Seven years.

“Maybe it’s okay

if it takes time,

to be okay.

Maybe

healing is a road that is

lined with endless grace.”

– Morgan Harper Nichols

Dear Mom,

How do I begin? Usually, I’m the one other people come to when they need help figuring out what to say. But in trying to figure out what to say to you – my best friend, my first phone call, the person I miss most of all – I am utterly lost. My fingers are clumsy on my keyboard. A heavy brick sits squarely in the center of my chest.

But still, I will try. I will try because you deserve it. You deserve to know all of the things I have been thinking but haven’t been able to say.

Seven years. Seven years since I got the worst phone call of my life. Seven years since all the color bled from the world and the sky turned black and nothing would ever look the same again. Seven years since you left.

Seven is an impossible number. It is impossible for me to believe it has been seven years since I’ve seen your face, or hugged you in an airport, or heard the familiar, “Oh hi, Sar,” on the other end of the telephone.

But seven is an impossible number for another reason. It is impossible to believe how quickly the years have elapsed since you died. It seems so cruel that time has marched on, indifferent, and that I have lived and loved and struggled and succeeded and hoped and failed throughout most of my thirties without you. How unfair that the worst thing I could possibly imagine happened to me, and all I could do was survive it? How awful to learn that I not only could go on without you, but that I would go on. I would go on to become a better, braver, more compassionate person in your absence, and that better, braver, more compassionate person is someone you will never get to meet.

Damn it, it’s so unfair. And yet, it is. The unfairness of life is one of the most profound lessons I have learned from your death, Mom. As children, we are taught to believe that kindness will be rewarded and the good guys will win and that everything will work out in the end. And sometimes, those things do happen. But other times, they don’t. Other times, life shocks you with its randomness. Sometimes, terrible things happen that don’t make any sense and there’s nothing to do but accept them.

For a while, I was angry with you, Mom. I was angry with you for dying. I was angry with you for leaving me at the worst possible time. Dad was dying, and Grandma was losing her mind, and Grandpa was wheelchair-bound and depressed, and you just checked out. You left the building and left me to deal with the mess you left behind.

When you died, I was in the prime of my life. I was thirty-one, living a sun-soaked existence in Los Angeles, doing exactly as I pleased. Before you left, my biggest concerns centered around whether my agent liked my new headshots or how many auditions I was getting. And then suddenly, everything changed. Suddenly, there were a million hard decisions to make. There was probate court. There were health care directives and funerals to plan and boxes and boxes and boxes of belongings to sift through. There was a home to sell. My family home, or at least it used to be, before I watched you unravel within its walls. And then, there was Grandpa. Your sweet, heartbroken father, who could not reconcile the fact – no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him – that someone who was only sixty years old and in seemingly good health could suddenly just die.

It was relentlessly unfair, Mom. And I was not ready for any of it. In fact, for a while, I was convinced it would kill me. I was convinced that I would die. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t. Even though everything was horrible and gut-wrenching and wrong, I survived. And a funny thing happens when life deals you the worst cards you can imagine and you continue to breathe in and out. You learn something about yourself. The world is suddenly, irrevocably, different, and you are different in it. You can’t go back to the way you were, and you find you don’t want to.

I am going to say some things now that will probably sound awful, but I have to admit to them because they’re true. If both of my parents had to die, I’m glad you went first, Mom. Because my relationship with my father needed repairing and those last few months with him were a gift. I’m grateful for the dinners we had and the football games we watched and that there was nothing left unsaid between us. I’m grateful he got to plan his own funeral, and that I was able to carry his ashes down the aisle of the church, and sit in the front row with Deirdre and Dave and Matt and pretend to be the good Catholic girl he wanted me to be. If you hadn’t died, Mom, I wouldn’t have done any of that. I would have been too busy holding you up.

And even though I blamed her cruelty for causing you to turn to the bottle in the first place, I’m grateful for the daily phone calls with Grandma before Alzheimer’s erased her memory. I’m grateful for the realization that even though she was a terrible, abusive mother, she was still in pain over losing you. I’m grateful for the knowledge I learned earlier than most: that love is complicated and people are too, and most of us aren’t working with a full tool kit when it comes to matters of the heart.

I think you already know this, Mom, because I choose to believe that you see and know everything I do, but I will confess it to you anyway: I have lied about your death. I’m not sure how many times, but there is one time in particular that stands out. It was after we found out Grandpa was dying, and I was on a plane headed back to Seattle to be with him. The woman seated next to me was one of those busy body, Matriarch types, and before I knew it, I was telling her my entire life story. And when she asked me how you died, I lied and said “Cancer.”

