The Postcard Project

I’m coping with the cold weather this year by clearing out my house. This is a painful process for me because I try to be a good global citizen and recycle or donate as much as possible. I don’t like waste, and I hate the idea of stuff sitting in a landfill.

Plus I’m irrationally attached to objects if someone I like gave them to me. And I have a lot of people I like. And they are pretty generous.

But I’m putting on my big girl pants and mucking out the house, one drawer or closet at a time.

This week it was my bedside table, where I store cards and stationary. I found a stack of postcards from all over the world — fun pictures of places I visited. Maybe I meant to mail them to someone and never did. Maybe I just liked the picture.

But they aren’t much use sitting in a drawer for my children to chuck out after I’m gone.

So I’m starting the Postcard Project, where I randomly send postcards from the pile to people I love. No rules except 1) I must use a postcard I’ve already purchased and 2) I must like the person I’m mailing it to.

No reciprocation necessary.

I hope it brings a smile to my friends’ faces.

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Being a Grown Up is Highly Overrated

Percy the Cat

Fibrosarcoma sucks.

This is one of those weeks. You know the ones. Where the tough stuff comes out of the woodwork, and you are spinning around trying to make the right decision, but the right decision isn’t obvious to anyone. Least of all, you.

That’s my week. This week I found out the family cat, Percy, has cancer. Fibrosarcoma, to be specific. A very aggressive and very tough cancer to treat. So far, we’ve spent $1,000 to remove a huge tumor on Percy’s leg. His stitches from the surgery cover nearly half his 12-lb. body.

But it’s not over. In fact, it’s likely it will come back.

We are pet people. We love our pets. Percy ranks near the top of the family in terms of popularity, only challenged by the dog. Far above me, for sure.

We love him. And we are lucky. The huge tumor was big, but it wasn’t deep. We didn’t have to remove his leg to get the cancer. That was a real option, believe it or not.

But we are not wealthy people. We are normal people with two kids and a mortgage and the obligations that come with those things. We don’t have the money for extended cancer treatment, in this case radiation therapy.

What we do have is two kids who love their cat and not a lot of good options. Do we wait and see if the cancer comes back? That is likely only a matter of time. Do we spend another $1,000 on surgery to remove the next tumor that grows? Do we finance radiation therapy and tell the kids that Santa isn’t coming for the next five years and, by the way, we can’t pay college either? Or, perhaps the worst scenario, we spend the money, get the treatment and the cat dies anyway?

What the hell do we do?

It’s been a week. I don’t have any answers. All I know for sure is being a grown-up is highly overrated.

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This Is What Mother’s Day Should Be Like

Fox cub

Fox cub frolicking around his den.

I’ve posted before about why Mother’s Day isn’t my favorite holiday. This year, I must admit, was a tough one. Nothing major — just one of those days were absolutely nothing went right. By the end of the day, we all sat around and watched movies on TV just so I could make sure no one suffered any more bodily injury.

Fast forward two weeks to a regular Saturday with no holiday overshadowing it. I got up. I made pancakes for my kids. We went strawberry picking at a farm, fed some chickens, met two ducks, visited with friends, ate lunch at a farmer’s market and went to checkout a fox hole where a baby fox was rumored to hang out.

In short, it was a great day. Only minor squabbling from the offspring, and no one was cranky because they felt obligated to be grateful for something that can’t be conveyed with a card or brunch at the Olive Garden.

It’s was the perfect non-Mother’s Day. And best of all, it usually comes more than just once a year.

Take that, Hallmark!

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25 Years Later

25 years ago today, almost to the minute, my mother took her own life.

A therapist once told me that I had live through the worst thing that could happen to me, and I should take comfort in the fact that I survived it. I know that’s not true now. My mother’s suicide was a terrible tragedy, but it’s not the worst thing that could happen. My overactive imagination can come up with numerous things other people have had to survive that are far worse.

So I find it somewhat ironic when people say to me, “I don’t know how you do it. How do you pick up the pieces and go on?”

How indeed.

The truth is there’s no secret map that shows you the way to the day when you wake up and realize your mother has been dead for 25 years.

I did it one day at time.

In fact, sometimes I did it one moment at a time. In the early days, it was that moment before you get out of bed. When you are awake, but still seduced by tendrils of sleep, and you search for a reason to tell your body that it’s time to stand up again.

I won’t say there weren’t days where it was hard to come up with a reason. But eventually I did.

