Monday, December 31, 2012

12 Lessons of 2012

So I did this last year (11 Lessons of 2011) and it was interesting and fun. I wasn't sure I could do it again and honestly won't know until I get started. So, here goes nothing.

12. I don't do the "balance" thing very well: I've known this for a while but it tops my list because I'm in the throws of it right now. I'm either in overdrive or laying in bed. I don't have a good grip on how to balance work, family, friends and me. I tend to push myself until my body can't go anymore and then beat myself up for not listening to all of the warning signs along the way. I lounged around all summer and felt like a slug for not prepping my classes. Then I spent the last 5 months going nonstop until I nearly cracked at the end. And the last week or so, I've just covered myself in a million covers, slept and read feeling really rundown.

11. 34 teenagers can bring you to your knees: Part of my overdrive mode of the last 5 months was teaching a college level Psychology class to a group of teenagers. Let's just say my intuition that I was not made to interact with large groups of teenagers at 7:15am was confirmed. I will say a few bad apples can ruin a bunch. And a single, thoughtful teenage boy who says thank you can make you cry.

10. If you can't laugh at the really shitty things, then your problems are way worse than mine. In all of my morose moments, I can still laugh. In fact, the more ridiculously sad or angry I am, the more I can somehow spin it in a way that I end up cracking myself up. And that, my friends, is a gift.

9. The glass can be simultaneously half full and half empty: I am a notorious cynic and at times can be incredibly pessimistic. But over the past few years, I've softened and found myself finding positive things in places I never thought possible. I guess you can call that evolution.

8. I do not like New Years Eve: Never have. Never will. I think it's dumb.

7. I love bacon : I have come to acknowledge my deep love affair with bacon. And I will tell you, the precooked microwaved kind isn't nearly as fatty as the real stuff.

6. Yes, I love my family: I'm talking about my family of origin here. We "enjoy" a complicated relationship but my mother laid the groundwork for deep love even when we want to rip each other's heads off. We often misunderstand each other, have learned that if you can't be honest with the people you've known your whole life, you will never be honest with anyone else and that we owe something (although I'm not always sure what it is) to each other. It's been hard to figure all of this out without my mother's proverbial smack in the back of the head, but it still holds true (at least for me...the rest of them can think whatever they want because my mother always said that was ok).

5. Max continues to amaze me everyday: I'm not sure that ever stops and I hope it doesn't. He keeps things in perspective, puts up with my shit, lets me yell and apologize without any long term psychological damage and just plain old cracks me up.

4. My friends mean the world to me: This is relatively new, to be brutally honest. I think for many years I was tied up in family drama, personal drama, figuring out how to be a mom, figuring out how to be a grown up. And then, I realized who stuck around, who showed up and didn't leave and who would put up with my shit. And it's a beautiful thing.

3. I love teaching: Despite my frustration outlined in #11, I absolutely love teaching. Sometimes, it totally feels like I'm faking it. Why are all of these people listening to me? But, honestly, it's because I'm quite entertaining. And I know what I'm talking about. For the most part.

2. I'm liking the 40's: Yes, they started off rough but after my 30's, I am still happy to have moved on into my 40's. There is something really freeing about your 40's (at least for me). I am way more who I am supposed to be then I ever was.

1. Yep - I still like my life: I was surprised at the end of my 2011 list to find that this is how I ended but it still rings true today. I'll be honest, my particular mood today doesn't necessarily reflect this sentiment but all in all, I am one lucky woman.

Monday, December 17, 2012

At her request....Shining a Spotlight on....Crissy

Sisters annoy, interfere, criticize.  Indulge in monumental sulks, in huffs, in snide remarks.  Borrow.  Break.  Monopolize the bathroom.  Are always underfoot.  But if catastrophe should strike, sisters are there.  Defending you against all comers.  ~Pam Brown

For the first time ever, someone has actually requested I blog about them. Of course, it is my sister, Crissy. To be more specific (and much to her dismay), my little sister. You see, I've dedicated quite a few blogs to the impact my friends have had on me, especially over the past few difficult years. But never my siblings specifically. Because, quite honestly....siblings are hard.

I say siblings are hard because I live in the real world. I lay it all out there (have you read my other blogs) for all to see. So, I recognize and embrace the complexity of my relationships with my siblings. I throw it out into the universe and let it be what it will be. This is most often met with fury from them but, oh well. We were all raised by the same woman and man, and inherited the same honest tongue. Some of us just use it more often than others.

The six of us span 16 years oldest to youngest and Crissy and I are almost 3 years apart in age. In some respects, we grew up as little sub families; Joanie and Ralph, Michael and Patti and then me and Crissy rounded it off. Our subfamilies were largely defined by our ages at the time of the death of our father (Crissy and I were 8 & 11) and our experiences as children reflected that. So, while the older kids had experienced my father's fury directly on some level, Crissy and I were more like observers at a really bad show. We saw it, knew the chaos well but we're lucky enough to never have it directed at us. Honestly, we lucked out.

I think we both thought we dodged a bullet when it came to my father but that is the beauty of youth. You can spend a large amount of time in denial before you get slapped in the face. My slap came quite a few years ahead of Crissy. I tended to be more in tune with those sorts of things at a much younger age. But, eventually we both figured it out.

