Standing In The Fire

Last night I had the most terrifying dream that I was in the kitchen cooking and a fire started, and it just kept spreading and spreading until I was entirely surrounded. I was YELLING for help, but my family didn’t hear me. They were all in the next room.

That is what grief feels like.

There have been times in my life when a friend confided something shocking to me that I didn’t know how to deal with, and I handled it poorly. When I was 15 and away at boarding school, my best friend back home got pregnant. She informed me via a handwritten letter that was delivered under my dorm room door, because it was 1995 and that’s how things were done before the internet.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do or how to process the thought of becoming a mother when we didn’t even have a license to drive. I’m pretty sure whatever my response was, it sucked. Just like when my high school friend called one day in July to tell me that he was gay. GAY?! I didn’t know anyone who was gay. I stammered and mumbled and got off the phone as fast as I could, because I didn’t know how to be with him in his fire.

I sucked.

These are the things I think of as I grapple with grief over the fact that we don’t know how much time my mother has left. It could be years. It could be days. No one can tell us for sure, because cancer is fucked up and unpredictable and incurable. And I am here, in this fire, burning. Seeing people fidget and stammer because they don’t know what to say because grief is uncomfortable. Death is uncomfortable. Dealing with loss when no one has died is a strange thing that isn’t easily explained.

fire

My sons, November 2014

Yesterday I ran into someone I haven’t seen in a long time. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just really love them and you don’t even know why? Well, there is a lady named Virginia that I feel that way about. I LOVE VIRGINIA.

She asked me a question — “How is your mom doing?” — and really asked it. She wanted me to tell her the truth. Most people might think they want to know the truth, until you start to tell them and they realize how horrible the truth is and they get weird and then you feel even worse because not only are you carrying around this emotional weight, but now you’ve gone and made someone else uncomfortable with it, too.

When Virginia asks a question, she expects an answer. And when I tried to glaze it over, she stopped me. She wouldn’t let me glaze it over. She stood with me, in my anger and in my grief. Do you know how rare that is, for us to stop our lives momentarily to really connect with another human, and stand with them in their mess?

I needed that.

The world needs more Virginias.

What I didn’t know in 1995, but certainly realize now, is that all people really need is for others to genuinely acknowledge their suffering … even if it’s impossible to extinguish the fire that’s causing it.

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Focusing On What Is Good.

I haven’t written much lately because the things I have to say aren’t fun or happy and that’s a real drag.

I don’t like to be a downer. I like to be an upper. I said this recently to a very wise woman who replied, “Well, sometimes you can’t choose.”

That’s true. Sometimes, you can’t.

If I’m being honest — and I am, because my writing is based on honesty — this has been a tough year for my family. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and then my uncle was murdered in my childhood home. If that sounds crazy, it’s because IT IS. Every dysfunctional facet of my extended family that I was dimly aware of, but mostly shielded from, rained down on me in the span of about three days. If there was ever a time that I COULD NOT EVEN, IT’S NOW.

I keep waiting for things to get less difficult, but they don’t — in fact, they continue to get harder. That doesn’t seem right. Life shouldn’t get harder the older you get, but it does.

However, as our difficulties increase we get better at navigating the bullshit. We put up boundaries and become more comfortable saying “I’m not okay with that,” or “You are not allowed to do that to me,” or “You are not welcome in my home.” As life gets harder, WE GET BETTER.

We get better.

It’s like parenting. We don’t give birth to a child in the throes of the terrible two’s — we start out with a mewling newborn and it feels like the hardest thing we have ever done. But then they start crawling and running and fighting back when you’re desperately trying to cram them into car seats and grocery carts, and again you think to yourself: this is the hardest thing I have ever done.

You find yourself thinking that every time you face down a new problem or situation that taxes your spirit. But remembering all of the other hard things you have surmounted — the colic, the endless nights, the tantrums, the failures made right — gets you through it.

That is how I am looking at my life right now. I will get through it, because I have made it through a lot of other hard things.

But it’s still really hard.

When life outside of these four walls becomes overwhelming, I turn inward and focus my attention on my people. They make me forget the bad and focus on the good.

There’s a lot of both, but I’d rather focus on the good. And there is so, so much of it.

my people

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Going Nuts

Maverick is now at the age where he quietly listens to grown up conversations. He doesn’t jump up and down screaming. He doesn’t try to talk over us. He doesn’t interrupt every 5 seconds. He doesn’t pull on my leg and yell “MOMMY!” the whole time. He doesn’t throw tantrums.

He’s 7 now. I like 7.

My son is a joy.

It was hard getting to this place. It took years for me to learn how to be the mother that he needed. I didn’t understand what I was dealing with and I made a lot of mistakes, but we learned and failed and apologized — together. Because just like he needed to be taught self-control, I did too. And just like he needed to be taught to listen, so did I.

And now we’re here, just enjoying the feeling of not drowning.

Last weekend, I took Maverick with me to my parent’s house to see family that was visiting from out of town. We all talked for hours, forgetting he was there. He sat and listened intently, his big hazel eyes shining with interest. Every once in awhile I stopped and watched him, relishing how grown up he is.

My mom has cancer, and while discussing her treatment options with us she mentioned that she definitely would NOT be taking a particular kind of medication because it might make her, and I quote, “act like a squirrel.”

Me: “What do you mean, ACT LIKE A SQUIRREL?”

My mom: “It might make me think I’m a squirrel. Like I’d want to climb trees and hoard acorns.”

Me: “I … I don’t understand.”

(Pulls out phone to Google medication name + “squirrel-like behavior.”)

My mom: “I don’t understand it either, but all I know is that I will NOT be going that treatment route.”

My dad later explained that when the doctor mentioned to my mom that this treatment might make her act “squirrelly” he interpreted it to mean that it might make her crazy. The unpredictable, irreversible, no-cure-for-it kind. So maybe she might end up thinking she was a squirrel, but most likely it would either make her cancer-free, or crazy. She’s not willing to take any chances when it comes to her sanity, so she struck that option from the list.

I can’t say I blame her.

On the way home, Maverick asked a million questions from the backseat about Grandma becoming a squirrel.

Fast forward a few days and I find these sitting on the kitchen counter.

Hoarding acorns just in case.

Hoarding acorns just in case.

“I’m collecting acorns for Grandma,” Maverick said. “Just in case she goes squirrelly.”

The best thing about 7 is that this newfound grown up behavior is tempered by innocence and fun. I told him I’d start a collection bowl for the nuts he gathers during the day.

Just in case.

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