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I Thought I’d Lost it. Then Others Found it.

My old newspaper clippings.

My old newspaper clippings.

When Hurricane Sandy sent floodwaters pouring through the first floor of my home, the depth of devastation only became apparent in the effort to clean up, move on, start over.

As I dug through the closet, I opened the large plastic bin I had used to store the mementoes of the baby years – a journal I kept while pregnant with Mira, the pages all stuck together; Christening outfits that were soaked and yellow. In the garage, my husband Sid found a box full of newspaper clippings – all my first bylines and later, my favorite bylines, cemented together like a paper brick. To mourn over each drowned item was to threaten losing strength for the work ahead. So eventually boxes were thrown to the pile heap on the curb. Eventually they were hauled away, and eventually I chose to forget what was lost and what had been spared.

My daughter, Mira's, birth announcement and first Christmas photo.

My daughter, Mira’s, birth announcement and first Christmas photo.

Last week, my friend Tracy gave me a large manila envelope. “You have to know this about me,” she said. “I keep everything.” She had been cleaning out her mother’s basement, and came across some things she thought I might like to have. Mira’s birth announcement. The photo from Mira’s first Christmas card.

Sandy was more than three years ago, and like many who endured her wrath we tell ourselves we’ve moved on, that life is back to normal, that in the end we endured and are stronger for it. Blah, blah, cliché, blah.

But then a friend hands you a picture of your newborn that you thought you would never see again, and you realize that the defining moments in your life never leave you. They lurk, waiting for the right moment to remind you of all you’ve been through, learned, and survived.

Today I received another large manila envelope in the mail. A former editor, the one who was brave enough to give a young reporter the freedom to figure out who she was as a writer, sent me a pile of newspaper clippings. They were of stories that I’d written that she enjoyed enough to hold onto, and oddly enough many of them are ones I still think of to this day.

A byline is quite a thrill. When you haven’t seen yours in a while you realize how much you miss those letters in bold and the power it asserts. Those were my words. I knitted the narrative. And I owned the reader’s attention, and hopefully heart, for just a brief while. I have to be honest — it was a power I reveled in. Still do.

Holding those clipping in my hand was like stumbling upon lost treasure. I really thought all those old bylines were gone. I tell my kids that before they were born, I was a newspaper reporter, but I had no proof. Or so I thought. For the second time in a week I found myself weeping over finding what was once thought to be lost.

I’m starting to think that life is not a line that brings us from one point to another. Rather, life is a spiral, an ever-enlarging circle that brings you back, but then moves you forward. You don’t always know why you had a certain experience, good or bad, or made a connection with a person, brief or long. But there’s a good chance that while journeying on the circle, you’ll get a reminder.

A storm that rocked your life but strengthened your soul.

A friend whose hoarding results in the gift of a lost memory.

A mentor whose faith in your talents propelled you once, and likely will again.

Maybe memories haunt us for a reason – because they still contain lessons we need to learn.

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Two Years After Sandy, Still Haunted by the Irreplaceable

Two years after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the east coast, destroying the first floor of my home in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., it’s as if she were never here. I can cook dinner again; my husband and two kids can pile onto the couch and fight over the remote again. There are no contractors stomping in and out, bringing in blasts of blustery air as they haul in supplies or calling up to me, “Mrs., we have a problem…”

My house is whole. My family is fine. And yet Sandy’s ghost lingers like a loved one whose death you, for a moment, forgot about. I have to call her! you think. And then you remember, and the pain floods back.

Recently I searched my bookcase for one of my favorite books, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of a Midwestern preacher who knows he is dying and so he writes his memoirs for his young son. The beauty of her prose was humbling. I remember circling passages, writing notes in the margins, reading a single sentence and then having to close the book and think, think, think.

Even as I scanned the shelf once, twice I knew – Gilead is gone. Washed away like so many other markers of my past life. I’ll never be able to look back and see what struck me during the time in my life when I read that book, when my firstborn was a baby, when our lives were in a different kind of upheaval, when I was trying to figure so many things out.