So, anyway....Crissy and I spent the large majority of our youth fatherless. No need for the "awww" or "that's so sad". It was what it was. It was our reality. And you can spin it either way; a blessing or a curse. But what made our experience distinctly different than our older siblings was our mother. As dysfunctional as our parent's marriage was, our siblings enjoyed some level of an intact family that Crissy and I were not afforded. After my father died, my mother shut down. And Crissy and I were kind of on our own.

Here's where I put the HUGE disclaimer mother was amazing. Anyone who has read this blog knows that. My siblings and I were blessed with a mother's mother; a woman who was truly born to mother children. And she did it well. Better than well; as I said, she was amazing. I was blessed enough to have many, many conversations with my mother over the years and prior to her death in which she was able to give me an incredible amount of insight into what she valued most in being a parent. Loyalty was demanded, respect was commanded and guilt did not exist. At least not on her part...she could give me a look and in an instant I was spilling my guts of all the lies I was trying pull over on her. My mother always said she did the best she could with the information she had at the time. And that was true.

But back to Crissy and her "spotlight". While my mother demanded loyalty, she did not demand we get along. She accepted the reality of our individual dynamics and Crissy and I enjoyed a volatile one. As small children, we simultaneously played together and beat the shit out of each other. More specifically, Crissy beat the shit out of me. Because, believe it or not, I was quite docile in my youth. Especially when facing a small child otherwise known as "Cookie Monster" or  "Gunkaberti" depending on who you talked to. I mean this is the girl who cussed my father out at age 3. No one cussed my father out. Except Gunk.
Our teen years proved to be even more volatile. Short story was we hated each other. Crissy was out of control in my humble opinion. I was probably out of control but just hid it a little bit better. She wore my clothes without permission to the point of me actually cutting a shirt off of her body (really I only had to cut the sleeve to make my point). She stole my car and went joyriding with her friends before she ever had a license. And she got a dog and then didn't take care of it. I have a distinct memory of tax day, a dog who had tore up her tax returns and Crissy walking out and getting in her car and driving away. While her tax return blew all over the front lawn.

It wasn't until we both got pregnant (unmarried pregnant girls....but its okay because we were like 27 and 31) that we started to relate to one another. I don't remember us even having much of a relationship between 21 and 31. But the dueling babies gave us a commonality we had never experienced before and we actually started interacting. Yes, we still fought but we started leaning on each other for the first time ever. Crissy became a mother 8 months before me. This actually worked out for the best because she is way more organized than me so she had worked out some of the kinks of the "how to's" by the time Max came along. An interesting thing about the day Max was born- my mother had recently undergone gall bladder surgery and was recovering at home. Because she couldn't drive and the doctors had told me my labor would be long (after being induced), she stayed home waiting to hear from me. I sent Stephen to work expecting not to need him until at least the next day. And then I spent the day alone, in labor. I have no idea why I didn't call anyone but I didn't. I know everyone knew I was in labor but I'm the type who's a real bitch if I'm not feeling well so maybe they subconsciously stayed away. 18 hours later I gave birth to a 9 1/2 pound baby boy via C-section. While Stephen was there, it was Crissy who walked in the room within minutes of me giving birth. It was Crissy who took me out for my first solo (meaning without Stephen) ride with Max. Crissy was the one I called day and night to make sure I was doing it right.  Crissy was the one who made me feel sane in the insanity of infancy. Our mother (you know...the mother's mother) thought we were both insane; insisting we take the crying babies out of the car seats to comfort while driving, give them rice cereal at 3 weeks and even suggested I start smoking again to lighten up!!!! On a side note, God bless those who mothered in a fearless world!

As the kids got older, Crissy and I enjoyed the reality of our relationship; a combination of arguments and understanding. We fought a lot but ultimately were there for each other. Remember...loyalty bound us in our mother's expectations. So, we honored it. Always.

Over the last 10 years, Crissy and I have enjoyed (if that's the right description) a close relationship. Mothering 3 kids born within 13 months of each other at the very least, forced it. But the cruel reality of losing our brother and mother over the last 3 1/2 years reinforced the relationship. This illuminated the unique disposition of our place in the family constellation. We were the littlest of the little sisters of our larger than life brother. We were the youngest of my mother's children and in some ways were cheated out of our mother's wisdom in how to do this parenting thing. We are orphaned parents not quite ready to parent on our own. So we look to each other to figure it out together. And argue it out along the way. It's a bit like the blind leading the blind.

The last thing I will say is this. At one point Crissy told my mother that the difference between she and I is that she values being nice over all things. And its true. She has probably raised the 2 most polite, kind kids I have ever met in my life. But my mother answered Crissy back in a way only a mother's mother can. She said "And while you value nice over all things, Carol values honesty." And that is true too. I cannot chose nice over being honest in matters of the heart. And Crissy has learned the hard way that, sometimes honesty does have to take precedence over nice. As the littlest of the little, Crissy has had to grow up in the last few years. And she has shocked and surprised all of us. And secretly made me proud.

