What Others Have

More playing around with an audio essay. Tonight is about envy. Comparison.

And going to bed feeling melancholy over the news that a family I know has lost their daughter today, a young woman in her early 30s, and that she leaves behind a husband and a 4-year-old. Another reminder that life can be brutally unfair and cruel. Tonight I kiss my children extra hard in remembrance of all the moms and dads who will never get to see their children grow up, my husband included.

I am reminded that everything I have right now is more than enough. I am lucky.

(A “real” essay on its way this week. Stay tuned.)

From the Files of the Pain Curator

I decided that I must be a Pain Curator. I might have been born to have this job. I’ve pretty much spent my entire life intrigued by horrible stories, and now, trying to survive a horrible story. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m super nosy, and a kind of unlucky. Or secretly a sensitive person. I don’t know, but pain manages to find me. Or I find it. Maybe a little of both.

Today’s exhibit: the ugliness of single parenthood after your husband has the nerve to die on you and leave you with 3 kids.

My first venture into the audio world:

Caution: use of profanity, a bad attitude, and very amateur recording skills. I apologize for all three offenses in advance. I’m tired.  

Raising a Daughter

I’ve been a little MIA for the past couple of weeks because I was finishing a project for a contest. Now I’m back to a flurry of essay writing while I sit in the trenches of story outlining for a month or two, after which I plan to complete a new fiction project that is near and dear to my heart. Something I’ve been wanting to complete for a while.

But moving on to today’s essay. A topic I’ve thought a lot about in the past 5 years.

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From the moment she came into this world, Eloise preferred her father. She would scowl at me and then bury her head into his chest as if he were her greatest protector. Sure, I was her meal ticket and the one who carried her inside of me for 39 weeks and gave birth to her without drugs, but her father was the one who she reached for, the one who could calm her down and make her feel special. She reveled in the role of being daddy’s girl.

Kenneth was kind, gentle, and patient with Ellie. He was like that with all of his children, but he was particularly sensitive with her. When she was being potty trained, Kenneth sat next to her for however long she needed. He’d patiently read to her a book and keep her company with words of encouragement, usually while I threw my hands up in the air and went to do some other pressing chore from a long list of things to do. If Ellie made a mistake or spilled her drink for the 20th time that day, he reassured her that it was okay and calmly cleaned it up. Kenneth would lie on the colorful play mat next to her while she played with her toys. He had no problem fetching toys that she threw over the side of her high chair over and over again. He brushed her hair and read to her the 10th book of the evening, brought her a cup of water, and handled whatever other bedtime curveball she threw at him to avoid lights out. He never lost his temper. She had him wrapped around her tiny finger.

I got annoyed at him for pandering to her brattiness. To me, Eloise reminded me a lot of him: the whiny middle child who always thought they were getting short-changed. She cried a lot as a baby and had projectile spit-up that needed a clean-up crew several times a day. She wasn’t cuddly like her older brother, and not as smiley as her younger brother. She was super serious, just like her father. Her mouth even had the same downward curve when her lips were solemnly pressed together and it reminded me of her half-brother, another serious child. It felt like she was pushing me away from the moment she was born.

When Kenneth died, it was Eloise I felt sorry for the most. Peter was clueless. Ethan was very close to his father, but he was definitely a mama’s boy. I knew I could smother him with love and take care of him. But Eloise?

I was seriously worried about her. 

How was I going to be enough for her?

I have to admit, there were several times when I told Kenneth “I don’t know how I’m going to survive the rest of my life with Eloise. She’s a pain in the ass.”

And there I was, alone with Eloise. I didn’t have him to hand her off to. I didn’t have him to go in and calm her down. I didn’t have him to calm me down. No referee. No second opinion or family buffer. Just the two queens under one roof.

I decided that I had to make it a point not to butt heads with my daughter. I didn’t want to live that way. And now I had an extra responsibility. I had to make up for the fact that she had lost her favorite person: her father. I’d have to love her enough for the both of us. She needed me. 

I realized that the things that bugged me about Eloise weren’t necessarily the traits she inherited from her father.