In our garage I kept what I called my “Sid box.” (Sid being my husband.) It was a black Bloomingdale’s shirt box, sturdy and elegant. Inside were flower petals from the first rose he ever gave me, a heart-shaped silver chocolate box (contents long-since enjoyed), and the letters – actual handwritten letters – that he and I swapped in between classes senior year and later, during that first year of college when there was no money for phone calls. In my Sid Box was The Letter. In it, he quoted lines from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. (It was 1989 after all, and we were 16.)

when I want to run away
I drive off in my car (“I wish,” he added)
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

He followed it up with a quote from Always on my Mind (Pet Shop Boys version) and then, in script written with a brown pen, he told me for the first time that he loved me. In my mind’s eye, I can see that letter. His 16-year-old handwriting. The way the paper was folded again and again until it was small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. That letter was my most precious thing for so long.

I do not know if that box survived the storm. I am too afraid to ask Sid, who cleared out the garage while I dealt with the closets and their drowned christening gowns and those baby scrapbooks I always thought I’d finish someday. I’d rather think that it’s still there, that it was on a high shelf, than know that it is gone forever. I console myself with the fact that my memory can fill in the blanks; that it was the experience of those letters rather than their actual existence that made the most impact on my life. But like most consolation, it rings hollow.

There was a time when optimism was my default. No matter what challenge we came up against, I truly believed we would persevere. But loss, change, unsurety has hardened me. Two years later, I’ve regained some of my positive outlook, but now I’m an optimist with an asterisk. I believe less in fairy-tale endings but am confident that hard work will propel you forward. I put greater value on experiences than things, because things lack permanence. But the imprint of a shared moment, a spoken word, a thoughtful touch is eternal.

People still ask about Sandy. “You live in Rockaway?! Were you affected?” Yes, we reply, and we see the way people’s heads cock to the side, their eyes soften, hear them say “I’m sorry” as if they are paying respects. Recently my family and I had one of those particularly great post-Sandy days, the kind of day we wouldn’t have had before we realized that experiences matter more than stuff. Sid and I took the kids, ages 10 and 7, to the Museum of Modern Art. We stopped at the Terrace Café and got an outdoor table overlooking the sculpture garden. Sid and I shared a bottle of wine while the kids drank ice cream sodas.

We got to chatting with our waitress. “You live in Rockaway?!” she began. Then came the softened eyes, the words of condolence. But I wasn’t sad about our Sandy story. What’s gone is gone. I was living in the moment, and that moment was pretty stellar. “Everyone has storms in our lives,” I said. “This was just ours.”

And that’s really it. We all have crises; we all have things we love taken from us. The remnants of our past are gone, replaced by the memory of the moment they represent. And then we move on. We create new memories. We craft a new record of our existence. And that’s how we survive.

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Challenged? You’ll Have the Strength to Endure. Here’s How I Know.

Mira (top row, far right) participates in the church Christmas show.

Mira (top row, far right) participates in the church Christmas show.

I sat in the church pew, my daughter nestled beside me, my hands clasping each other to stop them from shaking. It was the Sunday before Christmas and all the decorations, the joyous children’s program, the smiling church ladies dressed in red, were arrows strung against a battered soul. While others rejoiced; I grieved.

Two months prior, our home was assaulted by a hurricane that hit during high tide on the night of a full moon. Sandy’s storm surge forced 4 feet of water into my Rockaway Beach house, destroying a lifetime of accumulated possessions and upending our lives in ways I had not, even in that shellshocked moment in the church pew, begun to fully realize.

That morning I had left our half-a-house to bring my 8-year-old daughter Mira to St. James-St. Matthew in South Ozone Park while my husband Sid stayed home with our sick 5-year-old son. It was a journey of obligation, no doubt. Mira was in the church Christmas program and her absence would have forced some last-minute cast changes. But I had spent most of the night sitting vigil with my son as he battled a stomach virus and so all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

But even if I could have pulled the covers over my head, it would not have provided the escape from the world that I craved. With our first floor destroyed, we were camped out on the second floor. The master bedroom doubled as living room, dining room, family room and playroom. Our kitchen consisted of a microwave and minifridge crowded in the small hallway. Every morning I poured cereal into Styrofoam bowls and put them down on the floor in my kids’ bedrooms, “Just like I’d feed a dog,” I often said with a wry laugh. I wished for the simplest things, such as a table to eat at, a couch to sit on and a freezer to hold Eggo waffles. But most of all I missed space and privacy.

