A Way Through

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Today I’m choosing to motivate myself. I’m choosing NOT to be miserable. Today I’m choosing CONNECTION. I sit here, on my front porch sipping my coffee, and appreciating the quiet. “I miss you dad”, I say out loud through my tears. I don’t know what it is about mornings…  I still cry almost every day, usually in the early hours. While life has certainly not stood still, it’s as though a veil still hangs between me, and the rest of the world.  I am stronger. Steadier. I can miss him without coming undone. Most of the time anyways.  But mornings, ripe with new possibilities, and a chance to start over, only remind me, that wherever I’m heading, he’s not there.  Despite this, I have certainly felt his grace, and presence. In some ways bigger, and more absolute than before.  Things that once derailed me, seem not to have the same sting.  I feel him pushing me along, “Connect Shannon.  Don’t back away from your life; your dreams.”  We always have a choice. As hard, and as painful as it is to accept this, it is the truth.  Yet fear, and sadness, that ruled my life for so long, scramble to take up new residence in other rooms.  This energy, needing somewhere to go, only loses its velocity when we are brave enough to release it. It takes courage to move on, tacking up the NO VACANCY sign, kicking fear finally to the curb.  When I’m afraid, I cocoon myself. Self-doubt, and indecision weighing me down.  A sort of self-imposed sequestering, I turn away from possibility, and hope. Like a bear going into hibernation, I insulate myself with food, and distraction, and busy myself setting up camp in my little cave.  I stop moving my body. I take myself off the list of things that need attention. I side step time for reflection.  Fear is a way through, and sometimes all I want is a way out. I’m not readying myself to engage with my fear. I am not working through it. I am sitting idly, waiting, worrying and ruminating. Stuck. When fear is in charge, it’s like the bully you avoid eye contact with. You act like it doesn’t bother you. You fake a comfort with its presence, hoping desperately that it won’t notice you.  The problem with this strategy is that when invisibility is achieved, all we’re left with is isolation.  We feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, undervalued, and unimportant. Too many “uns”!  It’s taken most of my life to see, that these UNdermining feelings are the result of a CHOICE I made. That I am the one that needs to SEE and HEAR ME!  Recognition, and external validation are but temporary elixirs. True self-recognition is not dependent on anything, or anyone outside of myself. It is dependent on how I feel about me. This relationship- the one with myself, is where I need to start when I feel myself pulling away.  The biggest threat to fear is connection.

While I have said that the how of feeling better, is vastly less complicated than the why of feeling bad, it takes intention and practice to stay on the path, like a muscle that needs exercising.  When fear is fed, instead of met, we get lost. We stop practicing, and start hiding. My hope is that with time, the choice to live better, while always deliberate, somehow stops feeling like such a chore.   I’m on the road again, thanks in part to my dad, my family and friends, and to my two amazing girls, whose existence reminds me everyday that life is good.  I have only to look through their lens for a moment, to be brought back to the joy that lives on in my sadness, and the fire within that still roars in the rain.

Today I choose to motivate myself. Today I choose connection.

*I want to take a moment to thank the nearly 2000 readers of my last article, “New Normal”, who wrote to me, and bravely shared their stories of loss and love.  When I started this blog nearly a year ago, I had no idea the impact it might have.  Thank you for following, and for sharing a piece of yourself with me. Stay connected.

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New Normal

I haven’t written since the end of May. I couldn’t. While writing is my therapy, or a sort of working through. It is also a process that requires readiness, and willingness. I put my heart and soul on the page, and while I often write of struggle, or challenge, I ultimately find the blessings that come with being broken open, or the growth connected with change. I write to pick myself up. It feels good to write. It allows me to see the light around the cloud, and to sort things out. The only time this isn’t true, is when I’m unable, or unprepared to let go of my sadness. I’ve written, or tried to write when I’m in that headspace, and it’s painful. My despair magnified tortuously with each click of the keyboard. It takes longer to get to the part that feels restorative, to the part of the process that heals me. Seeing the silver lining is what makes the hard stuff less hard. It is the reason I do this. To try to let the light in… But sometimes the blessings are harder to see. Sometimes we need to sit in the dark, until we just can’t help but let the light in.

