To all those struggling with mental illness, may you feel your strength and courage again, may you find your way into the light and not suffer in the shadows. ~~~
Through all this time I move with ease,
like a fluid stroke or a calming breeze,
I hide so much that no one sees…
Through all these day I watch with eyes
so strong and steady showing no surprise
I get weary and close them until again I rise…
Through all these years I listen with poise
I hear distant songs of young girls and boys
but find little music amid all the noise…
Through all this time I’ve hid it well.
Through all this time, not even you could tell.
I was driving in Vermont recently watching the snow fall outside my window and thinking about the miracle that each snowflake presents to us. Each one of billions different from the next. Each uniquely beautiful, intricate, perfect in its own way. Then I imagined one snowflake seeing another and feeling less than – not good enough in some way. Longing to look and feel exactly like the other. Melting itself down to alter its angles, lose some crystals, reduce its water content and change its texture until it looked and felt exactly like the one it thought was better. A profound sadness washed over me imagining that snowflake would never realize it was perfect all along and would be lost forever. And there would never be another one like it.
“Everything is perfect until we compare it to something else.”
That was lingering in the back of my mind when I watched those snowflakes fall. I realized in that moment that the source of so much of my anxiety, fear and shame through the years can be directly linked to comparing myself to others.
Value is defined as “the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.” I’ve learned the hard way that when I look outside of myself to determine what my value is or to answer the question “Am I enough?”, I am playing a harmful, unwinnable game of comparison.
Like snowflakes, we are all created with a divine individuality. We lose sight of that when we compare ourselves to others and allow our ego to take over and talk us into a senseless competition. Instead of celebrating and cultivating what makes us unique, we critique and discourage it. Psychiatrists describe this constant comparison as “monkey brain.” This type of behavior is common among primates, even chickens. But only humans have the level of consciousness to see what we are doing, realize its destructive nature and change our behavior.
But it takes practice because we are taught to compare ourselves from a very young age. And the ego grows stronger as it perpetuates itself. So those grooves are deeply cut and difficult to redirect.
For years, rather than see myself as a diamond, celebrating the unique facets that reflect and shine my light, I filed them down to a smooth, perfectly dull surface that reflected only insecurity. I didn’t realize I was stripping away the interesting, covering up the scars that told my story and sanitizing my journey. By chasing after images of perfection and illusions of happiness that I saw outside of myself, in a desire to be “enough” and therefore worthy of love, I lost myself. I lost myself in a sea of snowflakes. That was the price of admission. After comparing myself to outside influences to become the best version of myself, I was disillusioned and disconnected.
It is only when I found the courage to step out and crack my heart open, expose what felt like weaknesses, bleed my story onto the page, and shine a light on my dark places… only when I was brave enough to see my differences as gifts and my individuality as divine, did I finally find real connection and feel true love. Connection and love based on anything else is fleeting at best.
Now I meditate on that snowflake and see every crystal as a part of me reflecting how I have grown and been affected over time by my unique journey. Each branch representing the paths I have taken, not all connected to each other necessarily, but connected by the center, by me. A perfect web of interlaced experiences reflected by a beautiful, divinely unique creature. There can be no comparing what is authentic. In that, there is no judgment. There is no better or worse, strong or weak, pretty or ugly, there is only different.
How do you sum up a life. 72 years and seven months. 217 summers. 26,452 sunrises and sunsets. 72 years a sister. 50 years a wife. 48 years a mother.
How do you capture a child’s hope and anguish. Or a sister’s longing for acceptance. The endless love of a wife. The unbreakable bond of a mother. The undying loyalty of a best friend. The constant compassion of a teacher. The selflessness of a neighbor. The passionate dedication of a gardener.
There are no words poignant enough nor vessel large enough to capture and contain a life well lived. A life that lifted those around her. A life that brought both flowers and children to bloom and grow. A life ridden and wrestled to the ground. A life of ups and downs that with each twist and turn chiseled new edges and softened rough corners, creating an immortal diamond.
You were my Mr. Rogers, my Lucille Ball, my Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda rolled into one. My source of strength and sense of humor. My safe place. The first person to smile back at me. The first person to feed me. My life line from infancy to anxiety and beyond. I still see life through a lens of how to communicate my experiences to you. How beautiful you would have seen it. How much you would have appreciated it. How funny you would found it. The pride, the relief, the contentment, the humor.
