Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's not easy being seen

OK. So I know I'm a "blogger" and I'm supposed to feel comfortable in the public eye. But I'm going to let you in on a secret: Some days it's tough to put myself out there. Today was one of those days.

I guest-blogged on Glamour.com today (see it here). All day I felt so proud. 17 thoughtful comments! Triple my typical Sally's Circle traffic! And so many people congratulating and complimenting little old me.

But at 7PM, as I turned off the light in my office and entered the chilly city streets, ice cold tears fell onto my cheeks. I can't fully explain why. But I'll try...

Sometimes I wish I were an expert on something other than grief. I dream of being an expert on juggling or knitting or flying kites. Imagine if I could write to you all day about kites. OK, I guess that would be a frivolous way to spend my hours.

But now that writing about grief is becoming part of my "job," when do I get to leave this "work" at the "office"? What about the days when I don't want to grieve? What about the days when I don't want to relive my loss? When does writing about grief become a way of prolonging my grief and dragging me back into a painful area of my past when part of me is ready to move on?

Remind me that it's therapeutic. Remind me that it's important. Remind me that I'm meant to write a book about this experience.

Most of all, remind me that it means something to you.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mommy, I have the sniffles

I caught a cold.

Blame it on the cold-then-warm January weather, the fact that I can't resist hugging friends even when they're sick, or the suspicious commonality that my boyfriend Mark got the sniffles at exactly the same time I did. Who gave it to whom? Who knows?! Either way, the two of us have been nose-blowing comrades all weekend.

Misery does indeed love company. I tend to get bummed out when I'm sick (does that happen to you?), but Mark's companionship has definitely lifted my spirits -- much like Sally's care used to.

When I was sick as a kid, my mom used to stay home from work to take care of me. She would always make Lipton's Chicken Noodle Soup. I know it's just a package, but it really tasted so good just because she made it.

Since the soup wouldn't be the same without her, this weekend I made my own version of mom's meals. I ordered in Chinese food (a favorite meal from Sally's kitchen, as explained in a previous post) and tried to cure my cold with Hot & Sour Soup. I drank mug after mug of tea, not Lemon Soother (her favorite) but some of my favorites: Raspberry Ginger, Indian Chai, Hibiscus. And today I made a huge pot of hearty, soul-warming Turkey Corn Chili (see the Rachael Ray recipe here). Chili is actually a favorite from Bill's kitchen -- my dad.

Now I'm off to finish watching Pirates of the Caribbean 2, take a big shot of Nyquil, and snuggle up to Mr. Sniffles (aka Mark). Wish us a speedy recovery!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thinking back: How to deal with finding out your parent has cancer

I've been working on the first two chapters of my book, which focus on my mom's diagnosis. My mom, Sally, found out she had pancreatic cancer on January 13, 2000. Nine years have passed, but I still remember that day so well. I don't think my family will ever forget it.

If you (or someone you know) has recently been faced with the diagnosis of a loved one, here are some bits of advice that might help.

1- Listen up.
When you're receiving traumatic news, it's easy to zone out or get so panicked that you don't really listen. When my mom told us the news, I was so stunned that I barely remember what was said -- except, of course, for the scariest part: that she might have only 2 months to live. I was so obsessed with that 2-month deadline that I wasn't as hopeful or supportive as she needed me to be. Meanwhile, she ended up living for 2 1/2 years.

2. Question everything.
Being skeptical may sound like a form of denial (and, OK, it might be), but it's also part of being a smart patient. Even if the first doctor's diagnosis seems accurate, encourage your loved one to get a second opinion. Sally's first doctor gave her 2 months to live, but when she saw a pancreatic cancer specialist in NYC, he told her he had methods that kept patients alive for up to 10 years. That's a huge difference. Additionally, be skeptical of info or stats you find on the Internet. If you read something that worries you, ask mom or dad to consult the doctor about it.

3. Be there.
Whether you're scared out of your mind or numb to it all (or both, as I was), try your hardest to be available to the person who has been diagnosed. Amplify your own feelings times a million, and that's what the patient is feeling. In Sally's case, I felt closest to her and most proud of myself when I was able to really and truly be there for her -- even if it was only to bring her a cup of tea and a hug.

4. Open up.
Family members, relatives, and friends will want to be there for you. Let them. Talking about the situation may be hard, but feeling alone only makes it worse. Here's another plus: the connections you make during this time may last a lifetime. When I think about my closest circle of friends and family, they're all people who reached out to me and made sure I was OK. I'm forever lucky to have them.

5. Get help.

Therapy still has a negative connotation for lots of people. Guess what? It's not just the crazies who need someone to talk to. It's all of us. While my mom was sick and after she passed away, I saw several therapists and social workers who really helped me tremendously. It's easier to find one than you think. You can ask your general physician for a recommendation or call your insurance company and ask for providers in your area. Or, if you're uninsured or looking for other affordable therapy options, you can call local universities (they often provide lower rates) or Google around for therapists in your area who offer rates on a sliding scale.

