Last words

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Image by PorterBriggs.com.

That was grief, I say to myself. It makes us dark and a little crazy.”

Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour

I cried when I finished reading The Bright Hour. I suppose a lot of folks will, too. I mean, come on, a beautiful and vibrant mother of two dying from breast cancer at 39 is the stuff Lifetime tear-jerkers are made of. Oh, and no spoiler alert needed here – the full title of Riggs’ book is The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

Before you even turn over the cover you know how this story ends. That’s not why I cried. I cried because there would be no more beautiful words to read.

Nina Riggs was one hell of a writer.

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Nina smiles.  Photo courtesy of John Duberstein.

I first read her words in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last September. Her piece was entitled When a Couch is More Than a Couch and she stood me still with her words – her luminescent and lyrical words – as she wrote about her obsessive search for the perfect living room couch while propped up in her bed weak from the venom of metastatic breast cancer.

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How a couch became a book. Illustration by Brian Rea.

She writes of being able to let go of a lot of things – like plans – but she cannot figure out how to let go of mothering her two young boys.

“So maybe I don’t try to figure it out. Maybe I just aim to get the couch right: strong bones, high-quality leather, something earthy and animal and real. A surface that knows something of what it was to be alive, that warms to our touch and cools in our absence.”

I read many parts of this piece and her book out loud – just to myself – so that I could hear the words – lovely and melancholy at the same time – like wind chimes in the distance on a breezy summer night. You are soothed but a little unsettled by the storm you sense is coming. You linger in the sound, savoring a moment that has already passed.

It’s funny. I genuinely loathe summer but something about Nina’s writing reminded me of the best parts of it. If you could capture her writing in a photograph – an old school photograph taken with a real camera like my father’s Argus 35 mm, I think the image revealed would be a mason jar filled with fireflies. The darkroom illuminated by her prose.

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Capturing Nina.

One of my favorite passages in The Bright Hour – and there are many – my copy is drenched in yellow highlighting – is the chapter entitled What Death Is. Nina writes about her father taking her youngest son, Benny, on a ride on his motorcycle. She has decidedly mixed emotions about allowing this saying “this is objectively not a prudent idea – or possibly even legal one. It’s something else completely: perilous and fantastic.”

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My copy glows in the dark.

Her father tells her about a time that he could tell Benny was falling asleep on the back of the bike – he could feel his grip slacken around his waist. He gently jostled his grandson and told him that he had to stay awake to hold on. Benny says, “But it sure felt good.”

“I think of this feeling sometimes – and I can imagine that sort of letting go: warm, dangerous, seductive. What if this is what death is: The engine beneath you steady; those that hold you strong; the sun warm?

I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to fall into that, to loosen the grip at the waist, let gravity and fate take over – like a thought so good you can’t stop having it.”

Wind chimes…

There’s also a brilliant tiny chapter, Say Please, that will make you never hear that word quite the same way again. She makes a list for her boys about why “please” is so important:

“Because the s in please is the sweetest sound, like steam rising after a summer shower, like a baby whispering in his bed.

Because you are human, and it is your nature to ask for more.

Because want, need – those unlit cul-de-sacs – are too perilous unadorned.”

Those sentences remind me of fresh peaches. Sweet and juicy, their stickiness hard to shake.

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I want a bushel of Nina’s writing.

Nina is never precious with her words and has a wicked good sense of humor, no doubt reflective of her New England roots and I laughed out loud in several places such as her description of a “twentysomething-year-old grief counselor with a handshake like a silk scarf.” You know this handshake. Gross.

Nina’s mother, Jan, died 18 months before her daughter after living with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, for several years. She is in the shadows of almost every page of The Bright Hour – keeping watch over her daughter’s pilgrimage. Having lost my own mother an unfathomable 15 years ago, I had to remind myself to breathe at some of the passages Nina shares about her mom – like when her mother, after a failed clinical trial, declares that she does not want to do any more treatment.

“My mom: my map, my Sistine Chapel, my Lonely Planet, my beautiful ruin, my volcano.”