So that Sunday morning, when my pastor announced that he was looking for volunteers to join him for Christmas caroling to elderly and shut-in members, I raised an eyebrow. I dreaded facing my shell of a house, where the naked drywall and exposed concrete slab foundation served as a daily reminder of sudden, inexplicable loss. Add to that the possibility of being thrown up on (yet again), and I had little incentive to rush home. Plus, so many people had given us so much in the aftermath of Sandy. It would be good to give back in some way. So the decision was made – I now had the perfect excuse for hiding from my life for a while.

It was a small group of us that went – maybe five or six. I was beginning to feel the altruistic pride that comes from doing the righteous thing and even a hint of holiday spirit. Our first stop was to the home of Bert and his wife Gloria, who several years before had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. She was now bedridden and unable to communicate. The mother in me felt compelled to warn my daughter that what she saw might be upsetting, but if she had any questions I would answer them after we left. Because I, of course, would have no problem with coming face-to-face with the hardships that sometimes befall us later in life.

Bert welcomed us so kindly and led us to the bedroom he and Gloria still shared. Gloria lay in a hospital bed, the sheets pulled neat and taut up to her chest. She wore a ruffled-collar nightgown and her white hair had the airiness of cotton candy. There was an echo of beauty in her porcelain face, but it was now concealed by puffy cheeks, swollen lips and unfocused eyes that darted around, focusing on nothing.

As someone unaccustomed to sharing space with someone so near the end of her life, the experience was other-worldly. As we sang, Bert held Gloria’s hand and smiled. He gazed into her eyes and called her name, again and again. “Gloria! Gloria! It’s the people from the church, and they’re here singing for you.” Here was Bert, trying so hard to pull his wife away from wherever she was and into the present. It seemed hopeless, yet Bert’s hope seemed limitless.

My mind started to spin. I think I know suffering, I thought? I think I know hard? Then Pastor Stumme selected “Angels we Have Heard on High,” with its “Gloria” chorus, and I thought for a moment that I would need a fainting couch and smelling salts. The beauty of the song; the love in Bert’s tear-filled eyes; set against the backdrop of pictures of young Gloria as beautiful as any pin-up model, of their family when the kids were young, of anniversary parties and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — it was all too much.

Life’s experiences, I realized, are all parts that make up a whole. At that moment, I could not comprehend why God would let nature attack my home when after all, I really tried hard to always do the right thing and be a good person. I even corralled the family into the car on most Sunday mornings, which often felt like a Herculean feat. And I was sure that Bert, and maybe even Gloria, had had the same feeling of confusion and resentment. Why God, why?

But as I stood there in Bert and Gloria’s home, I was overwhelmed by a transforming realization. No matter what it is you are asked to endure in life, you will be given the power to get through. And that power comes, yes, from God, but more directly by Him working through the people around you. And in that moment, for me, Gloria was that person.

The strength to endure comes from people asking how they can help. It comes from those who can hear your story, the real story, not the “everything is okay; we’ll be fine” mantra of stoicism but rather the “today was hard and I’m really losing it” story. It comes from having a place to go where you can forget about the troubles that morph in the middle of the night. It comes from knowing that there is a place where your children feel safe and secure, where they can run around and eat too many cookies and squirm in the pew while searching through your purse for the piece of candy they know is there if they look hard enough.

And the place I felt that more than anywhere was at church. During times of distress, when the people who were supposed to help didn’t and the waiting seemed at times unbearable, church was a welcome constant. It stayed the same. It was a rock, a safe place, and even, as I used it that Sunday, an escape from the world.

