Archive | October, 2011

The Feast

26 Oct

The meal is almost ready. The white tablecloth has been laid on the table, its hand-embroidered flowers against the white background like a snowy meadow of red poppies. Colorfully painted vases that have been placed on the table spill over with bright orange and yellow marigolds, accompanied by tall stalks of scarlet gladiolas which hover at both ends like skinny old women reaching out their long arms in welcome. The piquant aroma of the marigolds combined with the lingering scent of burning incense creates an atmosphere of magic and anticipation in the dark room. Candlelight dances across the faces of the guests, who sit still and quiet in the darkness, their expressions never changing.

All over the table, the abundance of food is evident: bread that has been baked in the shape of corpses lies in plentiful heaps next to the steaming tamales in their tightly-wrapped corn husks. Candy and ripe fruit mingle with the tiny toys and trinkets that have been left on the table to please the children: a toy truck for a young boy, a favorite black-haired doll for a girl of six.

This room should be filled with excited chatter in anticipation of this spectacular meal, yet not one guest utters a word; each one of them waits patiently in silence, staring off into the candlelight. There is a feeling of time slowing down—a sense that no one is going anywhere— that there is no need to hurry.

On this night, despite the festive preparations, there will be no eating and drinking at this table, because in reality, all of our guests are only familiar faces captured in photographs; some smiling, some somber, but all of them are gone forever.

All of our guests are dead.

After all, tonight’s celebration is not really meant for them, but for us—for the family and friends who knew them and loved them and planned this elaborate celebration in order to remember them.

Tonight is the offering. It is “Dia de los Muertos”.

The Mireles Family Altar

As a child, the idea of death confused me, because I really knew nothing about the process of death or the act of mourning. I understood that people died, but my parents, probably in their attempt to protect me, didn’t talk about it, or softened its meaning by referring to it as passing away or moving on. In my child’s mind, I saw these dead relatives passing away as if they were swooping off into outer space like in a cartoon. No one talked to me about what happens when you die. I never once saw a dead body; I never attended a funeral or memorial service, and I never even cried over the loss of someone dear to me—even after my own grandparents died I truly felt no sense of real loss. Death was just some abstract concept that I was never able to understand.

When I was in college, my father, only a few years older than I am now, died suddenly from pneumonia. I wasn’t able to grieve thoroughly and deeply after his death, because real mourning had never been modeled for me. Our family handled his death without fanfare. We had a simple gathering of friends at our home, but there was no memorial service, no funeral, no music played, and no words spoken aloud of who my dad was and what he meant to all of us. Not being able to grieve his death openly with friends and family left an emotional vacancy in my heart and later manifested in a long period of depression and suffering for me. I had lost someone so close to me, yet there was no real goodbye.

Shortly after my father died, I met and later married my husband, Rene, who is an indigenous Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout his life, Rene had been taught to accept the experience of death as a normal occurrence—something that was a natural part of life. Nothing about death was ever covered up for him, and so he was able to teach me that death is not something to keep quiet about, but quite the contrary—it’s a chance to talk, cry, rage, and even laugh about —but mainly, he helped me understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel the emotions associated with losing someone close to you.

Rene comes from a culture where death is not feared, but is considered an important and revered part of life. When someone dies in Rene’s hometown, the prayer vigil lasts for nine days. The corpse, in traditional dress, is laid out at home on the dining room table for everyone to touch and kiss goodbye. This is followed by a funeral procession where mourners walk alongside the pallbearers who carry the casket on their shoulders to the church. The traditional brass band plays somber music as the people cry and wail. Everyone helps out to cook and feed the large crowds that gather, and prayers are said for the dead throughout the night. Tears are shed openly; stories are told about the deceased, and most importantly, emotions are displayed without shame or misgivings.

And it’s not just when someone dies that death is revered. It’s celebrated yearly on “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) with much celebration beginning on November first (All Saints Day).

A cemetery in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos

All over Mexico and Latin America altars are constructed displaying photographs of the deceased, fresh flowers, food and gifts for “La Ofrenda” (the offering). Whimsical skeletons and skulls made of sugar are placed on the altar in order to make death seem humorous and less tragic. People actually go to the cemetery, their arms laden with marigolds and candles to spend the night and pray for their dead family members, encouraging the souls of the dead to visit. It’s a beautiful and moving tradition, but it’s one that I really hadn’t embraced until a great tragedy hit my own family.