It’s hard to imagine how Nina was able to complete her memoir while living and dying and all the noisy in-between. I know she was inspired by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne – she references his writing several times in the book – but maybe she also heard the muse of the Swiss philosopher, Amiel, who advised to “Work while you still have the light.”

The Bright Hour is saturated in light and a reverent clarity that perhaps only limited time can give.

I never met Nina and I’ve felt a little like a cyberstalker since I read that Modern Love piece. I Googled her to find everything she had ever written and started following her on Twitter.

That’s how I knew she had entered Hospice care in late February. Her final tweet sounds like a Patty Griffin ballad – a little sad, a little hopeful. The kind of song that makes you want to have a slow beer with a good friend.

Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.

Nina died before the sun came up on February 26th and this week, The Bright Hour reached Number 14 on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list and was selected as an Editors’ Choice.

I’m not sure even Nina would have the words for all this surreality but if she did you can bet that they would surely slay me.

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Go Nina! Photo courtesy of Marysue Rucci.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brace for impact

A few weeks ago, my godmother sent me a hamsa necklace—a beautiful, delicate silver chain with a hamsa dangling from it, a hand with an eye in the middle of the palm. The hamsa symbolizes different things in different cultures. My godmother bought mine for me as a symbol of protection. It wards off bad luck and evil, and brings positive things into one’s life. I’ve been wearing the necklace every day.

I’ll admit, life got better after I got my necklace. The last few weeks have been uneventful, stress free, calm. Quite a difference from pretty much the entire month of May.

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May was challenging. You know how 2016 was the worst year ever? Well, my friend Addy says that 2017, it’s like the ghost of 2016 coming back to haunt us. Lingering ghosts trying to stir shit up.

This year, these past six months, it has been marked by transitions—big and small. I have friends who have gotten divorced, landed new jobs, quit their old ones, moved to new states, started entirely new lives. For me, there are some life-changing things on the horizon—equally exciting and terrifying at the same time.

May felt like a shedding of what was. Things have been stripped from me—possessions, health, vulnerability, confidence. Things that matter, and things that don’t.

During the 30 days in May, I: got into a car accident, had a near-death experience, and totaled my car; learned I needed back surgery days later; got diagnosed with PCOS the week after that; suddenly found myself in a complete upheaval of my department; oh, and had back surgery. I think that’s it.

May started out with a bang. Literally. It was May 1st. A Monday. The weather was overcast and windy, with a spitty rain off and on all day. I left work early for a doctor’s appointment. That day, I detoured from my usual route because I had to stop at my friend Tina’s house to drop off frozen pork dumplings for our supper club dinner that night. It put me on the other side of town, requiring me to get on the interstate. I only needed to be on the highway for less than a mile to get to the next exit.

I was rushing, in a hurry, impatient. I was listening to Pink! on the radio. “Just Like Fire.” I was belting out the chorus as I accelerated onto the highway. 50, 55, 60. I cranked the volume. Something caught my eye through the windshield. I looked up through the glass and saw a towering pine tree falling toward my car. I watched the whole thing happen, but in slow motion. I felt like I was in a movie like in “Twister” when the cow goes flying past the front of the pick-up truck during the tornado. Except in my case, there was no tornado. Everything around me went silent. I actually thought to myself in that split second: This is it. Not as in “this is it, it’s going to hit me,” but as in “this is it, I’m going to die.”

I instinctually turned the wheel to the left as the tree simultaneously slammed down onto my car. “It’s physics,” a colleague would tell me days later. “Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”

That sound. That familiar sound. Metal. Glass shattering like thousands of wine glasses dropped on the kitchen floor. The weight of the tree. The impact. How I held my breath. Held onto the wheel. Tensed up. Closed my eyes. My shoulders were in my ears. I never screamed. All I said was one word: Fuck.

I opened my eyes, slammed on my breaks, and then braced myself, waiting for the cars behind me to slam into the back of me. It was nearing 4 o’clock. Traffic was picking up. But there were no tire squeals, screeching of rubber, just silence and the smell of burning electrical wires. It was like I was in a bubble. No one was around me.