It embarrasses me now that I did that, Mom. Why should I care what a complete stranger thinks? But at the time, I was trying to protect you. Or rather, I was trying to protect us both. I was afraid that if I told the truth, the busy body Matriarch seated next to me would think you were a terrible mother. Or I was a terrible daughter. Or there was something wrong with our family. Or – worst of all – you didn’t love me enough to stay alive.

I know that none of this is true, Mom. What is true is that for most of my life, you harbored a deep, dark sadness. A sadness I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fix. And you drank to feel better, and the alcohol worked until it didn’t. Until it killed you. But I don’t think you wanted to die, Mom. I don’t think you wanted to leave us. As one of your friends once told me, “Your mother was so tired. She just wanted to sleep.”

Shortly after you died, the man I used to be married to told me he was jealous of our relationship. He said he was jealous of how close we were, because he didn’t have that with his own mother. His words caused me to fly into a blinding rage. I was so furious at the unfairness of losing you, so devastated by the gaping hole your absence had only recently carved into my life, that I simply couldn’t hear it. But looking back, I’m glad he said it, because he only illuminated what was true. In thirty-one years, I never doubted how much you loved me, Mom. Not once. You gave me everything you could, and I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to call you my mother. Nothing will ever change that. Not even death.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in losing you, and in losing Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, is that healing is a road that runs straight through forgiveness. In order to move on, you have to let go.

It has taken me seven years to be able to say this, but here it is: I forgive you, Mom. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for leaving me at the worst possible time. I forgive you for needing to sleep.

And I forgive myself, too. I will have to say that again and again in order to believe it, so I guess I better start practicing now. I forgive myself. I forgive myself for not being able to save you. I forgive myself for every horrible, awful, selfish thing I did in the years since you died. I forgive myself for the mistakes I made, for the time and the money I wasted, and for all the ways I hurt myself. I forgive myself because I can see now that I was doing my best. I can see now that I was only trying to survive.

You stayed alive for me as long as you could, Mom. And now, it is my turn to stay alive for you. But I won’t just do that. I will do you one better. I will write the story of your life, and my life, and the story of all the ways in which our two lives are irrevocably intertwined. And as I do that, I will put this sad, seven-year season behind me and move forward into the future with a still-fragile yet hopeful heart. Because, do you want to hear something crazy? Even after everything that’s happened, I’m still an optimist. Even after all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in happy endings. I still believe that people are good, and love is real, and we will be OK. And most of all, Mom, I believe that being your daughter is the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.

Thank you for being my mother.

I love you.

Sarah

Motherland.

“my mother

was my first country.

the first place I ever lived.”

– Nayyirah Waheed

I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest for nearly three weeks. The weather has been glorious, reminding me of all the childhood summers I spent on this same beach in front of my grandparents’ house: digging for clams with my mother, collecting driftwood to build bonfires, combing the shores of Case Inlet for colorful sea glass we’d use for our art projects.

Most of the people I spent those childhood summers with are gone or come to this beach no longer. New neighbors and new, fancier homes have cropped up all along the inlet. And these days, sea glass is hard to come by.

But every now and then, you still find it. Like the evening a week ago, when I emerged from a saltwater swim and spotted a weathered, rectangular piece of transparent lavender peeking out from among the rocks. Its color reminded me of the four walls of my high school bedroom. A bedroom with no windows, where I affixed blue, glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. A bedroom in a house that someone else calls home now.

Every month, the full moon bears a different name. In January, it’s called the Wolf Moon. In June, it’s Strawberry. And a handful of nights ago, as I sat under the August moon – Sturgeon, named for a fish – I turned that piece of sea glass over and over in my hand and did something I haven’t done for a while. I talked to my mother. I asked her for help.

There are some conversations too personal to share. In the nearly seven years since my mother died, my conversations with the inlet are like that. Because if my mother is anywhere, she’s there, in the water that raised her. The water she loved her whole life. The water where we scattered her ashes, sending her back to the place where she began.

So, last week, I sat on the deck of the beach house and rested my feet on its railing and asked the inlet some questions. I watched that big, bright, full Sturgeon moon cast a golden stream of light across the inky, mirror-like expanse of water and I confessed my secrets to the sea and the sky. And that night, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater, exhaling huge air bubbles into its depths. And when I broke the surface, I saw that the beach was covered with sea glass. Polished, weathered, sparkling glass, glinting in the moonlight. As far as the eye could see.

