Monthly Archives: July 2012

Healing from Loss: Naming Myself

T.S. Eliot, in his poem, “The Naming of Cats,” declares that every cat has three names: an everyday name that everyone uses, a particular name that reflects its individual nature and best traits, and a secret name that illuminates its soul. Doesn’t that sound like a neat idea? I always liked that.

So I have three names. In addition to my everyday name that is now google-able and blossoming over the internet, the one my mother gave me that she found somewhere in the New York City 1950s media, I have my particular second name. It is not very elegant. It is not necessarily peculiar as T.S. Eliot dictates a second name should be. But I like it. Ages ago, at the beginning of a weeklong Girl Scout camp one summer, Marika and I were asked to give our nicknames. If we didn’t already have a nickname we would be assigned one. So I quickly chose the name Rabbit, our favorite animal, when Marika did not adopt that name for her own. Twelve years later, the unreserved leader of my Sunday Morning Hiking Group asked me for my nickname. So now, under the weekly-posted Who Hiked Today mugshot, it says “Rabbit.” Short and simple, it makes me feel light and limber.

My third name, as in T.S. Eliot’s cats’ third names, is too sacred to be uttered.  Long ago, I gave myself an “inscrutable” and “ineffable” third name. To me, it is the most beautiful and powerful name in the world next to the name I gave my daughter. It is the name I remind myself of when the sky chips and crumbles around me, when my world seems stuck under a boulder. This name got me through the bleak weeks after my daughter died. At the calling hours, facing my sad and shocked community, I contemplated my third name to keep myself open and brave. To kick myself out of the house the months after, I invoked the song of my sweet secret name. When people are less than warm and welcoming, I remind myself of this name, of who I really am, and then I can let whatever coldness, indifference and rejection I am served slide off somewhere beyond me.

Someday I will share my third name. It may need to be changed one day; I could fall into or grow into another name. Then, I will give it away like I give away my used clothes. Maybe I will name a new pet or a new book with this magical name that keeps me compassionate but mortars my resilience. Or maybe I will take my third name to my grave. I cannot share it with you now. But I can tell you my fourth name. It is Marika’s Mom. And it’s a keeper.

Do you keep a third name or a fourth name for yourself?

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Healing from Loss: Tears and Laughter

Have you ever noticed how close laughter is to crying? Days ago, I laid on the floor doing sit-ups and crunches. My dog, Suki, stood over me, engrossed by this new perspective, and poked her little inquisitive nose right in my face. It started out as strained stifled giggles that sounded almost like sobbing. It grew into a bona fide body-shaking laugh when Suki dropped her squeak toy on my chest. Then I heard my high-pitched squealing laugh suddenly dissolve into a full-fledged howling cry. I wailed and shuddered and sunk into sorrow. Sorrow is what I lived with for so long. It is like an old familiar husband who haunts every corner of my home. I divorce sorrow. It can claim only the smallest part of my life now.

Another time, I received a package from Marika’s friend, Carla. It felt like it weighed nothing so I was already amused before even opening the big box. Inside, I found a thousand folded paper cranes, skewered and strung up in denim-colored yarn, each one crafted from a small calendar page of Dalai Lama insights. I laughed and cried simultaneously with uncontainable tears and whoops of laughter.

There is plenty of room for more laughter in my life. I need to invite it in more. It needs to take over the fear and negativity that too often creep in.

Like days ago, when I walked Suki in the driveway and adrenaline spiked every inch of me when I spotted a big dark threatening lump that seemed to be moving towards us. It was a turtle the size of a dinner plate. It had a big tail and a vicious-looking beak of a mouth. Suki strained at the leash to investigate further but I felt sheer terror and ran to the other side of the house dragging her along behind me. It was a turtle! A poor confused, displaced turtle. A silly ridiculously slow and unconcerned animal. And it was in my driveway where at any time my son’s friends’ jeeps and trucks dash in and out whipping up small storms of pebbles and dirt. I could have laughed but instead I ran in fear.

And last night my dear friend, Liz, called to invite me and Suki to “come over right now for a campfire.” I love campfires. I love spur of the moment invitations. It was an opportunity to sit back with friends and watch fireflies and laugh in the light of a flaming crackling campfire.

