Saturday, December 31, 2011

11 Lessons Learned from 2011

Disclaimer - I totally stole this title from another blog I stumbled upon. But it's ok because I didn't look to see what their lessons were.

I have avoided blogging lately. Not exactly sure but glad that I started again because it got the creative juices flowing. Earlier this year when I turned 40, I did the 40 Moments of My Life series of blogs which was a lesson in reflection. I had people tell me they couldn't believe I could actually come up with 40 defining moments in my life but it was quite easy. Especially when you throw in being born and learning to swim. I thought alot about if I had to add another moment for 41 and of course, it would be the loss of my mother. That's a no brainer.

But I've learned other things along the way. Although my year was largely defined by the loss of my mother, it was not wholly my story. So when I was hitting the "Next Blog" button at the top of the screen and saw 11 Lessons Learned from 2011, I thought, "Perfect!! New blog!" So here goes:

11. Life is what happens while you are busy making plans. I might as well get this one over with. I had looked so forward to turning 40 because I truly felt like my 30's had been cursed. I was wrong. It doesn't matter how old you are. Life happens. Shit happens. Death happens. Not only did I lose my mother but a friend or two along the way.

10. If you keep eating, you will gain weight. This lesson isn't exclusive to 2011 but one I have relearned along the way. Still lesson worthy.

9. Stay true to who you are. This is a tough one because I feel I have truly come into my own over the past few years. And that doesn't particularly make me the most popular gal in town. But I love liking who I am.

8. Don't believe you have nothing left to learn. My sister told me the other day, "You are always right. That's you. You know everything. (insert sarcasm)" And my first thought was, "Doesn't everyone think they are right? Why else would you say anything. Why else would you have an opinion?" And while I am incredibly opinionated, I believe wholeheartedly that every experience is a learning experience. I know I don't have all the answers. But, I do have alot of them..... ;-)

7. Laugh everyday. Again, not a new lesson but one I worked at daily in 2011. Having had the experience of feeling any moment of fleeting happiness was a betrayal in the months after my brother's death, I got back on the laughter train pretty quickly after losing my mother. Somedays were harder than others, but I don't believe there was a single day, including those days when my mother was dying, that I didn't find something to laugh about.

6. Let go of the past. Still working this one frantically but I've made substantial progress in some areas of my life. Anger takes up more space than love.

5. Find something that makes you feel good about yourself, even if you have to work at it until you get there. I was given the opportunity to teach a developmental psychology class earlier this year; something I had always wanted to do. I had exactly 3 weeks to prepare, and during the course of the semester my mother was diagnosed and died of lung cancer. My students weren't particularly interested in what I had to say and totally did not get my wicked, awesome sense of humor. There were many moments I hated of that experience. But, every now and then, something would happen and I'd make someone laugh, spark a conversation, or get someone thinking and I'd think "YES! This is why I wanted to do this!"  I'm scheduled to teach 2 classes this upcoming semester and look forward to the challenge. Although, I'll still probably bitch about it.

4. Get a massage at least once a month. Take care of yourself, even if it's only something that simple. There is so much more I need to do, but having those 60 glorious minutes every four weeks is a start. Especially, when I book the "good date" massuese!

3. The Republicans are their own worst enemies. Enough said.

2. Write down every funny thing your kid says or does. I am so glad I started compiling my list of "Maxisms" three years ago. He keeps me laughing, keeps me smiling, refocuses my life and rarely goes to sleep before 10pm. And I have no idea what I'd do without him.

1. I actually kinda really love my life. Sure, there are many things I wish were different but hey, who doesn't? My life has never been easy. It fact, I've had quite a bit of shitty stuff happen over the course of a lifetime (see My 40 Moments blogs). But I've learned so much. All of it has made me who I am. I can't come up with a single thing I need in my life that I don't already have. Sure, a few wants I can think of but NOT a single need. That's absolutely incredible when I think about it.

So, no matter how shitty the past year has been, I still find myself loving my life.....Who is this person I have become?????


Friday, December 30, 2011

Lessons from Youth Revisted

When I graduated from high school, I walked out the door and for close to 20 years, never looked back. I seemed in some respects to be running from it; wanting desperately to start anew. I'm not particularly sure why. I grew up in the same house, went to the same school, graduated with a large number of people who had known me since I looked like this:

Whatever the reason, I avoided many of the people I had come of age with like the plague. I didn't attend a single class reunion. I didn't want to revisit it. I wanted to move on.

Interestingly enough, outside of a year stint in State College, I have never lived out of the area, living most of my adult life in Kennett Square. I worked with a handful of classmates in the restaurant business, but for the most part, only kept in touch with two or three people from my childhood. That is, until now.

Yes - it started with Facebook. And believe it or not, I was a hesitant participant initially. I got on there at an urging of a friend, who had discovered it prior to all of the privacy features (although nothing really is private, is it) that it has now. We could join, lurk around on people from our past pages and seemingly never be detected. I did this, very occasionally for close to a year before I extended or accepted a single friendship. But slowly, a network developed and all of a sudden I was in touch with people I hadn't seen in 18 years. And I was kind of having fun with it.

So I went to a small reunion of a handful of loosely connected 1988 graduates a few months after my 20th reunion. It was a mixed bag. I was surprised by some, disappointed in others but entertained nonetheless. And so we went back Facebook and our lives.

About 6 months later, I lost my brother which impacted me deeply. I reevaluated absolutely every aspect of my life and made some fundamental changes in my world view. I softened on many parts of my past. I let go of other parts. I moved on with my life in a completely different way. I started to value my friendships in a way I honestly don't think I ever had. I realized that just like my family, the people who had come and gone throughout my life had had just a big of an influence as anything on what molded me into who I had become. And I'm thankful for that.

So, much to my surprise, I found myself reaching out to people from my past. I found new friends from my past. Previously peripheral people, meaning I had known them, but not really known them. They have become my friends. And I'm so grateful for that. I really am.

So, I put together a list of a somewhat loosely connected group of people from my past and suggested we get together. Which we did. And it was fun. We are not these people anymore:

We are adults, entering middle age. Living middle aged lives. Dealing with middle aged problems. But we all have one thing in common. Our youth. We were all molded by a common experience of growing up in a middle class open acreage of  Southern Chester County. Some of us started in Chadds Ford, some in Unionville, some came along later. But there we were 30 plus years later, realizing how much we knew about each other by virtue of having walked the same halls of a now ridiculously overpriced, oversized school.

And I have a few observations I'd like to point out that came to the surface last night:

1. Most of us look the same. Those grade school photos are just mini versions of our adult selves. Except you Drew. You used to look like this...

2. And not to pick on you Drew, but the bottom line is this; you will always be Andy to us.

3. It's a wonder most of us are alive after the shit we did in our teens and twenties. It's absolutely frightening that we will now have to try to teach our children what we couldn't teach ourselves until our frontal lobes had fully developed (which is after age 25 and is responsible for impulse control).

4. Most of us did the majority of our growing in our 30's. And for alot of us, our 30's sucked. It was nice to hear I was not alone on that one.

5. We spent no time on religion or politics. Instead we talked about Lymes Disease and Arthritis. And the possibility that we all really have Lymes and don't know it .

6. We figured out that all of us really never belonged to a clique with any sort of conviction. And Unionville had alot of them. Alot of us couldn't hold to tightly to any single group because at the end of the day, we wanted to go out and smoke during 10:10 break and after lunch. You needed to be comfortable hanging with the heathens to do that. So we were.

7. And speaking of heathens, according to Lauren, there were several sub groups. You had your Dead Head heathens, your Metal Head heathens and your good old regular heathens. And it seems incredibly ridiculous that any of that even came into play all of those years ago.

8. And further on the heathen subject, apparently that term is Unionville specific. In most other parts of the country, there are referred to as "Heshers". Except for in South Jersey, where my friend Wendy went to school. There, they were referred to as "Devils". And we thought we were bad.

9. I realized that I really like people. I know that sounds crazy but I am notoriously cynical. But I have found myself over the past few years, excited by the successes of those from my childhood. I want the best for the people around me. And I hope they want that for me too.

10. Last, I am happy to have reconnected with my youth. So many parts of it were hard for me.I think the hardest part of coming of age is pretending to know who you are when you have absolutely no clue. By the time you hit high school, you are a child in a grown up body, thinking you have it all figured out. It's so great to look back and see it for all it was. And laugh.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Month of Thanks

For the last few years, at the urging of fellow facebookers, I tried to come up with at least one thing per day that I was thankful for during the entire month of November. Some days were easier than others. Today I was easily able to be thankful to come up on the curve at Longwood Gardens and see the Christmas lights on the same trees as when I was a little kid. Other days I resorted to being thankful for cereal, because quite honestly, it was the best I could come up with. Focusing on gratitude can be a difficult thing in the midst of everyday life. I have noticed my own increasing frustration with what I feel to be petty, artificially created drama. Somethings just don't matter. With that being said, its so easy to focus on what doesn't matter, instead of focusing on what does. What matters to you may not be high on my priority list. And the things I hold strong convictions about may be completely lost on you. I don't expect everyone to feel the way I do. I guess, on some days, I just wish that the way I feel didn't feel so counter to everyone else.