I am grief stricken. Struck with grief. I go to bed with my grief, and wake up to it. There are moments of pause in between, where I can set it down like a hiker’s pack, standing upright on its own, like a separate entity, heavy and ominous. There is still joy, and love, and gratitude in those moments of pause. Sometimes I find myself at the end of a day realizing I haven’t cried. But when the grief comes, it swallows me. I’ve not been able to write because I knew what writing would mean. A working through that requires perspective. Writing is a way into grief. Not a way out. Despite my resistance, here I am. Pouring out the contents of my broken heart, letting it be messy, and painful, and hoping that in doing so, I might somehow ease my suffering.

On June 1st 2015, we heard the news we’d dreaded hearing for nearly 2 and a half years. No more chemo. I sat there, holding my father’s hand, and squeezing my mother’s knee. 3-6 weeks the doctor told my mother and I privately, as we pressed her with questions when my father stepped away for a moment. A week later he’d be admitted to palliative care, and on July 8th, he would take his last breath. There is no holding back the tears as I type those words. His last breath… The man who’d breathed life and love into me was gone.

In the month he had in palliative care, he was fortunate to have a few good weeks. His pain finally managed, and his head clear, he was more social, and talkative than he’d been in the 6 months prior. “Write Shannon”, he would say. He’d tell every doctor, nurse and volunteer about my blog, rhyming off titles, and themes and insisting that I print copies that people could read when they visited. I knew what my writing meant to him. He read everything I wrote. And re-read it. He knew that writing would sooth me when he no longer could. A lifeline when the grief that was ahead engulfed me… He’d even encouraged me to interview him in the last weeks of his life.   A cherished conversation- a joining of our two hearts. Those precious bits of audio that will be listened to for years to come. His words tattooed in my brain. “The Last Interview” I intended to call it. An article for another day. But not now. Not yet.

Grief is a process, a path. We spiral through its stages, and then spiral through them again and again. A road we’d started out on the day he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. It’s a very strange thing to know that someone you love is dying. To watch them slowly die. To contend with people’s natural response, that we should have hope, and stay positive. We knew, since diagnosis, that a cure was not a possibility. We knew management of the disease was our goal. We’d spend over 2 years being afraid most of the time. Could he be treated at all?   How would he respond? How much could he endure? How would his quality of life be affected? Would he catch some infection that would take him before the cancer did? Would this hospitalization be the last? What will the next set of scans show? How much more time do we really have?  All of this interrupted, and punctuated by periods of quasi-reprieve that we’d soon term the “new normal”. We’d get used to using the word cancer and talking about chemo and disease. We’d grow to expect interruptions in his treatment due to low neutrophils. We’d anticipate the stress of waiting for the results of tests, making it ever so slightly easier. We’d get used to my father slowly deteriorating, knowing that with every dip, there would be a leveling off. We’d become accustomed to his failing health, and lessening energy. We’d learn to appreciate a good day for what it was. We’d be thankful if he could sit through dinner with us, or if we could visit for a while on a day where everyone was healthy, and there was no risk of getting grampa sick by our visiting. But whenever there was a change, fear would creep back in, and we’d grieve anew. We’d anticipate the other shoe dropping. Cancer cuts you off at the knees, and reminds you that control is elusive. We learned that the sooner you get used to whatever new normal you’re in, the easier riding the roller coaster will be. We had no choice but to adjust, and we did, again and again.

When treatment stopped, and we knew he was entering what would be the last stage of his life, the fear changed and morphed into something that didn’t feel like fear anymore. The fog that descended was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. A surrendering. A letting go.   We scrambled to get our bearings. Things like eating and bathing, or even getting from point A to point B suddenly became hyper deliberate because the inertia of life had halted. It was as though all of our priorities shifted. What mattered, mattered a lot, and what didn’t, just didn’t. There was no decision about this reprioritizing. It was automatic. There was an urgency to everything. Spoken and unspoken prayers reverberated through our family like a radio frequency only we could hear. Time. More time. No suffering if possible. And the hope that he’d make peace with whatever he needed to make peace with, so that he could go when he was ready. When he was ready. I prayed and prayed that he wouldn’t linger for us. That he would get whatever he needed to from us, from his time on this earth, and that he would work through his fear of letting go in the most complete sense.