My windshield was completely smashed. Bits of glass coated the dashboard, the seats, the floor. I turned and looked at the passenger seat, covered in glass, thankful that no one was with me.

Am I still here?  I thought. Am I really here?

I was stuck in a moment where I felt like I had left this earth.

***

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First accident.

I got into my first car accident when I was 17. I had left school early that day for an orthodontist appointment. I grew up in rural northeast Pennsylvania, lots of two-lane roads with curves. I don’t remember much about the initial impact. There was a brown van, and an older gentleman. I had just come around a bend, and over a small hill when I saw his car in the approaching lane, drifting over the double yellow line. What I remember most is the sound. The crunching of metal, glass shattering—my windshield. And then the force that feels like the pressure against your body when a roller coaster makes its first drop, and the belt across your chest presses against your body, holding you back. My box of cassette tapes in the back seat flew into the front of the car and were scattered everywhere. I was playing the Rent soundtrack. (I was an obsessed super fan.) I never listened to it again after that day.

When I opened my eyes, I was on the other side of the road, my car perpendicular. Bits and pieces of broken glass like crushed ice were everywhere. I burst into tears. I was shaking. The force of our two cars slamming into each other knocked the pony tail out of my hair. Strands of my hair hung in my face. I was confused. Scared. Through my cracked windshield, I looked at my crumpled hood and thought of movies with car crashes, fire, explosions. I unbuckled my seat belt and threw open the door. A man came from somewhere and crouched down next to me asking if I was OK. All I kept saying was “I want my mom,” over and over and over. He was behind me. Saw the whole accident happen. He told me to stay in the car. “You might be hurt.” “No, my car is going to blow up,” I told him, trying to stand up and untangle myself from my seatbelt. Lead. My legs felt like lead. He wrote down my phone number on a piece of paper and promised he’d call my parents; they took off work that day to clean the basement. They never heard the phone ring. They didn’t know anyone had called until they saw the red blinking light on the answering machine. By then, I was already at the ER. They saw my car on the side of the road before they saw me. I walked away with a sore chest and a bruise on my face; I think it hit the steering wheel.

An ambulance and police arrived. School had just let out. I stood on the side of the road crying watching school buses pass. “Looks like I hit you pretty good.” I turned to my right and an older man, 60s, 70s, was standing next to me. He was wearing a fisherman’s hat, the kind with the floppy brim, and tinted sunglasses—amber. He said it with a laugh, and continued to stand next to me smirking. It took me a few seconds before I realized this was the guy who hit me. Why was he laughing about it? A wave of warmth came over my entire body. My heart started to race. I wanted to punch him. Hard. Instead I took a few steps away from him to put distance between us. My English teacher, Mr. Dowd, was on his way home from school when he saw me on the side of the road. He pulled over on the shoulder, and as he walked toward me, concern on his face, I started to cry.

In the ambulance, the EMS tech was a kid from my high school. He was a grade or two older than me. I couldn’t remember if he had graduated. His last name was Price. I wish I could remember his first name. I never really knew him, but he was so nice to me that day. His compassion surprised me. He talked me through everything he was doing or about to do. I tried to refuse the back stretcher, but he said it was a precaution to protect my spine in case of injury. It was hard plastic like a sliding board. He talked to me the whole ride to the hospital, calmed me down. I think I may have even laughed.

Mr. Dowd met me at the hospital. He was the first face I saw when they pulled me out of the ambulance. He stayed with me until my parents arrived. My mom cried.

I suffered a few bruises and some pain across my chest and arm from my seat belt. My car was totaled. I remember hearing later that the guy who hit me fell asleep at the wheel.

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The following night, we went to see my car at the junk lot. My little Nissan looked like an elephant sat on it. The right side of my car was crumpled, a ball of twisted, mangled metal. The right door was caved in. The right side of the windshield smashed. The frame of the car’s roof was bent. My mom said I was lucky to be alive. I didn’t know the accident was that bad until I heard her say that.

