Tag Archives: mother

Music to Have Feelings By

28 Dec
Very_Merry_Mixup

My most favorite Hallmark Channel holiday movie this year!

There have been at least 107 Christmas trees in my living room since October. Or maybe even more. It’s hard to get an estimate, because some of them are the same tree twice or thrice or… multiple times. Cuz, like, I love to watch holiday movies, okay? And they’re definitely NOT of the cinematic classic variety. They’re absolutely the most low-budget, thrillingly flawed Hallmark Channel productions imaginable.

But don’t be mistaken, I don’t have an actual tree in my living room. Because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Well, at least, not at the moment.

(That’s called a cliffhanger, movie fans.)

Here, let me cue some slow but sweet instrumental music to set the tone for my heartbreaking and yet hopeful story…

I am a girl who loves love. All forms and expressions of love are welcome here. And I’ll tell ya, some of the best, most upbeat, least conflicted love stories are found in holiday movies. In these delightful romps through the full spectrum of new love, old love, found love, lost love and imaginary love, amidst the clumsy continuity errors, extremely fake New York City sets and inexplicable Canadian accents (almost all Hallmark movies are evidently filmed north of the border), if there happens to fall a tense moment, it’s only a super brief one. Maybe for approximately ten minutes, our heroine believes that her love interest might not be the man she imagined. But that’s quickly forgotten in a hail of other love subplots involving unexpected revelations from family members, emerging affection from new friends and/or the children of the hero in question, and maybe some appropriately cuddly moments with domesticated animals, too.

So, I guess I’m admitting that the reason I watched even more holiday movies than usual this year (after I ran out of free streaming movies, I actually BOUGHT several Hallmark productions on Amazon Prime), is because I needed to keep cataloging all the best moments of seeing family and friends and finding love even when it seems impossible. I used the movies as instruction manuals in addition to their very successful provision of tinselly distraction.

You see, this was the year I paused Christmas before I start it again the way I like to see it best. It’s only the second time I’ve celebrated the holiday without my mother, and in the first year, I made a valiant effort to go to a friend’s house and celebrate with her. But this year I owned the truth of how much I miss the one true Christmas lover in my family. I stayed home, I declined plans, and instead I went to lunch and saw the new Quentin Tarantino film with some of my Jewish friends.

In response to that choice, even without any soundtrack music to tell me how to feel, I can actually hear my mom sighing a woeful “ohhhhhh,” in her Minnesota accent. Yes, it sounds so sad, the inevitable life-changing happy ending could write itself. And in fact, it did. (Cue upbeat, hopeful music.)

My ideal version of Christmas is just an amplified version of how I endeavor to live all year long. I love seeing friends and connecting with family as often as possible. I try to move with joy and compassion in my heart, and from the depths of the most average (or below average) day, I try to smile at fellow sidewalk travelers and subway riders even when it’s 100 degrees outside and we don’t have any Christmas music to tell us to cheer up. I really try to be that Hallmark movie girl, even though I’m secretly also feeling like an extremely whiny girl who doesn’t believe her own script.

So. Here we are in the last six minutes. (My mom and I loved watching Hallmark movies, and we analyzed the scripts constantly, loving the guarantee of an endorphin rush during those final six minutes of the movie, when everything seems like it couldn’t get worse and then it all comes together for the payoff.) Holiday cheer arrived in my house in a whole bunch of scripted and unscripted ways this Christmas, all of which I cherished. And I have to say that my mother would be very happy to see how well I am doing.

But the endorphin rush came tonight. When my one true love, my Unrequited always-gonna-be-a-friend friend, sent me a photo of his two sons each holding a copy of the “Pocket Pema Chödrön” book that I carried with me on our trip to Spain and France last month. (Yes! I went to Europe with him! And he also sent me a really great book for Christmas!) He borrowed the Pema book from me while we traveled from one scenic locale to the next, and I knew it made an impression on him. But tonight, to see those two boys, whom I have known for ten years, grinning in front of the Christmas tree and holding their book for a photo they knew was being sent to me… that was enough to make me utter my own Minnesota-accented “Ohhhhhhhhh”—but in the “sooooo cuuuute” way.