“I am both the happiest, and saddest I’ve ever been, at the same time… Do you know what I mean?” he’d ask me just days before he died. A tear rolled down my cheek, a gentle smile on my face, I nodded. I did understand. There was such light, and love in his dying process. Family that travelled from near and far, friends old and new that visited, he was bathed in love. Cloaked in it. In turn, he exuded it from every pore of his body. He told me, and others, that he wanted those who visited him to leave feeling better than when they’d arrived. His wish was granted.   We laughed, and reminisced, and made new memories to go along with all those that came before. We left nothing unsaid. And we cried… It’s hard work to close a life. Really hard. I saw my father weep, and fold into his release. I heard him bellow, felt his mourning. In those last four weeks, I’d see him cry more than I had in my 40 years. More than he had in all of his 73. We teased that he had some catching up to do, being the patriarch of such an emotional family. He appreciated the space we made for these feelings. In the last years of his life, and even more so in the last weeks, he’d become such an expressive, and tender man. I can see now that this was the person he always was, just that he hadn’t allowed himself to show these tender parts. He hadn’t learned how. In the end, all inhibition, any wall that was once there, melted away. A process that had started over a decade before, now expedited. There would be no more holding back. There couldn’t be. While he’d come to terms with dying, he too prayed for just a little more time. “Fifteen more minutes Shan”, he’d say. “I asked God for just fifteen more minutes”. He spoke of his deep sadness to leave us. To say goodbye to the love of his life, my mom. To his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. I’d reassure him that he’d still see my babies grow. He’d just have a different seat in the arena. He worried about how we would carry on. I’d hold his hand, and kiss his forehead, and do my best to comfort him, telling him, “We are cut from the same cloth dad. We will all be ok. How could we not be? We came from you”.

He showed such grace, and humility, while demonstrating such strength and tenacity. Both in the fight for his life, and in the closing of it. My dad did everything 100%. His positive outlook, and sunny disposition were contagious. He never complained. We had no choice but join him. To be authentic, supporting each other in our sadness, while keeping sight of all that we had to be thankful for. He would repeat how lucky he was daily. He loved his family. He felt our love. This familial love deepened and expanded as our hearts grew heavier and fuller. It became a life force of its own. This force later enveloped us, protecting us to some extent, in those first few days after he passed.

I am thankful for the 15 more minutes we had together, and the incredible gift of a long goodbye. For now dad, I am not ready to set down my grief. I don’t really think I ever will be. My hope is that I may grow stronger with each passing day, and that I can finally set down something else. Something heavier. The thing that tarnishes all good things- my fear. I don’t need it anymore. Maybe I never did… What I feared most happened. Fear never protected me; it only infected the happiness that was there all a long. Even in the dark, there was always light. As I struggle to adjust to yet another new normal, I will remember the man I watched you become. As proud of you, as you were of me. I will hold dear the bond between us, knowing that it will never be broken no matter how far apart we are.

I haven’t written since the end of May… But today, when I visited my father’s grave, and sat in the wet grass sobbing, waiting to feel and hear him. To know he was still there, listening and loving. I took a deep breath, and said, “I know dad… I know what you want me to do. I know what I need to do”.  “Write Shannon”, his words echoing in my ears. Even if it hurts. Even it feels worse.  Like a defiant child that didn’t want a way into her grief, but rather a way out of it. I shook my head, as though trying to quiet the answer I couldn’t help but hear. I hoisted myself up, and lay my hand on the pedestal holding his urn. “I know dad,” I whispered. “I hear you.”

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An Evening with a Soul

Last night 600 friends and family came together for a cause. The hope:  To raise funds for a high school friend living with ALS, diagnosed in his 30’s, married, with three children. An e-mail invite went out in March to friends old and new.  With no other promotion, or social media buzz, the event was sold out, with a waiting list to boot.  Last night I saw people I had not seen in 20 years. Last night a community came together. The way friends greeted each other, the hugs that lingered as reunion hugs do, you could not help but notice the energy in the room.  There was an electricity in the air, and a soul to the evening.  A party with a purpose.  

