another chance to get to know everyone better and spend time together. I also love who Mark is in his home state. There's a calm and warmth he never quite achieves in busy-busy New York City.

Do you have any advice for visiting your significant other's family?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How do the holidays make you feel?

Good evening. I hope you're keeping warm on this rainy night.

Now that it's mid-December, the official holiday countdown has begun. Commercials nag me to buy gifts, neighbors put up crazy lights (one house plays "Jingle Bells" at a dog whistle pitch!), and coworkers ask how you'll spend your time off.

Chanukah, Christmas, and the New Year evoke strong feelings in most people. And for anyone who's grieving, holidays can be just plain hard. Let me be the first to say: I hear ya!

Over the weekend, I'll post again and share my thoughts and plans for this season. But right now, I'd love to hear what you're doing, where you're going, and how you're feeling.

P.S. If you don't feel comfortable posting a comment publicly, you can post under "anonymous" or you can e-mail me at

Photo courtesy of krisdecurtis,

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A little pip squeak with a big voice

On Friday night, I heard a story about my mom that made me crack up.

I was hanging out with my mom's college roommate, Bonnie, and her husband Arnie. Bonnie met Sally at the University of Connecticut in 1964. Bonnie was a freshman and Sally was a senior, but they were placed in the same dorm room. At first, Sally was annoyed to be "stuck with a freshman." Soon, despite the age gap, they became best friends.

When Sally graduated and moved to New York City, she and Bonnie remained close. A few years later, Bonnie moved to the city, too. A new phase of adventures began for them.

Because my mom didn't meet my dad until she was 33, she had 12 years of single life in NYC. (Think Carrie Bradshaw, but with jet-black hair and set in the 70s). I didn't realize until Friday night that Bonnie and Arnie have all the juicy gossip (and funny stories) about those years.

"I just remembered a great story about your mom," Arnie began. "Since she was a teacher and had the summers off, she and her girlfriends used to rent a house in Vermont."

Already this was news to me. My mom had never mentioned summers in Vermont. Trust me -- I would have remembered!

"She invited us to come up to Vermont and stay with her for a weekend," Arnie continued. "We drove for hours through the woods. We were really in the middle of nowhere."

"It was beautiful," Bonnie added.

"When we got there, this group of guys answered the door," Arnie said. "They rented the house on the alternate weekends and said there would be no room for us."

"Your mom hadn't gotten there yet, so we hung around and waited for her," Bonnie said. "When she showed up, we told her what the guys said."

"Well!" Arnie said. "She marched into that house and said, 'This is my weekend to be here! You're going to leave and my friends are staying. Those are the rules. Get out!'"

Arnie and Bonnie burst out laughing.

"She was ballsy!" I exclaimed. In missing my mom's softer side, I'd forgotten how feisty she was. I imagined this little 5-foot pip squeak yelling at a group of guys and shook my head. Oh, Sally. "So what happened?"

"The guys packed up and left," Arnie said. He and Bonnie were still laughing at the memory.

Is there a story you've heard about your parents in their youth that made you crack up, or surprised you, or made you really proud? Share with me!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My favorite meal from Sally's kitchen

When most children crave their mom's home-cooking, comfort food comes to mind: fresh tomato sauce, hearty meatloaf, chicken soup when you're sick.

Me? I long for leftover Lo Mein.

Chinese take-out was a weekly event in my house. Don't get the wrong idea: my parents did their fair share of cooking. But everyone needs a day off. Chinese food was my mom's favorite cuisine. Her second favorite cuisine? Reheated Chinese food. And she didn't always rely on the microwave. Sally would stand over the stove with her well-loved wok, stir-frying our leftover Veggie Lo Mein. "I'm doctoring it up!" she'd announce proudly. The results were delicious.

Tonight, in honor of Sally, I "doctored up" my leftover Pad Thai in my bright-red wok. Here's the recipe.

"Doctored Up" Pad Thai

Leftover Pad Thai*
1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp Sriracha hot chili sauce
1 tsp crushed red pepper

1. Heat sesame oil over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes
2. Add leftover Pad Thai and toss until heat softens and separates the noodles and ingredients
3. Squirt a drop of Sriracha hot chili sauce (careful: it's hot!)
4. Sprinkle red pepper flakes

Tonight I even had leftovers of my leftovers. Looks like I'll have lunch tomorrow!

What's a favorite recipe that your mom makes or used to make?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ghosts on the treadmill

I went running yesterday. Like most Americans, I was trying to burn off too much turkey and pumpkin pie. I had another goal, too. I wanted to rid myself of all the stress and heartache that had come with Thanksgiving.

