Permanent ink

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Fractions have always frightened me a bit. They’re so cold and emotionless – I just don’t trust them.

I can probably trace this irrational fear back to my high school algebra teacher – Miss Sullivan. She must have been around 87 when I took her MANDATORY class. She was 4’ll” in sensible pumps, a wiry whirling dervish of a woman and I have no doubt that she could have easily kicked the football coach’s ass if she needed to. And she was the most intimidating person I had ever met at the fragile age of 14.

She had no patience for students who were not proficient in the way of polynomials and she could hunt us down like a shark in bloody waters. I still take considerable pride in the fact that I never cried in her class. Lord knows, I wanted to. And for the record, unlike baseball, there is crying in algebra.

This is a rambling way of saying that I’ve been thinking about fractions a lot lately. Today marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death – a heady milestone for sure. 15 years is a very long time and maybe it was The Ghost of Algebra Teacher Past who made me realize that I have now lived over a ¼ of my life without my mother. Damn. And I thought fractions were emotionless.

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Frances Elizabeth Garbee. My mother as a child.

These deathiversaries have always been important to me and I try to observe the big ones in meaningful ways. On the 10th anniversary of Mom’s death, I hosted a high tea at a beautiful hotel for several women who had become mother figures in my life. It was an elegant late afternoon affair – an event my mother would have loved – especially since we transitioned from tea to champagne as evening came.

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December 7, 2012. High tea at the O’Henry Hotel.

I shared remembrances of my mother and a few folks read poems as we sat on plump loveseats.  The hotel was decorated for Christmas and we were bathed in the warm holiday lights. It was the perfect celebration that I had envisioned.

A lot has happened in the five years since that evening. I married my dear wife – whose middle name just happens to be the same as my mother’s first name – Frances. A divine coincidence that has pleased me enormously. They have much in common besides a name. My mother was always a lady – graceful and gracious – as is my wife. Although, my wife is much more even-tempered which also pleases me enormously. I’m certain they would have enjoyed sipping champagne with one another.

And there have been some big transitions. I moved 30 miles down I-40 to a new city and I lost a job I dearly loved and along with it some friends that I thought were, well, friends. And I found a new spiritual home – just when I needed it most after the desolation of the 2016 election.

Oh, and I rode on a boat up the Grand Canal in Venice. It is a good thing in life to be dazzled occasionally.

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I lament the sights and sites my mother didn’t live to see.

There were highs and lows and all the everyday stuff in between that make up a life. And I missed my parents every single day but I finally learned to co-exist peacefully with grief. It wasn’t an Oprah “a-ha” moment where everything suddenly crystalized. No, it was more like blowing out a candle at the end of the evening. A gentle rush of breath and then the hushed still of the night. I finally stopped wrestling with grief and then it seemed to not be that interested in me. Grief is fickle like that.

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Both of my parents died in 2002. This is my favorite photograph of them taken in the early 1960’s.  They look like the movie stars they were to me.

But I still wanted to do something special to mark this milestone. I thought about another gathering of my “mom” figures – there are some new ones in the circle as others have drifted for reasons known and unknown. But I just wasn’t feeling it – besides, this year felt more like tequila than tea.

So the next logical way to celebrate my mother was to get a tattoo. WTF? I thought that might get your attention. When the idea came to me, I smiled my cheeks off. And then one word came to mind – disdain. That’s how my mother would have felt about a tattoo – any tattoo. But she always supported me in whatever path – misguided or not – that I took, so I think she would feign disdain but secretly like my new tattoo.

Yes, I really got a tattoo to honor my mother. And I love it. And I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. It is a glorious gift to myself.

My mother was a true daughter of the South in all the best ways – well mannered and charming. She could be yelling at me or one of my siblings like a banshee one moment and then answer the phone with a voice so warm it would melt butter. She taught me how to set a formal table, write a timely and engaging thank you note, and never to chew gum in public.

She was also a steel magnolia. A few hours before she died from cancer – a brutal one but I suppose they all are – her oncologist came to her bedside to pay his respects. He looked at her unconscious body and then turned to me and my brother and sister, shook his head reverently and said, “Your mother was tough as nails.”

That was nothing, of course, that I didn’t already know. She was grace under pressure and I can only hope I have a thimble of that fortitude.