The first time Rene suggested that we have an altar in our home was after my brother’s daughter, Gillian died after choking on a hotdog. Gillian was only six years old, and her unexpected death left me inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to really experience the grief and despair that comes from the death of a loved one.

Gillian's photo, with one of her dolls beneath her.

Gillian’s death was a sudden, heart-wrenching loss—one that I never imagined I’d be able to face, but I had to. At times, seeing my brother and his wife suffer was unbearable, but having Gillian’s photograph on our altar helped me work through some of the pain and grief that I needed to express. The process of celebrating her on the altar helped me understand that through her death, she gave me a precious gift—the realization that I could let go of my own inflexibility and self-righteous behavior toward my brother, and try to repair our strained relationship. Ultimately, Gillian’s offering was successful—my brother and I are now closer than we’ve ever been.

Death has touched our family many more times since my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. The sad truth is that children with cancer sometimes die. When Isa was first admitted into the hospital, we became friends with Erika and Jeff Zamora, whose son Jeffrey was in the room down the hall from us, battling another form of leukemia. Isa and Jeffrey were around the same age and they became playmates. I would often run into Erika at the clinic when both children were receiving treatment at the same time and Jeffrey and Isa would be so happy to see each other.

A clear memory I carry in my mind is a time when our kids spent the afternoon in the same hospital room receiving blood and platelet transfusions. You’d think that with two kids so sick they needed transfusions, this would be a somber affair, but Jeff and Erika brought Mexican food along to share and our room became “party central.” Jeffrey and Isa happily played and watched cartoons while Jeff’s wild sense of humor kept us all in hysterics. Our boisterous laughter soon brought all of the pediatric nurses to our room to join in the fun. It was a joyful afternoon.

Jeffrey died a few months later. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it—so many people were praying for his recovery—and I truly believed in my heart that he would live.

After his leukemia relapsed, he had been scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as the doctors could get him into remission again, but his little heart couldn’t handle the stronger chemo and he went into cardiac arrest. Imprinted like a video clip in my mind, I will never forget walking into the ICU, overflowing with family and friends of the Zamoras, and seeing Erika, unable to conceal the devastation and sorrow in her face as she held Jeffrey’s tiny body in her arms.

A smiling Jeffrey Zamora on our altar

Jeffrey’s sweet smile now looks out at us from our altar, a red toy fire engine placed under his photograph. He joins the other guests: Rene’s parents, my grandparents, my two uncles, and of course, Gillian. My father’s photograph is in the center.

For years now, I’ve carried the burden of resentment in my heart toward my dad and how his struggle with alcoholism affected me as a child. The altar is a chance for me to let those feelings go; a chance to remember and embrace all that was wonderful about my dad—that the reason we live in this beautiful home is largely due to his life’s work.

My daughter, Nora making paper flowers for the altar

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos offers me chance to be appreciative for everything I have and to understand that life sometimes offers bad experiences, and it’s all right to be sad and it’s all right to cry. It’s also all right to remember and laugh about the good times, too. We just have to accept that death is unavoidable and that’s why it’s crucial to take the time to live every moment to the fullest.

Quietly staring at the altar, as I look at the faces of those who are no longer here with us, and although I feel a bit sad, I also feel peaceful. But what I feel most is supremely thankful that I am one of the lucky ones—that Isa is alive and well, and that her photograph is not up there on the altar next to Jeffrey and Gillian.

Through some miracle of the universe, or most likely the loving grace of God, Isa is right here with me and Rene and my other  beautiful children as we gather around the altar to remember our family and friends and to cry and to laugh. Hopefully, our children will continue this tradition with their own families someday.

For now, this is the moment: the table is laid; the celebration begins. We tell our stories and Isa smiles up at Jeffrey and Gillian as the candlelight dances in her eyes.

