September.

The first sunrise of September was a subtle affair. While still lovely, with brushstrokes of tangerine and topaz painted across a watercolor sky, the dawn was decidedly gentler than the ferocious fuchsia that – just a few days prior – had set the heavens aflame with a vibrancy bordering on violence. Summer was not yet gone, and the rising mercury proved it, but the golden glow that backlit Mt. Rainier and spread its warmth across the sea was a harbinger of the rapidly approaching season. Soon, it would be fall.

Still wearing my pajamas, wrapped in my Grandmother’s timeworn yellow afghan, I watched the changing colors move across the sky until I decided it was time to stumble out onto the rocky beach and capture them. Once back inside, I brewed coffee – strong and dark – and sat down with my yellow legal pad to scribble out my morning routine: three longhand pages.

It was the sixth morning I’d awoken in the house on Case Inlet, and the third I’d risen before daybreak. I had arrived on a sweltering Saturday evening in late August: tired, sweaty, and carrying the heavy weight of a month full of farewells. I had spent the first few days moving slowly through the house that used to belong to my Grandparents, half-heartedly working on a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, and fighting the fatigue I felt settling into my bones.

But this morning was different, and I knew it. The last few days I had been too comfortable. Lazy, even. Now an urgency arose within me, one that I felt in my body as much as I saw reflected in the sky. It was time to shake off the doldrums, and get to work.

I started a load of laundry, then sat down at the dining room table by the window. Looking over my list, I decided to start with the most dreaded items first. Before I began, I penned myself a note of encouragement:

The space between here and the life you want is filled with all the things you’re putting off. . .  

In truth, there was no hurry to leave the beach. My deadlines were my own, entirely self-imposed. As a bridge between one big, chaotic city and another, as a place to rest, regroup, and plan a cross country move, there was no better location. And there was something reassuring about being here: a place so familiar, among people who shared my history.

No, the need to go was a purely psychological one. Because as soon as the calendar turned to September, a date that may as well have been circled in scarlet stared out at me from the page. September 23rd. It was on that day, five years ago, that I received the worst phone call of my life: my mother was dead. Now I was here – in her favorite place – looking out at the inlet where three summers earlier we had climbed into a little tin boat, went out to sea, and scattered her ashes. And as I sat by a picture window, watching the receding tide, I made a promise: I would not mark the anniversary of her death here. I would be in New York, having already begun my new life in a new city. I would honor my mother’s memory the best way I knew how: by not ending up like her. I would not defer my dreams to a tomorrow that would never come, would not spend my life wandering down a rabbit hole of regret.

After the emails had been sent and the phone calls had been placed, I waited for high tide, put on a swimsuit and walked down to the water’s edge. Case Inlet was colder than I remembered, but then again, it had been a year since I’d last dipped my toes in that saltwater. There was only one thing to do. I threw myself into the bay, absorbing the shock of bracing cold. But as I paddled through the water, my Grandmother’s faded orange swim fins emerging and submerging with each stroke, my body slowly began to adjust. And I was OK.

I would always be OK.

Until next time, friends.

Dear Mom.

If I had known the last time I saw you was going to be the last time, I would have done everything differently. I would have hugged you tighter, skinny as you were, afraid as I was that I might break you. I would have told you that I loved you. I think I might have said it – I can’t remember – but the odds are that I didn’t, because we didn’t exchange those words easily or often in our family. I would have looked at you more carefully, taking in every detail, the same way – I can see only now, with hindsight – that you looked at me. Because you knew what I didn’t, that this would be the last time.

Today, May 25th, is your birthday. You would have been sixty-five. Your birthday was always my favorite day, more so than my own, which may sound like a lie or revisionist history, but I promise that it isn’t. Is there anything better than carefully selecting a gift that you know its recipient will love, and seeing the delight in their eyes when they open it? That was you, Mom. You loved everything I gave you, and making you happy was so easy that it felt like my super power.

The last time I called you on your birthday was five years ago. That’s when I knew that something was wrong. In truth, I had known for a while. But that phone call was the first time I can ever remember that you weren’t happy to hear from me. Normally, when you’d answer the phone, warmth would flood your voice. “Oh, hi, Sar,” you’d say, almost as though the phone call was a pleasant surprise. Not this time. Instead, your tone was angry, combative. “Mom?” I barked, startled. “What’s wrong with you?”

