We’re all better off if I say nothing this week. Because these days, too many of my truest feelings and worst thoughts keep slipping out of my mouth. No, they tumble out of my mouth and flatten everyone within earshot. My most bold opinions come spewing out of me like semi-automatic gunfire. And people don’t usually react well to this.
I don’t know if this crankiness and loss of control is because of all the rain, the heat, my advanced age, the current political turmoil, or possibly just boredom from my new diet of chard and fish—but lately I seem to have zero ability to hold my tongue. At unexpected times I feel compelled to speak what’s in my mind. And I’m a stick of dynamite with a short fuse, a walking time bomb that could explode if you say the wrong thing.
Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? In the past, I was always the wishy-washy one, the one who wouldn’t take a stand, couldn’t make a decision. Teachers and friends used to beg me to speak up and be more assertive. And now, I have no patience for others’ cruelty, stupidity, or anything that does not comply with what I perceive as the truth. At the first inkling of discomfort, I’m likely to spout out,
Hey, life’s too short, and Hey, I don’t have to swallow any nonsense anymore. I’m one tough bitch with a dead daughter. So don’t mess with my head.
Photographing flowers calms me down, helps me to see sense. But there was nothing quiet about this brazen-faced zinnia. In a week-old bouquet, it still blazed brilliant among the shriveled-up blooms surrounding it. Another bad-ass flower. Sassy. Like the daughter I’m missing. Yow, back in her times I would be crushed to the pulp whenever she unloaded what she had to say.
What gets your goat? Or gets you to verbally attack the ones you love most?
Over the last four days I mercilessly snuffed out hundreds of little lives. Millipede lives.
Fleeing harsh conditions in their natural environment, thousands of millipedes were crawling up and down the exterior of my house seeking refuge from the horrendous heat and drenching rains. They wormed their way inside to wander the more hospitable vast plains of my carpeted and tiled floors.
But I did not want millipedes in my house. Even though I knew they were just trying to survive. I have it good here: a fridge full-to-bursting, air-conditioning, Netflix, cozy furnishings…. Comfortably holed up in the house during the heat wave, I wasn’t eager to share, especially with creatures that had more legs than my dog or I. The arthropods managing to penetrate the sacred walls of my home found me standing guard with my Dust-Buster. The first day I sucked up over a hundred. As my almost-hourly dust-busting raids continued, I lost track of the count.
Days later, dreading emptying out the Dust-Buster, I knew I’d find maybe a thousand millipedes crammed into its dark bowels. Dead or still squirming. Small sparks of life languishing or extinguished by my own will. I put the recharging Dust-Buster out in the mudroom where I wouldn’t have to think about that.
But I did think. As one who watched my beloved daughter’s life slip away, as one who knows how fragile and fleeting life is, I hate the thought of taking lives, taking the life out of any living organism. And I had to wonder: who am I to condemn a whole population of these creatures? Do millipedes have hearts? Can they hear the roar of the approaching vacuum? What drives such a creature to survive? And what is it that gets me feeling so invaded and hell-bent on squashing all that out?
I went to photograph zinnias, and peeked into their wavy wormy-looking centers that I could photo-shop into heavenly beds for the poor creatures I deprived of life.
When is it okay to torture or take a life?
Falling in love or forming any strong emotional attachments was not going to happen after my daughter died. No more grieving for me, I thought. But last week, losing my car, I cried like I was losing my best friend. A friend who had faithfully protected me with its life, to the bitter end.
On the way to Boston for the weekend, passing a slow-moving vehicle on a busy highway, I pulled left into the middle lane and discovered a huge truck tire lying in my path. There was no way to avoid it. My beautiful Prius crashed into it with a great thud. This is the end, I told myself upon impact. But the car somehow plowed through the tire. I kept driving. There was no way to pull over or stop so I continued on, shaken but unharmed. The Prius, who I’d long ago named Peeje after a beloved pigeon, got me to my destination and days later, back home to Ithaca, New York. And after the weekend, checking out the damage, I learned I’d smashed the car’s sub-frame, under-panels, radiator, and every single part of her belly.
“Call your insurance company, this is going to cost you…” the mechanic told me.
With visions of skyrocketing premiums, big bucks for major repairs, and weeks of car rentals, I took my Peeje to the Toyota Dealership where they offered me a small trade-in towards a new Prius, and I accepted it. Immediately. Gratefully.
