Monthly Archives: September 2014

on love

Something has occurred to me. Something groundbreaking, earth-moving, sky-tumbling, heart-trembling (now I’m singing Carole King), and almost breathtaking. And it is so simple that I feel ridiculous for even stating it, but it’s something I’ve never really thought about before.

Saying “I love you” is the same exact thing as saying “thank you for being.”

mom, we love you the "mostest" and miss you even more

mom, we love you the “mostest” and miss you even more

People don’t say “I love you” enough. Out of fear that the sentiment might not be reciprocated. Out of fear that it might mean a relationship is important and real. Out of pain from the past. Something. But people don’t say those words enough. And people really need to hear them.

My husband and I met in a state that neither of us lived and dated long distance for well over the first year of our relationship. We talked a lot on the phone, via text, and on Skype and saw each other on the weekends as much as possible, given that we were both finishing up school at the time. He’d been to Boston to see me; I’d been to New York to see him. I loved him and was in love with him and I wanted to tell him that in person. But we were many miles away.

One night, we were planning on talking on Skype before bed, so I – he doesn’t know this – showered, did my makeup, did my hair, put on stylishly casual clothes (“Oh this? I was just sitting around the house in it.”  That’s a lie. I wear pajamas and definitely no bra when I’m at home), and we started to talk. We talked as usual. I don’t remember about what. And that was that. We said, “Good night,” and I probably looked like a giddy school girl in a push-up bra underneath a brand-new, just-cut-off-the-tags Pink sweatshirt and a healthy dose of mascara waving goodbye. Regardless, we ended the conversation.

I loved him and I wanted to tell him, but I really wanted to tell him in person. The first “I love you” and “I’m in love with you” are big deals. But I can’t keep a secret for the life of me. Especially not if it’s something I’m excited about. Which means, something overcame me, I called him back immediately on Skype, and blurted out those three little words. I said it. And he smiled. I was so mad at myself for not having the patience to tell him in person so that it’d be romantic and personal and perfect. But I needed him to know. And you know what? I’m really glad I told him, because he needed to hear it.

He said it back, and it felt so good to the core to know that the person I was thankful I had in my life, the person that had been a stranger only months before, was also thankful that I was in his. That’s all it means. It’s simple and it’s huge at the same time. I later told him that I was also in love with him, because it feels more passionate. Like, loving is to compassion as being in love is to passion. Anyway, they both apply to Ray. Sidenote: Ray, have I embarrassed you yet?

i love this man and am in deep and utter love with him. and good god, you're handsome.

i love this man and am in deep and utter love with him. and good god, he’s handsome.

I’m not saying we should all be “in love” with everyone. That’s different. I am in love with my husband and only my husband, but I love a lot of good people, funny people, and selfless people. I love open-minded and tolerant people. I remember telling one of my best friends from college who happens to be male, “I love you” and someone walking by asked me if he was my husband. It seemed oddly presumptuous to me at the time, but I get that those words seem to be reserved for significant others for most. My friend Mark drove two and a half hours to see my mom at her fundraiser, to drive two and a half hours home the same day. I appreciate his support and am so thankful he is the person he is. So “I love you” is very fitting.

my mom with her "boyfriend" mark

my mom with her “boyfriend” mark

More people need to know they’re appreciated. Any single day at any second in time, something bad can happen. A tragedy can come without warning. Your loved one might not wake up. This blog article could be the last thing on earth you ever read. So stop waiting to share how you feel before it’s too late. Tell the people you are grateful you have in your life that you love them. Tell them often. And don’t forget to tell the person who looks back at you in the mirror.

Thank you all for being. I love you. Same thing.

Tori

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the fault is not in ourselves

I read The Fault in Our Stars before it became a movie and fell in love with Hazel Grace, Augustus Waters, their relationship, their wisdom, and their story. I read it despite the fact that my mom was losing her battle with cancer and that it would undoubtedly be a huge trigger for me. I suspected one of the two would pass away before the end. And yet I couldn’t put it down. I was so deeply affected by Hazel and Augustus that I recommended the book to anyone who would listen.

