Tag Archives: Mother

Messages from the Universe

5 Jan
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Smoke over the Pacific from the Thomas Fire.

The universe often sends me messages. Most of the time, I’m too wrapped up in my day to day drama to pay much attention to them. Especially when those nudges seem rightfully insignificant: a slice to my finger while cooking (stop thinking negative thoughts about people, Jess—especially when you’re chopping vegetables with a sharp knife.) Or a flat tire while hurrying to get as many errands done before starting work (time to slow down, Jess—you don’t have to do everything for everyone all the time.)

Recently, I got a very loud message from the universe that had to do with my mother. A little background first: I’ve lived with my mother for pretty much my entire life. After college, when I married my husband, Rene, we moved in with her so she could help us financially while he finished his education. Eventually, we were able to buy the house from her and she stayed on with us. I won’t speak for my husband, as it can’t possibly be easy living with your mother-in-law for thirty years, but overall, it’s been okay. Our house is configured with a granny flat for her with a separate entrance and yard, so we have some privacy.

Recently, my mom had been driving me a bit crazy. Maybe it’s because as she gets older, I find her to be more hardheaded and stubborn. Maybe it’s because I realize she won’t be here forever and it scares me. Maybe it’s just hard having someone greet me every single day with a cheery, “Good Morning, Darling! How are you, today?” before I’ve had my coffee. Whatever it was, I was becoming extremely irritated with her. And if I’m honest, I’d have to say I was occasionally mean to her. In fact, I was downright nasty sometimes.

Then, at the beginning of December, while Santa Barbara was experiencing the largest wildfire in California history, my mom tripped and fell in front of the neighbor’s house while walking her dog. Now, she couldn’t just break her arm or something—she had to go and land on her eyeball. We didn’t know it then, but she had actually spilt open the back of her eye and hemorrhaged so severely that her left eye was literally being pushed out of its socket.

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My poor mother, two days after her accident and still managing to smile.

Luckily, the planets aligned for us that day. After a CAT scan it was determined there was no damage to her brain but the ER doctor was worried that she might lose the sight in that eye. We were able to reach her ophthalmologist and he agreed to see her during a break between his scheduled surgeries. I rushed her down to the surgery center where it was determined she needed an immediate operation to get all that blood out from behind the eye. Somehow, the doctors and nurses made it happen (a big shout out to the Santa Barbara Surgery Center) and they were able to save her eye.

Although she’s doing much better, my mom is still blind in her left eye. As I write this, she’s having her third surgery (a corneal transplant) and hopefully this will give her some vision back. We won’t know for a very long time what the outcome will be.

After the accident, I suddenly became my mother’s caregiver. I had to dole out medication, dress her facial wounds and make sure she ate three meals a day. I had to drive her to her doctors’ appointments. I had to hold her hand and tell her how sorry I was that this happened. I had to convince her everything was going to work out in the end.

The strange thing is that although I was spending much more time with my mother than before, I didn’t feel the least bit irritated with her. I felt only love and concern. I was so thankful it was just her eye and not her brain that was injured. I learned how much she means to me—that although we are different in so many ways, we share an unbreakable mother-daughter bond.

I guess it took a really scary, knock-down, whopping nightmare message to wake me up. Most likely this is because I inherited my mother’s stubbornness.

I think from now on, I’ll pay attention to those quiet, little messages from the universe.

Maybe if I do that, I can avoid getting anymore of those loud ones.

**Update: Mom’s surgery went fine, but the news wasn’t good. Her retina was permanently damaged and it was determined that she will not regain the sight in her left eye. I’m devastated for her, yet she’s handling it with grace and a positive attitude. Much to learn from that woman!img_1984

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The Scent of a Mother

10 May

 

mom holding me at beachWhen I was young, it never occurred to me that my mother would grow old someday. She was just my mom—a pretty woman with soft, shoulder length brown hair and a lovely smile. As far as I was concerned, she would be there forever to take care of me. If I was sick in the middle of the night, she would be there to open up the pull-out couch in the living room and let me lie down with her until I fell asleep. Every day when I returned home from school, there would be a snack set out on the table, complete with a folded cloth napkin. After helping me and my brothers with our homework she would then battle it out with us at the piano where we’d whine and cry until we learned to play the B-flat Major scale—and play it well. All this and she still managed to have dinner on the table every night promptly at 6:30.