So its in those moments of isolation that I rely heavily on drawing from what really matters to me in life. And on some days its a really good bowl of cereal. On other days its the memory of being a little kid and seeing those Christmas lights as I come around the bend on Route One. I lit up like a little kid tonight when I saw that weeping willow twinkling the same way it has since before I can remember. I heard my own child's excitement. I realized in that moment what my mother must have felt when we drove by all of those years. And I said to Max, "I'll really miss Mom this Christmas but I know that every time we drive by here, we still have a part of her." He totally got it. And for that, I'm most thankful.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Understanding sibling loss

I swear I never intended this blog to be a dissertation on grief. In fact, when I look back on the first 8-9 months worth of posts, most are lighthearted or thoughtful pieces about life in general. But in many ways, this blog has been a reflection of my present moment and there have been alot of entries that have helped me navigate, process and walk through this thing called my life. I have had moments of vulnerability, anger and peace through the process. But the most rewarding part has been the feedback I have gotten from others; sincere thank you's that I have at times given a voice to what so many of us feel but can't say outloud. That is why I continue to do it.

So when I got the phone call this weekend from my youngest sister telling me that a family friend had passed away suddenly, at 46, I found myself living the surreal life. Bill was one of 7 siblings to our 6. Our families have been intertwined for as long as I can remember. There are multiple entanglements between our families starting back when we were all very young. They were the Hatfields to our McCoys. I know no other way to explain it. We all grew up in Chadds Ford. Old time, middle class Chadds Ford to working class parents. We both lost our fathers very young and it changed who we were as individuals and families. We loved and fought fiercely with our siblings; much to our mothers despair. After their mother fell ill with cancer, my mother felt a deep responsibility towards "those children" (though they were not actual children), many of whom she barely knew. I think we all knew, on some level, we were stuck with each other. Whether we liked it or not.

I will be honest. I did not know Bill well. But I have had long term relationships with 3 of his siblings. Bill was at my brother's funeral. He was at my mother's funeral. He loved my family. He loved his family. And that's really all I needed to know.

So in the chaos of Sunday afternoon, I stood and watched a family in grief. A grief that I truly understood. Because I had been there. I can remember feeling so incredibly alone in my grief for my brother. Because I knew no one who had gone through what I had been through. And here I was standing there, knowing exactly the depth of pain they were feeling. And that was hard to watch. Because I know how alone they feel. And I know the only way out is through it.

I have had a deep desire to physically remove the pain from each of them. As if there is something; anything I can do to take away one ounce of the hurt. There is nothing I can do. Other than tell them what I have learned in the process of losing my own brother. And this is what I learned.

-Let go of the guilt. We do not live our lives believing we will die. We live believing we will live so we say and do everything from that place. And it's okay. That's what makes life real and full.

-Know that you have done and said enough. Because you have. For every fight you had, you had another moment of laughter and joy. You did crazy shit. You have stories. He has a legacy.

-Laugh sooner rather than later. It is so easy to feel like a single moment of joy is a betrayal in the early days of your grief. But laughing is part of the grief. It's the good part.

-The loss of a sibling is one of the hardest you will ever endure. You know each others histories in a way your parents, children and spouses will never know. It is probably the most sacred of all of the relationships you will ever have. Remember that, and you will forgive yourself for feeling a pain that society doesn't really acknowledge.

-Grieve. Don't let anyone tell you when you should be done. This is probably the single most important lesson I have learned and I still struggle with it every day.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A couple of glasses of wine later...

I woke up in a foul mood. I'll admit, I've been in a foul mood for weeks, possibly months. I try to pretend I'm not but for the most part, I am. I have struggled through this thing called grief for over 2 years now; most recently one layered over the other. It has been hard. It has sucked. Some days getting out of bed is a victory in itself. I am tired. I am tired of pretending (and not doing a very good job of it) that I'm not tired. Because I have a right to be tired.

I've done so much self evaluation that I'm not sure how much more I can do without throwing up all of this information on the universe. Because "journaling" in the purest sense does not work for me. Because I journal in my head all of the time. It's my cross to bear. And that makes people uncomfortable. People don't like people who are in tune with their feelings. People really don't like people who are willing to talk about those feelings. And that kinda sucks. I have really figured out who my real friends are in the last few years. I've been surprised and disappointed. I've had to accept some people where they are at in life and have walked away from others. It's been hard.

I evolved into blogging about 6 months after my brother died and it pulled me through a very dark, dark period in my life. I compare the loss of a sibling to an amputation. I literally lost a part of myself, and I did not know how I would ever survive that. Ralph and I weren't soulmates. We were siblings. He was one of the "six kids" I referred to when people asked me how many siblings I had. Do you know what an awkward conversation that is to have once one of you has died? I assure you, its awkward. And while I don't wish that on anyone, you can not and will not understand that until you have been there. And pretending that you can is an insult. I don't want you to understand. I want you to be able to sit with it. And not run away. Or dismiss. Or compartmentalize. Because, I don't have the luxury of doing any of those things.

Those closest to me know how much the experience of losing my brother changed me. And I personally feel that it changed me for the better. I became much more comfortable in my own skin, much less concerned with what others thought and much more of who I was meant to be. And not everyone liked me but I could have cared less. My goal in life is not to have everyone like me. My goal in life is to be authentic, real, truthful and happy. And I was happy. Until my mother got sick. And then she died.

Losing my mother would have been devastating enough but it was layered on the fragile new person I had recently become. Someone I was still coming to terms with; a person who had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. The morning of my 40th birthday I stood up to a group of entitled 18 year old college freshman who collectively argued with me about whether or not they should have to take a test the morning after the Super Bowl. I walked out of the classroom, got in my car and my phone rang. I answered it and listened as my mother sang "Happy Birthday" to me for the last time. I knew in that moment that she would never do that again and I almost lost my mind. I struggled through nearly 60 more days until she took her last breath. I went to work, I taught a class, I was a mother to my child. All while I knew my mother was dying. I don't think I am exceptional for that. I'm just willing to point out the exceptional nature of the process. Because those of you who have been there know how incredibly hard that is, and those of you who have not need to know that it is one of the hardest things you will ever do.

I am 6 months out of my mother's death. That is not very long. I have to remind myself of that on an almost daily basis. At 6 months after my brother's death, I peaked and could have very well inflicted bodily harm on a few select people in my life. 6 months is a drop in the bucket when you've talked to someone nearly daily for 40 years. And I'll admit, I am angry that there is a social expectation that I should be over it, or at the very least have the ability to compartmentalize it. Because I'm not and I can't. So screw all of you that think I'm being dramatic. Because I have spent the last 3 months feeling bad about feeling bad. The very thing that sustained me and empowered me and freed me from the grief and pain of losing my brother, which was talking about it, and writing about it, is the very thing I have felt unable to do in the last three months. I don't blame anyone for that. I think given the nature of what I've been through in the last 2 years, I have spent alot of time wondering what is socially acceptable in terms of my grief. Alot of what I learned about myself when I lost my brother was kicked to the curb in the process of coming to terms with losing my mother. I'm guessing I was this fragile and unsure of myself at this point in the process of losing my brother but its like taking 10 steps back and starting all over again. And I need to start over. And talk about it. And write about it. And not care what anyone thinks. And cling to those who are willing to sit with the pain. And not run away. Or dismiss. Or expect me to compartmentalize.

I know there are plenty of you who have been here and don't talk about it. And I don't blame you or expect that you can do this. But don't expect me not to. I don't think I'm more evolved. If anything, I worry that I'm stuck. But I know deep down that the only way for me to get through this, is to go through this. I think it has cost me friendships. But then I think what it has really done is show me who my real friends are. I have been blessed with incredible friends through this process. And as my family has in many respects fallen apart, those friendships have become the single most important part of the healing process. So if you are my friend, just stay there. You don't have to do anything spectacular. You just need to sit with me while I sit in the pain. Somedays are better than others. Just don't run away.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Music Never Dies

I was confused this afternoon when I started to see posts on facebook bidding REM farewell. I had a moment when I thought, "What did they all die in a plane crash?" but we all know I've got death on the brain. After a little research, I discovered the band called it quits today after 31 years together. Is that even possible?

