Saturday, September 3, 2011

At the intersection of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love

“There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief...and unspeakable love.” – Washington Irving

It’s been 113 days since my mom suddenly passed away. Ever since she died, I’ve been the fortunate receiver of  countless messages, emails, letters, cards, texts, compassionate embraces and incredible outpouring of support in every form imaginable. And each time someone asked me, “How are you dear?” I had the urge to say, “How much time do you have? Because there is so much to say – about my amazing mom, about our love for reach other, about…” Fortunately, for those wonderful well-meaning people I pretty much limited myself to a plain “I am hanging in there. Thanks so much for your support”.
But all the while, I’ve been keeping a mental journal of all the things remaining to be said. The irony is that as much as I love to talk, I find that writing is much, MUCH better in situations like these. When your world crumbles, it’s what my mom used to call a “hurricane in your cup”: it’s invisible and incomprehensible to everyone else, but you are drowning, covered in sweat and tears, gasping for air, unable to find the edge of the cup to hang on to… Spoken words somehow cheapen the memory and make something profound seem ordinary and inconsequential. Perhaps, that’s why I couldn’t really give a proper eulogy at my mom’s funeral.

In the past few months, several people I know lost one of their parents… Even today, a friend of mine who lost her mom a few days ago asked me “Does it get better?” I told her “it gets…different”. Ancient wisdom teaches that if you come across suffering, it means you have the power to make a difference. I began to wonder, would it help someone else if I wrote about the past 113 days and what it's been like for me? After all, my blog is about my life as I know it. Could it help even one soul, also trying to grasp for the edge of the cup and learn to swim in the raging waters of their sadness? I am not sure. But I think it’s worth a shot.

They say, life is a journey. These days I am wandering through the streets of sorrow and joy, desperately trying to figure out how to navigate the narrow and perilous intersection of overwhelming grief and the unspeakable love. And here is what I am finding…
  • Step lightly and don’t expect too much of yourself. Just be. Moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day…Forgive yourself for the unwashed hair, unwashed dishes, for the missed calls, for not being graceful, for the messages left un-responded to, for the laundry not done...
  • Grief comes in waves. Love is a constant undercurrent. Never underestimate its power. Become its tireless messenger.
  • Concentrate on healing the little bits of yourself with the glue of silence…and do it as best as you know how.
  • Know that everything is possible. You are MUCH stronger than you think. When you believe that there is no imaginable force that could make you open your mouth and say to your 89 year-old grandfather that his only daughter died, somewhere from deep inside you, bigger and stronger you finds its calm voice and does the deed. And then you realize that impossible is truly nothing.
  • Be patient with people. They are trying…It is a very delicate process to say the right thing to someone who is grieving. When people ask you “How are you feeling dear?” or “Are things getting back to normal?” or “I hope you don’t miss your Mom too much?” - they mean well. They say it out of love for you. But because you are drowning in the hurricane of your own sorrow, you might have the urge to say something mean back, like “I feel like shit! I am not recovering from a flu…Things are never going to go back to normal”. And instead you smile politely and you say something more appropriate, “Hanging in there” or “as well as can be expected” and “I miss her very much and always will”.
  • When someone dies unexpectedly, it feels like a slap in the face. Like someone’s phone service suddenly got disconnected in the middle of a very important conversation and there is no way to get back to them. Without this “phone” connection, all that’s left is waiting until you see them again…
  • Losing your mom, no matter what age you are when it happens, makes you at least half an orphan. And it’s a hollow and lonely feeling.
  • The best antidote to grief is love. And it’s not the love you receive that makes you joyful, but the love you give. The positive energy and spirit your pour back into the world as a selfless offering.
  • When my mom died, it was almost 8 pm…and when we came outside, it was around 8:30. The harbor view was spectacular. The sun was saying good bye to Seattle and gently sliding behind the mountains. I said to my father “Look how beautiful. Mom is here. Mom is everywhere now”.  There is beauty in everything.
  • Having lost someone you love, especially you parent, doesn't make you an expert in the grieving process. But you do cross over to a new "reality" and become a “member” of a group that sees the world maybe a little bit differently.
  • Love, kids and nature are antidotes to grief. Pour yourself into something or someone living.
  • Martha Beck calls grieving for a loved one“clean pain” which, if you let it, can have regenerative and creative powers. I haven't experienced it yet, but I hope she is right.
  • “It” doesn’t get better. It gets different. But you have the potential of becoming a better person – more compassionate, kinder, and more understanding. And that’s something!
  • It’s okay to laugh again. In fact, it's as necessary as breathing.
And, one more thing, at the intersection of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love, sometimes a simple of act of writing helps.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In memory of my Mom