 

Back then, I thought she was perfect. I loved the smell of her so much that often when she was out running errands and I felt lonely and afraid, I would sneak into her bedroom, open the top drawer of her dresser where she kept her bras (back then she referred to them as her bureau and her brassieres) just so I could inhale the sweet perfume of her clothing. I’d play with her scarves, try on her jewelry and try to decipher the love letters my dad wrote to her when they were dating. She was a beautiful mystery to me and imagining a life without her made my head spin.

 

My mother pregnant with me.

My mother pregnant with me.

When I hit adolescence and my world turned inward, my mother began to embarrass me with her stretchy polyester pants, orthopedic Dr. Scholls shoes and out-of-date haircut. Even the freckles on her forearms made me cringe. I hated that she drove a weird, foreign car that sounded like female genitalia (‘66 Volvo wagon) when everyone else’s mom drove an American-made car. I hated that my mother was so friendly that just for the heck of it would initiate a conversation with anyone she came in contact with. Once, when we were shopping at Sears, I accused her of being overly talkative with the sales clerk just to embarrass me on purpose.

 

My junior high school girlfriends told me I was lucky to have such a mom—that she was the “cool” type of mom—someone who had absolutely no problem answering their questions about boys and sex. At their urging, she would come into my room, sit on my bed and join the conversation.  On hot summer evenings, she’d let us go skinny dipping in the backyard pool until it was discovered that my brother had assembled the neighborhood boys in the yard of the house next door so they could spy on us through the holes in the fence.

 

Mom in the kitchen.

Mom in the kitchen.

My mother wasn’t the perfect mother—the truth is, there’s no such thing. Yet, in every single childhood memory I carry, my mother’s presence is there, supporting me, cheering me on, and loving me with her unconditional and overflowing love. This has always been my truth and more than anything, I hope that I’ve been able to pass this on to my own children.

 

Today, I think about my mother as I wonder how many more Mother’s Days I’ll have to spend with her—ten, maybe fifteen if I’m lucky. I’m sure that when she gave birth to me, she didn’t stop to think that I would grow up to be an adult and have my own family someday. She certainly didn’t imagine herself approaching eighty years old. She simply held my tiny body against her warm chest, inhaling that sweet, powdery baby smell and marveled at the perfection of me, imagining that I’d stay that way forever.

 

The other day, I saw my youngest daughter in our bedroom, holding my pillow against her face.

“Isa,” I asked, “What are you doing?”

She looked up at me with a sheepish grin on her face. “Just smelling your pillow,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it smells like you,” she said.  “And it makes me feel safe.”

 

Mom and Isa posing with a painting done by my friend, Melani Guinn.

Mom and Isa posing with a painting done by my friend, Melani Guinn.

Avoidance

24 Aug

Most of you know that I’m writing a novel. So far, I’ve written thirteen chapters and I’ve got to say that most of the time this process is either sublime or excruciating. Today was the latter.  I must have gone to the computer as least five times throughout the day and no matter how hard I tried, I could not get myself to start a new chapter.

So I’ve decided to dive down deep into avoidance and give it up, just for today. Tomorrow I’ll sit down again and see if my muse wants to make herself available once again.

In the meantime, here’s what I saw today in the garden.

aug 24 no. 2 aug 24 no. 3 aug 24 No. 4 aug 24 no. 5 aug 24 no. 8 aug 24 no. 9 aug 24 no. 10 aug 24 no. 11 aug 24 no. 12 aug 24 no. 13 aug 24 no 1 august 24 No. 6 august 24 No. 7

I’ve got to give credit to my lovely mother, Eleanor Winters, as some of the photographs posted here are of her garden. I’d say the proof of her exceptionally green thumb is evident, wouldn’t you?

Thanks, Mom for passing your love of gardening on to me.

