simple little things

Fight like a girl
July 28, 2010, 1:08 am
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A few weeks ago I ran in the Susan G. Komen 5k. When you get to the race, you can make a pink card to pin to your back that says who you are running in celebration of or in memory of. The first year I ran, my pink card said “I’m racing in celebration of my Mom.” She was in remission then, and doing well.

It’s funny to think that there was a time when we thought Mom made it, beat cancer for good, and would one day be one of those little old ladies who could say she had breast cancer years and years ago. She fought so hard for so long, I guess we all assumed she’d live forever.

This year, we got a late start to get to the race. I had tonsillitis, and almost decided not to run, but my husband Casey talked me into it. He said I would feel better if I went. Turned out he was right.

We didn’t get there in time for me to make a pink card in honor of my mom. I felt like a phony, like someone who was just there because they loved running, and not because they’d lost someone they couldn’t live without.

The first half mile or so was ok, but after a few minutes, my breathing got really heavy. I could feel the fact that I was sick, and tired, and in no shape to be in any sort of athletic event that day. Still, it was nice to be surrounded by all of the people in their race shirts, both official and homemade. There was a small group of women wearing black t-shirts that said “Save Second Base,” and an older man with a pink ribbons pinned all over his shirt, which read “I’m here for the Boobs!” There’s really no other place that it’s ok to put so many boobie references on your clothing, and where so many people will high-five you for it.

A little over a mile and a half in, I knew I was in bad shape, and would have to walk for a bit. I convinced my husband to run ahead without me, and told him where I’d meet him after I finished. Grateful to be left to my own huffing and puffing, I slowed to a walk. I was feeling so defeated and sick. I thought about my mom, and how with or without my pink card, I was running in memory of her. Then I drove myself slightly crazy wondering if it even counted if I had stopped to walk. Mom would probably tell me not to run at all if I was so sick. I felt torn, and confused, and generally sorry for myself.

That’s when the lady in the dark pink t-shirt jogged slowly past me. She was older, maybe in her 60’s. She was a little shorter than I am, with a scruffy, sassy little blonde ponytail sticking out over the back of her visor. She had about a million freckles on her legs, which made me smile, since I have always loved freckles, always wished I had more of them. The dark pink official race shirt meant she was a breast cancer survivor. I decided that if she could run slowly across that bridge, I could run slowly too.

So I started to run again. Actually, it was more of a labored jog, but it was definitely not walking, and I was pleased with that. We jogged down the off-ramp, rounded a corner, and started up the last big hill. I’m not sure who designed the 5k course, but that last hill gets me every time. I honestly wasn’t sure I could even get up it walking. But I looked just behind me, and there she was, in her black skirt, with her freckled legs, jogging ever so slowly towards the hill. And so we went up.

I jogged past two young boys who I had seen earlier, who had “I race in memory of my Mom” signs on their backs. The tall man next to them wore a sign that said he was racing in memory of his wife, Robin. If they could get up that hill, without their mom, without his wife, I could get up that hill. I turned a sharp corner at the top of the hill, wheezing, and started towards the final stretch.

I passed a smiling woman who was set up on the sidewalk in her wheelchair, with a pink t-shirt and a pink bandana covering her bald little head. She cheered and clapped and yelled thank you to all of the runners and walkers. I remembered, from when Mom was sick, how hard it had been for her to even get out of bed some days, never mind get out to a race and have thousands of people see you. That woman was such a hero to me in that moment, such an inspiration to keep going, to keep moving forward. I applauded her, and yelled thank you back to her.

I turned the last corner, saw the finish line banner, and started down the last hill. I kept my slow and steady pace, kept my eyes on the banner, and started talking to Mom. I thanked her for fighting so hard for me and Dad and my brother Aaron, when I knew it would have been easier to just give up and give in to cancer the first time it came. I thanked her for showing me what it meant to love others more than yourself, to put yourself through things that you would never ask them to put themselves through. I thanked her for teaching me what bravery and grace really looked like in the face of chemo, and radiation, and endless hospitalizations. I promised her that if I ever had breast cancer, I would fight as hard as she did, for my family. I told her I loved her, and how proud I was of her, and how much of my personality and values and beliefs I could trace back to her. And then I crossed that finish line in memory of Mom, with or without my pink card.

I found Casey, who was patiently waiting for me, as promised. I saw the woman in the dark pink t-shirt a few feet away. She looked up just then, and we shared a victorious smile, knowing we had both just done our best in that race. I like to think that she could somehow sense what she had done for me that day, since there are just no words for that sort of thing.