So, I had this really sad moment, just like everyone else and then I thought, does it really even matter? I mean, they gave us 31 years. They timestamped my youth. They accompanied me on back roads and kept me safe when I drove too fast. They gave me a soundtrack to build my adolescence upon. They sang on the stage while my friend Jed bought my younger sister so much beer that she passed out.

Here are a few of my favorites for a variety of reasons:

My all time favorite - I can pair this song with exact moments in my life. Smells, weather and cigarettes (among other things). Foo Foo say "If you go a million miles away I'll track you down."

Even though most of you know I plain ol' don't like birds, I love this song. It reminds me of that point in my life when I was convinced that music could change the world. Even if it was just by repeating "Standing on the shoulders of giants.... leaves me cold." over and over.

Laying on my bedroom floor with this one blaring. Singing. That's what I remember.

I could just post all of the videos from Life's Rich Pageant.

It's the End of the World As We Know It was a bit of an anthem of our time. Like it or not. It just was. It was the period on that period of our lives. Then we moved out and moved on. But we took the music with us.

You always take the music.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More things to be thankful for....

I highly recommend this exercise in random gratitude. It puts things in perspective when it would be so easy/has been so easy to get caught up in the negative. Among my moments of real sadness, I have had these overwhelming moments of sheer gratefulness that, at times, have hit me out of left field. Maybe it's my mother "knocking me into next week" like she always threatened. Or maybe it's memories of an Oprah episode long, long ago that encouraged the use of a gratitude journal to put your life into perspective. Whatever it is - I like to think about all of the things, however ridiculous, in my life that I have to be thankful for, especially when I'd just prefer to hide under a rock.

1. Silence - I spent most of the day today in silence. I took the day off, slept in, read on my very quiet porch, got a massage, walked in the park and sat here writing this. It has done me a world of good on a day I desperately needed it.

2. Massage Therapists - because somebody has got to want to be paid to rub down stranger's bodies for money.

3. Laughter - there is nothing more wonderful than the kind of laugh that comes from the gut. Kids (especially Max) are lucky enough to do this way more often than we do when we get older. But when we do really laugh, it's one of the most cathartic things we can do.

4. Pepperoni - Let's face it. It's just good.

5. Holding a book in my hands - I inherited my love of reading from my mother. It dawned on me the other day when I stood in line at Borders holding 12 books that the simple act of buying a book brings me as close to my mother as I can get.

6. 48 Hours Mystery - I'm not sure if it's politically correct to put this on a gratitude list but I certainly enjoy watching it.

7. The Moon - especially tonight. It's quite beautiful.

8. Finding the perfect quote - everyone knows I love a good quote. I am moved by words. Words change, inspire and put a period on a moment in time.

9. Dehumidifiers - because without one, my basement would be nastier than it already is.

10. Having traveled to Ireland with my mother many years ago - seeing my mother see the one thing in the world she never thought she would see (because she refused to fly until her late 50's) was, while incredibly stressful (I was the driver), worth every moment.

I'll admit - this was harder than I thought today but I'm impressed that I was able to squeak 10 out. So you should be too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Quake of 2011

True Story: I started my morning off at a client's house screening for a PTSD diagnosis. The first question on the questionairre was "Has your child ever been in an earthquake?" The mother hesitated. I responded "I'm guessing the answer is no." Her reply, "I have to think about it. I don't think so, but I've been in an earthquake." Now, I need to go back and reassess....

I've had a shitty week. I haven't been sleeping, have had some ongoing health issues and generally feel like shit. I've been in a bad mood. So I stomped around the office this morning, trying to get all the things I had to get done before my doctor's appointment. I had about 15 minutes to kill before I had to leave, so I plopped down in my friend Mallory's 5 X 8 foot office, intruding up a conversation she was having with Cory, just as our boss walks in to ask a question. Cory stops us all and wants us to listen to a phone message that was supposed to provide some comic relief. I asked her, "Will I think this is funny or will it just piss me off?" She answered, "It could piss you off but let's listen anyway." So as the message starts and Mallory's desk starts to shake.

The following is a rough approximation of the events as they transpired over the next 30 seconds. Words in italics are the thoughts racing through my mind.

Voice on Answering Machine: "Cory - its Bob (an alias). I just wanted to let you know that I am awesome at my job. And I need you to pat me on the back (an approximation)."

Cory: What is that shaking?

Me: Shut up if you want me to hear what this bonehead has to say.

Cory: Seriously, guys what is that shaking? Mallory are you shaking the desk?

Mallory: (laughing) No, I'm not shaking the desk. Why would I shake the desk?

Me: The desk is shaking. Maybe its the train.

Cory: This is freaking me out. The room is shaking. Could we be having an earthquake?

Me: Earthquake. No. Mallory is starting to kick under her desk just to piss us off.

Mallory stands up and looks out the window yelling: Oh My God. The truck in the parking lot is moving!! The truck is moving!!

Me: What the fuck?

At this point, I walk out of her office, which is caddy corner to mine and watch my computer monitor rock back and forth across my desk. I yell: Oh My God! Look at my computer! I really think this is an earthquake.

Me: What the fuck! Are you kidding me God??? Like I haven't been through enough already, now I'm gonna die in an earthquake?

All those years of watching Dateline, 20/20 and disaster movies finally paid off when I came up with the brilliant idea and yelled "Get in a doorway!"

This is my favorite part (in retrospect, of course) because I grabbed Mallory and we crowded under a hollow door frame in a panic (the building was still shaking, evidenced by watching the drop ceiling tiles move to and fro.) I looked down the hall and everyone is standing there with a look of horror, dropping into position in the hollow door frames. I swore one new employee was going to pass out. And our boss (the only male) in an attempt to remain masculine and therapeutic at the same time kind of just looks around and says, "Ok - I think we need to get in a door frame". But he never did.

Then it stopped. And no one knew what to do. Cuz, those shows don't really tell you what to do once the building stops shaking. I mean we could get caught in a building collapse on our way out the door. 

Apparently, everyone made a mad dash for the door, and down the steps. Of course, I was the last one out because I had to go back in for my phone (I needed to update my FB status). By the time I got out to the parking lot, some man was reporting it was centered in Virginia and measured 5.9. I called Stephen and he confirmed he felt it here in Kennett Square. I went into mom mode and told him he had to go to the camp and check on Max. Which he claims he did. But I'm not buying it.

So I survived my first earthquake. God decided I have enough on my plate right now. And I learned some important lessons:

-The train isn't close enough to cause my building to shake. Never was.
-Mallory kicking her desk would not make an entire building shake.
-Bob (an alias) really does get on my nerves.
-Denial has its advantages and disadvantages.

-Door frames are only useful if they are attached to solid load bearing walls.
-I have a ridiculously old computer monitor (the big boxy kind) and it takes up way too much space on my desk.
-In a natural disaster, I will try to save my friends. (Or at least Mallory). The rest, I'll just yell instructions to.
-There is always time to update your facebook status.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

We aren't products of our environment. We are products of our expectations.

My plan was to do a light and jovial blog this time around because I am convinced that my writing can be entirely too morose. But the other day, while I lie in bed, exhausted and flipping through the channels, I happened upon a special on MSNBC focusing on the state of education in this country today. As a behavioral health professional who supervises a large caseload in Chester, PA and a recent adjunct college instructor, I was interested in what the "experts" had to say.

Let's face it. If you are my age or older and have had a recent conversation with a 15-25 year old in the last few years, you have very likely walked away shaking your head, thinking "WTF?". While I'm sure that our parents generation thought similar things about us (minus the texting slang), it has become abundantly clear that our youth are missing some fundamental skills that we took for granted. I was blind sided by this concept when I took on teaching a developmental psychology class this past winter. I learned the hard way that our K-12 educational system is absolutely failing our youth by teaching to benchmarks and standardized tests. Never in a million years would I have asked a professor if he/she would be providing the questions to the test prior to the date of the exam or email my professor to inform them that the grade I received was "unacceptable". But it happened to me multiple times over the course of 15 weeks.

Kids and young adults today are robbed of the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills that are so vital for our collective long term success. For whatever reason, our educational and political system are so panicked by the idea that we are falling behind that they are forgetting that in order to move forward, there comes a time when it is necessary to stand still. And teach and learn skills that we for so long took for granted because they were imbedded in the individual creativity of the teacher.

Which brings me to the title of my blog which was hijacked from one of the panelists on MSNBC. His name was Wes Moore and he is the author of a book titled "The Other Wes Moore". Two African American men, born two years apart (ages 35 and 33), both grew up in poverty in Baltimore. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar; the other was convicted of the murder of a police officer. When Wes, the scholar asked Wes, the felon what made his outcome in life so different he answered "We aren't products of our environments. We are products of our expectations."

