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The following is from a letter I wrote to my sons five years ago. I never published it then as I was too raw and overwhelmed at the time. I came across the email today and decided I could share it, though God knows, the danger has not passed. If anything, there have been far too many more incidents of violence since. So many that we are becoming numb. This email reminded me to remain vigilant and hold onto my sons, no matter how old they get.

Dear J and D,
Ok, this is not meant to embarrass you but I wanted to share my feelings with you …
It’s been an emotional week. The bombing in Boston, just on the heels of the Newtown tragedy, has stirred my feelings of helplessness to protect my children in this crazy world.
No matter how old your children are, when a tragedy strikes – anywhere – a mother’s first instinct is to want to hug her children, as if doing so will assure me that you are ok and that I can protect you from harm. These events prove to me that we can’t always do that and it is painful to know that you must eventually protect yourself as I won’t be here forever. And even while I am here, I can’t control random crazy peoples’ deeds. So I tried to prepare you for the world as best I could. But when unexplainable things like this happen, I feel so powerless.
Yet, in spite of it, I know there is goodness – lots of it – shown through the many acts of heroism, bravery and kindness when terror struck. And that helps maintain my faith in humanity.
But no matter what, I needed to give you a hug the moment I saw you when I came home. At least I saw with my own eyes you were safe for the moment.
I am incredibly proud of the men you have become. Sensitive, with the belief you can and will make your marks somewhere on humanity. It doesn’t take a lot to change a life.
So, live your lives fully, in spite of the naysayers and the crazy, deranged people, without fear and with compassion. And remember I am by your side, whatever path(s) you choose, and throughout your lives, whether I am here on earth or in your memories.
Love you forever.

Mom

 

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I love to write. Just as I love to make art. But it is an interesting struggle to do it. On closer inspection, both have one thing in common. Both are creative expression, and had been so stifled in childhood that it feels almost forbidden. My mother forbade me to go to art school, in spite of a teacher who advocated for my talent. Standardized tests (SATs included) measured my writing skills as paltry. So what was a young girl to do but shut down the creative instincts. From time to time I wonder what my life would have been like if I had let loose all these urges.

Despite years of therapy and self awareness, at age 63 I still fight with myself about using all the tools and supplies I’ve been able to afford. I hoard them. As any artist knows, paints and glues dry out and end up wasted if not used. Then I tell myself I have to do all my “chores” before I get to play in my well appointed studio. So it collects a lot of the junk we move out of other rooms when we clean up. And starting an art project means first having to make the space, which adds to the amout of time I need to get started. So it happens too rarely. Crazy, right?

I know it’s crazy, and I hate feeling I don’t deserve the time to create. Yet it is not only a desire to create, but a NEED. My therapists have given me strategies to “make time for art,” to put it on my calendar, and I have. But life always seems to get in the way and push it aside in favor of something more important. But is any of it really?

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There are times we think of those who have left our lives. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays and memories of special events. More often than not, it is because we have been separated by death.

My friend, who does have a living mother, and children living nearby, is hosting a bunch of her friends (me included) this Mother’s Day. I thought, “How nice. She is inviting her motherless friends to celebrate Mother’s Day.”

As I was thinking about those reopening the wounds of their departed mothers each Mother’s Day, it struck me that I DO have a living mother, yet I am in their company. I’m sure there are others who, for whatever reason, are estranged from their mothers. It’s been four years since I last spoke to mine. The separation was not my choice, but her conditions were out of the question. If I wanted to have her in my life, I’d also have to suffer the presence and influence of my younger brother, who in my mind, is pure evil. After decades of trying to keep the peace with him, and as determined as I was not to allow him to disturb me, he kept finding ways to undo whatever calm I could muster. I concluded that blood or not, I could no longer allow such negativity in my life without risking my health.

So began an estrangement that I could not understand. As a mother myself, and knowing how deeply I love my two children, I could not fathom choosing one and abandoning the other. My mother sacrificed two daughters (my sister and I) for the sake of her son. It started with me wondering, after the last standoff conversation, if she would send birthday cards to either of us. Nope. I couldn’t imagine my children’s birthdays, a celebration of when they entered my life, passing without me needing to connect with them. The bond is so strong, it is almost physical, even long after they have grown to adulthood and moved away. Yet four birthdays for each of us have come and gone with nary a call or card to acknowledge them.

Although I am not a religious person, at the beginning I invoked the serenity prayer. It gave me a framework to “Accept the things I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.” There was no other choice for my sister or me, without agreeing to be continually poisoned by the son my mother chose.

Each year it became less painful, like it does when you lose a loved one. It just catches me by surprise sometimes, that I do have a living mother out there, when I’ve been living as if she died four years ago.

 

 

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Do these words, taken in the same sentence, seem like an oxymoron? It is not.

I’ve pondered my reactions to things I read and how I respond to them. Sometimes charged up and angry; sometimes sad and maybe even weepy. I can cry at the drop of a hat; a greeting card, a thought about one of my children, frustration at not being able to solve a problem for someone I love. But no one (not even me) would argue that I am tough as nails.

To summarize my life, I have lived through enough major challenges for several lifetimes. A divorce, widowhood, a miscarriage, cheating death three times, coma, and severe pain for extended periods of times that made me beg for death. When I made those conscious or unconscious “decisions” to carry on in the face of the impossible, there were factors driving it. Twice, when on the brink of death, my children kept me alive. They were too young to be motherless, so somehow I must have willed my body to stay alive. When I was widowed at a young age, I held onto knowing that I had not yet done many things I wanted to do. Making a life with someone, having children, traveling the world. And the “normal” losses like the deaths of my father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and many, many pets.

