The things my mother gave me.

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Today makes two years. It was two years ago today, on September 23rd, that I received the worst phone call of my life. It was Sunday morning and I was still in bed, my phone in the other room. I heard it ringing, distant, the musical jingle breaking through the quiet September morning. I rolled over slowly, a sense of unease already stirring in the pit of my stomach. It was too early; who could be calling? Not that early, true, but early for a Sunday. The first football game hadn’t started yet. On Fox, Terry, Howie, Jimmy and the gang were still making their predictions about which teams would win, still letting fantasy owners know which probable and questionable players were active.

I lifted myself up out of bed, crossed the room, and picked up my phone. I retrieved the voicemail, a tearful message from my Aunt Sandy, my Mom’s brother’s wife, telling me it was an emergency, telling me to call her, or my Dad, at home. I called Dad. I should have called her.

I think about that moment – that decision about who to call – often. I wish I could go back and redo it. My Aunt would have been gentler, would have been kinder when delivering the news. But it was my Dad that I wanted to talk to. My Dad, hard of hearing, elderly, gravely ill with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer. My Dad, who was incapable of softening the blow. ‘Mom’s dead,’ he said, across the line, distant, emotionless. The bottom fell out.

And so they began. Two years that would shake and stretch and shape me. Two years that would threaten to shatter me. Two years during which – at times – I struggled and fought and kicked and screamed and rebelled against circumstance, insisting upon being OK by the sheer force of my will. And two years during which – at other times – I gave in. Two years during which I almost gave up. Two years that carved a hole in my family, that carved a whole in my sense of who I thought I was.

Today, as I stand on the other side of those twenty-four months, scanning the distance between then and now, thinking about what and who I’ve lost, and what – ironically – I’ve also gained, there’s one image that’s burned in my mind.


The image I can’t escape is of the last time I saw my mother. She is standing in the driveway of my parents’ house in Olympia. Rail thin, slightly disheveled, though she had pulled it together quite significantly from her collapse of a few days prior. Pulled it together for me, I suppose. We’ve just hugged goodbye, and after providing her with a list of caretaker referrals to help with Dad, after securing a promise from her that she’ll find a counselor, that she’ll talk to someone, I board the airport shuttle. As I turn to wave goodbye one last time, there’s a look on her face that I don’t think I’ve ever seen: it’s soft, yet sorrowful, with an intensity that’s completely unfamiliar, an intensity that’s very unlike my one-hundred-miles-from-intense mother.

I’ve thought about that moment many times over the last two years. I’ve wondered if she knew then that she was dying. I’ve wondered if she knew that this would be the last time she’d see me, her only child. I’ve wondered if the reason the look was so unfamiliar, if the reason she held me in her gaze so intently, was because she knew this was it, and she was trying to memorize my face. I’ve wondered if, in that moment, she was trying to memorize my face for all eternity.

There are so many gifts that my mother gave me; she was generous to a fault. There were cherished treasures that she bestowed upon me while she was still alive, and equally valuable gifts that I could never have anticipated receiving after she was gone. In addition to the ruby and emerald rings, the gold pieces from her jewelry box, the vintage wardrobe gems like two pairs of knee high Finnish leather boots, a Chloe scarf, a pink hand-beaded Leslie Fay cocktail dress, there are other, less tangible, things I take with me. Lessons about the person I want to be, based on who she was, and who she wasn’t. There are qualities I strive to emulate – her kindness, her compassion, her generosity, her sweetness. There are things I’ll never achieve. I’ll never be as good of a chef as she was, never master her green thumb in the garden. And I’m definitely not as nice as my mother was, not as giving, not as yielding. I’m more stubborn, more argumentative, more selfish.


But many of the qualities that I admired about my mother also let her down. I can see now that she never took time for herself, never set boundaries, couldn’t say no to the demands of others, even when they were outrageous. I can see how people took advantage of her, and how she let them. I can see how she absorbed every harsh word, internalized every worry, how insecure and how fragile she was. I can see how she burned out, how she couldn’t ask for help, even when she desperately needed it.

