Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 11.56.10 AMNone of us get through life unscathed. We all have things that caused pain or fear or rejection or shame. Sometimes I look back and I marvel at where I am. I feel incredibly lucky that the hurtful and the shameful and the painful didn’t define me. They are there, but they didn’t win. They were overshadowed and overcome and drowned out by one voice.

It was the voice of encouragement and love and wisdom.

It was always there, always available, always ready.

Thank you, Mom.

Thank you for being the voice that made all the difference.

Thank you for being the constant listener. For never tiring of the endless chatter of a little girl full of questions and observations and random thoughts.

Thank you for not laughing or minimizing my fears or my dreams.

Thank you for bringing a little laughter and silliness to late night car rides to the grocery store on pay day. Our tummies rumbling in hunger momentarily forgotten by your outlandish stories and made up songs.

Thank you for fighting to survive when a lot of women would have given up. Divorced with two little girls, no job, no car. Thank you for reinventing yourself from the timid small town girl too scared to drive, to the independent working woman respected by her peers.

Thank you for giving us a Christmas even when you couldn’t afford to buy gifts. For making a game of giving each other imaginary gifts, pictures cut out of magazines of the things we would give each other if…

Thank you for quietly not eating so you’d have enough food for us.

Thank you for putting up with my endless performances and jokes and precocious antics without ever showing annoyance.

Thank you for encouraging my dreams. For making me believe I could be an actress on Broadway one day. For never shooting down a little girl’s pipe dreams.

Thank you for always talking to me like I was a person. For always valuing my opinions and thoughts. Even when they may have been immature or misguided.

Thank you for making me feel like I had a voice. And that it mattered.

Thank you for giving me a beautiful sister and precious brother who became my best friends.

Thank you for walking with me through a painful back surgery and months of wearing an embarrassing brace and body cast. For being sensitive to my struggle but not letting me wallow in self pity.

Thank you for talking me through my first heartbreak. For not hesitating to come get me when I called you sobbing from the school pay phone. For taking me to lunch and letting me talk about it. For telling me that I deserved better. That I would take that heartbreak and I would be stronger. And that I would NEVER let anyone hurt me like that again.

Thank you for letting me sit in on the adult discussions about life and politics. For letting me chime in on occasion and insisting that others listen to what I had to say.

Thank you for making me feel special when I felt stupid or ugly or unlikeable.

Thank you for exposing me to art, to theatre, to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Joel Gray and Debbie Reynolds. And to jazz. And for taking me to see Fame and Ghandi even though they were rated “R.” For watching A Chorus Line with me over and over because Broadway.

Thank you for marrying a great man who loved us and took care of us. And whose deep appreciation and knowledge of all things rock and roll gave me an education and a passion for a music that influences almost everything I say and do.

Thank you for teaching me about working hard and toughing it out and treating every job as if it were the most important job in the world.

Thank you for listening when I called you from my apartment in Atlanta. Not sure if I should walk out on a long term relationship that I’d thought was my future. For telling me that I would never settle. That I would find that amazing love that is written about in great novels.

Thank you for not laughing or questioning me when I called you after the first date to tell you that I’d met the man I was going to marry.

Thank you for taking care of my brother. For being his nurse and his mom and his friend. And for taking hit after hit during a brutal 18 months and standing with him as he stared Cancer in the face and said “I don’t have time for you. I’ve still got a lot of living to do.” For being steady when your legs were shaking in fear.

For not giving up on life when Cancer won. Even though you wanted to.

Thank you for showing up at my wedding ten days after the worst heartbreak any mother could face. For showing up and smiling and laughing and dancing. For allowing all of us to have a few moments from the grief… to do what he would have wanted us to do.

Thank you for still talking about him. For letting me talk about him. For making sure he is still a part of everything we do. For listening to me when I’m struggling and in pain and missing him so much I don’t think I can breathe. Even though you’re struggling more. For putting your pain on hold to be there for me.

Thank you for still walking through life 15 years later. When I know sometimes each step is just as painful as it was in those darkest days.

Thank you for always being a fighter. For showing me what strength is. For being an example of persevering and not giving up and for being real while doing it.

Thank you for helping me breathe in moments where I felt like I couldn’t.

Thank you for showing me how to be a mother and a friend. And how the two can come together to be a beautiful thing.

Thank you for being a mom and a grandmother who will stop whatever she’s doing to be there for any one of us.

Thank you for being that strong voice for you grandsons and granddaughters too.

Thank you for having a louder voice than any of the bad. For speaking to me over the negative. For giving me the confidence and the optimism that the negative tries so hard to steal.

Because of your voice I was able to grow. To love. To dream. To learn.

Thank you, Mom.

 

heart-break15

“I see him sometimes and the look in his eyes

Is one of a man who’s lost treasures untold,

But my heart is gold, I took back my soul”

-Lauryn Hill, I Used To Love Him

I remember my first heartbreak like it was yesterday. I fell in love for the first time at the age of 16. Naive, vulnerable, tender. I fell hard and handed my heart over to a boy two years older than me. This was not the love of my life, but it was my first love. And it brought me to my knees.

Boy (as he shall be called for the purposes of this writing), sucked me in to his world. He made me feel pretty for the first time in my life. He made me feel smart, made me feel important. He would write me poems. He would play me songs that made him think of me. He would look at me in wonderment, always finding different ways to express his feelings for me. It was quite the ego stroke for a young girl.

I put him up on a pedestal. Young love tends to overdramatize and place importance where it is not deserved. It’s not a healthy thing, this love of the young. But it is all encompassing. It rules the world of star crossed lovers.

He would pick me up for school in the morning, his old Chevy Nova covered in black primer rumbling loudly in my the driveway of my childhood home. It was a “work in progress” he said. Then he would grab my hand, squeeze it tightly, exuberant and excited to be with me. His buoyancy was believable, it was contagious. Then one morning he didn’t show up. Didn’t call. Just didn’t show. No warning. Yesterday, on top of the world to call me his. Today, nothing.

I got a ride to school with a friend. I walked, each step heavier than the last, into the open courtyard where students congregated before class. I was immediately surrounded by my girlfriends. They informed me that Boy had showed up with his ex-girlfriend and she was proudly carrying with her a bouquet of roses. I felt like all the air had been sucked out of me. Vision blurry, I made my way to a pay phone as the first bell rang for class. Grateful that everyone was headed indoors, I shakily punched the buttons to call home. My mom picked up and before she could finish saying hello I dissolved. Sobbing uncontrollably. Words broken by the intake of air as I tried to tell her what happened.

She came immediately to pick me up. I will forever be grateful for her understanding. She didn’t minimize the pain I was feeling. She didn’t brush it off as a silly little romance. She didn’t insist that I stay at school. She knew I needed to talk to her and she would never let me down when I needed her.

She comforted me while I cried, she said all the appropriate things. She waited until I calmed down and started breathing normally before giving me the talk. She looked at me with determination, trying to give me strength with her words, willing me to absorb what she was about to say. She told me that I would not sulk, I wouldn’t wallow. She told me that I was strong, stronger than I knew. She told me that I would walk into school the next day and every day after with a smile on my face, laughter on my lips. She told me that I would show him, show myself, that I deserved better. Because I did. She told me that I was destined for great things. That this hurt but that I would get through it. She told me that I was destined for a great love one day. The kind of love that is written about, the stuff of the great songs. And I believed her. I always believed her.