So there, Crissy. There's your blog.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shining a Spotlight on.....Jen

I've been doing these Shining the Spotlight blogs for over 2 years now and purposefully never "spotlighted" my friend Jen. This was mostly out of respect. Jen can be quite unassuming and I always felt like this might be an invasion of her privacy. But, on the other hand, every time I picked someone to write about, I always secretly wanted to do one on her. So, I'm throwing caution to the wind, omitting her last name, and doing it anyway. Hopefully, she won't hate me for it.

Jen and I have known each other since high school. Now, that doesn't mean we were particularly close. We just ran in the same, loosely formed circle, occasionally ending up in the same car driving down some back road in Unionville, doing things we shouldn't be doing. I remember being at her house once in high school, towering over her much younger siblings. I remember laying on the concrete, in front of a Ticketmaster, anxiously awaiting Peter Gabriel tickets (back when you actually had to wait in a line) in the freezing cold. And that's about it for high school. Off we went to college and on into our lives.

So college ends (for Jen, anyway. I like to drag things out.) and we do what any self respecting college graduate with a useless (or soon to be useless) degree does....we start working as waitresses and bartenders. And we made waayyy more money than our friends that actually went and got "real" jobs. And we partied. And we had fun. And we ate alotta cheesesteaks and pizzas. Cuz that's what you do when you work at a pizza and cheesesteak joint.

I was the bartender and Jen was the waitress. I was the bitch and Jen was the sweet girl. People loved Jen and either tolerated, hated or feared me. And then they ended up liking me. But first they had to go through those other stages. So, I think alot of people couldn't understand how Jen and I were friends. I mean, I even used to think to myself  "I'm such a bitch and she's so nice. I don't get it."

But, honestly, I think Jen just got me. I was tough exterior, and a total sap on the inside. I had been through shit and had built my armor well. She was patient with my moods, understanding of my hurt and tolerant of my crap. And a true friendship was born. You know, I'm reading this now and thinking, "Wow...I did all the taking and she did all the giving (except for the drinks. I know I gave her drinks)." And I think that's a pretty accurate assessment, as sad as it is to say. But that's fundamentally who Jen is....a giver.

I believe all relationships are built out of the roles we play in life. And sometimes, somebody lets you be who you need to be. Jen let me, and continues to let me, be who I have needed to be. With no complaint (at least not outloud) and no expectation to change. And that's a pretty admirable way to be. I have spent most of my life trying to get people to change. It has only been in very recent years that I have begun to accept people where they are in their own lives. I think Jen has always done that. At the very least, when it has come to me.

She has stood by me through every major adult high and low of my life. My college graduation, my marriage, my divorce, the birth of Max, the demise of my relationship with Stephen, the loss of my brother and mother. She has laughed with me and let me cry. She has listened to me in completely irrational breakdown moments and not told me I was crazy. She has given me the space she always knew I needed and did not step too far inside that bubble I had built around myself just so I could make it through some of the darkest days of my life. And she has seen me out on the other side of it all. And I think she still likes me.

If I could only be half the friend to Jen as she has been to me, I'd be a pretty damn good friend.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shining a Spotlight on.....Melissa

I'm blindsiding my good friend Melissa Jarratt with her very own tribute in my on again, off again "Shining a Spotlight" series of blog posts. I reserve these posts for important people in my life who have changed and impacted me in a positive way. If you haven't been featured yet, just give it some time or....we aren't quite there yet.

I met Melissa in 1996 at....guess where....The Kennett Square Inn. I'm waiting to write one of these posts that won't use the backdrop of the Inn and it has yet to happen. Steve Warner, if you are reading this, you should feel special and impressed.

So, anyway, Melissa came to work at the Inn after giving birth to her first child Logan, who frighteningly enough is now in high school. Melissa was upbeat, positive, no nonsense and real. While I have always been no nonsense and real, upbeat and positive are not innate characteristics of mine (cynical is a better description of my demeanor). I believe at that point in time, I may have held the illustrious title of Head Waitress, which was just Steve's way of putting me in charge of the schedule and making me feel like I was doing something with my college degree.

Melissa's role at the KSI has one of sanity in an often insane, subculture-y type of restaurant world. My goal in life is to write something that truly captures the idiosyncracies of what its like to live the restaurant life (Anthony Bourdain hasn't even done it), but in the case of Melissa, she stood on the fringes of our insanity. You see, she had a normal life. She had a husband, a child and a house and functioned in the mainstream world. She just came to work at the Inn to earn some extra money. We, (the "restaurant people") were thriving in the heat of the moment drama of the fast paced lifestyle, screaming at each other over orders, dodging utensils thrown at our heads, drinking and smoking until the sun came up, sleeping all day and then doing it all over again.

But Melissa and I became friends. You can't help but like Melissa. She is about as stand up as they get. She is strong, intelligent, helpful and kind. She has strong convictions and strong morals. And she doesn't give a shit about what anyone thinks of her. And that is what I admire most about her.

I'm not exactly sure how long Melissa worked at the Inn but its 14 years later and she is still my friend. She stood by me during every one of my highs and lows of adulthood. She is the only person on the face of the earth I have ever called and asked to pray with me. Because I know Melissa's relationship with God is well established and intact. And I figured if anyone has a direct line to Heaven, it is her. (Side many sentences can I end with the word her? Apparently...alot.)

