The Toil of Our Love

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Drop-offs. Pick-ups. The floss police. Never-ending appointments: physical therapy, haircuts, eye exam, dentist, pediatrician. School events. Make sure kids are picked up on time. Swim classes. Provide well-balanced meals. Check homework. Work on subtraction. Sign paperwork. Practice reading with Ellie while making sure Peter doesn’t burn down the house and Ethan does his Japanese homework and dinner doesn’t boil over on the stove and the dog gets fed. Bath time. Bedtime tantrums. One more cup of water. Cleaning up spills. Bathroom reminders. Weekend excursions. Play. Time for new shoes. Need to buy groceries. Laundry. Always laundry. Go, go, go.

The constant toiling of parenthood, exacerbated by only parenting. In between the blood, sweat, and tears there is happiness and a sense of purpose that makes it all worthwhile, but sometimes it’s difficult to ascertain in the thick of the toiling.

Marriage had its own share of tediousness. Listening to another human being. Understanding. Not understanding. Forgiving. Picking up socks. Making dinner. Companionship. Bickering. Never running out of things to talk about. Housekeeper. Scheduler. Idea-generator. Master of expectations and wallower in simmering resentment. Dreamer. Negotiator. Compromiser. Tugger and puller. Sharer of space and time and resources in an ongoing and delicate balancing act. Juggler extraordinaire.

In widowhood, more toiling. Funeral planner. Memory-keep-aliver. Taking flowers to the cemetery. Aching. Crying. Bone-crushing pain. Emptiness. Missing. Doing the job of two parents; doing all of it with a perpetual feeling of being left behind, alone. Must move on and act as if nothing happened while the world keeps spinning. Pretend to be normal and enjoy living a life that did not go as planned. And yet, despite all of the toiling, there is a deep love that has grown for him, for me, for our kids, and for the entire universe. Sometimes that feels confusing.

For some reason I expected adulthood to be the cruise control stage of life, but it has been anything but.

I rushed to pick-up Ethan after school on a typical day. Sometimes I have to arrange childcare as part of the complicated matrix of managing our busy schedule. But on this day I am there to get him, which is what I prefer to do. It’s why I had children–to be involved in their lives. Not being able to do these stereotypical parenting tasks is often a source of my despair, especially when those limitations have to do with my single parent situation. I still struggle with accepting the fact that I can’t be everywhere at the same time, and that I can’t be the same kind of mother I once was.

I waited in the hot sun near the gate while students walked out into their afternoon freedom. Several parents waited by the curb and a long line of cars clogged the one-way parking lot in front of the school. Ethan’s class was often one of the last to be released. I spotted him with his head in the clouds, the blue and orange shark backpack flapping against his back. He had his heavy lunchbox draped over one shoulder–I reminded him all of the time to no avail that he should put it in his backpack–and the weight of it gave him a lopsided lumber in his steps.

Seeing Ethan at the end of the school day feels just as precious as the days when I visited him in the NICU during his first two months of life. For 53 days I pumped breast milk every 1-3 hours around the clock and made the trip to the hospital morning and night. I methodically tracked ounces and minutes. I spent hours with his scrawny body pressed against my chest,tubes dangling off of him, and I didn’t dare move until a nurse wanted him back inside of his incubator. The toil and heartache of that experience was tempered only by the joy of being his mother and the sacred bond that immediately bound us together for the rest of our lives. I started motherhood having to ask permission to hold my child and was relegated to being practically a mere visitor during his stay in the NICU, but I was his mother in the only way that I could have been, which was to do the parental toiling that I was permitted to do. Each time I entered his room and peered into his isolette, I felt my breath catch in my throat, and I knew that he was worth it.

I felt the same way about the 2 lb. 15 oz. preemie as I do about the 8-year-old with jet black hair and a freckled nose.

Ethan saw me waiting for him and greeted me with a toothy smile. I could always tell by his expression whether it was a good or bad day.

On that day it was somewhere in the middle.

We walked to the car and ran through the important details: what did he learn, who did he play with, what his favorite moments were. So-and-so wanted to play handball instead of rock-hunting at recess, and that upset him. He also had to pull a card for talking during music class, but he informed me that it was outrageous that they force a scientist to sing and play instruments against his will.

At the car Ethan rifled through his lunchbox and declared how ravagingly hungry he was, wanting to know how much longer until dinner. We still had to pick up his siblings. He found half of his leftover sandwich and devoured it. Maybe he was right and I was wrong about keeping his lunchbox out of the backpack.

I made small talk with him on the drive to the preschool, but the other half of my mind was preoccupied running through the dozens of tasks I would have to do before bedtime. Calculating. Pondering. Worrying. Sometimes dreading. Sometimes anticipating.

Second stop: round-up two youngest children. Ellie wanted to go back to her class to find an obscure toy that she was certain she brought to school that morning. Petey strayed into the other direction, wandering into a forbidden classroom. I collected water bottles and bento boxes and breakfast containers and backpacks and graded assignments that the teacher handed over to me just in case I had time to pore over the details of the worksheets. Petey decided he was ready to go and began to exit the building, but Ellie still wasn’t ready and my urging to “hurry up” stressed her out. She frantically dug through her cubby in search of the toy in question, pulling out a hairbrush, a pink stuffed walrus-mermaid, coloring pencils, extra shirts, bracelets, lipstick, and an Easter hat. Still no toy. I questioned the collection of junk, reaching in to get a better look, but she swatted my hand away and shoved the box back into the cubby in a huff. Time to leave, she decided. No time for Mom to go through her things.

It is almost always like herding cats. Although seeing their faces when I picked them up was my favorite part of the day, getting them into the car and buckled up was my least favorite thing to do.

I opened the double-locked gate to the parking lot in what must have looked like a strange yoga move: one hand reaching over the top to unlatch the gate, and a knee pushing up the handle to swing it open while balancing the junk in my arms.

The kids noticed the pink geraniums that they liked to pick and made a move toward them and away from the gate. I managed to grab Petey by the collar and redirected everyone back toward our parked van in one swift move. After wrestling limbs into car seat straps, we were on our way home.

Home-sweet-home: a place where countless other tasks awaited my time and energy, or lack thereof. Unpacking the van and washing dishes and preparing dinner and then cleaning up and on and on and on.

The toiling. Oh, the toiling.

It never ends.

And yet I decided a long time ago that the greatest love we can experience is the kind made in the tedious day-to-day toiling.

It often seems like we define our lives and relationships by the big, happy moments. The wedding date. The birth. Special vacations. A new job. A new house. Birthdays.

But I believe that our lives are made in the small and mundane. This, I would argue, is the hidden and unappreciated beauty of being alive.

I don’t really think about the big moments when I remember my late husband. The majority of my memories are not about the day we got married, or the day we became parents, or the day we became homeowners. When I think about Kenneth I remember the toiling, only it doesn’t feel like toiling anymore. The commutes to work. Prepping lunch and breakfast next to each other in the crowded kitchen, every morning at the crack of dawn. Home Depot for house projects. Nagging him to use his Google calendar to keep appointments straight. Stressing out about leaving the house on time, dropping kids off, getting to work. The things I once complained about and disliked now feel as nostalgic and warm as the parts of our lives that were indisputably wonderful.

How can that be?

Once my husband asked his father to recall how hard it was to raise children. My husband, at the time deep in the trenches of a household with a baby and a young child, wanted to commiserate with his father. He was hoping to connect over mutual stories of fatherhood, but he didn’t get the response that he anticipated. His dad, a Japanese version of Mr. Spock, just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t remember. He told my husband you don’t remember the bad parts of life. You only remember the good.

We both wondered at the time: how could that be? Parenting is so hard. We would surely remember this.

I remember the ordinary Tuesday night when we sipped our drinks on the patio after the kids went to sleep. I can see the pile of dishes that he hadn’t done yet. I can imagine Kenneth watching a Netflix documentary while cutting up fruits and vegetables for his juices while I was asleep on the other side of the house. He’d tie up the trash bag and make sure it was thrown away outside before he himself went to bed, and then he would be up and moving around before I even opened my eyes in the morning.

Well, typically.

I also remember the ordinary Wednesday morning when I woke up to him dying. But those are the details that I don’t like to linger on.