A little poem that I wrote for my mom in January 1998:
Картина Климта не сложна,
В любви написана она,
Той безкорыстной и простой,
Той материнско и святой:
Вот мать, вот дочь,
Вокруг цветы,
Всё так понятно - я и ты.

Klimt’s painting isn’t complicated.
With love and care it was created.
With love that’s unconditional and simple,
A mother’s love which is sacred.
A mother, a daughter,
Flowers are all around.
Everything is very clear: it’s you and I.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Truth about me and my walkman

This morning, on my usual subway ride to work, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation which made me reflect on the role of pretentiousness and truthfulness in our lives. Ok, MY life...

Several young and beautiful "friends" were on their way someplace on the B train. Come to think of it, they were all really pretty - in both feminine and masculine terms, like the set of characters on the sitcom "Friends". They immediately grabbed my attention, because, I don't know about your commute, but beauty is not something which is served up on the New York subway in large quantities. The friends were chatting and laughing. They were clearly talking about someone less perfect than they are. Words like, "desperate", "unattractive", "loser" were thrown around. One of the friends was a young beautiful woman, with long shimmering golden hair, who laughed especially hard at the jokes of the others. It just seemed like she was having a whale of a time. She flipped her hair and slapped her hands on her knees, when someone mention that certain OTHER who is a major loser.
After some time most of the friends got off their stops, after a lot of smooching and ciaos. And eventually the gorgeous blond was the only who stayed behind. I was certain, on her way to even cooler things and even more stunning people...BUT as soon as the "witnesses were gone", she totally changed. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. She cradled her face in her hands for a few seconds. And when she lifted her eyes again, her perfect make up was a not as perfect. She put her long blond hair in a simple ponytail, with a few stands sticking out in a funny, messy and yet endearing kind of a way. Our eyes met (or was the fact that I've been starring at her caught her attention?) She looked at me and I looked at her.... This was a young woman in a simple ponytail. The glamour was gone. The strained laughter was gone. And then a thought hit me - could it be that the process of trying so hard to fit in made her so exhausted? I am not sure why, but this whole scene stirred something in me. I suppose enough of something to write a blog about it. Of course, I haven't a clue whether they were talking about actual desperados and losers. Or whether she was just exhausted from lifting bricks the night before at her construction job. Then again, maybe part of it is the American thing...That idea of putting your best "face on" when others are around. It took me years after I came to the US to realize that when people asked "how are you", most of the time, they were expecting "great" in a form of a response and not the results of the most recent MRI!

But if my intuition is right, and she was tired of being someone else, what does it mean? Why do we cover up the truth about ourselves? Who are we kidding??? Because I believe, the issue isn't just with the subway riders. I recently attended a very posh event where pretentiousness and the truth collided with such speed and intensity that nearly each conversation could have started a small fire. Since nobody is perfect (if such a thing even exists), the friends on the B train, may just appear as such, but what lies beneath the appearance and how much energy does it take to keep up the appearance? We all think have to put out a persona or a version of ourselves that is more or less acceptable to the world (or at least we think it is). But what if we start a little truth trend?

