It’s been almost three months since Mom has passed away. I still have a hard time writing “died”, which has the connotation of an end, forever gone. “Passed away” implies a transition, which aligns with my belief that Mom is with me spiritually — but in a different form.
If I am mindful and paying attention, she greets me in many delightful ways. The duck leaving his pack to follow me to the bus stop pick up, quacking the entire 1/4 mile walk. The shooting star that crossed above my head, interrupting my “conversation” with Mom under the moonlight. The Schuman song she used to play, performed by a pianist right as we were leaving the library (we stayed). Her handwritten note found hours after her death, with the Isaiah 41 passage, “So do not fear, for I am with you”.
I still feel her parenting me. Guiding me. Encouraging me to choose the light, even in times of darkness. These overcast winter days can be depleting, and yet when I think of her words, a burst of energy and clarity enters my body. She is here.
Which is why I’ve been loving this beautiful poem by Henry Van Dyke, who uses a beautiful analogy of a ship at sea, continuing to be a ship at sea — even when out of eye sight. Just like my Mom, continues to be a Mother to me, even when out of sight.
GONE FROM MY SIGHT
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
- Henry Van Dyke
What I’m Reading:
Amazon just delivered Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air this morning. This is a memoir o fa 37 year old Stanford neurosurgeon that was given a terminal diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. The reviews have been tremendously positive and I look forward to some quiet time this weekend soak up his words.
What I’m Eating:
I ventured beyond the weekly mashed potatoes and served a celery root puree with my favorite beef stew last night. My husband was the most impressed with a new flavor at the table and it’s given me some inspiration to top that for tomorrow’s dinner. Any suggestions?
What I’m Thinking:
Oldest daughter has been out of school for five days with a virus. It’s given us a lot of home-base time with quiet moments to snuggle, read or chat. Makes me think back to this article on setting your priorities – am grateful to have a family-centric calendar that allows me to step on the breaks and breath in these hours with my tween.
What I’m Looking Forward to:
Snow. Crazy to hear that four letter word uttered from my mouth, but I’m excited for a good old fashioned snow day. To turn off the world and be home in front of the fire, wearing my polar bear print pajamas and eating Cheez-its.
What I’m Wearing:
Lots of Kiehl’s Creme de Corps, my favorite body lotion that seems to keep Winter Itch at bay.
Replacing “Serendipity”, my new favorite word is: SENTIENT
There was a time in my newlywed life when my husband and I would pack our weekends full of social events. Brunches, bike rides, cocktails, suppers. And around the time we added children to the mix, my husband kindly asked that we commit to only one social event a weekend. It was too much, he explained — social outings, chores, errands, house projects, etc. We need more downtime. Us time.
So we started to scale back about ten years ago and have been more or less abiding by this rule ever since. And having open afternoons and evenings has been one of the most treasured traditions of our family. We ride bikes around the neighborhood, embark on ski days at Sunapee, play Ticket to Ride in front of the fireplace, swim at our down-the-street pool, run laps around the high school track, read books while lined up like sardines, light candles over a Saturday night dinner, hike in the local woods. I hope these weekend moments will be the anchors of our daughters’ childhood memories.
We’ve certainly had our share of over-packed weekends — the holidays is especially a tough time to abide by our family rule. And I’ve found that when we have weekends jam packed — whew! — our family seems flat, disconnected and unbalanced. Which is why we prioritize this time together, especially a the girls get older. It is our fuel to re-charge as a family and our job as parents to protect this time for just the four of us.
I know this doesn’t work for all families, but it works for us. And given the 12 degree temps today, I’d say whatever the plan is for this weekend will be in front of the fireplace. Together.
Our traditional New Years Day hike — just our tiny clan and a quiet forest.
This Christmas was different.
The weather was unusually warm. Almost 70 degrees on Christmas Eve! Unheard of around New England to wander coatless to church services.
I caught yet another dreaded sore throat and cold. (It is not lost on me how my body is symptomatic to what my heart is feeling). Christmas week was full of naps and rest.
And of course, the biggest change this year was that my Mom wasn’t there to adorn our house with her Christmas cheer and Danish Pastry.
The Danish pastry was originally a recipe from my great-grandmother back in the 1930s. Full of crisco and butter, the braided piece of glazed dough was the breakfast treat served Christmas morning from 1972 until 2014.