So whether it’s a hurricane that rips through your life or something more universal – an illness, death, loss, fear, unsurety – what people in crisis need more than anything is to know they are not alone. They need a sense of community, a feeling that they are supported through the most challenging times. For me that place was church. I don’t know that I would have weathered that chaotic year of my life as well as I did without that touchstone.

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Who’s the Mommy? I’m the Mommy

“But Mom!”

It’s become a chorus in my house. “Do your homework” is met with, “But Mom, I can do it later.” “Clean your room” elicits “But Mom, I’m tired. Can’t I do it tomorrow?” “Eat your dinner” is followed by “But mom, I don’t like it.”

My kids are 6 and 9 and this week it became apparent to me that I am slowly losing my dominion over them. I had been blaming this on their march towards tween-dom but I realized today that the problem isn’t gurgling hormones or natural rebellion. It’s me. I’ve gone soft.

There was a time when if I made a threat, the kids knew that I’d make good on it. When I said I’d end a playdate if they didn’t behave, and then proceeded to drag a mischievous and screaming child out of the house, my authority was secure. When toddlers threw tantrums and I simply walked away, they knew that their theatrics had no power over me.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit. And my resolve withered.

At first we were living with family and then we were living in disarray, and I myself had no desire to deal with the kids’ homework let alone force them to do it accurately and neatly. Each of our bedrooms was festooned with leaning towers of clutter, the saved remnants from our destroyed first floor. How could I require that the kids clean their rooms when I had a 4-foot-tall pile of unfolded clothing, books and assorted holiday decorations perched on my armchair? I let them live on the foods they ate without complaint: hot dogs and chicken nuggets; pasta and bagels.

I got lazy, and the kids got lazy. Trouble is, the laziness didn’t go away once the house was rebuilt.

I’m going to cut myself some slack here. The reason might come as a surprise to someone who has only witnessed a natural disaster from afar. The neglected truth is that life doesn’t instantly return to normal once your house is rebuilt.

For months, people would ask me: “How is the rebuild going? When will it be done? Why isn’t it done yet?” Once it was finished, and I had a couch to sit on again and stove to cook with, those around me breathed a collective sigh of completion. Phew! Now we can all be done with that! But the truth is that the structural rebuild is only one part of restoring the whole of what was lost during Sandy. We all need to rebuild ourselves from the inside out, and that takes time.

I’m still on that journey, and reclaiming the take-no-excuses Mom I used to be is part of that journey. So last night, my daughter stayed up past her bedtime so she could finish cleaning her room . When my son decided he didn’t like what I served him for dinner, I told him he could either eat what was in front of him or get ready for bed. He chose the latter and I, for the first time in a long time, was okay with that. I’m remembering that my kids aren’t as fragile as I feared they were during Sandy. I’m remembering that while they’ve been through a lot, I can’t give them a pass for all they have yet to have to go through. Losing some sleep or going to bed hungry isn’t torturous; it’s a reminder that there are rules to be followed.

I still have a lot to work on in this rebuilding process. Part of it is reclaiming my own mojo, my own inspiration to do more, be more and ask for more both personally and professionally. For the last 16 months I’ve been stuck, working so hard to get the external life together that the internal went neglected. Survival mode was necessary for a while but its time has passed. It’s time to remember that I’m not just protecting children for the now; I’m trying to teach them the responsibility they need to be productive adults.

So don’t “But Mom” me. Why? Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.

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My Back Ache, My Emotional Barometer

I turned 40 and my body started falling apart.

Mostly it’s my back, but honestly: If your spine isn’t moving right your entire body is a disaster. I’ve battled back pain since college when my altruistic effort to help freshmen move their overfilled suitcases into our college dorm ended with my lying on the floor, back spasming and my body unable to move. Since then my back has been my emotional barometer. There is a direct correlation between how tall I can stand (and for how long) and the amount of stressI am under. I am an adrenaline junkie and use this great hormone to fuel much of my attempts at work-life balance. So often I’m flying along, thinking I’ve got everything under control, and my back grounds me. It reminds me that I am pushing myself too hard, that I am not sleeping enough and that I am about to crash.