I often say God gives you exactly what you need, when you need it, even if you don't recognize it at the time. For an estranged Catholic who has struggled with faith, I believe, Melissa was given to me to let me know that, yes, indeed, He is here. He is watching. And He hears me. Sometimes, I send the messages through Melissa, because I'm convinced, she may have priority status when it comes to getting in God's ear. But I'll take it however I can get it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why We All Need to Take a Page Out of Jimmy Fallon's Book

I decided a few weeks ago that I needed to blog about Jimmy Fallon. I have no idea why all of a sudden I'm strangely boy crazy over him but I am. I think its all a part of this journey called life and trying to figure out what is important. For me, it's increasingly become trying to find moments of pure, unadulterated laugh out loud thankfulness. And for some reason, I have found it in Jimmy Fallon.

About a month ago, somewhere, somehow I ran across a youtube video of Jimmy and The Roots singing Call Me Maybe with this young girl, Carly Rae Jensen. I'd like to start off with saying, my only exposure to the song at that point was my son singing it repetitively, to the point where he asked for a pen and paper and listened to it in his ear phones over and over so he could write down all of the words. But, anyway, somehow I ended up watching the Jimmy's version, in which the whole gang uses elementary school classroom instruments in order to create a true musical masterpiece. Here, take a look for yourself:

I'll admit, I was completely mesmerized. Not because I'm a Carly Rae groupie, but instead, because you could tell how much fun everyone was having. Some key moments: when Jimmy attempts to symbolically make the "wind blow", the guy from the Roots in the back center with the hat who cannnot hide his laughter at this ridiculous job assignment, and the man on the kazoo.

In that moment, I thought to myself...that's what I want. I want to go to work every day and love what I do. I want to get up every morning and know I'm going to laugh. I want to get up every morning and know that I can make other people laugh. And know that by laughing I will be living my life more deeply and fully. Quite philosophical for a young girl's pop song, I know....

I've watched Jimmy before, on both SNL and his own show. And I have laughed. But it never dawned on me that this guy, even though he gets up every morning to his own normalcy (good, bad and ugly), genuinely has made making people feel good his vocation, not just an occupation.

You can see it in his face (I know, I'm thinking deep and stretching it for some) every time he opens his mouth. So I started investigating and paying closer attention. And I started laughing more. I started staying up late just so he could make me laugh. I started posting all of his stuff on Facebook and titled each one "Why we need to be more like Jimmy Fallon." I want to be happy. I want to be able to try to be serious but not be able to hold in the laughter. I want to find the ridiculous in everyday life. So I'm just going to keep watching. And keep laughing.

Here are a few more of my favorite Jimmy Fallon moments. Watch them if you want to see someone who loves what they do.  Click on this link! It won't let me upload but I love it!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Spotlight on My Brother. Three Years Later

We do not remember days; we remember moments. ~ Cesare Pavese  

So, here we are again. Three years later. I'm keeping my promise to write my brother's story or at the very least, my experience of it. I've been thinking for weeks about what to do, how to handle it, this time around. Tears come easily this time of year, often unexpected. So I started to try to think about simple moments. Ones not steeped in any deep heartache. And I ended up crying then too. But, I decided that this time around, I would use my words to tell the simple stories. The ridiculous ones that some of you have already heard, or may have even been there to experience. I've done these "Shining The Spotlight" on other people in my life over the course of this blog, pointing out what makes my relationship with that particular person unique and by always telling a story. So I figured maybe it was time to do that with my brother.

When you are one of 6 kids, especially at the tail end of the birth order, your siblings are always just there in your memories. There was no time in my life that I didn't have 4 older siblings and only a few years before Crissy came along. So, I always knew life with Ralph but that wasn't true of that for him. He was about 11 1/2 years old when I came along, and just one more person in his space I'm sure. My earliest distinct memory of Ralph was him bringing me to a party at the neighbors when he was a teen and I was a preschooler. When I say party, I mean keg party. Seriously. I guess my mother thought she was safe to leave him in charge of me, so he hauled my butt up the street to a teenage neighbor's house and put me in a chair in the corner. And there I sat while he partied with his friends.