After many years of excuses to avoid making this family tradition, I started the arduous three-day baking project. I placed a lot of weight on the outcome — a light fluffy perfectly browned danish would continue the ties between many generations; a flat doughy overly done danish would banish me to the bedroom in tears.
The latter happened.
In hindsight, I know what to do differently next time — this is definitely more art than science. Yet in that moment, I just felt that I was letting down my Mom, grandmother and great-grandmother by not continuing this family tradition. Especially on this first Christmas without Mom by my side.
As usual, I went to the moon that night and openly shared my frustration. And the moon — the first full moon on Christmas Eve since 1977 — shone brightly on my face and gave me the strength and perspective I needed to move forward to Christmas day.
There is something about that moonshine that makes me feel that my Mom is right by my side. And as is becoming the pattern, any heaviness and sadness was lifted immediately and replaced with gratitude.
And when I awoke to sounds of giggles and excitement the next morning on December 25th, I too felt hopeful and dare I say filled with joy?!? And even the Danish Pastry tasted pretty darn good.
There were two Christmas Days that I spent away from my parents. This story is about the first one, when I was a 23 years California transplant recently settled in Boston. My first job out of college was working retail management at Banana Republic which required me to be around for the bulk of the holiday season.
Sensing my sadness to be away from home on Christmas Day, my parents sent me a surprise plane ticket to join them for a lavish weekend in NYC. They booked a suite so we could be together and made reservations at Le Grenouille, one of the most exquisite french restaurants in all of New York.
I remember carefully packing my outfit in Boston — using shoe bags for my new black Ann Taylor slingbacks, my black pant suit that made me feel like a grown up, and my hand-me-down pearl earrings. My Dad gave both my Mom and I an arm to escort us through the magic restaurant doors.
I don’t recall what we ate for dinner, probably nothing too french as I prefer chicken to rabbit and hamburger to steak tar tar. Yet I do remember dessert. Chocolate mousse, chocolate souffle, creme brûlée ….it was all too tempting to a girl who ate wheat thins as a meal. I may have been acting as a grown up that night, but my face betrayed me once the dessert menu was in my hands — my eyes were like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. I could not make up my mind and our patient waiter kept scribbling in his notepad as my mind changed between chocolate and vanilla cream and meringue. After what probably felt like hours to the waiter, I landed on a favorite — chocolate pot de creme.
And when the desserts were brought to the table, you can imagine my complete delight and utter shock when EVERY dessert I contemplated was presented in front of me. All seven desserts.
“On the house!” he declared in his french accent. He gave me a night that I’m still talking about 20 years later.
So even though I spent a Christmas apart from my family, that December 1996 will still be a treasured holiday memory. The sugar plum fairy absolutely delivered. And as my husband and I plan a winter excursion to NYC in early 2016, I plan to make dinner reservations at Le Grenouille to reminisce that magical night. Although this time there will be no hesitation as I’ll just go ahead and order all of the irresistible treats for our table of two.
Today is a rough day. As the December days fly by and Christmas is within hand’s reach, I find myself becoming more emotional and unsettled with each day. I’ve been warned that Christmas will be extremely hard for me — the first one without my beloved Mom. After spending 41 Christmas days together (only missed two), I have no doubt that the day will be emotionally charged with decades of memories.
Yet the big day that I’m really dreading is January 1st, 2016. For the milestone that promises me a blank slate, also closes the door on the last year she was alive. 2015 will be a year forever tattooed on my heart, the year was full of:
Shenanigans in the Bloomingdales’ dressing rooms
Floating on our backs off the coast of Barbados
Her proud presence at every Christmas concert, swim meet and Nutcracker
Steady stream of sweets brought to our house each week
Dual piano lessons where we both were caught not practicing
Daydreaming through the gardens in Vermont
No, I’m not ready to say goodbye to the almost 10 months of togetherness we had this year. So as much as I’m ready to put a tough year to rest, I also want to hold onto that same year — the last one where we were side by side.
I’ve been observing Christmas trees this season. Some homes highlight a color scheme with the entire tree covered with gold and red ribbons. Others chose a classic decorated tree that could easily sit in the storefront window of Saks. And then there are the hodgepodge trees, like ours, whose ornaments can contrast rather than compliment one another.