So, I knew my tattoo had to be a magnolia blossom. That was Mom’s favorite flower and she would often decorate with them – layers and layers of magnolia leaves at Christmas. When she died, a family friend painted an exquisite watercolor for us – “In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – and we used the image on thank you cards.

I took one of the cards I had saved into Newport Tattoo when I was in California recently visiting my sister. I showed it to Kareem, a tattoo artist and the shop owner, and he gave me his thoughts on the size and positioning and I made an appointment for a few days later.

If you ever want to feel older and squarer than you are – go to a tattoo shop. It’s a little hard on your ego but everyone treated me very kindly considering I was the oldest one in the shop by at least 20 years. Okay, 25.

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Newport Tattoo, Newport Beach, CA. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone.

I really didn’t have any second thoughts about my plan, but I did get a little anxious as the day of inking arrived. I have three small tattoos – all black – and they didn’t take long to complete. I was nervous about my two-hour multi-colored tour with Kareem. And when you’re getting a tattoo in honor of a steel magnolia you better not be a wimp about it.

You might be wondering about now, “Why a tattoo?” I don’t know if it will make sense to you but for me a tattoo is like a short story – a visual manifestation of a personal narrative. A tattoo is an intimate expression that becomes a constant companion along the journey.

My tattoo is on my inner forearm. I almost always wear long sleeves, except for t-shirts in the summer or at the gym, so my tattoo is truly for me. Full disclosure: Dear wife wasn’t thrilled about it but she is a lot like my mom when it comes to supporting my sometimes quirky ideas.

There’s also something about the cultural aspect of tattoos that I find fascinating. There are some studies that suggest that in ancient times tattoos were used as part of a healing or strengthening ritual. I know that my tattoos feel like talismans to me – touchstones of calm and peace. I certainly don’t need permanent ink to feel close to my mother – I feel her presence daily – but my tattoo is a tangible reminder of her elegance and strength.

I suppose there’s something adventurous and bold about a tattoo that speaks to me, too. It’s like literally wearing your alter ego on your sleeve. In my real life, I am pressed to perfection – my creases have creases thanks to my dry cleaner. I have played by the rules most of my life and I think the events of the past couple of years have made me rethink the wisdom of that approach. Getting a tattoo feels liberating to me.

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My mom and me.

My mom was a rule follower, too – that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She died at 70, which has always felt like a huge rip-off to me. There were so many things she never got to do – like watch her grandchildren grow up or see Paris. “Life isn’t fair” she would often say to me when I was a sullen teenager complaining about being told no when I wanted to do something ALL my friends were doing.

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Words to live by.

Turns out, she was right. Life isn’t fair, but it does hold a lot of wonderful surprises in between some staggering disappointments and maybe my magnolia tattoo is a moderately bold reminder that one can be a lady but still break a few rules along the way. Maybe I just want my mom’s blessing to be a bit of a badass and take more chances.

I think daughters never get over wanting their mother’s approval. I recently saw a YouTube video of Anna Wintour interviewing Meryl Streep and at the end of their conversation, Wintour hands Streep the current issue of Vogue that features the most decorated actress in the history of forever on its cover. Streep gushes as she views her glamorous  photograph and then shakes her head a little wistfully, sighs, and almost whispers, “I wish my mother were alive to see it.” And in that moment, Meryl Streep looks like a little girl.

I know that girl.

The longing for my mother’s presence is a steady undertow that rarely ebbs even after 15 years, but today I’ll celebrate the beauty and richness of her life instead of dwelling on those pesky fractions. Sure, I suppose they’re useful, but I bet even Miss Sullivan knew that fractions make lousy tattoos.

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“In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – tattoo by Kareem Masarani.

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Ink imitates art.

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Be the light in the darkness

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Photos by Carla Kucinski

It’s 3:30 on a Wednesday. Three days before Christmas. I am sitting in my favorite tea shop, sipping a cup of hot cocoa that tastes like a melted milk chocolate bar. I feel its warmth as it travels down my throat and warms my insides. These next two weeks are all about comfort and self-care. Pause. Rest. Reflect.