I grieved for the next few days. I woke up from a deep exhausted sleep, the realization hitting me anew each morning, the reminder that my heart had been crushed. But I walked into school every day with a smile. I laughed with my friends. I hid my pain and loneliness behind a smile and a breezy walk. I could do this. I was almost a professional at hiding my true feelings. The whole school was abuzz with the drama of it all. I shrugged it off. I couldn’t be bothered with talk of it. Whatever. But inside, I’m dying.

He came back. He wanted me back. Against my mother’s advice, my sister’s advice- everyone’s advice- I took him back. But I never gave myself, my heart, over to him again. We dated for a few years, through his early years in the Marines. A long distance love fueled by passionate letters and quick visits on his brief leaves. This suited me. I could write about love. But I could never truly give it to him again. Eventually the intense burn of the long distance romance flickered. We were on again, off again. I was having fun with friends, I was planning for college. Then it was over. And I broke his heart.

At sixteen I learned what it was to have loved and lost. I learned to guard my feelings. I learned that I can be forgiving but my heart can’t. I can’t un-ring the bell of hurt and pain. I can go on, I can be strong, but I can never go back. Once forsaken, my heart is done. Never to be reclaimed by the one who tore it asunder. Self preservation? Cold? Smart? I truly don’t know. I just know that it is. It’s how I’m built. I know my limitations, if you want to call it that. But this heart is mine. I’ll do with it what I wish. And I wish to protect it. I will never let it be broken again.

Head in Hands

 “Pick up my guitar and play,

Just like yesterday,

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again.”

-The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

April Fool’s Day is a holiday I can get behind. There’s no pressure to get the perfect romantic card and chocolates or flowers (ahem, Valentine’s Day). There’s no expectation of gifts and candy for the kids (I’m looking at you Christmas and Easter). There’s no need to go out and buy green shirts that my kids will wear once (St. Patrick’s Day is for drinking beer, right? Why are the kids even involved?). There’s no Pinterest frenzy of crafts, creations, recipes and hoopla to make you feel inept and inadequate (Pretty much every holiday other than April Fools Day. Seriously- enough, Pinterest.). No, April Fools Day is low-key. It’s all about creativity and having fun at other’s expense. It’s perfect.

I love April Fool’s Day. My personal experience with this holiday goes back to when I was a sweet, naive 12 year old innocent child. I had finished up my homework and was watching the local evening news. The news reporter was interviewing a farmer who was concerned that his crops were suffering from an excessively rainy winter. The farmer was distraught. He was worried about how he was going to feed his family. He and the reporter walked through his fields, through rows of trees. He plucked something off of one of the branches, put it in his mouth and spit it onto the ground, grimacing. The camera zoomed in on the trees, bearing what looks like white fruit. The reporter said there may actually be a marshmallow shortage in the fall because of the damaged crops.

I stared at the t.v. dumbfounded. Huh? Marshmallows? I slowly made my way into my Mom’s room. “Mom? Do marshmallows grow on trees?”. She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “I mean, I always thought they were made, like in a candy factory. But the news just said that the marshmallow trees are damaged from all the rain.” My mom started laughing. When she saw the genuinely confused look on my face she tried to compose herself. With amusement in her eyes she explained that it was an April Fool’s joke. I was indignant. You’re supposed to be able to trust the news! Why would they play a joke on their viewers! That’s just not right, don’t they have more important things to do?

Thus began a long-running joke in my family. I was teased relentlessly for being so gullible. This story was told to every friend I brought home. Family friends, neighbors, anyone who would listen was regaled with the story of my flaky air-headedness. Any opportunity to bring it up and give me a hard time was not missed. It has been roughly 29 years since that perplexing and vexing April. And still, the joke lives on. Just a few months ago, on my birthday, my nephew had a small tree branch with marshmallows taped to it that he proudly presented to me. They will never tire of this joke. My kids have now taken up the cause to make Mom feel stupid and will gladly carry on the tradition as well.

And there’s more. When I was older, I apparently felt the need to break up with boyfriends on April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure why. I never was aware that I did this. But I broke up with my high school boyfriend and two different college boyfriends on this day. Each time, the guy thought I was pulling a prank on him. Ooops. My family also took to warning guys about this. They told my husband when they first met him that if he made it past April 1st, then he was o.k.

So, me and April Fool’s Day, we have a history. I feel connected to this holiday and it’s spirit of absurdity. I have always wanted to pull off the perfect April Fool’s hoax. I have ideas, I think about it months ahead of time. But every year, the day sneaks up on me. I tell myself next year will be the year. I’ll plan ahead. It will be awesome. If I can execute the perfect deception, the most clever trick, then maybe I’ll have some peace. If I can leave people befuddled and shocked, them maybe I can finally shed the stigma of that long ago spring day of mischief.

And one final note to my family, my friends, my husband. All of those people who have relished the teasing and the taunting for all these years. I’m not alone. I am not the first person to be duped by a news show. In April 1, 1957 the BBC aired a segment on a false spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. This prank resulted in hundreds of inquiries as to how people could grow their own spaghetti trees.

spag1

First, let’s make a few rules. News stations, news reporters, you are not allowed to take part in the shenanigans. Your job is to fixate on one issue to the exclusion of all other news or to drum up partisan political scandals. You stick to your hyper vigilant obsessive reporting and leave the funny stuff to the funny guys. It’s already hard enough to believe what’s being reported without your throwing in silly little pranks.

Second, as for the spaghetti trees… Maybe it’s just me, but marshmallows growing on trees seems much more plausible than spaghetti trees. Those silly Brits.  Imagine, thinking spaghetti grows on trees! Ha!

And third, I just checked and Pinterest is in fact trying to ruin April Fools Day. Dear Pinterest, Just. Stop.

 

 

This week’s Remember the Time blog hop is “I remember where I was when….”

“Hard wired to concieve, so much we’d have to stow it.  Even needs have needs, tiny giants made of tinier giants, Don’t wear eyelids so I don’t miss the last laugh of this show (the dashboard melted but we still have the radio)”

-Modest Mouse, Dashboard

It was 1992, I was a sophomore in college.  I spent a lot of time in the library.  I would go there to do research, to study.  I loved all the quiet places you could hide.  Desks tucked in between rows of books.  Endless shelves filled with endless knowledge.  Even though I found myself supremely frustrated at times – all of the tables and desks would be occupied, the one book you needed would be checked out- it was still my refuge.  The computer lab was quite different.  That was a place that I despised.  I hated the harsh fluorescent lights, the rows of humming computer monitors, the room full of people who were obviously way smarter than me.

Luckily I didn’t have to venture in to that cold, foreign place often.  I had a word-processor that I was able to get by with.  Most of my needs were met by this little gem.  Basically it was a glorified electronic typewriter, but as an English major, I didn’t need much more.

She was a beauty...
She was a beauty

Every once in a while I would have to suck up my pride and my swallow my fears.  I would run out of ink and not have enough money to buy more.  Or some sadistic professor would come up with an assignment that needed more than a word processor could handle.  On these occasions I would try to tag along with a friend or recruit someone to go with me.  Yes, sad.  But I would rather ask a friend how to turn on the computer than ask the lab assistant.  I preferred to keep my level of ignorance to a close circle of friends.  DOS commands confused me and made my stomach twist in to knots.  I was convinced that I was going to hit the wrong button and blow up a computer.  Then I would be known around campus as that girl that broke the computer lab.