That’s the funny thing about grief. You may find strength in someone who doesn’t look anything like what you would expect. My role model that day was a sweaty little old woman with a scruffy ponytail, freckled legs, and a dark pink survivor t-shirt. She didn’t know that I was running because of her, didn’t know that without her, I would have walked the rest of that race. But she was there, and I stayed near her, because I needed her. She kept running, so I kept running. I couldn’t run too slow, or I would lose sight of her. I couldn’t run too fast, or I would leave her behind. She made me run at precisely the pace that my sick little body could handle that day. Not one step faster or slower.

In the end, that’s what we all have to do, find our woman in the dark pink shirt, and run with her on the days that we just can’t set our own pace. We need to identify people who, on any given day, can challenge us to get just a little better, fight a little harder, push our limits just enough to break a sweat without breaking, and remind us not to go faster or farther than is healthy.

In a river of thousands of racers, that woman just kept trucking, kept running at her own solid pace. I will never know what it took for her to run that day, will never know if she faced a time when treatment made it difficult for her to even walk. Her persistence reminded me of something that I had learned long ago, from my own Mom. Mom also kept going, ran up impossible hills, pushed herself to her limit, and inspired friends and strangers along the way. She set her own pace, fought hard, and never gave up. She showed me what being a strong woman was really all about.

So today, I send out gratitude and thanks to my Mom, and the woman in the dark pink shirt, and all the strong women who have come into my life, for showing me how to run, and fight, like a girl.

When Someone You Love Loses Someone They Love
February 14, 2010, 3:05 pm
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I have lost a number of people that I love in the past 20 years or so. I am all out of grandparents, I lost an aunt, uncle, and cousin from the same family, and three years ago, I lost my mother.

It recently struck me that at 32, I am now the oldest woman in my family. I’d like to think that this makes me some sort of expert on loss and grief, and that I will know exactly what to do and say when someone in my life experiences a loss. Within a year of my mother’s death, a close friend lost her brother, another friend lost her dad, and a handful of friends lost a handful of loved ones. I always reached out to them, always tried to do the right thing, the compassionate thing. Let me say this clearly: I’m still never quite sure what to do.

No one ever is. It is so heartbreaking to watch someone you love lose someone, and you are left feeling so helpless and so small. What can you do, as one person, to help ease their pain, give them comfort, and make sure they can just make it to the next day? In such a terrible time, what is the “right” thing to do?

What I do know is this, the only wrong thing to do is nothing at all.

When someone you love dies, the hole that is left in your life and your heart is so unbearably huge, and the truth is that many acts of kindness can get lost in the sadness of it all. I wouldn’t be able to tell you who sent me a card when my mom finally lost her long and awesomely difficult battle with cancer. I can tell you that each time I went to the mailbox (or each time a friend went for me), there was love and kindness waiting for me.

And I will never remember how my laundry got done, dinner got made, or the oil got changed in my car. I can only tell you that it happened, because people who loved me more than I may ever know stepped in to help me when I could not help myself.

My next door neighbor, who I knew only casually, quietly mowed my lawn on the weekend that I left town for Mom’s memorial service. He continued to mow it countless times during my visits to my Dad’s house in the months that followed her death. My friend, who would lose her brother just months after I lost my mom, let me lean on her, talk it out with her, and sometimes scream about the unfairness of it all. The man who would become my husband did the simplest and best thing he could do, which was to just hold me and let me cry and grieve and cry some more.

I promise you this: if you reach out with love and compassion, you are doing the right thing.

When someone you love suffers a loss, everything is “the right thing to do.” Call them, send a card, babysit their kids or pets, bake a plate of gooey, decadent chocolate chip cookies and put them on a disposable plate so they don’t have to wash it, or remember who to give it back to.

Continue to do these things even after you think they are “ok.” You will sense if they want you to be closer, or if they need a little more space. And if you can’t sense it, it is ok to ask.

People treat grieving people like toddlers, and often avoid asking questions or mentioning “the awful thing” for fear that it will upset them. Sometimes people end up avoiding the grieving person altogether, terrified that they will say or do something that will bring them to tears. But the problem with that is so obvious that we all miss it – grieving people need to be allowed to be upset. They need to hear the name of their loved one, and be allowed to feel and do whatever they need to, with friends and family around them to support them.

There is an odd beauty in the grieving process, and participating in that with love and support is one of the most amazing gifts we can give and receive. You will not say the perfect magical words, you will not make their pain disappear. What you will do is offer them a little bit of hope and light in an otherwise impossible time. And that is definitely the right thing to do.

***This essay is published on Visit the site for articles, resources, and a community surrounding grief and grief support.

Stronger Than Cancer
February 14, 2010, 3:03 pm
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My mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and went through phases of “having cancer” and “not having cancer” in the five years that followed. Technically, she beat cancer quite a few times, and it only beat her once – so I still think she’s the winner in that battle.

During those years, Mom watched my brother get married, ate cheese and chocolate with me in Europe, started volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter, read to children with my dad at and an inner city school, and planted about a thousand flowers (literally and metaphorically) in her garden and in mine. Many of the things Mom did in those years between diagnosis and death were done with the unspoken knowledge that her time with us, and our time with her, was likely limited.