I’m going back to New York soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do, only that I’ll be there until December, and beyond that, the future is uncertain. But after three weeks on this beach, uncertainty doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Because over the last three weeks, I was reminded that I can still sit under the night sky and confess my secrets to the inlet. That saltwater swims still have the power to heal me. And that rare and beautiful things can still be found among the rocks on this beach.

This is where my mother is, as much as she is anywhere. And because of that, no matter what else I do, I will always return here. Because of that, no matter where else I go, this is the place I will always call home.

Until next time, friends.

The soft season.

the hard season

will

split you through. . . /

but do not worry. . . /

keep speaking the years from their hiding places.

keep coughing up smoke from all the deaths you

have died.

keep the rage tender.

because the soft season will come.

it will come. . . /

up all night.

up all of the nights.

to drink all damage into love.

– From “therapy” by Nayyirah Waheed

It was the kind of perfect August day I’d spent the last two summers hoping for. For the last two summers, there had been fires. Terrible fires, fires that rained ash and turned the sun an angry red and smelled of acrid smoke that stained the usually pristine Pacific Northwest sky. Fires that were alarmingly evocative of the fire seasons I’d grown used to during my years in California, when flames jumped freeways and burned the hills above L.A.

But there were no fires on the day we took the boat out. Just a layer of morning fog that burned off surprisingly quickly, causing me to strip off my jacket and settle into my seat, enjoying the sea spray and the sun on my face as we zipped along the inland waterways of Puget Sound toward Boston Harbor.

When I booked my flight to Seattle, the length of my stay – three weeks – felt like an eternity. But as Rick, Karrin and I ate lunch on a covered dock, overlooking boats bobbing on sunlit, sapphire blue water, it suddenly seemed like scarcely enough. “I can’t believe I’ve been here a week already,” I lamented. “It’s going so fast.”

Rick laughed. “Of course it’s going fast. Time only goes slowly when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.”

That’s so true, I thought. Over the last week, I have felt a persistent urge to slow down and hold time in my hands, savoring the fading moments of summer before they become memories.

My big plan was to come here and make a plan. I would update my portfolio and my resume and apply for jobs and write essays. I would use this serene, tranquil environment to put my nose to the grindstone and work, so that by the time I went back to Manhattan I would be clear headed enough to answer some of the big life questions I’d been putting off.

But instead of finding focus, I’ve felt my edges blur. I’ve felt my insides softening, and nostalgia for years past welling up inside of me. I’ve taken long walks in the woods and picked wildflowers and spent hours upon hours sitting on the deck of the house that belonged to my grandfather, watching the birds and seals and occasional boats travel along Case Inlet.

And I’ve been swimming. It always takes a small act of courage for me to take that first plunge into the water, but once I’m past the initial shock of cold, I know the result is worth it. I’m not sure what it is about saltwater, but it fixes everything. It feels like hope.

On the day of the boat ride, I almost chickened out. The daylight was rapidly fading and a not-so-gentle breeze picked up over the inlet. I stood there, ankle deep in the water, wearing my grandfather’s faded, half-disintegrated orange swim fins, and tried to talk myself into it. You know what? I thought, shivering. It’s too cold. I should just wrap myself up in my oversized towel and watch the sunset from the safety of the deck of the beach house.

But as I stood there, half in, half out, watching the waning sun spread its rosy glow over steel blue water, something bigger than my fear took over. I thought about how much my grandfather had loved to swim in that bay, and how heartbroken he’d been when he no longer could. I thought about how, even on days much colder than this, my mother never hesitated to jump into the water with delight. And I thought about the morning two months earlier, long after both of them were gone, when I sat with my boyfriend in Central Park and cried, because I had just seen my doctor and signed a whole host of pre-surgery consent forms and was afraid I might die.

Do it, Sar, I thought. Do it for all the people who no longer can. And do it for yourself, because you still can.

And so, I jumped in. I hit the water hard and screamed as the bracing cold hit me back. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling saltwater, trying to slow the hammering in my chest. For several moments, I just floated, staring up at the enormous pink sky. And then, I felt it: relief. I was all alone with the inlet and the sky and the world got quiet, and I got quiet too. And I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for wanting to slow everything down. Maybe slowing down was exactly what I needed right now.

“It takes as long as it takes,” I heard myself say aloud, to no one in particular.

It takes as long as it takes.

Healing.

Forgiveness.

Finding your way in the great big world.

It takes as long as it takes.