My eyes burn from the lack of sleep I had last night. I painted my eyelids with grey eyeliner and combed my lashes with thick black mascara to make myself look and feel more awake than I am. I stayed up most of the night with my dog Molly who had a tumor removed from her chest the previous day. It was a fatty tumor about the size of golf ball near her shoulder, with a smaller bump that had appeared last month. When we picked her up after her surgery, our vet was certain the smaller tumor was cancer and sent it out for further testing.

That night, I slept with Molly on the couch with our tower of pillows and piles of blankets and stroked her head as she whined through the night. Every time she whimpered I Googled: Dog, pain, surgery, whining—trying to find ways to soothe her. There’s nothing worse than hearing an animal suffer and knowing there’s not much you can do but be there—be her comfort, her security for all the times she has been yours. As I sat beside her on the couch, I propped my head up with the palm of my hand to keep myself from nodding off while I stroked her silky ears. I started thinking about earlier this year when she didn’t leave my side the entire time I was recovering from my miscarriage. She camped out on the couch with me, nuzzled her muzzle into the crook of my arm and slept with me for days. When I cried, she licked the tears on my face. Now it was my turn to take care of her.

Molly recuperating after surgery. (All photos by Carla Kucinski.)

Molly recuperating after surgery. 

Fucking cancer. This year it already invaded the lives of three people I love, and now my dog. Eight days later, good news arrived. Lab results were in and it was in fact a mast cell tumor, grade II, but our vet was able to get the entire tumor, which meant no follow-up treatment with chemo drugs. “This is all good, good, good, good, news,” Dr. Fuller sang into the phone. I threw my arms around Molly’s big neck and wept. She celebrated with a Kong bone filled with peanut butter.

A two-inch scar remains where Molly’s tumor was removed. We called her Frankenpup for the first few days. We needed to find some humor in all of this as we waited to find out whether our dog had cancer. Over the last 10 days, the scar has changed from a jagged, angry red line to a faded pink scar. The fur where they shaved her is started to grow back in as if nothing ever happened. It made me think of a passage I read recently in “Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself 40 Ways” about finding beauty in your scars. “I see scars and I see stories. I see a being who has lived, who has depth, who is a survivor. Living is beautiful. … We may hurt, but we will heal … ”

My pup is a survivor. I suppose I am, too.

I can’t help but think of my own scars that I earned this year. 2016 has been challenging and exhausting. I am tired. So tired. I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill all year, and now I can finally get off and rest. I’ve been off from work since Dec. 18, which leaves lots of open days to just drift. It’s one of the rare times of the year where I let myself be lazy and quiet. My muscles ache. Even my bones feel tired. I thought maybe it was because of this sinus infection I’ve been battling on and off for the past few weeks, but honestly, I think it’s the weight of this year, still trying to hang on and drag me down. It’s like I’ve been carrying fistfuls of stones in my pockets this past year. But it’s time to finally let it all go. That phrase, “let it go,” has been a thread in this journey of ups and downs. I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the act, or even know how to begin. I’m learning.

Earlier this year my therapist, told me that I needed to decide how I wanted to carry this grief. What did I want it to look like? How did I want to feel carrying it? I think I started out holding this weight of grief, heavy like wet clay, in my heart and my stomach for months. Eventually the weight shifted and I carried it on my side, like I was holding a basketball that I could put down or pick up at any time. Some days my grief still feels like a boulder, other days it feels like a single stone. I want to pick it up and launch it into a lake, hear it kurplunk in the water, sink to the bottom, never to be found again. But it’s a part of me now, and always will be. I just need to learn how to carry it, live in harmony with it. I’m learning.

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Every year on the evening of winter solstice, my yoga studio hosts a ceremony that involves reflection and meditation with a few yoga poses thrown in. I went for the first time last year and found the experience cathartic and moving. The practice involves a “letting go” segment (there’s that phrase again) where we each hold in our hand a smooth, charcoal grey stone and breathe, meditate, and do a few gentle yoga poses while focusing on the things that no longer serve you and that you want to let go of. As I laid on my mat, the stone cold in the palm of my right hand, I thought about the past year and what I wanted to rid myself of. My cheeks became wet with tears. There was still so much pain weighing me down. All the “what ifs” and “what would have been” or “could have been” circled in my mind.

