Monthly Archives: July 2015

an unhappy birthday card

“I tried to write her something. I’ve tried to for weeks, but I can’t think!”

“Tori, you’ve been thinking so much about all of this, your brain can’t do anything else.”

“But I didn’t do anything for her!”

“What are you talking about? You did your whole life.”

I’ve written and rewritten and deleted and scrapped more words and sentences that never made sense than I’d like to acknowledge. I’ve desperately tried to write a good, thoughtful, coherent essay for my mom on her birthday, but all I can put together is the disjointed set of words and punctuation marks that follows. I apologize in advance.

Grief that refuses to lift has a funny way of making it extremely difficult to make sense of the world around you and the things going on inside your own head. My grief-ridden brain that probably needs therapy is like mushy oatmeal. The bland kind of oatmeal that’s sticky and sad-looking, one without cinnamon sugar or maple syrup or fruit. My brain is bland, mushy, oatmeal and all of my thoughts are stuck in it in no semblance of order or organization. That’s not writer’s block. That’s depression.

My mom would have turned sixty-two today. Two years ago, I threw her a surprise party. Last year, I hugged her in her hospice bed. This is the first year I’ve had to acknowledge her birthday in her absence, and it’s a really odd, bittersweet feeling to celebrate the birth of someone who no longer lives. Am I supposed to get her flowers? Do I light a candle for her? Maybe I’ll just go home and hide in bed. Ray will probably drag my body to the car and bring me to the beach to be, because he cares more about me than I care about myself, and I will probably protest but know he’s right and go anyway. (Raymond, thank you for being you.)

My mom passed away a week and a half after she turned sixty-one, so the one-year anniversary of her death is rapidly approaching and makes today even harder. I don’t know how the past year went by so quickly, because I feel like it all happened yesterday. It still feels that raw. For the past year, my mind has retreated into the oatmeal-brain that now exists in my head to self-preserve and hide away from all the hurt and bad things that happened. The oatmeal has been like a sticky cushion that’s protected me from the bad stuff but also blocked out a lot of the good memories.

I’ve struggled remembering who I am for the past year without her existence to remind me that I am my mother’s daughter. I think know that I was a good daughter and that I took damn good care of her as she got sicker and until the day she died. I did my best to keep her happy and keep her safe. I know these truths about myself and can go to sleep, rest easy, and die knowing I did my best. She did everything for me when she was well. So doing everything for her when she was sick only made sense. When she was here, maybe I wasn’t living for me, but I was happy knowing that she was happy. That was enough. And then one day she wasn’t here, and I lost my purpose.

When she was here, I had a vague but specific purpose for every single day despite my running on fumes. Wake up, please wake up, hug her, call her, ease her concerns, listen to her, help her, keep her happy, tell her everything she needs to hear in case today’s the last one you get with her, do not let her fall, drive home before you fall asleep, focus, please stay awake, okay, now please fall asleep, seriously, go to sleep now. Maybe, somehow, some part of that formula would save her for just a little longer even though nothing could. Maybe one extra smile would suffocate the damn tumor a little and let her live. But then, one day she wasn’t here and my fumes ran out. They disappeared into thin air. I disappeared. I felt like a shell with nothing left in the middle except oatmeal-brain. I still feel that way.

I’ve struggled remembering the really fun things that we did and the great conversations we had. I’ve struggled thinking, as demonstrated by the nonsensical number of drafts of this essay that still doesn’t feel good enough. I hope it makes at least a little sense or gives you a little insight. Without the clear purpose of taking care of her, I’ve honestly forgotten what I’m doing or why I’m here. But there’s one thing I haven’t forgotten.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her. Even if she’s not here, her kindness and words and mannerisms and quirks are a part of me. On the days I’m most depressed – like today – with the ugly tears and snot that the dog tries to lick up and the guttural wailing from my soul, my mom is the voice in my ear that says, “Please, Victoria. Please don’t give up. Please don’t cry.” And somehow, I’ve made it through the past year without her.

But I’ve also made it through the past year because of her. I am my mother’s daughter.

If I can still hear her, maybe she can still hear me. If I cry into the universe loud enough, maybe it’ll find her. The truth is that no essay will do this justice anyway.