That includes my mom. I encouraged my – I’m going to say it – dying mother to read a very real and raw novel about dying. To show her that she could still live her life, to let her know that life goes on, and to show her how some infinities are just shorter than others.

We went grocery shopping together one afternoon. While pushing her in a wheelchair and somehow hanging a basket on my wrist, I saw it on an endcap display and impulsively added it to our pile for her. It didn’t occur to me until after checkout that it could have been a mistake.

What if it makes her cry? What if it breaks her?

But it was already too late. She started reading it when we got home and got hooked on it off the bat. She was quickly turning the pages and grasping what she read, which was a relief, because her dexterity, vision, and level of understanding were already shoddy. The book makes a very difficult topic seem simple and bearable. And my mom seemed to love Hazel and she wanted to know what happened in the end.

My mom continued to read the novel on our front porch while my husband and I worked in the garden in front of her. We had a picnic on the porch which is one of the few times she actually put the book down. She was able to feed herself yogurt at that point. I think I had a granola bar while sitting on the porch floorboards next to her. It still counts as a picnic.

During the break, she said she didn’t really understand the title, so I tried to explain to her what I thought about it. How I’d read that it was a nod to a Julius Caesar quote. Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

I told her I think that the author is eloquently calling bullshit. I said, “It means it’s not your fault at all, Mom. Nobody chooses to have cancer. You did nothing to cause or deserve this.” She gave a slight smile and continued reading.

I decided it was a good answer. Looking back, of everything I ever did for my mom, making sure she knew that is something I will rest and grieve peacefully with. My mom had confided in me several times already that a family member yelled at her when she knocked things over, spilled her drinks, choked on food, had trouble hearing, and did other things that were a direct result of the tumors in her brain. It was never her fault and I tried to make sure she knew that. I told her she could throw food at the wall if she wanted and that nobody should care if food gets on the floor. The dog would actually welcome that, so have at it.

Anyway, when the summer sun was too warm for my mom’s very reactive skin (a side effect of chemo), she read her novel on the couch and fell asleep with it on her lap often. She was sleeping more often. She took naps frequently. Even while she came in and out of her slumber, I loved being next to her. But when she was reading, I noticed she started missing pages because they were too thin to separate for her fingers and she was rereading chapters towards the end over and over again. Maybe it’s because she didn’t understand them. Maybe it’s because she forgot where she was. Probably a combination of the two. At some point she did claim she finished it though. And she said she loved Hazel. Hazel has the same tenacity as my mom did, so I don’t blame her.

That was the last thing she ever read independently.

What’s my point? One evening just before or just after my mom had finished the novel, the family member who blamed her for things out of her control started putting her down for who she was as a person and decisions she had made long ago. The person said how she wasn’t careful enough around breakables again. I spoke up. I said how she had told me the put-downs had been happening, how she had asked me not to speak up, but how I wasn’t going to let it happen anymore. It’s like she was asking me for help but trying not to get the person in trouble both at the same time.

Anyway, as much as I would have defended her, I didn’t need to. My mom fired back at the bullying family member, “It’s not my fault at all. That’s what it says in the book. Nobody chooses to have cancer. I didn’t do anything to cause or deserve this.”

And for a second, the bully shut up. The comments ultimately resumed and my mom’s new self-assured stance was ultimately worn down again by said comments, but for that one moment, she stood up for herself. I owe The Fault in Our Stars for that. And I’m really proud of her.

This topic might seem somewhat random for anyone reading this, but the novel is fresh in my mind after watching the movie adaptation last night. The movie changed some parts of the book, deleted some characters I’d hoped would be brought to life, and left out some smaller details that were really important to me, but it still made me sob just the same.

It was an ugly cry too. For approximately half of the movie. The kind where the snot is pouring out of your nose, you don’t have a tissue, and there’s so much junk leaking from your face you have no choice but to wipe it on your sleeve. Not that I wiped it on my sleeve. Okay, I wiped it on my sleeve. And then my husband offered me his sleeve and just held me.

I’m really glad I didn’t bring my mom to the movie. I was going to. But by the time it came out in theaters, she wouldn’t have been able to hear it, read any closed captioning, or stay awake through the whole thing. I’m also glad I didn’t see it in the theater, because it would have been one hell of an ugly cry in public. But I’m really happy I saw it last night. Even if it was painful. “That’s the thing about pain. […] It demands to be felt.”