I am loved. And I love. So the magic of the season worked after all, even if I didn’t go through the old familiar motions this year. I am going to keep building new annual traditions that are founded in my everyday heart. If by loving without expectation I receive those amazing six minutes of happy ending, then I’m going to keep watching!

Connect-mas

25 Dec

treeA week ago, my brother and I divided up the remainder of our mother’s estate. Of utmost concern to her in her waning life was the legacy of our greatest family treasure: her collection of Christmas ornaments. Together, we amassed this pageant of emblems, building on the Scandinavian pieces from our parents’ early years, adding glass and painted baubles we created as toddlers on a sunny day in our kitchen. The post-divorce years of our triumvirate holidays saw the accumulation of still more items of significance, each with a back story that my brother and I cherished. We developed voices and gestures for certain pieces and imbued them with our crafty wit. Some characters on the tree were purely comical, some were beautiful. All were part of our Christmas legend.

Every year that my mother was alive, she lamented the Christmas we weren’t having. Gathered around the tree, presents unwrapped, she would apologize for not giving us more. And every year, my brother and I begged her not to apologize. We were there for her, for us. We didn’t need a pile of presents to feel loved.

In the end, our mother knew that the ornaments were the most important collection she could leave to us, and she asked often about their whereabouts. My brother was the one who shipped them home to New York, and until we sat down with his girlfriend and pondered our bounty of colorful memories, I have to confess I was not really that bothered with whether or not I kept any of the trinkets.

I have long been the bah-humbug of the family. Not a Scrooge, exactly, but definitely a non-believer. I was sure that following my mother’s passing I could abandon any obligation to celebrate this busy-body, materialistic holiday. But then my brother unfolded and unwound the bits of red and green tissue paper in which she had last wrapped the ornaments, and my tiny Grinch heart flinched awake.

My mother loved Christmas. She covered every surface with decorations. Ridiculous snowmen, tacky Santas, red and green hand towels, even special kitchen towels and an entire set of Christmas dishes. Most of which we trashed before she passed. I am glad I wasn’t there to see where they ended up… but I remember my mother was a bit sad, if not surprised, to learn that we didn’t want her prized Christmas dish set.

With the ornaments sorted into collections of similar traits in front of us, my brother and I did what our mother taught us to do. We quietly, and peacefully, talked about how we each felt about every piece. We shared memories, we gauged our levels of attachment to certain bits of our heritage, and we generously gave each other more than we knew we could give. I know that my mother, observing this exchange, would be so proud that my brother and I are still the devoted friends and caretakers of all that she cherished about our family. We were in it together, and we are in it still. We love each other with an understanding and the gentle perception and encouragement that she constantly offered to us.

Packing up my new objects near the tree that my brother and his girlfriend had set up in their apartment, I promised to get my own small tree this year. I have never had a tree in any of my homes in the past 20 years. But I was going to use these decorations so as not to disappoint my mother.

This Christmas is such a strange and significant one for me, in a million ways. I quit the job I’ve held for 16 years, finishing on the last Friday before the holiday break. I listed my apartment on a vacation rental service and accepted a reservation from two guests who would occupy my home from December 21 until January 6, the day before my birthday, January 7—the day on which my mother would take down the tree. January 7 is the Feast of the Epiphany in my mother’s Catholic tradition, and it’s Christmas Day for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There was so much significance in all these dates… but still I dragged my feet on buying a tree, not knowing where I would be staying for Christmas while I had paying guests in my home. Then, in a miracle worthy of the Hallmark movies that my mother and I loved to watch, I discovered that the friend for whom I would be house-sitting had a little, living Christmas tree, decorated only with lights in his apartment. It needed ornaments. And I had ornaments.

The plot thickened when in the last few days before the holiday, a Hallmark Movie Man appeared in my life, and in direct accordance with a plot my mother and I would have written had we ever actually created the Hallmark scripts we wanted to develop, the Hallmark Movie Man melted my heart with stories of the gifts he was buying for friends and family. He was running all over town, thinking about them with so much joy, going to the post office before the rush each day to send more parcels, wrapping presents each night before going to sleep. So, inspired by his generosity, I started procuring gifts for friends and family, too. I went into shops with a smile and saw pieces and ideas that would bring holiday cheer to those around me. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in my heart.