I found out on Christmas Eve that I was pregnant. I remember my heart racing as I looked at the two pink lines in disbelief. I flung open the bathroom door and yelled to Andrew, “I’m pregnant!” It was 5:30 in the morning. We had to wake up early for the 10-hour drive to his parents’ house in New Jersey. Andrew was half-sitting up in bed with a pillow propped up behind him, bleary-eyed but awake. I’ll never forget his smile that morning. I jumped on top of him and then Molly tried jumping in the bed with us. It feels like it was all a dream, but my heart says otherwise.

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I poured into that stone my sadness, pain, fears, uncertainties, worries and all of the hurt so many of my close friends have endured this year. I was one of the first people to drop my stone in the middle of a circle of flickering tea lights. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. As soon as it left my hand, my heart felt lighter hearing the weight of it hit the floor. It was a release from this chaotic year; even if it was temporary, it felt freeing.

A few days after Thanksgiving, a tarot card reader told me I was in my Wheel of Fortune Year, which is characterized by upheaval and change that will be painful, traumatic and shocking. She described it as having no control as life spun out of control. And there’s no time to adjust to each change. That’s certainly how this year has gone so far—a series of traumas, losses and heartache. But she also said it was a year of tremendous growth and advised me not to stay stagnant, to shake things up, take risks and be open to creating new opportunities. I definitely haven’t been sitting idle.

“You’re lucky you’re alive,” a friend said to me the other day, looking me square in the eyes. She is Vietnamese and follows Chinese astrology. I’m a monkey, and this past year was the Year of the Monkey. I thought that meant it was my year. My friend told me it was the opposite: when it’s your year, it’s the worst year. The Chinese new year began on Feb. 8. That same day I found out we lost our baby. My year of bad luck had begun.

But the winter solstice ceremony helped me remember the bright spots in 2016. As my teacher asked us to think about the good memories, I closed my eyes and started to smile as images of this past year flashed in my mind. I thought of all the places I’ve been. Me and Andrew in Maine. Vistas. Walks on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. Lobster and warm melted butter. Atlantic Beach and its sparkling ocean. Reading on the deck. Sunsets. Sunrises. Laughing at Molly chasing birds in the water. Roanoke. The bitter cold. The wind chill. February. Valentine’s Day. Dinner and martinis. A rock show. Fire places in the lobby. The sun cutting through the trees. Asheville. Cocktails at a sidewalk café. Mountains. Us. Life returning to normal. Late night heart-to-hearts with my oldest sis on her couch in our pajamas and glasses. Sipping rosé with Gina and Marco. Laughing. Crying. Sharing our life’s stories. The sweet ending of summer. Swimming in the lake at Omega. Napping under the trees and summer sun. Meeting Janie. Meeting Janine. Facing my fears. Reading my work to strangers. Crying in front of strangers. Being vulnerable. The drive home. The Catskills. The Hudson–the magnificent Hudson. Lobster fest under white twinkle lights. Tasting my first oyster, a mix of salt and sea. Being the surprise at your best friend’s birthday party. Pajama parties. Cocoa. Laughing until your face hurts. Old movies. Balloons on my birthday. Snowflakes. Sunshine. The turning of leaves.

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Life can be ugly, but also beautiful. The two cannot exist without the other. The good still outweighs the bad, and yet, why is it always the bad stuff that seems to lodge itself in the forefront of my brain and loop on repeat? Why can’t my mind be flooded with the good memories?

Addison texted me the other day and said we were like the phoenix rising from the ashes. This year was an opportunity for me to grow. I came to some realizations about my future, and I’ve been making steps toward fulfilling my plan to create a richer, fuller life. When I look at myself in the mirror, I mean really look at myself, I see someone with scars but also someone who has chosen not to hide them. They are proof of my strength and resilience, a reminder of what I’ve survived and what I’ve lived. I no longer want to honor my pain and sadness and grief. I want to make whole this sutured heart of mine. It’s time I start honoring the joy in my present life and give power to that and not the past. No more looking back.