Squeezing out the Excess

11 Jan

squeezing the ragThe kitchen is spotless except for a few toast crumbs scattered across the granite countertop, and in my haste to clean it up I grab the washcloth in the sink, not realizing it’s sopping wet. A stream of soapy water splashes across the counter, onto the front of my shirt, and all over the floor. Once again my mother has kindly cleaned up the breakfast dishes for me, but because of her arthritic hands, she’s no longer able to squeeze all of the excess water out of the washcloth.

A picture of a younger version of my mother flashes into my mind—she is standing at this very sink in a red apron, her tanned and freckled hands expertly twisting a wet rag into a taut rope as the soapy water trickles down the drain.

“Jess, Darling,” she would say, “How many times do I have to tell you? You must squeeze all of the water out of the washcloth before laying it out—otherwise it won’t dry thoroughly and it will start to smell sour.”

Ah, my mother and her rules. As a kid, I was always breaking one or another of them:

Don’t leave the icebox door open, you’ll let the cold air out! (To this day she refers to the  refrigerator as an “ice box” and aluminum foil as “tin foil”)

No riding double on a bicycle—you’ll get hurt. (This I now agree with, but as a child, it ticked me off to no end.)

Take a sweater with you—you might get chilly. (I am fifty years old and she still says this to me as I go out the front door.)

No taking a sip of liquid with your mouth full of food (even if your tongue is blistering)  because it’s unbecoming. (This one goes along with no elbows on the table and not clicking the fork on one’s teeth while eating.)

Always look both ways before crossing the street, and then look one more time. (I now see that this is a vital one and have instilled in it my own kids.)

I’ve lived with my mother for practically my entire life, and by now, I’m used to her rules. After twenty-five years of marriage and four children, I no longer feel compelled to follow them unless I wish to, but they are so ingrained in my psyche that I still feel guilty standing in front of the “ice box” allowing the cold air to escape.

It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit to others that I still live with my mother, so I usually phrase it “my mother lives with me.” I’m hoping to be perceived by the general public as a responsible grown-up. And it’s true; my mother does technically live with me, as my husband and I bought my childhood home from her in a very advantageous transaction except for the little clause that included her in the deal.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore my mother, but she is indisputably eccentric. I became aware of this fact early in life when I decided it was best not to invite my friends over on one particular Saturday afternoon because my mother was out gardening in the backyard wearing only a leopard print bikini bottom and a silk scarf tied around her breasts to minimize her tan lines. Her ridiculous outfit included a pair of lace up Dr. Scholl orthopedic shoes, white athletic socks and dirt-caked gardening gloves.

“Moooommm,” I whined, cringing at the sight of her. “Why are you so weird? Why can’t you act like other mothers?”

“Because weird is more interesting, that’s why,” she replied, going back to her begonias and fuchsias that could have won first prize ribbons.

Now at age seventy six, my mother had traded begonias for breeding Dalmatian puppies, which has opened up another whole can of crazy in our household. That, along with enough dog hair to stuff a mattress.mom and puppy

Peculiarities aside, my mother is the most non-judgmental person I know, and has the ability to accept everyone, warts and all. In her role as my greatest fan, she has always taken my side (even when I’m wrong) and has continuously encouraged me in my endeavors, musical and otherwise. Her openness has taught me that it’s best to speak your own truth— and that holding on to the excess will do nothing but leave a sour taste in your mouth.

One of the very best things about my mother is that she even loves me when I’m unkind to her. The other day I told her that her barbershop haircut made her look like a man—I even (jokingly) referred to her as “Grandpa.” Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt her feelings—she laughed as hard as I did at my snide remark.

One of my closest girlfriends recently lost her mother. In our tight-knit group of ten junior high school friends, none of us has lost a mother until now. It scared me. It suddenly occurred to me that my mother will not be here forever, and that someday my much-needed source of unconditional love will be gone. What will I do then? Who will tell me I’m perfect?

I think about this as I lean over the sink, twisting the washcloth as my mother taught me so long ago. I wipe up the mess I’ve made and vow to be kinder to my mother. She is older now, and no longer has the strength to squeeze out the excess water, but I do.

