Friday, July 06, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom

Lyra likes to dance.

A serious enough wind is ripping through my neighborhood at the moment and enough sirens are whizzing by that it inspired instant storm preparation instincts in me. I had the sudden urge to hoard food, fill containers with water, and locate all the flashlights and matches. It was oddly strong, this instinct, and it took me a few minutes to realize that I'd just watched a show about the incredible flood of the Connecticut River in 1936, and I was in disaster mode. Instead, I calmly closed the windows and shutters and collected the garbage can from the sidewalk while Lyra slept peacefully on a pillow on the living room floor.

Lyra slept for seven hours last night. Because she is, of course, the best baby Ever. I attended another New Parents' Coffee today at the local toy store. I met some nice people at this one. Sadly, the couple that seemed like people I might know said that they were moving to the west coast after I started talking with them awhile.

The new parent groups I have attended so far have been impressively well-educated groups of people. Last week I was having lunch with a bunch of women in Boston listening to anecdotes about how they have no idea what they are doing and were fretting over the tiniest details of parenting and I suddenly realized every one of us there had at least two college degrees. The woman talking about launching her kid out of the car seat in a supermarket was a director level industrial designer, the woman who couldn't stop nervously talking was an attorney. The young woman who worried about her baby's loud farts was an architect, and so on.

Today there were references to post doc work and medical residencies peppering the discussions of sleep and neck strength. I don't know if it's the area I live in or if there is a particular demographic to who attends such things. Anyway, I will keep trying to get out and meet people. If only they would serve caffeinated coffee!

The most interesting baby name I heard today was Zabelle, which was her great grandmother's name. Her dad calls her Zed. Last week I met a baby named Ripley, which I also liked -- and she'll be too young to have Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not or Aliens (the movie) jokes.

Speaking of too young, today was my late mother's birthday. I don't really feel like she *is* her ashes particularly, but they do symbolize her to me on some level and somehow it seems wrong of me to have not figured out what to do with them yet. It's been a few years now, and I feel bad about it when I think of it. I am struck occasionally by incredibly powerful sad moments when I wish she could meet Lyra and wish that Lyra got to meet all of her grandparents. Sometimes I wish I was younger with Lyra. After all, I knew my great grandmother on my mom's side until I was 13.

A friend visiting from Colorado stopped by today and Lyra smiled and gurgled at him even though she'd then used up her 7 hours of sleep by being awake for 7 hours. Because she is, of course, the Best Baby Ever.

This week's milestones are Lyra appreciating sleeping at night, the swing she previously hated, and all the funny sounds her mouth can make. She'll also be attending her second wedding in two months tomorrow. Oh, and her parents have begun cooking more again, which feels great. We made steak frites for the 4th after a weather-shortened picnic by the ocean, lots of great salads (it's farm share time again!) and last night we had a successful experiment with salmon fillets encrusted with crushed wasabi beans.

The wind has passed and I'm suddenly exhausted. Maybe I'll try that reading thing I seem to remember doing once upon a time. What are those things called? Books?

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Jen Haan

Kind, wonderful, smart, amazingly generous Jennifer Haan died today at 6:30pm at age 39. I will never forget her.


"These are people who died, Died..."

This is some of the most fatigue I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had insomnia before, but no one was flailing inside me and my back was not contorted in pain and I did not have to pee every couple of hours. There are always dangers with this degree of sleep deprivation but I can stay out of my car and not write any pointed emails or play with tools or any of that stuff. Mostly I have two overwhelming things that haunt me as a result. One is the obvious: My God, how will I survive the lack of sleep after she’s born? The other is death.

A fear of death is somehow inevitable with a birth, I think. There’s the physical thing I have to go through, the constant monitoring of whether the kid is okay and going to make it, and the fear of responsibility for another life. This seems normal. But I have all this extra baggage. Especially being due in early May. Spring has become a time of renewal, but renewal that requires summers of therapy.

There’s the super clear issue: I miss my mother. She’s standing there on Mother’s Day with open arms for the baby when I look at the calendar, counting days until my due date. On really bad days her fingers are blue like when I found her dead. Realistically, the problems she was having toward the end of her life would have prevented her from a lot of helpful mothering, but how she would have loved this. And how I would have loved to share it with her. And she missed the great respect a kid can only have for their mother after going through what she did for me to be alive.