There’s no need to re-live what happened next, that horrible spiral. I’ve never felt so helpless, never felt so worthless, as I did when I couldn’t reach you, couldn’t save you. And just like that, you were gone.

My whole life, losing you was always my worst fear. And then, my worst fear came true. I lost you in the most wrenching, painful way I could imagine. For a while, I lost myself, too. And in order to find myself again, I walked through hell. I learned some important lessons. Lessons I didn’t want to learn, but lessons that I needed to learn. I wish that heartache wasn’t such an effective teacher, but I don’t know how else I could have discovered the depths of my heart and its capacity for love without having it so badly broken, or how much I truly loved to laugh without shedding so many tears.

And here’s something ironic: when I found myself anew, I found you, too. It was a you that I could only fully understand after you’d gone. A you that you couldn’t show me while you were here. A you that had once been so full of life and love and joy and then something went horribly wrong and it never got right again. A you that urged me not to follow in your footsteps, not to make the same mistakes you’d made. And I listened, Mom. I paid attention. I changed my life. And all the while, I kept wondering:

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

And now, as I continue to move forward in this life, my greatest fear is that I’ll forget you. I worry that the passage of time will erode my memories, and I’ll forget your voice, or your face, or how important you are to me. But then, out of nowhere, I’ll hear your laugh coming out of my mouth, or I’ll see you in the sculpt of my cheekbone or the arch of my brow or the shape of my eye. And then I’ll realize that I can’t possibly forget, because you are part of me, just like I am part of you.

We are alike, Mom, but we are so different, too. I’m not sure how you’d feel about the life I’m living now. I’m certainly braver than I was, certainly taking bigger risks than I used to when you were alive. And the truth is, I feel scared and alone a lot of the time. I wish that wasn’t so. I wish that I could ask you what I should do, or where I should turn. But then I remind myself that I know what’s right, that I have everything I need, and that my fear of regretting the risks I don’t take is far greater than my fear of failure or of making a mistake.

You gave me that. Or rather, losing you did. Your death gave me a sense of urgency that I didn’t have before I lost you. It gave me a heightened awareness of the danger of deferring my dreams. And it taught me how fleeting happiness is, and that when I have a shot at it, I should grab on to it with both hands and hold on for dear life.

That is something I am sure of: no matter what you might think of the life I’m living now, you would want me to be happy. You would want that above all else. And that is something –  I promise you, Mom –  that I am working toward every single day.

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Love,

Sarah

Her.

It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.

When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.

I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.

Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.

But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.

That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”

As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.

I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”

And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.

As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.

Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.

Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.

Until next time, friends.

White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

– From the song, “Light Me Up” by Ingrid Michaelson

I was sleeping when the call came. Not quite sleeping, but not yet awake either. Drifting in and out of dreams, dreaming of things far off and beautiful, dreaming of a life different than my own.

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I heard the phone ringing in my dream too, then realized, as one does when a pleasant reverie is interrupted by the nagging insistence of the real world, that this was not actually a dream, but my cell phone, cutting through the sleepy Sunday morning with its persistent staccato. “What in the hell?” I muttered, annoyed at being pulled away from the comfort of my bed and the hazy, lovely world I inhabited there. I stumbled into the next room and found my phone where I’d left it the night before, on top of a chest of drawers.

I listened, confused, to the voicemail from my Aunt Sandy. Why was she calling me? Why was she crying? “Call me back,” she urged, her voice breaking, “Or call your father. It’s an emergency.”

I chose to dial home. It’s a decision I would later live to regret. I heard a click on the other end of the line, the receiver being lifted, strange voices echoing through my parents’ house, someone handing the telephone to my father, who was frail, hard of hearing, ill with cancer. Finally, his low, gravelly voice: “Sar?”

“Dad?” I asked, panic rising in my throat and threatening to choke out the words. “What’s going on?”

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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I will probably always mark September 23rd as a sad anniversary. From that dark day in 2012 onward, it will forever be known to me as the day I learned that my mother, Anne Popelka Kelly – my best friend, my first phone call, my most important person – was gone. Her passing was my first real experience with death, and, though there have been many others since, hers remains – for me – the most significant.

