From 2001-2009 I was a caregiver for my mother, who was in and out of emergency rooms, hospitals, nursing homes and rehabs. I was also raising a teenage daughter, living with a husband whose business had gone under, working hard at my own job, and walking two dogs. I was feeling overwhelmed, but that was nothing compared to 2009. Read More →
Divorce. Death. Job loss. Moving. Daughter leaving home. Empty nest. Really empty nest. Two dogs, no job. Financial insecurity. Fear.
In 2009 I went through almost the entire list of life’s most stressful events. To say I got hit by what felt like a tsunami of loss would not be an exaggeration. I was in so much pain, I could barely take a deep breath.
I was never a big crier and suddenly I found myself crying. A lot. Read More →
A few weeks ago I went to two memorial services within two days of each other. One was for a remarkable man, my friend Lisa’s dad, Michael Dontzen, who lived to 89 and accomplished more in his lifetime than just about anyone I’ve ever met. He was a New York State Supreme Court judge, an aide to Mayor John Lindsay, a lawyer, a brilliant man with so much passion for justice, that on his deathbed, just a short time before he passed away, he married a gay couple. This was his last “professional” duty and he was determined to accomplish that despite the fact that he could barely speak.
The second memorial was heartbreaking. It was for a woman named Chris Twomey. She was an artist and a mother of three. Her art and motherhood were intertwined and she was passionate about both. She had breast cancer, which spread throughout her body and after a long, heroic struggle, she finally died, at age 58.
There weren’t many people who were as determined to live as Chris. She loved life, she loved making art and she maintained a sense of humor throughout the years of treatments and tremendous pain.
I met Chris at Friends In Deed, a pragmatic, spiritual counseling center in Soho, New York. I have written about it before. FID saved my life when my life was completely falling apart. One of the gifts of Friends was that it put me right smack into a community that understood suffering, so that I was able to feel less alone.
In her eulogy for Chris, the founder of Friends In Deed, Cy O’Neal, spoke about Chris’s courage. I just happened to be near the front desk the day that Chris first arrived at FID, announcing “I have breast cancer” as if she were saying “I just arrived from Paris.” I sat in big groups with Chris for well over a year, and as Cy said, “She always raised her hand, early in the meeting. She shared whatever was going on with her, which generally included the work she was doing and some difficult aspect of her treatment. She always had a strong spirit and a rich sense of humor and after she spoke, it seemed that she gave everyone else permission to tell whatever they were going through.”
Like a lot of people, weathering the storm of Hurricane Sandy meant keeping close to our battery-operated radios. (Actually, I had a crank radio too, the kind you wind up if you don’t have batteries, but it just made me cranky. If I had to only use that, my arm would have fallen off by day two, and my only news would be spastic, like “flood waters reaching… evacuated and you should seek….”) People were calling in all day with the stories of what was happening, good and bad, giving each other comfort and advice. The radio gave us permission to speak and a means to reach out to one another when we would have been going it alone otherwise.
During those five days of sitting in candlelight and mostly silence, I began to think about community. My neighbors in our building in Soho supported each other emotionally — one neighbor, Martin, was staying uptown with his girlfriend, but each day he came back to the building and dropped off bags of food for his neighbors, fresh fruit, bagels, peanut butter, The New York Times. On Halloween, our next door neighbor, Louise, came over and gave us Tarot card readings by candlelight.
My upstairs neighbor, Barbara, was sitting shiva (a week long mourning period) for her dad, who passed away a few days before the Hurricane. The first few days there were dozens of people who came to pay their respects, but once the hurricane hit, it was harder for family and friends to get there, so my loftmate, Abigail, and I tried to come up as much as we could.
And then, on one of my uptown bike trips, when I had Internet access, I saw a posting on Facebook written by someone who had been helping out in Rockaway Beach. They were delivering blankets and supplies, cleaning out basements, doing all the heavy lifting that needed to be done. But I read this: “People need emotional support. They are suffering.”
And I thought about the woman in Staten Island who lost both her young sons, because a neighbor wouldn’t let her into his home, he was too afraid to open his door. I hope that she will give herself permission to speak of her profound loss, when the time is right, and with a caring group of people with her.
We often give lip service to the idea of “it takes a village” but in reality, we so rarely do come together to support each other. One of the reasons 12 Step programs are so effective is because they have learned the power of community. For most of history, family was our community, but now families are spread all over the place. Often people worked in organizations for their entire careers and felt a part of something. That is the exception now, it’s rare that anyone stays longer than a few years with any job — in fact, the “Millennials” don’t even expect to stay past three years.
In the aftermath of so much devastation and what has been a divisive election — and what will surely be many more hurricanes and tornadoes and devastation — maybe we can try to solve both the physical challenges of dealing with floods and the emotional challenges of how to create a real sense of community so that we truly can “get by with a little help from our friends.”