The day before Mother’s Day my friend Sakura stands lovingly waiting on her birthday. She was killed in an arbitrary car accident on her way to buy supplies for her new apartment a couple of years ago. She too, would have been so tickled. I imagine her smoking a cigarette and strumming her guitar in my garden, and in the kitchen, making dumplings the way her mother taught her and the way she taught me, talking about photography and teaching and letting glenn practice his Japanese. She gave us so much advice before our trip to Japan, and she was gone when we sent her our photos.

And May 5th, the date I imagined I’d be reclaiming from death with this birth is the day I watched my friend Jim leave his body last year. This one has perhaps been the hardest. I know when he stopped eating and that this last, incredibly physically difficult month of my pregnancy is corresponding with his physical decline last year. It’s hard not to feel like me or the baby will die at the end. And oh how I wish she got to know him. I’m so glad I told him I thought I was going to do this and that dealing with his death had given me the courage – it was one of his last, mostly unresponsive days and with his eyes still closed he suddenly had the hugest of grins, the last of them I ever saw.

I thought I had this under control, and was looking forward to the renewal of birth on his death date… until the cancer my dear friend Jen started battling in August as a lump on her leg just went crazy and spread everywhere. She just stopped eating the same weekend as Jim did last year (right around when my new friend Greg jumped off a bridge a couple of years ago). Jen’s asleep most of the time now. I wanted to introduce her to the baby, like a sign of hope for her. We were planning to have coffee just over a month ago.

Now I am always awake, waiting for her relief, and for my baby. And each day I know with increasing force the horrible sadness of her husband and four children, and I am again missing my mom. And I will likely miss Jen’s memorial, as it’s predicted to be around when the baby is due. I just missed glenn’s aunt’s memorial, too.

I try so hard to focus on the positive. I imagine playing with my kid and being a kid myself and lolling in total silliness. I write down fun activities to do with her in a festive bright book my mother-in-law made me. I like imagining dressing her, smelling her, sleeping on the couch with her. I wake for the 80th time out of depression or pain or kicking or baby hiccups or needing to pee and I smile at my cats, all snuggled together at my feet. I got a note from a friend who is very much alive and positive and wants to come help sometime after she’s born, and he was born the day before her due date. I want desperately some way to rid myself of the sad parts of my reality so it does not affect my child, and days like today I’m pretty sure I can’t. I can’t even lose it by sleeping. But I’ll keep trying.

It seems the way I will deal with those first difficult weeks is because I would trade nearly anything right now – any sleep, activities, normal eating – to just have a live, healthy, wonderful baby life to focus on. I will just keep trying to shed some of this emotional weight by focusing on the positive, and the circle of life, and all the gifts all of these people have given me, and all that you are now. This screwed up period of my life will Not take her from me. Thank you my cool real life and virtual friends. One of you is singing “Interjections” from Schoolhouse Rock on Instant Message to me right now and already I am laughing and looking forward. The sun has just come out, as cheesy as that is, and I can see the green sprouts in the back yard of the bulbs I planted to bloom when the baby is due.

Sorry for the overtired spew. Blogging is probably another danger of extreme fatigue....

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Thought for Today

Here is something I think, but do not answer, when people ask me about being pregnant: Pregnancy feels like grief.

I know, you're thinking... Shut up you depressive, and be happy about this, willya? And that's why I don't mention it normally. But really, this is the closest thing I can tell you of what this feels like emotionally. It's a similar thing to grief or loss -- it's big, it's out of my control, there is a wide spectrum of emotions I may roller coaster through on any given day from deep sadness to anger to total elation, and all I can do is wait. All there is to do is act like my regular life is going along normally while at the same time I am waiting and sitting through this storm of stuff that will only change with TIME.

Sometimes I say it feels like I'm on a very long bus trip. But I rarely say the grief part. But do you see what I mean? I am carrying birth like I have carried death. Only this time it feels like there is a basketball in my stomach rather than my throat. . . .

My mother-in-law gave me some excellent advice: Think of it like you're multitasking, she said. That's much more positive.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

30 Year Secret Revealed

Recently a friend of mine was able to tell me exactly when he learned about death as a child. I had no idea when I learned about it. I recalled a time when I was very small and I couldn't sleep because I was crying with the heavy burden of guilt. I had opened up a robin's egg because I had to know what was inside. I felt so terrible about this. That was the earliest related thing I could think up.