Much to Max's delight, my mother, the consummate storyteller, would often sit with him and tell her stories of us growing up. This was a favorite past time of my mother's in general and I hold those simple moments of laying at the bottom of my mother's bed, from childhood to the very end, listening to her reminisce close to my heart. But Max's all time favorite story was one that involved Ralph at about 14 years old and me, at about two. Again, my mother thought she'd be okay leaving Ralph to tend to my needs for a short time, while she ran to the store. I was in diapers at the time and while she was gone had made a bit of a mess. Upon my mother's return, she noticed he had changed my diaper. Now, knowing my brother, I think that's pretty admirable in its own right. But what my mother also noticed was that the dirty diaper was nowhere to be found. When she asked him where he put it, his reply was, "I ran down to the end of the yard and threw it across Chandler Road into the woods." My mother then asked him a question only reasoned out by those with fully developed critical thinking skills, "Ralph, do you think everytime she dirties a diaper, I run to the end of the yard and throw it across Chandler Road into the woods." Given the lack of biodegradability of disposable diapers in 1973, I'm guessing its still there.
I'm going to skip over those tough years that followed my father's death, where, looking back, I realize, my brother was desperately trying to fill a void. Although I will disclose that I recently found a birthday card he made me when I turned 12, only 6 months after my father had died. He had taped a $20 bill into the middle. On one side he gave me points for my positives, which included being smart, pretty, funny and a snapperhead. On the other side, he gave me deductions for all of my negatives, which I really don't remember. Except for an ingrown toenail I had had recently removed. For that I got a 12 point deduction. I ended up with 20 points, hence my monetary reward. He was 23 years old at the time. 
I've told the Live Aid story and the Amnesty International concert story a million times but those are also favorites of mine because I realize now that by bringing his bratty little sister to those concerts, he was letting me share his love of music, while appreciating mine.
Another of my favorite concert stories was when Ralph took me, my sister Patti and our friend Tom Gosney to a Peter Gabriel show (or it could have been the Grateful Dead. Honestly, we saw alot of concerts). I was 16, still relatively naive and just excited to see one of my idols in concert. The show was great, and by the end my brother was trashed. And driving us home. Over the double decker bridge coming out of Philly, passing large tractor trailers on the way. He was singing and yelling a number of his famous "Ralphisms" including, "We are dancers! We are dancers!" We stopped at the Chadds Ford Tavern and he did donuts in the parking lot all while singing  "We are dancers! We are dancers!" At one point, Tom grabbed his seat belt, slowly put it on and leaned over, whispering "Don't leave me...." I realize now how dangerous that was but at the time...well, hell, I knew it was dangerous then too.
While everyone knew my brother as the big teddy bear, hard partying, happy go lucky guy, he could be incredibly kind and thoughtful. I will never forget when he found out I was getting divorced. I had hid this news from my family for a few weeks out of shame, embarrassment and devastation. I remember him calling me to ask if I was okay. And I could not go there with him. He wanted so desperately to help me and I would not let him in. I pushed him away. And yet, I knew he was there. And that was enough.

Max loved Ralph and Ralph loved Max. He beamed when he was around Max. That kid could do no wrong in his eyes. I sat one day and watched him let me let Max play dress up princess with his cousin Lauryn at around age 3. Lauren had on the blue dress and Max excitedly put on the yellow one with a tiara. It was killing my brother. He looked at me several times, silently pleading for me to make it stop. I loved watching him squirm.

I could go on and on really....which is actually incredibly refreshing given all the tears I've shed in the last three years. And while my brother left behind no wife or kids of his own, he left us behind. With a whole lot of memories. And laughs. And a secret handshake that he taught each and everyone of us as little kids. And we taught it to our kids. 

And he also left us with one favorite quote by The Temptations that any of you who knew my brother will remember well. It was his trademark goodbye....I know you want to leave me but I refuse to let you go. 

And so it goes.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thoughts on Father's Day

Spoiler Alert: This is June, which means I am forced to confront the 30th anniversary of my father's death (June 18th), my brother's birthday (June 26th) and the 3rd anniversary of his death (June 30th). Short's not my best month. I starting getting anxious about a week ago and based on past experiences, it will continue until the last day of the month, when I hold my breath and remember that I've made it this far. Again.

And it's Father's Day. The same weekend I lost my father all those many years ago. I'd be lying if I said I feel a deep sadness 30 years later over the loss of my father. It's been 30 years. I was 11. It took me close to 20 years to recognize the impact his death had on me and that was 20 years of living in the fallout of his passing. And I assure you, I am of the very strong opinion that there were years of fallout. Even today. But he was my father, I loved him and his loss set the stage for many, many subsequent events in my life. Including how to parent my own child.

So, Father's Day has largely gone unnoticed and uncelebrated in my life. I give my mother much credit on these types of holidays in general. Mother's Day was not a particularly difficult day for me even though I'm only 1 year out on my mom. We were and are, a low maintenance auxiliary holiday family. Labor Day, eh.....Columbus Day...when's that? Christmas, Thanksgiving - we celebrate but the closest thing to china we ever used was Chinette. And I'm 100% ok with that.

But Max has a father. A wonderful one who deserves to be blogged about. I've said many times that God had a plan for me and part of that plan was Stephen and Max. Meaning as a package deal. Because without Stephen, there would be no Max. Not this Max anyway. In fact, I'm sure his name wouldn't even be Max because the only reason he has that name is because my mother needed Stephen to stop referring to Max as "Baby X" in the womb so she came up with the name herself.

And for all of those who scratch their heads and wonder why on earth I would feel the need to write about someone I'm not even with anymore (including the neighbor who told Stephen that our situation wasn't as "screwed up" as her and her soon to be ex's...btw....not even close....not even close), I will give a short refresher on civil responsibility and parenting.

While I recognize our situation is unique, in that Stephen and I never stood before God and family promising to love, honor and obey (which I would have refused to even say anyway), we did spend 7 years together before splitting our family apart. There were conscious and unconscious decisions made about how to do that. While we both knew we could no longer stay together, we also understood we were still a family unit. There has not been a single day since Stephen and I split up that we have not put Max first. Not a single day. Yes, we have fought (although he claims this is be an impossible task since I never let him get a word in) and have been frustrated with each other. We have differed in our opinions on how to handle situations related to Max. We have even gone so far as to shave his head without the other's permission...oh, that was just Stephen. But we have always put Max first.

