“Can being happy be this easy? Must I live outside of the life I’ve chosen in order to find myself again?”The Best Gift Sylvia Ever Received
The transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas (with Hanukkah right in-between this year) should be fairly seamless, incredibly meaningful, and perhaps even bittersweet, especially for those who have become acutely aware of what it means to be blessed and live with intention. The anticipated seamlessness between the holidays has been anything but smooth and unfettered though. The intervening days and weeks have instead been marred with more heartache than ever imagined, as the pandemic and its effects leave some sick, others on death’s door, and still others left in the wake to deal with losses (of life for some, of livelihood for others) of unfathomable proportions, the likes of which can barely be handled in even the sanest and most stable times.
Only through loss, grief, despair, and sorrow though have I learned what it means to experience bounty, joy, and peace. The gifts and acceptance of the latter only come when the three former have been endured with grace. I don’t pretend that I have mastered grace, but I’ve definitely cleared a path to it. The steps toward it offer me mild relief when I stop momentarily to be present and appreciate simple abundance. I have more than my fair share; many of us do.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Order. Peace. Joy. Purpose. In these last few days, I have asked for both the giving and receiving of each; and in their absence no matter the reason, my plea is for grace.
The gifts of the season? Aren’t they gifts that we should generously offer and graciously accept all year long?
Generosity and grace: the presents in presence.
Last night she closed her eyes to the sound of teeming rain and claps of thunder. She awoke to a deafening silence amidst a gray background. So that was it. Another day ended and another in the works.
“See, Sylvia, it all keeps moving along,” Erma reassures her friend.
“Indeed. I never said the loss was all or nothing. It’s been all and everything,” professes Sylvia.
When you experience loss, people say you’ll move through the 5 stages of grief….
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
…..What they don’t tell you is that you’ll cycle through them all every day.
She never really liked the beach, not during the summer anyway. Despite having grown up in a quaint, New England seaside village, she didn’t care for the mess of it, the lugging of paraphernalia that would end up either sand-laden or salt-water soaked, and on most visits to the beach, both; and she absolutely never relished the idea of baking in the sun, clad in an uncomfortable and unforgiving swimsuit while under the seemingly critical eyes of passersby. But now for some reason, for many reasons that rest deep within her in fact, she finds solace on the shore, dreams in the clouds, and love- yes, love- of nature, herself, and the stories she can only conjure as she lies on her stomach on the comfortably worn-in cotton throw that has seen its day at home but is only just beginning to gain new purpose and life from her recent sojourns to the ocean.
Sylvia, half asleep in the late afternoon August sun and being lulled by the gentle rhythm of lapping waves upon the shore, smiles as she feels his fingertips on the small of her back. She stirs slightly but not in a way evident to him. She doesn’t really want him to know that he has awakened her, aroused something inside of her that for the moment she wants to keep for herself. He’ll know soon enough.
She inhales fully. Holds her breath. Perhaps he won’t notice the goosebumps that she feels on the back of her neck and the tops of her thighs. He touches her again, this time with a full, gentle yet purposeful, open hand. He slides his hand from the small of her back, over her backside, and between her legs. With a long, slow exhale, she quivers. Although her eyes remain closed and her head in the clouds, she is transported and he knows it. And with the next gentle crash of waves upon the shore, his hands still at home on her inner thighs, he leans over her, brushes the hair off the back of her neck, and exacts the most intoxicating mixture of nibbling and sucking of the sun-kissed nape he has been craving.
The vastness of the beach and the ocean; the strength and rhythm of the waves; the intensity of the afternoon sun; all of it at once encapsulates the lovers. The moment his lips touch the back of her neck, all of her surroundings disappear. Sylvia is nowhere, and she does not long to be anywhere else. The gentleman and gentle man of equal age and intellect, whose eyes saw a vacancy that yearned to be filled years ago, reads her mind and body, as easily and excitedly as she has read her copy of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice each long summer since it was first introduced to her three decades ago. Time and place are of little consequence at that moment. His touch, his lips, and every fiber of her being are in sync. And with the next wave, Sylvia is on her back and he, at her unspoken but most deliberate urging, has come to rest atop her, intertwined and superbly fitted in all the right places. Sylvia, arms outstretched, happily surrenders. With his body almost rooted in hers and while his toes grow more deeply implanted in the sand, he sees under him a woman who completely adores and welcomes the accompanying mess from this day at the beach.