Kabir says, “Wherever you are is the entry point.” As I walk into 2017, I imagine myself digging my hands into my pockets and pulling out fistfuls of stones and letting them slip out of my hands as I walk forward and leave them in my wake. They are no longer coming with me on this journey. There isn’t any room. There’s only room for joy. I have to believe there is a greater path, destiny for me that I will follow. Grief made me feel trapped. Unmovable. And I think this is what these last few days of 2016 have been about for me. Sitting with my grief. Really sitting with it, embracing it, having a talk with it. I’m done with you. We’re breaking up. I need to come home to myself. This is my entry point into true peace.

The winter solstice ceremony closed with each of us lighting the candle of the person next to us until the entire room was aglow in candle light. I looked around at the faces in the room, glowing in the golden light, and I saw a diversity of expressions: peace, joy, sadness, pain. Me? I felt like my entire body was smiling. “Be the light in the darkness,” my teacher said as she lifted her candle. It made me think of the famous quote by Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” In those moments of darkness when it seems no light can get in, I vow to find it and not lose sight of it as I head into the new year with an open heart and open mind. I owe that to myself. 2016, I’m letting you go.

Some of the bright spots …

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Safety instructions

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“Brace, brace, brace.”

That phrase constitutes the critical dialogue in one of the many emotional scenes in the film Sully – the story of US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009. No spoiler alert needed, we know that all 155 passengers and crew on board survived that harrowing day in January and the incident came to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson”.

The flight attendants called out that chilling command to passengers as the plane began its descent into the river. They kept repeating that refrain until impact in unison like holy words in a chant or prayer.

As I watched that dramatic scene unfold on screen, I became aware that the top of my shirt was wet – drenched from the steady stream of tears rolling down my face. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but my body was apparently having a very visceral reaction to what I was seeing – the sheer power and beauty of humanity on display. Strangers helping strangers in the most dire of circumstances.

A quick aside – I have reserved a giant eye roll regarding Clint Eastwood since his asinine “empty chair” routine at the 2012 Republican Convention but damn, that old coot is still making great movies at 86.

Maybe the timing of seeing Sully was simply serendipitous for me because I was in desperate need of a good dose of humanity. I have been feeling the heaviness of the world in ways I can’t ever recall in my 60 years.

It has been a tough year for me personally, that’s true – losing my job in a maze of malevolence, searching for a new spiritual home after transitions at my church and just generally struggling with my place in the world.

The world – where do I begin? Syria, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Charlotte, on and on. And this presidential election that has worn anyone with a semblance of a brain or a soul down to a nub. We live in a constant barrage of noise and vitriol.

Some days I feel like I’m walking around wearing that lead apron the dental hygienist puts on you when you’re having x-rays taken. I’m moving but the sound of my own heartbeat feels muted by the weight of it all.

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No words…

There are days I feel hopeless and then I am almost always miraculously saved by a connection with another passenger on this journey. Some of them I know – others are simply kind strangers.

Last weekend, my salvation came in some gloriously different ways. On Saturday evening, my dear wife and I attended Harvest of Hope, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Our good friend, Lori, a 20 year cancer survivor and her wife Sue, are two of the original organizers of this annual event. This year’s dinner was the 15th and final one. Lori is retiring next year and 15 seemed like a nice stopping point.

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My amazing friend, Lori – cancer survivor and chef extraordinaire.

About 150 people were at the dinner and near the end of the evening, all of the cancer survivors in attendance were asked to stand to be recognized. Now there’s a club none of us would choose to join. But as those 18 folks stood and everyone applauded, I suddenly felt that thin space between life and death. I thought about what those good souls and their families and loved ones had been through – the treatments, the pain and sickness, the fear and finally, the relief and peace.

And once again, I became aware of the tears running down my face. I thought about some of the people in my life that could no longer stand because of cancer – my parents and my friends, Regina and Kristel, who died earlier this year. Those survivors – most of them strangers to me – made me feel connected to the people I loved and lost.

Humanity.

“Cancer is an asshole.”

Those are the brilliant words of my friend, Jennifer, a young mother who is fighting breast cancer. She is a writer by trade and she is kicking cancer’s ass in her brilliant blog, Two Boobs, One Fight. Her words connect me to feelings I have had about life and death and everything in between. She has saved me on some of my heavy days with her courage and humor and yes, humanity.

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Read this blog!