There are few things I haven’t tried, in the four years since her death, to assuage a tremendous ocean of grief. I have consulted astrologers and tarot readers. I have purchased – and barely opened – an embarrassing number of self-help books. I have seen therapists. I have tried (and abandoned) nearly every feel-good remedy, every exercise regimen, every diet. I have consumed a revolting amount of whiskey and wine and cigarettes. I have run countless miles in bad shoes on blistered feet.

I don’t think there’s any feeling heavier than guilt, any destination harder to reach than forgiveness. But if I’ve learned anything about grief in these last four years, it’s this: you cannot possibly begin to heal without releasing the first and embracing the second. I was closer to my mother than anyone else in this world, but for the past four years, I have carried a crippling amount of guilt and shame over the fact that I saw her spiraling into a black pit of despair and addiction, and stood by, watching it happen. I knew I was losing her months before she was actually lost, but not knowing what to do, I did nothing.

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It may seem counterintuitive, but it was actually another experience with death that allowed me to turn the corner on my grief. Last October, I learned that my mother’s father, my sweet Grandpa Gerry, was abruptly, terminally, ill, his doctor giving him a timeline of a mere thirty days left to live. Without thinking, I put everything else on hold and traveled back to Washington State to help with his hospice care.

For the first time in my thirty-five years, I sat with someone as they faced the end of their life, and I felt the power of a love so enormous that all my fears about what would happen to me became secondary to my desire to provide my grandfather with the care and comfort that he needed. If there is such a thing as a “good” death, he had it, and his peaceful passing filled me not only with profound gratitude, but also with an unexpected surge of hope that the world could still be a good and decent place, as well as a fierce determination to not waste any more time punishing myself for a past that had already been written.

By the time I got to that July afternoon, two months ago, sitting across from the psychic medium Fleur in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room, I knew that the weight I had saddled myself with was simply too heavy to carry anymore. And so, when Fleur told me that my mother wanted me to forgive myself, that I couldn’t have altered or changed her death in any way, I chose to believe her. And when she told me that my mother was proud of me, that she was always with me, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know that she was thinking of me, I chose to believe that, too. And I’ll tell you something: before that day, I can’t ever remember seeing a white butterfly. But now, I see them all the time. Almost every day.

I’m still sad that I couldn’t save my mother. I probably always will be. But maybe we can’t save anyone. Maybe we can only love them. And forgive them. And forgive ourselves. And maybe, by doing that, we can – to paraphrase the words of my favorite poet, Mary Oliver – save the only life we ever really can: our own.

Until next time, friends.

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Three years.

I’m perched on a paint-splattered stool, located downstage right, in a darkened forty-seat theatre. We’re well into the second act of Barenaked Angels, a show that’s a sort of hybrid between solo performance and an ensemble piece (I wrote about it here). My fellow cast mate Phil is standing on the opposite side of the stage, recounting a story about his niece Sam, a young girl who died after a battle with Mitochondrial disease. Sam had an affinity for butterflies and ladybugs, and in this particular story, Phil tells the audience that on the day of his first big acting job, a ladybug appeared next to him on set during the filming of his scene. The ladybug remained in the same spot for several takes, and Phil was convinced that the ladybug was in fact Sam, turning up in the form of the creature she loved, to let him know that she was all right.

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This is not the first time I’ve heard the story of the ladybug, but during this particular performance, something is different. As I sit on my stool, listening, I’m transported back to an evening in late September: the night that followed the long day during which we eulogized my mother. After most of the guests had gone home, I sat on the deck of my grandparents’ beach cabin, staring out at the sea. The sunset was slowly shifting into twilight, and a huge full moon hung high in the pink and purple-streaked sky, casting a rosy glow over Case Inlet, which was so flat that it seemed a great mirror, reflecting the heavens back onto themselves. As I sat there, the silence so loud it was nearly reverberating, warmth filled my core and spread outward, tickling the tiny hairs on my arms. Stillness enveloped me like a blanket and the moon and the sea and sky seemed to be speaking directly to me, whispering words of calm and comfort, telling me that my mother was at peace, and that everything would be OK.

Almost immediately after that night, the world as I knew it came tumbling down. Illness. More death. Identity theft. A move. A break up. The pace of life was frenetic as I moved from crisis to crisis. The magic of that September evening and its tranquil, perfect moment all but vanished from my memory.