But I love our 8 foot tree. It represents decades of love. From the first ornament the year I was born, 1972; to the family photo that hangs from 1980 trip to Wyoming; and the “Mia’s home” ornament from 1992; the “Just Married” ornament in 2001; the “first baby” in 2004; and “Sisters Forever” in 2007.
This year I’m adding a new ornament — a silver picture frame with the year 2015 and a photo of my Mom. I already see so much of her as I hang each memory as many of these ornaments are hand-me-downs or ones she picked up for us over the years. Adding her beautiful face is just another story to add to the family Christmas tree.
So even though our tree is not catalog perfect, it’s just perfect for me and reflects the way my heart feels — blessed for bits and pieces of good memories.
It’s been six weeks. The ground is still shaky and the sky is still dark as I try to navigate my way in this world without my North Star. I feel lost and upside down. Yet if I close my eyes and try to follow the path with my heart, I know the way. I just have to listen to the words that she shared with me for many years:
“Let’s take our time, there is no rush”
“Aren’t we lucky?”
“Have another piece of chocolate”
“On the wings of love”
“Look at the sky”
“You are a good mother”
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart”
“Redheads look beautiful in pink”
I try to find gratitude in all of this. And instead of the sorrow of only having my Mom for 43 years, I am trying to turn my thinking around to the blessing of having her for an entire 43 years. For each of those 15,770 days we had together, she made a big imprint on my heart. So I will navigate my way through this darker world — towards the light — by holding on to the words she gave me so many day of my life.
I’m by no means an expert on grief– but was incredibly touched by the kind souls who reached out to me during my darkest days. One of the toughest things is knowing what to do to help friends who are grieving. Having been the recipient of some beautiful words and actions, I thought I’d share a few gestures that buoyed me for the few weeks after my Mom’s death. Am documenting them so I remember how best to support a friend.
The Handwritten Note
I loved that so many people took the time to write a note about my Mom. In the world of text and email, it was especially thoughtful to have tangible cards and notes that I could collect and save for my children one day. My favorite notes were the ones that included a story about my Mom — like her friend who discovered why Mom had 7 rolls of open saran wrap in her kitchen drawer (the ends would get stuck so she’d just open a new one).
The Uninvited Meal or Visit
We had a number of requests to drop off meals and I declined each one — I suddenly had all this time only my hands and it felt silly to accept dinners. However, one friend just showed up at my doorstep with dinner already made. I was a complete mess (in addition to the tears that would not stop, I was also fighting a terrible cold). She quietly say me down on the couch, put all of the goodies in the fridge, made me a cup of tea and was on her way.
Another friend called during one of my crying episodes as I was on the way to urgent care a few days after Mom’s death. Without asking, she just met me in the waiting room and held my hand as the doctors diagnosed me with bronchitis, asthma and sinusitis. Few words were exchanged, but her presence meant the world to me.
Sometimes we know we are needed but don’t want to interfere — these were good reminders for me to act on my gut and not wait for an invitation.
Daily Texts or Calls
A dear friend lost her father 18 months beforehand and knew the grief process all too well. I affectionally call her my Grief Guide and she still continues to call or text every day since October 6th. She lives 45 minutes away and we have yet to see one another (as we juggle the kids schedules, holidays, etc.), but her presence is strong and I look forward to hearing from her each calendar day. Even after I told her “I’m doing fine — no need to keep calling”, she continues to do so. I’m going to remember to pay that one forward to someone else one day.
Gifts of Flowers
How can you not smile when an orchid appears on your front step? Especially as my Mom loved flowers — especially pink ones! Another dear friend sent a beautiful coffee table book on flowers and gardens — was a wonderful way for the flowers to “last” and I treasure the inscription she wrote about the author’s special relationship with HER mother.
Remember the Kids
It was important to me that my daughters were part of the mourning process. Notes and gifts that were addressed to them were meaningful as it recognized the kids experienced a loss as well. One hit was the cookie bouquet which was consumed in one evening.
Donations Were Surprisingly Nice
We all read the obituaries that include “in lieu of flowers, please consider a donation on behalf of…..”. I’ve always opted for other ways to show my support to a friend after a loss. However, I was surprised how good it felt to set up a scholarship fund on behalf of my Mom and know that her footprint in the arts will continue for decades to come. I’m going to remember this for when I’m out of town, short on time or unsure how best to help.