People who knew us both tell me that we’re alike, my mother and I. We have the same smile, the same laugh, the same mischievous sense of humor. We look alike and we even sort of talk alike. I’m grateful for all of it. But (I’m sorry, Mom), I’m also grateful for the ways that we’re not alike. I’m grateful that I’m able to set boundaries in order to protect myself, in ways that you couldn’t. I’m grateful that I’m strong enough to say no when something isn’t right for me. And I grateful that, though, like you, I’m strangely resistant to asking for help when I need it, I’m beginning to overcome that. I’m starting to ask. And I’m learning that when I ask, help tends to arrive, and it really does, well, help.

So on days like today – which are often – when I’m missing my Mom so badly that it threatens to overwhelm me, I try to hold on to what I know is true: my mother loved me, she wanted my happiness above all else, and she wouldn’t want me to use something like her not being here as an excuse to give up. She would want me to keep going. She would want me to be strong in ways that she couldn’t. She would want me to embrace my life.

Today marks two years since I lost the most important person in my life. Before I know it, it may be ten, twenty. But what time, what death, what grief can never wipe away are all the beautiful, generous gifts that my mother gave me. And on this day, two years hence, I pledge this gift to you, Mom: I promise to never stop pushing. I promise to take nothing for granted. I promise to be happy in every way that I can. And I promise to do all of these things, even when it’s hard. Even on days like today. Especially on days like today.

Thank you, Mom. I love you. I’m so grateful for everything you gave me.

Until next time, friends.

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We left Anchorage on a bleak, snowy day in late November. It was just after Thanksgiving, and just before my fifteenth birthday. I remember how bitterly cold it was. I remember snow-topped Atlas Van Lines moving trucks parked in the driveway in front of our house, a stately, three-story slate grey Alaskan chateau on Hidden Lane. I remember sulking, dragging my feet, not wanting to go. I remember little else.

The Spar

Come to think of it, I can’t even remember where we celebrated my birthday that year – 1995 – sandwiched as it was between Thanksgiving and settling into our new home in Olympia, WA. It’s funny how little I remember from that time. Mostly, I remember the weather: the Alaska deep freeze, the cold Olympia rain, the ice storm that hit with a force shortly after our arrival, the tree branches that froze and crackled and splintered throughout the night, littering the road and falling on power lines, knocking out our electricity. Our new house, situated as it was at the end of a long, narrow peninsula called Cooper Point Road, and then down a private, gravel, pothole-filled path with a sign at the top that warned ‘end of county road,’ was very literally in the middle of nowhere. Which meant that when the ice storm knocked out the power, it stayed out. For days.

And then there was Olympia itself. Upon crossing into the city limits, visitors are greeted by a sign bearing a red, white and blue shield in the form of stars and stripes, proudly proclaiming: ‘Welcome to Olympia, an All-America City.’ True? I suppose so. But mostly I remember Olympia as a small-ish Pacific Northwest town with a bit of an identity crisis. A place where state-workers, government bureaucracy, federal buildings and all of the other trappings of being the state capitol came together with the dreadlocked, hemp-wearing, Evergreen State College-attending hippies, the self-consciously artsy, delightfully quirky PNW hipsters, and the more affluent, old moneyed country club set – the ones who owned boats and waterfront homes and wintered in warmer climates.

Capitol Theater

When I arrived in Olympia in 1995, from what might as well have been a foreign country – Alaska – I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was no newcomer to the Pacific Northwest – both of my parents grew up there and I’d spent nearly every summer in Seattle or at my Grandparents’ beach house in Allyn, WA – but Olympia was something else entirely. An odd, eccentric town where all these different and distinct segments of the population intersected, amidst a backdrop of gloom and rain, of tall trees and water-facing cafes and dirt roads to nowhere. I didn’t fit in at all, and yet, strangely, it was exactly where I belonged.

I remained in Olympia for less than four years, bailing as soon as I could to attend college in Los Angeles, and choosing to return only infrequently, on random summers and holidays. And though L.A. has now been my home for many years, there is something unshakeable about Olympia. It was so different than any place I’d ever been before, and so different from any place I’ve ever been since. For the Alaska girl used to the long dark winters where Christmas lights cast a soft glow against the snow, the endless summer nights near the solstice when the sun never seemed to go down, a place where you could go ice skating in your backyard and moose frequently roamed city streets, it represented total culture shock. And for the woman who sought bright lights and bigger things, who has traveled the world, and who made Los Angeles her home – with its vast expanse of freeways and smog and traffic and unnaturally beautiful people – Olympia remains a beacon, a reminder of a more innocent version of myself, a longing for a simpler, more offbeat, more authentic life.