As soon as I got on the treadmill, I knew it wasn't going to be an easy workout. My legs felt like lead. My tummy sloshed. Even the little TV attached to the cardio machine was broken. But I knew I needed to work out. I knew it would help.

I started at a slow walk, nice and easy at 3.0. Even if you just walk, it's OK, I reassured myself. A few minutes later, I increased to 3.5. See? You can totally do this.

Five minutes later, I upped it to 4.2 and began to jog. I can't do this. Maybe I'll just call it quits and take a nice long shower. My calves burned. My body felt so weak. I just can't do this. It's too hard. It's too hard. I knew it wasn't just the running; it was life. Life just felt too hard and too lonely without her.

Finally, desperate, I began a sort of delirious prayer-mantra: Mom, give me strength. Mom, give me strength. Mom, give me strength.

I looked at the empty treadmill beside me. In my mind, I imagined her jogging easily alongside me, the same way we used to jog together at the gym. Her hair was swept up in a ponytail. She wore black swishy pants and an over-sized gray T-shirt. She wasn't even huffing and puffing. She looked great.

You can do this, Missy, she told me. Come on.

I increased to 5.0 and began to run.

She continued: When you spoke to Aunt Ruthy at Thanksgiving, that was me talking to you. I thought back to my conversation with my great aunt. We were on the computer, and I was showing her my blog. With weepy eyes, she told me: "Life is such a fragile thing. You never know what's going to happen." I thought she sounded sad until she said, "It's an adventure." At 89, she's one of the wisest women I know. And it did sound like advice my mom would give. (Left: Aunt Ruthy and me at the Thanksgiving dinner table.)

I upped the treadmill to 5.2. Then 5.5. And then 6.0. My breathing was loud and hard. Sweat ran into my eyes. People here must think I'm crazy.

My boyfriend, Mark, appeared on the treadmill beside me. "How are you doing?"

"I'm running really fast," I panted, then cursed myself for stating the obvious. But what was I going to say? I'm communicating with the dead?

"I see that!" he grinned. "I'm going for a swim now. See ya at 5." I watched him bound away in the mirror.

I increased to 6.2 and tried to conjure my mother again. I wanted to ask her something. When I felt her presence, I asked timidly, Mom, is it OK that I started Sally's Circle? Lately, I had begun to second-guess sharing such intimate feelings in such a public arena. Yes, she answered with absolute certainty. I sighed with relief. I knew I could stop running.

As I lowered my speed from heart-racing 6.2 down to a steady walk at 3.5, I heard her say over and over again: Share me. Share me. Share me. Share me. Share me.

Have you ever had a moment like this, where someone who has passed away seems to speak to you? Do you think it's really that person talking to you, or you just hearing what you want to hear?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gobble, Gobble... Gulp.

Turkey Day has always been my favorite holiday. Ever since I was a kid, my family has piled in the car and driven to Connecticut to spend a few days with my mom's relatives. Especially as a teenager, the trip was a mini-vacation. I helped name the turkey ("Tom" usually won), stayed up late engrossed in a novel, and enjoyed the break from my drama-overload friends.

But now, without my mom, it's different. Holidays can be hard for anyone, and they're especially tough when you've lost someone close.

The first Thanksgiving without my mom was the worst. My dad and I drove for three hours in near-silence. For the first time in 20 years, I sat shotgun. I hated it because it reminded me she was gone. Before the feast, at a table surrounded with 10 of my mom's relatives, Uncle Stuart cleared his throat: "Let us pray for our dear, sweet Sally. We miss you and love you." We all ate with lumps in our throats.

It sounds cliché, but each year really has gotten easier. I'm most thankful to two angels: my little cousins Jamie and Greg. Last year, on Thanksgiving morning, I overheard the two of them plotting my wake-up call. "You tickle her feet!" Jamie whispered. "No, you do it!" Greg begged. Little fingers attacked my toes as I giggled and tickled them back. When you wake up laughing, a good day is practically guaranteed. I can't wait to see them again this year. (They're the little rascals giving me smooches in the photo!)

Are holidays tough for you? What makes them easier? Is there anything special you do to remember the person you lost?

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Any Tom Petty fans in the room? "The Waiting" is stuck in my head:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

When holidays approach, waiting really is the hardest part. Whether it's Mother's Day, my mom's birthday, the anniversary of when she passed away, or this time of year for Thanksgiving, the emotional roller coaster begins. Here's the pattern:

2-3 weeks before: Excitement!!! This year, it's going to be fine! I'm older, wiser, more mature, [insert any compliment here].