The Tree of Life

19 Oct

There are those who claim that we have no real seasons in Southern California, and who can logically argue with them when the temperature is a balmy 75 degree on Christmas Day? But I know better—there are definitely seasons— and though their entrances are often subtle, I watch and wait for those changes just like any seasoned Easterner who anticipates the first sign of spring’s crocus popping up out of the frosty ground after a long winter. Luckily, I have a dear friend who helps me discern the change in seasons, and she lives right outside my front door.

I’m fortunate to have lived in the same house practically my entire life. My parents migrated west in 1960 from Baltimore in a faded black, beat-up old Chevy to sunny Santa Barbara, California, with nothing but a few hundred dollars in their pockets and a shining hope for their new life in a warmer climate. They scrounged together a meager $500 for a down payment on a brand new three-bedroom tract home that cost less than twenty thousand dollars, which included a magnificent view out the front window of the purple and blue Santa Ynez mountain range.

Life was good indeed.

I was born a year later and have never lived anywhere else except for a four-year stint at college in smoggy Los Angeles. During my senior year at USC, my father passed away suddenly, and so after graduation, I brought my brand new husband to Santa Barbara to live in my childhood home so that he could get started on his own education. A few years later, we purchased it at a very good price from my mother (the price was really a bargain because she came along with the transaction, although I’m not quite sure if my husband still thinks it was such a good deal.)

The tiny house has grown larger over the years. Additional rooms have been added on to make space for a growing family; first when my two brothers and I were growing up, and later as my husband and I created our own brood of four children.  A backyard pool was added. Weekends were spent re- landscaping the garden and colorful flowerbeds were planted.

Our neighborhood has changed since I was young; children have grown up and left, and then returned, just like I did, with their own families. There are more cars parked on the street than before. The elementary school I attended nearby closed long ago because of a decreasing population, and the last of the original lemon orchards that we played in as children were razed to build condominiums.

My daughter, Isa, contemplating life under the Liquidambar tree

Throughout the years, though, there has been one constant friend in the neighborhood: the Liquidambar tree that grows in the parkway in front of our house. She stands tall and grand; her dark and rough fifty year-old bark resembling the hide of an old elephant. In this Mediterranean climate where the weather is warm year-round, my front yard friend is my secret weapon which lets me know when the seasons are changing.

Haphazardly taped into our old family photo album are the faded snapshots of our tree in its infancy: a spindly, pathetic little thing that couldn’t offer much shade to a bug. Half a century later, no one could’ve ever imagined she would tower over our street one day, creating a canopy of shady respite from the heat of summer, or offering a burst of such intense color in October and November that you might think you’re somewhere in Vermont in autumn.

Having fun at a neighborhood block party. You can see the young tree on the right.

And back when she was first planted, I assume no one in the neighborhood could’ve possibly imagined what a mess she would make one day, either.

Come October, her real show begins in a conflagration of colorful leaves that swoop and swirl in the crisp air like flying bats; endless crimson, gold and orange leaves spin down and litter the streets and gutters. Her dry brown leaves crunch noisily under my feet as I take my morning walk. Add a backdrop of gray clouds, the scent of a little wood smoke in the air, and my senses come alive with the anticipation of the coming holidays.

“How utterly enchanting this tree is,” I think happily. “It’s a perfect New England autumn right before my eyes!”

Every year I’m charmed by the Liquidambar’s preview, and every year I forget that she stars in the main B movie attraction: THE ATTACK OF THE STICKLE BALLS.

There are many names for the spindly and dangerous globes that fall from my Liquidambar tree onto the grass and sidewalks below her boughs. Every year, these miniature weapons stealthily lie in wait for me on the lawn or sidewalk, ready to attack. Often referred to as “Ankle Biters” or “Ankle-Twisters” in California, our family has our own pet name—“Stickle Balls”—because they literally stick to your feet.  The numerous times I’ve stepped barefoot on a stickle ball with my full weight, their sharp prongs have stuck into the bottom of my foot with such razor-like precision, it’s as if I’ve stepped onto a miniature version of a medieval morning-star weapon. It’s probably the most excruciatingly painful experience I’ve ever had other than giving birth.