I’ve wondered from a young age how some people seem resilient; impervious to what could be devastating to others. I’ve wondered if it is constitutional, like genetics, personality, or how much it is affected by nurture. I still wonder, as I have not figured it out.

I began this inquiry as a twenty-something-year-old, riding the bus in NYC. A young disheveled, clearly homeless and mentally ill woman spewed horrible words. It appeared she was talking to (or yelling at) an imaginary person. She was distressed and said things that made me think she had been badly abused. I wondered sadly what could have broken her. As I grew older and heard many stories of people triumphing against all odds, not merely surviving, but thriving (Oprah Winfrey). How is it that one person is so damaged that they cannot function, and another succeeds? What factors influence it?

There has been much research on resilience and books written about which factors influence it and how to develop it. But I don’t know that it is something we can quite “bottle.” The human being is such a complex bundle of biology, genetics and environmental influence that no two are alike. No matter what we discover, it will not entirely explain the various outcomes, given similar, even the same inputs.

So for now, I will have to settle for feeling fortunate be resilient, whatever that means.

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Our annual trip to Maine was up in the air. Should I go so far from my medical team (8-10 hours by car)? If not, should my husband go for his much deserved vacation and leave me home alone? How would cars be juggled? Would I see my west coast son if I didn’t go? All these questions had to be considered. I had already cancelled my teaching obligations and gave up any possibility of attending any art classes myself – two of the things I look forward to each year.

As we approached the weekend we would leave, I felt good enough to chance it. We planned only one week, rather than our usual two, to hedge our bets. Being in the woods, sitting on a screened porch overlooking a lake was just what the doctor ordered. I spent little time in the kitchen. My boys and their friend cooked and we went out to dinner. I even ate a 2.5 lb. soft shell lobster!

The healing power of family and nature is certain. I was out of bed all day (albeit resting and sitting a lot). When I got back home, I was able to be out of bed, doing things around the house, food shopping, laundry, etc., before tiring.

Now that I feel some recovery is occurring, I need to face the rest of the journey: another surgery in the risky zone and a minor one to complete the mastectomy/ reconstruction process. But I have survived this nearly one-year nightmare and feel almost human again, and that counts for something.

This portion of the experience is being wrapped up with this post. If I write any more about related subsequent events, they will stand on their own. Thank you for sharing my journey with me.

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My cousin’s favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, and we shared the holiday with her and her husband for many years. This year, she was in the midst of packing to move and I wasn’t travelling, so we endeavored to have Thanksgiving at our house, even though I wouldn’t be able to assist in preparations. Our family, cousins and sister’s family chipped in on the cooking and cleanup to make a beautiful Thanksgiving feast. And to my utter delight, I was able to take my first bites of food beginning that week. Thanksgiving was particularly poignant as we all were so grateful for my survival and beginning recovery. Recovery began and proceeded, marked by small advances through December and January. One drain out; then another. First shower. First food after months of IV feeding. Weight gain (I had lost 15 lbs.) Walking further. Driving. Pain lessening. I scheduled the prophylactic mastectomy for June, sure I would be well enough to have the next surgery in seven months.

To be continued . . . . . .

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After a month in the ICU, I was moved to the surgical floor, where I spent the second month recuperating. Still hooked up to many drains, tubes, suction devices and food being administered by IV, I was unable to eat anything by mouth. I passed the time binge watching old TV shows. I was only just able to focus my eyes after all the anesthesia left me out of focus for weeks. On October 18th, the wonderful hospital staff secretly made and hung banners to throw me a 60th birthday party in my room, in lieu of the dinner I was supposed to be having in Lyon, France. My sister, nieces, sons, husband and cousins came bearing gifts (no cake) and got me outside for a breath of fresh air on a beautiful fall day.

The chief of the rehabilitation floor came twice to assess my ability to handle the necessary amount of rehab. Both times she said I was not a candidate, as I could not cope with the amount of rehab they require for admission to their unit. Their suggestion was to receive rehab at a nursing home. Only one would take patients on parental (IV) feeding. I steadfastly refused the option. I wasn’t leaving the hospital until I could go home. I had several unplanned physical therapy sessions when the staff had the time to fit me in. They started by standing me up. Next time I used a walker in my room to take a few steps. After several days I could shuffle to the to the bathroom myself! Then I ventured into the hall with my walker. The next day I used the cane. The day after, I walked once around the floor only holding my IV pole. Then another lap, and another, day by day.

The last thing standing between me and my home was being able to walk up 10 steps so I could enter my house. I asked the physical therapist to take me to the stairwell to practice. I pulled myself up those steps – and kept going, forgetting I had to also come down. Twenty steps. I could do it. Suddenly, talk of a nursing home ceased. I was going to be able to go directly home!

Still unable to take in anything by mouth, I was sent home on Halloween with a central line for IV feeding and antibiotics. Drains and tubes came along too, but at last I would be in my own bed after two long months! It was both exhilarating and scary to be removed from the care I still depended on. Visiting nurses and infusion specialists set me up with home care, teaching both my husband and I how to manage the feedings and medications. It was hard to be in a home environment and unable to participate in the usual activities: showers, meals, outside activities, social visits. At times, the hours were endless. My husband became nurse and provider, a job he did with amazing grace and care.

To be continued . . . . . .

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