However, a revelation came to me the other day. I was flipping channels and the movie version of Watership Down was on TV. I saw this movie in the seventies when I was a wee lassie. There is a massive death to a rabbit warren and (this movie is a cartoon) there was an image of dead rabbits floating down lots of tunnels.

It was completely startling to me because one of the two recurrent dreams I had as a gradeschooler was of friends of mine and I all slithering down these sewer-like tunnels that somehow I associated with the river behind our house... and I knew it was bad and meant death. It was a simple but scary nightmare. (The other recurrent dream involved a parade, Humpty Dumpty, and a fabric warehouse...that one might need more therapy to decipher...) The movie Watership Down probably came out around the time my first relative -- my grandfather -- died, too.

After I made this connection while watching the movie I thought about how nicely that movie deals with death as hand in hand with life, both in it's sudden extremes and the inevitability of joining that black rabbit in the sky. Kids today are allowed to see all kinds of gory violence but not generally to have to deal thoughtfully with the concept of death. It seems healthy and yet I had recurrent nightmares from it. Hmm.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Castle in the Sky

Dear Jim,

Another hike without you, yet your voice remains strong in my head. It's all the exuberance you taught me, how you would marvel at the world around you, and share it, and take time to let it move you and consider it. I've never known another soul like you.

Ted and I had slightly different ideas of where to leave your ashes according to your wishes, but we picked a nice spot. It's like a private turret in a mountain castle, overlooking the ridge where you dodged death in a lightening storm once. I think you'll really like the view, and especially the storms.

We built a cairn with rocks from the area, a few brought up especially for it, including one from your garden that Susan chose. From the other side of the "turret" we could see the pond where she and two other friends had a manageable flat hike.

Nine of us that made it up to the heights with you on Ted's back in your old red backpack. I bet you never imagined that kind of turn out when you told us we could bring anyone who wanted to come. It was a very hot and humid day.

We kept in contact with those below by walkie talkie and then turned it off as we readied your resting spot. Then together we faced the pond and whooped down to them, and magically. . . they whooped back. We could hear each other across a couple of miles. A small hawk circled in the wind.

Ted and I released your ashes over the edge and on the cairn. I hope to visit with you there in the coming years and tell you about my life and ask you some questions. I sure wish I could share it with you for real, but you gave me so much in the 15 years we did share, and I am so grateful.

I cruised down the mountain by myself, and I had a thousand selfish sad thoughts, all related to how much I missed you. I waited awhile at a cross path until a couple more comrades were down and we took a detour and sat in the pond before meeting up with the rest of the crew as they all gathered. We went to dinner together and toasted you. And by doing that we celebrated knowing each other.

Thank you, I love you, and maybe I'll see you down the trail.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Blog Grenade

I do not belong to a religion. Please get over it. Please stop explaining to me why kids need to go to church to learn morals or have answers in the world and then complimenting me for having a great capacity for independent thought.

I far prefer people who ask questions than follow prescribed answers. It's one thing to want your kid to get cultural history or community or even to force a conveniently matching viewpoint to your own on them. But I've heard this bit about morals coming only from church too often lately. Even from friends who are thinking of having kids who don't attend church themselves.

Where does this come from? Are you hoping your kid will stop asking you pesky hard questions and instead say their questions in their heads with their eyes closed? Do you want them to not to begin sentences with WHY? Good luck.

By the way, my first trip to the principal's office was in first grade when I encountered a girl talking about "God," a completely foreign concept that sounded nuttier to me than believing Santa had the same handwriting as my mom. I asked her why this, and why that, and tried to understand until she burst into tears.

Do you think your kids are listening intently to sermons to learn how to act in the world? Newsflash: They are learning from your actions. Sending them to church for a couple of hours a week isn't teaching them to navigate their world. You are. Don't use religion as an excuse for your own personal failings. There are lots of options. Like being okay with not having all the answers so that your kids are, too. Or …like birth control.

Living is hard. Living with other people is hard. Our stifling society teaches us that if we just don't address important, extremely normal parts of life and buy all the right products then everyone can pretend they're happy. Why do Christians often seem to need to ask me "but what will you tell your child about death?" Are those of us without a religion supposed to keep our thoughts on this subject a secret? No one told me.

There are many reasons people turn to prescribed religions. I think there are a lot of reasons you might want your kids to share this with you. But if you presume it's the only place to learn morals, then you are assuming I am immoral. So you probably shouldn't provoke me then, right? Especially since you won't know what to expect from someone whose allegiance has not been pledged to anything you can Google. . . .


