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Archive for the ‘Personal growth’ Category


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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Some time has passed. I’ve had writer’s paralysis. Depression? Check. Pain? Check. Lack of motivation? Check. “Write about it,” people said. “It’s therapeutic.” The words just didn’t come.

September of 2015 brought yet an additional surgery that began another cycle of despair. Six months of living in a Connecticut hospital, waiting for the fistula that was left behind by the surgery to “fix” things, to heal – to no avail. Whatever pleasures I might have had to keep me going were taken. The caring surgeon, clearly frustrated that he couldn’t do more, struggled along with me to know what to do next. Tick tock went the clock. The weeks became months before a frank discussion moved toward finding a more experienced doctor who took on difficult cases. My doctor found a world class doctor in NY who could do it; he would fix this problem and life would finally go on.

But it didn’t. Even he professed he did all he could and suggested yet a higher level of care. Another month, another hospital, another doctor, also “world class.” “Yes, I’ll take the case,” he said. Another surgery; more pain; more time slithering away. A temporary fix; an interim step, perhaps to a more complicated end solution I am not ready to entertain. But this one, we hope, enough to get me home for a stretch, to live half a life. Half is better than none, right?

So I prepare to go home after 8 months of confinement with limited pleasures restored for a time, to take care of the unfinished business of living. It is a mixed bag. Just as the convict about to be released after a long confinement, who lived miserably but knew what to expect. So too, it is with me. The fear of the unknown. Being more than a nurse call button away from help. Being in a different state than my medical teams. And feeling like such a burden to my husband, who has never uttered a word of being burdened, rather expressing nothing but utter happiness that I will be coming home.

This journey is a long one but it is my hope there will be something at the end worth waiting for. Just normal, boring, everyday life is all I’m asking.

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“Gratitude” is becoming a cliche. Everybody’s talking about it. “It will heal you,” they say. “Letting go of the negativity prevents cancer,” shouts the Internet. Even doctors are saying taking time to count your blessings is good for your health. Is this just a passing fad, or is there something to it?

I did a Google search on “Gratitude’s healing power.” There are about 998,000 hits. Wow, there must be something to it, even if the Internet is not the source of scientific material. But wait, there are hits from respectable sites like Harvard University, the Georgia Psychological Association, The NY Times, A PhD professor from University of California, Davis, WEB MD, the National Institute of Health. What do they know that some people don’t?

I’m no scientist but I have a degree worthy of being able to analyze whether a study is reliable. I know how to judge whether the population studied is large enough, diverse enough (or not, depending on the study), the variables were controlled, the methods used in the study, and I understand basic statistics. But I also trust my gut – A LOT!

I know that when I feel grateful, I feel good. It’s THAT simple. We encounter so many negative, energy-sucking people in every walk of life, and it seems to cut across every socio-economic group. I’ve met wealthy people who have everything, including great support networks, etc., who just feel they are always lacking. And some of the very seriously-down-on-their-luck people, that I had the privilege of serving lunch to at the soup kitchen, were joyous and grateful for the simple meal and my company.

Many neuroscientists studied brain activity under conditions of gratitude and observed positive brain activity. Biological markers like immune system function, sleep patterns, blood pressure, etc., were positively affected in grateful people.

So without further ado, I give you the short list of things I am grateful for, even though I was just diagnosed with a genetic defect that will throw my next few months into turmoil.

1. A supportive and loving husband and life partner, who loyalty never wavers.
2. My two sons, who are beautiful human beings and bring me joy beyond explanation.
3. Friends and family members who offer meals, rides, errands, and check in on me to make sure I’m OK.
4. Co-workers who didn’t bat an eye even though my absence will mean they have to work later or harder.
5. Access to the finest surgeons, who were able to respond to my needs very quickly.
6. An upcoming 60th birthday trip to France, in between operations, to rest and recharge.
7. A lovely and comfortable home.
8. The ability to buy the food I want and need to nourish me and protect my health.
9. Two dogs to cuddle with and love.
10. Any art supplies and tools I need to express my creativity.

LIFE IS GOOD!

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Warning: Some people may be offended by what seems like a flippant attitude about grave matters but I can assure you I have a healthy, realistic grip on reality.

I was a 32 year old widow. I had just lost my husband to cancer. He was 36 years old. That’s pretty tragic. It’s nothing to laugh at, for sure. So why were my best friend and I laughing hysterically? We got together for one of our breakfast meetings as we planned and plotted to perhaps open a business or something like that. We got to talking about men (don’t female gatherings always lead to that?). We were talking about whether we had left most of the men we had relationships with, or had they left us. I said I instinctively knew if they were about to leave, so I would leave first. So no, no men had left me. “Unless you count Ray (my deceased husband), but does that count?”

We erupted into such shrieks of laughter, everyone in the restaurant turned around to see what was so funny. All they saw was two crazy women with tears running down their cheeks. We would finally gain control, look at each other and erupt again into wails of hysteria.

Granted, you can’t say these kinds of things to just anyone. Some would have you committed for such an “inappropriate” reaction to such a sad thing. But, is it inappropriate?

Humor is a very powerful coping mechanism. I often say if I didn’t have a sense of humor (however macabre at times) I wouldn’t even be alive today. I’ve had more challenges in one life than a whole tribe usually has combined (see last post). So, when a little crack opens up in the dark cloud of any situation, I crack funny, “inappropriate jokes” or laugh at those of others. But never at the expense of someone else.

Most recently, my husband and I were waiting in the surgeon’s exam room, waiting to discuss plans for removing my reproductive parts. We started talking about what comes after that, which is going to be a prophylactic mastectomy with reconstruction. My husband, in typical fashion, started his 20 question routine. “How do they do….? Are they going to do ……?” Of course, I didn’t know anything yet, since THAT appointment is next Monday. He asked me how they remove breast tissue. I told him that all I know is that there are several techniques. The one used for me will depend on my unique situation, the surgeon, and maybe some of my preferences, if I am lucky to have more than one option. He asked (stop here if you are squeamish or don’t like crude humor), “If they have to remove the nipples, do you just not have them anymore?” I explained that from what I have read, they use tattoos to recreate a natural appearance. I said, “So instead of ‘tit for tat,’ it will be ‘tats for tits!” We erupted into laughter, coming in waves, settling down, then roaring all over again when we looked at each other. In such a quiet environment, I’m thinking that the folks outside in the waiting room were wondering what the hell was going on in there.

We composed ourselves by the time the doctor and entourage came in. They were polite enough not to inquire about our outburst. So we conducted business, made arrangements and went home.

Later, while reading a book about reconstruction, I pondered out loud whether I wanted to look the same or take this opportunity to get the perky breasts I never had. My husband asked if he had any say and was there a store or a catalog from which to make a selection. Another round of laughter ensued.

Laughter takes the edge off, opens up lines of communication that may be difficult, brings people together and defuses tension. Can you think of any other free, non-toxic substance that can do all that?

So go ahead and make those “sick” jokes, or at least make some kind of jokes to help you see a potential bright side when all seems dark. If people think ill of you for it, fuck ’em. They aren’t walking in your shoes, and if ever they have to, they won’t have the same support and outcomes as you will.

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