Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What 9/11 teaches us about grief

This morning, like many Americans, I watched as the names of those who were killed on September 11, 2001 were read on the morning news. Last year I refused to watch the ceremony, frustrated that we were expected to grieve in the same way, year after year.
"Our grief evolves… shouldn’t our ceremonies evolve too?" I vented to my friend Ester Bloom, who had lost her father to pancreatic cancer, as I had lost my mother.

This year I decided to watch the 9/11 ceremony, partially as research. In the memoir I’m writing, I—coincidentally—just wrote the chapter that takes place on September 11, 2001. At the time, I was a college student at Syracuse University, naive to the world of politics and terrorism, but already entrenched in the world of loss, knowing my mom was battling a terminal illness that only a pure miracle would cure, a disease that would kill her nearly a year later. I wanted to see the ceremony to jog my memory from that time.

Instead, I found myself tearing up as the names were read. It was the readers themselves who shook me. Young children who appeared to be around 5 or 7 years old read the names of strangers in poised, careful voices, then told of the loved one who they never met—a grandpa, an uncle. One man spoke about his father-in-law, a man he only knew through stories and memories. That could be Mark, I thought, my husband who never got to meet Sally.

The ceremony had evolved, I realized. It’s now told through the eyes of a new generation—the children and people who enter our lives, bringing new life to comfort our loss.

The original mourners—those who lost spouses, siblings, and parents—noted that although it’s been 12 years, they remember that person every day. Last year I wasn’t ready to see their ongoing grief. I’d gotten married ten days earlier, and after counting the years I’d spent grieving, I decided enough was enough. I deserved to finally be happy. But this year I realized that the voices of the bereaved are important. They teach us that grief has no deadline, that although the loss is less painful, the missing and the memories stay. And in that way we never forget—because it's our life’s great honor to remember them.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Admittedly late to the Zach Sobiech story, yet humbled just the same

I’m admittedly late to the Zach Sobiech story, yet humbled just the same by the teenage boy who spread music and happiness despite his terminal diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that took his life on May 20.

While Zach’s hit song “Clouds” attracted people to his story, and eventually lured BMI to sign him to their label, another song of his hit home for me. “Fix Me Up,” sung by Zach and his bandmate Sammy Brown, expresses his devastation at having to leave, and her despair at being left behind. “One more moment please,” her haunting refrain, broke my heart.

What would any of us give for one more moment? 

And yet, in dreams, when I reunite with my mom, they’re not filled with hugs, or amazement at seeing one another again, or catch-ups of our lives. Even asleep, I’m too busy trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy, as to not let on to her that she’s dead/dying. The same way she was too out of it, and we were too scared of upsetting her, to tell her she was dying back then. 

Zach was a teenager dying, the same way I was a teenager when my mom was dying. Yet he and his family embraced saying goodbye, saying I love you, admitting it was the end.

Our goodbye was slightly more subtle. I crawled into Mom’s hospital bed and lay beside her, resting my cheek on her chest. I tried to hide my tears. 

“You’re a good kid, Miss,” she said.

“You’re a good mom, Mom,” I said. 

Sending much love to Zach’s family and friends in their time of grief and healing. You’re a good family, Sobiechs. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A motherless daughter on Mother's Day

Walking home last night, taking the long route to prepare myself for Mother’s Day weekend, I spotted a copy of “Motherless Daughters” outside of a used bookstore.

The copy on my bookshelf is actually… stolen. Desperate for help as a college student, I saw a pastor for therapy. He wasn’t a good fit for a nice Jewish gal like me, but offered to let me borrow the book from the church’s library. I never saw him again, and he never saw the book again. Though I like to think he knows it’s in good hands.

Turns out that the book was my therapy. Dozens of stories from girls just like me, who’d lost their mothers and were trying to recover. Those women brought me such comfort and confirmed that my life would go on, eventually happily.

Passing the bookstore last night, I tried to imagine the person who sold it. Was it a symbol  that they’d moved on? What did it mean that I still need mine on my shelf, like a dear friend I’d never abandon?

This Mother’s Day is different from the last 10 years of motherless Mother’s Day. This year I have mothers: my stepmom, Mark’s mom, and Mark’s stepmother. I’ll celebrate tomorrow with my stepmom and the rest of the family, and it’ll be a wonderful day.

But on this rainy day, I’m missing talking to my own mother… because sometimes that’s just how it is.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I did it: I bought Mother’s Day cards

After a decade of avoiding the card aisle in May, I did it: I bought Mother’s Day cards. Inspired by two friends who are celebrating their very first Mother’s Day with adorable infant daughters by their sides. And blessed this year to have a stepmom and two mother-in-laws by my side. I thought it would take having kids of my own to make this holiday joyful, but I’m already feeling the love.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

As soon as I heard about the book, The End of Your Life Book Club, I wanted to read it. I sometimes judge books by their covers, but I always judge books by their titles—and this was an intriguing title.

Reading the summary, I learned that the book was meant to be read by me. The author, Will Schwalbe, a book publishing maven, writes this memoir about his experiences of being in a book club with his mother, who is dying of pancreatic cancer.

I felt an automatic kinship to Will, the way I do to anyone who has lost a parent. I pictured Will and I seated across from one another at a diner, tea and toast between us, sharing a knowing look.

But as I continued to read the book, I found myself rooting against Will. I was mad that he was in his 40s, compared to my 20, when his mom was dying, and that his mom was 75 to my mom’s 59. I was mad that his mom was a saint, building libraries in Afghanistan and raising refugees in her home, whereas my mom was a small-town saint, teaching special ed children in Queens. I was mad that he’d had an editorial profession and the wherewithal to recognize their experience as a book early on and capture the detailed memories necessary to bring a story to life. I was mad at him for having a book to hand to anyone at any time and say “Here. This is what I went through, and this is how special and remarkable my mother was.”

As I neared the end of the novel, my jealousy reached an ugly peak: I wanted my mom to have lived longer. My mom had survived 2.5 years with pancreatic cancer—a miracle for a disease known to massacre people in 3 to 6 months. As Will’s mom’s health declined after 18 months, I felt a sense of relief. He’d won at everything else; at least I had this. 

Immediately, I felt ashamed. I pictured us again at that diner, the toast and knowing look shared between us. How could I brag that I’d trumped him? We were both on the same team, regardless of age and career status and how long or short we’d had with our moms. On the team of loss, we are all created equal. If this blog has taught me anything, isn’t it that?

So I’m sorry, Will, for thinking such cruel thoughts, despite loving your story and characters wholeheartedly. I will take you to the diner anytime—my treat.

P.S. Sally's Circle is now on Tumblr: and Twitter: Come follow me there!

Monday, April 1, 2013

My wedding day

In times of great sadness, you may fear that you’ll never smile or laugh again. Here’s proof that you will.