I love that we have been able to, despite being apart, be a family. Early on, Max used to ask when or why we couldn't be together again. We never ignored his questions. We never told him he shouldn't be sad. But now, 3 1/2 years later, Max has settled into his unique family. He has 2 homes, goes on 3 vacations a year; one with me, one with Stephen and one with the three of us, as a family.  I know...that one blows everyone's mind. But its our normal. And its good.

And Stephen loves Max in the way every little boy should be loved by his father. They are playmates (which drives me nuts) but when Stephen lays down the law, the sheriff has come to town (which, again, drives me nuts). Stephen has high expectations for the my relationship with Max also. He holds motherhood just below sainthood, likely due to his own mother's passing when he was a teen. But it is a comfort to know that Stephen will always place my relationship with Max in its own category, just like I do for the two of them. As I've said before, we are blessed.

I was married many moons ago to a man who I believed I wanted to be the father of my children. I was devastated when that didn't happen. And now, I thank God everyday that it didn't.

"Small boys become big men through the influence of big men who care about small boys."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Messages to Max for Mothers Day

"My mother said to me, "If you become a soldier you'll be a general; if you become a monk you'll end up as the pope." Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso." - Pablo Picasso

A few years ago, I wrote a blog called Why Motherhood is the Hardest Thing I've ever Done. And it is. In an instant, I went from a 31 year old highly independent, somewhat self absorbed girl to someone's mother. What the hell was I thinking? People always say, "I'm just not ready for kids." and they are right. No one is ready for kids. Not even when you think you are ready. Because a millisecond after you give birth, your world is rocked. They shove that kid in your face and he's yours. In my case, I was high on morphine and exhausted after 18 hours of labor that resulted in an emergency c-section. It's quite vague; those first few minutes, but I do remember Stephen walking into the recovery room, my sister Crissy standing beside him and me yelling, "Where the baby? You left the baby?? He's never been alone!" In that moment, I became a fierce protector. P.S. Max wasn't actually alone...Stephen left him with a old lady nurse who was sporting a beard (no lie).

Over the last 9 and 1/2 years, Max and I have weathered many storms. He endured the pain of crying, sometimes up to 10 minutes at a time as a baby. I endured sleepless nights for about 5 years. He endured the discomfort of a shitty diaper. We endured the surgical like procedure of  tag teaming him (me and Stephen, me and my mother, me and my sister) with a pair of scissors and paper towels in order to literally cut the unsalvageable clothing off his body. He endured an accidental pinch on his tiny chest with a pacifier clip that is still scarred today. I endured a fall down the steps while carrying him in a car seat, resulting in a dislocated jaw, busted tooth and 3 stitches in my chin. He was thrown clear into the yard where Stephen found him unscathed. He accepted the sadness of his parents separation as a painful reality. We let him learn to be okay with that. He comforted me when my brother died unexpectedly. I comforted him when his grandmother died of lung cancer (and he comforted me too.)

But that kid makes me laugh. Every single day. I have been blessed by a child who is inherently happy. I'm a strong believer that God gives you exactly what you need, even if you don't know it at the time. I had a child who did not sleep the first 13 months of his life. But he smiled. All the time. As I lay in bed, on many sleepless, post partum depressed nights, next to me was my wide awake child, holding his feet, involved in a deep conversation with his toes. On my first day back to work after my brother died, I tried in vain to cover the deep circles under my eyes with foundation. Max walked in and said "What are you doing? Everyone knows you've been crying." One day, he got in the shower with gum in his mouth. He came out with it on his back (although he didn't want me to find out what he had done so he tried to get it off himself). This is what it looked like.

Yes, I made him pose for this picture so I could post it on Facebook
He tried to convince me that he had started puberty last year by taking my old t-shirts and rubbing the sweaty armpits under his own. He enjoys the humor of The Office and Modern Family. And I'm pretty sure, I'm not damaging him for life by letting him see it. I'm pretty sure he could run for Mayor of Kennett Square and win. Although, this childhood photo of him brandishing weapons may ruin his chance of being a successful politician.

Guns and Swords. You can never be too careful.
Not to mention, this one reeks of a possible affiliation with an unsavory group/gang.

I'm such a badass, I don't even need weapons anymore.
But anyway - this was supposed to be a message to Max on Mother's Day, not all the reasons why my kid will never be a politician (thank God for small favors),

I have very few notes my mother every wrote me in life and for that I'm sad. My mother was a consummate story teller and I'd like to think I've been blessed with her gift. I know Max has been blessed with the Ciliberti sense of humor and of all of his wonderful, amazing traits, I'm pretty sure I value that one the most.

Humor can get you through just about anything in life. Max has given me a reason to laugh every single day for the last 9 and 1/2 years, even when laughing was hard. He was given to me to let me know that sometimes, things aren't as complicated as they look. He makes me want to protect childhood from all of the social pressure that people and parents put on kids to be the smartest or the best. I want him to experience life as its meant to be experienced, warts and all. He's allowed to fail. It's allowed to be his fault. He's allowed to be angry. But he always needs to laugh. That is my only requirement on his life. It's the only way he'll get to be Picasso.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Glue

Glue (n): An adhesive force or factor.