***

I knew while the pine tree was plummeting toward my car that I was close to death because I watched it all happen. I was consciously aware of the fragility of life. With my other accident, it caught me by surprise. I didn’t realize I was hit until I opened my eyes and realized I was on the other side of the road.

I pulled my car over to the shoulder and crept along for a few feet before coming to a rolling stop. I felt like a zombie. I took out my phone but suddenly forgot how to dial 911. I kept pressing on different apps, opening them up, then closing them. I was shaking. I finally got to the phone pad and dialed 911. I was trembling but calm—surprisingly calm. I had done this before, just six months ago when four teenage boys threw a pumpkin at my car while I was driving. It instantly smashed my windshield into a thousand pieces. My dog was with me in the back seat. Other than a small piece of glass sticking out of my middle finger, we were both OK. The police never caught the kids.

My voice was steady as I talked to the operator. Words came out of my mouth, but I felt like someone else was speaking. I kept scanning my body for injuries, blood, cuts and found nothing. I called AAA, then my doctor’s office to cancel my appointment, and then my husband, Andrew. When I ran out of people to call, I stepped out of the car and walked around the front to assess the damage. The hood was sunken in. The windshield looked like someone took a baseball bat to it. My side mirror was gone. Pine cones rested on the rear wiper. It smelled like sap and pine needles. I sat in the back seat of the car and waited for Andrew. The air was heavy like a wet blanket. It started to drizzle. I kept the car door open and listened to the rush of traffic passing by. I stared at my hand wrapped around my phone, resting in my lap.

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For the next two days I operated on autopilot. The night of my accident I still went to supper club. I was going to go to work the next day, but my husband talked me into staying home. I just wanted to move forward.

Two days later, I found out I needed back surgery. I fell on black ice in January getting out of my husband’s truck, and after four months of pain, acupuncture, physical therapy and chiropractic adjustments, I wasn’t improving. An MRI revealed a chipped disc, and a piece of that disc was lodged, crushing my sciatic nerve. Surgery was the only solution.

When my doctor told me the news. I sighed and nodded my head. I knew my fate before he gave me the results. My reaction was of acceptance, or maybe it was indifference. I was pretty numb that week.

“Oh, well,” I said to my husband as we stood on the sidewalk outside my doctor’s office in the late afternoon sunshine.

“At least we know the problem, and it can be fixed,” he said. My husband is always the reassurer when I’m feeling defeated.

We kissed goodbye. Andrew went back to work, and I went to the autobody shop to clean out my car. The insurance company was towing it to the auction yard the next day.

The receptionist gave me instructions on where to enter through the gate. “Your car should be on the right, toward the end of the lot.”

“Awww, it’s like going to the graveyard. So sad,” I said. She frowned as she handed me the keys. They felt old and familiar.

I got in my rental car and crawled along through the chain-link gate and started scanning the row of smashed cars. Missing fenders, hoods crumpled like accordions, entire front portions of cars missing. I spotted the front of my car poking out from the row of misfit cars and pulled up in front of it. As my car came into full view—battered and broken—hot tears welled up in my eyes. My little car looked so vulnerable out there in the open, exposed, showing all of its scars. There was nothing to hide. My car looked sad, if cars can look sad, broken, defeated. I put the car in park and lowered my head and took a deep breath like I was about to enter a boxing ring. I stepped out of the car and stood in front of mine speechless. It looked worse than I remembered. How did I walk away from that? I stood there in disbelief.

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Tears poured down my face as I opened the door and started to stuff the contents into canvas bags I brought with me. CDs, hand sanitizer, pens, old receipts. I thought about how this was the first car I bought on my own without the help of my parents. I bought it with my ex-husband. I had the car for 10 years. It lasted three times as long as my marriage. This was the last physical thing that connected me to him. In that sense, it felt good in a way to let my car go. But my tears weren’t about him or our failed marriage. That didn’t matter anymore. It was the memories that came after.