Then came the best part, and I know it was sponsored by my mother. I had no expectations for opening any gifts on Christmas Day this year, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really like Christmas, remember? But Hallmark Movie Man, seeing my grief over my mother and knowing that I’d opted to be alone on Christmas morning, surprised me with three separate packages filled with wrapped gifts for me to put under my tiny tree.

And so it came to be that I have presents to unwrap, from a Hallmark Movie Man, on Christmas Day.

Behold dear reader! Right now, right this very second, as I sit the sunlit kitchen of my temporary holiday accommodations in Brooklyn, as I type about my unfrozen holiday heart, I am hearing the notes of “Silver Bells” drifting up from the sidewalk outside. As the sound grows closer, the crooner sings, “It’s Christmastime in the city,” and instantly I am crying. As the music grows louder, and I realize that it’s someone passing by, delivering a recorded version of caroling. A glimpse out the window shows a man pushing a dolly festooned with a portable CD player and speakers, head down and serious.

Seeing him, I have to say out loud to my mother in the ongoing conversation I keep with her, “Thank you, mom. Thank you. I saw him. I heard it. I’m glad I’m back in New York, and I know you would have loved what just happened.”

Writing about her now, with that amazing coincidence rolling by, I will tell you most assuredly that I believe in the connection wrought by Christmas. Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, this time after the Winter Solstice is a time to pause, take a break from work, and hang out with the family. And whether or not that family looks like the one you expected to have, or if the celebration falls short of what you see on TV, remember, what you’re going to take away are the silly, little incidental bits of tradition that bind you together. What you’re overlooking is what you’ll treasure later. I assure you.

Stay With Me

1 Nov

nature's gold

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower:
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. 

***

When the radio news voice says that “bad weather” is expected this weekend, and that “today is beautiful, but tomorrow it’s going to rain,” I grumble. There isn’t bad weather, there’s only weather, I insist. All weather is good, every day is beautiful, just dress for the present conditions. A good trench coat, cute rain boots, and a bright-colored umbrella make me giddy. I love to feel prepared, ready to face anything and come out unruffled.

As it turns out, that strength and resilience is what causes my life-crunching headaches. Multiple doctors, a MRI, and a neurologist appointment later, I learned that what I suffer from are “let-down headaches.” Trust me, I could run with that name forever—let down? Let me tell you about let downs. But scientifically, it’s an extension of migraine that is triggered by prolonged periods of stress followed by sudden relaxation. The stress hormones dissipate and leave my brain reeling, screaming in pain. Where is the cortisol! Load me up, A-type personality girl! Find me a thrill!

Sigh.

And get this: migraine sufferers, or “migrainers” as we are cheerily referred to in the lame “How to Live with Migraine” magazine my neurologist gave me, have a distinct personality. They’re over-achievers who love routine and stability, they have a tremendous empathy that makes them an emotional sponge that absorbs all the suffering, angst, or happiness around them—oh, and they tend to be the ones who relocate to help a dying loved one.

Bunky Huron: Migrainer.

When I moved to Texas to help my mother in her final year, my poor head reacted poorly. Every time I arrived at her apartment and sunk into the sofa in front of the Hallmark channel, I could feel the pain creep to my temples. My mother and I discussed potential causes quite often, as I have been a headache sufferer my entire life, and I used to write science reports on them as early as middle school. I even did a science fair project on headaches.

So I was the scientist, and my mother was the nurse. She remained calm and steady as my earliest pre-teen migraines made the left side of my body go numb and deadened my tongue so I couldn’t speak. My memories of her constant care are so clear. She’d get a cool, wet wash cloth for my head and gently hover near me while I writhed on the sofa. I’d try to tell her through tongue-numb speech that I knew it was a symptom of the vascular lightning storm in my brain, and I knew it would subside, but I was secretly scared i was going dumb and would lose my power to speak entirely.

My mother’s eyes showed concern, but not panic. The constant presence of her love was my tether to the real world while my viewpoint grew hazy with eyesight-blinding migraine “aura.” I’m still so amazed that she didn’t panic. She was as much a worrier as I was, but as a mother, she was effortlessly steady. She knew my strength and resilience, she knew I was generally a really healthy kid, and above all, she knew that if she sat there calmly with me, I might believe that there was hope for normal life again.