1 week before: Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I'm still just a kid, and she still won't be there.

2 days before: The blues.

Day of: Totally fine.

Sounds pretty nutty, huh? It can feel that way, too. If grief comes in waves, then holidays are total riptides. Luckily, most of us have found lifesavers: friends or family member who are always there for you. Tomorrow, I'll tell you about two people who lift my spirits on Thanksgiving. For tonight, Tom Petty's my buoy. I'll just keep listening to "The Waiting" and reminding myself that by turkey time, I'll be feeling fine.

Here's a funny video of Tom Petty from the '80s! What song comforts you? Help build my playlist!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

5 things you may not know about pancreatic cancer

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, so I thought this would be a good time to fill you in on some stats.
  1. It's the #4 cancer killer in the U.S. The overall survival rate is less than 5%. I first read this stat in a computer lab in college, when my mom was sick. Later, I bawled my eyes out.
  2. The symptoms are super-sneaky. Back pain was my mom's only clue, and she tried months of physical therapy and even acupuncture before getting the right diagnosis.
  3. It spreads fast. Because the symptoms lurk so quietly, early diagnosis is rare. By the time my mom was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread from her pancreas to her liver. This meant she was no longer eligible for the only surgery that could have saved her life. (It can only be performed if the cancer hasn't spread).
  4. There's still hope. Amazing organizations like The Lustgarten Foundation and PanCAN raise money and awareness about pancreatic cancer specifically. Doctors amaze me, too. My mom saw one of the best and brightest in NYC. He always had new research, alternate therapies, and an optimistic vibe. Without him, I know my mom wouldn't have beaten her odds and lived for 2 1/2 years.
  5. Even celebs get it. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti passed away in 2007. Professor and The Last Lecture author Randy Pausch passed away this year. Actor Patrick Swayze is alive and fighting. Who cares if his pants were too tight in "Dirty Dancing"? Let's pray for him. (Right: Swayze bringing sexy back in 1989. Photo courtesy of Alan Light.)
*Note: The stats about pancreatic cancer are based on my mom's experience and research cited by The American Cancer Society, The Lustgarten Foundation, and other sources.

5 things you may not know about me

Since you're still getting to know me and my blog, I want to share these fun facts with you.
  1. I laugh a lot. My mom once called me "the girl with the laugh in her voice." College dormmates said my giggle traveled down the corridor. Even my co-worker (and close friend) Jes knows when I'm in a meeting. "What was so funny?" she'll ask me after, when I pop by her office to say hi. I usually can't even recall. Laughter has just always been my language.
  2. I play the drums. It started when I was 9 and never let up. I love the emotional and physical release it brings. You can listen to me here. (Right: Me rocking out at Arlene's Grocery!)
  3. I bite my nails. Everyone has a bad habit. This one's mine. No end in sight.
  4. I drove Bo Bice in a go-kart. Crazy things really do happen at Bonnaroo.
  5. I've never broken a bone. But I did sprain two fingers trying to kill a cockroach.
Click here to read 5 things you may not know about pancreatic cancer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Search of Praise

My mom was great at giving compliments. And it wasn't just superficial. Her praise went deeper. "Missy, you're so much more confident than I ever was." "Missy, you have such poise when you walk up on stage." "Missy, your smile lights up a room, just like Grandma Rose's used to."

Best of all was: "Missy, I'm so proud of you."

It didn't stop there. Compliments usually led to celebrations. Dinners out at Tofu, my mom's favorite Chinese restaurant. Surprises of waking up to Dunkin' Donuts chocolate croissants -- my ultimate craving as a kid. Shopping trips to pick up "a little something" from the Gap.

Hugs accompanied each milestone. Big bear hugs that smushed my face into her bosom until my muffled voice yelped, "Ma! You're suffocating me!"

So on days like today, when a nagging sense of feeling unappreciated keeps popping into my head, I yearn for her compliments. Sometimes I imagine them in my head. Other times I feel like I can really hear her voice saying them, as if she is communicating with me somehow. What I would give for one phone call. Ring, ring, and then her enthusiastic, "Hi, Miss!" Instead, I just try to sit still and listen. And eventually I can hear it.

Or I do pick up the phone. I call Laura, my best friend and most sincere cheerleader. I call my Dad, and we talk about what we're each doing that day. I call Aunt Sherry, because I know 38 minutes into the conversation she will say how much she misses my mom. Sometimes all I need to know is that someone else longs for her, too.