The evil "Stickle Balls"

These “Stickle Balls” are treacherous things: I’ve seen them get caught in the tires of bicycles, knocking the poor rider onto the street; or even worse, causing such a severe ankle sprain that the victim needs crutches for weeks.  Practically every weekend in November and December, I have to accident-proof the sidewalk by shoveling two or three garbage bags full of those nasty brown orbs from my front yard. When I’m done, I wipe the sweat from my neck and think, “There, that’s it. There can’t possibly be any more balls left to bag up.”

As soon as that thought crosses my mind though, I know I’m in for it. A raging wind storm will undoubtedly materialize that very evening, hurling a surplus of spiked balls against the house like mini hand-grenades, and managing to cover the entire front lawn like a war-time minefield. The thousands of red-brown spheres burrow so deeply into the grass that a garden rake barely suffices—you have to bend down and pick them out with your bare hands.

Unfortunately, even after such a fierce wind storm, many of the spindly balls are apt to to linger in the trees throughout the entire winter. Their tasty seeds draw countless migratory birds to spend hours up on the bare branches, pecking at the pods for their delicious seeds. In the meantime, the chirping devils cover your car with a mosaic splatter of black and white bird poop so meticulous and well-designed that any fastidious artist would be proud.

Come springtime, I’m ready for a change, and my Liquidambar tree doesn’t disappoint.  Her burgundy buds sprout on the tips of the branches like newly manicured fingernails, and soon thereafter,her delicate, shiny green leaves flutter like hand-sewn lace in the breeze.

“Ahhhh….Spring is finally here,” I think, sniffing the sweet smell of fresh flowers. “Now the raking and shoveling and sweeping are finally over and I can concentrate on my garden.”

After almost throwing my back out picking up those nasty seedpods for months, I believe I’m finally done cleaning up after my old friend.  Silly me—I’ve once again completely forgotten about the next bit of sloughing that my Liquidambar tree has in store for me: the blooming phase.

Mid-March is the time for the flowers of the Liquidambar tree to burst forth, dropping her pollen-laden, sneeze-inducing blossoms onto the flower beds, lawn and sidewalks like a miniature bunches of golden grapes. This part wouldn’t be so bad, except that when you try to pick them up, they dissolve into a powdery mess in your fingers. If you leave them alone, they produce brownish blood-colored stains on the sidewalk like a mass killing has taken place in the front yard. The stains on the cement can last for months, until the heat of the summer sun finally fades them away.

Now, I may complain about my dear Liquidambar tree, because she is certainly considered to be a high-maintenance relationship. But even with all of her treachery from fall through spring, she’s worth the effort, as summer approaches and her leaves turn a deep shade of chlorophyll green. The wind blowing through her large maple-shaped leaves is like a musical accompaniment to a rhythmic dance, soothing and invigorating at the same time. The Mockingbirds return year after year and build their nests high up in her branches, entertaining the neighborhood with their vast repertoire of calls.

My dad, standing under our Liquidambar tree, circa 1972

My Liquidambar tree offers a canopy of shade that keeps the lawn lustrous and thick as green velvet—perfect for throwing down a blanket on which to stretch out and stare up at the blue sky. As my mother did with me, I’ve often lounged on the front lawn with my own children, just to gaze up at my old friend and imagine what life has in store for me.

Two generations of children have grown up under the branches of my Liquidambar tree. From a skinny sapling to a tall stately lady (I’m referring to the tree, and maybe myself, too) she has watched over me and kept me company throughout the past century like a close friend. Although she is messy and even dangerous at times, she is a constant presence in my life, and continues to inspire me through her colorful metamorphosis, to dream little and to dream big.


11 Oct


        It’s 1977, and she’s a senior in high school. The only thing on her mind should be filling out college applications, hanging out with friends, and going to beach parties, but she doesn’t have the luxury of thinking about such mundane things anymore.

She has leukemia.

She’s already been through chemotherapy—all of her thick, sun-bleached hair is gone; clumps of it came out in handfuls, spilling onto her pillow, clogging the shower drain. Her bronze skin has paled and dark circles hover under her eyes like delicate teacup saucers. She’s vomited so many times it feels like her insides have been ripped out.

She thought she had beaten it; her cancer had gone into remission for nine months, but now it’s come back, and she’s so afraid. Her only chance for survival is a bone marrow transplant.  She longs to talk about her fears with someone—with her parents, her friends—anyone—but she’s afraid she’ll make them sad. So she keeps silent. She wants to believe that this is not her fault.

