To The Nice Lady on Michigan Avenue Who Told Me I Was A Good Mom

I’m tired. It’s a tiredness born from from stress.

A week ago I had reconstruction surgery on my breasts after having a mastectomy last March to rid me of breast cancer. Everything went well, there were no surprises, and I consider myself lucky. I had my follow up appointment with the plastic surgeon, who seemed pleased with his work. I’m still sore, swollen and bruised, so it’s hard for me to agree at this point, but we’ll see.

I brought my little girl along for the two hour trek into the city. She was perfect at the plastic surgeon’s office, wonderful at The Museum of Contemporary Art, adorable at the playground. But…The Disney Store was one outing too much and her meltdown ensued right there on Michigan Avenue. I pleaded, “I can’t carry you because of my boo – boo.”

And that’s when you appeared.

You were older, maybe 70, and very nicely dressed. You told my daughter you loved her sparkly Hello Kitty boots and pink baret. You said they were nicer than any shoes you had. My daughter hid behind me and didn’t talk. You smiled at us. Then your expression turned serious and you said. “You’re doing a good job.”

And then you were gone.

You have no idea what that meant to me at that moment. Your affirmation made my day, and this was no normal day — It was a day I cleared a major medical hurdle. But at that moment you spoke directly to the heart of who I am. You somehow knew what I needed to hear.

And I thank you.

Even More Small Things That Make Me Way Too Happy

  1. Clean sheets.
  2. When Pandora “gets” me.
  3. When sesame crunchies are on the salad bar.
  4. When my dog keeps my feet warm.
  5. Salsa.
  6. The smell of a brand new book.
  7. Hazelnut cookies.
  8. G-2 pens.
  9. The travel size section at Walgreens.
  10. Having a show to binge watch.

When I Wasn’t Looking

  1. My hair started graying
  2. My son stopped watching cartoons.
  3. My son started using words like “actually” and “ludicrous.”
  4. My joints started creaking.
  5. My clothes stopped fitting right. 
  6. My eyes got worse.
  7. My son started making his own breakfast.
  8. My son started putting himself to sleep at night.
  9. My son stopped being afraid of thunder.
  10. My soul got calmer.

Alternate Names For My Husband

  1. Irritable Bowelius Cesear  — His Roman Name
  2. Sir Snacksalot — His Knight Name
  3. Hopalong Hernia — His Cowboy Name
  4. Appendicitis Rex — His Dinosaur Name
  5. Billy Poang — His IKEA Name
  6. Norden Ektorp — His other IKEA Name
  7. Toenail Talons — His Street Fighter Name
  8. The Amazing Belly Laugher — His Circus Performer Name
  9. Ex Pensive — His Rap Star Name
  10. Pubic Zirconia — His Stripper Name

Whales and Grief

Even on my best days I feel unsettled and disoriented. When I leave the house I check my purse several times to make sure I have everything — phone, keys, wallet — it’s all there. I go through a mental checklist, but I’m still uneasy. Then it hits me — It’s not something I’m missing, but someone.

I’ve written about how hard this time of year is for me. Seven years ago this month, my oldest son died from brainwinged-heart cancer just when he was supposed to go into fifth grade. Each day that passes in August I feel my chest grow tighter and my nerves shorter. I can’t concentrate. I have flashbacks and PTSD. I brace myself for the 24th, and again two days later for when we buried him on the 26th. And then Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts in September — but let’s be clear — I’m never not aware.

I followed the recent news story of a mother outside of Seattle so consumed by grief she refused to let go of her deceased baby for seventeen days. Medical professionals who observed her behavior said they’d never seen anything like it. They were worried for her health and even her survival. She neglected to eat. Her family never left her side. They tried to help, in fact, relatives took turns holding her baby so she wouldn’t starve or become exhausted. She became exhausted anyway, but still wouldn’t let go.

I understand this momma’s heartache. It doesn’t really matter that she’s a whale and I’m a person. Grief transcends species and manifests similarly among bereaved mothers.

Scientists wonder if the orca, named Tahlequah, actually experienced grief or if we humans projected the emotion onto her. The fancy word for this is anthropomorphism. Well, I’m no scientist but I don’t think I’m projecting. I think it’s arrogant to assume we are the only species capable of primal and even complex emotions. I recognize a sister in bereavement when I see one. I can’t deny Tahlequah the authenticity of her heartache, which was on obvious display for two-and-a-half weeks.

Like Tahlequah, I know what it’s like to not let go. I held onto my son for ninety-six days while he lay in a coma in the PICU at Children’s Hospital. At first he was minimally responsive to my voice and touch — his increased heart rate was his response. I passed long hours each day holding him and whispering I love you in his ear. Summer progressed and the tumor snaked throughout his brain, and eventually his vitals stopped indicating if he knew I was there. Still, I held him. I knew he would die when the cancer finally touched the part of his brain that controlled his heartbeat.

One morning in late August, a concerned social worker gently asked my husband and me why we thought our son was still here when he should have died months ago. I said, “For the love.” My words hung in the air when his heart rate monitor went silent and his lips turned gray.

I told my best friend I would have held him for another ninety-six days if I had the chance. She said, who are you kidding you would have done it forever.