Listening to our friend, his wife, and brother who mc’ed the evening, and seeing their family and closest friends, weaving laughter and joy into what might otherwise be a solemn conversation, was evidence of the resilience of the human spirit. Life is made up of it all- the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lows and the highs, and the challenges we face are but part of the road we each travel.  Somehow the harder parts put into laser focus what is most essential.  Magnifying what matters, and sustaining us in those darker moments.  A life turned on its head, hard not to be struck by the family’s positive attitude, and their grace. To be able to talk, and laugh, and engage…  My hope is that for a moment, their burden felt a little less weighty.  That maybe, just maybe, the isolation of a diagnosis and a disease was overthrown by the joining of so many hearts.
Last night was not a sad event. It was a celebration. A celebration of a life so precious, and so important to all of the lives it’s connected to. A celebration of a community that did not need to be sold on showing up for a friend and his loved ones. A reminder to live in the moment.  A lesson worth repeating that happiness is not a destination, but rather found in ordinary moments along the way.  It is not tied to the meeting of personal or professional goals.  It is not found in things, in success, or in status. It is found in connection.  It is found in the people who stand by your side when it counts. It is found in the comfort that only our loved ones can bring. It is seen in our children’s eyes, and our spouses smile. It is felt in our parents’ pride, and in their love. It is experienced in reuniting with friends, and in sharing a laugh.  It was found last night in the coming together of a community, for a party with a purpose, and an evening with a soul.
Thank you to Dean, Paula and P.J, and the rest of the family for reminding us all of what really matters.

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Because of You…

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With my mother as a model, I figured that being a mom would be the greatest thing I ever did. That I would love every single selfless minute of it, and that like her, I would be an endlessly patient, and nurturing parent. I thought it would come naturally. After all my mom made it look so easy. I don’t have any memory of her treating mothering as work. She never seemed too tired for me, always making time to play, or sit and talk. If I needed her, she was there. Furthermore, I cannot remember her ever yelling at me, or losing her patience. While I on the other hand have yelled, and lost my head more, in the 7 years since I became a mom, than I have in my entire life.  Yes it is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also pushed and pulled me in ways I never could have anticipated. It is a giving up of yourself. A letting go of you as an individual. Your needs come second. I mean I’ve since figured out, that in many ways, my needs must remain a priority, and that my joy, and wellbeing are key to the well functioning of our family system. But, looking at my mom back then, I had no idea of the sacrifices she made for my siblings and I, or that she too was tired, and stretched by motherhood.  My mother showed such grace in how she managed things, that any wear she experienced was masked by her positive, and easygoing attitude.  It was always so clear the gratification she got from being our mom.

My mom has reassured me time and again, that she too found it hard. She recounts having left me on the kitchen table in the middle of the night following a feeding, only to remember once snug in her bed that she had left me there. She also assures me that she lost her cool once in a while. She claims that kids have selective memory when it comes to their parents.  I’m really hoping this is true, as I wouldn’t mind my kids re-writing a few less than stellar mommy moments in our family history book.  My favorite story, is one my mother tells of how she once dumped a pot of water on my head because I wouldn’t stop bothering her while she was doing dishes. Thank God! Thank God that my mother, who I saw as the poster child for patience, actually lost it once in a while, and moreover, is like the rest of us, and is capable of being bothered!  Imparting a lesson on the gifts of imperfection, allowing me to embrace my own humanity.  She has taught me, that in parenting you do what keeps you sane.  I was not scarred by her dousing me with water.  I don’t even remember it!  And it probably enabled her to let off a little steam in a harmless way.  She has always encouraged me to be kind to myself first, and reminds me that the cracks in our veneer are where the light comes in.  I love that she has been my champion for every minute of every day I have spent on this earth. I love that while she too knew that being a mom is hard work, that tests every part of you, that she somehow managed to do it all with a smile, convincing me that loving me was never hard.

The single most important thing my mother did for me when I became a mom for the first time was to encourage me to trust my instincts, not getting too caught up in the shoulds, and could haves. She’d come to visit bearing Starbucks, greeting me with a hug, letting me hold on, and let go all at the same time. I was so tired… I felt as though I’d come undone… She’d let me nap, or shower, or leave the house for a few blissful blocks of solitude between feeds. When I would cry, she would soothe me as though soothing an infant. Holding me, she would whisper, “You’re doing a great job Shan. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” She would take every opportunity to remind me of this, and still does to this day, as I move through the different stages of raising children. I needed to hear it as much then, as I still do now from time to time. This has helped foster my self-confidence as a parent, and ultimately my growth as a person.