Today I will make it one of my rules to tell her how much she means to me. And because her devotion to me includes reading every single word I write, I’ll tell her right now.

Mom and me, circa 1972

Mom and me, circa 1972

Thank you, Mom—for being you. I love you.

The two of us today

The two of us today

Being the Best

4 May

A month or so ago, my daughter Isa burst into my music studio while I was teaching a piano lesson.

“MOM!” she screamed, “We’re doing a play at school and I want to play the part of a Nazi!”

A Nazi? What? My first thought was, “Geez—isn’t first grade a little early to be learning about Germany during the war? I didn’t even read The Diary of Anne Frank until I was in sixth grade….”

“That’s wonderful, Honey!” I gushed, hurriedly shooing her out of my studio because I was working with a student. “You can tell me all about it at dinnertime.”

Later after we sat down to eat, I finally figured out that “a Nazi” was really “Anansi”—the name of the lead character in the musical that her class was planning to perform. Twenty of Isa’s fellow first graders were to put on a musical called “Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock,” about a greedy spider who tries to trick the other African animals with the intent to steal their food. I didn’t expect much from a bunch of six and seven year olds—but at this age, anything these kids do is pretty darn adorable. Then Isa mentioned that she and her best friend, Sarah, were both up for the main role of Anansi the Spider.

With that tidbit of information, my ears perked up and goose bumps formed on my arms. I immediately went into MIM (Mommy Interrogation Mode). That competitive spark that had lain dormant inside of me since my older kids were young ignited and began to burn fast and hard. Right then I knew that my seven year old daughter was meant to play the role of Anansi the Spider.

I decided to play it cool and not let on how eager I was for Isa to get this role. With the expert acting ability of a mother who has raised four children, I hid my excitement behind a perfectly crafted mask of nonchalance, and asked, “Okay, Isa—so tell me—did the teacher say anything about whether or not you might get to play Anansi?”

“Well,” she said, picking the bell pepper out of her green salad and putting into a neat pile on the side of her plate, “What we do is sign up for the part we want and then the teacher decides who gets to do it.”

“Do you think you have a chance to get to play Anansi?” I asked, pretending that I could care less about whether or not she would snag the most important role of her lifetime. I tried to hide the insane zeal that was overtaking my body by not squirming too much in my seat.

She popped a piece of chicken into her mouth and tried to explain, but I put up a hand and stopped her before she could get another word out, “Isa—manners! Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

After a subtle eye-roll (a seven year old—rolling her eyes—really?) she finally finished chewing and continued, “Sarah and I both really want to be Anasi but I’m okay with it if she gets the part—I also signed up to be a lion.”

A Lion? What? NO!  My daughter has to get the best part! She’s totally spider material!

Well, Honey,” I said, trying to sound reasonable, “You really should try to get the main part if you can—I mean, you’re a really good singer and dancer, after all.” Visions of Isa bowing to a standing ovation and thunderous applause rolled liked movie clips behind my eyes.

“I know, Mommy. I would be a little bit sad if I didn’t get the part, but Sara’s really good at it and I kind of want to be a lion anyway,” she said. “So I think I’ll tell the teacher that Sara can be Anasi.”

She put her fork down. “I’m done. May I please be excused?”

“Not yet.” I said, my shoulders sagging with disappointment at her indifference. “Eat the rest of your salad first.”

I know—I’m just pathetic. You’d think that by the fourth child, I’d be done living vicariously through my children, but old habits are hard to break. I spent years (with help from my husband) pushing my three older children who are now ages 23, 21 and 17 to strive to be the best at everything in order for them to succeed. And for the most part, every single one of our children tried their best to live up to our expectations. They excelled in school, sports and the arts. They received numerous certificates, awards and trophies that are now packed into dusty boxes high up in their closets. They were popular, had many friends and they never got into drinking and drugs. They were all accepted into good universities.  And most importantly, they’ve turned out to be intelligent, funny, and kind human beings. They even like to hang out with their middle-aged parents sometimes.

But there is one thing they are not:  they are not decisive and motivated about their futures. They are having difficulty trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. They are, to some extent, a little bit lost.

I’m constantly worried that they are not getting on with it.