“Sylvia, Sylvia. Wake up. You’ve been daydreaming again. Come down from the clouds- at least for today.”
Sylvia carries a great deal around with her. On her mind. In her heart. And yes, especially in her purse. “The contents of a woman’s purse, or pocketbook as many of us refer to the bottomless bag of life, are sacred,” Erma declares to her friend. And Sylvia, her mind wandering to the bottom of her bag, quietly pronounces in agreement, “Mine are for sure.”
Since my mother died, I bring her with me in one of my favorite totes–yes, bits and pieces of her with me everywhere I go. Literally. Though much of her bodily remains are tucked away peacefully in a carved rosewood box she now shares with my father, awaiting their intermingling, I do keep some of “her” in one of her old medicine bottles- the ultimately inconsequential labeling has long been removed. After all, it’s been over a decade since she died and since her wish to be cremated was fulfilled. I change pocketbooks frequently too, so the little brown vessel that held one of the life-saving or rather life-prolonging concoctions she required has traveled and withstood the test of time. Those bottles don’t crack easily, but admittedly, that is not the point here.
Last week as I moved Mom from the black-and-camel Michael Kors bucket bag to the bright pink, Kate Spade satchel to the less cumbersome, multi-colored, crossbody Coach, I came to a realization. Well, two, actually. First, I’m a bag lady. Second, and more of an epiphany of sorts: I’m not bringing Mom anywhere. She’s gone from this earth. And yes, even to this day, I get a lump in my throat and a knot in my belly when I say those words out loud. Here is what I’ve been bringing with me on my travels, whether to the grocery store or local “Stomping Ground” or to Brooklyn to visit our favorite young man (there is no doubt in my mind that she would have proudly bestowed upon him that moniker). That little bottle of ashes represents my mother’s greatest gift to me. It’s the constant reminder that (1) life is fleeting; and (2) when we leave this world, everything tangible has little to no real value. Those things with the greatest meaning aren’t things at all. They are people and memories of shared experiences. The sum and total of one’s physical presence on this earth is reduced to ash, dust in the wind. The heart and soul of the person, his or her spiritual presence, lives on in those he or she loved, cared for, or touched in some way while on this earth. The ashes that I carry I’ve come to view as Mom’s ultimate lesson to me. We don’t get second chances. Make this life count.
And as I start this new day, I’m thankful for so much, the very least of which is the tiny, amber-colored, prescription bottle that travels with me. Where will I go today and who will accompany me? I don’t know every detail, but one thing I do know is that I’ll do my best to make moments count, to tell people who matter that I love and respect them, and to keep creating my life. It’s not over until it’s ash. I’ll keep adding to my bonfire.
Sylvia is reminded of one of her favorite passages– and so, she’ll keep going:
Intriguing isn’t it? One day you are the king of your world. And the next day, you stand aside, watching it all burn. Ashes slipping out of your hand, you just stand and stare, your glassy gaze fixed on something no one else could see, no one else could know…
People will talk as people do talk. And they will walk over the ashes. And the ashes will dance in front of you, reminding you every second of what was and what might have been. And you will almost give in.
But my advice is, don’t give in. Because one day, you will decide to turn the corner. Put it all behind you. Just stand strong and still as the great wind comes and takes all the ashes away with with it, leaving fresh air behind. Fresh for you to make a new world, a better world.~Aleena Yasin
My parents were pretty private people, considering my dad had a fairly high-profile presence in our hometown and Mom, by virtue of her marriage to him and her longtime employment at a couple of business mainstays around town, also found it difficult to go incognito. They tried though, especially when it came to showing weakness, vulnerability, or just ordinary flaws. That was clearly an attribute or a shortcoming (not for me to judge) of their generation. They both knew though I’m sure that I needed to find and expose something redeeming in their terrible illnesses and in their stories, so I don’t really care if I’m judged for sharing this intensely special moment. I want you to know that when you wonder why I miss an event or say no to an outing, that this is my reason. Not my excuse. My reason for having set my priorities as I have. You set yours and I set mine. Friends accept and support; they don’t judge.
