2018: My Three Words

Posted on: January 12th, 2018 by
4

Weights

For 2018, I’m continuing the tradition that fellow blogger Philippa Ramsden started: blogging about the three words that will guide me this year. (To check out Philippa’s three words for 2018, click here.)

As my readers know, 2017 witnessed me getting laid off and losing my beloved aunt soon after. My precious aunt was my rock. She was fun. She was non-judgmental. She helped me when I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. She took care of me when I was recovering from my bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. She was my advocate, my cheerleader, my biggest fan. And now she was gone.

And my dad entering hospice was the shitty cherry on top of a craptastic year. Hopelessness and grief entered my physical and emotional sphere. I worked so hard at finding another job, all while in deep distress.

Such a difficult thing to do.

I cried constantly: I was overwhelmed. I managed the best I could. Finally, in early September, I obtained a teaching position at a local community college.
Although I love the job at this wonderful college and connect well with the students, grief has been my epicenter. I stopped doing things I found pleasurable, such as painting, reading, exercising, and even writing. I stopped taking care of myself, handling grief by turning to food and a sedentary lifestyle. I slept too much, fueling my depression.

At my oncologist’s office recently, I got on the scale, and the truth was in the numbers. And I wondered, how could I have lost control of my physical and emotional well-being?

So, for 2018 and beyond, I’m taking my life back.

And that’s why my three words for 2018 are grit, resilience, and tenacity.

I’m going to tap deeply in my courage bank and reach for these words throughout 2018, as I work hard to get back into shape and stay in shape and enjoy other pleasurable activities — all to stave off depression, keep my mind sharper, build up physical stamina, and lose weight. I physically and emotionally thrive on exercise; for me, it is a huge stress reliever.

This might sound like a New Year’s resolution, but this is a lifetime resolution.

I’ve already started working out at my gym most days, and my goal is to continue a healthy lifestyle for as long as I can into the future. It takes grit to get up each day and walk away from depression towards the gym. It takes resilience to cope with grief and decide that it’s acceptable to grieve, but it’s also acceptable to be kind and generous to oneself even when grieving. It takes tenacity to continue making healthy choices and eat foods that help, not harm, one’s body.

Workout place

It takes all three words to keep crippling depression at bay.

I am not expecting to be free of grief or sadness. I refuse to be some kind of automaton that doesn’t feel.

I simply want to be kinder to myself.

This does not come easily to me.

And that’s why grit, resilience, and tenacity will be my allies, guiding me to grieve and yet take care of myself, to feel sadness but not allow it to cripple me, and to keep hope from veering onto the road of hopelessness.

Do you have three words that will guide you in 2018? If so, feel free to share them.


Six-Word Memoir

Posted on: January 5th, 2018 by
8

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I’m going to begin 2018 with a rather short-but-challenging post: creating a six-word memoir. This is an assignment I will eventually be asking my students to complete, so I feel that I should do the assignment as well. So, without further ado, here it is:

Mother. Family. Cancer. PTSD. Friends. Lucky.

Feel free to share your own six-word memoir in the comments section. I would love to hear yours.


Twelve Twenty-Six

Posted on: December 26th, 2017 by
4

I don’t remember all my cancerversary dates.

But I remember December 26 all too well. Like it was yesterday. It was the beginning of my cancer nightmare.

Weeks before this date, I found a weird-but-subtle dimple on my right breast during my monthly breast self exam. My doctor said “It is probably nothing,” but he wrote a referral for a diagnostic mammogram “just to be on the safe side.” I clung to his “It is probably nothing” as my new mantra of biblical proportions, so I felt a bit wary but somewhat confident going into the diagnostic mammogram on December 26.

The mammography room was cold. I shivered in the paltry gown the staff had me wear.

I waited awhile for the technician, so to pass the time, I picked up one of the available magazines. One featured a story about a woman in her 30s who died of breast cancer.

“Oh fuck,” I thought.

I was also in my 30s.

The “It is probably nothing” mantra started fading away, and I started feeling colder. I shivered again, staring at the mammography machine that would reveal my fate.

Then the technician came in, smiling and friendly. I liked her immediately.

She took shots of both breasts, but particularly my right one. I expected that. She then left the room.

Then, the unexpected.

She came back, saying: “The radiologist wants me to take more shots of your right breast.” Panic cut through me as she worked. My brain worked overtime. Do I have cancer? Why are they taking so many pictures of my right breast? No, I told myself, they are just double checking, and once again I clung to “It is probably nothing.”