She doesn’t think of school, or dances, or boys.

She thinks only of wanting to live.

Terri Toon in her senior yearbook photo

 Over thirty years ago, when I was a freshman at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, a girl named Terri Toon was very ill with cancer. She had been diagnosed with leukemia when she was a junior and had been in remission for nine months when she relapsed. Terri was only sixteen when she found out she had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia—the very same kind of leukemia that my daughter, Isabella, had.

Because her relapse meant that the standard treatment for leukemia would not cure her, Terri’s only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant. Although her younger brother turned out to be a perfect bone marrow match for her, Terri’s family had no insurance coverage to pay for the 75,000 dollar operation, which at that time was considered experimental. As word spread about Terri’s situation, our high school and the community rallied together to raise money for her transplant; through donations and fundraisers, over 170,000 dollars was raised for her treatment and care.

Although I didn’t know Terri personally, I knew who she was, and often saw her walking through the halls on campus. She was a stately girl, with long, tan legs and a shy smile. She wore a short brunette wig to cover her bald head.

Once, during first period, Terri’s voice resonated through the school intercom system. In a confident tone, she thanked everyone for their financial and moral support, expressing her appreciation toward the student body for all their help with the fund-raising efforts.

“Hi, I’m Terri.” Her voice reverberated through the classrooms, “I love life and I love you and I’m going to live.”

It seemed as if everything was going to be all right after all; the student body, as well as the community wanted so badly to believe that she would make it through her transplant and be cured.

She never had the chance. On March 20, 1977, a massive blood infection took Terri’s life before she could even have the transplant.

She was only seventeen years old.

I was saddened by Terri’s passing, but in truth, it didn’t greatly affect me. I was a typical self-centered teenage girl—too immature at that time to understand such intense pain and loss. After Teri’s death, life continued on for me and my high school friends almost like the events of the past year had never even happened.

In June, when the yearbooks came out, I cried a little while reading the dedication to Terri, but soon enough, my yearbook, the pages covered in messy, teenage scrawl, was put away up in the closet as summer beckoned me to the beach. My mind was occupied with other more important things—like slathering my body in baby oil to fry in the sun, or flirting with older boys while working at my first job at a pizza parlor.  I forgot about Terri.

After high school, I went on to graduate from college, get married, have children, buy a home. For me, leukemia was just a word that I’d hear every so often in passing; at one time or another I may have thought briefly of Terri, but probably not. Because cancer had not affected me personally, I was content in my little bubble of oblivion.

At least I was, until exactly thirty years after the death of Terri Toon, when my own two year-old baby girl was diagnosed with leukemia. I was oblivious no more.

As a mother of a child who had cancer, I’ve experienced the gamut of emotions that go along with this devastating diagnosis: paralyzing fear, hopelessness, rage, acceptance, and ultimately transformation.

But it wasn’t my body that was exploding with deadly cancer cells—it was my daughter’s, and she was really too young to understand what was happening to her. It was more about my pain than hers. And it was my emotional distress that affected me most, because I was her mother, and the thought of losing her was unfathomable. But it must be a completely different kind of anguish when you are diagnosed with cancer yourself.

What must it be like to be a teenager with cancer?

I honestly have no idea how I would’ve handled it if I had been diagnosed with cancer as at age sixteen. How does any teenager cope with such a grim reality?

How did Terri feel knowing what was in front of her?

My friend, Robyn, who is the hospital pediatric social worker, sent me a poem written by a young girl who recently went through treatment for Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph system).

Olivia Lafferty is a junior at the same high school that I attended so many years ago. She’s beautiful, artistic, and has many friends—she’s just like any normal teenage girl—except for the fact that she can intimately understand what Terri experienced so long ago.

Olivia wrote the following poem for an English class assignment. I was so moved by her description of her experience—her pain, her fear, and especially her transformation.  I asked her if I could share it with all of you, and she graciously agreed.

