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

Clerkenwell.

“This is one moment, /

But know that another/

Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.”

– T.S. Eliot

I’m not sure why I took the long way down to Farringdon Road, rather than the shortcut off of Clerkenwell and over Herbal Hill – a narrow street barely bigger than an alley – to get to my old flat on Crawford Passage. I told myself it was because I wanted to see everything, see the whole of the neighborhood, see how much it had changed in the fifteen years since I’d lived there. But really, I have no idea why I did it, other than the mere fact that I felt like it. It was just one of a million tiny little decisions, the kind we make all day long.

I had already been walking for quite a while. I’d turned around an embarrassing number of times trying to find my way to the British Museum from the Holborn tube station. I’d even gone the wrong way down Great Russell Street – a street I used to know so well – before finally finding that familiar buttercream façade, with its elegantly ornamented sign displaying the number 99. All the late nights I’d spent there, in that study center where I took my classes, holed up in the basement computer lab checking emails (before the invention of the iPhone), writing papers, and booking tickets for my next weekend getaway. Because back then, as a twenty-one-year old college student living in London, there always seemed to be – every weekend – somewhere to go.

But by the time I found my way to Theobald’s Road and walked down it until it became Clerkenwell – the same walk I used to take, years ago, at least four times per week – I had recovered my bearings. There was new construction along the route, and many of the shops and businesses had changed, but it was still the same road, still familiar, still felt like home.

And suddenly there it was: the old shortcut over Herbal Hill down to my flat at Crawford House. But this time, I didn’t want to take it. I wanted to keep walking.

I came to the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon, and turned left to round the corner. And that’s when I saw them. Bouquets of flowers – faded roses and Stargazer lilies – duct taped to a light post. As I drew closer, I saw that there were also cards; handwritten notes filled with words of love and loss and grief, all made out to one person: “Claire.” A memorial.

Held in place by my own morbid curiosity, I read what was written there. Words that you’d expect, about a loved one who would always be missed and who was gone too soon. But then, taped to a bouquet of wilted pink tulips, there it was. A carefully written note, that, as I read, I am quite certain, I forgot to breathe:

To family and friends,

Take comfort that she did not suffer in pain. Nothing will make this accident less senseless, but I want you to know that she did not die alone or abandoned. Many people did everything they could to save her. It was tragic and happened so quickly but she was surrounded by people who tried and who stayed.

From,

One of those people.

As I continued my walk down Farringdon Road, past St. Paul’s Cathedral, down toward the Thames, the same path I used to take when I went for my morning runs along the river, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. But I wasn’t crying for Claire. I didn’t even know her, didn’t know what had happened to her. I was crying because life can seem so senseless. Because it can shift so suddenly. Because in an instant, everything can change.

I often think of the months that I spent in London as some of the happiest of my life. I was young and carefree. I could do and be anything that I wanted. Life was exhilarating then, full of hope and possibility. I had never known real tragedy, never known real fear.

So maybe that’s why, last week, I decided to take the long way down Farringdon Road. Maybe there is no such thing as chance, no tiny decisions we make that mean nothing. Because afraid as I am of all the things I can’t yet know, it was the tragic death of a stranger, and the strangers who didn’t know her but who cared for her all the same, that reminded me that life’s uncertainty is not a thing to be feared. That it is the knowledge of how fleeting and fragile life is, that is what makes it so beautiful.

If you live long enough, life will break your heart. Mine has been broken again and again since those carefree days in London. I am no longer the girl who lived there, in fact, I barely even recognize her. But even if I could, I wouldn’t go back and rewrite my history. I wouldn’t change what’s past. I wouldn’t remove any of the scars. Because the scars are what make me. And as it turns out, I like who I’ve become. Broken heart and all.

As I carried on, over Blackfriars Bridge, over the Thames, I thought about how lucky I am. I thought about what a thing it is, just to be alive. And I thought about the fact that for as long as I could keep going – through all the fear and uncertainty – there was only one direction left to travel.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

Thirty-five.

On December 2nd, I marked a milestone birthday: thirty-five. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that this entry also signifies another milestone: my 100th post on Extra Dry Martini.

Bare Feet

Normally, I love birthdays (both my own and other people’s), but this one felt less celebratory and more like staring down the barrel of a gun. Thirty-five? Shouldn’t I have it all figured out by now? Shouldn’t I own a home, have a family, be navigating the ladder of success on my way toward building a lucrative career? Numbers don’t lie, and based on my age, there’s no denying that I am officially a grown up. So why aren’t I acting like one?