And while I have seen first hand the despair and poverty of a place like Chester, I know that a few do "get out". I work with alot of those who have decided to be a product of expectation and subsequently go back and work in that community to offer hope to people that at times, very often, do not know hope exists. And while I know we can't or won't save all of those who live in abject poverty, I refuse to give up on them. My parents grew up in Chester back when Chester was a thriving town. Both my parents grew up poor but my father had high expectations. He and my mother had 6 children, which required my father to often work multiple jobs so my older siblings never wanted for anything back when they lived in small apartments in Chester before moving out to Chadds Ford in the late 60's.

I had my own expectations to live up to. Remember, I come from a working class family that valued a strong work ethic above any textbook education. My father built a very successful auto body business from the ground up, that later expanded into insurance claims and auto glass sales. He was suspended from school on the first or second day of his senior year for spraying the fire extinguisher. When they told him he could return a few days later, he refused on principal (not sure what his train of thought was) and waited an entire year to go back and graduate. He could have easily not gone back and gone on to do all of the things he succeeded in in life (his occupation didn't require a high school education) but his expectations told him differently.

For me to choose to pursue a college degree, and subsequently a Masters, had nothing to do with environment and everything to do with the expectations I have placed on my self. I will say it is much harder to be a product of your expectations than it is your environment. Your environment allows you to fit nicely in the box you came into this world in. None of my siblings went to college. Personally, I see nothing wrong with that. We were raised to know we could be successful at whatever we chose to do. AND we had a choice.All of my brothers and sisters did well for themselves in their chosen careers. And a few make quite a bit more money than I do. But I wanted to go to college. My master plan was to have my PhD in Psychology by 25.  I mean, how hard could that be???

What I can tell you is for someone who's environment did not include the modelling of higher education, that was a better idea than a reality for me. I honestly think I was a college junior for, like, 3 years. I could not mentally make the jump to senior status in college because in that mind, it implied I knew what to do next. And I definitely did not. What I did know how to do was work. And work hard. So I waited tables, And I bartended. (And I drank...alot....but that's another story). When I finally graduated from my undergraduate program, my master plan had changed to a Masters in Counseling Psychology so I could just get the hell out of school. Both the head of the psychology department and honors program (which I wasn't even a part of) advised against it, telling me I was selling myself short. I told them I was tired.

So I entered Villanova's Masters in Counseling Psychology program with a concentration in...get this...Addictions Counseling. I then proceeded to be bored to tears and partied my face off while bartending on the side. The week before finals I was talking to someone about my program and blurted out without thought "I hate it. I'm dropping out." I called my mother the next day and she said, "I figured you would, You just don't seem happy." Years later, I tracked down my psychology department head from Neumann to tell him that he was right. And he said he knew that too.

So from that point forward, I worked. I bartended, I managed restaurants, I was a bookkeeper. I owned my own business. I bartended. Then I had Max. And it all changed.

Suddenly, I was forced to consider what my own true expectations were. Who did I really want to be? And how was I going to be that person? Not only for me but for my son too. It was at that point that I went back to school and finished my Masters (this time in Clinical Psychology, as opposed to Counseling). I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a job that not only did I work hard at but one that I felt matched up with my true expectations in life.

We are only as successful as we decide to be. And we all define success in different ways. I have always aspired to be the best at whatever I did; mixing drinks, managing someone else's money or helping a family. What changed over the years is how much confidence I had in my overall ability; in my true expectations. And I have pretty high expectations.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My friend Nancy

I put down these memorandums of my affections
In honor of tenderness
In honor of all of those who have been
Conscripted into the brotherhood
Of loss....
~ Edward Hirsch

Those of you who know me, know that I navigate my life through words. Through trying to find the exact sentiment that will convey what may be beyond description. I do this with deep conviction in a world that sometimes simply can not understand. I'll try again today for someone who only entered into my life three years ago but will never leave it.

I met Nancy in August of 2008 on my first day at Devereux. I have limited memories of the actual encounter because I was high as a kite on Vicodin after being on the losing end of a battle with a blender two days before. With 21 stitches in the tip of my finger, I listened as I was introduced to the world of Devereux Human Resources by a woman named Nancy Murphy. You couldn't help but like Nancy. I guarantee there isn't anyone out there that didn't like Nancy. In fact, I'm guessing most of us would go so far as to say we loved her. And she loved us back.

I worked in the community and Nancy worked on campus, so my initial interactions with her were rare but always positive. She emanated joy, even if she walked by cussing under her breath (which I loved about her). Nancy was the type of person you wanted to get to know. You wanted to be her friend.

At my 90 day mark, I made an appointment with Nancy to go over benefits. This was exciting for me, since I really never had a job with these kind of benefits. It was quite ceremonious. But shortly after the appointment began, Nancy and I stopped talking business and started being friends. I found myself seeking her out under the guise of an HR related issue. She'd motion me in, we'd shut the door and talk. It was like I always knew her.

About 10 months after I went to work at Whitlock, my brother passed away of a heart attack. As you all know this just about destroyed me. I started having alot of anxiety about making sure I had my "affairs in order" and scheduled with Nancy to discuss my life insurance policy. When I sat down in her office, I looked at her and began to cry. She started to cry too and told me that she had lost her brother too; young from a heart attack. In that moment, I found someone who inherently knew my pain like no one else. And it bound us. When I felt I had outstayed my welcome in the grief department with my other friends, I knew I could call, email or just show up in her office and we could have a brief cry, followed by a good laugh and move on.

This past winter, Nancy and I again had a parallel experience when our mothers were diagnosed with cancer. We confided in each other in a corner during happy hour and checked in on each other now and again. My mother lost her battle in March and I found myself standing in the door of Nancy's office pretending to have a question about retirement (we must have had 15-20 "retirement planning" meetings before I ever signed a single paper). Nancy listened as I told her the story of losing my mother with tears in her eyes. She gave me the time and space to do what must have been excruciating for her to hear. And then she looked down at her desk, shaking her head and said "Carol, I have to tell you. I feel this special connection with you that only you and I can understand. I know exactly how you feel." And she did. And there are very few people in this world who can say that and mean it. I will never forget that moment.

So, even though we were connected by parallel loss, I will always remember Nancy for "who she was" in the greatest sense of that cliche. She was a joy. She had a laugh and a smile that was infectious. She was lucky enough to have children and a family she absolutely beamed about when she talked about them. She was authentic and real and good and pure.

I will miss my friend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Shining a Spotlight on....John

With all of my recent entries being of a melancholy nature, I was really looking to write about something or someone fun. When I went back over my entries from the past year, I found my Shining the Spotlight Series to be a fan fav (even though I only did two before now). Anyway – it just so happened that the other night my friend John called me and we got together for a few drinks and from that evening, my latest blog entry was born.

I usually give a bit of a life story on my Spotlighter so here's what I know; John grew up in the Washington DC area but moved up to Chadds Ford when he was in 11th grade. That was in 1970. That's right....BEFORE I WAS BORN, as I love to often point out to him every time we meet. He is one of many (I'm not sure how many) Irish children and they are a close family who genuinely seem to like each other, which at times feels like a novel idea to me, an Irish - Italian sibling. I just think the Irish are a culture that exhibits love through actually treating each other well, while the Italians show it by screaming at each other.

So anyway, I met John a million years ago, when I was about 19, waitressing at the Kennett Square Inn (let's face it, everyone I ever met of any real substance in my life, I met at the KSI) and he was a 38 year old divorcee. That in itself could be cause for scandal but I am sorry to disappoint. John was always a gentleman and we became good friends. I think, and I'd guess he'd agree, there's a bit of a kindred spirit relationship between us. Must be an Irish thing. But for a few years, we carried on platonic relationship that I will always view as a positive part of my life. It's always nice for a young girl to learn the lesson that she can be treated with respect by a man who doesn't necessarily have to treat her that way. 

Eventually, John went off and fell in love and got married and I did the same. We lost touch for many, many years but occasionally, I would wonder “What ever happened to John?” So fast forward those million years and about four years ago, I get an email from the Unionville Alumni website stating that someone is looking for me. Now this is before I had fully embraced Facebook as a form of connection with people from my past so I really couldn’t figure out who could possibly be looking for me. The best part is when I clicked on the link to connect me I was prompted to pay $25 to find out who was so desperately seeking me out. After weighing the pros and cons, I figured anyone who actually took the time out of their day to “seek me out” was worth the 25 bucks for me to find out who they were. I must say I was completely surprised (pleasantly, nonetheless) to find it was John “seeking me out”. We got back in touch, very occasionally but it wasn’t until my 40th birthday party this January that I finally saw him face to face after those million years. 