Now, I can easily blame their lack of focus and motivation on Isa’s cancer diagnosis five years ago—what teenager who has had to deal with a sibling suffering with cancer wouldn’t fall apart after that kind of life-changing experience?

I could blame it on the Attention Deficit Disorder that runs in my husband’s family or on the depression that runs through mine. I could lump my kids in with an entire generation of twenty-somethings who have no idea how to work hard because society told them they were entitled. I could blame it on the fact that they received a fancy trophy with their name engraved on it every single year whether or not their team won any games.

It would be easy to place the blame on anything and everything except where it really belongs: squarely upon my own shoulders.

I do understand that the struggles they are now experiencing are common for many young adults, but I also know that how I raised them has much to do with the difficulties they face today. I can finally admit to myself that their lack of motivation in life isn’t all related to Isa and her illness, nor is it about genes or generations. The problem is that my older children have never learned to really know themselves. They’ve always struggled to live up to what I wanted them to be. Because I’ve dealt with my own issues of self worth for most of my life, I’ve spent entirely too much time worrying about whether or not others thought I was a good mother. To put the pressure on a child of being the best at everything is something I now know is unfair. How could my children possibly have learned be truly passionate about anything when they were always trying to prove themselves to me—and to satisfy some unspecified need that I had?

My older kids are now at the point in their lives when they’re asking themselves: “What do I want to do with my life? What do I care about? And the truth is, because I’ve told them for so long what it was they needed to do to be successful, they never had the chance to figure out what truly motivates or interests them—or what it is they’re really passionate about.

Because I also couldn’t stand to see them disappointed or sad, I over-protected them because I didn’t want them to experience any sense of pain or loss. I never once let them fall on their faces. As a mother of high-achieving children, I always believed that if they succeeded at something, it proved that I was a good mother. But if they failed—I failed —and that was just too difficult for me to face.

My greatest mistake as a parent is in not allowing them to make mistakes and then take responsibility for the fact that they messed up. It’s especially hard on mothers to see their children struggle and not succeed at something because we’re genetically designed to nurture and protect and love our children unconditionally. I now see that I placed way too much emphasis on them being the best at everything, and I tried too hard to control their lives when I should have been more concerned about letting them explore and create and find out who they were inside. I should have let them learn to take more responsibility for their actions instead of bailing them out when they ran into problems. I should have spent more time worrying about my own needs and desires and what it was that I was passionate about instead of solely focusing on helping my children “be the best” at everything.

I should have not cared so much about whether or not they got the lead role in the First Grade play.

Isa didn’t end up getting the role of “Anansi”—it went to her best friend, Sarah—whose goofy personality and energy made her perfect for the part. Isa was given two parts in the play—a lion and an elephant. She was spectacular as both animals—singing and dancing her heart out with gusto. The play was a great success.

Perhaps I’ll be strong enough fight off those competitive demons and allow Isa to experience a different type of childhood than that of my other three kids. I’m older and wiser now so I hope I can guide Isa to become an independent and self-sufficient young adult, and most importantly, to nurture within her the ability to learn and create and give from the heart for Isa, not just to please me.

As I sat in the audience that afternoon, observing Isa and her classmates sing and dance in their play, I was content. Watching twenty first graders romp around having fun just being themselves, I learned another lesson: Success isn’t just about proving that you’re the best at everything and it certainly isn’t about landing the lead role in the play.

Success is putting your heart and soul and joy into doing what you love and knowing it’s enough. We should all take a lesson from first graders.

Nameless Dread

13 Apr

For the past week, something had been troubling me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I’m sure many of you know the feeling I’m talking about—that sense of foreboding that hovers in your subconscious and makes you feel edgy, like you’re standing at the precipice of some unknown cavern of uneasiness.

When I was a child, my mother referred to this feeling as “nameless dread.” As a young mother, she often struggled with this common maternal malady herself the belief that all was not right in the world; that disaster was looming around the next corner, just waiting to reach out and seize what bit of happiness she’d managed to hold onto. I know that she endured great pain while she waited for misfortune to strike, the smile plastered on her face attempting to hide the dread she felt.