Olivia Lafferty during her treatment for cancer


       By Olivia Lafferty

I have known life, I have felt death,

I remember the beeping of poison machines

All of it surging through my veins,

Killing me, saving me, changing me

I would lay waiting, as my pain grew, and the monster inside of me shrank

These chemicals peeling off my skin and guiding me through a metamorphosis

And in the process, two liters of blood burned, and my lips  turned blue

I know how it feels to have lost all hope, and to find a friend in only the ink of my pen,

My memories guiding my finger putting sentences together that made no sense,

But none of what happened made any sense, so then, it did.

People I knew, they would say, “you’ve changed so much, you’re not the same, it was him, wasn’t it?”

But it was this poison, my savior, my enemy,

And with every word that was spoken, a lake grew in my throat,

And it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.

Then, it STOPPED

And I stopped pretending that I felt nothing,

I cherished my hairs as they grew, even though they were dead, and did not matter

I was still that girl who disappeared in November, but I was much less and much more

Now I can do anything, now nothing can stop me, nothing except that little girl who is no longer me,

She is dead to me, the poison killed her

I’m sorry if you can’t understand that I am different, but I am brave, I am better. I am not the poison who changed me

I won’t ever completely know what Olivia endured while dealing with her cancer—I don’t ever want to know. In reading her words, though, I’m offered a glimpse into the world of terror and pain that she lived in during her cancer treatment. Through Olivia’s words, I believe I have a better understanding of the emotions that Terri must have experienced so many years ago. Perhaps through those same words, Olivia’s friends and classmates will be able to better understand, too.

Olivia and I don’t appear to be anything but normal people, but in one small way, we are exceptional because we’ve been tested by circumstances both terrifying and unimaginable, and we’ve not only survived, but blossomed. We’ve been soundly knocked down to our knees by this thing called cancer, and yet we’ve managed to get up off the floor, our spirits intact.

We’ve allowed it to transform us into something better than we were before.

Olivia Lafferty is just a normal teenage girl, except that she’s not.

Olivia, expressing herself through her art

Olivia, today, wearing her Dos Pueblos Chargers shirt

Pulling Weeds

5 Oct

   Early this morning, after taking my six year-old daughter, Isa, to school, I decided to trade in the awkward five-pound weights from the gym for the more comfortable fit of a trowel and spade in my hands. As I don’t particularly like going to the gym, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. It had been at least three weeks since I spent any time working in my garden, and I suddenly had a yearning to get my hands into the dirt again.

It’s early October, and summer has gently slipped into a pattern of shorter days and long nights. It’s almost as if the bright lamp of September has been gradually dimmed, creating a homey and cozy atmosphere—when the cooler fall weather settles in like the bite of a crisp red apple. The extravagant blooms of summer are trying their best to hold on as long as they can; they bravely face their looming demise with one last splash of colorful stoicism.

After working so diligently in the garden from March through August, my task was easy: all I needed to do was clip back the dead blossoms, pull out the dead plants and till the soil. I was relieved that I didn’t have to work too hard to plant and fertilize and coax the flowers as I do in spring and summer. I could just enjoy sprucing things up a bit, and then allow myself to relax and let the garden settle down as I wait for the winter rains to come. Ahhh….the joy of hibernation!

I pulled weeds and clipped for about an hour, enjoying the discomfort in my thighs and back as I squatted and stretched to cut off the dead plant growth. There was so much bending and reaching that it was as good as taking an outdoor yoga class.

“This is so much better than the treadmill,” I thought happily. The sun warmed by body as I dug and clipped and weeded, the sweat dripping down my back, drenching my dirt-stained t-shirt. I felt like a dedicated athlete after a long workout.

Who needs the gym anyway?

When I was done, I stood to admire how neat and clean everything looked. I was pleased with my efforts and was just about to put my gardening tools away when I suddenly spotted something strange in the corner of my peripheral vision. A gangly weed had grown up right next to one of my late-blooming delphinium plants!

How could I have let it get so big without noticing it? Yet there it was—a huge dandelion weed, the exact same height and shade of lime green as the other plants that surrounded it. It must have been growing there for a long time, but had managed to camouflage itself by hiding out near the plants it resembled in shape, size and color. It was so large it had to have been there for weeks. And I never even noticed it.