I had good times in my car. Bad memories, and great ones. I rode in the back seat of it with my dog Yoshi for the last time on the way to the vet. Windows down. April. Spring. Blue sky. His furry neck under my fingertips. It was my rescuer when I left my ex-husband in the middle of the night. It’s been to the beach, the mountains, New York, South Carolina. Andrew drove us home in it after we got married under an archway of fragrant jasmine. We had our first kiss standing outside of it. After my miscarriage, I sat in my car a long time and sobbed in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, trying to collect myself before I drove home and found the strength to share the news with Andrew. We brought our dog Molly home from the shelter in it, her claws digging into the back seat, unsure of us, unsure of this metal thing on wheels, unsure of what the next chapter of her life would look like.

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Just married car selfie.

While I stuffed my belongings into bags, a guy from the shop approached me and asked if I needed help.

“You OK?” he asked while removing my license plate.

“Yeah,” my voice cracked as I tried to release the words, “just shaken up. It’s hard seeing it again.”

“Everyone OK? Were you OK?”

I nodded as I continued to collect my things, trying to hide my tear-streaked face.

“I see this happen a lot. It’s common when people see their cars again. It’s a shock.” He was tall, about 250 pounds, bald. He was wearing a muscle shirt. Black. Not the kind of guy I would peg as sentimental. “People get attached to their cars.”

He went on to tell me about this own accident a few years ago. He was knocked unconscious and airlifted to a hospital. He handed my bike rack to me and my license plate. “Sorry this happened. Cars can be replaced. People can’t.”

I thanked him, put the last bag in my trunk, and did one final clean sweep of my car. Beads of sweat were rolling down my chest. It was humid, and the sun was beating down on me in the dusty gravel lot.

I shut each of the four doors I had left open. One by one, I walked around the car gently closing each one. When I came to the final door, the passenger door, I looked around my car at all the glass sparkling in the sunlight. With my things removed, it no longer looked like my car. It looked like what was. I started to cry. As the door left my hand and shut, it felt symbolic, like I was closing the door on a chapter of my life. I put my hands together like a prayer. My lips tasted like salt from my tears as I whispered to my car: thank you. … thank you for keeping me safe.

***

My acupuncturist says that all of these changes, these things that feel like they’ve been taken away from me, it’s like I’m shedding my old life to prepare for my new one and the positive changes that are looming in my life. I like that interpretation.

I dreamt about snakes the other night. I was walking into a backyard that resembled my grandmother’s. There was a thick snake, the width of a kitchen sink pipe, stretched out dead across a large boulder. Its head was cut off, missing. Its blood had stained the stone; it looked like spilled Kool-Aid, a deep cherry red. I sat in a lawn chair, the kind with bands of fabric like seat belts decorated in ‘70s style orange, red and white. I glanced down at the grass and a skinny black snake was slithering up the leg of the chair. I made eye contact with its lime green eyes, and it hissed at me and showed its sharp, pointy fangs. I awoke, kicking my legs violently under the sheets. I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

What does it mean? There are still snakes to slay? Skin left to shed? Who am I growing into? And who am I leaving behind? It’s too soon to know, to tell.

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***

Cupcakes, percocet and Wanda Sykes


My days have blurred together. I know it’s Monday, but have no idea what the date is. I’ve been in a percocet haze for the last six days. It makes my head feel swimmy. Six days ago I had minor back surgery due to a fall on black ice earlier this year in January. After months of going to the chiropractor, doing physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, I finally got an MRI done, which revealed I had chipped a disc between my L5 and S1, and the piece that broke off was lodged somewhere it’s not supposed to be and crushing my sciatic nerve. I had no choice but to have surgery to fix the problem if I ever wanted to be pain free again and return to my normal life of yoga, running, and cardio. All my surgeon had to do was make a 1 ½ inch incision, pull back my muscle, remove the broken chip and cleanup my disc where it broke off. Piece. Of. Cake.

Back surgery. I was terrified. There are so many nerves. So many risks. I was afraid I’d wake up from the surgery and be a paraplegic. This is a place my mind often goes to automatically: worst case scenario. But my neurosurgeon assured me “I’m going to take very good care of you,” and held my hand before I went into surgery, and when I came out. And he was right, he did.

Sporting my sexy scrubs before surgery.