It was a broader issue of a mother raising a daughter. Something I imagine all of us mothers must deal with to some degree.

I saw my weaknesses in her, and I had an overwhelming urge to want to fix her. To not let her repeat any of my mistakes.

I knew it was daughter-specific because I never felt that way with the boys. I couldn’t relate to the way little boys got on their hands and knees and play with Hot Wheels. I couldn’t relate to the way boys want to get dirty, how they swing their swords around and want to shoot at things, or the way that they are constantly wrestling like puppies with boundless energy.

But I can relate to the way that my daughter seeks external validation. The way she wants to be told that she is pretty. The way she wants to be liked, and the way her face crumples when the girls at school don’t want to include her. The way she yearns to be enough, and wants to be told she is enough.

I want to take it all away from her. Stop her from going down that same familiar path that will take her years to recover from.

But it’s not my job to fix her.

I find myself wanting to change the things about her that aren’t me, like the way she loves princesses and pink and won’t believe me when I say black is the best color. She loves cats and names everything “Sparkle Sparkle Unicorn.” She obsesses over lipstick and shoes and purses and sticks her hips out for pictures and spends time brushing her hair and coordinating outfits– none of which are anything like me.

But that’s not my job to tell my daughter what she should or shouldn’t like.

Eloise is 4.5 years old. I’m not naive enough to think that the job of raising a daughter will get any easier, or that I’ve even reached the depths of the trials and tribulations of mothering a daughter.

But I don’t want to wait until she is an adult to think about what I should’ve done for her.

I want to do better for her. We can always do better. I know that it will be a job that will require a lot of recalibration and reflection. A job that will require more listening than reacting. A job that I will probably never get completely right. But I want to at least do this job in a way that when my daughter grows up, she will know that I did my very best to be a better woman for her. A woman that always stood by her side. 

This is what I’ve come up with as my job as Eloise’s mother:

My job is to help her feel safe. To help her get an education and help her understand how an education will lead to her independence. That independence is the most important thing a woman can secure for herself.

My job is to help her be a life-long learner.

To teach her the importance of health.

To speak her love language, even when it is not the same as mine. This will involve lots of hugs when she needs reassurance and verbal praise and reminders that she is smart and capable and important.

My job is to help her have as many opportunities as possible.

To help her see that her worth is not tied to her sex.

To help her see through social barriers and to help her acquire the tools to tear them down.

My job is to be her cheerleader. Her nurse. A person who will listen to her. A mentor. Somebody who she can go to with her fears and questions. A person who will help her troubleshoot the inevitable problems that life presents without judgement.

My job is to take interest in the things that interest her, even when they aren’t what I would choose for myself.

My job is to help her become resilient. To teach her how to rely on herself. To never give up, even when the world feels patently unfair.

To find a new path when one doesn’t work out.

To have an open mind.

To try. And try again. And again. Always keep trying.

My job is to teach her about life through the way that I live, as her role model. Not so she can be just like me, but so she can see what is possible for women. And then let her choose her own path.

My job is to be there for my daughter. I am enough for her. I am exactly what she needs. That in this big and scary world we have each other. That I will always love her, even when my body is no longer in this world.

If I can remember anything from my own journey as a woman, it’s that we all want to know that we are enough. 

Eloise is enough. She was born enough.

My job as her mother is to spend the rest of my life reminding her that she is enough. 

We are enough.

Happy Birthday, Kenneth

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Another birthday has come, without him. Today would have been Kenneth’s birthday.

The kids have decided that they would like to visit him at the cemetery, go to the library, eat Curry House, and then cake. I cancelled yoga and swim classes for everyone and we are just going to hunker down at home. For some reason retreating into our home feels as close to him as we can ever get. Our house was his childhood home. He loved it so much, and it is where we spent the last three years of his life with him. The house is where we remember him trying to build garden beds, trying his hand at gardening (he wasn’t very good at it, but he tried). Our house is where he worked on his magic stand, and where he sat in the kitchen practicing his tricks. It’s where there are pictures of him as a small child on a playset in the backyard. His childhood room still has a closet with his writing inside of it, listing the names of girls he liked and songs he loved. In the garage, it still has his 5 year old scrawl spelling “Kenny” on the wall. (He really, really liked writing on walls, apparently.) The house is where he spent time in the kitchen juicing. It is where we hosted many parties with him, like his 50th Star Trek birthday party.

