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