My days since my surgery have been filled with percoset induced naps, marathons of the Golden Girls and Gilmore Girls, books and magazines. Each day, I try to walk a little farther than the day before. I have a plastic pedometer from Walgreens that I’ve strapped to the waistband of my pants to track my steps. I’m so glad I have this to feed my competitive nature. Early on, I had one day where I only took 100 steps. Yesterday, I walked 1,460 steps. Today, I’m up to 1,064 and I’ve only been awake four hours. Progress!

My first venture outside post-op

I’m looking at this down time as a gift to rest, something I haven’t been able to do much of lately. I have no schedule, no agenda, no appointments, no meetings to attend, or projects to work on. I’m learning to be happy doing nothing. However, I hit a bit of a low point yesterday when I took a selfie of my bun, yes my bun, and posted it on Instagram. I got a little bored, so I put my hair up in a bun for the first time and wanted to share my achievement during this growing out phase of my hair. After that, I watched Wanda Sykes’ standup comedy routine and ate ice cream out of the jar in bed. It was pretty fantastic. Even though I’m a Type A personality and have a hard time doing nothing, I’m pretty good at being a patient. I’ve had a lot of practice with it.

Bun selfie.

I got sick a lot as a kid. Flu, viruses, colds, even pneumonia. I was in kindergarten or first grade when I got hit with pneumonia. I remember feeling like I was walking through a swimming pool of water every day, my body weak and heavy. I remember getting x-rays taken and putting on a heavy, gray apron over my clothing. I was wearing a royal blue short-sleeve blouse with white elephants. The vest felt heavy like lead. I liked the feeling of this extra weight against my body, like I was wearing a suit of armor to protect me. I think I was sick for a week.

I never minded being home sick from school. I watched Scooby Doo and colored in the new coloring books my mom stopped to get me at the drugstore on the way home from the doctor. I usually got a fresh pack of crayons to go with it. I looked forward to taking my medicine, swallowing spoonfuls of thick pink liquid that smelled, looked, and tasted like bubble gum. My mom made me hot chocolate from the Swiss Miss packets and added a fluffy cloud of whipped cream. She served it in my favorite Garfield mug. Every morning she made me cinnamon toast with the perfect ratio of sugar to butter. I still make that for myself whenever I’m sick.

I’ve always been a good patient. I didn’t complain, sulk or wish I were in school. I liked being home watching cartoons, coloring, eating lunch with my mom. I remember when I got the flu in 4th grade, I missed a week of school. I watched Benji movies and felt a tightness in my throat whenever he encountered danger as he struggled to find his way back home. My mom brought our black and white TV from the kitchen to my bedroom and set it up on a TV dinner table so I could watch TV in bed. I felt like a princess. She checked on me throughout the day bringing me something yummy to eat each time: red Jell-O, a can of ginger ale with a straw, and cupcakes—always cupcakes. They were the kind you get from the grocery store that come in packs of six. Vanilla with whipped frosting that made your teeth turn colors.

I ignored all homework. My best friend Kimmy brought my homework assignments to me. I didn’t do all of them because I was too tired, but also because I had better things to do like watch Benji movies and eat cupcakes. That Monday when I finally returned to school, my teacher, Mrs. Perrault, made me take all the quizzes I missed all at once. I still joke today that she was the toughest teacher I had. She loaded us up with homework every night in every subject. I got in trouble once for rolling my eyes and sighing audibly when she added yet another assignment to our homework. She seemed to take turns embarrassing her students in front of the class. I think she enjoyed it. Anyway, I got an F on my quiz on the 13 colonies. (I was never one for history.) My score was somewhere in the 40s I think. I just remember her red pen marks slashing through my answers—and non-answers—on the paper. She also gave me a quiz on the book we were supposed to be reading: “Dear Mr. Henry.” I hated that book and of course didn’t keep up with my reading while I was out sick because, you know, Benji. I made up answers to most of the questions.

Even as a kid I noticed that I got sick a lot more than the other kids at school. I was always fascinated by my classmates who finished the school year with perfect attendance. I should have gotten an award for most days missed from school.