I put this reconnection in the same class as many reconnections I made over the past 2 years. In losing 2 of the most important people of my life since June of 2009, I regained numerous friendships that I really took for granted to simply be “time and place” relationships”. I learned that John, among others in my life, is much more than that. These are people who came into my life long ago for a reason, and came back into my life all these years later for a reason. I have learned that time means nothing when you connect with true friends over the course of a lifetime. And John has been a testimony to that.

But, the spotlight wouldn’t be complete without a story so I leave you with this one that I did not witness but had a profound effect on my life nonetheless. In 1970 (before I was born), John was elected Senior Class President of Unionville High School after a hard fought battle and subsequent runoff election. Given the social climate of the times, it only makes sense that John, as president, would have to enact some change in order to earn his place as president. So, John set up an appointment with the principal, Garland Hoover. Personally, the fact that Unionville’s principal name was Garland Hoover is enough for me but there is more to the story. So John went to the principal with 3 demands. Number one: the student body was demanding a smoking lounge. Number two: the student body was demanding that they be allowed to leave school during last period if they had a study hall scheduled. And Number three: given the previous year’s shooting in the NYC hotel during the senior class trip, the senior class was requesting the trip be changed to Williamsburg, VA. None of John’s demands were met that year but as I said before, his demands affected my life many years later. The following year, the smoking lounge was put in place. This courtyard is where I first spotted my friend Jed Demajistre 15 years later and thought to myself “that dude is a total head” (see Spotlight on Jed blog). I enjoyed many a smoke there myself throughout high school. And eventually, some bureaucratic bullshit put an end to the smoking lounge (although I’m really not complaining). 

The subsequent class was also able to enjoy early dismissals if they were scheduled for a study hall last period; another labor of love for John and his policy makers. By the time I got to UHS, they had done away with that policy but I must admit, I never spent an entire day in school my senior year. It appears that if you park just outside the principal’s office and act like you are supposed to be leaving at 1:30pm, no one questions you. 

The final demand was also eventually succumbed to, but not without a good fight from Mr. Garland Hoover. When John sat down with the principal Mr. Garland Hoover to explain the student concerns about being in a hotel where gunfire had erupted the year before on the class trip, the obviously Republican principal replied,
“You know John, coming from a rural setting like we do, something like that can be of educational value.” John’s senior class enjoyed a gunfire free trip to New York City that year but eventually the trip was changed to Williamsburg per his request. And by the time I made it to UHS, the pansies sent us to the happiest place on earth, Disney World. Talk about a change in social climate.

So thank you John, not only have you affected my adult life. You have affected my youth too. And you didn't even know it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two Years Later

"Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward." Soren Kierkegaard

I made a commitment to myself and my brother in the early morning hours after his death. I promised him and I promised myself I would not let him be forgotten. I was panicked by the very idea that there would be a day, even a moment that my brother and who he was would be forgotten. He had no wife. He had no children. Ralph's legacy was fully in my family's hands. And, if you haven't noticed, I take that very seriously.

On what would have been my brother's 52nd birthday, we marked the 3 month anniversary of my mother's death. And in that moment, I realized that the imminent grief I was experiencing needed to be separated from the loss of my brother if I was going to keep my promise. Now, this doesn't mean that I have to parcel out my grief in small packages but the confounding effects of the last few years have left me not knowing which way is up most of the time.

I still grieve my loss of my brother. Every day. This may make some people uncomfortable but I speak the truth regardless of other's comfort. Mostly, because this is one way I can honor my brother. And also, because its my blog and I can say what I want, when I want to. So there......

Dare I say, the loss of Ralph has had a profound effect on the direction of my life in a way that losing my mother can not or will not. We all expect to lose our mother; as incredibly painful as that may be. And it's been painful. But the loss of a sibling, while expected, unearths deep feelings of pain, sadness and heartache about a person who has stood by your side as you've built your life story. From the very beginning of time, for at least one of you. Ralph was 12 years older than me; but I hadn't ever lived a single day when he wasn't my big brother until the night I got that phone call. That experience of loss changes a person on a fundamental level in a way that you cannot explain, unless you have experienced it.

A few months after my brother died, I wandered into a library desperately looking for a book that would give a voice to these deep feelings of loss I was experiencing. And I was shocked to find them. In a book called  The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss, the sister of the infamous "Boy in the Bubble" (yes - he was an actual person) complied interviews of individuals from every stage of life who had lost a sibling. As I read the book I found a single sentence that has been burned into my memory everytime I think of a way that I can possibly explain what it feels like to lose your sibling. "What he was saying was, how do you describe the way someone fit into your life, if they have always been a part of it?"

In many ways, that sentence has both haunted and sustained me over the past 2 years. In the beginning, I was so desperate to figure out how to define and clarify the deep impact the life and death of my brother had on my life. But it felt like nothing I said was good enough, clear enough or deep enough to give what he meant to me justice. I felt like I was forever failing his legacy. But I'm stubborn so I kept trying. I kept writing. I kept talking. I kept laughing. I kept crying. I just tried to keep him. And it helped.

Last year, as the first anniversary of Ralph's passing approached, I wanted to take that opportunity to write about what I had learned about myself and those around me as I had gone through that difficult journey. And I learned so much. I came out on the other side of 365 days a stronger, deeper, more determined person. Not perfect. But happier in many ways, which sounds bizarre in itself. I had learned to embrace all of those less than perfect things in myself in a way that would have made my brother beam. I have said before, if I knew nothing else about Ralph, I knew this one thing; he believed in me in a way that no single other human being ever had in my life. I have no idea why. I remember knowing this from a pretty young. age. And I paid him no mind. I gave it little thought. But there I was, on the other side of a single year, without that undying support holding me up. And I was still standing. And that propelled me in many ways. I would have never run a 5K after 12 days of training without knowing that my brother assumed I could do it. I would have never taught a college class without knowing that he just assumed that I would someday do it. I would have never pissed endless people off by saying exactly what I thought without knowing that living in my own truth was my brother's expectation. I would have never started this blog.

And then my mother got sick. And then my mother died. And the winds were completely knocked out of my sails. I was devastated and vulnerable. And for a little while I forgot who I was grieving. I mean, of course, I was (and continue to) mourn my mother. Everyday, I think "I'll call Mom." followed by a sinking, empty feeling. But 3 months later, I am standing on the brink of another 365 days since I lost my brother. And I'm left thinking, what have I learned? And, how can I keep his legacy alive?

So most of the day today, I thought about a man who taught me about music, loyalty, truth and family. It was suggested that I spend his birthday, which was Sunday, doing something he loved and the only thing I could come up with was having a few drinks, singing Beatles songs and quoting lines like "Book 'em Dano." I'll admit, I did none of those things but that's what he would have done. And then he'd have spent the next day with us (my sisters, the kids and my mother) eating spaghetti and eating birthday cake. We had this thing we did every year. Every birthday, we would call each other just to say happy birthday. And then we would always have cake at my mom's. Not every one of us 6 kids did this but Ralph and I did, along with a few others. It felt very juvenile in some ways but it was a tradition. And it hurts to know that we can't do this again. And that I can't call him on the phone number that it is still saved in my phone 2 years later.

But this is what I can do....I can continue to talk about my brother. I can continue to write about my brother. I can continue to learn from a life, while short, lived full. I can continue to let him lift me up in the way only he knew how.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Social Commentary on Corporal Punishment

I want to preface this with "I do not beat my child." I have swatted Max on the butt maybe once or twice in his life for a life endangering action such as trying to run in traffic. As a behavioral health professional, I do not endorse the use of corporal punishment. It simply does not work in a positive behavioral support plan. You cannot teach a child with an intellectual or developmental disability, or a child with a mental health diagnosis (which includes things like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Disruptive Behavior Disorder, etc.) to behave by taking a hand, a belt or a broom to them. It is a waste of time. I can pretty much guarantee that. And what I am about to comment on is not "beating your child".  Child abuse is a real thing. There are life long consequences for those children who were hit on a regular basis; children who were used as their parents battering bags. Those parents should be shot. No child deserves that.

But there was a time and a place in our history when corporal punishment (aka spanking) was a culturally acceptable form of child rearing. Millions of children were on the receiving end of a belt or a open palm to the butt. And the large, large majority of those children look back and laugh when they tell the story of their parent chasing them through the house with a broom. These are not people who were damaged. These are not people who have grown up to be abusers.