Zoe Bday 5

On my last few visits to Olympia, I tried my best to recapture the good old days – the rainy afternoons passed journaling in indie coffeehouses, the outdoor concerts in Sylvester Park with its gazebo strung with white lights, the treasure hunts in the epic Goodwill on the corner of Cooper Point and Harrison, 90’s music blaring over the loudspeakers, the long walks around Capitol Lake, the beautiful boys in too-baggy clothes killing time at the skate park. I’ve tried my best to recapture the Olympia of old, but the truth is, it’s no longer the same. The magic of nostalgia that held me in its grip for so many years while I slogged away in gritty L.A. has withered in the face of cancer and alcoholism and mental illness and hospice. The lighthearted teenage memories of watching old movies at the Capitol Theater and dance parties and bingeing on late night french fries at The Spar now compete with doctors’ visits and funeral arrangements and sorting through the contents of my parents’ house.

The thing about my arrival in Olympia as a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year-old at the tail end of 1995 is that it was perfectly timed. It was so easy to be a teenager there. You didn’t have to work hard to manufacture the tragic angst you so desperately clung to as part of your identity; it was already baked into the cake with the gloomy rain-soaked skies and the tall trees and the grunge music and the drive-thru espresso stands with ironic names. But the thing I didn’t realize about that time in my life – the thing that I could only realize later, with perspective – is that it was actually beautiful. That I wasn’t really as dark or as moody or as tragic as I pretended to be, that I was only playing at it. It wouldn’t be until much later, when I was touched by actual tragedy, when grown up responsibilities eclipsed the teenage worries that had once seemed so heavy and oppressive, that I would truly understand the difference. And then, more than ever, would I long for those bygone Olympia days.

Until next time, friends.

Percival Landing Statues

Past Lives.

I just hit my fifteenth year in L.A. The milestone arrived quietly. So quietly, in fact, that I barely even noticed it. It wasn’t until this past Saturday, when I was parking my car on a familiar street in Silver Lake, experiencing an odd sense of déjà vu as I climbed out of my too-dirty Prius, gold linen clutch in hand, heading to an afternoon brunch, that I realized that it had already happened. I had missed it. I paused for a moment, the hot September sun beating down on my back, and thought about how very different my life was from the girl who arrived in this city fifteen years ago, how every different my life was from even one year ago. The thought crossed my mind and then I quickly dismissed it, exhaling a puff of air as I trudged uphill toward a house full of people that I’d never met.


Déjà vu has been my constant companion these days. It’s almost as if my past has been chasing me, trying to meld my younger self with the current, Sarah 2.0 version. For starters, I find myself living alone for only the second time in my life, in a place that, while a bit bigger than the shoebox Culver City studio apartment I rented when I was 24, is oddly similar. Like my old place, it’s bright and airy, it has an enclosed patio, and it boasts friendly neighbors. My new place is a few miles east of my first solo digs, yet close enough that Culver City, very different yet very much the same, has once again become the closest hip neighborhood, once again my default stomping grounds.

On Friday evening, the night before that Silver Lake brunch, déjà vu paid me yet another visit. Driving home from my girlfriend Zoe’s new apartment, an L.A.-spacious one-bedroom in Mar Vista, where we gathered over dinner to talk about love and loss and family and hope and romance and well, the things you talk about when you’re in your early 30s and single and you’re missing your mom and you’re wondering what it all means. Tired and ready to head home to bed at 11 p.m. (definitely not the me of 15 years ago), I turned right onto Inglewood from Washington and flashed back to all the memories that had been made on that street when three buddies of mine rented a post-college apartment there, an apartment they nicknamed the ‘Inglewood Palace.’ I thought about parties and football games and hangouts and good times. And I thought about one of those friends who’d passed away far too soon, about another, now a father and a college professor in Fargo, North Dakota, and another, my best friend of the bunch, who’d recently left L.A. to begin a new life with his wife in the Bay Area. How familiar that street felt, as if no time had passed. And in light of the years that had passed, in light of all that had happened, how foreign it felt too.