I’ve always been the type of person who gets diagnosed with rare things. I once had a rheumatologist send me down the hallway to her colleague’s office, a dermatologist, so he could take a picture of my hands. She had just diagnosed me with aquagenic wrinkling of the palms, a rare condition that causes the skin on palms to wrinkle more than normal after being submerged in water. She also telephoned her daughter, a med student, to swing by her office so she could witness this rare occurrence. I wonder if my hands are in some medical journal I don’t know about.

Even this thing with my back. So random. I fell stepping out of my husband’s 4Runner. My foot hit black ice and I fell forward. Hard. I couldn’t just walk away with bruised knees and an aching back. Nope. I had to have surgery. I’m complex like that.

We like to think of our bodies as indestructible, at least I do. But we’re actually very fragile beings. Our bodies are kind of like cars. Every once and a while, something breaks, and we need to go in for a tune up. And sometimes that tune up is longer and more complex than we had expected. So I’m going to sink in to what is, fluff my pillows, take as many naps as I need, eat as many cupcakes as I want, and trust that my body will let me know when it’s time to do more. Now excuse me, the Young & the Restless is coming on in five minutes. …

Cupcakes + Gilmore Girls = best medicine

Coming to the mat

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My morning began today with about 50 other yogis gathered mat-to-mat in our yoga teacher’s new studio space. She opened the doors this morning to her first yoga class, and we all gathered to set positive intentions for the space.

Before we began our practice, she shared a few words about her journey to this point, and like any journey, there were a few bumps in the road. She promised not to cry, and yet couldn’t help but let a few tears fall. I felt my throat tighten as she spoke because the end and beginning of a journey can be emotional. You are saying goodbye to what was, and embracing what is. This new studio is another new beginning for her, and, also for us, her yogis, who continue to come along with her on the journey. Something has led each of us to her studio—an injury, a divorce, a death, whatever it may be—we all come to our mats for a reason, she said. Two years ago, I returned to my yoga mat after a hiatus of a few years and embarked on a journey I had never anticipated.

I came back to yoga to cultivate more peace in my life. I am inherently a stressful person, and I thought returning to yoga would help me cope better with my stress. I also came to the mat because I was trying to get pregnant, and I had read and heard from friends that yoga was a good way to support fertility. Going into it, I had no way of knowing that yoga would be a factor not only in helping me get pregnant, but also in healing from my miscarriage.

I remember my first prenatal yoga class. I was only five weeks pregnant. It was a cold January evening. I remember standing barefoot at the top of my mat and looking at all the women around me in their different stages of their pregnancies. Twelve weeks, 21 weeks, 33 weeks. Some had rounded bellies as big as a beach ball, others were just starting to show. I was both excited and scared and a bit in disbelief imagining myself where they were in their pregnancies. Even before I was pregnant, I longed for a big pregnant belly, and I would stuff clothes under my shirt and turn to the side in the mirror to reveal my bulging profile. I couldn’t wait to feel our baby growing inside of me, wear cute little maternity dresses, and eat ice cream all the time.

We stood in tree pose as we went around the room introducing ourselves—name, how many weeks, how many babies you’ve had. I remember women sharing that this was their second or third baby, and then they’d add this was their second “angel” baby or third “angel” baby. There were a lot of angel babies in that room. I never would have thought my baby would turn into an angel baby or that this would be my first and last prenatal yoga class.

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It was because of my yoga teacher, Andrea, that I stopped thinking of yoga in terms of just physical fitness, and started looking at it to nurture my mind, body and spirit.  Yoga helped me grieve, and let go of all the emotions I tried to stuff down deep inside out of fear of how they would emerge. What would it look like? What would it feel like? I shed countless tears on my mat in the year that followed. Nearly every time I got on my mat, something in me would release, and the tears would fall. In the beginning, I would be afraid to go to class because I didn’t want to cry in front of others, but Andrea made her studio feel like home, and I never felt self conscious about crying yet again in class. It became a safe place for me to be me. It hurt too much not to.