It really wasn’t my mother’s fault. The women of her generation were expected to hide their feelings; to box them up neatly and shove them into the back of the pantry out of sight and mind, never thinking their fear, guilt and resentment would eventually begin to ferment and stink like rotting fruit— and that someday the mess would have to be cleaned up.  As I grew up, I watched my mother hide her feelings and I learned to hide mine, too. I was the ever-dutiful daughter and obediently followed her lead. It was just easier to sweep the hurt and pain under the rug and deny that the muck was seeping out from all sides like a backed-up kitchen sink.

Lying in bed the other night, after about an hour of trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, I finally figured out what was bothering me and causing my latest bout of “nameless dread.” I was angry.

I was angry about an email that my mother had recently forwarded to me. One of her dear friends whom she’s known since high school had been reading my blog posts and wrote that she was enjoying my writing, and my mother thoughtfully wanted to share this with me. Included in this email was a comment mentioning the fact that I had referred to my father as an “alcoholic” in some of my posts. She wrote that she didn’t really think my father was an alcoholic; after all, everyone “drank a lot” back in the day, and that perhaps (I’m paraphrasing here) that I was just an impressionable little girl who was too sensitive about her daddy.

I was irritated when I read that line, but good girl that I am, I immediately shoved the feeling aside, as I’m as skillful as my mother is at tucking away any uncomfortable emotions into the back of the cupboard. But it triggered something in me that started a slow burn. The hidden anger I carry deep inside of me about my father’s alcoholism began to simmer and bubble over like that cast iron pot of soup on the stove with the flame on high.

She didn’t believe me.

Now, in no way is my anger directed at my mother’s friend—after all, she had gleaned her all of her information through my mother, who kept mum about truth of what went on in our home every night. With so much practice, the members of my family were skilled professionals at putting on a good show—my father being the best actor in the entire troupe. When sober, he was an intelligent and amiable man—full of wit and humor and love. But after a few drinks it would be time for his costume change and his character would transform into that of an intimidating ogre acting out in uncontrollable rage.  And the people he supposedly loved most in life were right next to him on the stage, standing still and silent, their intense fear making them forget their lines. But as they say, the show must go on, so we allowed him the center stage to perform his nightly monologue, each of us turning inward and covering our pain with masks of surrender.

A little girl shouldn’t have had to be afraid of what was coming every single night. She shouldn’t have had to carry the dread around in her stomach and tiptoe around the house like a ghost, closing doors with silent precision to avoid hearing her daddy bellow at her about making too much noise. A little girl shouldn’t have had to watch her daddy throw shoes and books and dishes across the room in fits of alcoholic fury. She shouldn’t have had to get out of bed to check and make sure that her daddy hadn’t passed out on the couch with a lit cigarette still clenched between his fingers. She shouldn’t have had to learn to be the caretaker of others instead of herself.

A teenage girl shouldn’t have had to witness her drunken father threaten two high school boys with a fireplace poker, their only crime being that they gave her a ride home from a party late one night. A seventeen year-old girl with talent and intelligence with the world at her feet shouldn’t have spent the next five years of her life in a relationship with a young and handsome boy who was so obviously an alcoholic himself—trying in vain to fix him and failing miserably.

A college senior shouldn’t have had to see her father lying naked and motionless in the ICU, his thin body ravaged by years of smoking and drinking, the only movement that of his chest rising and falling with the hum of a respirator. She shouldn’t have had to lose her daddy when she was only twenty-three years old.

A young mother with small babies shouldn’t have had to watch and worry as her older brother, emotionally scarred from years of his father’s abuse and neglect, turned to alcohol to dull his own unfathomable pain.

A middle aged woman with the blessings of four exceptional children and a loving husband shouldn’t have had to live practically her entire life feeling that she is not beautiful and worthy and good because her father’s drinking was all her fault.

 It was not her fault.

So I’m angry. I’m angry that I’ve lived more than half my life believing that I did something to cause my father’s alcoholism. I know in my heart that my father was a good man, even though his actions contradicted this. I realize that his true self was masked by his depression and resentment and the need to deaden the pain of his own wounds. I know this now and I wish I could tell him that although he hurt me deeply, I forgive him.