The details of how our story ended.

I learned a lot about endings. They aren’t as important as you think. As a writer, it is known that the ending should have an impact, but no good story has a saggy middle. The middle has to be solid. After all, the middle is the majority of our story.

It’s the toiling middle that our hearts will return to over and over again, not the dramatic endings. Not even the romantic beginnings. The middle is where we did most of our living. When I miss my late husband, it’s the middle that I miss being in with him. The toiling.

I miss Kenneth calling me from the grocery store for the 50th time to ask which spice to buy, even though I wrote it down for him and he bought it many times before. He would ask where to find it, what aisle specifically, and wanted to know what color it was again. I would be in the middle of child-wrangling and cooking and snap at him to go find a store worker and stop calling me because goddammit he should know what cumin is by now.

Today all of that seems cute. Just a sweet reminder of his absent-mindedness rather than an irritation about his lack of common sense.

I don’t linger on the ugly details of marriage. The arguments. The flaws. The regrets and resentment and frustration. None of it matters in death. It’s not like we get to re-do any of it.

I remember the selfie I took in front of our first Christmas tree back when we lived in the tiny studio apartment by the beach. I remember buying corn nuts at the gas station on the road trip we took before kids, and I remember which Subway was his favorite to stop at, and I point it out to the children when we pass through years later. I remember finding a parking spot at Legoland and pushing strollers and waiting in lines and stopping to help the toddler use the potty. I remember watching our children play in the dinosaur sandbox, and then making eye contact with my husband across the play area in that knowing way that signaled it was time to go. I remember packing the family back into the van and making the long drive home, talking as the kids slept, and then having to carry sleeping bodies to warm beds. I vaguely remember that I was exhausted and drained and maybe there was one too many tantrums at Legoland that day, but in my memories it is all sweetness.

My father-in-law was right. You only remember good things. The bad gets smoothed over with time. Or maybe time and mortality make us realize that the good always comes with the bad, and we would choose to do it all over and over again just to taste the sweetness of the fleeting joy we once had.

Funny how the tedious toiling was actually the glue that held together the experiences that we carry inside of us–the beautiful memories that keep us connected to even those who are no longer with us.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers that “love cannot exist without suffering. In fact, suffering is the ground on which love is born.” He argued that “love is a practice and unless you know what suffering is, you are not motivated to practice compassion, love, and understanding.”

The toiling. It is not for naught. It is the practice of love.

Our greatest love stories are stitched together with our toiling. Eating dinner together, wiping butts, reading one more bedtime story, listening to bad-day stories, commutes, brushing teeth next to each other, falling asleep in between sentences, grocery shopping, the kiss before bedtime. Toiling and joy. You can’t have one without the other. Love is both, not either/or.

For my kids: I hope they remember that I was there for them and showed up as much as I could. We ate dinner together and I was the one who mostly tucked them into bed at night and did their homework with them and created experiences for them and washed their clothes and listened to their stories. I hope my children know they were not just the product of a great love story, but that they were my greatest love story.

About the Donuts

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I parked my red Miata on the street, in front of the 6th grade garden. Ethan wanted to ride to school with the top down. He was looking for a distraction. We climbed out of the car and I got his backpack from the trunk. I noticed the trepidation in his expression when I helped him loop the straps over his shoulders.

A potbellied father wearing a “Junk Man” work shirt passed by us, trailing behind his pack of kids. Another family followed close behind. And then another. And another. The event had started 10 minutes before; the rat race was underway.

“Are you okay?” I asked as we walked to the multipurpose room.

“I feel pressure,” Ethan said. “There are a lot of dads in there.”

“Try not to.”

I knew, however, that there was nothing I could say that would erase the fact that we were going to Donuts with Dad, without his dad. “Try not to” were the kind of words I hated when people lobbed advice at me. Advice they never had to practice themselves.

There was a small line at the entrance. I was the only mom, until a family with both the mom and the dad came a few spots behind us in line. Inside, there were few seats available at the cafeteria-style tables and benches. It was a sea of children and fathers, with the occasional grandfather, and a few moms. Very few moms, except for the PTA volunteers.

As I waited to hand the lady at the check-in table our $5, I noticed dads and sons getting pulled over to take a photo in front of a backdrop. Nobody would ask to take our picture that day. I felt a little resentful handing over my money to the PTA that insisted on perpetuating these outdated events. I wanted to ask the woman why they haven’t considered Donuts with a Loved One instead of Donuts with Dad. Something more inclusive. I seriously doubted that a catchy name with alliteration was the reason behind events like these.

Maybe it was stupid to expect them to make an exception to their traditions for people like us. People like us–my son with the dead dad and me–we’d just have to be included with the little asterisk on the bottom of the flyer, the one next to the small print that read “or bring another special adult.” Almost as if people like us were an afterthought.

We got our donuts and I suggested to Ethan that we sit outside, where there was plenty of seating available and it was already warm and sunny at 7AM. Ethan spotted a friend and his father, and we sat at their table. We tried not to look awkward at an event for fathers when clearly we did not bring one with us.

“I don’t know what I’m more offended by,” I told Ethan, trying to make small talk to distract him. “The dad part, or the fact that they think donuts are a great thing to serve for breakfast.” I then proceeded to pull up an article on my phone that I recently read. It was about how Americans eat more than the daily recommended sugar intake at breakfast alone. Basically, we keep eating dessert for breakfast. Ethan read it with concern.

One of Ethan’s friends saw us and promptly abandoned his dad to come sit with us. I offered to move so we could all sit together, but the boy declined, saying he didn’t want to sit with his dad.

The boys chatted and picked at their donuts and also called out the names of their classmates who they spotted at other tables. They seemed to be unofficially keeping track of who was in attendance from their class.

“The anticipation is the worst part,” I said quietly to Ethan, leaning toward him. “It’s always worse thinking about it before it happens. This isn’t so bad, is it?”

“No,” Ethan agreed. There was no more trepidation in his expression. He seemed to be enjoying himself, sitting between me and his friend. The boys built a donut tower and giggled over jelly that oozed out from the middle, which they decided looked like vomit.

When Ethan was in preschool, Kenneth accompanied him to the Teddy Bear Picnic. I remember feeling jealous that Kenneth got to go and I was stuck at work. But Kenneth really wanted to attend. Ethan came home after school that day talking about his new teddy bear and about how his Daddy walked to the park with his class, so proud that Kenneth was there. Kenneth had an older son from a previous relationship who lived 8 hours away. It was a contentious situation that resulted in him missing out on all of the small ways one gets to be a father to a child, like going to these events. It was a source of pain for him, and it made him more determined to enjoy Ethan’s childhood.

Kenneth would have never dreamed in a million years that he would miss Donuts with Dad with an 8-year-old Ethan.

And I would have never dreamed that I would be a single mother trying to fill in for an absent dad. It’s like living in an alternate reality, a world I sometimes still don’t recognize.

Everyone tells you it’s no big deal, this Donuts with Dad thing. Just go with him, mom and son, they say. Moms can go too. There will be like 1 mom for every 100 people there but that’s not a big deal. Just don’t care what other people think.

Unless it’s your son.

Unless it’s your heart.

The day before Donuts with Dad, I stood with Ethan before school started in his classroom line. A little girl approached him, smiling, and said, “Ethan, you can’t go to Donuts with Dad. Your dad is DEAD.”

I watched Ethan’s face crumple, and then immediately offered an explanation to her about how I was going to represent his father, and that yes, Ethan would indeed be there.

She didn’t say it in a taunting way. It was more of a think-out-loud faux pas. But it still hurt my little boy.

Nothing I could ever say would make it better. This was something that couldn’t be fixed. The truth was, Ethan wouldn’t be going to Donuts with Dad. He’d be going to donuts with his single mother because his dad is campfire ashes. There is no way to forget the brutal details. We are all very aware of the circumstances, but to hear it said out loud was salt in the wounds.

In hindsight, I should have explained to the little girl that her words hurt Ethan, rather than trying to justify how we would be at the event. But I didn’t think of it at the time. Sometimes I still get paralyzed by the pain of seeing my little boy hurt.