That is, until this night – nearly three years later – as I sit on stage listening to the story of the ladybug. A warm vibration floods my center, goose bumps rise on my legs and arms. The quiet audience, intently listening, the hum of the stage lights – everything feels more somehow. And suddenly, I’m right back there, possessed of the same calm, all-knowing that visited me on that September night.

As quickly as the moment arrives, it is gone. Phil finishes his story and I snap back to reality, knowing it’s my turn to speak. I choke back the lump in my throat and rise from my stool, crossing downstage center to find my light.

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Today, September 23rd, marks three years. Three years since I received the worst news of my life: my mother – my best friend – was dead.

If there is an emotion that a person can feel, over these last three years, I have felt it. Crushing sorrow. Denial to the point of delusion. Blinding rage. Crippling guilt. Red-faced shame. Paralysis-inducing fear.

I have spent much of the last three years trying to feel “better.” It is only recently that I have learned – with the help of counseling, writing, and the passage of time – that I am not meant to feel better. I don’t even know what better means. Life has changed, and I am changed in it. And in this new reality – a reality where certainty is no longer certain – I am awake and alive to every moment, knowing the weight and import of each one.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through some boxes from my parents’ old house that had been in storage for the last two plus years; boxes that I had only recently been able to bring myself to open. Among the assorted mementos, I found some treasured photographs – taken before everything went digital – that I had feared were forever lost.

The photos were from a trip my Mom took to visit me in England, after I finished a college semester studying abroad. We spent a few days in London, and then traveled to Wales. Craving luxury, I booked us into a fancy hotel in Cardiff. But Mom wanted something a little more rugged. She wanted to see the natural beauty of the countryside.

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After asking around, we took a train to Swansea and then boarded a small bus bound for the Gower Peninsula. When we arrived, we stood on jagged cliffs, looking out in wonder at the vast sea before us, feeling as though we had come to the edge of the world. Among the handful of photographs we took that day, my favorite is of my Mom, pretending to drive a golf ball (she was an avid golfer) over a cliff, a huge grin spread across her face.

I had forgotten how full of life my mother had been on that trip, how adventurous she was. That memory is such a departure from the mother I became used to in the years leading up to her death: someone who mostly stayed at home and avoided crowds, contenting herself with simple pleasures like gardening and cooking. Someone who gradually became more and more anti-social as she clung to memories of the past, slowly disappearing before my eyes.

It is so easy for the worries and the fears and the anxieties to grab hold of you and to keep you from moving forward, as they did my mother. It is much harder to know how much life can hurt you, and to throw your arms around it anyway, embracing it with all you have.

Three years is an awfully long time. It’s an awfully long time to miss someone, and it’s an awfully long time to feel stuck and lost and searching in their absence. But it’s a short time too. Elapsed so quickly, in the blink of an eye.

I have felt it all these last three years. Every dark, impossible, hopeless thing. But today, as I think of my mother, I think of the woman who insisted we travel by train and bus to the edge of the world so that we could gaze out at the sea, sensing all the possibility that spread out before us. And I think of that serene September evening after we said goodbye, when I knew in the core of my being that she was all right.

She is all right. And I am all right too.

Until next time, friends.

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Stare Mesto.

It’s Saturday in Prague. It’s also Valentine’s Day, a day which marks the two year anniversary of the death of my father. But I don’t think that’s particularly sad. Not the fact that Dad died, which, of course, is sad, but the fact that he died on Valentine’s Day. I think the date of his death is symbolic of the love he had for his children, and of the fact that he passed peacefully and quickly, in his sleep, after a battle with cancer. I think the fact that his death was as quiet and as gentle as it was when it could have gone so differently was a gift – from him, from God, from the universe, from fate, from whatever force it is that was working its cosmic magic. I consider his love a gift, his life a gift, and the peace we made before he died the ultimate gift.

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But I didn’t set out to write a post about my father (I did that more eloquently last year, here), only to acknowledge that today, as I pass another day in this mysteriously beautiful city, so far away from home in the middle of a stark, cold European winter, I have been thinking about him. And I have been thinking about love.

Ever since they died, I have been trying to strike a balance between the parts of my mother and father that are contained within me, of which there are a great deal. Sometimes I feel their echoes in my worst behaviors. But often, I recall the good in them and I aim my aspirations in that same direction.