Well, on this day as I reflect on that which means the most, I’ll leave you with this. When you think there is no hope, no solace, and no good in missing something or someone because it doesn’t change a thing, a moment takes your breath away to show you that there is always hope, comfort, and good especially in the ordinary- in what we take for granted every single day-until we no longer have it at our fingertips and within earshot.
Just when you think a page has been turned in the book- the memory book, that is- life has you go back to revisit what makes your heart full, brings you peace, and gives you the momentary reprieve, reassurance, and validation you need.
I hadn’t heard my name, my given name anyway, cross his lips in many months. And tonight, as he has just begun to turn the corner on a bout with pneumonia and was well enough to have an ice cream sundae, he said it, meant it, and knew me. Really knew me. I felt it with every fiber of my being. I’ve never liked my name that much until this evening.
Listen closely after I ask him if he’s ready.
Don’t call me a wonderful daughter. I don’t need praise. I’m just sharing this with you because every single one of us needs to know that individually we can make a difference and that one brief, fleeting moment can make all the difference in our own lives.
This is what is called a savorable memory.
Erma: It’s been a decade, right? Since your mom passed?
Sylvia: Yes, ten years in the blink of an eye. She must have been counting the days.
Erma: Yes, she undoubtedly wanted him home with her. They had been apart for too long. They were ready to be reunited and to live the eternity they had promised each other.
Sylvia: I wasn’t ready though. I’m still not. I don’t know how to navigate the rest of the journey. I’ve gone from devastated to lost.
Erma: Time. The only answer. It won’t heal but it will carry you. It will give you the life jacket you need from time to time to endure the waves that will pummel you at the most inconvenient and unexpected moments.
Sylvia: I don’t need a life jacket. I’m not drowning. I told you I feel lost. I’m numb, shivering, in a blinding snowstorm, and I have no idea of what is ahead.
Erma: None of us knows, Syl. That’s where the notion of faith enters. And you are so far from lost– lost suggests that there is something to be found. There is nothing to be found and everything to be felt.
Sylvia: Oh, okay, then I’m right on track.
It’s been a month of Sundays since he passed, figuratively of course. Much longer in reality, and certainly it feels even more like an eternity. I’m not paralyzed or empty or broken. I’m numb.
Every morning I awake hoping that I’ll complete the journey- the journey for which none of us is ever fully prepared- the journey off and away from the path of grief and sadness. Most people describe grief and its effect as wave-like; it ebbs and flows. It washes over you. It brings you under and makes it hard to catch your breath; and as soon as you stand and catch your breath, another wave knocks you down. It’s not a wave, not a ripple or a tsunami. It is more like the breathlessness you experience on a sub-zero day in the middle of January up north. This grief, this numbness, is totally different than any other I’ve ever felt. I can’t fully compare it to anything, not yet, because I know I haven’t lived through it completely. I doubt I ever will. Although if I had to liken this trek and its encumbrances to a relatable situation, I would imagine how one feels at a “Lost & Found” bin or depot. Hopeful yet aware of impending disappointment. Each morning I wake up headed to the lost and found.
The phone rang last night. A message was left. “Your belongings have turned up. We are holding them for you at the ‘Lost & Found‘ window. Come at your earliest convenience.”
So, I awake with a controlled eagerness to pick up what has been left. After all, it is mine. It has been left for me to retrieve. I shower, get dressed, and off I go. On my way to the “Lost & Found” today. Every day for a month of Sundays.
The journey has not taken me away or off the path. I have yet to retrieve what I believed belonged to me. I have yet to find wholeness. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps it is never to be found. But for now, I’ll keep listening to the message each night on the machine. I will keep getting up to see if the depot actually has what belongs to me. What needs to be reclaimed. I will live with the numbness- not in wave-like motion but in a traipse, much like the plodding of wearing full winter armor in heavy, wet snow on a frigid winter’s day. And eventually – I hope anyway- faith will melt the snow away from the path.