Back to Saturday, to brunch, to Silver Lake. I was standing in the kitchen of an unfamiliar house, wearing a sleeveless black silk cocktail dress that used to be my mother’s, a dress that I had realized (too late) was far too warm for this September day, mimosa in hand, making small talk with women that I’d never met before. I was at a literary salon that I felt privileged to be invited to, where the attendees were almost exclusively writers, some aspiring (me), some very successful. I felt a little bit like a fraud, like a kid playing dress up, fumbling for things to talk about, this blog, my life, the book I want to write. I was trying to be as engaged as I could be in the present moment, but I couldn’t help feeling my mind wander down the hill, toward an apartment one street over on Golden Gate, where ten years earlier (God, could it really have been ten years ago?) my friend Mary and I passed many evenings drinking wine, engrossed in deep, meaningful conversations about politics, art, love, the meaning of life. Conversations that, in truth, weren’t that much different than the ten-years-later conversation I’d had the night before over champagne and pasta at Zoe’s place in Mar Vista. Then and now, we were preoccupied with what would happen to us; we were worried about becoming the people we were supposed to be.

Black and White 24th Bday

Have I become the person I’m supposed to be? No, not yet. As I stood in the kitchen of the house in Silver Lake, listening to two impressive female writers speak about their books, about their writing process, about their lives, I could relate and yet, I couldn’t. They talked about motherhood, mid-life crises, and menopause, all things beyond my experience, things that were looming in the somewhat distant future. But they also talked about going through transitions, about needing to change when life had become too small, too narrow, too claustrophobic, about the ever-present need to grow. And to that, I could relate.

I’m about a million miles away from the baby-faced eighteen-year-old college student who arrived in L.A. fifteen years ago. I am, and yet, I’m not. I’m certainly older, definitely wiser (though I’m the first to admit, not always wise), and I’ve been shaped and stretched by the roller coaster that is this life. But the one thing that hasn’t changed after all this time: I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. I’m still trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be. As my mind wandered back to that apartment on Golden Gate, the words of one of the authors broke through my reverie. ‘Life is cyclical,’ she said. ‘Things are wonderful, and then they’re not. Things are terrible and then they’re not. Everything passes.’ And something about that statement clicked in my brain. Maybe this pervasive sense of déjà vu, of revisiting these familiar places from my past and seeing them through older eyes, is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Maybe it’s my opportunity to review where I’ve been and make different, better choices about where I’m going. Maybe it’s a reminder that life is cyclical. And maybe it’s telling me that I’m on my way. That I’m one step closer to becoming the person I’m supposed to be. At least, I really hope so.

Until next time, friends.


I spent a lot of time this past Labor Day weekend glued to television coverage of the US Open. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found something soothing about the game of tennis. The rhythm of a long rally, the squeaking noise the shoes make as players scuffle across the court, the sotto voce commentary. But the main reason I can’t let a major tournament pass by without at least tuning in is because of my mother.

My mom played tennis throughout high school and college, and in her day, she was superb. Though I never got to witness her play when she was at the height of her game, I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the trophies and awards she won, listened with rapt attention to the tale of the legendary match where she and her female doubles partner outplayed – and beat – the boys.

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Throughout my life, I was keenly aware that mom’s biggest regret was the fact that she didn’t pursue a pro career. She certainly wanted to, and from everything I understand, she was good enough to at least give it a shot. But her parents – both successful court reporters – were adamant that she choose a more conventional life, and they pushed her to attend law school. Mom didn’t push back, at least, not hard enough. She went. And she failed out – or dropped out, I was never sure – after her first year at Gonzaga. Mom ended up following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a court reporter too. Her career was short-lived (she worked just a few years before marrying my dad and moving to Alaska, where she managed his law firm), and I’m not sure that she ever enjoyed it. She suffered from severe anxiety throughout much of her life, and she once confessed to me that she’d get so nervous about the pressure of the job that she’d often throw up before showing up for work.

The reminder of her unfulfilled dream was a constant companion throughout my childhood. It was present when we rose early on weekend mornings to watch breakfast at Wimbledon, present in her obsession with Chris Evert (her favorite player), present in the infamous screaming match she got into with my grandmother during a holiday dinner we hosted at my parents’ house in Olympia, during which years of my mom’s suppressed rage boiled to the surface and the only thing that kept my grandmother from storming out of the house was the ice storm swirling outside, making the roads impassable.