Dad was adventurous, bold. I think he’d be proud of me for taking this trip to a far off, foreign place all by myself. For unapologetically shrugging off the curious glances when I sit down to a meal or sip espresso while journaling in a café or drink cognac in the hotel bar, alone. Leave it to other people to cling to the security of another body. I don’t mind being on my own, and during my travels, I have found that I am, in fact, quite good company.

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I think Dad would be proud of my hotel choice, as well. Dad always liked to go big, and my hotel does not disappoint. It’s a sleek, modern, five star European beauty located in Stare Mesto – Old Town – within striking distance of the main square, the Vltava River and the Charles Bridge and just down the hill from Mala Strana (“Little Quarter”), a steep hill leading up toward Prague Castle and breathtaking views of the city seen from on high.

My hotel is central and yet, it’s removed from the madness at the end of a quiet street – Parizska (“Paris”), aptly named for the posh luxury boutiques that populate it; brands like Cartier and Porsche Design and Dolce and Gabbana and Escada and Tod’s of London and the like.

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I couldn’t believe in my wildest dreams that I could afford such a hotel, with its spectacular gym and spa – no joke, it rivals some of the gyms I’ve seen in L.A. with its aerobics garden, weight room, cardio room, stretching room, enormous glass roofed swimming pool, sauna, luxurious showers and spa treatment rooms – its rooftop restaurant, cozy lounge bar, buffet breakfast overlooking the Vltava River, its opulent guest rooms with spacious marble-tiled bathrooms, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, customized pillow menu (you can choose from six different styles, adjusted to your comfort), and satellite television with channels in six different languages. Oh yeah, and there’s the breathtaking view of the gothic buildings in Old Town Square as seen from out the window of my 7th floor room, courtesy of an upgrade from the handsome hotel desk manager. Simply because I told him this was my first visit to Praha.

This is definitely the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in, but because the dollar is strong right now, especially against the Czech Crown (Korun), and it’s the middle of winter and bitterly cold, and I got a cheaper rate for staying six nights, I am actually paying less per night for a five star hotel in a European capital than I have spent to rent a room in a Best Western. Ridiculous. And wonderful. And anyway, who cares that it’s freezing outside? I never want to leave the confines of this glamorous hotel, with its well-heeled, fur-swathed, international clientele.

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But leave the hotel I have, to explore this gothic city, to climb the hills, to wander the cobblestone streets, to gape at elegant centuries-old buildings with cheerful watercolor facades. I came here with no plan as to how I would spend my time, which is pure my mother and so very unlike me. When mom traveled, she hated to be rushed or kept to an agenda, preferring instead to laze about her hotel room for hours. This behavior drove me – the compulsive planner – insane, but mom could care less about cramming in touristy, sightsee-y things. She just wanted to pick out a few specific activities that she knew she would enjoy and spend the remainder of the time resting, enjoying lengthy meals, and beating to the tune of her own drummer.

Which is exactly what I’m doing in Praha. Who cares that I traveled thousands of miles to be here? This is my trip and I am spending it exactly how I want. Which includes a fair amount of wandering, a fair amount of writing in cafes, a fair amount of lengthy meals, a fair amount of enjoying my lavish hotel, and just a little – but not so much – of the really touristy stuff.

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I’ve been here for three days, and for me, the jury’s still out on Praha. It is unquestionably beautiful, quite unlike any other city I’ve seen in my life. But it’s a dark beauty, with an unshakeable heaviness to it. There’s something formidable and slightly ominous that pervades through the steep hills and the narrow cobblestone streets and the hearty, heavy food, and the quietly dignified people and the gothic spires that extend into the wintry grey sky.

When I first decided to come here – inspired by my Grandpa Popelka’s Czech heritage – I had certain ideas about what this trip, what this place, would be like. It turns out that Prague, like all things in life, is very different than the picture I had in my mind of what it would be. But also as in life, it’s quite curious what we find when we don’t go looking for it. Like the fact that within this cold, dark, place, I have found a surprising amount of light. Both within my heart, and within my writing. Curious, indeed.

So thank you, Praha. Here’s to 2 ½ more days of embracing your mysterious beauty. Here’s to one more day after that in London, here’s to the long journey home to Los Angeles, and here’s to the even longer journey of finding a more permanent home, when I’m done with all the wandering.

Until next time, friends.

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Things my mother never did, part two.