Weeds will do anything to survive, including finding the perfect hiding place. Nature is sneaky that way.

People are sneaky that way, too.

Recently I began seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. I noticed that I’d been feeling melancholy and listless for quite some time. I knew I wasn’t living up to my full potential (I had no idea what that potential was—but whatever it was, I sure as heck wasn’t living up to it.) I felt like there was something inside of me that was struggling to break free. I thought perhaps I was still dealing with the emotional remnants of Isa’s struggle with cancer that began over four years ago.

I had always admired my friends who were able to open up to a therapist, but I never thought I needed to do it myself. I finally realized that after everything I’ve been through since Isa’s cancer diagnosis, it had become necessary to find someone objective and neutral to talk to about how the residual grief of her illness was still finding ways to affect me.

Curiously, what I’ve learned through just a few months of therapy is that the experience of Isa’s illness is not what’s affected me negatively—quite the contrary.  The road I’ve walked dealing with her cancer has actually been a positive experience. It’s opened me up to accepting love, gratitude and hope into my life, and I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I ever imagined I could be.

So why was I so unhappy?

What I’ve discovered in the short time I’ve been in therapy is that what’s making me unhappy and feeling unfulfilled is that I’ve never learned to value who I am.

Now please don’t gag.

You’re probably thinking: “Please—enough of the self-indulgent, narcissistic psycho-babble!” And believe me, I get it. I’m as irritated with the next person when it comes to listening to people complain about how miserable their childhood was and whose fault it is that they’re unhappy today. At some point one must take responsibility for one’s own happiness.

But there is truth in the fact that as children, we can be so wounded by our experiences that it affects our entire lives. Since I was a young child, I’ve always carried the misplaced shame that I’m not “good” enough, or “pretty” enough, or “thin” enough, or “smart” enough, or “blah, blah, blah” enough—the list goes on and on.

Because I never really learned to love myself, I never thought I deserved to receive love from others. And because I was so unlovable, there must be something deep lacking within me. Why bother trying to fulfill my dreams if I’m never going to be good enough?

Now, I’m not talking about other people’s opinion of me—I’m sure (or at least I hope) there are many out there who think I’m amazing, beautiful, talented, kind, and generous (mostly my mother, my husband,  my children, and my close friends). Intellectually, I know that they value me.

But it means absolutely nothing if I don’t value myself.

I can just hear my husband now: “Oh, cry me a river Jess! You have no idea how easy you had it when you were young.” And in some ways, he’d be right—compared to how he suffered as a child growing in extreme poverty in Mexico, I did have it good. I had a roof over my head, my own bed to sleep in, and plenty of food to eat. But pain is relative. His circumstances may have been worse than mine, but pain is pain, and it still hurts. And I truly believe there is not one adult on this earth today who doesn’t carry around some kind of hurt with them from their childhood traumas.

For whatever reason—whether it was growing up under the fearful umbrella of an alcoholic father, suffering from teasing and bullying, or exaggerating the adolescent misconception that there was something wrong with my face and my body, I managed to conjure up a negative view of who I am, and I’ve allowed that skewed image to grow and thrive since I was a young child. It took root in my soul like that pervasive weed hiding in my garden, and I’ve been cultivating it all this time without even realizing it.

Me, standing in the backyard garden at age seven

Therapy has taught me that it’s finally time to cut away the years of self-doubt and insecurity that had been formed years ago from the illogical perceptions of that young girl—a girl who, in her innocence, didn’t know that she was wrong about herself—that same little girl who never learned that she was worthy of love.

Until now.

Everything seems clearer as I walk over to that dandelion weed, bend down grab it by the base and yank it out in with one twist of my wrist. The roots come out effortlessly and intact; there is nothing left in the soil but open space.

I pitch it into the trash can. Take that you ugly weed!

There. For now, the garden is perfect.

I do understand that more weeds will eventually grow and try to invade my little plot of flowers —I can’t stop them—that’s just nature.  What I can do is weed out those seemingly benign green shoots before they grow too big. They may look innocent enough when they’re small, but they are eager to multiply and ready to take over before you even realize it.

I’ll just have to be prepared to stop them long before they have a chance to hide out among the last of the summer flowers.

My Summer Garden