What would happen if we all disclosed some truths about ourselves; those weird idiosyncrasies that make us unique? Would it be so bad? You know that feeling of connectedness you experience when you realize you are "in the same boat" with another human being or, holly smokes, MANY human beings. If we disclosed at least one truth about ourselves, wouldn't it make the world a little friendlier and a little less fake? Maybe this is part of the success the Alcoholic Anonymous and group therapy in general – people bond by first acknowledging that they are far from perfect.

So, I'll start. My name is Rina and here is one of the truths about me (and yes, I realize that I am posting it on the World Wide Web, thankyouverymuch):

I have a walkman radio. It’s black, worn out and it just FM. It has one dial, no buttons, and no screen. When I first turn it on, it needs a few moments to “warm-up”. I've had my little ugly walkman since I was in High School. I love it. I cherish it. I have nightmares about loosing it because it would be irreplaceable
But the truth is I feel a little...oh, what the heck, a LOT, embarrassed carrying it around. So, when I am on the subway, I try to hide it from people's prying eyes. Why is that? What am I trying to hide or prove? To whom? Who cares if I get the puzzled looks like "what the heck is that?" I suppose, the truth is I care, because I don't want to feel inferior to the people with I-Pads, I-phones and I-whatevers. If you asked me, I'd tell you that I am very confident and comfortable in my shoes...but what's with the walkman situation? Maybe, it’s that deep inside I am very conservative and kind of old-fashioned...and sort of the opposite of cool. I don't like admitting it! I get attached to "old things". And the other part of the truth, which is even more concerning, is that it is possible that I may have made fun of someone else who is attached to something that seems ridiculous and old-fashioned to me. I was covering up my own truth by devaluing someone else’s. And not unlike the beautiful, tired friend on the B train, it made me feel empty inside, exhausted, as if something essential got chipped away.

Lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot about my new subway friend. Now she was standing closer to me, waiting at the door for her stop. And when the door opened, she smiled, a very warm genuine smile, and said, “Nice radio.” I looked down on my lap, and there it was – the little black radio walkman, which I forgot to turn off since we went into the tunnel. Now it was sending equally soothing and annoying sounds into my ears – the cracking and hissing “sssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”.

So, here is to all old-fashioned losers out there, beautiful young Goldilocks, and everyone else, whether you have an old warn out walkman or not, lets bond together and just be more real with who we are...and with time even more comfortable in our skins.

What's your truth? My point is you don't have to post it on your blog. But acknowledging it even to yourself could be really liberating.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

“If it wasn’t for you…” A toast to my grandfather on his 89th birthday (translated from Russian).

A long time ago, when you were only a toddler, your family settled in the “promised land” (Israel) to grow oranges and camels. Fortunately for me, in just a couple of years, all of you returned to the land of promises (the Soviet Union).
When you told me this story I was very young, but it made a big impression on me. Over the years I’ve often thought that there could have been myriad different reasons and circumstances that would have prevented you from being my grandfather. Your family could have stayed in Israel. You could have been killed in a pogrom or in the World War II…And even if you had survived all of that, instead of my grandmother, you could have met someone else or no one at all…and so on. My point is that, I am convinced, had we not “met”, my world would have been a much bleaker place. You see, I not only love you as my grandfather, I really, really like you and respect you as a human being. So, today, on your 89th birthday, with gratitude and love…a little bit of awe, I want to tell of the things that couldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for you.
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know that my “real” name is “shainer punim” or “sweet face” in Yiddish. The memory of you calling me that special name since I was a little girl, its warmth and beauty, are always in my heart.
  • If it wasn’t for you, I would have never tried skiing, or fallen off a bike, or broken my arm trying to ice-skate. Considering how “un”, or should I say, “anti” athletic I’ve always been, basically, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t even come this close to any sports-related activity.
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have believed that real, passionate, mad kind of love between a husband and a wife could last more than 60 years…And then, when the time comes, it could just evolve into a new form and become eternal.
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have known that any dish could be SIGNIFICANLY improved by mixing in the right amount of finely chopped, fried onions (this includes desserts too!)
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be so self-confident. When I was called bad (horrible) names in school, you were the one who told me, “You are a star. So, there will always be people who are envious of you. Get used to it and then revel in it.” And now I know we are all stars! I was just fortunate enough that you taught me that secret early on in life.
  • If it wasn’t for you, our family wouldn’t have made it to America. You took care of it all – the tickets, the paperwork, the red tape…and, to a large extent, thanks to your energy and persistence I am here today.
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know that it is possible to be both a major pain in the butt and enormously loveable at the same time (yes, I am talking about you!)
  • If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know an awesome, multi-purpose Yiddish expression “Oi vey”. Two tiny little words that can easily express deep sadness, surprise, exhaustion, annoyance, etc.
  • And finally, it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have known that an undying, vibrant sense of humor combined with a passionate, hungry, almost greedy love of life, could be considered an official, personal religion. I learned it from you and doing my best to practice it every day.
Happy birthday…and, God-willing, many, many more good years ahead.
Yours always,