I hope I will recognize what it is I lost. If not, I hope I find the strength to delete the message and move forward.
Sylvia: Happy birthday, my dear! Older and wiser!
Erma: I don’t know about wiser, but I’m hopeful!
I don’t know what time she was born. I guess I could dig out her birth certificate and find out easily enough. To me, my mother was born the day I came into the world. Obviously, she had a life “b.k.”(before Kay), but I didn’t know her then. All I know of that woman who became my mother, both the little girl who wore braids and gingham and the young, blond-haired teen who played the drums before it was cool for a girl to play the drums, has been conveyed to me through others’ recollections, her own accounts as she would share an anecdote from her past with the slightly veiled purpose of teaching a lesson, and the photos that I have. And what connects all of the snapshots, real and those that I’ve taken in my mind’s eye which remain guarded like priceless treasure, is her eyes. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul; thus, it follows and must be that my mother, b.k. and always, was and remains one of the most beautiful, trusting, and trusted souls God could have offered this world.
Most of us, not all, love our mothers and have been loved by our mothers. I’ve been accused of worshipping mine. (In fact, my mother often reminded me, especially as she neared her last days, that she was indeed human, flawed like the rest of us, so she too should be allowed to make mistakes.) She would often say that the one bad rap that mothers had to endure was that they were held to a higher standard than everyone else on the planet! Now that I’m a mother, I admittedly understand this so much better. I digress though. I did worship my mother, something she never demanded or expected, but it happened nonetheless. How did it happen? Ah, that’s the question. The trusting and trusted eyes!
My mother had xray vision, vision that led her to know exactly what another human needed. To many and certainly to her family, this special sense- some call it a sixth sense while others deem it intuition- was who she was and how she lived her life at the very core. And while she may have regretted not doing all the things she had hoped to do before she died, I do believe she lived a purposeful life and her legacy is an honorable one. Her legacy? Her gift? She left it to everyone who had the honor and pleasure of looking into her eyes. My mother made those who crossed her path feel important, no matter their lot in life. She gave others hope. She found and saw something redeeming in everyone. She wasn’t oblivious to the harshness or evils of the world. She wasn’t naïve. She wasn’t optimistic. Mom was hopeful. I do believe there is a big difference between optimism and hope, and I think her trusting and trusted eyes became reflective of that difference.
I’m babbling a bit because as we all know the totality of a life cannot be put adequately into words. Indeed, my mother’s life cannot. Her legacy can though. Hope. She believed in me. She believed in her grandson. And if you had the good fortune of meeting her, befriending her, working for or with her, she believed in you. That belief – those trusting and trusted eyes- keep me hopeful. I don’t believe that life is perfect and I’m far from thinking everything will turn out well in the end. However, I am hopeful.
On her birthday, I’m going to trust her and her legacy. I’ll go to celebrate her life with my dad today, and in that gift alone, I’m offered hope.
Thanks, Mom. And I’ve come to realize that you never wanted to be worshipped; you wanted to be loved. You were. You are. You always will be.
Long-distance relationships of all kinds are bittersweet. There is a heaviness in the heart with each hello because Sylvia knows that a “see you soon” or “until next time” is inevitable. She is always riding waves of emotion, especially as she hangs up the phone after an amusingly long call about nothing and everything with her bff; exchanges the last late morning text with her sister before they each go about their day; and kisses her dear dad’s cheek after their much-too-short visit. Today, she focuses on the sweet. The only thing bitter will be the convenience store cup of coffee she should not have bought while she was out doing early morning errands.
Always choose sweet!
“Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.” ~Khalil Gibran
Sylvia: I’m saving some this time. Not the whole thing but the best part. The strongest part. The piece that will sustain me the next go-round.
Erma: I’ve told you time and again, Sylvia, that you wear your heart on your sleeve. You give away too much of yourself, so I’m thrilled to hear you are beginning to see the light. But I’m curious. What finally made you realize that you need to put yourself first, care for you– save something for yourself?
Sylvia: There was no sudden epiphany, Erma. Like everything as you frequently remind me, it’s been a process.