The house is where he died.

And now, this house is where part of his ashes have been laid to rest in a biodegradable urn beneath a young avocado tree. This house is holy to our family, because it is almost part of him.

The kids watched Frankenweenie this past weekend. I noticed the way their eyes grew large at the scene when the dog comes back to life, all stitched up.

Eloise turned toward me. “I wish Daddy could come back,” she said.

“I wish he could too. But you know he can not.”

She nodded sadly. “I miss him.”

“Me too.”

Ethan nodded. Him too.

“I miss Daddy!” Peter piped up, even though he only knew his father as a picture above the fireplace and the plaque on the cemetery niche.

We all miss him, and there’s nothing we would want more in the world than to be cutting a Marie Callender’s lemon cream cheese pie with him today.

Happy Birthday, Kenneth, wherever you are. You were loved. You are loved. For always.

The Missing

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The feeling of missing someone is a tricky subject. This morning I received a reminder from Timehop about a Facebook status I posted 6 years ago. It said: my dutiful husband went to 3 Starbucks for me just so I could try the new salted caramel drink they have 🙂

Many things have changed in the past 6 years. First of all, you couldn’t pay me to drink one of those diabetes-inducing drinks today. But even more significant, I don’t have a husband to buy the drink for me even if I wanted one.

Thanks a lot, Timehop. I could have done without the reminder.

Recently someone asked if I missed Kenneth. I appreciated the question. Really. Most of the time people are too afraid to ask about this pain I carry around every single day, so when somebody does, it’s refreshing to feel like for once somebody sees me.

Do I miss Kenneth?

I think I shrugged.

I mean…

Well…

Uh…

You know…

More shrugs. Divert the eyes.

I don’t know how to answer that question. Missing feels like such a huge waste of time. It’s a reminder of the hurt that would be better off bottled up and hidden inside of a forgotten drawer that never gets opened except in the solitude of the night with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. Every time I wander down that road I have an overwhelming urge to want to slap myself, so I tend to avoid it.

I feel like it’s more of a matter of not liking things.

I don’t like being alone. I haven’t enjoyed the loss of my ally who was always in my corner. I don’t like that I have to live a life where I am required to push 10 times harder with 10 times more grit and at the end of every single day I always feel like it was never enough.

I don’t like that my errand boy isn’t around to do my bidding.

I don’t like that my children are fatherless.

I don’t like having to deal with the sexist attitudes toward single women and single mothers.

Speaking of which, I hate being a single mother. You do everything by the book in life but one day you wake up and suddenly you are everything you’re not supposed to be, plunged into a new reality where everything is harder and you feel like one big repellent to the rest of the world.

I don’t like not having my person to discuss politics and ideas and having him totally understand me.

I don’t like not having my fan boy around. I liked being the queen.

I don’t like killing my own spiders.

I don’t like having to depend on help with the kids.

I don’t like having another birthday or anniversary or holiday pass and always feeling incomplete.

I don’t like having to make big decisions by myself.

I don’t like facing uncertainty without a shoulder to lean on.

I don’t like being the only adult responsible for the family.

I don’t like other people’s assumptions about a life they don’t understand.

I don’t like having to always be the one to do the dishes.

I don’t like making my own coffee.

I don’t like the way the rest of life seems to go exponentially faster but he will always be left behind, me being pushed along, forced to smile even when the searing pain of my bones being crushed with grief makes it difficult to force another stupid smile so you don’t think I’m incapable of functioning amidst the suffocating realities of life.

I mean, I could go on and on and on.

Do I miss Kenneth?

Let me try to explain how I miss Kenneth. This missing is the feeling I had to carry to the public education conference in Oakland last weekend, knowing that he should have been there with me instead of in a cemetery. I carry this feeling around every single night when I go to bed alone. I see it in my children’s eyes at school events where a father should be. It’s a feeling that ebbs and flows inside of me when I am scared or unsure or worried or stressed or angry. I see it in the soft light of a rising sun. I hear it in the sound of church bells, and I feel it in the space of an empty passenger seat. I notice it in the crispness of a cold night, in the darting movement of a dragonfly, and sometimes it hits me when I set the platter of food down on the dinner table and notice the extra chair.