Or will I be like that woman in the magazine who died in her 30s?

The technician smiled again, said she would be back soon, gently patting my shoulder. She left me sitting with my thoughts and staring at the mammography machine. I didn’t want to read any more magazine articles.

The technician interrupted my thoughts and said the radiologist wanted to see even more shots of my right breast.

As she worked, I felt sick. I wanted to pray. But prayers stuck in my throat. I was choking on fear.

I wasn’t a person someone read about in a magazine.

This was happening to me.

And in an instant, I saw my life shatter in a million puzzle pieces.

I wished this was a nightmare from which I would soon awake. But this was cold reality. And, who knows, perhaps someday someone in a room like this one will be reading about me, as someone who died from breast cancer in her 30s.

The technician returned and escorted me to a consultation room where the radiologist would meet with me. At that point, my gut told me all I needed to know: I had breast cancer.

The radiologist soon appeared. “There’s been a change since your last mammogram,” and he put a film of the mammogram a half-year ago and the one from today next to each other. (I had a mammogram earlier than recommended because a half-year before I thought I had felt a nodule on my left breast. My report said my breasts were dense, but nothing was found. Negative.)

As the radiologist spoke, my body moved mechanically to take a look at both films. All I saw was white everywhere in each of them. He used the back of a pen to show me a growth in today’s films. “Your breast tissue is highly dense, so it’s really difficult to see what’s going on,” he said kindly. “But there is a definite growth there. It could be benign. You have to have a biopsy to make sure. He then told me that the technician found it; he boasted that she had keen eyes.

I didn’t know whether to thank her for finding my tumor or to scream.

Numbly, I was led to the locker room to put on my clothes.

I cried all night. I knew I was seeping through the mess called cancer.

And in January, sure enough, biopsy results indicated that the mass was malignant.

Breast cancer.

Innocence shattered.

My world would forever be changed.

Puzzle Pieces

How did you find out that you had cancer? Please feel free to share your story.


Holiday Fun

Posted on: December 22nd, 2017 by
4

Tree

With Christmas fast approaching, people are getting ready to create new memories and new traditions or reinforce established ones.

So, in the spirit of the holidays, I figured I’d share my perspective on the holiday season in general. As people know, Ari and I celebrate Chanukah, but we also appreciate other holidays.

1. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, which involves the gift of being with friends and family. I love making the Thanksgiving meal and hosting the holiday. This year was a bit different, as Ari and I were invited over to a friends’ house, where we had a lovely time. But that didn’t deter us from hosting Thanksgiving anyway. The day after Thanksgiving, we had Friendsgiving, where we made a Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings, for a dear friend. And we all had a blast.

2. Although Arielle and I celebrate Chanukah, we also embrace Christmas. We are hosting our first Christmas party this year, and we are nervous because we want to be great hosts in this new-to-us terrain.

3. The Christmas lights really help stave off depression during the darkest time of the year.

4. When my brother and I were kids, we would judge the decorations of each house and deem which house had the best Christmas decorations.

5. My favorite, most memorable Chanukah gift was a ventriloquist doll, named Willie Talk. I was into ventriloquism for awhile (no, I wasn’t any good at it) and kept the doll for years. But I did a dumb thing: At the time, my mom smoked, so I stole one of her cigarettes, lit it, opened the doll’s mouth, and inserted the cigarette. The cigarette fell out and burned a hole in Willie’s shirt. Lesson learned: don’t smoke and don’t play with cigarettes. And ventriloquist dolls shouldn’t smoke either.

6. I love latkes, but they are really unhealthy. Nothing like carbohydrates and grease to contribute to a poor eating habit. I don’t make them for Chanukah; the holiday also encourages eating other grease-laden foods, such as donuts. OK, I admit it, we had donuts. We can’t always take the high road.

7. The fancy Chanukah candles we got this year for our menorahs suck. They keep falling out, and we must heat up the bottom of each candle to make them stick.

8. We’ve bought into the Festival of Lights on a new level. We bought some lights that illuminate holograms of Jewish stars, menorahs, and dreidels. Problem: the lights are nice; the holograms are lame.

9. Ari and I do extreme dreideling, which is all sorts of fun. While the dreidel is spinning on a book, for example, we toss the dreidel in the air and see if it can land on the book and still be spinning continuously.

These dreidels are for show, not for spinning.