Almost two years out, I’m getting used to this alternate life trajectory. At my age it’s easier to be different than the masses. I can get through social situations as the only person without a husband and not care as much these days. Not so for an 8-year-old. He has started to become self-conscious about being the only kid without a dad in our social circles. His reality is more difficult, because he has to spend the rest of his life, through his formative years, without a father. He will be reminded of fathers everywhere he goes. After bringing home the Donuts with Dad flyer, he told me several times that he kept seeing “all of these dads.” Dads everywhere. Reminders of what he doesn’t have. Somehow he must figure out how to desensitize himself to these triggers. Preferably sooner rather than later, but this is something an individual must come to terms with on their own.

I watched Ethan fret over the donuts days before it happened. I watched him go through a few days in a silent, simmering mood. I had just finished season 3 of Doctor Foster on Netflix, and there is a teenage son on the show who has anger and emotional problems because of his parents’ strife. Suddenly I was stricken with the thought of my future Ethan in a man-like body having angry outbursts and letting “this” affect him. My perfect, happy Ethan possibly devolving into a person with demons that will threaten to darken his once-sunny disposition. When he was born premature and spent two months in the NICU, Ethan was often the last baby who the nurses would feed because he never cried. He has always been that way–happy and content and undemanding. He is a naturally grateful, loving child. I feel so spoiled that this gentle, deep soul made me a mother.

The thought of that changing about him disturbed me.

No.

No way. That was not something I could allow.

I realized then that my job was not to make him get through the loss of his father, but to help him understand the choices he still had, to help him figure out how to live in a world that has not gone as planned. A world that has scrambled the natural order of life, robbing him of a father at a young age. A life where he will not have what many others still have. I must help him accept a different trajectory, and prepare him for the many future detours he will encounter. These are the ways that he will become resilient. My job is not to make him forget or to take away his pain. My job is to help him cope with pain.

Ethan also has to learn to live in a world that forces labels and stereotypes on us. He has to become comfortable with being different. Normal families have a dad to take to Donuts with Dad. Ethan does not have a dad. Therefore, is he not normal? This is difficult for even me to internalize. But this is something he must be able to do.

He must be able to own his stories, tell his stories, and have an unwavering belief that he is still writing his story even when everything goes wrong. He has to believe that he can survive any plot twist. My Ethan has to embrace the idea that the only thing normal about this world is that all of us will have our share of pain and loss. None of us will escape it.

He has to refuse having normal defined for him. I want him to be able to define his own normal, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. It has to be done on his own. When it comes to this, it’s him against the world. There is no hiding from it.

The reality is that grief is a lonely exile. Nobody else knows exactly how you are feeling. You can’t rely on people to be there; comfort comes and goes. Help comes and goes. Nobody can live your life, therefore they can never fully understand your circumstances.

But you have to be able to fully understand your own life. Maybe not fully understand why things happen, but understand what you have to do to live an intentional life no matter what happens.

As we were driving to swim class the next day, Ethan and I reflected about the Donuts with Dad experience, and then about our lives in general. We started talking about our upcoming trip.

By the end of this summer, and since Kenneth died, we will have gone to: Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Israel.

That’s pretty damn good.

“The weird thing is, life has actually gotten better,” Ethan said. “It’s not supposed to get better if Daddy died.”

“It’s not better. It’s just different.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “It has been bad and good.”

We talked about how tragedy can change us. How we might end up being better people than we would have been before the tragedy. Then we decided that there are things in life that can be good and bad. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It’s often both.

And that’s where we left it.

Staying on Track

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In the middle of feeling sorry for myself about a laundry list of things in the past few weeks, a thought struck me. Actually, it started with the realization that my pants were getting too small.

I realized that the conditions are never the same.

Let me go back to the pants first.

Your immediate reaction to something you don’t like is denial. Blame. You rack your brain for a plausible explanation that might eliminate your culpability, because the idea of it being your fault is too painful.

First, I tried to blame the dryer for shrinking my pants. Except I don’t put my pants in the dryer. Then I wanted to pretend like maybe I’ve developed more muscle and that explains the difficulty of getting my thighs into the pant legs. But that wasn’t true either. My eyesight is still 20/20.

The pants situation was frustrating because I had been exercising and staying active and I mostly ate healthy foods. It didn’t make sense. Nothing had changed.

Or so I assumed.

I now weighed more than I did before my husband died. That life I had before the rug was pulled out from beneath my feet. I like to pretend that life was my baseline, which is absurd, since there is no possible way for me to ever return to that life. What’s the point of a baseline if it becomes a useless way to measure progress?

After Kenneth died, my grief diet was the best part of those dark days. I instantly shed 20 pounds without even trying, and I foolishly thought it would last forever. But nothing lasts forever, and as your grief thaws and your mental space changes, so does your appetite.

I started to realize that my assumption that “nothing had changed” was foolish.

Almost a year ago I stopped using my scale. It was driving me nuts; any fluctuation stressed me out and I obsessed over the numbers. So I took out the batteries and shoved it under my bed. I thought I would just eyeball my food portions. Eat well and exercise. Blah blah blah. That would be enough. I wanted autopilot.

It seems that’s what a lot of us crave. Autopilot mode. No additional thinking or working. We want life to stay on track without too much effort on our part. We want easy. We want painless. We want joy and happiness and all that good stuff without the hard parts.

Banishing the scale did ease my mental anguish over my weight. I guess you could say I was happier not knowing the numbers on the scale. Until the pants started to get tight. Then I was miserable.

Finally I had to admit that I had gotten careless. It was my fault. I was exercising, but it wasn’t every day. When you don’t write things down, and when you allow other tasks on your to-do list to come before exercise, it’s easy to lose track of what you were supposed to do. Portions. Healthy vs. unhealthy. Calories. Drinking too much coffee with too much cream. Not sleeping enough. Blah, blah, blah.

My problem was that I thought I’d magically get my ideal weight on the scale, and then keep it there. Freeze time. Not have to work for it anymore. I really thought I could keep something the same.

The conditions are never the same.

I conveniently tried to forget that I lived in an impermanent world.

My conditions are not the same as the days pre-Kenneth’s death. Notice how I refer to my life as pre-death and post-death. Two very distinct chapters.

As I am about to enter the 3rd year without my husband, I find myself in an odd space. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I used to be consumed with grief. Now it comes and goes in short bursts and less frequently, often related to something else I’m upset about, like a secondary consequence of that fateful day. It feels like old news. I was a parent with him for 6 years. I’ve now spent nearly 2 complete years as a single parent. The day will come when I will have been a single parent longer than I parented with him, and each passing day seems to make that former life feel more and more irrelevant. There are people entering my life who didn’t even know him. The rest of the world has moved on but I am stuck with these memories.

Ethan recently told me in the car on the way home from swim class, “Nobody understands what this is like. Nobody knows how hard it is.”

“I know,” I told him, glancing into my rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of his concerned face.

Our car became silent, the sadness palpable.

“But we have to keep living,” I continued. “We can’t stop our lives because it’s unfair that people don’t understand. We would just suffer more by getting left behind.”

I told him that I loved how he chose to be happy no matter what happened. Then I tried to guess how many freckles he had on his nose. I add a couple to the number every time I pretend to count his freckles. He laughed.

Everything veers off course in life. Especially our minds. I feel like I’m frequently chasing my wandering thoughts, constantly herding them away from straying down dark paths. Shifting my mind’s leanings. Perspective. Talking down feelings. Talking up other feelings.

Today I woke up and the thought of having Easter with just me and my sister made me depressed. We used to have big gatherings with my grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins and my parents and siblings. This year, it was literally me, my kids, my sister, her husband and their newborn. It felt like every year the family size is dwindling. People have died. People have become estranged. People have moved. People have grown older. Traditions continue to evolve. Some are disappearing. A new generation emerges; my generation is taking the baton from the previous ones. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t the child anymore. I was responsible for giving my children an experience. An idyllic childhood full of memories. I am supposed to do this without their father and I sometimes wonder if I can do this. Sometimes it feels impossible. I yearn to have my grandma standing over a pot of Arabic rice that she made for us every holiday. I want her to boss us around as we shape dough in the palms of our hands and prepare Arabic Easter cookies just the way she used to dictate to us. I want my husband to sit next to me on the couch as we watch the kids pillage through their Easter baskets. I was once here for the experience, and now I have to provide the experience. My mortality lingers like a shadow following behind, not quite out of sight, visible just enough to remind me that time is slipping through my fingers like sand and I can’t hold on to it. Everything has changed but I didn’t want it to.