And then I thought:

Relax, kid.

You’ve got plenty of time.

Recovery.

When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

I could tell by the look on his face that I was going to be OK. An hour earlier – give or take, time was slippery – I awoke to a blur of fluorescent lights. “Don’t touch your face!” a nurse barked, as she wheeled me down the hallway of Mt. Sinai hospital. She parked my gurney in a curtained recovery area and looked at me. “How’s your pain?” she asked.

“Umm. . .”

“On a scale of one to ten.”

I tried to lift my head and a sharp, searing pain shot through my shoulder blades. Waves of hot, heavy cramps traveled across my abdomen. I slowly lowered my head back onto my pillow.

“Five?” I offered.

Tired, confused, and still feeling the effects of anesthesia, I struggled to put facts together. I remembered the long morning in the hospital, the paperwork, the blood draw, the pleasant, reassuring face of my doctor as she cheerfully told my boyfriend Jake, “We’ll take good care of her,” just before wheeling me off to surgery.

I remember thinking the operating room looked nothing like the ones depicted on TV. It was too crowded, too brightly lit. As I lay on the table, doctors buzzing around me, discussing their plans for me as though I weren’t there, panic rose within me. I can’t do this, I thought. The anesthesiologist leaned in close and adjusted something on my IV. “How do you feel?” he asked. “A little nervous,” I confessed, my voice small. “That’s perfectly normal,” he said, his tone as warm as the heated blanket my doctor had just placed on top of me. And then, I fell asleep.

“What time is it?” I asked Jake, when he appeared at my bedside.

“Five o’clock,” he said.

I had been in the hospital for eight hours. I was out of surgery. And I was awake and talking. It felt like a miracle. I could tell by Jake’s face that he thought so, too.

I barely slept that night. Even with the aid of Percocet, the pain was intense. The only thing that alleviated it was standing and walking, so, off and on throughout the early morning hours, I hobbled around my apartment, trying to disperse the Co2 gas that had been pumped into my body during the laparoscopic procedure. When I did sleep, I dreamt of my mother, my mind circling around something my uncle said when I told him about my upcoming surgery: “You are your mother’s daughter.”

Like me, my mother also had a large ovarian cyst that had to be surgically removed. When I was a child, her stories about the cyst haunted my imagination. Not just because it was big – the size of a grapefruit – but, because – creepily – it had hair and teeth. “It means I was supposed to be a twin,” my mom used to tell me. Whether or not that was actually true, I have no idea. But she said it, and I believed it.

After my cyst was diagnosed, I avoided the internet. I didn’t want to know anything about it, didn’t want to have an understanding of how large it was. It was enough that my doctor winced when reviewing my ultrasounds. “You’re really not in pain?” she asked.

The day after the surgery, with the mass safely out of my body, curiosity got the better of me. A quick google search led me to a chart comparing tumors to pieces of fruit. Ten centimeters was the equivalent of a grapefruit. My cyst, when they pulled it out of me, was fourteen.

How long had this thing been growing inside of me? It was impossible to know. I had been avoiding doctors for years, terrified of them after a string of deaths in my family. But suddenly, it all started to make sense: the frequent stomach cramps I’d chalked up to stress. The strange sensation of something tugging on my insides. I’d told the truth when I told my doctor that I wasn’t in pain. But for as long as I could remember, there had been something else. Something more elusive. A persistent feeling that something was wrong.

These last few years, I have worked hard to heal, to stay positive, to change my life. But no matter what I’ve done or how hard I’ve tried, something always, inevitably, pulled me low again. Over time, I’ve become used to my sadness. I’ve harbored a secret fear that I was permanently broken.

Until last week. Until the endometrioma – a benign mass filled with blood – was cut from my body. And then I began to wonder: what if this thing, this growth, was the physical manifestation of watching my mother slip into madness? What if it had stored up all the memories of my father’s physical decline, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, the weeks I sat with my grandfather while he died? What if all the terrible things that happened over the last seven years needed somewhere to go, and this was where they went?

I don’t know if, in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, the past has passed from me at last. Maybe it never will. And maybe that’s OK. But over the course of this last week – as my pain has subsided and my strength has returned – I have been awed by the power of my own body. I am embarrassed that I have neglected it, and grateful beyond measure to discover that it is healthier and more resilient than I could have imagined.

I still have some hurdles to clear. Some medical tests to pass. And some big decisions to make. But I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I feel like I’ve turned a corner, one I’m only beginning to understand. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like everything is going to be all right.

Until next time, friends.

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