It’s difficult and painful to admit that someone you loved so much could let you down so completely. It’s not easy to acknowledge those buried feelings—they’ve become an intrinsic part of who I am. But now it’s time to be honest—for my own emotional health, I have to tell the truth and let the anger go. That magnificent little girl who was born perfect and kind and exceptional is still that person today—she just got lost for a while. In the process of finding her, I can release the pain I’ve carried for so long, and then the dread will no longer be nameless.

By revealing my secrets, I become stronger. I don’t have to play the role of damaged little girl anymore. I know that underneath that tight and painful mask I’ve been wearing for so long is that beautiful little girl, smiling and radiating love. Together, she and I can walk off that dark and dusty stage, push open that heavy door and go out into the light.

A Different Outcome

21 Feb

It’s difficult to believe that an entire year has passed since Lexi Krasnoff died from her leukemia. I’m re-posting this in honor of her precious memory. She will never be forgotten.

Lexi Krasnoff died on a Friday afternoon at four thirty. It had been a glorious Santa Barbara day—the kind of day when we forget that we’re still in the middle of February. A soft breeze drifted through the newly budding trees and pointed its finger in the direction of spring. It was the kind of day when the air was scented with a hit of early blooming flowers, offering a sense of anticipation and hope for what was ahead. It was not a day when a beautiful and precious three year-old girl should have died.

But there’s never a day when it’s tolerable for a child to die.

When I told my seven year-old daughter that her little friend, Lexi had died, she didn’t believe me at first.

“Isa,” I told her, pulling her onto my lap. “I’m so very sorry to have to tell you that Lexi died this afternoon.”

She stared at me with a half smile on her face. “No she didn’t, Mommy—you’re just kidding around with me!”

My eyes filled as I choked out the words. “No, Honey—I’m not joking. Lexi died a few hours ago. I’m so sorry, sweetie.” I cradled my daughter’s warm body to mine and cried into her sweet-smelling neck.

She pulled away from me. She still didn’t believe me. “Mommy, Lexi didn’t die! That’s not funny!”

I took her by her shoulders and looked into her face. My voice cracked.

“Isa—I’m sorry, but it’s really true. Lexi was very sick and her little body couldn’t fight the leukemia anymore and she died a little while ago at the hospital.”

She saw the tears on my cheeks and finally realized I was telling her the truth. And then she began to sob. I’d never seen Isa this upset before. She cried uncontrollably for almost an hour and there was nothing I could to do to console my daughter. Her friend was gone.

Lexi and Isa three weeks before she died.

What I admire most about Lexi’s mother, Kat is that she never gave up hope that Lexi would make it. She spent day after day in a hospital room waiting for her daughter to get well again. When Lexi was moved to the pediatric intensive care unit, she became a mother lion who would not stand for tears or sad faces from visitors because that meant they did not have hope.  As she watched and waited while the leukemia ravaged her daughter’s little body, I know she held onto that hope until the very last moment.

Since I learned of Lexi’s death, a sensation of pressure has been building in my chest like a vice has been carefully positioned on either side of my lungs. It squeezes a little tighter every day, making it more difficult to take a deep breath. I thought my bouts of tears would help loosen the tightness in my chest, but it’s not going away. It sits there—rock hard and unbreakable, making my heart feel heavy and my body fatigued.

At first I thought it was only the grief and sadness over losing Lexi that was filling up my chest and clouding my thoughts with despair.  After all, Lexi was an extraordinary little girl who charmed me and everyone else around her with her sweet smile and sassy personality. She was special, and it wasn’t just because she had cancer—from what I’ve heard from her family and friends, she was born that way. I feel a deep sadness about her death that weighs heavily on me, but it’s more than that—the pain I feel is mixed with an emotion which burdens me in a more profound sense: I feel guilty.

Isa at Lexi’s memorial.

I feel guilty because by some luck of the draw, my daughter lived, and Kat’s daughter did not. Although I’m filled with an unending gratitude that Isa is still here with us, I’ve become fully aware of the unfairness of Lexi’s death. I also know that what I’m experiencing is “survivor’s guilt” and that it’s a common emotion for parents of children who survive their cancer.