Who do you turn to for compliments or support? Who are your life lines?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Health Kick (& Punch)

As children, we're taught to notice our genes. I always heard: "You have your mom's smile." But no one ever wants to hear comparisons to the other genes: "You have your mom's cancer risk."

Hypochondria is hard to avoid when you've had a sick parent. I'm not a hand-sanitizer freak. But I worry. A cold turns into a pity party. Routine doctor appointments can be real nail-biters. And if something out of the ordinary pops up... well, that's when I fear my genes are cursed.

Let's face it, though: pity parties are lame.

So I made a goal last year to get fit. I started taking yoga classes. I began jogging. I ran two 5Ks and walked a half marathon. And just last week, I took a new plunge: I joined a gym. That's how I ended up spending Saturday morning at Kick & Punch -- a class that should seriously consider changing its name to Kick & Punch & Sweat.

Saturday at 10AM, my best friend Laura and I stood in a large gymnasium with 20 other women, all waiting for Kick & Punch to begin. Suddenly, "S.O.S." blasted over the loudspeaker. Our instructor, a buff woman with a bandanna, ordered us to do jumping jacks. She meant business. Soon we were kicking, punching, throwing jabs and hooks, and dancing. We even did "Karate Kid"-style crane kicks! Between huffs and puffs, Laura and I locked eyes and laughed. To make me crack up more, Laura sang along to Beyonce, Rihanna, and the rest of the pop pack. I'd shake my butt in response. Friends for 13 years can do anything together. An hour later, we were sweaty, proud, and totally empowered. (That's me and Laura in the photo!)

I never thought I'd be into gym classes. My first experience was actually with my mom, and it did not go according to plan...

When I was in high school, yoga was first becoming popular. My mom and I signed up for a class. "C'mon, it'll be fun," she said. We ended up being the only beginners. Every other woman there bent as easily and gracefully as a contortionist. My mom, always the eager student, craned her neck to see each pose. But by the time she saw it, a new move began. I sat on my mat and watched, too embarrassed to try. The worst part was the complete silence. Finally, my mom couldn't take it anymore. She snuck a look at me, caught my confused look, and a snort of suppressed laughter escaped her. This sent me into a fit of giggles. "Shhh!" the instructor reprimanded, glaring at us. This only provoked us. Suddenly, the two goody two shoes became class clowns. Choked giggles blurted out from us throughout the class. Finally, the lesson ended. We grabbed our things and ran to the car. Once inside, we burst out laughing -- and swore to never return! (Can you believe I now do yoga once a week?)

Tonight I tried another new gym class: Country Rope. That's right: jump roping to country music. At one point, we even swung our jump ropes like lassos. I don't think I'll return. Even hypochondriacs like me draw the line at a health hoedown.

What do you do to take control of your health? Tell me in the comments section below.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What is Sally's Circle?

Hi there!

It's almost midnight on Sunday, but I'm too excited to sleep. This is my first blog, and I'm so happy to share it with you.

My mom, Sally, is the inspiration for this blog. You would've loved Sally. How do I know? EVERYONE loved Sally! She had an enormous smile, the most loving heart, and all she ever wanted to do was sit and chat. In 2000, at age 57, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Most patients live less than 6 months (can you believe that?). My mom was so feisty that she fought for 2 1/2 years. Sadly, she passed away in 2002. I was 20.

Six years later, I'm still here. And, to my surprise, I'm actually pretty happy most of the time. I love my career in writing/editing. Playing drums with my indie-pop band, The Falsies, is a total thrill. And right now I'm obsessed with trying out new recipes in my straight-from-the-'50s slow cooker.

But some days are hard. Holidays get to me. Big decisions make me long for her advice. Family get-togethers feel one chair short. Even tonight, eating at a Thai restaurant with my dad and brother, I missed her chit chat. Dinners are quiet without a mom -- have you ever noticed that?

So... I bet you're wondering why it's called Sally's Circle. I'll tell you.

For my first 20 years, I was in Sally's Circle. Lucky me! I was the proud recipient of her tight-squeeze hugs, sympathetic back rubs, and loving hair strokes. Tonight, I invite you to sit at the circle. I hope by sharing my stories and coping strategies, you might feel the warmth of Sally's love. And I hope you'll share your stories with me, too.

Here's the first thing I want you to know: If it hurts now, someday it won't hurt as badly. I promise.

Thanks for the midnight rendezvous. I'm glad you're here.


Photos courtesy of Irina Kipnis