These dreidels are for show, not for spinning.

10. One fond memory I have of extreme dreideling took place in a previous workplace. I brought dreidels for my co-workers. One co-worker showed extreme dreidel prowess and turned out to be advanced in the ways of the dreidel. One day, she was spinning the hard-plastic dreidel with a passion, and the thing fell out of her window, which was opened just a crack to let fresh air in. Well, the said dreidel spun out of the window and fell onto the street 20-plus stories down. She and I looked at each other shocked, and we were scared it hit someone in busy downtown Chicago. We later searched for the dreidel, scared it would have blood on it. Luckily, it didn’t, but the dreidel’s stem was a bit crooked. Lesson learned: Dreidel responsibly.

Do you have any holiday memories you would like to share? I would love to hear them.

Happy Holidays to all!


Guilty Pleasures

Posted on: December 14th, 2017 by
6

These days, I’m feeling guilty.

My father is faring badly hundreds of miles away. My mom’s anguish is palpable. I’ve been frantically advocating for him and trying to calm her down. All by phone.

I have to be prepared to leave to Florida at a moment’s notice.

But lately, and — this is the crux of my guilt — I’ve been having fun. I feel I’m a poor excuse for a daughter for experiencing joy at a dark time in my family’s life. While my father suffers and slowly approaches the end of his life, I’m enjoying life.

My daughter and I are doing so many fun activities together. Don’t get me wrong; she has seen me cry in grief and despair over my aunt and dad, and I think that’s a healthy thing for her to witness.

Nevertheless, lately, we’ve had all sorts of fun. We are having a blast shopping for presents for others. Play dates with Ari’s friends fill our schedule. She’s been ice skating. Lately our obsession is a ceramics place, where we choose bisques and paint them with all sorts of colors and designs. The art studio then puts the pieces in the kiln, and oila! A beautiful vase, holiday decoration, bowl, and so on. Ari and I are in love with this place.

Painting bisque pieces

Painting bisque pieces

In the near future, we are going to our favorite art store to buy canvases. I’m going to paint a landscape, and she will be painting a puppy with a kitten. We also mold clay into all sorts of interesting objects.

Lately, we’ve been playing with dreidels and all sorts of Chanukah and non-Chanukah games. We drive around our neighborhood, marvelling at all the houses sporting gorgeous Christmas lights.

Ari is fun. She brings out the child in me, makes me happy, and we enjoy each other’s company.

Despite all the fun activities — or, rather, because of them — guilt gnaws at me. My dad can no longer enjoy fun activities. While Ari and I enjoyed dinner out this week at a yummy restaurant, my dad was hardly eating his puree. My mom is understandably depressed, and worry has diminished her appetite. Before my dad broke his hip a few years ago, my parents used to ballroom dance two to three times a week. (In fact, before I was born, they won awards for their dancing talent.) In fact, my dad enjoyed dancing so much, that he has danced non-stop at friends’ weddings — often dominating the bride’s dance time. Poor groom.

Now, my parents no longer can go dancing.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying all kinds of music and dancing with my daughter. And, somehow, I feel rotten that our dancing is so enjoyable. My guilty mind is killing the joy, replacing it with anguish. But I continue to partake in fun activities, even though I know my parents are suffering. I do it for my daughter, I tell myself. But I’ve been watching Curb Your Enthusiasm on my own for selfish reasons: to laugh and relieve the stress. Truth is, I feel I have no right to be happy and laughing while my parents are suffering. I don’t deserve to have a good time.

In fact, I feel like a horrible person that in spite of what’s going on with my parents, I’ve found significant moments of pleasure.

I feel guilty I never moved to Florida to take care of my parents.

In fact, lately guilt rules so much of my world, that I usually feel horrible after Ari and I have fun. Still, if it weren’t for Ari, I’d sink into a horrible depression. The girl is my salvation.

But in the courtroom of my mind, I try, convict, and punish myself for being guilty as charged.

Do you feel that you experience/have experienced joy when you should be/should have been grieving? Feel free to share your experience(s) and perspective.


Coping Tools

Posted on: December 7th, 2017 by
8

As my readers know, 2017 has been a real crucible for me.

Let’s face it, I’m ready to put 2017 in the books and welcome 2018 wholeheartedly. As someone who has experienced steadfast grief, sadness, and emotional duress in 2017 — with the lowest points being my aunt’s death and the up-and-down-and-down health of my father — my heart has repeatedly been torn apart.