Please pass this to anyone you think it might help. Especially if a friend is going through this, you might not know what to say to comfort him/her. I hope Sally's Circle can bring them comfort.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

You gotta have girlfriends

I once asked my mom why she needed to talk on the phone for hours to her friend, Rona. After all, I reasoned, she had Daddy to talk to.

"You can't talk to your husband about eeeverything," she said. "That's what girlfriends are for."

Well, looks like I learned from the pro. Friday nights have been unofficially declared as Girls Night for quite some time now. Whether Laura rushes into the city on the LIRR, or Jes and Sarah and Rachel and I meet up for Thai, or my 4 girl cousins and I order in sushi at Deena's Lower East Side apartment, the week ends -- and the weekend begins -- with my favorite ladies by my side.

We chat about the work week, the plane that crashed into the Hudson, why they bothered to bring back Denny from the dead on Grey's Anatomy, and which shoes really go best with a navy dress at a very winter wedding -- where I'll be heading tomorrow night.

Cold weather may make you dream of cuddling with someone special. But don't forget about your girlfriends. They bring a different kind of warmth. And then the chill ain't so bad.

Goodnight, my friends.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Top 5 little things moms say to comfort kids

5. "There, there."

4. "Everything'll be okay."

3. "I love you."

2. "I know."

1. [Hug]

Sometimes I tell these things to myself when I have the blues, and they make me feel better.

What little things did/does your mom say to comfort you?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jump, Missy, jump

I've always developed later in life. Sometimes by minutes, sometimes by years.

My cousins have a phrase for it: "Jump, Missy, jump!" Let me explain. Rewind to my cousin Susi's 2nd birthday party. On the home video taken that day, you see Susi and all the other kids jumping up and down in a circle. Camera pans to 2-year-old Missy (as my family calls me). Instead of jumping with the other kids, Missy's gazing at the yet-to-be-eaten chocolate cake. A moment later, all the kids stop jumping. Suddenly, Missy starts jumping up and down. All by herself.

Always a little behind. Always a little too late.

Even now, at 26, I'm still sometimes behind. This weekend was spent with my two closest friends from college: Katie and Linda. Katie just got engaged and is inches away from buying her first house. Linda had a beautiful wedding last summer. I love the happiness they each have found, and I'm so excited for their big events. So I say this not in jealousy (I promise, girls!), but in surprise of myself, at my own unreadiness.

Always a little behind. Always a little too late.

Timing is everything, they say. Katie likes to compare life to a highway. Some speed by in the fast lane, some travel right at speed limit, others stay in the slow lane. I admit it: I'm a Sunday driver. I keep my hands on 10 and 2 and proceed with caution. I wear my seat belt. I go slow.

Always a little behind. Always a little too late.

The thing is, I know I'll get there. I always do. I just wonder how to take such a big step into adulthood without my mom. I've already made some imaginary plans for whenever that day may come. I've booked Aunt Sherry for dress shopping. And there are several other "adopted moms" who would help: Aunt Christine and Aunt Max, my best friend Laura's mom, my dad's girlfriend Susan. Plus, my dad's been Mr. Mom (and done an amazing job at it) for quite some time now. I've got plenty of people on my side. Just one person who can't be: Sally.

Do you have any "substitutes" in your circle? Someone special who has stepped up for events big or small?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Did you see Patrick Swayze on Barbara Walters?

Hi there, midnight vultures.

Were you up late watching Patrick Swayze on the Barbara Walters special? I was.

Here's the background. A little over a year ago, actor Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- the same disease Sally had. As always with this awful disease, the outlook for the "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing" star wasn't good. In fact, recent rumors said he had 5 weeks to live.

Well, if you saw him tonight, he sure doesn't look like a man on death row. Unlike most chemo patients, he has a full head of hair. (And yes, ladies, it's still those dreamy waves you remember.) But it's not just the hair that makes him seem healthy. It's him. Cancer has fired him up. He's full of anger at the disease, frustration with chemo, love for his wife, and passion for his acting career (he just filmed 13 episodes of a new TV show called "Beast" -- can you believe it?). Watch the YouTube video clip and you'll see his range of emotions. It's incredible to watch.

Saddest of all was the obvious, overflowing love between Swayze and his wife, Lisa. Married for 33 years, this couple fell in love at first sight and have been in love ever since. Videos from their youth show them dancing together, and they said recently they danced in their kitchen together. Barbara asked Lisa if she has pictured life without him. I thought of my poor dad watching the show alone at home. I wanted to hug him. He couldn't picture life without Sally either. But sometimes, as Lisa said on the show tonight, "life just happens."

A great quote came out of the show. Barbara showed the closing scene from "Ghost," where Swayze's character has to return to heaven. He looks at Demi Moore, tears streaming down her cheeks, and says, "It's amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you." In my experiences, that's true on both ends. I know my mom took all our love for her with her to heaven. And I know we still have all her love here on Earth. That's the thing that doesn't die.