She was the glue. The thing that held us; bound us together. She was what made us a unit. A package. A family.

I can honestly say I only realized that in the moments after my mother's death as I sat next to my brother, a man who I, as an adult, saw once, maybe twice a year. As I sat and listened to him talk of the moment that my mother, reaching towards something, took her last breath; a moment I could not bear to watch, my mind was racing. Over and over again, I kept saying to myself, "I don't know how to be us without her." I never said it out loud. I couldn't bear to say it out loud. The "us" had changed so dramatically over the past few years. Us, without my mother, just didn't seem possible.

On the year anniversary of my brother's death, I wrote a blog filled with hope, love and a new understanding of what my life was supposed to look like. I had learned so much from a loss that was so profound. I spent the next 6 months truly coming into my own emotionally. I had a gratitude in my life that I really don't think I had ever experienced before. It was truly humbling.

So here I am, nearing the year anniversary of my mother's death and wanting to convey some deep, meaningful message of hope, love and understanding. And I'm here to tell you, I'm just not there.

The first few weeks after you lose someone in an anticipated death, such as cancer, there is an odd sense of relief. My mother's battle was quite short in the scheme of things; 3 months from diagnosis to death, but painful nonetheless. The emotional and physical toll of being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer was devastating on a woman who had buried her parents, her husband, her son and all of her siblings. She became incapacitated almost instantly. She was afraid of living and afraid of dying.

The glue was cracking. And we all knew it.

The Ciliberti's are an odd bunch. Ask anyone who knows my family. We love fiercely. We fight fiercely. We defend fiercely. And we never back down. Never. So as the glue began to crack, we all did what it was we did. And we did it fiercely. My one sister cleaned fiercely. The other cried fiercely. The other took notes fiercely. My brother made calls and tried to stay calm fiercely. And I tried to hold it together fiercely. Because as fiercely as I tried to hold it together, I knew when it fell apart, it would be fierce.

The last hours of my mother's life were so devastating and filled with anxiety. She had come home on hospice the day before, upbeat, coherent and happy. 24 hours later, she was letting go. Completely planned on her part, if you ask me. Once they told my mother treatment was no longer an option, her priority was to come home to die. On her terms. Fiercely. Just like all of those damn kids she raised. So she did.

So when I walked in the house and saw my mother laying in the hospital bed that sunny Saturday morning, peaceful and no longer in any pain, I was relieved. But I also knew the glue was gone. And I had no idea what to do.

I have had some low moments in the last year. If you have had the pleasure of never experiencing the death of a parent, sibling or close friend, consider yourself blessed. Eventually, you will be there and everything I'm about to say will make sense.

Life has it's ups and downs. The highs make it all worthwhile. And the lows; well I just keep telling myself, they could be worse. Because in reality, they could be. I lost a brother. He was far from perfect. At one point when I was in my late teens and he was around 30, we had a fight and didn't speak for 6 months. He could get on my last nerve. And he thought I was a know it all. But he believed in me. I lost a father. He was far from perfect. But no child deserves to lose a parent at 11 years old. And I've lost my mother. She was far from perfect. But she was my mother. And when it comes to mothers, that's all that really matters.

I have watched my family systematically deconstruct over the past 12 months. It has been a process likened to another death. My mother was a buffer to the bullshit. And when you take away the buffer and the glue, you are left with tiny fragments that don't exactly fit the way they used to.

I grew up in a very enmeshed family. The joke was "once you marry or enter into the Ciliberti family, you never really leave." We never cleaved to our spouses, which is probably why we all suffered a divorce or two, with Ralph never marrying at all. But many of those ex's remained part of the Ciliberti clan in a way leaving many shaking their heads, asking "how did you do that?" And the answer is....I don't know. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.

But for the most part, my mother, the glue, bound us tight. With high expectations for family loyalty in the midst of chaos and resentment. And we obliged her.

I sat through a training on trauma this week; my special little interest. I listened to much of the same information as I've heard multiple times in similar seminars. I've even developed a training on trauma informed care and advocate hard for the idea that so many kids who are diagnosed with ADHD are really just victims of trauma or chronic stress. But, this time, I started to really think about the idea that I am a trauma survivor and all that entails.

Loss has colored my world. But so has resiliency. For me, it is always a balance. A key to bouncing back from loss is not necessarily moving on in the traditional sense, rather its figuring out how to come to terms. Post traumatic stress develops when the experience of an event is such that we are so overwhelmed by horror or pain that the memory literally sears itself into the brain. The sights, smells, tastes, and sounds all act as powerful conditioned stimuli to set off flashbacks, anxiety attacks, nightmares. You can't control it. It just happens. I still feel a tinge of panic 3 years later if my phone rings around 10pm, the time my sister called screaming frantically that my brother was dead. I have memories akin to flashbacks as I round the curve just before the Antique Mall in Pennsbury Township, remembering how carefully I took that curve in the rain on the way to my mother's house thinking, "I can't wreck the car. My mother's son is dead." I still react very strongly to the sight of gladiolus and the smell of large amounts of flowers, a lingering memory of my father's viewing 30 years ago. I go into instant panic if I have to enter a funeral home. I have been known to literally run out of funeral homes. I never saw my brother or my mother laying in the casket because of the sheer horror of walking into the funeral home as an 11 year old and seeing a sight no one did or could have prepared me for.