Still gives me chills...
Still gives me chills…

I really didn’t bother to put in the time to learn how to work a computer.  I figured that as a writer and/or English teacher I wouldn’t ever need to touch a computer.  Only engineers and technology types would really need to master these confusing beasts.  Your brain had to be wired a certain way to grasp codes and prompts and all the necessary details to be fully functional on a computer.  All I had to do was fake it through the few assignments that popped up occasionally, graduate college, and I would never have to use a computer again.  Just like algebra.

One day in Spanish, our professor sent us down to the computer lab.  He was going to have one of the students show us a great new tool that we could use for research.  I groaned.  I really didn’t see the need.  Any research that I couldn’t find in a book or encyclopedia I could find on microfiche.

Remember microfiche???
Remember microfiche???

I followed the class, yawning and detached.  My mind wandered as the student held court in front of a computer.  He was animated as he tried to explain this new “program” to us.  I knew he was one of those technology types so I didn’t really pay attention.  Of course he’s excited, he’s in his element talking about his passion.  But then I started to notice the other students leaning in.  They started peppering him with questions.  They seemed intrigued.  They seemed interested.  I tuned in to what they were asking, what the student was explaining.  It was confusing and didn’t make a lot of sense.  The world, via computers, was connected by a vast web of…  I don’t really know what.  What he was trying to explain seemed incomprehensible.  Like infinity or what is beyond our solar system.  I knew that this was something big.  I knew that this was something that we would all learn more about.  I knew that my plans of never touching a computer again were probably just a pipe dream.  That computer lab in the English building, that is where I was when I learned about the internet.  That is the moment that I knew the world just got a lot smarter.

Still boggles the mind...
Still boggles the mind…

Looking back on those years, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come.  My first job out of college I had to master Power Point and Excel, programs my kids have since learned in elementary school.  My hatred of computers has turned into an all out love affair.  I’m still not the most technically proficient, but who among us could imagine our lives with out our computers or smart phones?  Who could imagine life with out the World Wide Web?  Something that I had barely heard of only 20 years ago (dear lord) is so integral to our everyday lives now.  The very thing I despised and didn’t understand is the vehicle for something that I do that I love, that gives me so much happiness.  I still get frustrated. I’m still trying to figure out how to add side bars and widgets, but I know I’ll figure it out.  So, I’m not afraid to admit that I was wrong.  Computers are here to stay.  They have become more user friendly to be sure, but I was wrong in my dismissal of them.  I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t have a need for them.  I was ignorant as to all they could do.  Computers were not just some academic requirement that served no practical purpose.  Unlike Algebra…  I was right about that.

“Remember the times that we used to share…  You got to remember the times that we used to share….  But the only way for you to survive is to open your heart, it will guide.”

-Lenny Kravitz, Sittin’ On Top of the World

I didn’t want a younger sibling.  I wasn’t completely opposed to the idea, it just wasn’t something I had wished for.  What I wanted was a puppy.  The day that my mom and step dad announced they were having a baby I knew the dream of a dog had just died. I acted happy, just kind of went through the motions of how I figured I should feel.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy,  more like indifferent.  I found the subject completely boring and all the talk about the baby for nine months (which to a seven year old feels like about 3 years) got really old and boring.

Then he was here.  My little brother.  Todd.  I was expecting to be unimpressed.  I didn’t expect to really care too much about this little thing that had taken over my family before he was even born.  But I was sucked in.  I had never seen anything so adorable.  I immediately felt love and protectiveness and awe.

My life didn’t change much at first.  Aside from having to tiptoe around our house when he was sleeping, I still went about my business.  I still played with my friends every day.  The only thing that was different was that I rushed home from school to see him before going outside.  There was  a different feeling in our house.  There was a light, an excitement.  He made our little blended family a real family.  We all were madly in love with this little person and we all laughed together at his every coo and grimace.

Eventually the baby became a toddler and no less cute.  He continued to charm us all.  But our roles became clear.  My sister was like a second mother to him.  She was 11 when he was born and had always had a maternal side.  I was his sister.  I doted on him briefly, then I would go do my thing.  As my brother got older, it was clear he and my sister had a very special bond.  He adored her and was very attached to her.  And it was clear that I was his sister.  I was the person he would harass when the urge struck.

I was defenseless against his antics.  I couldn’t respond in kind.  I was 8 years older than him and any retaliation would have resulted in swift punishment.  I couldn’t even really complain or tell on him.  The response would be Really?  He’s 8 years younger than you and you’re tattling on him???   I’m not saying he was ever mean to me.  His stuff was just mischievous little brother shenanigans.  But annoying to an older sister for sure.

One year, his best friend brought him a souvenir from a trip to Asia.  It was a Japanese spinning drum, just like the kind used during the final fight scene of Karate Kid 2.  I was about 15 or 16 years old.  Like any typical teenager, sleep was incredibly important to me.  Not at night, night time is fun.  But in the morning.  All week I would look forward to sleeping in on Saturday morning.  My brother was an early riser at that age.  He would get up early on Saturday mornings with my Stepdad and they would watch He-Man cartoons and eat Cocoa Pebbles together.  At some point, when he got bored with cartoons, he would sneak in to my room with his little drum and get as close to my ear as possible and spin it fast.  I would wake to the sound of this hellish toy, jumping out of bed in a startled flurry.  “Todd!!!” I never really yelled anything else.  Just his name.  What else can you yell at a little mischievous twerp who is so good natured at the very moment that he’s pestering you?  He did this off and on for months.   He would scamper out of my room gleefully.  He wasn’t scared of me at all.  And he was super proud of himself for riling me.

Other times he would sneak on to the phone while I was talking to my friends.  I would only realize he was eavesdropping when we would say something that made him laugh.  I would hear his laughter that sounded like light bouncing around the room.  He didn’t even try to muffle it.  “Todd!!!”  I would yell, then apologize to my friend.

When I went off to college our relationship changed.  I was still his sister and he still enjoyed playing his little jokes on me, but this is the time when we became friends.  He missed me.  Or maybe he missed having someone in the house to harass.  Either way, I had transitioned from his annoying older sister to his cool sister who was in college and did all kinds of cool stuff like go to awesome concerts and parties.  He occasionally would call me at school to ask for my advice about girl problems.  The first time he did this I got off the phone and cried.  My little brother was growing up, he was starting to be in to girls.  And he wanted my advice.  I was honored.

We both loved music.  He leaned more towards hip hop and I was definitely more into rock and alternative, but sometimes our musical tastes melded.  He started liking Bob Marley.  I started liking Biggie.  We both loved Lenny Kravitz.  I would make him cd’s when a new Lenny album came out and he made me cool mix cd’s of rap songs I liked. Even though our relationship had matured beyond sibling rivalry, he still didn’t miss an opportunity to tease me or make a joke at my expense.  Except now his humor had evolved and it always had me laughing hysterically.  I couldn’t stay mad at him.  He could annoy me one second and have me laughing in spite of myself the next.

Then Todd got sick.  Real sick.  He had Stage 4 cancer.  It was bad and we were all devastated.  He was only 16.  Somehow he still managed to be funny.  He took his comic antics to the chemo room with him, to the hospital, everywhere.  No one was safe.  His Doctor, who was brilliant and wonderful was also quite serious.  My brother always found a way to break through his facade and get him to laugh. He had a gift for making you fall for whatever prank he dreamed up.  When the nurses would flush out his i.v. lines, he would act like the saline was burning him.  They would fall for it every time, panicking for a second before realizing he was just having fun with them.  A lot of people laugh in the face of pain, but we were all amazed at his way of coping with things.  He actually was having fun, he was finding little moments, little pockets of time, when he could lighten the situation and have a good laugh and look around at a room full of smiling, laughing faces.