Considering this symbiotic relationship my back and I have developed, I was very surprised when, during our recovery from Superstorm Sandy, my back felt great. Pain didn’t awaken me each time I rolled over at night (my worries did, but that’s another story). I was able to clear out closets, throw piles of my belongings to the curb, haul boxes of salvaged items up the stairs. It was my Joan of Arc moment — I was a warrior and this was my fight. During the ensuing months when it felt as if I did little more than sit on my bed (it did extra duty as our couch, dining room table and office desk) my back did not stage a protest. It was strong, mimicking the strength I was conjuring each day when I got out of bed, nuked yet another hot dog for the kids and maintained patience when my contractor did not show up — again.

But then the house got rebuilt. Morning came and I could fry an egg. We had a couch to sit on and a table to sit at while we rediscovered the rituals that had been lost to us: sharing stories about our day, laughing when my son burped (even though we all knew we shouldn’t) and forcing the kids to try a new food. By all appearances, our lives had returned to normal. But by August, while our house was done we still had so many unknowns. There was the startling difference between our insurance company settlement and our contractor’s bill. There was the humbling experience of waiting on line at Build it Back, New York City’s program to help Sandy victims, as if we had our hands out. There were my 2012 taxes which finally had to be faced, an experience I always dread but that this time had my heart racing in the middle of the night. I know I lived through a hurricane but the aftermath resembled more an earthquake, with aftershocks still rocking my foundation at the most unexpected moments.

In August is when I broke down. I had my first panic attack, the first time I could not use my rational mind to calm my irrational one. I had zero patience left for my children. And then my back made its presence known, not with a twinge but with a roar. Standing up, sitting down, bending over, sneezing, coughing, rolling over at night all shot pain straight through me. Where did this all come from? I had done so well up until this point. I had managed the children and the finances and the laundry/kitchen and the rebuild. I had made it through. Why, now that it was all over, was I falling apart?

I didn’t want to think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had lived through a hurricane, not war or torture or abuse. Nothing happened to me that could not be fixed. And yet — there I was, unable to fit myself into the optimistic mold from which I had been originally cast. I was me but not myself. I had flashes of unexpected anger. The sight of the ocean’s waves or, strangely, the 100-pack of Chinet plates that we used during what I call our “refugee days” of living on the second floor, made me cold inside. And then my body started falling apart.

I finally started to accept that maybe I was flirting with post-traumatic stress after reading this from the National Institutes of Mental Health:

When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

I somehow got through August and then September, with its return to school and routines, slowed my racing heart. We gave up on Build it Back helping us and decided to rely on ourselves, which was liberating in its own way. We didn’t owe anything to the Internal Revenue Service, which was a massive relief. And we got a hold off our finances and figured out how we’d make those last contractor payments. Reclaiming control over a life that felt out of control was wonderfully calming.

Despite all this progress, my back still isn’t happy. And I think I know the reason. I’ve spent so much effort on the external — the house, the finances, the family — but have completely ignored the internal. For months I ate horribly — cookies for breakfast, fried anything anytime and I forgot what vegetables tasted like. I drank too much. I sat too much. But that was all okay, then, because I was keeping everything else afloat, often by sheer power of my own will. But now, the ship is sailing on its own. Routines have returned. Normal, boring days are fabulously persistent. And so it’s time to turn my gaze inward.

I’m committed to eating better — lots of fruits and vegetables and less of anything from a can or box — and being aware of the difference between wanting a drink and needing a drink (and finding another solution when it’s the latter). I will start running again, once the weather complies. Until then I’m committed to yoga five days a week, and already I’m feeling a difference. I feel stronger. I’m calmer. And yes, even my back aches less.

With each remaining twinge of pain, however, I know I have a long road ahead of me. But I strongly believe that progress only comes through goal-setting. If you hope for something but aspire to nothing, aspiration will beat out hope every time. I look forward to the morning when I wake up without a groan, can sneeze without a jolt of pain and, most of all, feel that my physical strength once again matches my mental fortitude. Slowly but surely, I’ll put this body back together.

 

 


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