A few hours after my sad realization about family memories of years past, I went to service at my temple and listened to our reverend talk about joy and suffering. The essay we read talked about both being required in life–you can’t know joy without suffering. I realized I needed to rein in my wandering mind again. There was no time for being sad or depressed or moping around. I’M GOING TO DIE SOON. That’s it, I thought. I had to go home and start working on my life plans. I’m letting my mind get sloppy again. The sad thoughts make me lazy. I needed to make shit happen. I couldn’t sit passively and waste time on the crap I couldn’t change. I needed to be strategic about how I was going to live fully. (Yes, I’m that crazy. And yes, I started making charts and lists and writing out plans.)

My Pants Situation was a reminder that I have strayed off course and I needed to find my way back.

The conditions are always changing.

Of course my weight was not going to stay the same–especially if I wasn’t going to put in the effort to stay on track.

My body is not the same as it was two years ago or five years ago or even ten years ago. I’ve never gone this long not being pregnant or nursing in the past 9 years.

I’ve never been this old before.

I’ve never been this pressed for time. This stressed out. This tired.

I’ve been super busy writing in the past year, and I’ve spent a lot of late nights working and not being the most diligent about what I was eating, when I was eating, and how much. The “no eating after a certain time” is hard when you’re up at all hours trying to stay awake to finish projects.

I haven’t gone this long without a partner in the last 11 years. We kept each other in check. It’s all the honor system now that he’s not around to hold me accountable about running days and food portions and snacking. My children and parents would never tell me that my pants are getting too tight. They have the Shallow Hal syndrome. My mom recently tried to convince me that the marshmallow rice krispies treats she brought over were healthy because she put flax seeds in them. Yeah. Um…

So many things can throw us off track. Like moms with junk food. And Easter candy. Holidays. Parties. Somebody brought something into the office.

Vacations. Whenever I go on a trip, it completely throws of my mental game. Vacations usually entail a lot of eating. My exercise routines get disrupted. Packed agendas. Unfamiliar cities. Time zone differences ruin sleep patterns. It creates new conditions that I have to mentally overcome, and for me, the mental sticking points are often much more difficult than anything physical. It sometimes takes me months to resume ideal habits.

It’s easy to stray.

It’s easy to take refuge in denial.

But the pants were the last straw. A big wake-up call for me.

I’m trying to be more strategic in my thinking. I heard a podcast once about “relentlessly solving problems.” Finding infinite pathways and simplifying one’s battlefield. Really focusing on what needs to be done instead of getting bogged down with negative emotions and the useless ways of trying to make ourselves feel better (i.e. blaming, complaining, etc).

The great Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are our choices.”

Choices give me control, and I like control. I find the idea of choice liberating, even if it doesn’t promise an instant solution.

I’m not looking for a fad diet or anything crazy. I need something that I can sustain.

And because life is all about choices, I can’t spend hours each day working on my body. I have too many other things going on. I choose to also have other priorities. But I also choose to do what I need to do to get back into a smaller pants size.

I’ve been busy this past week implementing new strategies. I’ve been writing things down. Daily weigh-ins. Every single thing I put into my mouth gets written down and calories calculated. Planning meals. Reviewing goals. Exercising more. I had always been exercising, but when you write it down and keep track, you are better able to see the hit or miss nature of our habits. Writing holds us accountable. It makes us reflective. I am convinced that I can work through any problem with a journal and a good pen. Sometimes in life you can’t see yourself clearly until you document the evidence and let it marinate in your head.

In a way, I’m glad that my pants got too small. I don’t want to become too comfortable. In my experiences, it is in those moments of comfort when we aren’t prepared for our conditions to change and we get blindsided. I’d rather be ready with the skills to get back on track no matter how lost I get.

Finding Toughness in the Raw

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In my experience with grief, the waves come before the big dates. For example, you might assume that I would be terribly upset on the birthday of my late husband, or on Christmas, and probably on the day of his death-a-versery. The sorrow actually happens about a month before the actual date. Somehow my body senses it before my brain clues in. It’s the way that my mind lingers on certain details. It’s how I feel slower, sadder, and more distracted than usual. The feeling of something looming over me. It’s an ache in my chest. Heaviness. A shadow that follows close by. Something I can never quite put my finger on; unresolveable.

That’s where I had been hovering, in the sadness of that period of time before a big date. In 34 days, it will be two years since my husband died.

But it hadn’t been so bad. I mean, comparatively speaking.

The first year was hard. Everything. Learning how to drop off the kids at three different locations every morning without the help of the other parent, and then picking them up from three different locations. It’s tedious work, single parenting.

In that first year, learning to accept my shame in being a single parent. I’m a planner. I planned my family, each child, down to the day. All of my planning wasn’t good enough. I’ve spent my entire life trying to do what I was supposed to do. I dotted my I’s and crossed my t’s and none of it was good enough. It’s difficult to reconcile. How does a person not take “this” personally? How do I stop feeling like somehow I deserved to get handed these crappy cards in life? How do I stop comparing myself to people who didn’t have to lose a husband? How do I stop walking around feeling like a socially stigmatized single mother and manage to hold my head up high? This was my challenge.

The first year had a fog of grief that was so thick I didn’t know if I could find my way out. Everyone else mourned my husband for a few days or weeks (maybe longer for people like his family), but for most people it just became another sad story they once heard, and he became a person they once knew. They moved on with their lives. For someone like me, we have to live with the sadness every single day and somehow we have to “move on.” There are also logistical and practical implications of losing a partner: paychecks, carpools, companionship, a person who did half the chores, someone to bounce ideas off of, tax filings, retirement, the person who helped you tuck in children at bedtime and get them dressed in the mornings– the father of your children. Dashed dreams. I can’t even begin to explain what this all means to a person who hasn’t experienced it. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

During that first year, going to events at the kids’ school as a single mother was extremely triggering. There were lots of tears involved.

The first round of holidays.

The first time I went to the accountant by myself.

The first time I had to take care of a car problem on my own.

Having to throw away his favorite pair of jeans.

Writing a check to the crematorium.

Watching my one-year-old stand on his tiptoes to blow a kiss to my husband’s plaque in the cemetery columbarium. A one-year-old who only knows his father through pictures and visits to the cemetery.

Having to deal with the recurring memories of the moment I found my husband dying on the floor. Calling 9-1-1 with hands that shook uncontrollably. Sitting in my pajamas, unable to move as I watched firefighters crowding around his lifeless body, our babies asleep in the nearby bedrooms. Our entire family irreparably broken in the moment he cocked his head back and exhaled one long dying breath with a finality that you feel in your gut. That defining moment when you watch the person you love slip away forever. How do you forget that?

The second year was easier. I thought about his death less often. We gradually started new traditions. Our brains got used to our new normal, which involved learning to live with a lingering sadness. I took pictures down. I redecorated. We started a new round of birthdays and holidays and they didn’t hurt as much as that first year. I got used to the things that once triggered me. (Except for going to Disneyland. I still haven’t been able to go back.)

School functions didn’t leave me in tears in the second year. The annual family camping trip, holidays, birthdays, even going to the accountant. I felt myself becoming more resilient. The first year had a lot of ups and downs. There was a lot of crying. I felt raw and left behind, and it was difficult having to keep it all together. But the second year made me think that I would probably survive this ridiculousness. I once had serious doubts that I would come out of this experience alive.

In the second year of grief you don’t stop feeling the pain, but the waves of grief are more gentle because you know they exist. I had a lot of wipeouts during the first year, because I was new to grief. You get better at spotting the waves in the second year, and they don’t clobber you over the head like they once did. You have time to put on your floaties. It still hurts, but the pain is duller and more familiar, you’re more skilled at riding the waves, and you know it will pass. It doesn’t feel like the hopeless pain of the early days when you wanted to die.

As I approached the second year, I felt more in control of my grief. I had already gotten past the shock stage. Feelings became more predictable.