Happy birthday, Mom. I miss you beyond words. I’m so sorry I’m so depressed. I’ll try to be stronger like you were. I hope you have the most beautiful day up there with the rainbows and birds, with wings, and without pain or fear. I love you the mostest. (And I hope you can hear me.)

Your forever devoted daughter, Tori

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one, two, or none of the above

When I was in pharmacy school, I loathed multiple choice exam formats that went something like this:

Question #3: Pick the best answer. There can be more that one right answer, but to get any credit here, you have to pick the “best” answer which is subjective. Get over it.

i) Pharmacy school is hard. ii) Pharmacy school will be worth it. (Predict the future here.) iii) You are extremely confused by this point. iv) Time is on your side.

Is the answer A) i and iii; B) ii and iv; C) i, ii, and iii; D) all of the above; or E) none of the above?

The only way to nail these questions was by process of elimination since there could be more than one right answer. One by one, I’d think to myself, “Nope, that one’s definitely wrong. I rock! This is going so well! And that one sounds right. Wait. Shit, I knew this last night. How did that weird song I made up to memorize this go? Yeah, that one’s right. I’m not sure about that one. It could definitely either be answer A or C. Time is not on my side, so there’s no way it’s all of the above. Wasn’t that a song by the Rolling Stones? Victoria, focus. Is this really worth it? Maybe it’s not C, because maybe this is a trick question and I’m not going to be successful if I can’t figure out the damn answer. Why did I want to be a pharmacist again? I wanted to be a writer! Screw it. I’m just going to say A.”

Every question on every exam for six years went something like that. It was exhausting. And in retrospect, it was worth it, although I didn’t predict that at the time. I met Ray because of pharmacy school and was able to help my mom through her diagnosis and treatment because of it too. So maybe the answer was C after all. I don’t know.

My first year of college, I got to take an elective that had to fit certain criteria set by UConn, but it was still mine to pick and it didn’t have to do anything with pharmacy school. So I chose something as far from and as different than science as I could. “Feminism and the Arts” is a class? Hell, yeah.

I was already a liberal upon going to college. My mom loved everyone of every color, culture, religion, gender, sexuality, age, ability, disability, and difference with complete and utter equality, and I wanted to be just like her. It was too beautiful of a notion for me to disagree with. “Feminism and the Arts” just gave me more fuel for the fire with examples of adversity and the proper terminology behind it all.

One of the most important things that I learned is that there are three distinct things that some people have somehow mushed into one: sex, gender, and sexuality. They’re different, and they really don’t have anything to do with one another. A person’s sex is based on the chromosomes and body parts they’re born with, and it is not limited to only male and female. Some folks are born intersex. And some folks ultimately take hormones and have surgery and identify as transsexual. A person’s gender is how they internally identify and outwardly present themselves. It can be fluid and changing. It does not need to match the sexual parts they were born with. Some folks identify as transgender but are not transsexual. Some folks are both. A person’s sexuality is based on whom they are attracted to. They may be gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, questioning, asexual, pansexual, and so forth. This is an extremely brief overview, but obviously, it’s not straightforward like some people out there seem to think. It’s confusing, overwhelming for some, and very complex like the multiple choice exam questions they threw at us in pharmacy school.

There’s no right answer. But there’s no wrong one either.

I know how I identify, and my gender happens to match my sexual parts, and my sexuality happens to be straight. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must be for people to feel like they were born in the “wrong” body with the “wrong” parts, or to have society tell them they love the “wrong” person or people. That’s got to feel incredibly lonely and scary. Why can’t we as a society make it a more accepting and safe place?

It seems like nowadays, people as a whole are a lot more open-minded about LGBTQ equality. (Thank you, SCOTUS!) Transgender and transsexual people seem a lot more accepted, or perhaps it’s because people are being more vocal about it.

So what I don’t understand is that with all of the fluidity, ambiguity, and variety of sexes, genders, and sexualities out there, why are “gender revealing” parties even in existence? And wouldn’t they really be “sex revealing” parties since sex is the biology you’re born with and gender is how you identify?

A lot of the people I went to school with are having babies now. Some of them don’t care if their baby was seen to have a penis or vagina on ultrasound. But some make a party out of it. Why?