He took to prank calling me at work during this time.  He was missing a lot of school for chemo treatments and I would often meet him and my Mom for lunch near the hospital on my lunch break.  But he couldn’t just call me and tell me where to meet them.  He had to take advantage of these moments and be my little annoying brother once again.  He was a master at using different voices and dialects.  He would call me up, claiming to be one of my customers and would make up crazy stories about his pager and what he “accidentally” did to it, or he would be an angry customer getting me all flustered before revealing his identity with his trademark laugh.  A laugh that was pure joy and glee and self satisfaction.  I was barely able to feel happiness during this time.  Yet somehow he laughed and joked and didn’t let the situation get the best of him.  And in the process he helped all of us get through those days.  I know his intention when he would pull these pranks was not to brighten my day, he was doing what he loved doing.  Finding a situation that no one else would think of laughing about and figuring out how to make it funny.  Every time I would hear the laughter over the phone and realize I’d been had, I always said the same thing, “Todd!!”  I still had no other words of recrimination for him.  Even being the butt of his jokes I had to laugh and aside from the early Saturday mornings, I can’t say I every truly minded.

For 18 months life stood still and moved at breakneck speed all at the same time.  We packed a lot in to a year and a half.  Every Thursday Todd and his girlfriend would come over to the apartment where Joe and I lived and we would go out to eat dinner and go see a movie.  We took them to one of my friends’ Halloween parties with a lot of my college friends.  He later told me it was the best night of his life.  We took him to a Lenny Kravitz concert with us.  We spent a lot of quality time together for those last 18 months.  That time was a gift that I will cherish more than anything the material world could ever have to offer.  I got time with my little brother.  Time to bond as adults.  Time for him to really get to know my husband before we got married.  Time to laugh.  It was by far the most difficult time in my life, yet the most precious.  In spite of the gripping fear I felt every day that I would lose my brother…  in spite of waking up every morning for 18 months and being hit with the realization that it all wasn’t some bad dream…  in spite of everything, I wouldn’t trade those 18 months for anything.  And through those last months, he gave me the greatest gift.  He was still my little mischievous brother.  He still played his pranks, he still made me laugh.  He still annoyed the hell out of me.  I still said my exasperated “Todd!!”  multiple times a week.  He always said he didn’t have time for cancer.  By that, he meant that he wasn’t going to let cancer stop him from living and having fun.  But he also showed me that cancer wasn’t going to change our relationship.  Yes, it evolved, as it would have if he hadn’t gotten sick.  But he still was the little boy, catching me off guard, pulling off his jokes and making me laugh even when I wanted to get mad.

Even now, I revert back to those times.  Sometimes when my husband has teased me or pulled off a prank at my expense.  Or when one of my kids does something mischievous and funny at the same time.  I catch myself blurting out my little brother’s name in mixed joy and frustration.  Those moments, I know they happen out of a conditioned response to certain behaviors, but I also think it’s my brother’s way of telling me to lighten up a little.  There’s always a reason to laugh, always a reason to smile.  And it reminds me of what he and I shared.  Yes, it was sibling rivalry.  But out of sibling rivalry comes the best friendships.  And when I look back on my memories of him, the ones that come to my mind the most- the ones that make me smile- are the ones where he was being my little brother.  Those times when he irritated me and exhausted me and frustrated me, those are the times I cherish the most.  Those memories are the ones I share with my children so they will know who their Uncle Todd was.  Those memories are the ones that I reach for when I’m missing him most.  Those antics that helped me laugh through 18 months of pain and fear, and those are the memories that help me now.  After 14 years I still get caught off guard and overwhelmed with the pain of missing my little brother.  But I always think about those times.  Inevitably they have me shaking my head and smiling… laughing through my tears.

remember-the-time-blog-hop

Once again I have the joy of participating in the “Remember the Time” blog hop.  The subject this week was “Sibling Rivalry”.  I’m so grateful to the hilarious and talented writers of The Waiting and Are You Finished Yet for creating this and allowing me to participate!

“And you can tell everybody this is your song, it may be quite simple but now that it’s done, I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind, that I put down in words…  How wonderful life is when you’re in the world”

-Elton John, Your Song

I occasionally get to participate in a blog-hop with some funny, talented writers. They pick the subject and the rest of us get to write about it. This week the subject is our imaginary friend. I recently wrote about Billy Monkey and all the trouble he and I got in to. I don’t think we need to re-hash his short stint as my partner in crime. Selena was an imaginary friend of a different kind. She wasn’t my creation…. she was inflicted on me.

My sister is 3 years older than me.  And she spent most of our childhood leveraging those three years for all they were worth.  She was older, smarter, cooler, prettier.  I looked up to her, I wanted to be her.  I must have driven her crazy following her around, trying to copy her mannerisms, trying to hang with her friends.  Where she was cool, I was awkward.  Where she had boys of all ages fawning all over her, I was getting into fist fights with the boys on my street.  Where she had perfectly feathered blonde hair, I had mousy brown hair that wouldn’t be tamed, that she “affectionately” called “Greg Brady hair”.

Her.
Her
Me.
Me.

Even though we were very close, we fought often and we fought viscously.  It didn’t take much to set us off.  A simple disagreement would escalate into a scuffle in a matter of minutes.  Some of this was due to the fact that we were constantly in each other’s way.  We shared a small bedroom and a tiny closet and a half broken dresser.  It was tight quarters and her 80’s glam leg warmers and glittery hairspray didn’t mesh well with my dirty socks and endless piles of junk.  But the living arrangement also made us closer.  We would stay up late at night talking in the dark, long after we were supposed to be asleep.  In those moments we were each other’s confidants, supporters, therapists, best friends.  But in the light of day, it would fluctuate from camaraderie to down right brawls.  We would be covered in bloody scratches, pulled hair, bruised limbs, sometimes bloody noses.  I usually held my own in these physical match ups, but in the messy minefield of psychological warfare I was outmatched and outplayed.

She took joy in finding small ways to torture me.  She would wake me up for school in the morning by spraying me in the face with a squirt from a water bottle.  To be fair, I have never been a morning person and the job of waking me up every morning probably wasn’t a pleasure.  The worst was when she would wait until I was walking out the door to the bus stop in the morning and say “Aren’t you going to fix your hair today?”, or “You’re wearing that?” or sometimes she would just look at me and snicker, implying that I looked ridiculous.  I eventually started getting ready at my best friend’s house so I wouldn’t have to go to school with her words echoing in my head all day.

One night she just started talking to someone in our room and carried on a one-sided conversation.  Of course I played right in to her hand and asked who she was talking to.  After pretending to not want to tell me, she finally revealed to me that there was a spirit who lived in our closet named Selena.  It became pretty clear that Selena was on team Kristen and didn’t care much for me.  Selena only communicated with my sister.  My sister would often ask me to do things for her.  “Go get me a glass of water”, “Get up and change the channel”, you get the idea.  I think this is part of the older sibling DNA, they are inherently bossy and demanding.  If I refused, she would just have a little conversation with Selena that would always end in some kind of implied danger to befall me or veiled threat from our closet dweller.

Of course, I kind of knew that Selena wasn’t real.  But after years of looking up to my sister, the power she had over me, coupled with the occasional abuse, it was like a sibling’s version of Stockholm Syndrome.  I bought in to it.  I usually gave in to Selena’s requests because what if?  Selena had an evil streak and I didn’t want to piss her off.  And my sister was incredibly convincing.