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Mom… Because of you I know that I am never alone. Because of you I know that no matter what, I will always be ok. Because of you I know that I am deserving of love and care. Thank you for loving me beyond measure. Thank you for being my friend and champion first, and parent second.  Because of you I have faith that with time, and experience, my edges will continue to soften, and that I am already whole just as I am.  You see, because of you, I realize that no matter what I mess up, or can’t seem to figure out, that my daughters will be just fine as long as they know that I am there loving them, every step of the way. Because of you, I know that I am loved…

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The How

I ruminate.  A sort of self-imprisonment, made up of “what ifs”, “I shoulds” and “maybe I should haves”. The problem with such introspection is not really the questions we ask ourselves, but rather where we think the answers can be found. My emotional state, like a pendulum, swings between feeling good, and feeling not so good. I don’t hang out for long in the middle, but rather spend most of my time on either side of neutral. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to maximize the time spent feeling good, and to minimize the intensity and length of time I spend feeling bad. Despite these strides, it’s a two steps forward one step back kind of thing. For me, sometimes the one step back is a pretty big one. Rather, it feels big when I’m not feeling my best. A younger version of myself eclipses the self-assured woman I’ve grown to be. This younger me rarely knows what she wants or how she feels. Her sense of self-worth determined by the opinions and affections of others. Confident, even sassy, 40 year old me, gets so swallowed up by the whys and the whats of my unhappiness, that I forget the how of feeling good.

About a month ago, I was feeling pretty low. It was as though my pendulum had become securely latched to some imaginary wall behind me, cemented in my hopelessness. It felt as though things were not going to change…. Unless of course someone, or something changed it for me. In a funk, instead of reaching out, I turned inwards, stuck in that loop of rumination. I decathected, pulling away from the people and things that matter most.  I’d get it together, and feel ok while I was busying myself with work, or the kids, but the second I stopped, or slowed the pace, my despair would seep back in. My fuse was short, and my words were curt. I began to see concern in my children’s eyes. “Are you happy Mama?” Argh that question… It killed me that my unhappiness had become obvious to the two little people who I most wanted to protect from it, but children see what others don’t. They feel what we do not say. The more we try and hide some part of ourselves, the more energy we end up lending to it, making it impossible for our children not to pick up on. They read energy. Kids understand anger, sadness, and tension in ways that adults don’t. They may not have words for these complicated emotions. But they know the texture, rhythm, and vibration of our pain. They are our mirrors. In their faces, I saw how ugly my impatience was. I saw the dread of my mounting irritability. I knew, that they might blame themselves for my unhappiness (because that’s what kids do), or worse yet, see it as their job to fix me. Despite knowing all of this, I remained stuck, as though paralyzed by the noise in my head, and the ache in my heart.

Until one night, I sat long-faced on the couch, staring blankly at my phone, desperate for their bedtime so that I could be alone with my misery. “Mama, I want to tell you a story. I’ve been waiting for the right time, and I think you need to hear it”, Maya said gingerly as though testing to see whether I was ready to listen. This is how her story went:   “One day I was walking down a road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said to myself, “Its not my fault”. The next day I walked down the same road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said, “Its not my fault”. On the third day, I walked down the road, and there was a hole, and I fell in, and I said, “Its not my fault”. She went on to tell me about days 4-9, same road, and same result. “On the 10th day I walked down the road, there was a hole, but this time, I did NOT fall in. It WAS my fault!” she said emphatically, looking at me as though checking for understanding. Her gaze made me catch my breath. “On the 11th day, I went down a different road. There was no hole.” She stood there in silence, as the words of the last bit of her story hung in the air. “I learned this in my Mindfulness class Mama. It made me think of you”. After weeks of feeling as though I was breathing under water, I took a long deep breath. I waited for her to go on. “You see Mama, we decide. It’s the choices we make.” Marisol, who’d stilled to listen to her sister’s story, watched us both so intently, as though understanding that more was being said between Maya’s words. There was a buzz in the room. An energy that I’d not felt in weeks rippled through me. I was broken open…  The thick, and crusty shell that had encased me turned to dust. It all shifted into laser focus. As long as I thought the answer to my feeling better could be found outside of myself, I would stay locked in my unhappiness. I needed to be accountable for how far back my pendulum had swung, and how long I’d sat in the dark. I needed to acknowledge the darkness, I’d let cast a shadow in my home, and on my children. I knew what I needed to do to start feeling better. I knew. I just needed reminding, that it really was up to me. I’d been waiting for someone or something to fix me. Waiting for all of the holes that lined my road to be filled. Furthermore, I’d focused on the wrong thing. I’d examined and re-examined the problems in my life as though the answers would come from such careful study, despite having learned and re-learned that they rarely do. What I know: My mood improves when my how changes. When I move to action, vs. reaction. When I start doing the things that make me feel better, vs. focusing on the very things that don’t. In my case this means, getting out of my head, and getting back into my life, by doing what brings me joy, like spending time with loved ones, having a little fun, making space for me, and writing this blog. But like most of the big lessons that have helped shape me, I know all of this when I’m feeling good, yet seem to forget when I’m feeling bad. Its like my logical brain gets overridden by my emotional brain in periods of vulnerability. The thing is, the how of feeling good is far less complicated than the what. I complicate it! I lose sight of the fact that all of the issues that need tackling, or decisions that need making, are so much easier to make when you’re feeling better. We all think we’ll feel better when things get sorted out. The truth is we have it backwards.