Now left with the emptiness of watching you pass on alone. Without me there to comfort and protect you. While I am lost, I pray you are not.
A part of me says “I don’t know how to act or feel without you here.” But you raised me better than that, so I do know how to act. I will act as if every memory is a gift, every day I have breath is a blessing and every person I know or meet is an opportunity to love. And I know exactly how to feel. I feel devastated and torn apart. Yet I feel grateful beyond measure for every moment we shared, every part of me that reminds me of you, and every person here today and beyond who has supported me and my family through this difficult time.
You will be missed everyday and forever loved. God bless you and the space you occupied on this planet. It was sacred and lives on in the hearts of those you touched.
It’s been a month now without my mother. It’s still surreal to write that. As a follow-up to The Last Mother’s Day Gift I want to send this message because it has been such an important part of my journey.
As a witness to another’s loss, pain or grief,
don’t miss the opportunity to do God’s work.
Even when you don’t know what to say and words seem inadequate,
know that there are no points for poignancy or perfection.
You are there for a reason. You have been chosen in that moment to help put back together what has been torn apart.
Acknowledge their loss, recognize their grief, sit with them in their pain.
Even if there is distance or time between you now, don’t focus on why they are better off not hearing your clumsy condolences or why your absence will go unnoticed.
Don’t focus on your lack of grace. Grace will show up regardless.
Focus on the broken heart you can help heal, stitch by stitch.
Every card, every gesture, every hug, every conversation, every tear.
Each is sacred. Each brings light to their darkness.
Each expression of love helps lift them back to their feet.
Their heart will forever be scarred, but eventually, it will beat again.
Stitch by stitch.
When a diagnosis determines your fate, without any debate. Without asking permission, without hope of remission. Only faith keeps your head above water. Only the love of your son and your daughters. Only the strength of a husband and sister. Only expressing how much we will miss her. Only prayers that the suffering will cease. Only then a sacred passing in peace. ~WTR
Death is inevitable for every living thing. Death can come suddenly or slowly over time. So many of our common fears originate from our overwhelming fear of death because we know how closely it waits in the wings.
The Monday before this past Christmas I received four Christmas cards, three UPS packages, two FedEx boxes and one phone call. It was 5:10pm. My mother had stage 4 cancer.
At first I felt all the things that are disclosed as potential side effects on common prescription drugs – nausea, dizziness, swelling of the throat, headache, diarrhea, difficulty concentrating and a sense that operating heavy machinery was not a good idea.
Then I went into battle mode as I discovered the cancer community in the US has extreme deficiencies in serving its patients. Even patients who are highly educated and tenacious struggle to navigate the system. You die of cancer waiting on hold to talk to someone who will eventually confirm they know nothing about the clinical trial you are calling about even though their phone number is listed on the government website. You die of cancer while researching clinical trials on your own because of inadequate staffing at oncologist offices and cancer centers, confronted with dead end after dead end while you delay chemotherapy because the trials require no prior treatment. You die of cancer waiting for test results for weeks to determine the severity of your reactions to chemotherapy. This pressure to find all of your viable options, collect all relevant information and make a well informed decision on care and therapy while the clock is ticking and the cancer is spreading was unbearable.
Moving through this process I felt numb. I was in a dark tunnel where my normal world was muted in both sight and sound. My senses were insulated by the gravity of the diagnosis, impenetrable by normal joys like fresh flowers or a night out. I sat staring off into nowhere with no feelings or thoughts. It is the space between no cancer diagnosis and rejecting a death sentence. Whenever I was met with the reality of the situation for only a moment, the tears would flow. Not the crying I felt on the first day I heard the news. That was conscious. I acknowledged their arrival, gave them permission and felt them wash down my face. Now I had no control. If I gave into a moment of making eye contact with the diagnosis, the pain, the inevitability, my chest tightened, my stomach dropped and then I realized tears had been running down my face only after the valve was completely open. Involuntary weeping. I couldn’t find a conscious shelf for death to sit on. I could only feel it lingering in my body looking for a home.