I am 99.9% sure my mother never laid a hand on me. I have a very vague memory of my dad swatting me as I walked up the walkway of my house when I was about 4. I do have memories of my father being physical with my older siblings, especially the boys and quite honestly it did effect them. Intent and perception are intertwined in an undeniable way. I am not pretending to tell my siblings story.

My mother on the other hand, loving as she was, would every once in a while lose her mind. Let's face it, a mother of 6 can only take so much. We pushed her beyond her limits over and over and quite honestly, I can't believe she didn't beat the crap out of one of us on a weekly basis.

I have one very distinct memory of my mother losing her mind. It was a late morning one summer when my sister Crissy was a teenager. While I'm happy to say she has matured, at the time Crissy was a total, spoiled brat. She was arrogant and entitled. And she decided to push my mother's button on this particular day. I don't remember what she said but the visual plays out like a slow motion replay at a sporting event. Crissy was sitting in an armchair with her leg swung across the arm of the chair and for some reason I feel like she was eating a soft pretzel (she ate alot of soft pretzels). After she said what ever it was to cause my mother to snap, I watched my mother lunge forward off of the sofa like she was being catapulted by some medieval contraption. She took hold of my sister's neck and actually lifted her off the ground. The chair she was sitting in flew backwards. And my sister just stood there, in my mother's grip, in disbelief. I stood there in disbelief. My mother yelled and screamed like a lunatic and then let her go. It was awesome.

I say it was awesome for the following reason (which gets to my whole "social commentary" thing): My mother loved her children more than anything. But she was not going to tolerate our shit. Especially when our shit involved disrespect. It just didn't fly. And my mother was real. She lived in the real world and reacted in real ways.

When I was teaching Developmental Psychology, the whole idea of corporal punishment came up as an area of discussion. Remember, I was teaching 18-22 year olds who were raised by baby boomers. Baby boomers as a generation do not believe in corporal punishment. I have my own theory on that (augmented by some actual research). Baby boomers were born to what Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation". These were the WWI and II era adults; the no bullshit, pull yourself up by the boot straps generation. The Greatest Generation worked their asses off so that their children would have a good life and be afforded opportunities more easily than it was afforded them. And they had a crap load of kids (hence the boom....). The boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. The top end of the boom came of age as Vietnam was threatening to take our young men to war in a far off land. These kids were accessing higher education more readily than previous generations and the social climate was one that was counter to the one their parents had grown up in. It was all about individualism, choice, peace, love and equality. All of these things had a collateral effect on parenting.

Baby boomers believed children should be nurtured in a manner often in deep contrast to the way they were raised. The family became more of a democracy where everyone got a vote. Self esteem wasn't earned through hard work and personal achievement. It was a birthright. The baby boomers are the ones who came up with the brilliant idea that every kid should get a trophy. For everything they ever did. For breathing.

The interesting thing is that it was during this "de-corporal punishing" of America that the family unit fell apart. As kids self report of self esteem increased, their actual personal achievement decreased. A sense of entitlement has permeated an entire generation. If a parent grabs their child by the arm, the child can threaten or even on many occasions, speed dial 911 to report abuse. And parents believe that their kids have them by the balls. Cuz they kinda do.

So when I explained to my class of Gen-whateverers that I grew up in a world that didn't perceive corporal punishment as abuse, therefore in many ways (except for when it was), it was not abuse, they were dumbfounded. How could it ever be ok for a parent to touch a child? Then I told them about contemporary cultural differences in corporal punishment. Current research shows that African Americans as a cultural group largely embrace the concept of corporal punishment and believe they are delivering it as part of a loving and caring responsibility to the child. For example, if an African American child disobeys their parent, the parent believes spanking is a way of saying "I love you enough to push you in the right direction literally." And the research also supports that because the cultural context in which African Americans deliver corporal punishment is a loving one, those children have better outcomes than Caucasian American children who's parents spank them. Because culturally, White American parents tend to use corporal punishment in a "I'm going to punish you" manner. These are 2 distinctly different messages. So the research shows that white kids who have experienced corporal punishment are more likely to be aggressive, get involved in drugs, break the law, etc. than their black counterparts.

Back when my mother would on occasion, lose her mind, and grab my sister by the neck (really that only happened once), it was couched in an environment of love, acceptance and understanding. But my mother was my mother. Not my friend. Not my equal. She was my compass. She guided me on a path towards adulthood; towards parenthood. And I never once questioned her love. Even when she threatened to beat me upside the head.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What I Gave My Mother

I am doing some grief work. Proactively planning for this journey in a way I wasn't afforded after my brother's death. This is a different grief but when coupled with the loss of my brother less than 2 years ago, its all intertwined and difficult to handle some days.

So anyway - this time around, I have a little bit of an understanding of the stages and what I need to do to take care of myself. I find ways to laugh more than I did in the early days after my brother's death, when any moment of joy felt like a betrayal. I am trying to let go of some of the useless pain that will get me nowhere. That's a hard one for me. I have a tendency to hold it in until I explode which ultimately leaves casualties in my wake.

But the one I struggle with the most is the guilt. This one sent me over the edge with my brother. And it wasn't just guilt about our dynamic, it was a pervasive sadness because I believed that if he had only done it "my way", he would have had a better life, more joy, etc. "My way" conversations often led to big blowups and accusations. And Ralph never did it "my way". He did it "his way" and I had to learn to live with and honor that. And that was hard. The only thing that made it any easier was a powerful belief that my brother lived his life on his own terms. And he was okay with that. So I had to learn to be okay with that too.

So here I am, realizing I'm sitting with some guilt about my mom. Which I've come to learn is normal and expected. Unless you are the one experiencing it. Then it feels heart wrenching and all consuming. My mother and I had many "my way" conversations; far more than I ever dared to have with Ralph (partially because he often stuck the proverbial "talk to the hand" in my face). From a very young age I felt a responsibility for my mother's happiness. She never put this on me; I owned this one completely for many, many years. I knew exactly what it was that my mother needed to do to be happy. And she never did a single damn thing I told her to do. That is until the last weeks of her life (but we'll get there later). I often felt torn between my complicated family life and a strong desire to walk away and start new. Find my own happiness in a place that wasn't tainted by so much pain and loss. But I wanted to bring my mother with me, out of all the heartache and the drama. But my mother wasn't going anywhere.

I wanted her to sell the house. I wanted her to quit her job. I wanted her to say no to my siblings. I wanted her to plan for her future. I wanted her to want to make things easier on all of us by taking care of all of the details she refused to take care of. I resented her for that. And then she got sick. And I wanted her to fight. And I wanted her to try. And I wanted her to get out of bed. And I wanted her to want to live.And this is where it gets tricky....because I started to not know what is was she wouldn't do vs. what it was she couldn't do.

The "my way" conversations took on a new meaning after my mother's diagnosis. Because they were tempered in an enormous amount of guilt for all of the previous ones that ultimately didn't matter. And that's when she started to try. I begged her to get on antidepressants to no avail for the first 6 weeks but it wasn't until she told me she was afraid she would die of a heart attack before the cancer ever got her that I was able to say to her "Mom, I walk around ready to explode in fear every minute. You aren't having a heart attack. You are having an anxiety attack." She called the doctor for the antidepressants the next day. Closer to the final days, after weeks of begging my mother to get out of bed and walk around so she didn't get any weaker, she called me and said "I'm doing what you said. I keep telling myself, Carol says I need to get up and move around." At this point, she could barely walk more than 15 feet. She was dying and I thought she need to get some exercise.

Seven days before my mother died, she fell and laid alone for over an hour before anyone found her. She became delirious. Her liver was failing. And I said to my sister that day "If I knew this was the end, I could handle this. But I can't tell. I can't tell if she is just giving up or if she is dying." I found out later she was dying. I had to do alot of forgiving of myself in those seven days.

I was lucky enough to have a few hours alone with my mother 3 days before she died. She had been told she would be going home on hospice the next day. She was more calm, serene and coherent than I had seen her in months. In fact, she was so coherent, my sister did not believe me when I told her about the conversation we had that night. My mother told me she didn't feel like she was going to die. She told me she wanted to get her hair done over the weekend. We talked and laughed and for one last time, I had my mother back. And she had me back. This is where I truly believe that people who are going to die (whether they know it or not) have some unconscious understanding of what will come to be. Several people, including me, had similar conversations with my brother in the weeks before he died.