Selena didn’t last for too long.  I don’t remember if my sister got bored with the whole thing or if my mom caught wind of it, but eventually she just stopped appearing in our lives.  She is just one part of the timeline of our childhood that all seemed to center around that tiny little bedroom with the broken dresser.

My sister got married after high school and moved out and I had my own room for a few years before I left for college.  She only lived a few miles away, and I loved having a room all to myself.  But I missed her.  In spite of the teasing, the fighting, the manipulating, she was my friend.  No one knows me like my sister knows me.  We can speak volumes with a look, with one word, with a hug.  No one else has shared the experiences we have shared together.  I don’t know if anyone can understand you better than the person you shared your childhood with.  These are the years that form you, that make you who you are.  And your sibling goes through all of it with you.  There’s nothing I can’t talk to her about.  I know that I can go to her, call her, show up on her door step- and she is there for me.  And I can do it with little explanation because she knows me that well.

I still look up to my sister.  We are both married.  We both have three kids.  We still tease each other.  Scars from bloody scratches have healed.  Bloody noses have dried up.  Name calling has been forgiven.  And what remains is the two of us.  I call her on the phone and it’s just the two of us and I’m back in that little bedroom, laying in my bed in the dark speaking to the night.  Revealing my thoughts, my feelings, my insecurities or frustrations or joys – and she is there.  She is still that little girl in the bed next to mine listening and confiding.  She is still the one who understands, she is still the one who is there for me.  She is still my best friend.

remember-the-time-blog-hop

woman__s_back_study_by_letholdus-d4jetp8

“Yesterday, lost in a crowd, yesterday lost in a crowd, I was lost…. now I’m found.  Yesterday I was lost, and you kicked me some food. Boy it was nice, to be here with you.”

-Rusted Root, Lost In A Crowd

My childhood was one long awkward period. Most people have a few awkward years, I had about a decade. I was a total tomboy who didn’t care about clothes or looks. By the time I entered Middle School in 7th grade, I started to notice boys and decided I should get with the program. This also happened to be when I found out that I had severe scoliosis and would have to wear a not so cute back brace. This lovely accessory consisted of a hard plastic shell that wrapped around my torso, covering everything from my shoulder blades to my hip bones. It was not subtle or discreet. Big shirts and sweaters did little to camouflage what could best be described as a large plastic turtle shell.

I was a good patient, I wore the brace for the prescribed amount of time, 23 hours a day. I could only take it off to shower and do my back exercises. I tried to make the best of it. Luckily, the kids at school were pretty cool about it. For some reason they spared me of any kind of harassment. They actually were pretty supportive.

Still, I had a decent amount of self pity. I rarely ever voiced it, but I definitely thought it and felt it. I was pissed that I had to wear this thing, I hated that it cut into the top of my thighs every time I sat in a chair, causing my legs to go numb. I hated that it made me look like a hunchback. I hated that I had sweat trickling down my back even in the dead of winter. I hated that when lying down I could barely get up without someone’s help. I hated the two giant velcro strips that held it in place across my stomach. In all, I really just hated everything about it.

Every few months we had the pleasure of meeting with the doctors to hear how everything we were doing was not working. The S shaped curve of my spine was getting worse. Surgery started to come up more each visit.  I wouldn’t say I sulked when we went to these appointments, but I was not my usual chatty self. I basically buried my nose in a book and tried to ignore my surroundings.  One day I looked up from my book long enough to notice a little girl bouncing around the waiting room, talking animatedly to anyone who would listen. She was about 5 years old and all the nurses loved her.  She seemed to know everyone in the office.  A nurse confided in us that the little girl’s spine was so severely curved that it was in danger of crushing her lungs and heart if it wasn’t corrected. A case like hers at such a young age was extremely rare. Surgery basically stunts the growth of the torso, and the doctor’s weren’t sure how to proceed.

It wasn’t long after we learned about this little girl that the doctors informed us that I would have to have the surgery. Even though it wasn’t unexpected, this was not what we wanted to hear. The doctors started detailing the ins and outs of surgery, risk of paralysis, two weeks in the hospital, a cast for six months. At some point I stopped listening. All I could think was  that I wore that  *$#@-ing brace for over a year for nothing…”  Mom and I had a tearful moment in the car after that appointment. After we hugged each other and cried,  I remember thinking about the little 5 year old in the waiting room. The adorable little girl who walked around like she owned the place and knew all the nurses and staff by name. She was this little spunky ray of light in a dreary institutional office. She was also going to have the surgery. Except her growth was going to be stunted at the age of five. They didn’t know what would happen after that.   Even though I was scared and I knew my Mom was scared, I also knew that I would be ok. That little girl had a much rougher road ahead of her and no one could tell those parents that their daughter would be ok.

The surgery took 8 hours. They placed a steel rod from the top of my spine to my tail bone, tightened it with screws at each end to instantly lengthen and un-curl the S shaped curve of my spine. Everything went well. But the pain was beyond description.  Every nerve in your body is attached to your spine. My entire spine had been tampered with in a somewhat brutal way. There was no part of my body that wasn’t screaming in pain.

Probably the worst part of the whole experience was when the nurses would come in to my room to turn me. I had to be turned over every two hours to prevent bed sores. The bed I was in was a special bed designed specifically for these kinds of surgeries. It was a narrow bed, and when it was time to be turned over, the nurses would lay an identical bed on top of me, clamp a large wheel down and lock the two beds together, with me in the middle, unable to breath. They would then spin the wheel until I was rotated to the opposite position. Not only was this ridiculously painful, but it had to happen 12 times a day.  Once I became lucid enough to know what was going to happen, I would start to panic whenever I saw two nurses enter the room. Two nurses meant I was being turned.

One time in particular I decided I’d had enough. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would not be turned again, bed sores be damned. I kind of freaked out. I had no control over what they did, but I freaked out as much as someone who can only move their mouth and eyeballs can. One of the nurses calmly knelt down next to my bed so that I could look her in the eyes. In a gentle, yet firm voice told me about another patient who was down the hall who’d just had the same surgery as me. He had been in a horrible car accident and experienced a devastating impact on his spine. He was lying down the hall experiencing everything I was experiencing. Except he was deaf and blind. He was in the same situation as me. Except he couldn’t hear or see. I was stunned. This shut me up pretty fast. What she was telling me sounded like hell. To be in this kind of pain. To be in the dark, in every way, while lying immobile in a hospital. To be in this, the most vulnerable of positions, and to not know what was going on at all times, to have to rely on someone else being there with you to communicate everything that was going on….   the thought of this man and his experience haunted me the whole time I was in the hospital. As bad as this all was for me, I still could see who entered my room. I could communicate with each person that entered my room. I could refuse medications that I knew would make me sick when a new nurse came on duty. I still had some control. This man they told me about was vulnerable in every sense of the word. This man’s story didn’t make my pain or my fear go away, but it sure put it in perspective.

As a parting gift before I could leave the hospital, they put me in a “body cast”. It could be more accurately described as a “torso cast”. It was a hard shell, this time of woven plaster. But this shell didn’t stop at my shoulder blades, it came up over my shoulders, covering every part of my torso. And this was permanent, for six months, at least. This one wasn’t coming off until it was sawed off. As much as I hated those loud obnoxious velcro strips on my brace, I really missed them now that I had to live in this contraption.  I cried for a while back in my hospital room after they put it on. No one really had explained what it would look like. And it was so bad. And I would have to wear it for six months.