Before I said a word, I could read the satisfaction on Maya’s face. She knew she’d made her point. She knew her story had unlocked something in me. I mouthed the words, “thank you”, and motioned for her to come in for a hug. Marisol matched her step, and the three of us enveloped one another.   Our long embrace soothed my swollen heart. This moment, these two souls, untangled me. Little mirrors, not responsible for making me happy, but rather are happy, because I am responsible.

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Dear Dad

I have thought about writing this for some time now, but the timing just wasn’t right. There is so much in my heart that I want to share, and that I want you to know. I am so glad you are my dad.  You are everything that I needed you to be.  You are the first man I ever loved, and the first man who ever loved me back. While our relationship was not always perfect, I never doubted the two most important things: That you loved me, and that you were proud of me.  We’d lost each other for a while there, in my adolescence and early adulthood. We’d become strangers. I felt you knew very little about me, and my life. I knew very little about you, and your inner world, or what went through your head. We’d spend years exchanging only a few words each day, and reserving our I love yous for birthdays and special occasions. I’d always felt that somehow you were like a little boy that never quite knew the right thing to say or do when it came to us kids. You seemed uncomfortable with my emotionality, and the sensitive, and temperamental teenage girl I grew to be. I resented the distance between us. I resented how unhappy you seemed. I wondered if it was my fault. I didn’t know how to access you. I didn’t know how to connect.  These growing pains, were not without gifts.  Ultimately the longing we both felt for connection helped forge the strong tie we are now blessed to share. Slowly, things began to change… We talked a bit more; we paid closer attention to each other, and what was going on in our respective lives. I imagine you’d always been there paying attention to what was going on with me, and that perhaps my close relationship with mom clouded your presence. I think, with time, mom saw that she needed to make more room for you. To step back a little, so that you could take your rightful place. The turning point for me was the conversation we had that day in the kitchen. You know the one… It was just you and I.  I stood before you broken.  I’d experienced my first real heartache. I looked up at you, like a little girl, eyes wet with tears. You asked me how I was, and when I tried to answer, but just couldn’t get the words out, you did something I’d only ever seen you do when your mother passed away. You began to cry… You held me, and cried with me.  That moment, in all its grief, is one of my most cherished memories.  I felt so completely loved, and so completely understood by you. Something I’d craved for so long. I wonder now if you have any idea what that meant to me, or if you can appreciate the impact it had on shaping the woman I’d become?  You see dad, because of you, I realized then and there, that no matter what happened to me in my life, that I’d be ok.  A lesson earned through hardship that shifted something deep within me.  Since then there have been many more moments, and I love yous.  Many more memories etched in my heart. You’ve done so much for me.  Little things, and big things, I have only to look around my home to be reminded of the dozens and dozens of projects you’ve had a hand in. You became our go-to guy. Every time I look at the crib that held my two baby girls I think about how you put it together, and took it apart, and put it together again.  Each memory attached to so much feeling.  The first time, it was the anticipation of setting up the crib for the little baby who was still happily living in my belly, knowing that I’d soon become a mom.  When we finally did move Maya out of her crib, and you came over to take the bed apart, I remember the warmth and compassion you showed when I couldn’t fight the tears as the reality set in that my baby girl was growing up. Perhaps this moment sweetened for you, as you watched yours do the same. When you put it back together four years later, as we awaited Marisol’s arrival, you were there again tolling away. We’d prayed so hard for her.  It was as though, after so much longing, she was not only sent to us, but also to you. Two kindred spirits, witnessing your special bond has mended every hurt I ever felt as a result of our period of disconnection in my teen years. You are a part of her. Watching you love my daughters is like watching firsthand how you loved me as a little girl.  Unfortunately when it came time to take the crib apart again just a few months ago, as Marisol moved into her big girl bed, you were not able to help as you had before. It made me sad to do it alone; that the cancer had robbed you of one of your greatest pleasures- helping your kids with stuff they needed done. I know you embraced this role, wearing it like a badge of honor. I am so grateful that you’ve seen Maya and Marisol grow, and me too, into a mother and a woman.  While you may not be able to put together cribs anymore, you can still make new memories with your grand-babies. Every visit with them, another precious page in our story. Keep fighting the good fight dad. May I be blessed to inherit even an ounce of your fortitude. Know that I am forever in your corner, as you have been in mine.  I pray that more good days lay ahead, so that you might sit happily in all the love you have helped foster. Thank you for being everything that I needed you to be… Your little girl, Shannon.