And then I got an email from somebody in my son’s Cub Scout pack.

One line stuck out like a bright blinking Vegas sign: you need to also be willing to put in your effort.

You need to put in your effort.

You need to be willing.

As in, you are not putting in your effort.

You are not willing.

As in, you are lazy.

As in, you are not pulling your weight as the mother of a Cub Scout.

I internalized this as failure, failure, failure.

Not enough effort. Failing. Not willing. You’re not willing. Horrible, horrible mother. I am failing my son.

My sweet, innocent son who does not have a father and now I am failing him by being a shitty mother.

I tried to explain to Cub Scout Lady how this made me feel, and she responded that she didn’t know why I was so upset, because apparently widow and single mother was just a lazy excuse.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHY I’M UPSET?

Are you kidding me? Every freaking day is a struggle for me. I wake up each morning on the verge of a panic attack trying to get three small humans dressed, their lunches and breakfast prepared, trying to make myself look a little bit presentable in the two minutes that I have to dress myself, and then manage to get all of us out the door before the sun even rises. I work all day, and then I round the kids up and take them to their activities and make them dinner and bathe them and do homework and read and floss their teeth and tuck them into bed before I collapse in exhaustion. I’ve been doing this solo for almost two years, and my kids are 8, almost 5, and 3. You do the math.

IT’S FLAMING SCORCHING HELL.

I try to get enough sleep and exercise. I try to engage my children in learning. I try to read daily. I prepare healthy meals and sweep and do dishes and laundry and pick up the dog poop and fill the gas tank and change diapers and pay bills and remember what groceries to buy and deal with my own grief–remember the images of my husband gasping on the floor that keep popping into my head–and YOU WANT ME TO MAKE MORE OF AN EFFORT?

Cub Scout Lady, I AM EMPTY. Empty. There is no effort left in a single bone in my body. I have nothing more to give. I’m sorry if that constitutes a failure to you.

She threw at me how much her and so-and-so had to do to cover my responsibilities when I couldn’t attend a January luncheon because MY KID HAD STREP THROAT. One month of strep throat in my household. Who in the hell do they think is going to take care of my sick kids? And me? I literally had nobody around that week. Perhaps I should drop off the children at the cemetery where my dutiful husband will keep an eye on them? I mean, come on.

I’m tired, Cub Scout Lady. I’m so, so, so, so tired.

You start to feel paranoid. Like, maybe they want my last drop of blood. Maybe they want me to die. And then what happens to my children? Nobody would care. Nobody would care because I’ve seen firsthand how somebody dies and the rest of the world moves on and it just becomes a story they once heard.

It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain how patently unfair their rules were for forcing any parent, let alone a SINGLE WIDOWED MOTHER, to do so much work that involved festival shifts and selling crap and attending every other week meetings and keeping track of a zillion emails that flood my inbox and attend regular events and finish activities in the handbooks and participate in the almost monthly luncheons by way of bringing food and working shifts and oh yeah, I have two little ones in addition to my Cub Scout. Apparently I’m supposed to pay for babysitting. Or magically make it work. Pretend that it isn’t crushing me.

After many emails, she offered me an earlier shift.

She still didn’t get it, and I didn’t respond, because I realized right then and there that she wasn’t interested in figuring this out. She just wanted to stick to her protocol. Gee, I wish my life were as simple as following the rules. Sticking to protocol. It must be nice to exist in a bubble where following the rules doesn’t get you the pile of shit that I got in my life. Must make a person super proud to enforce rules that don’t consider the real human beings involved. Efficiency over empathy.

I don’t measure up to their standards. That’s the bottom line. My family doesn’t fit in. The family I used to have would have fit in nicely. But this new family that I have doesn’t. We’re different. I’m different.

I spent a solid 24 hours crying off and on. Ugly crying.

To the layperson, I’m overreacting. To someone who hasn’t walked in my shoes, you may think this is all very simple. Work your shift. Figure it out. Move on.

My husband worked a shift for this very festival TWO WEEKS BEFORE HE DIED while I stayed home with the babies. It was the last event he did with our son. Those were the days when working festival shifts were doable in a two-parent home.

But now he’s dead.

And I’m alone with these children.

I’m tired. I’m barely holding it together. I’m always a few stitches away from unraveling. Just because I’m generally a punctual person and I smile and look like I have it together–that doesn’t mean crap. It means I’m keeping it together (today) and I’m really good at pretending everything is fine. If you ask me how I am, I’ll tell you I’m fine. But you should know that I work my ass off to keep everything together. Cub Scout Lady’s demoralizing email ripped apart my last couple of frayed stitches that had been holding everything together.

How dare anyone tell me to put forth more effort.

She pressed a button. My insecure button.

I’ve had many of these buttons. You can read about my insecure dating button.

These buttons remind me of my rawness. These buttons are gateways to my pain. Find the right one to press and you will see my ugliness.

My husband died and left me a single mother. We meticulously planned our family. We had plans for a fourth child that would never happen. We had future projections for traveling and college and retirement. We still had unfulfilled hopes and dreams and vision for our life together.

This woman pressed my button and I was reminded that I am the only person who cares about the life I got robbed of.

She pressed my button and unleashed the floodgates of my grief. Nasty, vile grief. I snapped at my children for a few days. I cried myself to sleep. I didn’t have interest in anything. I felt every part of my body become heavy, like I was dragging myself around.

This was the person I knew from the first year of grief. I thought I had left her behind in the past. As it turned out, she was always lurking just beneath the surface.

I felt determined to get the situation under control before grief wrapped its tentacles around my neck.

I went for a run several times. Running is great for mental clarity. Running does not always fit in with my busy schedule, so I’m constantly having to be creative. And that stresses me out.

I noticed that it felt easier getting through the 2.5 mile run since I had been regularly running again. I fell off the wagon during the holidays and had to ease myself back into the routine, both mentally and physically.

While running, I had a thought. Running always stirs my best thoughts. It’s seriously magical. I thought about the pain of exercise, and in this case, the discomfort of running. Having to find the time to make it happen when there were a thousand other things I needed to do. Not wanting to feel pain. Making excuses to not run. Then feeling guilty. Feeling out of breath. Body aches. It’s too hot. Too cold. Knees and muscles and feet. Whatever it might be.

But when you run over and over again, it gets easier. Habits develop. Practice makes the pain decrease, and eventually it doesn’t hurt. You get faster and stronger. Your routine gets more efficient. You may in fact actually start to enjoy and crave the feelings you experience from running.

That’s what it was like during my first year of grief. Going to school events over and over again until I wasn’t self-conscious about being a single parent.

Waking up day after day without him next to me preparing lunches. Painful. But doing it every single day turned the pain into a new normal. Now I listen to podcasts instead of talking to him.

Starting a new school year without him, with a different person in his classroom. Painful. Hearing the sound of the new teacher was triggering, but not it doesn’t seem like it was ever Kenneth’s classroom. Those days seem like they were a million years ago.

Being alone, night after night. Painful. The deafening silence after the kids go to bed. Emptiness. But confronting that silence every single day slowly turned it into new space. My time.

Seeing his food in the freezer. Painful. Looking at his Japanese nato every time I opened the freezer door, day after day, until one day I picked it up and chucked it into the trash and moved on with my day.

Spending his birthday without him. Painful. The second one: not my first experience with the pain. More on the nostalgic side of the spectrum.

The repetition of experiencing the pain helps me forge my new normal.

Life reconfigures itself. Nothing stays the same. There is a constant ebb and flow of rawness and toughness.

Your rawness is how you build toughness.

It’s what I imagine a person on the streets has to do before they earn the reputation of being feared: numerous fights. Lots of getting the shit beaten out of them. Too many black eyes to count. Lots of bruises. Broken bones. Brushes with death. Desensitization.

Over and over again.

Until you get good.

You get tough by being raw.

Cub Scout Lady doesn’t have to have empathy for me. She doesn’t have to ever understand the complete and utter hell of being a young widow with young children. I’m glad she gets to live in a world where my horrific reality is not even a blip on her radar.

I can’t change her or anyone else’s perceptions about who I am or what my life is like.