So the purpose of this blog was to figure out what I gave my mother, which is difficult in the midst of all of the things she has given me over the years. But I think that I learned that I gave my mother a looking glass into possibility; even if it was never meant to be her possibility. Like my brother, she was perfectly okay with her life. It was me who wanted more for both of them. I told my mother one night close to the end "I just always wanted more for you. I wanted you to be happy." And her response to me was "I had everything I ever wanted. I was happy." How do you argue with that?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mothers and Daughters

A daughter is a mother's gender partner, her closest ally in the family confederacy, an extension of her self.  And mothers are their daughters' role model, their biological and emotional road map, the arbiter of all their relationships.  ~Victoria Secunda

Today was a hard day. Two months ago today, I sat with my mother in the darkness and listened to her labored breaths begging God to take her quickly. It isn't until most people are much older that they are faced with the reality of losing their 2nd parent and yet, on that day I became an orphan. While for some of you that may sound incredibly dramatic, those who have stood over their dead parent with a distinct feeling of a free fall, there is nothing dramatic about it. Because you don't need to be 10 to be an orphan. The only requirement is the moment your mother or father takes their last breath leaving you standing on top of a family tree, literally out on a limb. 

Just like when my brother died, I am struggling with a new family constellation. And its all too quick and too soon and too much grief to process at the end of the day. I have had many people tell me that I am a survivor. And its true. But that doesn't mean that I want to be. Or that I'm good at it. Surviving, on some level, is my truth. It has defined much of my life. Just like it defined my mother's. 

On the one year anniversary of my brother's death, I wrote a blog outlining what I had learned in the 12 months after his death. The following excerpt was the first lesson I wrote:

- I learned my mother is a much stronger woman than I ever believed. When I was 11 years old, my father died, leaving my mother widowed at 44. Having been a stay at home mother and wife to a domineering Italian businessman, my mother did not have the self esteem to believe that she could go out and start over. It was years before my mother ever got a job and the recurrent themes of a Irish Catholic housewife never really went away. I truly believed my mother could not survive the death of her own child. But she has. She has gotten out of bed and continued to live her life the best she can knowing that she has buried her son. She still laughs and keeps Ralph's memory alive through allowing all of us to celebrate who he was (warts and all). She has helped the grandchildren through losing Ralph by meeting them where they are in the process, even if it means having to read the newspaper article my 7 year old nephew wrote shortly after Ralph passed announcing his death (literally - it read "Extra....Ralph died").

 In my heart, I did not believe it was possible for my mother to survive losing my brother. But she was a survivor. I remember calling her and crying every night saying over and over "I'm just so sad. I've never been this sad in my whole life." And she listened. And comforted. And she stood by me when I almost lost my mind with grief about 6 months after he died. I had no idea how she did it knowing the kind of loss she was enduring herself. 
But now I sit, almost nightly with an 8 year old little boy who cries for his "Mombo", the person he refers to as "the nicest person I ever knew." And I give him the space and time to grieve his own loss. Recently he said to me, "why don't you cry all the time?" I thought about it for a minute and said "Max, I am sad and I cry everyday. You just don't always see it. I miss my mom but I know if she were here, her biggest concern would be if you were okay. So I'm just making sure you are okay." And that's when I figured out how my mother managed to listen and comfort me not only through the loss of my brother but through losing her too.

Motherhood is a powerful force in the universe. It doesn't seem fair that anyone should have to endure the loss of a mother.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

And Through Eternity, I'll Sing On

While I'm sure it wasn't God, Jesus or the church's intent, I found a piece of my mother's legacy on Good Friday.

While I had deluded myself into believing that because I knew my mother was dying that I would somehow be spared the deep despair I felt after my brother's death, it came anyway. The loss of my mother is distinctly different and as someone wrote me in the hours after her death " There is a pain so primal, so deep, so alone when you are suddenly motherless." That primal ache has only surfaced in recent days, realizing that I can't pick up the phone to tell her what Max said or did, or just to say "What are you doing?" I can't ask her what is was I said to her a day many years ago that made her laugh, or cry or mad. Those memories are buried with her.

Knowing Easter was coming brought anxiety to my sisters and me as we tried to figure out what to do. Mom always cooked the food, which wasn't anything fancy but the recipes were her's and she never wrote them down. So I went out today to buy the stuff we'd need and played a scene of my mother making potato salad over and over in my head as I tried to remember how it was she made it. By the time I made it to my mother's house I was inconsolable, knowing I could never ask her what the recipe was. And my timing was perfect because I walked in on two of my sisters crying basically over the same thing.

Which brings me back to Good Friday. I sat last night with Max in a Presbyterian church listening to an acoustic collaborative called New York Hymns, which had complied old poetry from the 1500 and 1700's that outlined the Stations of the Cross and set it to reflective acoustic music. I admit, I've never been to Good Friday Mass (as us Catholics call it) so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.

As I sat and listened to the music, the theme of sacrifice and death overwhelmed me and I started to hear and see my mother's own journey through life in the story. My mother's whole life was about sacrifice. She gave up any sense of individual self the day my oldest sister was born and began to merge her life and identity into her children. She embodied motherhood in a way only certain mothers can or do. And she did it with little complaint. I say little because once, about 20 years ago, I remember my mother having a bit of a breakdown and yelling "I'm not your mother (as we argued with her, starting every statement with "MOM"), I'm Joan!" And I knew that in that moment, she was trying to figure out where we ended and she began. And I can honestly say, I'm not sure she ever figured that one out.

A few months ago, as my mother tried to come to terms with her impending death, she told me the story of watching her own mother die when she was 15 years old. In the last moment of my grandmother's life, she opened her eyes, smiled as if she had seen something so beautiful, closed them and let out a big sigh. And at the end of the story my mother said to me "And my mother was so perfect. She was everything a mother is supposed to be. She was everything I wasn't." And she started to cry. And I began to cry to because my mother, a woman who lost her husband at 44, raised the majority of her children alone, never remarried, and had one of her children living with her at some point in time until the day she died, believed that she wasn't a good mother. My heart broke for her in that moment because I realized that in all of the day to day of life, which is hard and thankless at times, my mother failed to realize that everything we had in life was owed to her.

So the pain is primal and its very lonely when you realize something as simple as your mother's potato salad recipe may be gone. But I worked at it tonight and I think I got it as close as I could have. Without it being my mother making it herself.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Everything I Ever Learned in Life, I Learned From My Mother

I learned that while Sunday dinner is mandatory; all other meals are optional.
I learned that even if your mostly Irish, if your last name is Ciliberti, you need to learn how to make sauce (even if you start with a can).
I learned that, eventually, the sound of the word “mom” said over and over again will cause temporary insanity.
I learned that phrases like “because I said so” and “she is not she; she is your mother” have an actual genetic component.
I learned that Neil Diamond can sing with the best of them, even if he is embarrassing to see in concert.
I learned to dance a tango, sing Christmas songs in July and how to take an ordinary event and use words to turn it into a story.
I learned that there is no greater parental punishment than quiet disappointment.
I learned that laughter is a requirement for living.
I learned that respect is an actual aura that surrounds a person.
I learned that loyalty is only second to love.
I learned that age is truly just a number and your mind determines how old you are.
I learned that stroking a child’s hair, no matter how old that child is, can heal all things.
I learned that sometimes it’s enough to want your children to have it all.
I learned that someone else's definition of happiness holds no bearing on the heart.
I learned how to love amidst pain and heartache.
I learned how to be a mother.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Never Ending Winter

It is February and for the 41st time in my life (because I'm convinced I felt this way as early as when I was 2 weeks old), I am in the throes of the longest winter of my life. ENOUGH ALREADY!!!! How long can snow possibly stay on the ground? I'll tell you how long. Since December 26, 2010. That's how long.

I have plastic covering my windows, space heaters turned on, regular heat turned on and a heavy coat. The thermostat says 67 degrees but I simply do not believe that. There is something so fundamentally depressing about winter that the mere thought of leaving my house is too much to bear some days.

My arch nemesis Hurricane Schwartz came on the news back in November with his multiple teases to stay tuned to hear about his long term winter forecast. Then he promised us in all of his expertise, that we could look forward to a mild winter. WTF???

Then after a few snowstorms and cold spells that lasted upwards of 400 days, he comes on with teases about his "updated" long term forecast. Guess what Glenn?? If winter is half over and the snow keeps a coming, its no longer a long term forecast, its a 7 day forecast combined with a recap of what has gone on for the past 2 months. SURPRISE!!! We are now in for a cold and snowy winter.

Now Hurricane tried showing up at my 40th birthday party to make amends but too late sucka!!!! It's still cold and the snow hasn't melted! You're days are numbered....

So news of a warm-up this week is met with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. I'll believe it when the damn snow is gone.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

10 of The 40 Moments of my Life - Part 4

And so here we are. My 30's. This is by far the hardest of the 40 moments to write. Mostly because I haven't had enough distance from events to have really processed them fully. It's much easier to laugh, cry or analyze situations that have occurred 20+ years ago. But the closer in time the events are to the present, the harder it is to reflect upon them. So bear with me.....