I look back now and realize that I did the same for her when she was sick in the hospital. I stayed calm, I acted as though everything was normal, and I tried to set a tone of steady routine in our lives. But my headaches persisted, and I really thought they were brought on by the stress of being a caretaker. I’d blame her openly, saying that the grocery list gave me a headache, and coming to her house gave me a headache.

Now, my poor, scientific heart knows that those were let-down headaches, and I was in pain because I’d relaxed in her care. While she cooked me dinner, and brought me snacks and drinks as I lounged on the sofa, I returned to a softness I hadn’t felt since I was a child. There was no one who cared for me on a daily basis, except my mother. And the disappearance of that steadiness, that supportive force of her love after she died, is wracking my brain with pain.

“You’re someone who functions valiantly under stress, and then you collapse when it subsides,” my neurologist intones. The reason I’d had a headache for two months straight was no doubt the release of grief, the exodus of physical pain from my poor, fragile corporeal person.

Mom, you didn’t give me headaches. You gave me relief, and my body gave me headaches. I miss you so much it actually hurts.

I am slowly getting better, thanks to craniosacral massage and a new awareness on how to mitigate stress in my life. Apparently, “migrainers” have to actually fake a little bit of stress after a long period of stress, so they can avoid the sharp withdrawal of hormones. So this morning I actually told myself I had so much to do today, such a busy Saturday, so much work to do!

Feeling the ache creep to back of my skull to accompaniment of the relaxing sounds of rain pouring down on my deck outside, I did some semi-intense yoga to make sure I was stressed. Hey, hey, gentle fall into relaxation. Not sudden. Gentle.

After yoga, in savasana, I let my jaw go slack, and suddenly pictured my mother’s own slack expression after she died. These are the images we keep in our mind forever. I started sobbing and said out loud, “I saw the last light in your eyes. I was the witness.”

I, always alone, alone, was the witness. No wonder I’m stressed. And as I sobbed, I said, “Your love was golden.” And as my mother’s favorite poet, Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.”

Morning Glory

6 Sep

photoI don’t have an air conditioner. On purpose. Leaving the windows open, strategically placed fans circulating air front to back across my long, floor-through brownstone apartment, keeps me connected to the real temperature of my surroundings. I know the weather as well as I know my neighbors’ business, and they know when it will rain and what time I picked up my paper off the stoop this morning. When I step outside, we wave to each other, caught up on everyone’s everything, and the heat and humidity are not a shock to my system.

I am among that most privileged class of New Yorker. I know my neighbors and I have access to outdoor space with a garden. I write to you, dear reader,  while perched on my wooden deck. Below, in my neighbors’ beautiful green expanse of flowers and trees, three cats twitch their ears and flick their tails at every passing insect and shimmer of sunlight. Next door, my neighbors are starting early with preparations for today’s barbecue. The fence between us and the rails of my deck are lined with winding morning glory vines that tangle and weave our spaces together.

The benefits of my connection to the outside world don’t only arise from this bucolic setting. On the other end of my apartment is a large picture window with a view of the bustling street and populated stoops of Crown Heights. It’s actually never quiet out there, and this is something I much appreciate. When very late one recent night there seemed to be a strange tension in the crowd of teenagers that makes the sidewalk their living room, I felt safe because my neighbors across the street were on the stoop, watching over the block. And all day long, I see each passing person, across demographics young and old, raise a hand in greeting to Charlie. “Chan, Charlie Chan is what they’ve  called me my whole life,” he says from his stoop. His chair is seldom empty.

My building is connected by ownership to three others, one adjoining and two across the street. No, the properties are not owned by some faceless condo developer. They’re owned by three brothers, natives of Brooklyn who make their own wine and live on the same block as their mother in Sunset Park. They bought these properties thirty years ago, when they were just finishing high school. They owned them through riots and now into the new wave of gentrification. We’re all hoping that this is the first neighborhood where communities merge rather than displace one another, and I have to say, so far it appears to be working.

The hipsterization of every part of life has brought good food to new restaurants that are populated by people from each sector of the neighborhood. The cool, new Berg’n beer joint and food emporium down the street from me is not full of apathetic indie rockers, but rather an array of construction workers and the people who have lived through each chapter of this neighborhood.