As for the rumors about Swayze's prognosis... who knows? Swayze says he's ready to keep fighting as long as his quality of life is worthwhile. "I'll have you back on the show in 5 years," Walters challenged him. "I'll be there," Patrick said assuredly, then calmly, "or I won't."

Do you think celebrities like Patrick Swayze and Barbara Walters can help lead more research and a cure for pancreatic cancer? What are other ways non-celebs like us can help?

I'm selling my drumset

I'm selling my drumset. It's true. I keep repeating the phrase so that I'll believe it.

Oh yeah. And I quit my band.

The truth is, my priority in 2009 is you. Writing this blog and working on my book are my New Year's resolutions. It's what I need to do to fully heal.

So I quit my band, The Falsies, who I've played with for 3 1/2 years. And now I'm selling my drumset, the shiny black Tama Swingstar 5-piece set that I've wreaked havoc on for the past 8 years. I posted it on Craigslist and several dudes (of course they're guys, most drummers are) have already contacted me about it.

Here's the fascinating thing: drums don't depreciate in value. I bought the set in 2001, and now, 8 years later, I can sell it for nearly the same price. Drums are sturdy. They can take a beating. I've hit through heads, cracked a ride cymbal, scuffed off the black paint. And still, it continues to play as gorgeously as before.

So how did 5'2, 115 pound little 'ole me start playing? One word: Jordan. My brother played the drums, and I wanted to do everything he did. So I started playing at age 9. Now I'm 26. Do the math, and you'll see I've been playing for 17 years.

I know what you must be thinking: our poor parents. But they both loved it. Mom would sautée shrimp while I banged around cluelessly. "Dinner!" she'd call. "That sounded great!" she'd rave when I came up from the basement. She was our biggest fan.

I went beyond the basement. From the school band to private lessons, my love for drumming only grew when I started playing in bands with friends. My band in college brought a new level of recording CDs, playing at venues, and even going on an international tour (OK, it was the U.S and Canada, but still!).

Actually, my college band was what prompted my parents to buy me this drumset as a Hanukkah present. It was the last Hannukah present my mom ever bought me; she died that following August.

Aside from the "cool" factor, drumming has always been a physical and emotional outlet. Pounding on drums meant releasing pent-up emotions, communicating wordlessly, crying without tears, and proving women can do anything a man can.

Now, by selling my set, I am admitting that a part of an era of my life is over. I do hope I will buy another set and play with another band one day. But who knows?

Have you ever given up something you love in order to make room for something new? How did you cope? Did you ever pick up that hobby again?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Keepsakes and memories

Hi, friends.

Over the weekend, in an attempt to start the new year with a tidy apartment, I finally went through 4 brown bags of my mother's books.

Sally was quite the reader. When I was a kid, her favorite spot was curled up in bed, two pillows propped behind her, reading a book. Around 9PM I'd bring up her favorite beverage: Lemon Soothers tea with honey and a wedge of fresh lemon. Settling the mug on a pink Kleenex coaster, she'd smile at me and then turn back to Tuesdays with Morrie or the newest smutty novel from Danielle Steel. Occasionally I'd bring a book upstairs and hijack Dad's side of the bed, eager to snuggle beside her.

But these 4 bags didn't include Morrie or Danielle. These were my mom's books from her 20s. How do I know? On the front flap of each book she wrote her maiden name and NYC west village apartment. The collection was a strange mix: trashy '70s romance, classic poetry, Jewish fiction, and female anatomy 101.

My question to you: What do I do with my mother's books? Will holding onto her books help me hold onto my mother? Or is it just paper bound together, collecting dust on a shelf, better suited for Salvation Army than for offering me any salvation? Do we need keepsakes to remember the dead?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year from Sally's Circle

Hi there. Happy 2009!

I'm sorry I haven't written in the past week. I spent the Christmas holiday in Colorado with my boyfriend Mark's family, which was fun and relaxing. Then, the new year swooped in, and suddenly here we are on January 1, 2009. Can you believe it?

Reflecting on the past year, I'm in awe of the healing powers of Sally's Circle. Last night at a New Year's Eve dinner party, a friend spotted me chatting on my cell phone and mouthed, "Are you on the phone with your mom?" Instantly remembering my situation, she began apologizing profusely. I was surprised to find her comment didn't upset me. Ever since I started this blog, I feel like my mom is with me. Rather than lament her physical absence, I'm able to appreciate her spiritual presence. I used to think that was hokey bullshit. Now I realize how much peace it brings me.

I usually make 20+ resolutions. This year I've narrowed it down to two:

1. Write a book. While that may seem like a big feat, it's a project I've been working on for 7 years! When my mom was sick with pancreatic cancer, the two of us decided to write a book together about how her illness changed our relationship. This year I hope to finally complete it and find a publisher. Wish me luck!

2. Continue writing this blog (obviously!). So many wonderful people have commented, emailed, and shared their thoughts on grief, loss, and the uncanny ability to keep smiling through it all. I hope Sally's Circle continues to bring comfort (for you and me) in the coming year.

What's your New Year's resolution?