I knew that closure was important for both of us. Leave nothing unsaid. I think that every person interprets that differently based on their personal experience and relationships. I tried to achieve the closure I was looking for two years ago at a dinner two days before Christmas. I wanted us all to acknowledge things I believed happened in our past. Events that caused me pain and that I thought created a common history among us all. I was looking for connection but was met with opposition at various levels. Regardless of the bad timing, my past and my truth were not theirs.
So what did closure mean two months before my mother’s death? I used to believe that childhood wounds that are never properly tended to by others when we are unable to tend to them ourselves create scars that last a lifetime. But do we need to cut those scars back open and watch them bleed to have them heal? Will that provide closure or is it merely an assignment of blame and demand for an acknowledgement or even more, an apology. Is that really what I needed? Alice says in Wonderland, “It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” I took that to heart. Not just that I was a different person then, but so was my mother.
So in my search for closure before she died, rather than stir up old memories and cut open old wounds, I chose to forgive the version of my mother that no longer existed and acknowledge that that person was doing the best she could at the time. I knew she was sorry now without having to replay the tapes and hear the words. What I felt in my heart I gave as a gift to the six year old version of myself holding onto the memories to heal her pain. My mother is no longer that person any more than I am that little girl. So rather than have a painful conversation about the baggage I still carried, I chose to drop the bags and free up my arms to embrace the woman in front of me and love her with actions and intention. I spent my week in February with her making sure that everything I did and said expressed how much I loved her.
This came full circle two months later when another call came. It was 3:45pm. You think death is an unfortunate reality only affecting others until it comes knocking on your door and says “it’s time.” Each day the hole grew bigger. It was right between my ribs. I felt as if something was sucking my breath from my very core. My mother was moved from ICU to hospice care with only hours or days left.
Watching the life drain from her body the last three days, the last three hours were my worst nightmare come true. There was nowhere to run from it and no waking up from it. It’s a clear memory etched onto my heart and a part of me forever. And it’s a shared memory that my father, sister and brother will all carry. Like the cancer diagnosis, I haven’t found a place to put this loss yet. Unlike fitting a body into a casket, my heart isn’t big enough to absorb that much pain and it overflows in the tears I shed.
Sitting in the hospice room looking at my mother lying helpless receiving only pain medication I again felt completely helpless. The clinical trial research, the ceaseless communications with doctors – nothing would be enough to even buy time. The wigs and new wardrobe we bought when she was wasting away from chemo induced anorexia was a mere moment of distraction, a cosmetic alteration that lifted her spirit while her cancer remained unphased.
Looking at her in that bed I saw a soul in a shell. No baggage. It was as if the weight she had lost from the chemo was her bags full of pain from a life lived in anguish and chaos at times. The weight of regret and loss. It was all suddenly gone and all I saw was the raw material and the pure love. In those moments, closure was no longer something I sought but something sacred I felt in my heart as the scars of old wounds disappeared. I felt only the purest love I had ever experienced.
So if you still are lucky enough to have your mother, whether it’s on Mother’s Day or otherwise, I encourage you to find a way to drop the baggage and open your arms, stop focusing on the depth of your scars and focus on the person in front of you. Give forgiveness a chance to change your heart, to recognize that old wounds were caused and suffered by different people, both flawed then and now. So there may be no use in going back to yesterday. Forgive and love in the present and find your version of “leave nothing unsaid” before it’s too late. Find your own heart’s path to healing, wholeness and love.
“Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.” ~ Alice Walker
Black ripples rise into white-tipped peaks.
The water looks so cold.
Strong winds manipulate the current
changing its direction without warning.
The sun is a welcome stranger
shedding perspective on the morning.
Oh! To be bold and grab hold
and find warmth in this freeze
and a lift in this breeze.
But the birds have gone
taking their inspiration to a place
much brighter than here.
Even the trees, so stoic, have died.
On my cheeks are freezing tears I’ve cried
and I am left here, alone.
Longing for a day when I see more then gray
and I feel more than cold.
I want to fly, I want to fly…
I repeat with a tear in my eye.
I look into the light and cry.
But where to find the wind,
the strength to move my wings,
the courage to fly above all others.
I spin myself to dizziness.
In which direction shall I go?
And at what time will I know?
They will watch with scrutiny from below.
But their hollow breath becomes a breeze that quickens my pace
and lifts me higher.
For I’ll fly naked, baring my soul to the heavens,
the voice of my critics no more my concern.