Sheiner Punim

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What my mama taught me

There is a saying that goes something like "your mom is always right" or “mama knows best”. I generally don't accept absolutes. There are very few (if any at all!) things in this world to which the assured word "always" can be attached. But the older I get, the more I am willing to acknowledge that there is a large truth in the point that our parents, and probably our mothers especially, teach us a lot...And as fate would have it, the lessons often come in unexpected forms. My mom teaches me something nearly every day...more often than not without realizing that she does and even more often without saying a single word. She teaches me some critically important things about life simply by living her own life in best way she can. Or should I say as best as her failing body allows her to. So, here are a few things that my mama taught me (and continues to teach me) that may be unique as well as universal in equal measure:
  • If you've got working limbs, USE them right now. My mom has been wheelchair-bound for years. She often reminisces of the good old days when she could walk. And I often remember with nostalgia and a bitter-sweet fondness when we used to walk together. The lesson: if you've got legs and they work, share a walk with someone you love! Or just take a walk alone. And in the process (this is the critical part) enjoy the experience of just lifting one foot and then the other. Don't take any step for granted!
  • If you've got eyes that see, USE them right now. My mom has severely impaired vision. She isn't blind, but she basically has an annoying, blurred double vision – all the time. She is an avid reader and art lover. Fortunately, I haven't experienced the impaired vision that can NOT be fixed with surgery or glasses. But I can only imagine that living with something like this is probably no picnic. So, if you've got eyes, even if you have to put on your glasses to see better, the lesson is LOOK around and absorb it all. Really see things, people, faces, art, clouds, cars, buildings, the garbage on the ground, and the little script on the bottom of the letter…all of it. Revel in the incredible technology that is YOUR vision. A pair of good eyes - a real gift to cherish.
  • If you've got a LIFE, LIVE it right now. My mom often says that her biggest regret is not enjoying the "good years". She says that until she got sick, she was “waiting for life to begin”. She didn't stop to smell the roses, even though they were right under her nose: great loving parents who pretty much did everything for her, a good marriage, a good job, an adorable kid (me) and loving special friends, to name a few of those "roses". So, what’s the lesson? Well, yes, most of the time, there is a way to continue living. No matter what card fate deals you, you can "adopt and adjust". Disability is not the end of the world. You can buy diapers, wheelchairs, lifting equipment, special bed….whatever. But if your body is not falling apart and you can go to the bathroom without assistance, the lesson here is that THERE IS NOTHING else to wait for. You already have everything you need!
I've read about various approaches on how to appreciate life more. Everything from "imagine that you have three months to live" to “climb the highest mountain without food and then head down eating wild berries all the way to the bottom” to "imagine you'll die tomorrow".
Listen, I don't care to be overly or unnecessarily dramatic. But I do want to urge that possibly in all of our lives a sort of re-prioritization is required. I certainly don’t claim any superiority just because I have a parent who is ill. I am right there with all of you, in the trenches of life YET often forgetting to live. What the #@$& could I possibly really know? I am a work in progress and will be for a looooong time. Yet I am watching my mom suffering through her life and I am learning…
So, if nothing else, simply ponder upon these very real lessons, and maybe ask yourself "am I really living, right now, this moment, to its fullest potential, or am I just waiting for life to begin?" If you are waiting, the bus has just arrived and the message has been delivered.
Here is your to do list:
  • Take a deep breath
  • Take someone's hand
  • Take a walk with them
  • Take a look around.
 Amazing, isn't it?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Wind of Change