Sometimes the reason was that I really had to pee.

Some days maybe it doesn’t have to be a good reason, just any reason.

And eventually, when you get out of bed enough days in a row, you stop searching for a reason and you just do it.

You get out of bed. You take a shower. You feed yourself. And you do that over and over and over again for a long time.

Then maybe you find a therapist. And maybe a doctor. And you go to your appointments, even though you really don’t want to. And if the first therapist doesn’t really work out, you find another one. And you go to your appointments, even though you really don’t want to.

Then maybe you take your prescription medicine that helps you get up in the morning and go to your appointment. And maybe eventually it feels like it might be helping a little bit.

Just a little bit.

And after you get out of bed and take a shower and feed yourself, you get in the car and you go to work. And you put papers here and forward emails there and answer the phone when it rings.

And then you go back the next day. And the next. And the next. And one day you realize you’ve been doing it for a very long time.

One day you become busy again. Busy with getting out of bed and taking a shower and feeding yourself and moving papers around at work, and you think, “Oh. This feels like it used to.”

Only it doesn’t quite feel the same. Because your mother is still dead.

And maybe one day you get married to someone who loves you. And you get out of bed together, and eventually create a life together that looks nothing like the life you had 25 years ago. Because it is new, it is different and you are still getting out of bed every single day, even if it’s just because you have to pee and your bladder control is not what it used to be.

Only now you take a shower and feed yourself and your two children and your dog and your cat. Then you drive your kids to school, and then you drive yourself to work, and you keep doing that over and over and over again.

And then one day you realize your mother has been gone for 25 years ago. And sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. And other times you don’t recognize yourself because the 17-year-old girl who lost her mother to suicide is not the 42-year-old woman looking back at you in the mirror.

One day you realize you’ve made new friends. People who don’t know about the tragedy in your past because they didn’t know you then. And sometimes there’s a moment where they ask what your mother does or where she lives, and then you have to explain that she doesn’t do anything and she doesn’t live anywhere, because she is dead.

And then you deal with the awkwardness that comes afterwards.

The awkwardness comes when they say, “I don’t know how you do it. How do you pick up the pieces and go on?”

Because they don’t want to hear the real answer. The real answer is there’s nothing special about me, and there’s nothing special about them, and there’s no good reason they couldn’t be dealing with a tragedy in their lives one day. A tragedy that leaves them searching for a good reason to get out of bed.

Because odds are they will survive it just like I did, and they will start by finding a reason to get out of bed.

And if they can’t think of one, eventually they will have to pee.


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What to Say When Someone Dies, and They Were Not a Very Nice Person

I had an odd experience last week, when I found out a relative had died (via Facebook, ironically).

I use the term “relative” loosely. Technically this person and I would appear together on a family genealogy page. However, the word “relative” implies there was some sort of relationship, which in this case there was not. I had seen this person fewer than five times in my entire life. I could have passed him on the street and not recognized him.

This distance was by design. My parents kept their children far away from this particular person, both physically and emotionally, on purpose. The reason was simple — he was not a nice guy. The levels of his not-niceness I don’t truly understand, even now as an adult. I only know they did it to protect us, and I am grateful.

It’s an odd feeling to know someone has died who has some ties to you, yet also know many people don’t mourn his passing. In fact, I’d go as far to say there was a great deal of relief that he is gone. Not the typical relief when someone passes after a long and painful illness. That’s relief at the end of suffering. This type of relief had more to do with the overall sentiment that the world is a better place without him. That’s a sad statement on his life.

The truth is his passing had only a miniscule effect on my own life as I contemplated what it meant to live a life where your death is considered a blessing. Realistically, it was a blip on my radar screen.

Yet I also had a very real logistical problem. I had to send a card to people who did know him and who lives were more directly affected. In particular, I had to find an appropriately worded card that expressed sympathy without too much fluff and nonsense. Then, even more challenging, I had to write something appropriate in it.

Here’s where I stumbled, because I couldn’t say anything that I would normally write in a sympathy card. “I’m sorry for your loss” — that old standby — didn’t apply because there wasn’t really a loss at all and nobody was sorry. Neither did “Hold the good memories close” — because there weren’t any good memories. What about my standard Facebook response at the announcement of bad news: “Thinking of you.” Well, that might work, but it didn’t really capture the true sentiment.

I searched and searched the Internet for the right words. Long story short: the Internet failed me.