That’s kind of the point of this entire blog too, honestly. The quote “you know it meant something” came from from Peter and the Starcatcher. Which plays off of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism that says, “Life is suffering.” If something is worthwhile and meaningful, it’s going to hurt when it’s gone. Losing my mom has been devastating to a lot of people, so you know her life meant something grander. So I guess that means it’s an honor to be hurt by her loss. It’s supposed to hurt. Because it means I knew her. I was created by an astonishing woman.

My mom treated underdogs and alpha dogs the same. I think that quality was one of her most inspiring. She was nonjudgmental, respectful, and supportive to everyone. She loved everyone equally. But somehow she didn’t think she deserved the same respect. The evening that I witnessed her stand up for herself the first time in my vivid memory was life-changing. And somehow I’d forgotten all about it until last night.

I owe The Fault in Our Stars for a wonderful memory amidst a devastating time in my life. For helping both a victim of cancer and the daughter she left behind.

I guess that’s my review. Two thumbs up. Go read the book right now. And watch the movie. Cry all you need to. Be moved by them both. And no matter what, keep your chin up.

Tori

things that no one told me

On Valentine’s Day in 2009, I lost my grandpa. My mom and I each held one of his hands as he passed, with almost all of his surviving family members surrounding him too. I lived through the death of my father figure, slipped into a deep depression, withdrew from my passion (I gave up ballroom), and somehow continued going through the motions to survive college. I started seeing birds everywhere, especially when I really needed him. A hawk circling above me when I was walking around a desolate part of campus and I was all by myself. A hawk outside a hospital window. A chickadee that hopped up to my car window when I was lost somewhere in Connecticut and pulled over to find my way. It felt like he was around. And I still had my mom. I still had her so it wasn’t as hard as losing her too.

Losing him was like a dress rehearsal. He had Alzheimer’s and was in his mid-eighties, so it was bound to happen soon-ish. My mom was diagnosed with her highly aggressive brain tumor at the age of 60. I didn’t see it coming. None of us did. Not even by a long shot. If she lived her life expectancy, it meant I had 12 months to prepare for her passing. She lasted 21 months, so I should have been prepared.

But no matter what anyone tells you, no matter how well you think you’re ready, you’re not. Even if you’ve made it through all five stages of grief and come to acceptance beforehand, you’re not going to be ready. You never will be ready to lose them.

There are some things I wish I had known, though. Things that I had to find out by myself through the experience. That I wish I hadn’t had to learn by myself. Like I could have prepared better had I been told.

You will look for things.

Like with my grandpa, I looked for meaning with my mom’s passing. After my grandpa passed, I saw birds. After my mom passed, I saw feathers. Tons of them. After never noticing them before. And a dead lilac bush that my mom picked out that all of a sudden had blooms right after she passed. Some people find pennies, dimes, butterflies, rainbows, orbs of light in photographs, phantom smells of cigars, or visitations from their loved one in dreams. Hope. That’s what they all are. Hope. You will look for hope.

You will also look for and try to hold onto things that meant something to your loved one. A favorite necklace. The newsboy cap he always wore. A very specific photograph. The missing pedal to the damn sewing machine that’s somewhere in the things left behind. Somewhere in their stuff. You’re going to try to hold onto whatever meant something to them, because by extension, it means a great deal to you.

You will not be able to say the words “die” or “death.”

My big sister at work who lost her brother a year before I lost my mom pointed this out after realizing I cannot utter these words. Apparently, she was unable to say those words about her brother too. I use euphemisms alone. “When my mom passed,” “since she’s left us,” “now that she’s gone,” I cannot say “she died” even though she did.

It sounds too final. It means the same, but it’s not. The euphemisms make it sound like she went somewhere. Somewhere better or safer perhaps. I cannot and will not make it sound like her life just stopped. Because it’s got to go on somehow. You have to too.

Driving by yourself will be the worst.