With all of the fluidity, ambiguity, and variety out there, why are people reducing their unborn children to one of two buckets: pink or blue? Who said that the baby you have brewing who looks like it has a vagina on ultrasound is going to be and identify as female? Who said it will even like the color pink? And why are you thrusting that upon them? What if “she” identifies as male, is attracted to both men and women, and has orange as his favorite color? What then?

I know why pharmacy school made those ridiculous multiple choice questions for exams. Because in the real world, there generally is no 100% correct answer or 100% wrong answer (except with math problems, perhaps). In the real world, it’s complex and fluid and ambiguous.

Beauty exists in the variety. If all of us were the same, we’d be incredibly boring with pink and blue blips walking the earth. What about the rainbow?

Please don’t limit your baby’s world before he or she or ze has even entered it. Celebrating the fact that you’re creating life should be enough.

Tori

the sky on the fourth of july

There’s a song called “Fourth of July” by Sufjan Stevens that has nothing to do with patriotism but everything to do with this very moment. He sings about a conversation that he had with his mom on her hospital bed as she died with aggressive cancer and uses bird-terms of endearment and examples of brilliant light to symbolize life. Needless to say, it strikes a chord and makes me cry every single time but I can’t stop listening to it.

“Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?

And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right.”

My mom and I both firmly believed that her dad–my grandpa–came back to us as a bird after he passed away. After my mom passed, I found feathers everywhere I went when I happened to look down, even indoors. And she and I always told each other, “You are my sunshine.” So I’ve let myself believe it’s a song she’s singing to me (even if it’s via the lovely voice of a male stranger).

“You do enough talk, my little hawk, why do you cry?

Tell me, what did you learn from the Tillamook Burn? Or the Fourth of July?”

the fireworks from our beach

the fireworks from our beach

Apparently, the Tillamook Burn was a series of catastrophic forest fires in Oregon starting in the 1930’s. (I had to look that up.) The fires caused massive destruction, but the life of the fire did come to an end. As did the lives of the trees. The Fourth of July blasts hundreds or thousands of fireworks across the sky where they make dazzling colors and inspire some hope and reflection. But within each burst comes a small death that disappears in the sky. After the thirty minute show, they’re gone forever. Their light dies too. What remains?

I’ve written about it before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time, but those things are impermanent. We’re impermanent too. That’s the next line in the song, by the way: “We’re all gonna die.” We’re momentary bits of beautiful light across the universe like thousands of tiny suns, we’re flocks of birds across the sky, and we’re fleeting. We can’t fear that. It’s just something to accept, and the sooner we accept it, the easier it feels. It’s devastating but beautiful, because it makes everything mean something.

The second we accept that nothing lasts forever is the same second we can start living fully without the barrier of fear in the way. (I’m still working on the acceptance part.)

My mom was only on this planet for 61 years, and I know that she positively impacted every person she met. She fervently loved her friends and students, and while I don’t think she played favorites, she loved the underdogs a little harder. She fought for them when they couldn’t see their own strength or beauty. She fought for me when I couldn’t see mine. She beamed light from her pores and fingertips and toes and smile. She was a ray of sunshine that made its way through the fog and to our hearts. She was a rare and special cobalt blue firework bursting across the midnight sky. She was a hummingbird fluttering for mere seconds in the catmint in the garden. She was a momentary but magnificent beacon of wondrous things like strength and hope and silliness and kindness, and I thank God or whatever is calling the shots up there that I got her to brighten my life and illuminate my path as long as I did.

“Shall we look at the moon, my little loon, why do you cry?

Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.”

Last year around this time, my husband and I were driving my mom to her weekend getaway at our house when fireworks went off over the bay. We pulled the car over to watch them for only a moment, but while my mom was in the passenger seat watching them, I was watching her. She was so beautiful inside and out that you couldn’t help but stare in awe.

Use today and especially this Saturday to think of your life like a firework. Live fervently and purposefully, even if your sole purpose is to cast a little light into the world. Leave a magnificent mark across the sky for others. Be an inspiration. Perform random acts of kindness just for the sake of being kind. Love without limits for however brief of a time you get that opportunity.

Start really living before it’s too late.

Tori

you are my sunshine, mom. for always and forever

you are my sunshine, mom. always and forever

P.S. Sufjan Stevens, please forgive me if I’ve destroyed the intended meaning of this song. This is how I understood it. I thank you for your beautiful music even if it makes me cry. And I’m so sorry about your mom.