I’m working hard to not let other people’s opinions affect me. But it’s hard. It’s so freaking hard because besides having to learn to live without my husband, I’ve had to mourn the mother I used to be. The mother who had more time. More patience. More help. I have a serious and deeply rooted fear that I will somehow fail my fatherless children. It’s easy for people to tell me that I’m doing a great job. Thanks, but nothing I do will ever erase the fact that my children do not have a father. There are money concerns. There are emotional concerns. There are sanity concerns—mine, that is. The world is scary, and I’ve lost my co-pilot. It’s incredibly draining living day in and day out in the captain’s seat. It’s not what I signed up for. I am living a life that I did not sign up for.

And I’m learning to reconcile a life that has not gone as planned and the blistering disappointment.

At first I was going to write about how I needed people to not press my “I’m a bad mother” button.

But then I thought otherwise after thinking about it while running. Maybe I need people to press my buttons. I need them to press my buttons so I can work through my rawness.

So I can prove them wrong.

So I can select better people to surround myself with in my life.

So I can work on my boundaries.

So I can work on my pain.

So I can work on my perceptions.

Just like my running, I need to take it two miles at a time. I need to get up and try again. And again. And again. This is how we get stronger.

I’m in it for the long haul. It’s going to take more blood, sweat, and tears. The only things I feel certain about in my life are: moving forward with my head up (with a grace period of 24 hours to mope around), and working as hard as I can without sacrificing my health or family. I need to stay focused. I need to get stronger.

I need to embrace my rawness, and part of that is not being afraid to let people know that I am still working becoming tougher. Maybe by knowing these stories we become more empathetic toward each other, and more resilient in our own lives.

The Roads We Choose

the roads we choose

Recently I saw a 76 Gas advertisement that read, “All roads lead to more roads, which is pretty cool.” It’s a spin on the popular “all roads lead to Rome,” from the days of the Roman Empire when literally all roads came from the capital.

I love the analogy of a road in life because in so many ways our lives are a journey, and there are numerous choices we make every single day: where to turn, when to stop, how fast to go, which lane to drive in, what route to take, what time to leave, and more.

There are times when we are the driver, and other times when we are the passenger.

Sometimes we get stuck in gridlock traffic. Other times we sail to our destination. Sometimes our car breaks down, and other times we get to drive a new car with seat warmers and a fast engine. Our preferences change over time. We have our years when we like neon green or candy apple red cars, and other times in our lives when we prefer a classic white or black. Many of us started our driving experiences owning a jalopy before moving on to a sportier car, which we might later trade-in for a minivan depending on what season of our lives we are in.

Sometimes we drive alone. Other times we ride in the carpool lane with our passengers.

Accidents happen. People will cut us off and make illegal turns in front of us and we will get mad and sometimes there will be regrets. We have our moments when we drive too fast and get pulled over. Days when we run late. The times when we forget to fill up the gas tank, and then there is the overall tediousness of being responsible for a vehicle: car washes, oil changes, regular service, new tires, car registration, smog checks, or maybe a timing belt that goes out at the most inopportune time (12th grade, in the school parking lot in front of everyone, The Jalopy Years).

Sometimes we can’t find a parking spot, or someone rams a shopping cart into our car, or maybe you lost one of your keys. But mostly we have many, many days of uneventful trips from point A to point B. Days that are so routine and without incident that we don’t give them another thought.

Our daily journeys can sometimes feel repetitive and the grind of life wears us down. But we do it anyway.

Every single day we drive on those roads knowing in the back of our minds that accidents happen, and not everyone makes it out alive. In fact, you have more of a chance of dying in a car crash than you do dying on an airplane. Despite all of this, we still embark on our journeys. Always somewhere to go, somewhere to be. We accept the risks and possible roadblocks as a means to an end.

I especially liked the part of 76’s ad which said “all roads lead to more roads.” It feels like such an optimistic way of looking at life in a society where we somehow begin to believe, perhaps sometime in late childhood, that life is full of dead-ends.

It’s a mindset.

We learn this scarcity mentality. It is the kind of mentality that makes us to believe that the boyfriend we have may be our only chance for marriage, that a dire financial situation may last forever, and that we have a finite amount of opportunities and chances. It’s the scarcity mentality that gets us stuck in the mud, preventing us from traveling further down the road, hindering our abilities.

You can believe that you are only headed in one direction, to one place, as “all roads leads to Rome” makes one believe. You can choose to believe that you will never have a better car, and you can choose to believe that getting lost means you will never arrive to your destination.

We develop and nurture these self-limiting beliefs over time. It’s ironic that we start our lives as toddlers who tie sheets around our necks and believe that we are superheros and kings and queens, possessing imaginations that take us wherever we want to go. As children, we believe that all of our dreams are possible. A child does not understand the concept of something being unattainable. Nothing holds them back. And then, over time, children are conditioned to understand that the world is hard and probably insurmountable. We allow hopelessness to become our automatic response in difficult situations. Our minds trick us into not seeing the infinite opportunities that were right in front of us; instead we see what we can’t have, and we dwell in the dead-ends we encounter. We fail to embrace the idea that when one thing doesn’t work, there are many other options to pursue.

“One nail drives out another.”

“When one door closes, another opens.”

Rather than subscribe to self-limiting thoughts, you can choose to believe that life is full of many possibilities and choices. You can embrace the inevitability that there will always be things that go wrong–flat tires, dead batteries, forced detours, traffic–and you can adopt a strategic problem-solving mentality to tackle these problems instead of a doomsday perspective.

I agree with 76 that “all roads lead to more roads,” and I also agree that it is pretty cool.

Ironically “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House began to play on my Youtube playlist precisely as I began to write this:

There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There’s a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you’ll never see the end of the road
While you’re traveling with me

I also remember in the 5th grade having to memorize the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s empowering. You have choice! And there are lots of choices. Turn here, turn there. Faster, slower. Maybe you don’t want to drive at all. Maybe you’d prefer to walk.

The road is a means to an end. We accept the risks and the possibility that everything will go wrong, and we travel down the road anyway because we need it to get to our destination.

Oliver Goldsmith said, “Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.”

We have to use what we have. There will be effortless days of immense joy and gratification and days when we are sick of it all and want to stay home.

But it’s not the car or the road that is the point of the journey.

One has to stop and reflect: where was I was going anyway?

Love is Spiritual

love is spiritual

I went to a Catholic funeral on Friday. The day started with mass; it had been a while since I had attended one. I’m always a little conflicted in a Catholic church. There are moments of familiarity that I embrace, and then there are the flashbacks that remind me about why I don’t go there anymore.

What I like: the space, stained glass windows, the incense that the priest shakes around in that fancy shaker thing. And priests. Oh goodness, I have had an unhealthy love for priests ever since I started watching The Thorn Birds at a young age. Someday….someday I will find my Father Ralph!

But I’ve never felt a connection to the Catholic church, despite trying for several years. For me it was blah blah blah blah blah blah blah and then in the middle of all of the blah-blahing there would be a tiny crumb of an idea that struck me.

I remember being a 20-year-old and asking my godmother, “Why don’t they talk about real life at church? It’s so much more interesting when the priest starts to talk about life.” She said she was failing as my godmother, and I drifted further and further away from being a Catholic.

I knew Buddhism was for me when every service gave me chunks of ideas to mull over instead of having to wait for a microscopic crumb. I have to bring a notebook just to capture ideas and thoughts that happen at every single service.  It’s a feeling you have when you know you are at home–a connection. You feel it in your gut; a validation that you are exactly where you should be.

Sitting through the mass on Friday with the attention span of a gnat, I waited for the crumb. Up and down, up and down. My eyes drifted to the beautiful stained glass window of Mary holding Jesus.

Finally, in the middle of the service, the little old Irish priest said, “Love is spiritual.”

The crumb I had been waiting for. Something to resonate.

I find myself becoming more and more desensitized to funerals and anything related to death. Caskets don’t bother me in the slightest. Cemeteries do nothing to me. Burials don’t make me cry. This is the second funeral I’ve attended in 2018.

The only thing that can still get me is witnessing the love that the grieving survivors carry for the departed. I can empathize because I know what it is like to lose somebody.

There is something so pure about our love for others.