I thought I was alone in this one, but after speaking to several others who have recently lost loved ones, this is a truth across the board. Driving to and from work will be excruciating. Your mind will wander and you’ll have no one there to distract you. For me, I called my mom every single day on my way to work. Every single day. Even when she started losing her hearing and speech, I still called her. At some point I had to stop because her hearing and speech were so bad, so I used that period to try to get used to the fact that soon, I wouldn’t be able to call her. And it didn’t matter. It didn’t prepare me.

Driving is excruciating. It makes me hate going to work and even hate coming home, because it means that I have to spend 30 minutes behind the wheel to think. About her. And it sucks.

You’ll find other weird, unexpected triggers that really aren’t weird at all. Like a certain song, his cell phone, or the smell of her favorite flower. Something inconspicuous will open the floodgates. At unfortunate times too. Like at your desk. Or in the middle of a meeting. Or at Hallmark. Or behind the damn wheel of your car.

People will surprise you.

Some people will disappear on you. Some may even become downright nasty for some reason you will never know. They’ll cast stones for their own amusement with no regard to how you’re already breaking inside. Whatever you do, do not let them hurt you. Just walk away and protect yourself from their negativity. No matter who they are. Because nobody deserves to be treated like dirt when they’re already going through hell.

On the plus side, you’ll find out a hell of a lot of people care about you and your wellbeing. People you barely know. People you’ve never met. People will come out of the woodwork. You may even make new friends like people who share similar experiences and are grieving too. Let them in. Know you are not alone. Even when it feels like you are.

Your coping skills will be put to the test.

Have you had trouble with insomnia before? You probably won’t sleep after she passes. I can’t tell you the last good night’s sleep I’ve had. Dabbled with unhealthy solutions to mask stress before? You will find yourself relying on your drug of choice or at least thinking about it. Like caffeine. You know, to counteract the exhaustion from your insomnia. Have depression? Be prepared for possibly hitting rock bottom. I’ve never felt this sad. Or alone. Even though I’m not. But it still feels like it.

You might have healthy coping mechanisms. Meditating, talking to friends, admitting you need help. Just know it’s okay to take an antidepressant or see a counselor if you need one. It’s okay to ask for help. However well or not well you’re coping, it’s okay. You’re not weak or undeserving. You’re just going through a rough time. And it will get easier one day. I promise.

You will need bereavement days. Ones dedicated to the services and ones dedicated to you.

I took five days off immediately following my mom’s passing. A full workweek, and I thought it would be enough. I had also hoarded PTO prior to her passing in case I needed more than whatever time my company would give me but was too stubborn to use it.

My mom’s wake was on a Thursday evening and her funeral was a Friday morning. Every day before the wake, I prepared for it. I put together her slideshow and photos. We met with the funeral director and the priest. I didn’t really get off the couch. But still. I was preparing for the services.

However, they were really traumatic in themselves. The wake made me paralyzed. Everyone was in beautiful, vibrant colors as my mom wanted. She looked beautiful and somehow a little alive. But it took me almost four hours to be able to look at her. The funeral and the weird reception thing after were exhausting. I was so tired. Mentally and physically. After the services were over, I needed more time to heal and not think about anything far, far away from work. I wish I took more time just for me. It’s okay to need time. Please take a little (or a lot of) time just for you.

You must take care of yourself. Okay, everyone told me this, but I didn’t really listen.

Let that one sink in for a minute. I’ll say it again. You must take care of yourself. Try to eat well, get out in nature, go for a walk, take a fun class, explore your artistic side, get to bed at a decent time, and do whatever it is that makes you happy. Please try to be good to yourself. You will be under an enormous amount of stress and hardship. You must take care of yourself.

Remember that your loved one would never want you to suffer. My mom wanted two things for me: to be happy and to travel. I try to remember that when I’m sobbing hysterically.

Everyone told me this. Everyone told me to take care of myself. And they were right, so I’m telling you. Be patient with yourself. Try your best to get by. Ask for help if you need it. Find things that matter to you. Try to keep living. Breathe in, breathe out. Talk. Listen to the birds first thing in the morning when you can’t sleep. Call a friend. Call me. I’d like to be there for anyone grieving. Just know you’re not alone.

