18 December 2015

The distance between my grief...and remembering

It's true. The grief does change over time. It ebbs and flows like a river, some years because the season before was a mild one, the river does not overflow, but other years, the river rages on and on spilling over the edges of the land because the snowfall in the mountains was so great that there is no way to contain it.

And why would a person ever want to contain their grief? Why do we try so hard to reign it in? What are we afraid of if people see our grief? I ask myself this question often because so much of my grief is private, so many of my tears are private. I cry a lot, but I most often cry alone. I think because I was raised to put on a happy face, hide your tears, cry in silence. I was an excellent silent crier by the time I was ten.

My own father died just before my sixth birthday, and I learned quite young that crying wasn't really okay. We needed to hide our sadness because we might make our mother sad, and our job was to try and make her happy. So I hid my tears.

I found that if I cried into my pillow while rocking, I could simultaneously comfort myself and keep my crying muffled. It helped sometimes to have two pillows, one on each side of my face so I could create a little well of air in which to breath.

And sometimes I found that hiding in the closet, covering my ears and rocking would make me feel better.

But no matter what I did to try and stop the crying, I couldn't. And so, over time, I found that if I cried hard enough and rocked faster, that eventually I would just fall asleep, sometimes curled up in a ball. The rocking would prevent me from thinking about anything at all; it would block the sound, block my thoughts and I could just rock over and over again while counting--1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 until the counting in my head became a chant, a kind of mantra on which to focus.

The distance between my grief and remembering my father grew until I'm pretty sure one day, when I was 11 or 12, I could no longer remember ever having a father except for the feeling of not having a father and the emptiness that came with it. I couldn't conjure up an image of him in my mind; I couldn't remember a time when he was in my life, only the vast amount of time he wasn't.

And this is only a piece of what the emptiness feels like. It's only a piece of how grief evolves and changes. It's only a piece of the river that rages inside of me.

11 May 2015

Finding Grace

Read at Listen To Your Mother, The Bing Theater, Spokane, WA, May 10, 2015

The story goes that my dad was so happy on the day I was born (his first three babies were boys) that he left the hospital soon after the doctor came out to the waiting room to announce my birth, and he didn’t return until the next day.  He’d gone home to paint my room pink, and buy dresses to hang in my closet.

I was four months old when my father was diagnosed with cancer. My memories of those years are mostly blank, filled with other peoples’ stories of me and my dad.

But I remember this: I was picked up early from kindergarten one day and brought home to a house filled with people I didn’t want to see. The father who thought I was the center of the world was dead.

Grief settled into my bones.

What I craved most in my childhood was to be loved like my father loved me. I still do. Sometimes, I just want someone to buy me dresses and paint my room pink.

I grew up. I found love. I got married, then pregnant, had one and then two babies, a boy and a girl. When I was pregnant with our third child, it struck me that I was 36-years-old, the same age my mother was when her husband, my father, died, and like me, my son was five.

I looked at my son and the reflection of my 36-year-old self in the mirror, and I did what I was taught to do since I could fold my hands. I prayed. I prayed to a complicated God with whom I’ve had a complicated relationship that He protect me from the death of my husband. I prayed every night and went about my days as my belly grew from its second trimester into its third. Though I never said it out loud, I wanted this child to be a girl because I never had a sister, and I wanted to give my two-year-old daughter the sister I could never have. Also, I wanted to paint two rooms pink.

My prayers became fiercer as the due date loomed. Please, God, please keep my husband alive I whispered into the night. Then just like the world does sometimes, it tilted, and I discovered I’d been praying the wrong prayer. 

She’s dead.

What? I lean in because I can’t understand what the technician is saying as she pulls the Doppler from my belly.

I’m so sorry. Her heart is not beating.

My body goes numb, and a kind of hollowness and sorrow seeps inside unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I search my mind for a roadmap. I reach back 31 years to see if there is anything recognizable in this place of grief. 

My five-year-old self cannot help me. The death of my child feels nothing and everything like the death of my father.

On the night that labor is induced, my husband goes home to take care of our two living children because neither one of us can imagine them with anyone else, and while my other labors were short, we’ve been told that forced labor can take days. I lie alone in my hospital bed and put my five-year-old thumb in my mouth, squeeze my eyes shut and rock myself back and forth like a baby to try to stop the world from spinning. I can’t stop the spinning.