And it was especially present in the fact that my mom was constantly signing me up for tennis lessons, whether I wanted them or not. I was a good kid. Quiet, shy, polite, I earned straight A’s in school and generally didn’t rock the boat. I was my mom’s only child, and a tremendous source of pride for her. I felt the weight of that pride from an early age, and, not wanting to screw it up, I towed the line, and for the most part, stayed out of trouble.

Mom Tennis

A rare exception was one summer in Anchorage, when my tennis instructor called our house, concerned, because I hadn’t been showing up for my lessons. I was 11 or 12, old enough to walk by myself from our house on Hidden Lane to the tennis courts at a downtown recreational area called the Park Strip, and bratty enough to decide that I’d rather blow off my lessons in favor of killing time at Fifth Avenue Mall with my friends.

Busted, I confessed to my mom what I’d been doing. I felt my face flush with hot shame as I admitted lying to her, telling her that my lessons were going well when I was really hanging out at the food court with my buddies. I prepared for the storm of her anger – after all, I deserved it – but it didn’t come. Mom didn’t yell. It was much worse than that. She looked sad – almost as though she might cry – and so, so disappointed in me. It was as though by rejecting the sport that she loved so much in such a cavalier, spoiled, pre-teen way, I had destroyed her dream all over again. I had let my mom down. And it felt awful.

She never signed me up for tennis lessons again. I went on to dabble in various other sports – volleyball, softball, track and field – but I never got really good at any of them. In my heart of hearts, I was a nerd, a bookworm who loved making up stories, who loved poetry and art, who sang in the choir, who read Shakespeare and imagined myself a regal, corseted, high-born lady in Elizabethan England.

I don’t think my mom ever fully understood my decision to pursue a career in the arts. She didn’t feel the goose bumps I felt when sitting in a darkened movie theater, didn’t know the rush I experienced from standing on a stage in front of a live audience. She certainly didn’t understand the draw of Los Angeles, with its urban sprawl, and smog and traffic and crowds.

My mom and I were very different people with very different dreams. But I think the fact that she lived with the regret of giving up on hers also made her so fiercely protective of mine. Time and time again, she defended my choices to family members and friends who didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. She offered financial support when I struggled, which was often. She sent me flowers on every opening night. And when she did travel to Los Angeles to see me stand up on a stage and tell stories, she was so very proud. And she made sure everyone knew it. Especially me.

Mom frosting cake

I’ve spent the last two years overwhelmed by grief. First, in denial of it, pushing myself to ignore it, throwing myself into work, pretending it didn’t exist. Later, paralyzed by it, unable to make important decisions, unable to move forward with my life. Finally, lately, I’ve been succumbing to it, allowing it to wash over me, to consume me.

But it has only been very recently that I’ve begun to get angry. Angry for letting circumstances that are out of my control dictate my fate. Angry for acting like a victim, for feeling sorry for myself, for sleeping too much, for whining too much, for indulging in my vices too much. And mostly, angry for abandoning my fighting spirit.

Watching the US Open this past weekend made me miss my mom something fierce. But it also made me feel closer to her than I have in a long time. It made me pay attention to her ever-present voice in my ear, telling me to be as brave as she knows I can be, to stop moping, to get off the couch and to fight for my life. Watching the US Open made me remember that the greatest gift my mom ever gave me was her unwavering belief in me. It reminded me that the worst thing I can do – like that summer when I ditched my tennis lessons – is to let her down.

Sometimes it takes something as innocuous as a tennis tournament to remind us that our dreams are fragile, precious, ephemeral things, and if we don’t grab onto them, they can disappear. Many people don’t get to live their dreams, either because they’re afraid to, or because life throws obstacles in their way that they don’t think they can surmount.

I am one of the lucky ones. Despite circumstance, despite pain and trauma, despite grief, I have everything I need to live the life I want, and the only person standing in the way of that is me. And though my dreams might look different than they did when I was 18, that’s OK. Because I’m different, too. The thing that hasn’t changed – that has never changed – is my desire to stand on a stage, or on a set, or behind a camera, or in front of a computer, and tell stories. Stories that entertain, that inspire, stories that have the power to heal.

Thank you, mom, for reminding me how precious my dreams are. I promise that every day, I will continue to fight for them. I promise that I will never give up. I promise to do it for you, and most importantly, I promise to do it for me.

Until next time, friends.


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