I have come to terms with the fact that I have some level of traumatic stress. And that I shouldn't be ashamed or feel weak by disclosing that. I also realize that I have been able to keep going because I continue to talk about it. I continue to process it. I continue to write about it. And, the scariest part is that I let all of you see it. Because for years I was so afraid of what it would mean if I let it all out. And now, for the most part, I don't give a shit. I pop in and out of writing as my resiliency allows. When I go silent, I am either in a really good place or a really bad place. I haven't been in a good place lately, But then I remember that I need this. And that maybe someone else needs it. And those who don't need or want it can chose to look away. And that's okay too.

My mother was my world. She taught me more than she will ever know. I miss her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

McDade Blvd.

"I did not emerge onto a blank slate of neutral circumstance. My life was already a canvas upon which older paint had begun to dry, long before I arrived. What I am trying to say is that when we first draw breath outside the womb, we inhale tiny particles of all that came before, both literally and figuratively. We are never merely individuals; we are never alone; we are always in the company, as uncomfortable as it sometimes can be, of others, the past, of history. We become part of that history just as surely as it becomes part of us. There is no escaping it, merely different levels of coping. It is how we bear the past that matters, and in many ways it is all that differentiates us." ~ Tim Wise

Did you ever read something and it hit you in the gut? Did you ever see something and say to yourself, "This is what I've been trying to say but have never been able to find the words?"

I found the above quote in a book over the weekend that I picked up at the lending library at the YMCA, while I was supposed to be playing the "uber excited sports mom" role. I try to do my best in that role, but quite honestly, all of the dads living vicariously through little boys is a little too much for my taste. And anyway, I much prefer to pick apart words written to explain the uncomfortable subject matter of racism in America and apply it to the story of my life (but the racism thing deserves and will get its own blog at a later date).

So, I see this quote in the second paragraph of a book called White Like Me and I have a visceral reaction. At the time, I wasn't even sure exactly what I was reacting to, rather I only knew that I should.

Fast forward to today....I'm scheduled to do a client intake in Darby, PA, which is in Delaware County, bordering on the town/city of Collingdale. It order to get there, I am required, if I want to avoid the heavy traffic that passes by Upper Darby High School and the Prendie/Bonner complex to make my way through the heavy traffic of McDade Boulevard, which is the last exit just before the Blue Route dumps out on to I-95. I jump off the Blue Route at the Route 1 (Springfield) Exit and turn onto Sproul Road, just a few miles from where we buried my father in 1982, my brother in 2009 and my mother in 2011. I am literally driving down memory lane. 

I forever will be left with a lump in my throat as I turn off this exit. It has become a viseral memory; one that needs no words to tell the story. Rather, there are flashbacks of a hearse, a purple flowered dress and a lot of grown men crying. The hearse returns 2 more times but the clothes change. The weather changes. The people crying (at least some of them) change. But the feelings remain the same. There are no words. There is no need for words.

I turn my car away from the cemetery towards Darby and make a left onto Woodland Avenue.It is at this point that the memories become a mixture of my own and of those before me. You see, I never grew up in Delaware County. I lived in the same rancher in Chadds Ford that my parents bought a few years before I was born until I was in my 20's. But, as I travel down Woodland Avenue, towards McDade Boulevard, I am reliving my history; the tiny particles of all that came before as Tim Wise so eloquently put it. Because the farther down the road I travel, the closer I get to my brother's life, my father's life and my mother's life. A life they led long before I was ever a thought. I pass by Moppert Brothers Collison Center, a building my father bought shortly before his death, so he could grow his ever expanding auto body and insurance claims business. My brother's friend, who worked for my father over 30 years ago, works there now.

As I pull up to the intersection of Woodland and McDade, I am at a crossroads of my history. Literally. To my right sits the building that houses my father's business when he died. It is a medical supply warehouse now but it looks the same. In many ways, that intersection is a frozen moment in time.

If I were to go straight through the intersection, I would drive towards the place my brother took his last breath. Where I stood over his body trying to gather up the courage to touch him one last time. He was always stuck between those two worlds. The one on McDade and the one back in Chadds Ford.

But, instead, I have to get to Darby, so I take a left and drive through Holmes, Glenolden and Sharon Hill. I accidentally look up at a stop light and realize I am sitting next to the building where my ex-husband's aunt used to run a florist shop. I look up to the second floor apartment and remember standing over his grandmother, who had passed away in her sleep. We had come to say goodbye before they took her away. It's a hair salon now.

All the buildings look the same as they did when I was a little girl and my mother would load us in the car to visit my father at his business. Many of those buildings carry the same names. I feel like I am time traveling, except I already know what the future holds. It is bittersweet.

On my way back down McDade, I once again pass my father's shop. I pass the bar my brother traveled to from Chadds Ford to play darts during dart season. I pass my cousin's restaurant and wonder if I should stop. Would they even know who I am? The answer is no. This is my past, but it's the part of my past I never lived through. It defines me, completes me, explains me and yet it is the silent part. The part only those who have come and gone will ever know about me. It's the old soul part of me. The part I keep largely to myself but think about always. Especially, when I drive down McDade.