The worst part is not the grueling 24-hour labor after they’ve induced me and told me that I have to deliver my dead daughter vaginally. It’s not the falling asleep at night with visions of Grace’s body burning at ungodly temperatures until they eventually return her ashes to me in an urn so small it looks like it’s made for a hummingbird instead of a person.

It’s not the funeral.

The worst part, at least for a while, is that split second upon waking in the days and weeks and months afterwards when I have a joyful moment as I reach a hand toward my belly. But then I remember. And all joy falls away.

Joy is a terrible thing to lose along with your child.

My joy doesn’t disappear forever. It returns 2 ½ years later in the form of a healthy newborn son who spills into my arms on the way to the hospital. Over time I recognize that this joy I feel is larger than anything I’ve ever felt in spite of and because of the sorrow that I carry.

This sorrow becomes my roadmap for love.

And sometimes all it takes is seeing a closet full of dresses or a pink room to remember that this life can change in a moment.

Me and my dad in the picture

01 March 2015

The poetry book that saved my life!

A couple of different friends posted this powerful essay on Facebook today from the New York Times about a mother trying to reach out to her daughter when she was going through a difficult and dark period while she was in school.

At first, I was just reading it as I do any kind of essays that I find links to, and then I started weeping, and a kind of jealousy started to seep inside of me:

I wish someone put poetry inside my shoes when I was in high school.

I wish someone had seen in me the darkness I felt and tried to reach out.

I wish anyone believed in me back then.

But then, I remembered. Someone had. It was my sophomore English teacher who handed me my first book of poetry and told me I mattered.

My sophomore year of high school I took an English class from Mr. Tagami. I loved the way he made me feel as if I mattered--as if I was smart, as if I had something to contribute to the class. It was in his class that I felt my writing start to come alive.

Mr. Tagami made me feel like there was something within me worth holding onto.

Because of his faith in me and because I so desperately needed to feel like I mattered, I became his TA my junior year of high school. I'm not even sure they let students do that very often especially as a junior, but I think he knew I was on the verge of dropping out, and he made special arrangements to let me TA in his class. And...I loved it. I thrived in that class. He made me feel almost like a teacher to those sophomores who were only a year younger than me but felt a generation apart. On some days, it was Mr. Tagami's class that was the only thing that got me out of bed.

And it was right before our Christmas break that he handed me a book wrapped in paper. "Something to put under your tree," he said. Of course, I was barely out of the classroom when I tore the wrapping paper off of it.

It was a book. Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics.

And he inscribed it with something like this: To Sarah, who needs to just keep writing. Mr. Tagami.

Those weren't the exact words--because the book was stolen when I was in my late 20s when it was in storage in an apartment complex where my husband and I lived just after we got married. But I'd read over those words enough as a teen to know they are close. He told me to keep writing. He made me feel as if I mattered.

Like the daughter in this NY Times essay, I was lost. I was lost and on the verge of death most days. I fantasized about suicide, wrote poem after poem about death, was certain I was valued more dead than I would be alive because the thought of someone missing me felt as if someone would care.

"The most optimistic people often struggle the hardest. They can't quite square what's going on in the world with their beliefs, and the disparity is alarming.

"She was temporarily swamped at the intersection of grief over a bleak political landscape, transition to a mediocre high school, and the vast existential questions of a curious adolescent." -Betsy McWhinney

I was steeped in grief throughout high school, but I didn't know it then. I didn't understand it nor did I have words for it. My father had died ten years earlier, but we never talked about his death in our home. We didn't have conversations about him over dinner. I just knew that something was wrong with me. "A bastard child," is what some kids had called me, and I didn't even know what that was, but it felt so wrong that I knew something was wrong with me. And my oldest brother who stepped in as a father figure had left for college a few years before, and while he promised to stay in touch and come back to visit, his promises fell short of my expectations.

And then my middle brother left home too. He was five years older than me, so when I started eighth grade, he was gone. He too made promises he couldn't keep and rarely returned.

So as I understood it back then: Men leave.