31. Moving Out and Moving On...Again: So I left my marriage and my 20's behind in the same month. In January of 2001, I moved all of my belongings into a studio apartment in the exclusive downtown Kennett Square apartment building known as 131. Thanks to my good friend Steve Warner, a spot in this very exclusive apartment building was made available to me. Complete with its own entrance through a sliding glass window that you stepped down into off the porch, this studio signified my new life as a single woman. I have to say the first few years of my 30's were an intermingling of healing a broken heart and a whole lotta fun. 131 was kinda like a college dorm for my friend Wendy and me. We lived 15 feet apart (she had the fancy 1 1/2 bedroom), were steps from the Kennett Square Inn and spent our evenings watching bad TV over the phone. We dated interesting (in the broadest sense of the word) men and drank a little like we were 22 years old. We had fun. And I needed to have some fun.

32. September 11, 2001: Just like our parents, we will always remember the moment the planes hit and our world changed. I am still dumbstruck to this day by my naivete as to the evils of the world before the morning of September 11. I was positive it was a huge mistake. I was positive it was a huge mistake even after the 2nd plane hit. It wasn't until they hit the Pentagon that I realized this was real. And I distinctly remembering that the world would never be the same. And it hasn't been.

33. Stephen and Max: One of the most life changing moments in my life is meeting Stephen and subsequently having Max. I had known who Stephen was long before we really knew each other. He used to wait on me and Mark when we would dine at the Farm House at Loch Nairn. And we loved for Stephen to wait on us. We felt special and taken care of when Stephen waited on us. So years later, when I went to work at the Great House (which is also at Loch Nairn) as a bartender I slowly came to know Stephen. He had forgotten about me and Mark until I jogged his memory. Apparently, he was in high demand and all of the requests run together. To make a long story short, we started dating and a few months later....surprise....I was pregnant. I will address this now because I get this question at least bi weekly; I truly believe Stephen and I are able to maintain the largely positively relationship that we do for the mere fact that we weren't together for long before we got pregnant. We knew we were taking a chance on each other. And we trusted each other. By the time we figured out that we weren't going to work out, we had developed a deep commitment to Max and each other as a family unit. Stephen is and always will be my family. God had a plan for us.

34. Motherhood: And then there was Max; all 9.6 lbs and 23 inches of him born after 18 hours of labor and an emergency c-section. I remember Stephen coming back from the nursery when I was still high as a kite and in recovery, and me saying to him in a panic and crying, "Where's the baby? You can't leave the baby! He's never been alone before!" I was instantly in love, an anxious mess and sleep deprived to the point of mental breakdown for the first 13 months. I suffered from some pretty severe postpartum depression that I didn't even recognize until I went postal on my boss. I have said it before and I'll say it again - Motherhood is hard; by far the hardest thing I have ever done (in fact I wrote a blog about it). But the rewards are beyond any measure. I have never loved another human being the way I love Max. He is the exact child I was meant to have. And I feel inadequate and honored every day.

35. Back to School: Having Max put many things in perspective for me, one being that I finally needed to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Becoming a role model to Max became the catalyst for going back to finish graduate school. I wanted to be the person I knew I could be but never had the nerve to be. I never had the belief in myself to move forward in a career in psychology. There are alot of reasons for that but ultimately I think I had an incredible fear of failure. After having Max I decided I couldn't be afraid anymore or I would be teaching him fear. So I went back to school and completed my Masters in Clinical Psychology. And then actually got a job in my field. Which is much more impressive than getting the degree.

36. Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone: About 4 months after starting graduate school, I had another falling out with the same boss (we had issues) and abruptly left my job. I stopped on the way home, grabbed the paper and started looking for a job. And there was an ad for a TSS. I had heard about TSS's but didn't think I had it in me to work with kids with developmental disabilities. I had this perfect little boy and I was afraid of how I would feel being around kids who weren't perfect (or so I thought). But I also knew I was working on facing my fears so I went and interviewed and got the job. And they sent me to this orientation with the county that my current boss at Devereux facilitated. I thought the whole idea behind the orientation was to train me on how to be a TSS. In actuality, it teaches you what a whole bunch of acronyms like IEP, PDD and ODD mean. On the second day, I raised my hand and asked, "When are you gonna teach me what I'm going to be doing?" I was assured it would be on the job training. And it was. But the most powerful and profound lesson I was taught on the very first day with my little 3 year old girl with autism was "Always Assume Intellect." And I did. And that lesson has served me well. It has allowed me to expect great things of people most others assume will never amount to anything. And I have never been disappointed by the abilities of those who are considered intellectually or developmentally delayed. They are some of the smartest, most adaptive people I know.

37. Moving Out and Moving On....for the umpteenth time: Over the years, Stephen and I drifted apart and it became clear it was again time to move on. Again - many people don't understand why we aren't together but we get along better apart than together. It is hard to break up your family unit and I feel like we were forced to make Max grow up faster for it. But we both felt like staying together for Max would send him mixed messages about what a healthy relationship should look like. We handled it as a family - proposing it as an arrangement in which Max would have 2 homes instead of one. Which he conveyed to others in a manner that implied one was our primary home and one was a vacation home. While he was and continues to be sad about the situation at times, he has done remarkably well with it. If I can give any advice to anyone going through a split when kids are involved it is this - your children deserve to feel loved, respected and complete in every sense of the word. If you make your shit your kid's shit, you are screwing with how they see the world. And they deserve better than that.

38. Losing My Brother: Many of you reading this probably feel like you really got to know me through the fact that my brother died. And I told everyone. All the time. And I still do. Losing my brother Ralph was the most profound loss I have ever experienced in my life. And you have to remember, I have experienced alot of personal loss. I lost my father, I have lost close friends, I lost my marriage. And I got through all of those things. But after Ralph died, I hit my lowest low. I have explained it before but I'll do it again; I oozed grief. It poured out of every part of me. And I didn't believe it would ever stop. The first year was incredibly hard and I will admit I still cry almost every day. I miss him. I took him for granted but I have needed to forgive myself for that in order to move on. Because there was one thing I knew about my brother. He believed in me probably more than any other person in my life.  He had a faith and a belief in me that never wavered. All of the doubt and fear I carried around was lost on him. He expected great things of me long before I had ever dreamed them possible.

39. Finding My Voice: I believe wholeheartedly that the greatest gift my brother gave me in his death is that I have finally truly found my voice. The night my brother died, I came home, went on to Facebook and poured my heart out onto a note and hit "share". In the midst of all of the grief, for the first time I truly did not care what others thought of me. At my most vulnerable, I laid my heart and soul out for all to see. And the response was overwhelming. One of my biggest fears over the years was being perceived as weak and vulnerable. But I was and I am. About six months after Ralph died I finally started this blog; something I had always wanted to do but was afraid of what others would think.And it goes deeper than that - I suddenly felt incredible free; freer to be me than I ever had been in my life. And I was happy again. Happy to know that even in tragedy you can be given a gift.

40. Count your Blessings: And here I am. At 40; a moment that I fully embrace and yet I'm faced with another painful realization that life is what happens while you are busy making plans. I had decided about a year ago that I just needed to get to 40 and it would all be ok. I could leave the pain of my 30's behind and start over new. And I would be happy and finally find everything I was looking for. I was shedding alot of old baggage and putting things to bed. I was planning a party to celebrate moving on. A few days before Christmas, my mother became ill. It came on suddenly and hard. High fever and very weak. My sister took her to an urgent care center where they did an x-ray. They discovered a tumor which has since been diagnosed as lung cancer. Over the past few weeks, we have learned that the cancer has metastasized and her treatment options are limited. The interesting thing is what sent my mother to the urgent care center that day had nothing to do with the cancer and she has since recovered. But she now knows that she has cancer and it is not going away.

Remember how I said this decade was the hardest to write? I struggled with even disclosing this. It is too fresh and too painful. Unlike the shock of my brother's death, my family and I are now left with the realization that we are at the beginning of a journey to a goodbye. And the fear is great, the pain is deep and we have to learn how to continue to live knowing that my mother will ultimately die. And she doesn't deserve this. But then I realized I had to disclose this (with my mother's permission) in order to begin to move forward in the process.

In my grief, which feels never ending at times, I have to learn to continue to live. I have to focus on all that is good and pure in my love for my mother and reconcile it with the imperfection of the relationship. And I need to forgive myself for being less than perfect in that love. And I have to count my blessings.

So anyway, when I conceptualized doing this 4 part blog, I never dreamed the last entry would be this. But it is. And I have to learn to live with that. Thank you for coming along on this journey. Thanks for being my friends. Thanks for listening.