Yoga helped me face my grief and also forgive my body for what I felt like was a betrayal. In the aftermath of my miscarriage, I carried a lot of shame even though logically I knew that what happened was not my fault or anything that I could have caused or avoided. Yoga helped me connect with my body and mind and heart, and focus on the present so that I wouldn’t stay rooted in the past, crippled by my grief. Yoga helped me let go and allow. Even today, when I do yoga, I feel liberated from everything. Judgment. Sadness. Pain. Stress. Yoga opens me up and makes me feel free, like rolling down all the windows in your car and singing at the top of your lungs.

At the end of class today, before we sealed our practice with a collective chorus of “Om,” Andrea turned to all of us and said something along the lines of: “You’re home.” I smiled and thought to myself, “Yes, I am home.” This new studio is my home. Just like the previous space, this is where the journey continues, where I can be myself, let go of whatever I need to release on my mat, and know that no matter what happens in life I can always come home to my practice to ground me and remind me that I have the power to heal myself and that we’re not alone in this journey.

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Final drafts

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Lenten Roses. Photo by Anne Cassity.

“None of this was supposed to happen.”  Nina Riggs

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Nina Riggs

Modern Love has long been my favorite weekly read in The New York Times. For the uninitiated, it is a series of essays submitted by readers that focus on all aspects of contemporary relationships. Some of them are funny but most of them crack my heart wide open and a few of them simply gut me.

Such was the case with two essays written by Nina Riggs and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Nina’s piece appeared in September of last year and Amy’s was published just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if these two writers knew each other – Nina lived in Greensboro, NC and Amy was a longtime resident of Chicago. I do know that their lives are inextricably connected by the most morbid of coincidences.

You see, Amy died on Monday from ovarian cancer – the same day as Nina’s memorial service. Nina died on February 26th, after a two-year Armageddon with breast cancer.

I never met either of these women yet I am haunted by their deaths. Amy was 51 and Nina was 39.

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“So many plans instantly went poof.” ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I have reread both of their Modern Love columns several times in the last couple of days and beyond the unfathomable reality of dying at such hideously young ages, I am fixated on how much these two women would have liked each other.

They are both mothers – and I am deliberate in using that tense. My own mother has been gone for almost 15 years now but I am still aware of her mothering. I am still a daughter and I still need to be mothered. No, I can’t take her to brunch on Mother’s Day but I do strongly feel her presence in my life.

I desperately hope that the children Nina and Amy leave behind feel that, too. Nina has two boys – ages 10 and 7. Amy has three children – 20, 22 and 24 years old. I can only quote my wise friend Jennifer once again, “Cancer is an asshole.”

These children still have their fathers – who from the cheap seats appear to be kind and good men who share the blessing of marrying well. They are also well-loved by their wives.

“I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.” ~ Amy

Amy’s Modern Love essay was about, of all things, trying to find a new wife for her husband. It was, in essence, one last love letter to her husband written with humor and grace and a blindingly bright love. And it pretty much broke the internet.

Oh, and she finished the essay on Valentine’s Day. It was published 10 days before she died. I bet even Amy would think that plot was overwritten. Real life is like that I guess.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting John at a summer job at 21, I had already mentally signed on for life – although I waited at least a week to tell him that.” ~ Nina

Nina’s essay was about a couch – if a couch was a metaphor for life and family and home. She is desperately searching online for the perfect couch for her family – “An expansive bench that fits all of us. Something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead – the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”

I don’t know if she ever found her couch but she certainly found her voice – a voice brimming with emotional clarity and lyrical humor as she lived until she died. Her memoir, The Bright Hour, will be published posthumously in June by Simon & Schuster.

I know, I know. If it were a movie you’d say it was too over the top.

I pre-ordered Nina’s book on Amazon the day I learned that she had entered Hospice care. It felt like the only hopeful thing to do.

I’m grateful that Nina and Amy’s words are just a click away for eternity for it is only through their writing that I know them.

And I want more.

This was one of Nina’s final posts on Facebook – a few days before she died:

Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.

Her post reads like a great short story to me – or better yet, a prayer for the living.

May it be so.

book cover