It is unfortunate but true that it often takes a tragedy to help you clarify what your life is really about. To start looking at the type of person you are, and the type of person you wish to be.

Mom was amazing, but had always been a bit of a nervous person, and spent a lot of time worrying about bad things that might happen, and bad things people might be thinking. She was kind but quiet, loving but low profile.

And then, she got cancer. The bad, fourth-stage, “you only have three months to live,” type of cancer. And that’s when my timid little mommy became a bad-*** cancer fighter.

She had a stem-cell transplant, took round after round of chemo, and endured seemingly endless radiation. She lost her hair, her appetite, and her short term memory. She emerged skinny, bald, and weak, but cancer free. Take that, cancer.

This post-cancer mom was still my mom, but more like Mom3000. All of the tiny wonderful things she always thought, she started saying out loud. And all of the things she had been afraid of seemed to sink into the background.

She complimented rough-looking teenagers on their pink hair and pretty flower tattoos. She lent a hand to single moms who were struggling to get groceries in the car while three wiggly kids were trying to get out. She gave money and time to causes that she supported, and told others to find causes they could support too. She told every single person in her life exactly what they meant to her. And one by one, everyone she touched started to do the same.

We all started to be a little more kind to ourselves and the people around us. We stood up for the disenfranchised people and animals in our communities. We spoke openly about our love and concern for the people in our lives. We started saying “no” to things that took time away from our families and our true selves. We all started to grow into the people my mom knew we were all along.

Cancer does not destroy the spark in our loved ones – it just challenges them (and us) to make it burn more brightly in the time they have left.

Do I wish my mom never had cancer, never got sick, and never died? Absolutely. But I can’t help but wonder if she and the people around her (myself included) would ever have grown in such countless ways without the Cancer Deadline that was always looming in our thoughts.

I have always hated the euphemism that someone “lost their battle with cancer.” My mom touched and changed more lives than I could ever count, in more ways than I will ever know. Cancer only took one of those lives. So, from where I’m standing, it pretty much looks like my mom was stronger than cancer. In the difficult journey we had to travel, Mom gave us each so much more than cancer could ever take away.

***This essay is published on Visit the site for articles, resources, and a community surrounding grief and grief support.

Giving Thanks
November 27, 2009, 6:19 pm
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Thanksgiving was really the Super Bowl of holidays for my mom, and we would usually celebrate with a houseful of people, way too much food, and lots of laughter. My mom was the glue that held our family together, and we have admittedly struggled to keep close since she left in 2007. The first Thanksgiving after she died, we all descended on my father’s house, made lots of food, laughed a little too much and a little too loudly, trying to pretend everything was still going to be the same. It wasn’t.

We don’t have the big Thanksgiving feast at my Dad’s house anymore, and it leaves me with yet another feeling of loss. Last year, my husband and I went to a friend’s house to eat with them and their young daughters. It was nice of them to welcome us into their home, but it didn’t feel “right” to me. We were invited to a number of people’s homes this year, but I just couldn’t get into the idea of having someone else’s holiday again. So, this year, we had Thanksgiving at our house. We had four friends over, and made way too much food, and laughed real laughter and shared a real sense of togetherness that can only come when it isn’t being forced. I made the spinach stuffed mushrooms that my mom taught me to make, and wore her teeny little diamond earrings proudly in my ears. It all felt as good as a Thanksgiving without my mom could feel, and helped me to realize that I am in charge of my own traditions now. I can create new ones while still honoring the memory of my mom. I don’t have to feel obligated to participate in other people’s family traditions, or go to certain gatherings because other people think that I should.

A friend of mine who is also grieving a loss joined us for dinner. She had made the brave choice to say “no” to a weekend family gathering that would not have been the best fit for her. I think only people who are grieving (or going through a crisis) can understand the delicate balance of trying to make others happy and keep your own sanity at the same time.  It is a difficult thing, and makes the strongest people I know question themselves. 

I am amazed at all of the little lessons I learn from the friends I have who are moving through their own grief journeys. And I am infinitely thankful to have such a solid support system as I move through my own.

missing mom
October 6, 2009, 3:38 am
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Tomorrow will mark the 32nd anniversary of the day my mom saw the culmination of 9 months of waiting and hoping and sore feet and food cravings.  Funny how I never thought of it like that until just now.  I’ve spent my whole life celebrating my birthday with cake and presents, and hopeful anticipation about which friends will remember, sing to me, or send me a card.  I never thought about what a special day that must have been for mom, a day to celebrate a tangible expression of the love she and my dad shared.  A day to look back on as the day her little family became complete.  Why didn’t I give her card on that day?  Why didn’t I spend the day marvelling at the amazing family she created, and the endless love and patience she continued to provide for each of us?  Why couldn’t I have sensed how much that would have filled her heart with the indescribable emotion that we both experienced when she and I connected in that way that only we did?  And why, again, am I thinking of these things 2 years and 8 months too late to tell her, to thank her, to make that card?