Although the more serious wreckage from winter has vanished, some remnants of the chaos remain. Towering trees uprooted by the last storm have finally disappeared. They’ve gone off to become firewood and kindling for the unexpected brisk summer evenings by the shore or mulch for the endless beds of hydrangea adorning most waterfront homes on the Cape. Light caramel-colored beaches that were nearly erased by rising waters and fierce battering are coming back to life as the tides recreate them. Mother Nature left more than a mark; she drew on her canvas with exactly those fixtures we thought were otherwise permanent. My, oh my, how misled we were! The not-so-old, abstract mural that was painted immediately following those winter storms has faded and is being replaced by a glorious new canvas erupting in greenery and color. In bloom, each day seems to leave the painting en plein air with additional brushstrokes of life. And with the burgeoning of Mother Nature’s new art, Sylvia contemplates a new canvas of her own.
Sylvia, reclined briefly and covered with the lap blanket that Erma gifted to her ages ago (it helps her think), has been caught between seasons. Although winter is long gone, spring has departed, and summer is at full throttle in shoreline vacation spots, Sylvia remains less than animated, not by the actual seasons and weather but by the emotional ones- caught between dormancy and vibrancy, lull and surge, complacency and action. The time between the dead of winter and the dog days of summer – not the weather, not the onset of warmer days, not the bluer skies or the sprouting blossoms- the intervening days have left Sylvia unsettled. Until now.
Erma: So Sylvia, tell me. Why the sudden change in disposition? I’m elated, of course, to witness this obvious upswing in mood, but I’d love to know what pulled you out of the doldrums. I feel as if these last few months I’ve been a spectator at the New York, New York roller coaster waiting for my friend to gain her footing and catch her breath after enduring the climbs and plunges of the rickety mainstay high above the Vegas strip. To a friend who knows how much those rides scare you, it’s been painful and uncomfortable to watch.
Sylvia: Wow, I’ve been that bad, Erma? Jesus, I’m so sorry. And somehow you have managed to put up with me. And as you are so often without even realizing, you’ve been instrumental in pulling me from the wreckage I’ve felt trapped in. You saw it as a roller coaster, Erma. Honestly, that might have been more fun. I guess if I had to equate how I’ve been feeling to a carnival ride though, it wouldn’t have been a roller coaster. A Ferris wheel more likely. Not my ride of choice but definitely the ride I’ve been on. The Ferris wheel when it stops at the top to be exact. Trouble is though I’ve been riding it with people who think it’s fun to rock it even though I repeatedly tell them to stop. Even though I have clearly told them that although the ride scares me to death, I’m willing to go because I trust them. Those sharing my gondola seem to almost delight in my fear and angst, and if not delight, then they simply don’t respect my feelings. Either way, it’s disrespect and I can’t tolerate it. I shouldn’t. And I know now, Erma. I know.
Erma: What’s that? What do you know?
Sylvia: I can avoid someone rocking my car if I ride alone. I don’t want to ride alone mind you, but I will if it means saving myself. I will if it helps me believe in myself again. Riding with people who create and feed my fears is just wrong. Going through life with people who can only feel strong by making me feel weak, inadequate, unloved, and less, that’s not living. That’s existing. That’s dying a slow, painful death. So, I’m getting off the ride and leaving the carnival. I don’t want to pay for rides that only others enjoy. And what I have decided is that I won’t return to any more shows, fairs, festivals, or spectacles with people who don’t respect me or how I feel. I’ll wait to share another carnival with someone who respects me, loves me, and wants to see me enjoying myself. So, for now, I’m choosing. I’m choosing me. I will sit in the middle, ride to the left, stand on the right- by myself- if that’s what it takes to free myself. While it scares me to death, the thought of being in the middle of the gondola with no one on either side to see me through to the end of the ride, I’d rather like the chance to control my own fear and save myself if need be. Fuck it. Maybe I’ll even choose to stay on the ground. At least for now.
Erma: Oh, and Sylvia, remember. You aren’t alone. Ever. I’m always up for the merry-go-round. That’s close to the ground, my friend.