I had to be on bed rest for a few weeks after returning home from the hospital. Finally the day came when I was declared liberated and could leave the house. I should have been excited, but I was dreading going out in the real world. I had always been on the go, spending all my time outside. I got stir crazy really quick, so it wasn’t like me to want to prolong my confinement. But I was terrified of people laughing at me, of looking ridiculous. I knew that my cast was going to attract a lot of stares. I tried to give myself a pep talk. I knew my parents were excited for us all to go out to eat. I’m sure they felt liberated themselves. I tried to will myself to not care what people thought. The old me, the tomboy who didn’t care about looks, she would have come in handy at that time.

When it was time to leave I broke down. I confessed my vanity to my parents. I was so ashamed to feel the way I was feeling, but I couldn’t help it. Of course they understood. But they also knew that I couldn’t become a shut-in for 6 months. My mom tried. She told me that I was strong and after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t let what other people thought stop me from enjoying my life. Everything she said made sense, but it didn’t cut through the stubbornness that had taken a hold of me.

A few minutes after she left my room, my Stepdad came in to my room. I was braced for him to order me to get up and get in the car. Instead he sat down on my sister’s bed and put his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to talk and it wouldn’t be easy for him. This was unusual. Emotional matters were always handled by my mom. He started explaining that he knew exactly how I felt, that he had actually felt the same way many times. I had no idea what he was talking about. He held up a hand and kind of waved it, trying to clue me in as to what he was referring to. Ohhhh. That. He had been born without fingers on his right hand. Of course I always knew this, but I never really thought about it. I never thought of it as something that would bother him. It was just part of him, it seemed normal to us.

He explained the looks he gets from some people when they see his hand. The reactions he gets when someone reaches out to shake his hand and pulls their hand back startled.  He had been teased when he was younger. And his hand was there forever. It’s not something he just had to deal with for six months. He pointed out that it never stopped him from doing anything. And it didn’t. He played football in high school. He built a deck on the back of our house, he could fix just about anything. I guess that’s why I never thought too much about it, he never let it stop him.  He goes on to tell me that he had to learn at a young age to shrug off people’s reactions.

As he’s telling me this, I feel like he’s sharing something really important with me. He is a quiet man. He doesn’t share his feelings or emotions easily. But he was talking to me about something I’m sure he didn’t really like to discuss. I felt honored. He approached me with understanding and love and patience and he shared a piece of him that I had never understood or even really thought about. And he got through my insecurity, my nerves, my anxiety. If he could go out in the world and deal with people’s reactions and not let it affect him, then I could too.

I got through surgery. I got through the ordeal of wearing a cast for six months. I survived the humiliation. I was incredibly lucky that once again all the kids at school were totally cool about it. My friends weren’t embarrassed to hang out with me. I was so lucky that I came out unscathed. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the brave little girl in the waiting room. I am grateful that the nurse told me about the patient who couldn’t see or hear. But what I’m most grateful for, the part that has stuck with me all of these years later, is that my Stepdad shared his experience with me. I since then have paid a little more attention and I am amazed at all the things he’s accomplished.  So many of them are things that are especially difficult to do with a disabled hand. I kind of wonder if he subconsciously chooses hobbies like golf, rebuilding a car engine, making specialty bullets for his collectible guns, precisely because they are difficult for him to do. It’s like he is continuously showing himself and the rest of us that nothing’s going to stop him. In addition to helping me leave the house that night, he also gave me an even better gift. He showed me that he loved me, that I was his daughter, that I was worthy of sharing a very private part of himself with. At the end of it all, this scoliosis….  this surgery….  it showed me just how lucky I really am.

“I told you I was trouble, You know I’m no good”

-Amy Winehouse, You Know I’m No Good

Who, me???
Who, me???

So, the task at hand is to write about a time I got in trouble.  My first thought was that I wouldn’t have anything to write about.  I am a total rule follower.  This one’s going to take some digging in the deepest recesses of my mind….  I mulled it over a while and started remember little things here and there.  I soon realized all these little things were adding up….  Could I have been living a lie all these years???  My persona of being a good girl just blew up in my face in slow motion…

It all started with my first lie.  My lie was in the form of an imaginary friend.  At the  tender age of 3 years, I did not know what an imaginary friend was but I was about to invent one.  It was a small offense, I spilled something or broke something, I can’t quite remember.  When I was busted, I blamed it on Billy Monkey.  Not sure where this came from, but my mom’s reaction ensured that he was sticking around for a while.  She thought it was adorable.  She told her friends that I had an imaginary friend and that she was sure it was a sign of intelligence and creativity.   Hmmm, this was convenient.  My mischievous monkey was quite amusing to the one person in charge of disciplining me.  I took full advantage of this.  I used the Billy Monkey excuse all the time.  “Billy Monkey did it” was always followed by uproarious laughter.  It became almost as rote as the Laugh In “Sock it to me” punch line, it was like having a laugh track playing in our little apartment.  My mom would even prompt me to say it for her friends.  They would all laugh hysterically.  The only person who didn’t seem amused by it was my sister.  She would scowl and roll her eyes every time.  I think she was on to my little game.

I played the Billy Monkey schtick out as long as I could.  Eventually my mom tired of it and these words didn’t magically exempt me from punishment.  Well, it was good while it lasted.

So, I lied and it was celebrated.  I think my little 3 year old mind started to understand about the “gray area” when it comes to breaking rules.  Some rules you just can’t break.  You can’t hurt someone else.  You can’t cheat.  But a little tiny broken rule here or there?  As long as no one else gets hurt, it’s not too bad.  The one exception to this was when I learned from a crafty preschool friend the art of biting your arm just enough to produce teeth marks.  She demonstrated to me how to get someone in trouble.  I watched in awe as she walked up to the teacher and tearfully showed her the bite marks while pointing to an unsuspecting child across the room.  Of course the child got punished.  I had no desire to use this on any of my preschool friends, but I couldn’t wait to use this to get my sister in trouble.  She was three years older and was my protector and my tormentor all at the same time.  She would (very convincingly) tell me that I was actually adopted and my mom wasn’t my real mom.  She would give me a piece of candy and after I swallowed it she would cackle and tell me there was an ant on it and now it was going to live in my stomach and have baby ants.  So, you see, this was a case of me giving her a little of her own medicine, protecting myself from my sister’s cruelty.  See, gray area

My mom fell for it, a few times.  My sister got in pretty big trouble.  I was heady with the power, this was a major coup against my sister who was bigger and craftier and always out-smarted me.  I got too cocky, I used this trick too many times, too close together.  Game over-  my mom was on to my deviant ways.

For the most part I was a good kid.  I never got in trouble at school.  I always made good grades.  I was polite, I never talked back.  But I did, on occasion, push the envelope, dance on the edge of real trouble, always pulling back before things got out of control.  It was always in the name of having a good time.  I would never be able to do something that was mean or hurtful to someone else, but breaking the rules to have a little fun?  That’s not so bad, is it?

Mom, you may want to stop reading now…

(Deep inhale)  I skipped school in high school a few times.  Sometimes a group of us would leave just to get something to eat.  Once or twice it developed in to a full fledged party that would last until the end of the school day at someone’s house.  There was the Senior Ski Trip that I miraculously convinced my parents was chaperoned.  Technically, it was.  One of my friends’ brother was of legal age and he and some buddies “chaperoned” about 20 of us – gray area.