Isa’s oncologist warned me about this condition four years ago after a little boy named Jeffrey died of the exact type of leukemia that killed Lexi. We had befriended Jeffrey and his family in the hospital when Isa was first diagnosed, and our families developed a bond that only families with children suffering cancer can form. When Jeffrey relapsed and died, it was a crushing blow to our entire family. The intense fear that I felt about Jeffrey’s death caused my panic level to rise to a fever pitch because it made the possibility of Isa’s death that much more real. If it happened to Jeffrey, it could happen to Isa.

I remember feeling guilty that Isa was doing relatively well during her illness, but because I was in the throes of her treatment and so terrified of losing her, I set aside those feelings of guilt and placed my complete focus on taking care of my daughter. For my own psychological survival, I had to shut myself down. At that time, I didn’t think about how unfair Jeffrey’s death was. I convinced myself that there was some predetermined reason for our friends to lose their only son to this horrible disease, and that someday we would all realize the good that came from it. I shoved all of those intense feelings of guilt and loss into a hidden chamber in my heart and left them there, unresolved and festering like bacteria growing in a Petri dish.

So here I am again, in the same place I was after Jeffrey’s death, but the difference is that now Isa is healthy, and I’m strong enough to face the pain and the guilt about Lexi’s death. This is why I’m walking around in a daze and can’t snap out of it. This is why my heart hurts so much. I finally understand the unfairness of it all and I feel the pain to the core of my being. I wish there was something—anything—that I could do to take Kat’s suffering away, but I know that no matter what I say or do, it will never be enough.

Caleb, Jonathan, Kat and Lexi Krasnoff

What I hold close in my heart is the knowledge that Lexi brought so much love into this world during her short life. I saw how much the doctors and nurses at the hospital loved having her as their patient. I witnessed it at her memorial service when her father spoke about how Lexi was his best friend. I listened when her grandfather talked about how Lexi taught him what pure love was. I cried when one of Lexi’s neighborhood friends got up in front of all those people in the church and sang a song dedicated to her. Finally, I watched as hundreds of people let go of pink balloons into the clouds above, on each one a personal message written to this sweet little girl who died too soon. Lexi, just by being who she was, had managed to change them forever.

Messages sent to Lexi

But I also realize that it’s not fair that the world doesn’t get to watch this adorable little girl with the big brown eyes and pouty lips grow up into a sparkling young woman full of life. It’s not fair that my daughter lost her little friend to cancer. It’s not fair that Lexi’s little brother Caleb will never know his big sister.  It’s not fair that I get to watch Isa grow and learn and play and dance and laugh and go to college and get married and have children and Lexi’s parents do not get to watch their daughter do these same things. I’m sad and sick and angry about this. Why do I get it all and they don’t?

Pam, the nurse (and close friend) who has helped take care of Isa these past four years helped put things into perspective for me. She told me that it’s normal to feel guilty when your child survives cancer when other children die. She said that my experience dealing with Isa’s cancer is every bit as painful and life-changing as that of a parent whose child has died from this insidious disease.

“In your mind’s eye,” Pam told me, “you probably watched Isa die and may have may have even planned her funeral—every parent who has a child with a life-threatening illness goes to that dark place, so your pain is just as weighty as anyone else’s. From what you’ve been through, you know intimately how that pain feels. It’s just that you had a different outcome.”

Yes, my outcome was different—I was one of the lucky ones.  And I’m sure the guilt will stay with me, but it’s imperative that I feel it and deal with it and not run away from it. It’s important for me to use my experiences to help others should they need it. I know that it’s my responsibility to offer my love and support to those families who will benefit from hearing my story, because I was one of the ones who had a different outcome.

No matter what happens, every parent who has a child with cancer needs to know that Isa made it, because then they can have the hope that their own child will survive. Hope is really the essence of life, and the one thing we all can hang onto. Hope is what kept Kat going until Lexi took her last breath.

And yes, it’s true that sometimes children die from their cancer.

But sometimes, they don’t.