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Belated Mother's Day

On Mother's Day, my mother gives me flowers.

The majority of my garden is plants that I haphazardly dug up from my late mother's garden in a last-minute, hot, buggy frenzy the afternoon before closing on the sale of her house. The garden is where I felt connected to her after she was gone.

She died unexpectedly and most of the plants were a mystery to me until they bloomed last year. She was proud of her prolific yellow lady slipper that is blooming by my sliding glass door. She would have called me up and told me how many slippers were on it, and then complained for at least 20 minutes about the woodchucks and moles and squirrels. "There's a whole army of them, Beth. Laugh all you want."

While I am so glad I took some of the plants with me, and I love seeing them come up, it does make me miss my mom. And dealing with the recent loss of my friend Jim and missing my mom, and thinking about whether to have a kid and all this triggered a very emotional experience last night which has inspired me to share this picture of her.

I was lying on the couch and I thought I heard someone say, "Look who's here!" and my mom walked into the living room. Mom! I yelled. Mom? She walked past me smiling at something. She had gained some weight, but looked soft in a grandmotherly way, and was wearing a white fuzzy sweater and had her hair in a nice looking tight perm close to her head. She didn't stop. She bent over and was looking at something. Mom?! Mom!? I screamed. I grabbed her in my arms but she kind of disintegrated and then I started to come back to consciousness and then her head felt like maybe it was really a cat head in my hand and then I was just in my bed and there wasn't even a cat in my arms. I think I woke myself up yelling.

This really rattled me. Often when I dream I kind of know I'm dreaming. I even rewrite endings to dreams sometimes. I didn't have any of that sort of awareness when she walked in. I really thought I was on my couch and so that little piece of my brain that thinks maybe she's just on vacation and might show up anytime (I still have that even though I found her dead in her house) worked on me I guess. I only envisioned her one other time and it was not long after her death when I had more nightmares. In that one she came to the spot I had chosen to get married in (she was waiting for me to pick a place and date when she died) and looked around with me, looking out over the lake and nodding quietly. I could smell her and see even the tiny hairs on her cheek that time. This one last night was less vivid but really freaked me out nonetheless.

I don't have a lot of pictures of my mom from my childhood anymore, as most of them were destroyed during my parents divorce. However, I found this one at her house and it is from us being happy together and I keep it by my bed, since I sometimes forget those times. Judging by the fact that I'm wearing my brother's handed down Bicentennial type t-shirt and my missing tooth, my mom is around my current age in this photo. Later she would gain a lot of weight and battle a lot of psychological and physical demons.

I felt so solid with my emotional relationship with my friend Jim; I had long since said in a million ways all the things I wanted to say to him. We had years to talk about everything, knowing he was on a fast route out. I had a well-appointed shelf all decked out and prepared in my emotional being somewhere where he fits. Moms are so complicated to begin with, and with my mom's death being so sudden and traumatic, I guess I'm going to run into her in the empty spaces until hopefully I find the place for her to settle into too.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Jim Moran

My dear friend and hiking partner, Jim Moran, died last Thursday night. His wife Susan and I were with him. It was a difficult death from lung cancer, and it was unbearable seeing him in so much pain. Though he had not been able to open his eyes all day, at the very last minute before he left, he opened his eyes wide, looked at Susan and repeated three sounds that were undoubtedly "I love you. I love you. I love you."

His memorial was held on Saturday. He designed it, music, speakers and all. A friend read "Do Not Go Gently," three other friends reflected on their friendship and whatever topic Jim assigned them. His brother spoke. We listened to, and in some cases sang along to, songs. A letter was read to Susan that Jim wrote for the occasion. After all of that, I had to find a voice and speak. It was really hard. Jim asked me to speak on our friendship and on sobriety. At his death he was 18 years clean and sober, and this included cigarettes. Here's what I read:

I taught writing in the early nineties, and had one student who added a real charge to the class. By opening up, he created an atmosphere of trust in the room.

He wrote an essay about storm watching on Black Rock Beach near his old apartment in Cohasset. It had the kind of carefully chosen details we were working toward, the kind that require a real presence and awareness. And he included some confessional musing about being sober that clearly took courage. I wrote in the margin of his essay that I'd shared some similarly "sobering" experiences.