Though these (judgmental) thoughts danced across my brain, the truth is, when the day arrived, I was too exhausted to be as hard on myself as my inner critic demanded. I was fresh off the recent experience of seeing my beloved grandfather through hospice (which I documented here, here and here), and after spending the better part of a month camped out in a small town in rainy Washington state, I returned to Los Angeles only to be confronted with another piece of life-shaking news. While I’m not ready to share this latest development publicly (I will, probably in my next post), suffice it to say I find myself at a significant crossroads, with two very different paths to choose from. Whichever decision I make means big change, and the only way for me to know which road to follow is to look within my own heart and ask myself what I want.

Hotel Palms

The Friday after my birthday, I did what I often do when I’m feeling lost: I went to the ocean. I packed a journal, my birthday cards, a tattered copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea, and drove south. Needing to decompress from an intensely emotional couple of months, I decided to spoil myself and reserved an oceanfront hotel room at the stunning Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, CA.

I expected the resort to be luxurious, but the property exceeded my every expectation. Upon checking in, I was greeted by an expansive guest room appointed in crisp whites and soft sandy neutrals, a bottle of sparkling water chilling on ice, an artfully arranged fruit and cheese platter, and a handwritten note of welcome from the hotel staff. I opened the white shutter balcony doors to a breath-halting view of the sunset over the Pacific. I cracked open a bottle of birthday wine, collapsed onto the enormous King Size bed, and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing outside.

It took a full twenty-four hours for my tired brain to stop racing, and to allow my internal rhythms to slow down and mimic the pace of the ocean. I went for long walks along Pacific Coast Highway, enjoyed delicious meals, and savored the sight of the sun slipping below the horizon, streaking the topaz sky with tangerine fire.

Waves

On my last day in Laguna, I lounged in the afternoon sun and swam lazy laps in the warm saltwater pool. An hour before sunset, I made my way down to the beach. Running in and out of the surf, I laughed as the tide quickly receded then rushed back, swallowing my bare feet with a force as the not-quite-cold foamy white waves tickled my toes.

My whole life, the ocean has always held a certain mysterious allure. In the presence of its seemingly infinite expanse I am small, but not in a way that renders me insignificant. Instead, my tiny-ness thrills me, reminding me that my problems are a mere droplet compared to such a mighty sea. As the roar of the surf matches the drumbeat of my own heart, I know that I am part of the earth – all of it – and my connectedness to such great beauty makes me feel both awestruck and safe.

The first four years of my thirtieth decade brought challenges I never thought I’d face. Not this young, not this soon. These years have brought death and unimaginable heartbreak and a loneliness I feared I’d never find the bottom of. But they also brought strength, and resilience, and gratitude, and a deeper knowledge of love than I’ve ever known. I am often sad and fragile, but I am also wise, and tenacious, and alive.

Palms and Sea

A few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, I stared out at the Pacific, wondering how I could go on, now that the four people who had most shaped my life were no longer here. As I thought about them, images of other people appeared in my mind – both family and friends – who had stepped in to fill the void in the absence of those four. A cherished bunch who had laughed and cried with me, who had embraced me with kindness, who had counseled me through hardship, who had held me up when I feared I would collapse. And in that moment of quiet reflection, I knew unquestionably not only that I could go on, but that I would.

When I left Laguna, a piece of my heart stayed behind. I vowed to return after questions had been answered, decisions had been made, and challenges were met, head on. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in that well-worn book I carried along with me on my journey: “Patience – Faith – Openness, is what the sea has to teach. Simplicity – Solitude – Intermittency . . . But there are other beaches to explore. There are more shells to find. This is only the beginning.”

Until next time, friends.

Stairs

Putting off tomorrow.

“Procrastination is the thief of time.”

-Edward Young

Over and over and over again over these last two and a half years, I’ve reminded myself how precious time is; that it shouldn’t be wasted. After all, I’ve seen it in action: the way a mere phrase or phone call or the briefest of moments can permanently alter every cell in your body, so that afterwards you never think or dream or breathe the same way again. I don’t need anyone to tell me that all we have is this moment, this one, right now. I already know.

And yet. As I sit here, writing this to you, I am – at this very moment – procrastinating. I am putting off doing things that are important to me. Even after I resolved that I wouldn’t, I am still finding ways to stall. I am making excuses. Why?