I thought about the priest’s words: love is spiritual.

He was trying to comfort the survivors. As in, the dead person isn’t completely gone. Your love is still there.

We often think we are comforting people by looking for ways to assure them that their life hasn’t changed. Everything is the same! All is fine. Nothing to worry about.

I never like when people suggest to me that my dead husband is still with us. Or that he’s in a better place. It’s a little hard to justify any of those things when we’re eating dinner as a family and his seat is empty. Or when Ellie has to go to a father-daughter event and her dad is dead. I can’t say that he’s with us when Peter Jack had to lose his father at 13-months-old and literally has not a single memory of him. We want so badly to soothe a grieving person with words that we think will fill their gaping wound, but in reality, nothing you say will normalize the void. All you can do is be there for the person and unobtrusively bear witness to their pain. That’s the only thing they want but don’t know how to tell you.

The grieving person has two monumental tasks: 1) grieve and accept the loss of a loved one, and 2) grieve and accept that their life will never be the same again.

It is difficult to accept a loss when it does such mind-bending things to our brains. We enter a realm where we waffle between what is real and what is imagined. I often questioned whether or not I imagined my life with my late husband. I questioned whether I really loved him. Were we even married? There are photographs and a marriage certificate to verify that I am not crazy, but love is a difficult concept when there is no physical proof of its existence.

I watched a video with Lucy Kalanithi early on in my widowhood. Lucy is the widow of Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air. At the end of this video, Lucy says that her love for Paul, even over a year after his death, “is exactly the same.”

I remembered that resonating with me. I am almost two years past my husband’s death, and I can say that Lucy is correct. My love for him hasn’t changed. But I can’t see it. He’s not here for me to express it to him, and because of that, it can cause me to feel crazy.

Over time, the pain that we experience, caused by grief, will lessen. It never completely goes away, but we don’t live with the bone-crushing pain forever. It fades to a dull ache that we sometimes forget is there.

As my pain faded, I wondered if my love would also fade, much in the same way that I worried that I would forget my late husband’s voice and the little details about him.

We humans seem to have an obsession with things lasting forever. We want to know if our love will be forever. We like infinity. There is a desire to know that we will see our departed loved ones again, which probably drives our hope that love is eternal. The movie Coco taps into something so deeply appealing to us–to be reunited with the deceased. To see our grandmother again. To see our late husband again. How sweet it would be to be in their arms one more time. To hear their voices.

The priest said that “love is spiritual,” meaning it is transcendent; a part of us that exists beyond our physical bodies.

I feel like it is true. I don’t have less love for people who have died. My husband. Grandparents. Friends. Even as the years stretch and memories fade, the love from the relationships have remained and continue to be a source of comfort in my own life. Often the love is stronger in loss because it affects our perspective. I still feel a connection to my late husband, and to my grandmother, to my good friend Mike Quigley, who passed away in 2010, and to all of the other people in my life who I have lost over time. My feelings about them remain intact and only deepened in death.

I started to think more about love transcending the physical. Love is never just physical.

A mother’s love: perhaps the purest kind. A mother gives birth to another human being and knows that she loves them more than she loves herself, even before she meets the baby. She will love her baby even if the child is born looking different than what is expected. Even when the child grows up and becomes something different than what the mother expected, the mother will still love her child. Even when the child moves far away. Even when the child doesn’t pick up the phone. Even the child that grows up and becomes a murderer–that person’s mother may be the only person that still loves that child. No matter what.

How do you quantify that kind of blind love?

Every single day I witness couples who make me wonder: how in the world did they ever get together? Where did that attraction start? One is reminded that the love between partners is greater than anything physical. Physical attraction is fleeting. Real love has to go beyond physical and convenient.

All of this leads me to believe that the physical aspect of a relationship, which can include intimacy, but also is about having the ability to sit in a chair next to the person and have a conversation with them–that kind of physical–does not fully encapsulate what love is.

We have friends whom we love, who maybe on paper would never seem to be likely candidates for friendship, but there is an inexplicable connection that makes you want to be around them. And there are people who we know instantly don’t have that bond with us, and they stay acquaintances. Our true friends are the ones we can see after long periods of time and still ease into conversation as if a day had never passed.

It is difficult to articulate the energy of this kind of connection between two people. We know it by feeling. When our soul connect to another person’s soul–whether that person is a partner, friend, family member, whoever–we just know.

Much in the same way we feel in our gut whether or not we are sitting in a church that feels like home.

The question of whether or not our love is eternal remains.

Do we stop loving our parents once they pass?

Do we stop loving a departed pet?

Do we stop loving a child who has passed away?

Of course not. But does that love last forever, beyond the scope of our own life?

I think the question of whether or not love lasts forever depends on the situation. In the movie Coco, one could only visit on Day of the Dead if a living person remembered them by placing their picture on the altar. I believe love exists as long as there is someone to remember you, or if you left behind a legacy in some capacity to be remembered by, like if you were Michelangelo who painted the Sistine Chapel. Even so, my love for Michelangelo is not the same kind of love that his mother or lover would have had for him.

Perhaps fragments of us continue to exist in the future generations. Our ideas, contributions, memories, love–the living carry bits and pieces of us inside of their being, and they pass it on to others. I tell my children stories about my teta (grandmother), who used to wash paper plates and tell me about how she caught birds in Haifa to eat because they didn’t have money for food. My children have never met my teta, but I like to think that whatever influence she had on me will get passed down to them through the way that I love them. In this way, my teta’s love continues, even if my children can’t see her or even necessarily know what came from her.

Maybe love is how we all stay interconnected. We are one big melting pot of lots of people and their love spanning the entire existence of human beings. Imagine if we could quantify that like we are able to take a genetic test these days. I’d love to know that something about me can trace back to a great-great-great grandfather from a different country, passed down many generations by love.

I often wonder about why we are so obsessed with love lasting forever. I know that people are fearful of death, and that this must be a major factor.

But maybe love doesn’t have to last forever. Maybe love exists to serve a purpose in the world of the living. Just like religion is for the living. And funerals and cemeteries are for the living.

Maybe spirituality is something that helps us connect with other people in the now, and that the most important thing we can do in terms of love is to use our love–past and present–to guide a better tomorrow, for everyone, right now.

We spend so much time trying to hold on to our love from the past, wanting assurances that we will have it in the future, that we often neglect to love in the present. Truly love, not just our family, but also our friends, neighbors, enemies–everyone.

I think connection is powerful. Relationships. The many faces of love: maternal, paternal, friendship, intimate love, neighbors, colleagues, with our pets, for society, for the world, and love for strangers. Love should not be one dimensional.

Instead of obsessing about our love being eternal, maybe it is more important to have an eternal source of love to spread widely, to the people who are so desperately in need of love today.

Inside each of us, we carry a foundation of love that has been strengthened by everyone we have ever loved in the past. This source of love is the eternal spring by which we must spread more love.

This might be how our love with the deceased can last forever–by loving widely,  living a life of love, and inspiring others to love. This is how we ensure that our future generations are loved as sweetly and purely as we have been loved.

Exposure: The Building Blocks of Our Life

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Have you ever thought about what you have been exposed to in your life? Family, school, friends, jobs, current events, changes in technology, relationships, and everything else that shapes who we are. Even in one family, siblings would have a completely unique experience despite growing up in the same household.

We are the totality of everything that we have ever been exposed to, which makes us as unique as our fingerprints. We can never exactly duplicate someone’s life.

It’s interesting to study the background of famous people.

Albert Einstein’s father was an engineer who had a company that manufactured electrical equipment based on direct current.

Pablo Picasso’s father was a painter and his mother was an artist.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother took her to the library frequently as a child and encouraged her to get an education.

Beethoven’s grandfather was a renowned musician.

Maya Angelou had a family friend who introduced her to literature, and that helped her begin to speak after being mute for 5 years following sexual abuse as a child.

After Jean-Paul Sartre’s father passed away, he had a grandfather in his life who was a German and math teacher. That grandfather exposed him to classical literature.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, and Teresa Shimogawa all grew up reading Nancy Drew. 🙂

A few days ago at an educational summit for my school district regarding students becoming “future ready,” the concept of exposure was brought up, and how important it is for children.