Am I the only person who has ever been in this situation? I find it hard to believe. There’s plenty of not-nice people out there, and they must die at some point.

So after nearly a week of thinking and searching and pulling out some hair, I came up with this one, which I share with you in hopes you can call on it when you need it: “You’ve dealt with a difficult situation with courage and grace. Thinking of you.”

May you never really need to use it.

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Christmas Eve

Christmas EveChristmas Eve 1989 was our first without our mother. The tree was up. The presents were wrapped. But there was a deep sense of melancholy in the house. Nothing felt the same.

I was 17, and I didn’t expect things to feel the same. Nothing had felt the same for the past seven months. Our entire lives had been turned upside down, and we were still trying to find our way through the chaos. Christmas was no different.

My sister and I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. And, indeed, there was only one thing we wished for that Christmas — one thing that could never been found under a tree.

We wanted our mother back.

We missed her at Christmas more than ever. Because she was the center of our family celebrations, just like she was the center of our world. Everything felt wrong without her. Not just because she wasn’t there. It was the little things we never realized she did.

I spotted one such thing on my way down the stairs on Christmas Eve. I could see our three stockings hanging over the fireplace — one less than last year. Two of the three were already fat with secrets. The third hung limp. My father filled our stockings, but he didn’t bother to fill his own. I realized that he had probably hadn’t filled his own stocking for at least 21 years. It was one of the little things we never noticed.

“Come here,” I called to my sister, my voice urgent.

“What?” she replied, already annoyed at my tone.

“Look!” I pointed. “We’ve got to fix that.”

She stared at the limp stocking for a moment. She looked back at me with her mouth slightly open.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I grabbed the car keys and shouted at my dad that we’d be back. We headed out at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, desperate to find a store that was open.

How could we not have thought about this? And, indeed, at the same time, how could we have known? It mattered more that we fixed it. We were on a mission. This was one small thing we could make — well, not right. But not as wrong.

It was not going to be easy. We lived in a small town. It was late. Shopping was limited at the best of times. On Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. in the 1980s, everything was closed. Kmart. Albertsons. Vons. Thriftys. Sav-On. Everything, it seemed, except the mini-mart at the gas station.

Thrilled when we saw the lights and the customers at the pumps, we headed for the aisles of candy, nuts and snacks. We piled things on the counter — Corn Nuts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, candy canes and little treats we knew our father liked.

Pleased with ourselves, we smiled at each other when Dad saw his stocking the next morning. He probably had more junk food in that thing than he could eat all year.

We still felt the presence of loss more than anything else that day. I can’t remember a single gift I got or anything we did. But I do remember that mini-mart and the smell of gasoline and the little thrill I got when I saw the tub of Corn Nuts, 3 for $1.

And I remember laughing with my sister. And my father’s look of surprise. And a stocking so full, it couldn’t hang from the mantel.

And that made a truly terrible Christmas just a little bit more bearable.

For those of you who are experiencing loss this Christmas, I wish you one small moment like this one.

And a bag of Corn Nuts from the gas station too.

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Letting Things Go

Christmas Time is here.

Christmas stress is here.

Christmas time is here.

It’s been a stressful December for me. The combination of a late Thanksgiving, a heavy dose of denial and a freak snowstorm that kept me housebound for seven days has left me with too much to do and not enough time to do in it.

Approximately 1.75 million blog posts on the Internet would tell me that the way to deal with this type of stress is to exercise, eat vegetables and let things go. It’s been tough to exercise (see snowstorm reference above) and the vegetables have been in short supply (ditto).

So letting things go seems to be the only option I have left. The question is, however, what do I give up? We’ve already stopped buying presents for everyone except immediate family. This year I also skipped the school holiday food drive and the 4th grade Christmas party. My house is not clean. The decorations are minimal. I didn’t buy a gingerbread house, and I gave up the idea of kid holiday crafts that are cute enough to give away.

It seems that once you’ve already cut back on obligations, there’s not much left to let go of.

Because there’s a lot of things you just can’t let go of. Kids need fed. Laundry must be done. Dogs need to be walked. Groceries must be bought. I would say houses must be cleaned, but that seems to be inaccurate in my case.

Which leads me to the conclusion that an exhausted working mother reading blog posts about how to “let things go” is not unlike a drowning person looking up the best way to do the butterfly stroke.

It’s a solution for the wrong problem.

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