On Sunday, my salvation came in the form of family. Not my family of origin but a family that treats me like family and best of all, makes me feel like family. My fairy god-daughter Ella turned five and we went to her birthday party in Raleigh. We were given fair warning by her mother, my friend Sarah, that there would be approximately 20 four and five-year olds and their siblings at the celebration. We were also promised that there would be plenty of prosecco on hand so we decided to take our chances.

Sarah’s family is large – a mom, a dad, an ex-husband, a boyfriend, three children, two sisters – one with twins – and their husbands. I fell in love with her kids years ago and I still pretty much swoon when they call me “Auntie Addy”.

I had not seen them in over a year and for the life of me even I can’t explain why. I’m just going to blame it on what Queen Elizabeth would call this annus horribillis. I was a little anxious that they would be a little distant around me – they’re 9, 7 and 5. My fears were quickly put to rest when Maddie, the oldest, raced down the stairs to squeeze us when we pulled up in front of their house.

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Sarah’s rules rule.

And then we were swarmed upon by Sarah’s Big Fat (a term of endearment, they are all skinny) Family. Her two sisters greeted me like my own sister – okay, they didn’t actually cry like my sister usually does – but they were so incredibly sweet and affectionate. Everyone was so damn happy to see us and I could no longer feel that apron on my chest. I felt happy. I felt connected.

The birthday party looked like a cross between a United Nations meeting – only with very short people – and a Benetton ad. There were white kids, black kids, Asian kids, Indian kids – all kinds of kids – and it was awesome. There was a jumpy house, a balloon guy, a piñata, temporary tattoos with glitter and best of all – very limited crying.

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Ella is crushing 5.

Ella didn’t open her presents until after all the guests had left and it was just family. God, I had forgotten how much I love that feeling – being in that intimate circle – belonging.

The birthday girl was incredibly thoughtful with her pile of loot – carefully opening the cards first (swoon again – I love a girl who appreciates a good card) and looking very pleased with every gift – especially the s’mores maker. Right before we left to go home, we happened to end up in the kitchen alone with her and she smiled and sort of shook her little head and said, “Wow, I got so many great stuffs.”

That’s how I felt about the day, too.

After the horrific terrorist attack in Nice this past July, author Anne Lamott (yes, her again) made a raw and sprawling post on her Facebook page that I have gone back to often. Here is just a portion of it:

Remember the guys in the Bible whose friend was paralyzed, but couldn’t get in close to see Jesus preach and heal, so they carried him on a cot, climbed the roof, and lowered him down for the healing? Can a few of you band together – just for today – and carry someone to the healing? To the zen-do? To a meeting? Help a neighbor who is going under, maybe band together to haul their junk to the dump? Shop for sales for a canned food drive at the local temple or mosque? How about three anonymous good deeds?

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. It will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does – and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.

There’s a scene in Sully where Captain Sullenberger corrects one of the NTSB investigators who describes the event as a crash. Sully says adamantly, “It’s not a crash. It’s a forced water landing.” Even though the situation appeared to be totally out of his control, Sully knew exactly what he was doing – trying to get those passengers and crew to safety.

Maybe that’s what we’re called to do in these heavy times – to help each other avoid the crash and navigate a safe landing – to carry each other to the healing – whatever that looks like for each of us.

This is our common prayer.

Brace, brace, brace.

Amen.

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House Call

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Harrisonburg, Virginia

Cancer never plays fair.

One of my oldest and dearest friends was recently diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. She has never smoked, rarely drinks and could be a poster girl for fit over 50.

I’m not a doctor but even I know that on paper, she has about as many risk factors for this type of cancer as Snow White.

She retired a few months ago after 30 plus years as a pediatrician. Her father was my pediatrician. Yes, we go back a long way.

I met her in the 4th grade when my family moved to Harrisonburg, VA and we have been friends for 50 years.

She was always the smartest one in the class and went on to be our valedictorian when we graduated high school. But she wasn’t smart in an intimidating or condescending sort of way. She could be as silly as any of us and was often the butt of our practical jokes because she was so absolutely gullible.

I think she knew she wanted to be a doctor before she went to kindergarten. Her father is still living and I had the pleasure of seeing him recently at the funeral of another old friend’s mother.

He looked remarkably well for a man nearing 90 and he has retained his impish smile and charming bedside manner.