The Russian (or should I say "soviet") version of Mary Poppins is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's beautiful and inspiring in every way. I've seen it (no exaggeration) hundreds of times since it came out in 1984. There is a song in the movie about the "wind of change" (Russian lyrics by Naum Olev). This is my attempt to translate it.

Earth is spinning around like children’s carousel.
The winds of loss are swirling around it.
Those are the winds of loss, division and evil.
They are countless.

They are countless.
They seep through every crack,
Ripping off the doors to people’s hearts,
Crushing hopes and instilling fear.

The winds are swirling and swirling.
Hundreds of years, day and night, the Carousel Earth spins around.
Hundreds of years, all the winds come back to their origins.

But there exists the Wind of Change.
It’s going to swoop in and banish the winds of betrayal.
In time, it will chase away the winds of separation and disappointment.

Hundreds of years, day and night, the Carousel Earth spins around.
Hundreds of years, what goes around, comes around.

Tomorrow the wind will change.
It will come tomorrow to replace the past.
It will come, and it will be kind and gentle, the Wind of Change.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


A website I recently stumbled upon – – really inspired me. It’s a simple blog that celebrates the AWEsomeness of life, the joy, the crazy goodness of it all. Naturally, I began to wonder, what would I list as awesome in my life. So, here is just a sampling of a few things that came to mind:
  • Parfait yogurt in the cafeteria at my work – It consists of vanilla yogurt, granola and fruit. It’s exactly what I want and they have it for $3.50, almost every day. How awesome it is to get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it.
  • Being able to celebrate my grandfather's 89th birthday – WITH him and the rest of the family, while scolding him for drinking a bit too much cognac. Awesome!
  • Sleeping on the window-side of the bed – Makes me feel like I live in a tree house or a nest (in a good way). I climb into the bed, say “good night” to the moon shining through the window and turn off the light. Pure awesomeness!
  • Amazon Kindle – For book junkies like me who read multiple books at the same time, carrying all of them around was tough. So, along came Amazon Kindle which can hold over 1000 books and you can read them all at the same time! Kindle was the best splurge in the past few years that just keeps on giving!
  • Someone saying "thank you for inspiring me" – Such a miraculous and beautiful thing for any mere mortal to touch another mere mortal’s soul. To hear the acknowledgement of this wondrous moment is awesome!
  • Spending 5 almost un-interrupted hours with your best friend whom you’ve known for 20 years – Don’t get me wrong. Such a foray is not entirely guilt-free - due to the potential emotional wounds inflicted on the left-behind husbands, children and pets during your time “away” – but totally awesome!
  • Being loved…in spite of yourself – It’s such a miracle to be loved by one person. Knowing that you are deeply loved by many, just the way you are, is just crazy good, or should I say “awesome” :-)
  • WQXR – It’s a NYC classical music station which has been my companion since I was a kid. Press a button or turn the dial and the sheer beauty just pours out of the radio - for FREE. Totally awesome!
  • Being a grad student and not being in rush to graduate - just enjoying the process. Crazy awesome!
  • Watching your child eat healthy food, reading out loud, catching snow flakes with his tongue, sleeping – In fact, watching your child do anything is awesome. I often catch myself thinking, "wow, a whole real person. So glad you decided to live here with us. Have another peach, please!"
What are the awesome things in your life right now? Notice them, name them, revel in them and celebrate them!

Life is good. Life is AWESOME!