I take a good deal of comfort in knowing that I always had very open communication with mom, and that there was no doubt in her mind how much I loved, respected, adored, and trusted her.  But there are specific words I never said, particular conversations that just didn’t happen.  Because they couldn’t.  Because we weren’t there yet.  Because the funny things and tragic things and interesting things that have happened since she left just hadn’t happened yet.  I miss the experience of sharing these things with her.  And I am overwhelmed when I think of all the things I will never get to share with her.  I could sense the empty space she would have filled on my wedding day.  I desperately want to show her the hundreds of pictures I have taken of our beagle, Belle.   She would have been so proud of the work that I am now doing with Comfort Zone, and would have been so excited to tell families about us.  She would have been thrilled to see how beautifully her irises and tulips burst into bloom at my house the past two springtimes.  And I can’t begin to grasp how unfair it is that she will never get to meet a grandchild and spoil it rotten. 

I am so fortunate that I had such a wonderful relationship with my mom.  I am so grateful to have not left things unsaid.  But I am human, and I am selfish, and I continually mourn for all the little things that I really just want to share with my mom.

March 16, 2009, 2:29 pm
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Having just returned from volunteering at Comfort Zone Camp, which is designed for children who have lost a parent, sibling, or primary caretaker, I am overwhelmed with emotions.  I have just spent the weekend in the presence of 60 of the strongest, bravest teenagers you can imagine, and am struggling to organize my thoughts.

The whole weekend was designed to mirror life – some times are fun and you forget about your loss, and some times are serious, and you feel the burden of your pain resting squarely on your shoulders.  One night, we sang silly songs and roasted marshmallows over a fire to make s’mores.  A few moments later, one by one, the campers placed written messages to lost loved ones into the same fire, and spoke their names out loud.  For many, this was the first time they got to participate in a ritual to say goodbye, as funerals are designed for adults.   

There were small groups who met throughout the weekend to allow the campers to discuss their stories, their grief, and their challenges.  Some stories were so heartbreaking, it was all I could do to just cry and not sob while listening.  How humbling to have them trust us with this pain, and to be allowed to participate in their healing process.  I was filled with pride and awe as I listened to my little buddy describe what she had been through, and how she thought others could learn from her grief journey.  The magic about Comfort Zone Camp is that for the first time in their lives, the campers are surrounded other teens who know so well what it feels like to think you are the only one who has this pain.  And they are surrounded by adults who provide comfort and support, and model for them that it is ok to laugh, ok to cry, ok to work through your loss in whatever way you need to.

I can’t put into words the things I experienced at camp, or the ways it changed me.  You simply cannot imagine, and would not believe what can happen in a grieving child’s heart in such a short period of time.  It revealed to me that this is truly the only thing I can imagine dedicating my time, energy, and life to.  I went to camp hoping to change a child’s life, and left having been changed myself.

What Comfot Zone Camp does helps to heal the world, one child at a time.

Please take a moment to visit

February 25, 2009, 9:09 pm
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Today marks one and a half weeks of my completely voluntary unemployment.  I have to say, it is lovely.  I wake up when I feel rested (which is not as late as I thought it would be,) eat when I am hungry (not as often as I thought it would be,) and obsess about my future when the urge strikes (thankfully – also not too often.)  There is something just luscious about deciding the order of my own days.  It actually took me the entire first week to figure out that it was ok to not be doing something productive every single minute of every single day.  After years of working for other people, and being at the mercy of the schedules they have imposed on me, it is just amazing to understand that these days are my own.
Ok, so I’ve had some issues.  Like a recovering addict, I’ve had to re-learn what “normal” looks like.  Today, I had to say (out loud) “I will not turn on that damn laptop until I have had a cup of coffee and finished the last few pages of this book.”  And I had to give myself permission to take a nap today when I felt pressed to work on a paper that isn’t due until Monday.  Last Sunday, I started to feel very anxious around noon.  I couldn’t figure out why, and wondered if I had forgotten about a project for school, or maybe had left the oven on.  I finally realized that my body and brain are used to feeling anxious on Sunday afternoons, since Monday (and work) are only a few hours away.  My emotional muscle memory of the anxiety just hadn’t gone away yet.
It actually takes a certain amount of restraint for me to relax, which is so darn backwards that I hardly know what to do.  I have to remind myself that I have plenty of time each day to get the few things on my plate accomplished.  And I also have to remind myself that it is ok to have idle time.  Ok to read a book.  Ok to just play with my dog and sit on the porch.
Funny how when you get what your heart has been wanting, it can take your brain a little while to catch up.