It’s torture to never hug, kiss, touch, tickle or hold hands with my son again. No more wiped tears, kissed boo-boos, or counted freckles. High-fives, winks and pats on the back are gone. I can never crack his toes. His voice and (oh, god) his laugh — what can I say…

Some people might say I’m anthropomorphizing to think Tahlequah knew what she would lose when she finally let go of her baby, but I know there’s no other explanation to hold on like she did.  It is a desperate and crazed way to prolong the inevitable — the real hell — that begins the next morning when you wake up without them.

It is now seven years after the first morning I woke up without him. I’m afraid still when I cry it will be impossible to stop. There’s a scientific myth that the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years, essentially making us different people from whom we were before. Except for neurons in the brain. Those don’t change. Those will hold my memories of my baby forever. 

Drinking Games

  1. margarita-transparentTake a drink every time I enter a room but have no idea why I came in.
  2. Take a drink every time I ask, “Where’s my _________________?”
  3. Take a drink every time someone asks, “What’s for dinner?”
  4. Take a drink every time I pick up someone else’s dirty dishes.
  5. Take a drink every time I sit in front of the computer but forget what I wanted to google.
  6. Take a drink every time my husband can’t find his phone.
  7. Take a drink every time my daughter asks for a new toy.
  8. Take a drink every time my son can’t find his shoes.
  9. Take a drink every time I have to pee in the middle of the night. (counterproductive?)
  10. Take a drink every time I sit down to write but forget my train of thought.

A Small Medium At Large

I don’t remember exactly how long it was after my son’s death — maybe a year — when I saw an ad in the local paper for a “spiritual gallerywinged-heart-love-transparent” with a psychic medium who could connect attendees with deceased loved ones. I made a reservation using a shorter version of my first name and paid cash when I arrived. There was no way to do any background research on me.

The psychic medium was a young woman named Nikki, and she was very nervous. She admitted it was her first time doing an event like this. About eight of us turned out, including my husband. Nikki was a tiny wisp of a woman with long hair and a sweet face. She clutched a large Diet Coke from Burger King and occasionally took long sips, and long pauses, throughout the session. Oddly, for someone so tiny and cute, she was also a former US Marine.

I’ve had readings with several psychic mediums before and after that first session with Nikki. Some were world renown. Some had television shows. One charged so much money I’m embarrassed to admit what we paid. All of them start out with generalizations and engage in what seems like fishing. I don’t fall for this and only play along to a certain extent. I wait patiently for them to say something so personal and private and specific that there’s no earthly way for them to know this detail about me or my loved one. Few psychic mediums deliver something that makes me sit up and think well that’s interesting! It happened occasionally with the famous ones, it happened with the expensive one, but among all the psychic mediums, tiny Nikki said the most personal and unexpected things.

Nikki said a prayer on her rosary before starting her spiritual gallery, and wound up giving everyone in the room a personal reading that lasted about fifteen minutes each. She was exhausted by the end of the session. I don’t remember what she said to anyone else that day, but what she told me still remains vivid.

At first I thought Nikki winged it. She spoke about my father coming through, and then my mother, but the information seemed too general. The facts applied to my parents, like they were in love their whole lives, they died months apart from lung issues, my dad was sarcastic — but none of it was personal enough to make me a believer. Then it got more interesting. Nikki said my mom was with a young blood relative and was holding his hand. He’s running around and it’s important to him to show that he’s able to do that. She claimed he wants me to give all his toys to his little brother (I had not mentioned a little brother). She was surprised there wasn’t also a little sister at home (not yet!).

And then it happened. Nikki took a long sip from her Diet Coke, then asked if I ever cracked my son’s toes. I immediately began to cry.

Who cracks another person’s toe knuckles? It’s one of those weird, embarrassing, idiosyncratic quirks that should never be revealed beyond immediate family, yet somehow Nikki knew my son and I did this all the time. I asked her how she knew, and she said, “He cracked my toe.” The lady in the front row confirmed she heard it crack during my reading. I was amazed.

black-blue-scribbled-heartNikki finished the session by saying our loved ones constantly leave us signs, and they are always with us. Their heaven is watching us and they want us to be happy.

The famous psychic with the television show told me a person is supposed to have one amazing reading that blows their mind, and then move on with their life.

But that’s not what happened. I wanted Nikki to be a telephone line to my son. I was desperate and hopeful and wanted to connect with him on a regular basis. I returned to her galleries every four months (or so) over the next three years (I noticed the same people there as well). I wanted to know if my son was with us at such-and-such a place, or if he came along to some other family event. I wanted to feel like a complete family again and this was the closest I could come. I also wanted more signs — obvious, unmistakable ones. But the more I went to see Nikki the more depressed I got. With each subsequent visit I experienced diminishing returns. Over time, Nikki had less and less to tell me.

I realized I wasn’t being fair to Nikki. She’s not a telephone with a direct line to my son. That’s not her job. Her job is to give me comfort, let me know my son is okay, and assure me that love endures all obstacles including death.

Eventually, I stopped seeing her, although once in a while I think about making another appointment. Every year around this time I feel a strong urge to connect with my son — he died at the end of August, just when he should have been going back to school. All month I brace myself for the day he died, and two days later for the day we buried him. I have flashbacks…the funeral director telling us to “kiss him goodnight” before he shut the coffin (the same wood finish as his bedroom set). If I close my eyes I can see handfuls of dirt fall on top of the burial vault until our family and friends, one by one, finish the  Jewish ritual of dropping pieces of earth into his grave.

Aside from the birth of my daughter, the only thing that truly helped me with grief was seeing Nikki. They say time heals all wounds. Well, I’m still waiting…