I dreamt about my mother last night.  It was the first time I’d dreamt about her in awhile, at least that I remember.  I used to dream of her often after she died.  They were horrible, wrenching dreams.  Dreams in which she cried out to me to help her, but in which, one way or another, I was never able to.  Inevitably, I woke from these dreams sweating, sobbing, sometimes crying out.  And like my mother, unable to be helped.

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Last night’s dream was different.  My mother and I were alone in a vacant old house.  She was as rail thin as I remember her the last time I saw her, six weeks before she died.  Her eyes had the same vacant, staring look, like black holes peering into the distance.  I pleaded with her to eat something, but she just shook her head no.  And then I noticed something strange:  my mother had in her possession a large black satchel full of food.  She had refused to eat anything, no matter how much I pleaded with her, yet she was hoarding food, stockpiling it.  To what end?

I woke to a still dark apartment in the early morning hours and I sat, frozen in my bed, utterly stunned by the sharp clarity with which I remembered every detail of my dream.  A phrase popped into my head:  “There was nothing you could do.”  And then another:  “It wasn’t your fault.”  Both phrases circled through my brain over and over until I became dizzy and I wept, hoping they were true.

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I don’t know why my mother appeared to my subconscious mind in such a strange fashion after so long of an absence.  It may have something to do with the fact that as I write this, I’m sitting in the international terminal at LAX, waiting to board a flight that will take me the furthest away from home I’ve been for the longest among of time I’ve been away since my mother died, the prospect of which has me both exhilarated and terrified.  Or it may have something to do with the fact that since WordPress republished my blog post Things My Mother Never Did two weeks ago, I’ve heard from hundreds of people all over the world in countless heartfelt messages.  Messages of encouragement, of heartbreak, of hope, of loss, of dysfunction and love, all revolving around the most fundamental, yet often, the most anguishing relationship out there:  that of parent and child.  And over and over again, throughout all of the messages and the reblogs, the overwhelming theme has been this:  “Thank you for writing this.  I thought I was the only one.”

How can it be that there are so many of us, yet we still feel so desperately alone?  Well, let me be the first to tell you, friends, you are not alone.  As scary as it is for me to tell my dark family secrets, I will continue to do so.  Because the only way out is through, and for me, through is a road paved with honesty.

My mother was the love of my life.  I’m still angry with her.  I’m still racked with guilt that I couldn’t save her.  And I’m not running from either one of these truths.  But, as I embark on this journey, the first big scary adventure of my new life – the life dedicated to all the Things My Mother Never Did – I hope that for all of you out there who have so lovingly and kindly reached out to me, I hope that I can offer you some inspiration about forging a path back to acceptance and love, a path forged straight through forgiveness.  A path in which you are the architect of your own life.

Thank you to everyone who wrote me.  You have no idea how grateful I am.

Here I go!

Until next time, friends.

x

Sarah

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Things my mother never did.

I think I know what’s wrong with me. No, that’s not true. I know I know what’s wrong with me. Or at least, I know one of the things that’s wrong with me. The Big Thing.

I have been putting off writing this, because the act of writing it, of putting it on paper, makes it a real thing. A real thing I can’t run away from, a real thing I’ve got to face. I’ve spent a lot of time over this last year 2014 alone; alone with myself and my thoughts, taking time and space – the likes of which I’d never allowed myself before – to process and to grieve a string of losses and difficult life events. And as 2014 drew to a close and I thought about the ways that I wanted 2015 to be different – and I want it to be different in just about every which way – I kept coming back to one thing: the truth must out.  We are only as sick as our secrets, and until I start telling the truth about the darkness – difficult as it may be – the darkness is going to continue to own me.

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So here goes. For as long as I can remember, I have been living with a tension between two powerful and conflicting emotions: anger and guilt. It wasn’t until the death of my mother two years ago and the subsequent unraveling of my nuclear family that I began to realize how profoundly this tension had been affecting me, how it had affected my entire life.

I am angry. I am angry with my mother. I have been angry with her for a very long time. You see, for most of my life, I was the parent, and she was the child. She was a fragile dove that needed to be protected, and she leaned on me to help her, to fix her, to save her. But I was never very good at it. I am angry with her because she knew that I was ill equipped to give her what she needed, but she insisted upon it anyway. I am angry with her because she set me up for failure.