We didn't care that I was the teacher, that he was 26 years older than me, that we were male and female. We just found each other, worked on creative projects, stayed sober, and started climbing mountains.

In other words, we routinely exposed our souls, stayed alive together, and were humbled by forces bigger than ourselves. It was a very powerful recipe for friendship and for life. Some of the purest moments of joy in my life have just hit me out of the blue while walking along a trail with Jim.

Jim and I helped keep each other on the path for the next 15 years. We showed up and tried to be present for spiritual, physical, and psychological hurdles, constantly arming ourselves with new tools for expression. And we supported each other unconditionally in these endeavors. New forms, new media, new people, new programs, new languages.

This support was possibly my first real understanding of the idea of unconditional love. It's astounding how many people he gave this to.

He also taught me not to bottle up positive feelings. He would be talking about how glowy the light in here is or "look at that stained glass with the little dots in it!" and then probably take up stained glass. He never seemed to take anything for granted. Jim could add celebration to your world the minute you walked in a room "Beth-a-ny!" he'd exclaim, grinning like a fool. He said I was his tracker, keeping him on trail. If I was his tracker, he was my compass.

We spent weekends, sober anniversaries, and holidays together. And one year while five miles up Mt. Carrigan in a hailstorm, we found some shelter, he had me turn away, and he surprised me with tall, strawberry shortcake with whipped cream for my birthday.

We contemplated a great number of things in cars, over coffee, and on the trail. We discussed:
Whether art might be the difference between being dissatisfied and doing something about it.
Or, if you change yourself, and you give yourself to the community as a whole through your service, whether you may indeed be changing the world.
Whether it's possible you need to have lost someone you care about to learn real compassion.
And most importantly, just what would happen if a priest, a duck, and a mouse walked into a bar . . .

Jim had attained a certain degree of self-awareness that allowed him to tap into his core and while sometimes he struggled with what he found in this well, there were also these big bubbles of mirth that rose up. We giggled together with abandon, child-like awe, and total goofiness. And I think the risk taking involved in being sober, the facing and talking about difficult things and walking through them to the other side is what allowed us this gift of humor and fun.

One time when I arrived home alone after camping in Alaska for two weeks, I played my answering machine messages and heard, "Hi Mr. and Mrs. Ericson, this is Jim Moran, a friend of Bethany's. I am so sorry Beth was eaten by that bear. I just wanted you to know that before she left she told me that if anything were to happen to her that I should have all of her camping equipment."

His humor gave him an incredible attitude during physical hardships. I remember when I took him to the pharmacy after he hurt his shoulder and he'd drawn a smiley face on the tennis ball his hand held while his arm was splinted. The tennis ball had a very funny discussion with the pharmacist about Jim's needs.

And he could even laugh in the face of cancer. I was with him on one of his earliest of many scary meetings about his prognosis. The doctor was flustered. "Hello James. I see you've brought your. . .your. . . a um, well I see you've brought a young lady with you." The doctor then explained how a person can get lung cancer 18 years after quitting, and stopped after each point and looked at me and explained the equivalent in breast cancer. We burst out laughing when he left the room.

After waiting too long in the VA clinic one day we had a loud mock fight pretending he gave me his cancer cooties. I told people he got his cancer on We arrived nervously for one of his P.E.T. scans under a sign that read Boston PET Center, and laughed our way in the door. When he told me last month that he wanted Ted and I to bring some of his ashes to Mt. Osceola, I complained that he was just trying to get us to finally carry him Up a mountain.

Jim was my role model, and he fought for life every last inch of the way. He and Susan's love for each other and the work they did to make sure each other knew it has been incredible to witness. Jim once told me about the idea that hope manifests in us as long as we have a voice in what happens to us. The fact that I am speaking in a memorial he designed, says his hope was so strong it outlived him. When he asked me to speak he told me sternly "you have five minutes." We stared silently at each other. Then we burst out laughing.

When Jim was given four months to live in July, he said he'd just live his life in four-month increments until he was in his eighties. It wasn't until a month ago that he and I had a discussion about his impending death rather than impending life. He felt that what would happen after death was that he would live on as energy in other people, slowly fading out over time.

I am forever grateful Jim walked next to me for a while. And his energy connects this whole room full of people, and many, many more. This connection is possibly one of his greatest achievements. Don't leave him here. Bring him along with you: Live every day fiercely present, with grace, honesty, and humor.

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