There was the time my Sophomore year that my best friend and I told our parents we were going to spend the day at the local amusement park.  We instead drove 3 hours to the beach to spend a few hours hanging out with our boyfriends who were there for their senior trip.  We were back before dark.  We did drive to the amusement park, circle in front of it and go home.  So, technically we did go to the amusement park – gray area?

Then there was the time that I spent the night at my best friend’s house and we snuck out in the middle of the night to hang out with friends at the neighborhood pool.  We snuck back in a few hours later, through a window we left open in her living room.  We didn’t count on the dog barking furiously.  We heard her mom rushing down the stairs to see why the dog was barking at 3am.  We quickly threw ourselves on the living room couches and turned on the t.v. and pretended to be asleep.  Her mom “woke” us up, asked us why the dog was barking…  we yawned and feigned groggy confusion.  She saw the open window with the drapes blowing in the breeze and ordered us upstairs to go to sleep.  We woke the next day to see policemen dusting the window sill for finger prints.  My friend’s mom was a wreck, thinking that someone tried to break in to her house while my friend and I slept only feet away.  I quickly gathered my things and left.  I felt awful.  My friend called me later to say they were having a community watch meeting about the attempted break in.  -I know, no gray area.  This was pretty bad.

I’m not going to get in to the college years.  I think those years are exempt from any kind of judgement or condemnation, right?  I mean, college is a time to explore, spread your wings, push boundaries….  I loved college.

So, I think the moral of this story, for those of us who have children or may one day have them: don’t ever laugh at and/or encourage your child’s imaginary friend.  They know it’s bullshit, they are just playing along and trying to be cute to get out of trouble.  They will act like they think he’s real.  They will insist that he needs a place to sit at the dinner table.  They will work this angle and come up with stories about their “friend”.   They will mess with your head and make you think that they think he/she/it is real.  They will do this because they will be amazed that you are falling for it.  But really they’re just being a lying little twerp. And your gullible response may just lead them down the path of fun-filled-yet-possibly-dangerous shenanigans that if my kids ever engage in any such activities I will yank them out of the world they know and ship them off to a nunnery or military school until they learn that Mom knows all the tricks and there is no gray in the world they live in, it’s all black and white and primary colors.

remember-the-time-blog-hop

“Hello Operator, can you give me number nine? Can I see you later?

Will you give me back my dime?  Turn the oscillator, twist it with a dollar bill,

Mailman bring the paper, leave it on my window sill.”

-The White Stripes, Hello Operator

My husband likes Barry Manilow.  I know.  I married him anyways.  Last Christmas my sister and her husband gave him a Barry Manilow album.  No, they don’t have bad taste in music too, they were building on our annual Christmas gag gift tradition.  This is a relatively new tradition, it started a few years ago when Joe (said husband) stuck a 2 pound weight in a gift bag and presented it to my Brother in Law.  Joe had been teasing him relentlessly after my brother in law injured his shoulder doing a kettle bell workout with relatively light weights, guffawing “I didn’t know they even made kettle balls that small!”  My niece shot back, “I didn’t know they still made sweaters with zippers”.  She was referring to this awful burgundy sweater with a zipper from the chest to the top of the folded over collar.  A sweater that Joe and been wearing every Christmas Day for years.  We all howled with laughter and Joe nodded and admitted that she had out-done him in the smart ass banter that accompanies every family get together.  The next Christmas there was a gift wrapped beautifully for Joe from my niece. Joe opened it to find a hideous Christmas sweater that had obviously been well worn.  In another decade.  It reeked of mothballs.  He was caught by surprise but looked at my niece with a touch of admiration.  He loved her and was proud, and to be a good sport he put it on right away.  He retired the ugly zippered sweater after that year.

So, my sister was eager to have him open his album.  She was watching with anticipation, waiting to pounce with glee when he would surely blush with embarrassment.  Unfortunately my sister was to be sorely disappointed.  He loved the album.  He was touched that they thought of him.  He slowly and gingerly turned the album over, looking from the front to the back cover.  There was a look of nostalgia and wonderment on his face.  My sister’s triumphant smile slowly melted into disappointment.  This wasn’t the reaction she’d been expecting of course.  As Joe looked over the album he exclaimed over different songs, singing some of the verses.  I groaned.  You can take the Utica out of the boy…  well you know.

My stepdad, Tommy, excused himself quietly and left the room.  I’m thinking that he’s sick that his daughter has married someone with such musical taste.  I picture him in the next room shaking his head silently.  I didn’t raise her like this….  My stepdad shaped my musical taste.  I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Hendrix…  he is a walking rock and roll encyclopedia.  He spends hours reading dense volumes of albums and their stats.  You could name some obscure sixties album or B-side and he’d be able to tell you all about the artist, the record and what the monetary value would be if you ran across it at a flea market.  I guess you could say he was like a walking Wikipedia page on the subject, but we are talking about vinyl here, so I’ll stick with the encyclopedia metaphor.

Tommy returns a few minutes later carrying a plastic box.  He ignores our stares and questioning looks as he sets it down carefully on the kitchen table.  We all sit patiently and wait to see what he has unearthed from the room we all refer to as “TommyLand”.  We know better than to ask what it is, he will show us in his slow, methodical way with very little explanation.  His lack of grandstanding actually comes off as quite dramatic somehow.  He unlatches the metal clips on either side of the box and meticulously lifts the lid.  It’s an old turn table.  Joe immediately pulls the Barry Manilow album from it’s protective sleeve and hands it to Tommy.  He is so excited to hear it and he feels validated that my stepdad is offering to play it.  Tommy’s accommodation had nothing to do with Barry Manilow, it’s an opportunity to play with one of his “toys’ and to share it with all of us.

The record starts spinning and we hear a few crackles before the first strains of music emanate from the record player.  After I tear my eyes away from the spectacle of my husband grooving to Barry Manilow, I turn my attention to my son and daughter and nephew (ages 12, 11 and 9).  They are completely engrossed, mouths open, eyes wide in amazement.  They are stupefied and can’t even form sentences to ask the questions…  “What is…  How does it…”

We all try to explain through our laughter how it works, that the needle follows the grooves on the vinyl and …  some how plays the music?  I don’t know, it’s not something we really questioned growing up.  You just tried really hard to not scratch the album and to not jump or dance too close to the turntable and make it skip.  I can’t believe my kids have never seen a record player before.   Something that was so integral to my childhood and in the blink of a few decades it’s gone.  I don’t know why I’m surprised.  When my son was born I had just retired all my cassettes (bye bye awesome mixed tapes I labored over for endless hours..  sniff sniff) and transitioned to cd’s.  Now cd’s are on their way to joining their brethren in the vast wasteland of bygone electronics.  They will be in good company with the 8 track tapes, the VHS tapes, the rotary phone, the black and white t.v. with dials and rabbit ears, the transistor radios, the word processors…. I could go on but this list is starting to make me feel really old.