Tori

truth and the bright side

There was a story in the news about a woman in California who battled cancer and passed away at the young age of 61 like my mom. She passed away just three days after her son’s wedding. After dancing with her son at her son’s wedding when she barely had the strength for anything else. She got out of her wheelchair to dance. To the same Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that my family danced to at my wedding.

That hits a little too close to home for me. It’s way too familiar.

I’ve been told by several people that I do not share much about myself upon first meeting others. I pick and choose the safe things to share. I wait until I really trust you. And then I spill. And you’re sworn to secrecy.

So here’s some truth. I loved Ray before we even went on our first official date. I think I actually fell in love with him on the airplane when we first met. I’ve never felt so giddy and calm, nervous and confident, scared and hopeful at the same time. I’m not talking about lust, although Ray is beyond handsome. I’m not talking about puppy love, although we were both kind of still kids at the time. We kind of still are. Regardless. I’m talking about real, down-to-the-core, feel-it-in-your-gut, crossing-your-fingers-and-toes-it-will-last, honest, and pure love. The first time we met we talked about the future, we learned we want the same exact things in life. And I’m talking very specific things like getting married, having a family, living on the water. Important stuff. And scary stuff. Within hours of meeting. The stuff you don’t typically spill upon first meeting someone. Looking back, I have never trusted someone so immediately and fully as I trusted Ray with my truths and secrets.

Anyway. Fast-forward about two years of dating, moving closer to each other, then basically living with each other. Sure, we talked about the future. I think we talked about getting married around our third date. Someday, we’d get married. But at the beginning of November 2012, we weren’t actively discussing marriage; it was just a truth for us.

And then my mom got diagnosed with her brain tumor. She got diagnosed November 6, 2012. Ray couldn’t have been more *there* for me. For my family. He brought refreshments. He tried to calm my mom down and explain things to her in a not-so-scary way. He had to work while she went in for surgery, but he got there just in time for the surgeon to deliver the news. That she couldn’t get all of the tumor, that some of it was touching a blood vessel, that it looked “diffuse” which was a term I remembered from school that actually meant “not well defined” which meant “very bad” as far as tumors go. He just held me as I had a visceral reaction of retching and puking into a trash can in a library holding-cell where they keep families. He couldn’t have been more there for me.

A very wise friend once told me that tragedy makes us more of who we really are. At the time of my family’s tragedy, my boyfriend became my knight in shining armor. He became more him: more comforting, more assuring, more positive. When my mom had finally come home that month and I was sleeping at Ray’s apartment, I remember sobbing that one of my biggest fears was that I would never get to have my mom at my wedding someday. That I never really dreamed of my wedding as a little girl, but that the one thing I was certain of was that I needed my mom to walk me down the aisle. That I had one year left with her per statistics, and none of it would happen.

I don’t think Ray intended on making marriage a reality at that point in time. Okay, that statement is a weak version of the truth. Ray did not intend on making marriage a reality at that point in time. And I know that times are modern and I know that I could have proposed too, but I wanted to hear it from him. That night at the apartment, we talked, I felt like I was pressuring him into proposing, I felt like a pathetic and whining little girl, but my unprecedented and compassionate boyfriend said we would get married by the next fall. It was already the end of November. Spring would be too soon to plan a wedding, summer might be too, fall could work, winter would be too cold, and the following spring might be too late. We’d get married in fall of 2013. And that was that.

We picked out the engagement ring in December. Ray sat on it for a couple months to “surprise” me. And we got married in October, just under a year from the time of my mom’s diagnosis. We got married, as planned. With a full-on dream wedding as planned. Just sooner than planned. And my mom was there. She walked me down the aisle and we even danced together. And we never told her that we planned the wedding as quickly as possible so that she would be there. She asked why we were planning it so quickly, and we said we just really wanted to tie the knot as soon as possible. For no other reason than that.