This fabric sustains us all. Even on a day when I choose to stay close to home, alone, and read my books, I speak with many whenever I run out to do an errand or weed my herb garden. I am never alone, and every breath I take is a privilege. One I am very well aware that my mother no longer enjoys. And so I collect each sensation and connect with every conversation in dedication to this loving and gentle woman, who was confined to the indoors most of her life, and loved me endlessly even while she seemed to abhor her place in the world. Her neighbors were her imagined enemies, and the television was sometimes her only window. But even she, when she had the opportunity, loved to sit on her deck or grill up some dinner with my brother.

I know full well that I am living an extension of the life she built for herself and for me. I am taking each happy element and adding to it a carefully tended sense of wellbeing that I share with every wave, smile, and wink with the people I meet each day. In meditation, it’s called compassion. In life, it might be called purpose.

Cone of Silence

20 Jun

For as long as I’ve been capable of conscious thought, I’ve had a thing about eating ice cream alone. I physically can’t do it. I also can’t watch others do it without sudden tears clouding my vision. Ice cream is a food of happiness, and when it is consumed alone, especially by the lonely or angry, it becomes a sad symbol of how often we miss the mark in life and have to sublimate our pain in a sugary confection.

Last week, I ate ice cream alone three nights in a row. I was staying in my mother’s empty apartment while she slept uneasily under heavy sedation in the ICU at a nearby hospital. My brother bought the ice cream and some chocolate syrup days before, and then left me alone with it when he went back to New York.

So there I was, watching the same TV shows and movies my mom would watch in some sort of vigil to keep her spirit alive through possibly the most disturbingly massive surgery anyone should have to endure, and eating ice cream alone. I got to the point where I was looking forward to it every evening. After all the hospital visits were done, after all the nurses and doctors and surgeons and front desk people and parking lot attendants and concerned neighbors had been addressed, my twenty minutes of quiet time before collapsing into bed were spent with a quiet bowl of sweet solace.

These nights redefined loneliness for me. Your mother is incapacitated, and when she does speak, it’s in woozy drug-induced nightmares of organ-stealing doctors. All you want to do is make inane comments about the garbage television you’re watching in her honor. All you want to do is indulge in three romantic comedies in a row together. But no, it’s just you on the seafoam green mircosuede sofa she chose to help decorate her new apartment in “spa style”, slurping excessive chocolate syrup from a spoon.

It hurts. Like a specialized hurt. But the ice cream is a vigil, too. It’s a tribute to nights spent with mom and my brother, all of us enjoying a bowl of confection before bedtime. We’d take turns going to the kitchen to serve it up each night. It was our foundation.

That’s why when I see people cling to ice cream in an act of desperation, seeking that childhood comfort, my heart breaks into ten million pieces. A tattooed guy in a giant pickup truck drives past me in Texas plains heat, licking a soft-serve cone. An old guy on the street clutches a dripping stack of creamy memories. A family sick of screaming at each other declares a cease fire with sprinkles.

It’s enough to bring you to your knees.

When my mom finally awoke, and when they finally yanked the ventilator tube from her throat after six days, you know what she asked for, again and again and again? Ice cream. I stood at her bedside and she delivered her request in the imperative. The nurses said no one in the ICU ever eats real food, so they were unprepared for her request. My mother looked to me. “I want some ice cream.”

And I did the strangest thing. I looked the clock, and calculated how much time was left in our current 30-minute visiting hour session. Not enough time now, mom. And I don’t know where I’d even get it. There are no grocery stores in this neighborhood. I’ll try to bring it for the next visiting time in two hours.

Two hours I made her wait. I made her wait. At her behest, I opted for the simplest option on my way back to the ICU. Go to the McDonald’s on the ground floor of the main hospital building across the street. Order a chocolate sundae. Please bring your mother just a tiny cup of comfort.

I fed my mom the ice cream from a plastic container her sedated hands couldn’t hold. She was truly, truly happy. It was the first real food she’d had in a week. And I’ll tell you something. The next time my mom asks for ice cream I will run, I will fly downstairs and get it. I will bring it up to her immediately. Ice cream is a request as serious as a blood transfusion. It is not frivolity. It is not desperation. It is a melting answer when there are absolutely no solid truths in the world.

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