“I just got back from dinner, I just sat down to write, my laundry isn’t done, the litter needs scooping, it’s 8:30 already and I’m tired.”

Two hours later, violins played in the background as I hammered myself over the head, beat my butt and kicked myself for not being spontaneous and losing out on a great opportunity. I went to bed disappointed and disgusted with myself.

But this morning I forgive myself. It’s okay to have a setback or two once in a while. I’ll take a rain check and be kinder to myself and initiate a new opportunity for fun. Because I need to laugh more. Even if it sometimes dissolves into tears.

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Different Views

IMG_0183When Marika was eleven, our old cat, Sushi, died. We buried her in the garden where, choking and teary-eyed, I read a long eulogy of the cat’s history and attributes. We sang a song. When I thought we were done with the funeral, Marika surprised me. She announced she wanted to read aloud a poem she’d written and typed up for Sushi. Fascinated, I melted when I heard her very different view and relationship with the cat I adored.

Almost ten years later, when Marika died, I stole into her room stalking through her things. I searched for a message, for some sign of her, for her dwindling scent left buried in her bed linens. Desperate to learn more about her, I pored over her writings and photographs and discovered an amazing young woman who had grown from my spirited little girl. During her three year battle with leukemia, we sat stuck together in the same space sharing little beyond the immediate circumstances. I missed countless opportunities to talk with her. We both loved good food, chocolate, summer and bright lights. Marika loved to sing. She loved soccer, sushi, small dogs, the color turquoise, playing with children and playing poker. She loved her friends. She had a lot of friends. A thousand people or more knew her in a thousand different ways. If I sat with each of them and listened, would I learn a thousand new things about her?

Who was Marika to you? What were some of the memorable times? What crazy or kind or nasty things did she do? What could you count on her for? What will you remember her for?

The more I talk to others about her, the more I realize her short life was so much larger than being my daughter. When I heard how she hopped a fence to sneak into a sold-out concert on Long Island, I laughed. And when I heard she tried to convince a good friend to be her healthcare proxy before giving the honor to me, I smiled. Marika’s life had grown and burst brilliantly beyond hospitals, home and her mother. And that makes me want to hug and thank every soul that knew her.

As I reach out to my family and friends, to Marika’s friends, and to people I have not yet met, I know we are linked in many ways. We hope and we dream. We have things we hold close and, at some time, we all lose someone or something dear. So how did you come to know grief?

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Treating Myself

Somewhere, someone said, “Treat others as you would have them treat you,” so on weekday mornings, in order to get Marika up on time to catch the early school bus, I made her breakfast in bed. Whatever I made for myself, I set out a portion for her on an enticing tray garnished with fruit. It was always delivered with a beautifully folded napkin, tea and love. It was easy and it worked. She ate, got out of bed, got herself together and got the bus. Food was my currency of love.

Last weekend I was in the Berkshires with my mother and my sister. When we get together we mostly shop, watch movies and eat every meal out in really good restaurants. During these visits to my mother’s house, we find our way to the kitchen and the fridge only to stow away doggie bags or get a drink to down our pills. But I remember when my mother cooked chocolate pudding regularly for us. Did you ever have chocolate pudding made fresh from scratch? My sister and I took turns licking the hot pot and the old wooden mixing spoon. Good food, especially chocolate pudding, could always tame us. Chocolate pudding was one of the first things I learned to cook when I left home. It evolved into pots de crème and became a staple in my repertoire when Abigail Dodge, The Weekend Baker, came up with a 10-minute no-bake version.

When I got home from the weekend, I brought a picnic dinner of sushi and cherries to my best friend, Celia. We ate by her pond and I complained that I was depressed. She pointed out to me that I am always depressed when I return from visiting my mother. We walked around her long country block with our dogs and then I went home to bed.