I mulled over the concept over the weekend.

Exposing students to opportunities for innovation, internships, developing character, building skills in communication, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration–all of this is important in preparing students to be college and career ready beyond their secondary education.

Kids are more likely to become inventors when they grow up in cities with other inventors. The fact that this correlation exists makes it imperative for public schools to pay attention, because we may be the only source of exposure for a child who didn’t grow up with inventors as parents.

While it is possible for a person like Picasso to stumble into the world of art, it certainly wasn’t a coincidence that the renowned artist grew up with artists. He had that exposure. They taught him technique. They bought him supplies and created space for him to practice. They talked about art in their home. It was a part of their environment.

Not everyone gets that kind of in-depth exposure, or even any exposure at all. In our public schools, we teach students who have never gone to a museum, whose parents and grandparents have never left the continent, and students who don’t have anyone in their family with a college degree. We teach students who might rarely even see their parents because the parents are working multiple jobs and just trying to survive. We teach students who grow up with a lot of negative and damaging exposure, who have more bad influences than good, and coming to school is the safest part of their day.

In public schools, our job is to level the playing field. We have a responsibility to expose students to not only math and history and English and science and the other content areas that we’re supposed to cover, but also expose our students to the soft skills they need to be college and career ready.

We have to expose our students to music and dance and culinary and foreign language and give them opportunities to do civic action projects and write poetry and learn how to give a TED talk and engage in activities that may not show up on a standardized test, but are so important to how they develop as human beings. This exposure will have a lasting impact not just on their brains, but more importantly on their souls.

We are planting seeds. We don’t know which ones will germinate. We have no idea if the seeds will become beautiful fruit-bearing plants at all; all we know is that we planted seeds and gave them the opportunity to grow into something more by providing the most ideal growing conditions that we could control in the time that we had with them.

I think about my own exposure. My mom took us to the library every week. I was in Girl Scouts. I took honors and A.P. classes and participated in Mock Trial in high school. My mother was an immigrant with family overseas. My father showed us hard work by working two jobs throughout much of my childhood. I had a grandmother who showed her love through cooking and cleaning, who washed paper plates because she remembered when times were so hard they had to catch birds for food. We watched the news regularly in my home and got the newspaper daily. My mom took me to Israel and Egypt when I was 17 years old, causing a life-long case of wanderlust. I might have never really known much about what a union was if it weren’t for my colleague at my new school who told me and the other new guy that there was a rally on the street at 3PM and she would see us there. As the new person, I didn’t think I had a choice. So I showed up. Then later, I married a guy who would pull me in even deeper, exposing me to more politics, Buddhism, finance, health, philosophy, and more. I worked for people who exposed me to new things. I went to college and took classes that shaped my thinking. I traveled. I traveled with people and I traveled alone. I met family abroad. I had students and teachers and neighbors and friends and enemies and success and failure–all of this exposure to people, places, and experiences are what I carry inside of me like an imprint on my DNA.

There’s a lot of stuff that I wasn’t exposed to. I was the first college graduate in my household. I didn’t take half of the classes that my kids currently take.

My first grade teacher did a project where we picked a coloring book page and had to write a story about it. I chose a picture of a doll wearing a bonnet and wrote “The Doll That Nobody Wanted.” My very first fiction story. The teacher laminated the cover and we had proper little books. I must have gone to elementary school during a wave of creative writing, because we did it again in other grades, and I cherished the books I got to make. Even though I loved writing, I didn’t have anyone around to tell me how to become a writer. I’m 36 years old and still trying to figure it out. Five years ago, right after I had my second child, I decided to get books on how to write fiction. I had no idea why I didn’t think of it sooner, but there I was, reading books while nursing the baby and trying to keep a toddler happy. Then I started going to Starbucks on Saturdays at 6AM before the kids woke up. After my husband passed away, I hired a sitter and tried to go 2-3 times a week. This year, I hired a writing coach. I also signed up for a writing retreat. Who knew you could find someone to give you insider information? I was amazed, as if I stumbled upon the world’s best kept secret. The point of all of this is that I had exposure as a young child–not much, but enough to know that writing was something I had to do–and those crumbs of exposure set me on a long path of figuring out how to make it happen. Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, is a successful writer. I sure wish I had Stephen King as a dad. I certainly wouldn’t have spent the last five years bungling around trying to figure “this” out. But five years of bungling is better than a lifetime of never doing it. I’m so thankful to have the ability to bungle thanks to early exposure to creative writing.

I think about my own children and my parenting philosophy of exposing them to as much as I can. I am attempting to impart as much wisdom and knowledge to them as I can during their childhood. For food, you have to expose your child to something over a dozen times before determining whether or not they truly don’t like it. I didn’t want my children to be picky eaters like I was, so thankfully they developed an adventurous palate. It helped that they grew up with a Vietnamese babysitter who stuffed them with Vietnamese food that I wouldn’t even touch. More exposure! Kids in the United States are generally known for being picky eaters, but when you look at a child’s menu in a restaurant you can easily guess why: mac n cheese, chicken nuggets, pizza. If that’s what you repeatedly expose your child to, that’s what they are going to eat.

Yesterday I drove one kid to Japanese school and then took the little one to swim. Meanwhile, I packed the middle child’s color pencils and coloring books because she thinks she is an artist and I want to encourage her interests (in addition to paying for her weekly art class). That’s just a tiny slice of our crazy schedule. Our life includes more swim lessons, Cub Scouts, tennis lessons, dharma school, coding, chess club, Mad Science, dance, music class, trips to the library, vacations abroad, museums, books, books, more books. I want to raise resilient children, so we talk about everything from nutrition and exercise to death to politics to our feelings. I don’t sugarcoat life. I want my children exposed to the real world so they will develop coping skills to increase their ability to survive and thrive.

The beautiful thing about exposure is that the more we are exposed to ideas, knowledge, and experiences, the more we begin to seek out exposure on our own. It is part of what makes a life-long learner. It is what distinguishes a curious person from a non-curious person. When you are curious, you want to to know more. You want to talk to people. You want to try new things. You are open to taking risks.

Here’s the thing about life: we can’t successfully operate long-term in silos. We often create and do work independently, but we are most effective, creative, and successful when we collaborate and network with others.

You should read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He writes about how creativity is fueled by getting ideas from other people. We start off by imitating others. Kleon writes about how the Beatles started as a cover band. You emulate people you admire, and then eventually you are able to evolve your own unique style. That evolution is fueled by other people’s ideas. We grow and learn and love and inspire and connect–this is what helps us flourish. Kleon writes that you “don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” This is powerful. But to “see like your heroes,” you have to get that exposure. Inspiration. Creative fuel. It is magic to be around other people who have an energy and spirit that fosters new ideas. I love learning from other people.

We often criticize people (especially younger generations) for staring at their phones too much, but what we don’t talk about is how magnificent the internet has been for connection and getting exposed to people and ideas. If we use the internet as the valuable tool that it is, we can connect in ways that were previously impossible. Look at how the teenagers have used social media to create a nationwide movement after the school mass shooting in Florida. I have found so many inspiring people online. Even having the ability to find information is wild when you think about our lives before mainstream internet. It’s not the internet that makes us anti-social or isolated. The internet is a tool, just like a telephone or a cell phone or even old school snail mail have all always been just tools. We humans are responsible for the connection.

Connection is power. Connecting with others gives us exposure. It is the source of knowledge, ideas, empathy, understanding, innovation, love, and it is what moves humanity.

Exposure works both ways. We can expose ourselves to negative people and experiences that drag us down, or we can experience the kind that aligns with our purpose and goals.

If you are a parent or work with children, I challenge you to reflect on what the children are being exposed to, particularly during the time that you are with them, of which you have more control.

If you are an adult, I challenge you to be more intentional about what you are exposed to. The beauty of adulthood is having more control over our lives. Whether you are 18 years old or 35 or 55 or 95–you have choice. Will you go through life like driftwood, or will you be in control of your own sails?

Most importantly, no matter who you are, don’t stop learning. Don’t stop connecting. Don’t stop being curious. Don’t forget about the value of what we are exposed to, every single day, because we carry it inside of us, and it is all a part of our individual story.