 

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Porcelain

“Suddenly our kids are made of porcelain?”, he mutters under his breath. Sounded like a question, felt like a statement. It’s ME that’s made of porcelain, I wanted to fire back! I felt the anxiety rush through me, like electricity surging through my veins. My husband’s comment was not directed at me, yet it felt very personal. Old issues rushed to the surface. Not just because we were talking about our kids, and because I do this thing (maybe all mothers do), where he says something about one of the kids, and I get defensive. Like I am doing something wrong. More than once, since we became parents 7 years ago, he has said to me, “I’m not blaming you. Why do you take it so personally?” Oh where do I begin? I lack ambivalence.  I am void of it. I care too much. I feel too deeply. My membrane is too permeable. I take things personally.

My childhood: I was well loved, but learned that I was most lovable when I was quiet, not bold, or silly. I learned to keep my voice down. I lived in a relatively quiet house (most of the time). I was overly attuned to my mother’s sadness, and my father’s pain, while they both tried very hard to mask this. I knew when there was tension. I knew when there was struggle.  I wanted to please, and ease, and so I learned to push down the energy bubbling within me. I also learned to take on their worries, and struggles as though they were my own. No one asked me to do this. They would never have wanted me to feel for them. In hindsight, maybe if they’d been a bit better at feeling for themselves, instead of hiding, I would not have taken on the task. Who knows? What I do know, is that the attunement to others was adaptive- a function of living in a somewhat chaotic environment that was outwardly very quiet. Kind of like me…

And so my kids are sensitive (each in their own way). Maybe I’ve taught it to them. Maybe I’ve passed it down in their genetic make-up.  Likely both. This piece of me, which I share with them, I have spent my life trying to disown. Why?  Because I stood out. My inner world always seemed vastly more complicated than that of my peers. Over thinking, and over feeling… Not easy when you’re a kid. Hell not easy, when you’re an adult.  The one wish I had when I was pregnant (aside from healthy baby), was please don’t let him or her be sensitive like me. It breaks my heart now to type these words. It brings me to tears… To have felt this way about myself, now seeing this shining quality in my girls’ hearts and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that this bit of them may well be their greatest strength. So hard to believe that as recently as 7 years ago, I still saw this part of me as a character flaw. Now I find myself, believe it or not, almost protective of this part of my girls. Of course I don’t want them to struggle as I did. But the struggle was never really with “being sensitive”. It was with thinking that there was something wrong with me because I was. I don’t ever want them to feel less than for feeling deeply. My hope is that they will learn early to see the gift of vulnerability- the only door to connection, and that they will understand that strength and openness are not mutually exclusive.

Porcelain…  This seemingly benign word stung as it reached my ears because of all that it implied. It triggered old issues. We don’t want them to be sensitive. Sensitive is bad. It’s taken me nearly 40 years to realize that sensitive does not mean weak. While soft-hearted, I am also a fierce, confident, “watch-out world, here I come me”. The work has been balancing all of this, with my tender heart, and stepping into who I am with all of its contradictions, unapologetically.

May my children see their tenderness as a gift, and not as something that holds them back. What holds us back is seeing only the challenges, instead of the gifts, even our challenges bring. I would not be who I am today, love the way that I love, or do what I do, if it weren’t for seeing the “good” in being sensitive. Porcelain… Maybe, but underneath that veneer, lies the heart of a lion.

 “When you are who you should be, then you will set the world on fire.” 

-St. Catherine of Siena

A special word here to my mom and dad, whose tender hearts helped shape my own, and to my grandmother, Granny Mary, aka Grandma Dynamite. Thank you for reminding me that you see that lion, and encouraging me to embrace all of the bits we inherit, for they make up who we are.

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