The wedding day was perfect. Everything I ever could have asked for and more. I think Ray feels the same. But it was also incredibly bittersweet. Celebrating one of the happiest days of your life with the worst day of your life looming in the near future. A race against time, to be sure.

my mom was my something blue

my mom was my something blue

That was almost a year ago. My mom has passed since, as we kind of knew she would. Ray was even more supportive during her passing. He held her hand on car rides, helped with her activities of daily living, permanently invited her over our house for a vacation to the beach, and spent every single weekend with her with me. He even promised her that he’d take care of me before she left us. And Ray and I are approaching our first full year of being married. I’m married to the unprecedented, compassionate, comforting, assuring, positive, handsome, and wonderful man I met on the plane. I could not be more happy with him. My secrets and my truths are safe with him. Being able to marry him with my mom present was more than I ever could have hoped for, but especially when her diagnosis was a constant reminder of time ticking away. Ray fast-forwarded his life plan to help my dreams become reality. And I am forever grateful for him and his love.

If tragedy makes us more of who we really are, it just means I am more in love with my husband. And I’m talking about real, down-to-the-core, feel-it-in-every-fiber-of-your-being, uncrossing-your-fingers-and-toes-because-you-know-it-will-last, honest, and pure love.

Tori

tear-jerk reaction

I’m having a hard time missing my mom. Today was a particularly rough day. I’ve been having a lot of them. So I finally finished this video for my mom to do some good instead of crying. Although it also made me cry…

Please enjoy and then go live!

Tori

good

When I was little, my mom told me to do good before dropping me off for school one day. My dad corrected her that to be grammatically correct, it’s do well. I firmly believe that she meant what she said.

Everyone has some sort of plan upon greeting each day. We all have to do lists, and some of us write them down. Things we have to do for our jobs (prepare for presentation), our houses (do the damn laundry already), and our families (go through photos with Mom, when she was here, of course). These to do lists haunt us and push us. They make us feel accomplished. Sometimes they drive us insane. “There were three things I needed to do today. What was the third? Shoot. Where is that Post-It note?” Not like these are personal examples or anything.

Driving to work this morning, I realized something. The plan for every day can be far more simple. Do good. Not do well, although doing things to the best of your ability at any given time is always, well, good. But rather, do good. That single, solitary goal on each and every day. Do some good.

For all the things you have to do to keep your life in order, do one thing for someone else. That’s my challenge to anyone reading this. Every time I reread this, I’m challenging myself to it too.

Smile at a stranger. Hold the door for an elderly gentleman. Give up your seat for the pregnant woman on the train. Let someone pull their car out in front of you. Be a little more kind to and patient with the waitress bringing you your dinner (she’s serving your family and friends instead of eating with hers).

Help a friend in need. Help a friend period. Really listen when someone opens up to you. Compliment a coworker who worked exceptionally hard on a project. Tell your husband how much you love every little thing about him from his undyed hair to his broken toe, because all you see are his kind eyes and megawatt smile. Tell a friend how you couldn’t live without their silliness or heart. Tell your daughter how proud of her you are for the things that are far more important than her “A” in geometry or the goal she scored at soccer. Tell her you are proud of the person she is on the inside, how appreciative you are for her being such a big help fixing dinner, how inspired you are by how non-judgmental she is with others, and how touched you are by how patient she is with her grandfather who has Alzheimer’s.

Volunteer with any charity of your choosing. Play with and cheer for the athletes at a Special Olympics event. Spend a couple of hours at a food bank. Donate ten bucks to the National Brain Tumor Society. Go walk with Out of the Darkness to raise awareness for suicide prevention.

It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just do some good.

I have a slightly different take on the ideas of karma and the law of attraction. They say something along the lines of if you do good, good will come back to you. Almost like if you volunteer at a homeless shelter, one day you’ll win the lottery. That’s nonsense.

It’s far more simple than that. If you do good, you feel good. When you help and show kindness to others, you feel good. I’ve told people that I volunteer for Special Olympics for entirely selfish reasons. I help the athletes (okay, I play with them and dance with them while they wait for their events), but it seems to make them smile, and that makes me feel good. The whole process it totally fulfilling. It makes me happy. That’s karma.

Some amazing friends of mine wrote a card for me with a perfect quote on it by James Barrie. “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” That’s karma.

So here’s my challenge. Go do some good. Today or any day. Make it a part of your daily to do list. However little or big, you’ll make a difference and feel a whole lot better about yourself. It’s a win-win.

Thanks for the advice as always, Mom.

Tori