My friend (I don’t want to use her name for privacy’s sake and it feels weird to make one up) married a doctor and her son is now in medical school. I guess you could say it’s the family business. She has been a healer most of her adult life and now she is the patient.

She has one of those websites that keeps everyone updated and I have been blown away by her courage, grace, honesty and humor as she shares this journey with those who love her.

Her initial post was very clinical and written like well, a doctor. She wrote about how her cancer presented – an ulcer on her tongue – and the path to eventual diagnosis and surgery. She wrote in medical terms – cms and resections and such.

She had hoped that once her tumor was removed the pathology on the lymph nodes in her neck would reveal no more than two nodes involvement which would mean no further treatment. She had three positive nodes.

And that’s when the tenor of her posts changed. They became more vulnerable and very intimate.

It was real before that but if all it took to be disease free was an operation, I can do that. When (her doctor) started talking about radiation and chemo that hit hard. This wasn’t just a battle anymore. This is war and sometimes people die in wars. I was forced yesterday to face that possibility. I had to listen to my husband and children cry as we processed the news.

It doesn’t get any more real than that.

My friend noted in another post that she is much better with numbers and reasoning than talking about feelings. And she made me smile when she shared that her SAT scores were Math 720 and Verbal 520. Mine were the exact opposite but it turns out that she is much better at writing than I am at math.

Her posts have been a balm to those of us who love her and are still reeling from her news. She has a great faith – a faith that has been severely tested in the past few weeks – a faith that will sustain her through radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy.

Our High School Emblem

Our high school emblem. #bluestreaks

I last saw her at our high school reunion last October. She, of course, served as one of the chairs of the reunion committee and had spent a crazy amount of time on the fabulous decorations. She was a cheerleader and still retains that youthful enthusiasm for life.

We had a blast and giggled like school girls again. And, yes, she may have done a cheer or two. The girl’s still got it.

Her first grandchild is due any day now and she wants to get in lots of grandmothering before she starts her treatments at the end of the month.

Today the sunrise was beautiful. (A friend) and I prayed together and I feel at peace with all the treatment decisions. Now I need to get myself physically, emotionally and spiritually ready for this war.

Onward, Christian soldier, dear friend. We’re cheering for you now.

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Remember Pearl Harbor

dec 7

December 7th means two things to me – Pearl Harbor and the day my mother died, almost 12 years ago.

Both events caused mass shock and destruction, albeit on different scales – one historical, one deeply personal.

Landscape

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941.

I know it probably seems strange to you that I even note the connection between these events but as a writer, I’ve always appreciated the ripe imagery here.

My mother’s death was not a surprise attack – she had been battling a wicked head and neck cancer with weeks of radiation and then chemotherapy. The results were cruel – she lost 50 pounds and her voice only to learn that a previously undetected tumor on the base of her tongue was discovered.

I know you know – cancer sucks.

She was devastatingly brave, making even her aloof oncologist shake his head at her steely grit. He told us she probably had a couple of months left so we approached the holidays with a “We are the World” attitude, thinking we could turn the tables on cancer and make it a Hallmark Christmas.

A C. diff infection obliterated that plan pretty quickly and she died peacefully in a hospital on a blustery December night as I held her warm hand.

sunset tree

This is how I remember the Virginia sky the evening my mother died on December 7th, 2002.

I was happy she was no longer in pain and that her exit was full of grace and a peace that she rarely found in her life.

My bombs dropped later, as I dealt – or more accurately, did not deal – with a paralyzing grief and despair that I had never known. And there were many causalities – my loving partner (irreparable damage), my relationship with my sister (since repaired), and my own certainness in the world (a work in progress).

I eventually made my way back to the living and my life – a new life, not the one I had always imagined. And I always think of my combat experience with grief when December 7th rolls around each year.

I think it’s important for me to remember it all – the pain, the destruction, and the armistice I finally brokered through a lot of hard work in therapy and a renewed relationship with my faith.

My mother died young – 70 – and in the past several years I’ve seen many friends navigate these same battles. I try to help in meaningful ways but for the most part, I think it is a solitary journey for each of us.

And I think Winston Churchill got it right about war, any kind of war, when he said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

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My beautiful, glamorous, elegant mother.