First thing in the morning, after a dizzying foray of Wegmans, I started to cook. Cooking is no longer a solid part of my routine, especially now that the house is mostly empty. A decade ago, if company was coming for Thanksgiving dinner I diligently started the day cooking early in the morning. When Marika was around I often cooked eggplant parmesan and steaks. But more recently, I am a sporadic cook. If Celia mentions the Strawberry Rhubarb Tapioca Pudding she posted on her blog,, I will not be able to focus on anything else until I am stirring my own batch and it is dripping down my chin. If the word “curry” comes up in conversation, I become haunted by memories of past stews scenting the whole house with coriander and cumin, fried mustard seed and fenugreek, and then there is little I can do to stop myself from dashing off to the spice isle in Greenstar, Ithaca’s Natural Foods Market.

So, in a frenetic cooking flurry this morning, before doing any of the pressing things on the day’s list, I made myself chocolate pots de crème, a spinach-asparagus soup (I couldn’t find sorrel for Celia’s Finger Lakes Feasting Sorrel Soup) and a yummy yam-apple-ginger soup I concocted to warm a sad heart whether served hot or chilled. I treated myself like I treat others I love. My mother said, “You can’t sing and eat soup at the same time.” But I smiled and sang over my soup and pudding today. And there are enough leftovers to keep me sated for the rest of the week.

What will you do to treat yourself well this week?

Yamappleginger Soup

Crudely dice 1 medium sweet onion, 2 large yams and 1 unpeeled apple. Finely dice 1 generous peeled inch of ginger.
Saute the onion in 2 tsp olive oil for 3 minutes. Add the yam, apple and ginger.
Add 32 ounces of veggie or chicken or beef broth, plus 1 cup water.
Cover and cook 25 minutes.
Blend with a speed hand blender or in a food processor.
Salt and pepper the soup if desired.
Enjoy hot, warm or cold.

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Sleepless Nights

Are there nights that seem to go on forever while you wait to fall asleep?

Last night I let myself be lulled to sleep by the songs of a million frogs. There were high peeps and low gunk-gunks. They chattered and chirped; they growled and grunted and gulped. They screamed into the dark night. When friends phoned from Florida, they said they could hear them even with my windows curtained and shut tight.

This was one of the easier nights. The frog chorus was so grand that it drowned out all other impediments to my sleeping. But there were other nights when I paced, read or laid tense, and gritted my teeth, waiting for sleep to come and take over. There were nights when even pills, lavender tea and bedtime routines could not prepare me for the long nocturnal misery and misadventure. There were nights, long ago, when I fell asleep to music, fell asleep listening to the laughter of my mother’s bridge game ladies, drifted off to sounds of traffic, or the barking and screaming of a fight on the other side of a thin-walled apartment. Over some sweet years I laid awake wishing for sleep, listening for the stirrings of my sleeping children and measuring the small silences between the breaths of a snoring husband, aware of every tick of the clock. More recently, there were nights I lay awake remembering and missing my daughter, Marika. Now, most sleepless nights, I hear mainly the muddled noise of my own mind trying to make sense, or peace, from life’s events. But it will not be silenced. Not my mind and not the stirrings around me stealing my sleep.

So what! I will not allow the nightly wrestling for peace to consume me. It can hum and chatter and croak and churn, on and on all around me. Let my life flash before me. Let the rain beat down furiously on my metal roof. Let the lightning strike and the thunderous commotion endure. Let the dark of the night magnify every small disturbance into chaos. Bring it on! Anything, everything, let it rip! Yes, these pests are here again trying to rile me from my sleep but it is okay. It will be all right. It is only the same old familiar storm.

This storm is the song of my nights. The memories, the stirrings, the hammering, the leftover litter and worries of my waking world are like old relatives with annoying quirks come to visit me.  I can sit back and humor them and even be entertained. I can allow my thoughts of Marika to settle now because she would want me to rest. And the storm can resound around me. I let the chaos comfort me. I allow it to surround me and soothe the night. Safe and warm, there’s no place else I need to be. There’s nothing that needs to be done before morning. I rest amid the tumult of the night until the din dies down, or doesn’t. Until it’s time to rise up, shake out, stir up the dust and rouse trouble, and let the royal ruckus of My Day begin.

What are the noises in your night that can keep you awake or be your lullaby?

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