I have a plan. It’s sort of epic. Can I tell you about it?

Ever since my mother died two and a half years ago, a story has been kicking around inside of my brain. Scenes of it play in my mind like a movie. It is a movie. Well, not yet. After mom died, I wrote the story in fits and starts – sketches of scenes, bits of dialogue. But I couldn’t really get a rhythm going because too much was happening. I was too messed up. I couldn’t see it or admit it at the time, but I was. My dad was sick, my grandmother was sick, the person I loved most in the world was abruptly gone with all kinds of questions surrounding her death, and oh, on a side note, my personal life was an utter disaster. My world had flipped upside down.

To make everything worse, I couldn’t write. I felt stupid, clumsy. My tongue was thick in my mouth. Words were stubborn, refusing to string together to form sentences. The thing that had always come easy for me, the thing I’d fallen back on when all else failed, had suddenly become impossible.

But little by little, it started to come back. I started writing again. And over the last two plus years, I have written a lot. I wrote while my life changed. I wrote through all kinds of moments – heartbreaking moments and sweet moments, laugh out loud moments and joyful moments. You see, once you get through the worst part of a trauma, once you realize it won’t actually kill you, once you realize that you still care enough to pick yourself up and keep on living, you become capable of experiencing profound joy. And it’s often joy where you wouldn’t expect it:  in small, seemingly insignificant moments that you never even realized were beautiful until you looked at them through the lens of loss. Even though you’re sadder and more broken, when you laugh you really mean it, and when you love you really mean it, and even though you wouldn’t wish what’s happened to you on anyone, your dirty little secret is that you don’t want to go back to the way you were before, because the old you was oblivious, fumbling around in the dark, while this you is awake to everything. And once you’ve woken up, you can’t go back to sleep.

But this is not meant to be a blog about loss, it’s meant to be a blog about procrastinating.  See? I’m doing it again.  OK, to get back to the point:  the story that has been kicking around in my head for the last two and a half years while I tried and failed at writing it is finally taking shape. It’s a screenplay of a movie that is based upon my life.

The story is set in Olympia, Washington, the town where I went to high school and where I plan to film the movie. That’s right, I’m going to make the movie myself. I know just enough about producing films to be terrified of how much work it will be, how much money it will cost, and how much I still need to learn. Basically, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. Not yet.

But in allowing myself to feel overwhelmed about the filmmaking part before I’m even there yet, I’ve been putting off the step I’m on now, which is sort of crucial: finishing the script. I’m self-aware enough to recognize my own resistance, and resistance and I are currently locked in a daily tug of war.  I’ve got post it notes with motivational sayings all over my house, an accountability circle where I bring in pages of the script every week, and plans for a table read of the full script in May. But every day when it’s time for me to sit down and do my work, I’m like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to school, looking for any excuse I can not to go.

What the hell is my problem? This story is important to me, and I want to tell it. Yes, writing it is hard. Yes, certain scenes aren’t coming out the way I want them to, at least not yet. But I’m making everything so much harder than it needs to be with my acrobatic stalling techniques. If writing this script is the thing that matters most to me, why will I do nearly anything to avoid working on it?

Maybe it’s the fear of failure thing. Maybe it’s the fear of success thing. Maybe it’s the fear that I’ll actually accomplish my goal and after all the blood, sweat and tears, I’ll get to the other side of it and realize that this process didn’t heal my life the way I’m hoping it will. Maybe I’m afraid that no matter what I do, nothing will ever change.

I think to some degree, my resistance is probably rooted in all of these things. But even though I’m scared, I’m also stubborn.  I’m going to battle through this, just like I’ve battled through everything else these last couple of years.  Because for all the challenges that lie ahead, I refuse to believe that I could have treaded through such deep water simply to give up. Our heroine battles through the worst experiences of her life, stands upon the precipice of utter despair, and then – throws in the towel. Now that would make a lousy movie.

If you’re anything like me – if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a big dream that you badly want to accomplish but don’t know where to start or what to do – this is what I suggest: start small. Break down your big dream into as many small tasks as you can, and just do one thing at a time. Do one small thing every day that keeps you moving forward. Don’t worry about what could go wrong in the future – it either will or it won’t and you’ll deal with it when you get there.  Just do what’s in front of you every day.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice.

Until next time, friends.

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