But I try not to feel any of it, or think too much about it, because nothing will bring him or my former life back.

As for how I deal with the missing, it’s pretty simple: I force myself to live this exiled life in a way that tries to create meaning out of the inexplicable pain I’ve been forced to carry inside of me every single day.

The alternative is to crumble and stay broken, but I want to believe that maybe, just maybe, there might be a reason for all of this. Maybe I need to be patient enough to wait for it to unfold, and for right now I have to just choose to believe.

The Math of Only Parenthood

When Kenneth was alive, we split everything in half. He drove the kids to preschool in the mornings while I went to teach 0 period, and some time before the end of 5th period we traded keys and I took the van to pick the kids up. I cooked dinner and he did the dishes. Sometimes duties were redistributed, like during the height of the nursing years, when I was tied down with a baby attached to me, and he would pick up tasks that required mobility, like running errands. We both changed diapers. We both gave the kids baths. There were times when he took care of the finances, and other times when I did, depending on what else was going on in our lives. We had our squabbles over who was doing what, and our opinions about how the other person did their job(s), but mostly everything was split down the middle, and we operated like an overworked, but finely tuned machine.

I went to a summer conference while he stayed with the kids. He went to Montreal with a friend while I stayed with the kids. I went to meetings. He went to meetings.

I didn’t have to feel guilty if I left the kids with him. Or not as guilty. They were with their dad. It can’t be an imposition if it is with their dad. He was 50% responsible. He would make sure business as usual happened even if I wasn’t home, and I would do the same. The kids would eat at their usual dinner table, eating their usual dinners. They would play with their usual toys and then sleep in their usual beds. The rules were the same. The family operated the same, whether it was me, or him, or both of us. The ship continued to sail.

As an only parent, I get 100% of the duties. 100% of the responsibilities. This is probably the bitterest pill to swallow when your husband goes and dies on you.

You begin a life of cobbling together help, like a bunch of mismatched puzzle pieces that will never complete a picture. It’s a part-time job keeping track of schedules and soliciting help. Your life becomes one big imposition. You feel like a retail manager keeping track of shifts with employees that have limited availability and inevitably leaving you with uncovered shifts. Not enough employees, and the ones you do have keep changing the rules of how the store is run. This is the chaos of only parenthood.

Help comes and goes. Even the paid kind of help. It will never be the same as the father. Kenneth could never just leave me to figure out how to pick up a child or who would watch them for an overnight trip. A parent, at least the kind of parent who is involved in their child’s life, doesn’t get the luxury of not being responsible for their child’s care. Your kids don’t stop needing to go to school or be fed or taken to the doctor or bathed. You, as a parent, don’t get relieved of these duties. When Kenneth was around, he shared half of the responsibility for making sure these needs were met.

Now, I am always 50% behind. I have to work harder. Sacrifice longer. Deprive myself. Push myself. I am constantly submerged in guilt and fatigue and loneliness and hopelessness.

One of the worst things about becoming an only parent is having to rely on Help.

Help has their own conditions. Help has their own opinions. Help wants to do things their way. You must submit to Help, or Help won’t help. After all, beggars can’t be choosers. Help always comes with strings, even when Help claims it never will. You will be an imposition to Help. Help comes and goes. Help has their own life, and Help doesn’t necessarily come to help with the things that you really want help with. Help prefers to help with what Help likes. Help is helping you, so you can’t be too picky.

You have been condemned to a life of being a beggar, an imposition, a hopelessly indebted leach of a person who is overwhelmed by the brutal requirements of life as an only parent. If you express these feelings of isolation and frustration, then you must need help. Nobody will understand. They just want you to smile and say everything is okay. Help won’t help if you make them uncomfortable.

It isn’t Help’s fault that your husband died. You were the stupid one to marry the man whose aorta would explode. You chose wrong. It’s your burden to carry. Not Help’s.