A friend of mine wrote me a note about changing the template for the blog and said she calls the blog “a book review a day.” I guess I have been staying away from writing about my personal life recently because it’s been a bit difficult to write about it. I’m working on my book project, or whatever it will be, and keeping a journal – but going through a divorce and writing about it publicly, in a blog, is not easy to do.
There are times I seem to disappear. Usually I’m going through some difficult period of dealing with my lawyers and reading affidavits and wondering how we got to this horrible mess. Having watched so many of my friends go through this in the past, I feel like I’m experiencing a rite of passage and I feel good about how I’m getting through it. I don’t drink or eat too much, or spend too much. If I do anything too much it’s reading books about divorce and getting through difficult times and writing about it on this blog. It helps me to focus on the stuff I’m dealing with inside, with my soul.
Some day I will write about it, but right now it feels difficult to reveal too much. I am a far more empathetic person than I used to be and when I hear about people who’ve lost a spouse or a parent, or are dealing with a sick parent or child, or going through a divorce, or who have lost a job — I have a sense of the pain they are feeling. Last night I listened to a man, in a big group at Friends in Deed, talk about losing a girlfriend of twenty-nine years as he sobbed and said he’d never in his life experienced so much pain. He said he never knew that people suffered like this before and he felt sad that for so many years he walked ignorant about grief. I’d know about grief now, the feeling of disconnection, of crying, of not getting pleasure in anything, of the worries that it’s never going to get better. But everything does change and in this past year, I can see how much it’s changed. My reading about divorce says it generally takes two years to feel “normal” again – whatever normal is. I’ll let you know.
I just finished packing a few things to take with me to Fire Island for my annual Women’s Group retreat/talkathon. I wrote about it last year on this blog. I met these women in a workshop a few years ago run by Nancy Samalin, who wrote several books on raising kids. (“Loving Your Child is Not Enough” is one of them.) Actually, three of the women met in the workshop when their kids were very young and then I met one of them when our kids were teens.
Anyway, we like to say that we all have interesting kids who have given us some challenges, but we love them and they are doing well now. I think that when kids are between the ages of 12-19 they really should live on a kibbutz somewhere. (Sorry, Zoe, if you’re reading this. Fortunately, I don’t think she ever does.) They could come home for holidays, or maybe we could switch kids – but those are difficult years and although I miss Zoe now that she’s living in San Francisco, I don’t miss those years. I miss her though.
I’m reading a book about Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon called “Girls Like Us.” Julie loaned it to me earlier in the week. I’m having a tough time getting into it, but I’m interested enough in those women and the times they have lived in, to continue with it. I think between them they’ve been married and in serious relationships with several hundred different men (although they shared a few too.) James Taylor is one that comes to mind, but I’m sure as I read further I’ll discover some others they dated or married.
All I know is that tomorrow, when I’m walking on the beach and swimming in the pool, and talking with my friends and wishing that Mia was there making rhubarb, I imagine that I will be quite content. I love Fire Island and discovered it only a few years ago, even though I grew up on Long Island, not that far from it. I love that there are no cars and the beaches are so beautiful. I love riding a bike there and having barbecues. Summer in the city isn’t ideal, but it’s better than winter. And when I get a chance to escape the city and spend time in nature, especially around water, I feel so grateful.
Sometimes I think about my mother and I miss her. It’s easy to say, “Well, she lived to be 96, what more could you ask for?” And these past seven or eight years have been quite difficult. But it’s still hard to believe that her very strong presence in my life is over (in the a physcial way) and I can’t help but feel sad that I’ll never have another conversation, or sit by her side, or hear her laugh, or curse.
I know that many of my friends have lost parents when they were young or have parents that they have very mixed feelings about. When I lost my dad nineteen years ago I had a lot of ambivalence. He loved me I know, but he really didn’t put a great deal of effort into our relationship so I can’t say that I missed him that much. I loved him too and I am grateful that he lived as long as he did. He had a fantastic sense of humor and he loved food. Often that was the topic of our conversations, what we had for lunch, what we wanted for dinner, what restaurant he was going to. I wish that he had been able to pursue a career that he was more suited to – comedy writing or food critic. In those days people rarely had those kinds of opportunities. He made me laugh and my friends liked him. I have heard that they liked my mother too and she did have a strong life force.
I hope if there is such a thing as reincarnation that my father comes back as a chef and my mother comes back as a gardener. Or if I were really mean, she could come back as the chef and he as a gardener.
A little while ago I wrote the words “I wish for my mother to have a peaceful death.” And just about the time I wrote that, she died.
She was ready. I didn’t think it would happen that fast, but I guess it was a blessing. And the other wonderful blessing is that Zoe was here with me.