While I’m getting a kick out of watching their confusion and bewilderment, I’m kind of pissed.  These spoiled little twerps growing up in the digital era have no idea how good they have it.  They want a new song?  Download it instantly.  Listen to it on Spotify.  Want a book?  Order one for your Kindle and you have it within seconds.  Want to watch a music video?  Gone are the days of hoping to catch a glimpse of it on Mtv, you can go on YouTube and see it whenever you want.  They don’t even have to deal with dial up internet access anymore.  Mom forgets to pick you up from practice?  Well just get your smart phone out you little monster and call her and see where she’s at!  Forget the entitlement generation, now we are raising the instant gratification generation…

I tried to explain some of this to my son recently when I had him as a captive audience in the car.  I explained that if I wanted a copy of my favorite song, I would have to try to record it off the radio station onto a cassette tape and hope the radio DJ wasn’t in a chatty mood while my song was playing.  I tried to illicit some sympathy from him when I pointed out that I would sit in my room for an ENTIRE day, listening to my radio, just waiting for that one song to play.   And inevitably it would come on the second you leave the room for an urgent bathroom break.  This is my version of the “When I was your age I had to walk 2 miles in the snow to school” story.  I got no sympathy from my boy.  He looked at me like I was crazy, as in Why would you waste a whole day to do that?

He had no concept of having to wait.  And let me just say, my kids are not spoiled.  Well, no more spoiled than other kids of their generation.  They don’t get everything they want, they aren’t the first to get the new hot thing.  They have to wait/earn/save for some things they’ve really wanted.  But what all this made me realize is that there are so many things that used to be really big deals, things you had to wait for, go to the store for, stand in line for.  Now most of these things can be bought on line faster than you can say “Complete My Purchase”.

This almost makes me feel sorry for these kids.  There’s something to be said for anticipation.  The waiting, the build up makes things so much sweeter.  I remember counting down the days until a record was released.  Or waiting in line at record stores for concert tickets.  Or spending hours in a book store looking through dozens of books trying to decide which one to get, because this purchase was precious.  You didn’t get to go buy books every day so you wanted to make sure you go the right one.  Don’t get me wrong, I love that we have such easy access to music and books and I love to get on YouTube and watch live performances of my favorite bands.  I sometimes feel like I got the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory, so I’m not saying I don’t love the digital age and all it’s perks.   I just wonder what it is our kids will have to hunger for, what will have them antsy with impatience, what will make them mark a date on the calendar with a red Sharpie and wish the days away?

There was another conversation I had with my son soon after.  He asked me what I did for a living before he was born.  I started to tell him that I sold pagers…  and almost instantly wished that I had just made something up.  Now I had to explain the concept of pagers and why someone would need such a device.  You see, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, they called your pager and punched in their phone number, you would see the number on your pager and you would go find a phone or a phone booth and call them back. Again, I get the “You’re crazy” look.  As I’m trying to explain this to him, I realize that it sounds so cumbersome and ridiculous.  I try to make it sound a little better by pointing out that I sold them to corporate accounts, Fortune 500 companies.  He didn’t care.  I’d lost him already.  He was too busy posing his next question to listen as I trailed off about the limited options we had before cell phones were widely available.  He interrupted my reverie, “But Mom, what’s a phone booth?”    Done. Can’t answer another question.  I’m exhausted by all the explaining.  I sighed with resignation, admitting defeat.  I turned to him, “Google it.”      

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“And I know it aches and your heart it breaks and you can only take so much….  Walk on.” -U2, Walk On

It was my wedding day.

We had spent the past year and a half planning every little detail, the string quartet, the candles, the sunset. Yes, even the sunset.

One year before our wedding date I stood outside and watched the sky. I studied the sun as it gracefully slid into a warm golden light. Letting it soak in, I marveled at this moment. The warmth and beauty of the world awash in a sublime glow, this gift for us to witness most evenings. I’ve always felt moved, spiritually connected to the sunset. It’s a daily reminder that anything is possible.  As the sun’s dance came to an end, it washed the sky in pink and purple, one last flourish to remind us of the promise of the sun rising for a new day. This was the moment I wanted our wedding to take place, the beginning of our new life together.

A year later, on the actual day, it was beautiful, the sun was putting on it’s luminous show right on schedule. I stood outside of the chapel and watched as my sisters and best friends filed inside. The strings started playing Canon in D and it was time for me to take my last walk as an unmarried woman. My heart started racing and I could feel the pressure building inside of me, the surge of tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I looked up at the sun, willing it to work it’s magic on me. Let me feel the hope and promise, the assurance that  it would greet me the next morning and everything would be all right.

Nothing.

I felt completely alone, the sunset wasn’t giving me strength, my family and friends had all gone inside. The only person there was the sweet old lady who worked for the chapel and was there to make sure all went as planned. She looked at me nervously, her eyes darting from me to the door of the church.

And all I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

Before I had the chance to say anything, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to watch me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away, but I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. It really was surreal. Like time stopped.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I felt myself move forward, effortlessly gliding….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm, warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Given a grim diagnosis, he remained steadfast. He was going to be fine, he was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

This was the day the world forever changed for the six of us that were there with him. Nothing would ever be the same, there was something deep inside  each of us that had been irreparably changed. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fourteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how any of us made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief. There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together, summoned our strength and even though we were surely still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony, and his favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced and we drank and we had fun.

Inexplicably, we actually had fun.

Fourteen years have passed since that day.

Fourteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fourteen years later and I’m still learning how all this works, the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all this learning, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand every once in a while and pay attention.  I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back…

but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned came from a friend I worked with. I confessed to her that I didn’t think that I would ever feel joy again. I knew I would feel some level of happiness, but true, full, unadulterated joy? I couldn’t see that ever happening. I really thought the part of me capable of feeling with abandon had died. She adamantly refused to agree. She said that I would feel joy again. She was so sure. It actually kind of annoyed me at the time. But her insistence also gave me hope.

And she was right. When I had my son 15 months later, I felt joy, a pure unfiltered happiness. And I’ve felt it many times since then. With my daughters, with my husband, with my friends and family. My son’s birth filled a hollowness that had been residing inside my soul. I have thought of her many times since then even though we aren’t close any more. She gave me something no one else had been able to give me at one of my darkest moments. As an outsider she was able to guarantee me that I would feel again. See, she had a daughter already and knew that when I had a child I would have no choice but to feel joy, that my love for my baby would override the pain. The birth of my son didn’t take away the pain of losing my brother, but it allowed me to open my heart up again to hope.

It gave me permission to feel happy.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through, what they have endured or are battling. I had many nights and early mornings of driving home from the hospital after staying with my brother where I truly don’t know how I made it home. There were times where I caught myself driving about 15 mph on a busy road. Before my brother’s illness I would have been irate over a slow driver holding me up. I still sometimes get a little annoyed but I always remind myself.

We all have bad days and some of us have really bad days and are just trying to make it to tomorrow, so I try to keep my irritation in check. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an angry driver or shopper at the grocery store would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt, granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, when you don’t know what they are going through.  If you have to know the behind the scenes, well then you’re kind of sitting in judgement, right?  I wasn’t an asshole before, but I don’t think I really recognized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times and they probably will never know the significance of their actions. There was a coworker who, as I was leaving the office to go to the hospital, stopped me to give me a big bear hug. He knew I was worried about the news we were getting from my brother’s test results, and while I had talked about it with my shy, reserved friend I was completely taken aback with his show of affection. It was a small gesture that I knew wasn’t easy for him to offer. His effort to offer me solace moved me and reminded me that even though many of them didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and his wife who drove 12 hours to be here for my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law, who I barely knew was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she and I had met. She helped me get through an emotional night and she seemed genuinely touched by the stories she hear from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude when she said those words to me.  It let me know that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I’ve learned that you can, even 14 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like him and you almost want to stalk him, just so you can pretend for a minute that he’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischievious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behaviour.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok.

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me.

They are bittersweet.

They are welcome.

And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle, having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy, there would be no last minute stand in.  I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.  And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared and that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.

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