It was in high school when my grief really manifested into unhealthy behaviors. Experimentation with food. I could go fourteen days on just a can of peaches and some zwieback crackers for breakfast, vegetable broth for lunch, a can of vegetable soup for dinner. Or I could eat nearly an entire pizza and then try my damndest to get rid of it quickly. Only I was terrible at vomiting so I'd heard someone once talk about Epsom salts, and I tried those. Fasting was easier, but there were times when I got terribly hungry.

When none of that worked to appease my grief, I turned to harder substances.

All of that to say, that none of it made sense in my brain, and while I tried to make sense of it, I also felt like I was dying on most days.

Mr. Tagami and a few other key people back then kept me alive without even knowing that they kept me alive. Or maybe they did know. I clung to that book at night and often fell asleep with it tucked under my pillow.

I know a hundred ways to die.
I’ve often thought that I’d try one
Lie down beneath a motor truck
Some day when standing by one.

Or throw myself from off a bridge—
Except such things must be
So hard upon the scavengers
And men that clean the sea.

I know some poison I could drink.
I’ve often thought I’d taste it.
But mother bought it for the sink,
And drinking it would waste it.

I imagined that motor truck again and again in my nights as I lie awake and made my lists of all the ways I might die. But it was that pen and that paper and Mr. Tagami who each day when I left would turn to me and say, "And I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow, Sarah," that kept me alive.

I can still remember the bleakness of life back then, the longing for things to seem better except that I had no understanding that it could be better. The days spilled out ahead of me toward loneliness and darkness.

It was this poetry book and Mr. Tagami's faith in me that somehow propelled me forward.

For that, and for so much more, I am eternally grateful.

19 January 2015


My seventeen-year-old is close to getting his driver's license. He is late to the party though as I understand it, many teens these days don't get their license until much later, some into their 20's. But he is nearly ready now. Class taken. Written tests passed. Fees paid. Only the driving test remains.

And...and...I realize I've been dragging my feet. He even called me on it a few weeks ago: "Mom, why are you so opposed to me getting my license?"

Is it that obvious?

What I wish I could tell him, what I wish I could really say has so much more to do about me and my own emotional state than his. It is my fears that rise up in me as I see him slipping away.

It is not that I am opposed to his driving; in fact, on many levels it would be helpful. A run to the grocery store? Sure. Can you drive yourself to the gym tonight? Okay. Can you take your little brother to soccer practice? Well...maybe not.

But here's the real truth of my own fear. It is the memory of my own license that clouds my joy for him:

On the day I got my license, I drove across town, staring down at the map my mother always left in the car. You know the kind: the Thomas Guides, large books that had page after page after page of streets on them. I carefully had it laid out on the passenger seat, trying to navigate across town to the cemetery I'd called earlier in the day.

I was on a mission. I was looking for my father's grave.

Ever since I remember, I counted the days to getting my license so that I could visit my father's grave. I hadn't remembered ever going before as a child; I don't remember if I ever went back after we lowered him into the ground when I was five years old. We rarely talked about him. My mother always believed that going to his grave was not going to visit him. She didn't believe he was there. For me, his grave was the only physicality I had, the proof that he ever existed.

I knew to never speak about him at the dinner table or in our house because it might make my mother sad. Was I told to not mention his name or was that just the obvious state of things in our house? I don't know. Though my oldest brother has told me that if we brought it up, we'd make her sad and so maybe what all of us were doing was trying to project one another from sadness. Though now, I realize how ridiculous that is.

So on my sixteenth birthday, I drove and drove up and down hills, through the cemetery, stopping at the information kiosk trying to keep it together as I was handed a map of the cemetery and my father's grave was circled in pencil. I drove up the winding road to the bluff overlooking the ocean and walked over to where my father had been for the last eleven years. Buried in the ground. On a hill. Overlooking the ocean.

It was my sixteenth birthday.
I had gotten my license that day.
I drove to my father's grave, laid on top of it and wept for nearly an hour. Those hard core sobs that rise up inside of you from places unknown and make your ribs hurt for days afterwards.

That is my memory of getting my license.

That is why, I realize, on an ordinary Sunday in the middle of winter that I have been dragging my feet about my oldest son's driver's license acquisition. I have been avoiding that memory of the day I got my license until he brought up his own. My own throat tightened, my memories of that darkness rose up, and now it's time to let it go.

This is not his story.
This is not what he will do on his first day.
This is not my license.

This is his license. And it will become his story to remember.