And anyway, sometimes there is no Help available. Sometimes you just have to scurry around and figure it out on your own. Sometimes you feel like hiring an HR department just to keep Help around when you need them.

People who have never been alone with three children and a dead husband so easily tell somebody who is alone with three children and dead husband how they should feel. How they should do things. It must be nice to be a commentator on a life you do not understand or live.

Being an only parent is like a slow leak. I worry that one day I will wake up completely empty.

The Loneliness of Grief

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I realized that maybe I wasn’t just tired. The low energy, the feelings of disinterest, the stress of being overwhelmed by life. I knew exactly what it was when Loneliness appeared. I immediately recognized it, which happens when you’ve been visited by Loneliness so many times before.

Loneliness fills my insides. I carry it around; it is heavy and stagnant and festers. It doesn’t matter who I am around. It doesn’t matter what I am doing. Loneliness overrides all of it. It is the feeling of being completely alone in the world. You can’t see me, and I can’t see you.

I am with a group of people, but I might as well be the only person in the room. I smile. I make conversation. I do my work. But I am not there. I don’t want to be there, because I feel so alone. Like a big, green bug that is out of place. I don’t belong.

The loneliness swallows me up into a vast ocean of desolation; my feet can never touch the bottom, and I struggle to keep my head above water. I am lost somewhere in the middle. When I am not drowning, I am exiled to a deserted island where I must live alone with myself and all of the ugliness. But it is better than life in the real world. This ugly little place feels safer. There is nothing in the real world that can fill the void that expands inside of me.

Loneliness is darkness that makes me see distorted realities about myself. Last week I was happy; this week everything is hopeless. I am hopeless. I did something to deserve this. I am the cause of everything.

I wonder if it will ever end.

I want it to go away.

And sometimes I don’t want it to go away. It is the only thing I have left. My grief. The pain. There is nothing else.

Today is exactly 17 months, 1 day since Kenneth passed away.

Lately he has been in my dreams at night, lingering. I wake up and have that feeling of just missing him by a few seconds. I can feel him as if he were there, even when the emptiness in the room reminds me otherwise. He seems to be lurking everywhere: the heaviness in my heart, the dragonfly darting around in the sky, my children’s expressions, the lyrics of a song, an invisible presence that hangs thick in the air.

My first reaction is to push it away.

Go away.

There is no good in thinking about what is already lost.

But it also feels comfortable and familiar, like I can almost pretend that he is here. Back to the times when our family felt whole. Sometimes that feels better than the alternative.

I’m tired of waking up alone.

I’m tired of taking care of kids alone. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with the children and caring for them. It’s just that I was meant to do it with their father. Now I am left with all of it lumped on my shoulders–the enjoyable moments and the tedious responsibility–and it is a load that feels onerous, and I have become weary. Nobody understands. I don’t want them to understand. This is my burden to carry alone.

I’m tired of not having him to talk to in the hallway at work. It magnifies the loneliness I already feel. It should be a crime to lose your work spouse and your real spouse. I fantasize about leaving. Moving to a place where nobody knows me. Starting over. Somewhere that doesn’t have memories trapped inside of hallways and fixed to objects and people and places. I think maybe a blank slate would be appealing.

But the loneliness finds me wherever I am.

I have things I want to tell him.

I have questions I never got to ask.

I wonder how long I have to live with this incompleteness, this hole in my being.

I’ve learned that you can’t get rid of Loneliness, but you can learn to live with it. It’s like getting caught in a riptide. You don’t fight it.

Breathe. Lean into myself. Exercise. Relax. Get enough sleep. Or try my usual tactic: dig myself out of this hole with lots of hard work. Keep busy. Work, work, work. Keep doing this until it makes me feel more overwhelmed.

I know I have to listen to myself. I have to stay still long enough to hear the voice inside of me. I have to persevere.

This will pass. I know it will pass. I just need to grit my teeth and rally. One little teeny tiny baby step at a time. This is my reality. My riptide.

Don’t fight it. I’ll drown.

Ride it out. My only other option isn’t an option. At least not today.