And you would not believe the guilt that my anger produces, the way that it spins through my stomach like so much fire. The guilt is relentless. I am haunted because I think and feel such awful things about the person I loved more than anyone in this world. I am guilty for admitting these things, for saying them out loud. Guilty for being a horrible, selfish, ungrateful daughter. Guilty for not wanting to grow up to be like my mother, for – in point of fact – being terrified of growing up to be like her. And, most of all, guilty because I let her down when she needed me the most. Guilty because she died on my watch.

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Guilt and anger are a potent enough cocktail, but when you mix in grief and regret it’s enough to knock you sideways. And it, that, is what has been keeping me stuck. I never wanted to be like my mother when she was alive, but now that she’s gone, I can’t seem to stop embodying her worst traits. The chronic anxiety, the depression, the self-isolation, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the stubborn refusal to ask for help. My 2014 was a dark year awash with all of these things, and all of them – I can only assume – have been some sort of twisted, semi-conscious attempt on my part to keep her alive.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my mother was wonderful. She was kind and sweet and loving and generous. She was a much better person than I am. But she was always so unhappy. She wanted more from her life than what she got. She gave up on her first dream of becoming a professional tennis player because her parents didn’t support it and she wasn’t strong enough to stand up to them. She was never very happy as the office manager of my father’s law practice, but she was good at it and it gave her the flexibility to raise a young child (me). But I grew up, and dad closed the law firm, and there were still so many things that she wanted to do. She wanted to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in psychology, she wanted to refine her (already impressive) culinary skills with additional classes, she wanted to volunteer for political campaigns and charitable organizations, she wanted to travel the world. More than anything, I think my mom wanted to feel that she had value. That she could make a contribution that was important, a contribution that other people would notice and appreciate. But she was paralyzed to take that first step. There was always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And as the years went by, I watched her put together a life built on deferred dreams, a life where she preferred to look back on the past with fond nostalgia, and a resignation that her best years were already behind her.

But here’s the thing about dreams. They don’t die quietly. Hers certainly didn’t. They tortured her with visions of a life un-lived and she stuffed them down and pushed them aside and put everyone else’s needs before her own and she drank to dull the sharp edges of pain and longing.

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As she got sicker, the signs that had always been there – that I’d been too deep in denial to acknowledge because, in spite of the very personal resentments I’d harbored toward her, she was still my mother, and therefore, perfect – grew stark and outlined in thick edges. She had always lived with a bit of a disconnect between fantasy and reality (don’t we all?), but that disconnect turned borderline delusional. Her already small frame whittled away to nothing, her eyes turned hollow and vacant, she stopped making sense. I implored her to get help and her only response was to invent a therapist she was ‘seeing’ to get me off her back. (I know this because, well, Google. That, and she was a terrible liar.)

In the end, dying was the most purposeful thing that she’d done in years. She’d made up her mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She shunned all help. She shunned me. And she drank until she didn’t hurt anymore. She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.

So here I am, two years after her death, still sitting at the cross streets of anger and guilt, streets intersected by avenues of grief and regret. It’s a four way stop full of monsters, and until now, my foot has been placed firmly on the brake pedal. And so, for this New Year 2015, I made a pact with myself. I’m going to start doing all of the things my mother never did. I’m going to do them actively, defiantly, and on purpose. Things like asking for help. Things like telling my truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or ‘inappropriate.’ Things like pushing myself out of my comfort zone and signing up for big, scary adventures. Things like not putting off my life. I’m going to take her mistakes and self-sabotage and heartache and unfulfilled dreams and use them as a road map to do the opposite, at Every. Single. Turn. And I’ve already started: I’m in the process of shopping for the most amazing therapist ever, I’m nearly two weeks into an thirty-day alcohol and sugar-free detox during which I’m digging in and focusing on my creative work, and soon, I’ll be leaving on a solo trip to Europe. And there are other things too. Things I’m not quite ready to talk about, but that are quietly, actively at work beneath the surface of my life.

Rejecting my mother’s life and her choices in such a cold and calculated fashion makes me feel like a malicious, rebellious child. And maybe that’s what I am. But at this point, after all of the darkness, after all of the self-sabotage and regret, making this choice sort of feels like life or death.  Along the way, I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the anger, and forgive her. I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the guilt, and forgive myself.

It’s worth a shot.

Until next time, friends.

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