Then suddenly, I had tears in my eyes and was stroking Peeje’s hood with both hands. There I was, once more grieving the loss of a familiar, comfortable, beloved part of my life. We had a lot of history, Peeje and I. When she was still new we got lost together exploring October Mountain in the Berkshires. Many a snowstorm we’d slowly inched up the long hill to my house, both of us willing her little engine to keep chugging. This was the car that carried elderly loved ones (now gone) with wheelchairs and walkers to fancy restaurants. She carried me through dark empty streets to retrieve friends who’d drunk too much. “Thanks, Peeje,” I’d say every time she got me home safely.
“You’re gonna have a whole new re-built life,” I sobbed to my Peeje, driving her home one last time, to empty out the six-year accumulation of stuff in every corner of her. I wondered, after all I’ve been though, why I was carrying on so about loving and losing a car. But I gently dusted off her seats and lovingly packed her snow tires into her trunk. And let her go.
How on earth does one end up loving a car or a house or something that doesn’t even have eyes or a heart?
Sometimes I just need a good cry. Preferably at the movies where I can recover easily, I might have said in the past. But a good cry should not be feared. And an opportunity to do some serious sobbing came up the other evening when a small group of bereaved parents had baked a cake, and were singing Happy Birthday to one of our deceased children. Watching the exquisite storm of gratitude, pain, and love in the mother’s eyes, I remembered that conflicting whirlwind of emotions—the joy of having your child remembered and honored, the sadness of seeing each subsequent birthday sweep you ever further away from the time you were together, and just plain missing your beloved one—This can turn the toughest of us into desperate howling messes. A similar, old familiar storm brewed in my own heart. And I welcomed it.
If you are not one of the unfortunates initiated into the hellhole of child loss, you may be wondering—Why torture yourself like that?
Strange as it seems, I never want to forget the rawness of the pain of loss. If I can recall how my worst times felt, I can listen, understand, and be of comfort to someone else. A good cry is not to be feared. In being a living human, there’s a spectrum of emotions to be experienced. I write and talk a lot about finding joy, however this is only one part of the human experience. I want it all. I need to cry. I need to dare to love.
Love makes you happy, and love makes you sad. Grief and pain are simply the residue of your love when the joyful times seem like eons away. Often, I want to hug my grief the way I want to hug and hang onto my daughter who died. Tears are tangible remains of what I have left of her now. My love pours out, and I love those tears.
“You’re happy,” a friend pointed out to me recently. And I immediately felt guilty, as in—I lost my daughter, I’m not supposed to feel happy. This simply is not right. We are human. We can experience it all.
Jolly Reds, pinks, hot lime and deep greens bloom on the Magic Carpet Spirea plant in my garden. Like multi-colored teardrops. Tears of joy and sorrow. They blossom together.
After I weed-whacked flat the little rosebush in the back yard, I remembered how I’d planted it over a decade ago with the kids, to honor our Omi Rosie, my strong-willed grandmother who had moved her family out of Hitler’s Germany in 1938. Unlike the family, the rosebush had never thrived. So, intent on reclaiming its spot for more lawn, I thwacked the scrawny plant to smithereens with the weed-eater, and then stood sighing over the strafed remains, sure I’d murdered it.
Two weeks after the attack, a small splash of red in the new lawn caught my eye. The rosebush. It had survived and was producing buds. One was blossoming brilliantly.
It’s a gift, I told myself. My first inclination was to attribute the small miracle to the ghost of my daughter who, in life, had gifted me red socks and red sweaters. But when I got close up with my camera, I recognized the astounding sheer resilience of the plant. Scuffed up and riddled with holes, it was a formidable survivor. It seemed to have a mission, like my Omi Rosie. It was gutsy, like my daughter who had partied with abandon despite cancer constantly clobbering her. It was scrappy and scarred. From all of life’s poundings. Like me. And like me, it was still standing.
I don’t know if one can learn resiliency or practice growing it. Or if it’s something you only discover when your world’s been shaken upside-down. Wherever it comes from, resilience is the thing that allows you to rise from the rubble when the sky falls. When I thought I had nothing to live for, it slowly sprouted from deep inside (or maybe from out of nowhere) and filled my emptiness with hope.
Creeping on hands and knees, I took a hundred shots of the rose. It is not beautiful. But it is truly—badass.