But through all the trials and tribulations, I’ve made a re-discovery. I have a powerful arsenal of tools I’ve historically used to calm me before doctors’ appointments and to soothe me during my darkest moments of cancer survivorship. I decided to share with you the tools I’ve been using and will be using to help me cope with the grief and difficulties life is dishing out.

This is not to say that my toolbox will or should erase grief and sadness. And I’m not saying that we should cast aside our grief and just be happy all the time. On the contrary, my toolbox helps me better cope, and coping is all we can do day-to-day. That’s the best we can do.

Here, then, are 10 of my tools that have worked for me that I have started/plan on using to alleviate the stress of life. These are not numbered in any order of importance.

1. I’ve started exercising more. Exercise does a body good, right? Right. I’ve been walking 20-minute miles for an hour most days a week, either outside or in the gym. And I’m so grateful I can do this activity. The endorphins last into the next day, and I even feel rejuvenated. And I feel good knowing I’m helping my bones.

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2. I’m eating healthy, but I won’t turn down chocolate!

3. I’ve allowed play and a sense of fun back into my life. My daughter makes sure of this. Just last night we spun dreidels, even though it’s not yet Chanukah. We did “extreme dreideling,” doing a variety of tricks and tossing the spinning dreidels up in the air — sometimes too high. Ari and I laughed so hard. My sides were hurting. And I realized that it had been too long since I had laughed.

4. I plan to start doing artwork again. It’s been way too long since I sketched or put a brush to canvas. Doing such an activity puts me in a great state of flow. This will help me cope with the hurly-burly of life. Luckily, Ari shares my passion for art, and we’ve discussed with each other our next oil painting projects.

One of my paintings

One of my paintings

5. My love for reading has been re-ignited. For years after chemotherapy, reading seemed so labor-intensive. Not anymore. I’ve been working on reading every day and am not hard on myself when I can only read a page some nights or have low-focus moments.

6. I make sure I get enough sleep most nights. I realize that sleep is one of the most important things we can do to take care of ourselves.

7. I listen to music — a lot.

8. I’m throwing myself back into writing, another source of flow. I’m trying my best to blog each week. I love writing and feel liberated each time I write.

9. Did I say, chocolate helps?

10. I have a lot to look forward to: from having snowball fights with my daughter to teaching at a school I’m happy at to cuddling my Hemi (our tuxedo cat).

What do you do to alleviate stress? I would love to hear about it.


Slipping Away

Posted on: November 30th, 2017 by
20

My dad is slipping away, ever so slowly.

His Parkinson’s disease is now impeding his swallowing. I’ve been frantically calling his speech therapist, who is working hard with him on improving his ability to swallow. As of today, he’s dehydrated and on IV fluids. As of today, he has pneumonia and has had blood drawn. According to my mom, he doesn’t talk much anymore.

My father is alive. But I’ve lost him anyway.

And grief is seared into my already-broken heart.

My mother is saddled with guilt that she put him in the nursing home for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients. When he first went into the nursing facility, he asked my mom, “We were always together; why are we apart now?”

This is the kind of stuff heartbreak is made of.

My brother and I explain to her that she had no choice: that she couldn’t care for him alone, even with aides. It was too difficult for her and too dangerous for him, for he couldn’t get the proper care in their home.

Selfishly, I reflect on all the loss endured this year: my cat, job, beloved aunt, and now my daddy, the bird whisperer, who could make a bird at the zoo say my name when I was a little girl. The person who always offered a plethora of food to whomever came into our home. A workhorse who steadfastly held two jobs just so our family could make ends meet.

My dad and his only granddaughter

My dad and his only granddaughter

I must admit, I’ve been sheltered for much of my life. I’ve been exceedingly fortunate to know all my elderly relatives because, well, they lasted until they were elderly. When they passed away in my pre-cancer life, I was extremely sad, but I wasn’t the way I am now. Depressed. Grief-smacked beyond measure.

How does one measure grief?

Since cancer, I haven’t been the same. But who is?

The truth is, I don’t grieve well. I grieve ugly. I’m a grief newbie, still, after years of losing Faun and Virginia to cancer.

A couple of nurses recently recommended hospice for my father. My mom is against it; she understandably has an aversion to that word. I personally think hospice is in order, but it’s my mom’s decision to make. I’ve got a call to the doctor to find out his take and to understand what is going on in general with my dad.

And, lately, I find myself thinking, which is worse — cancer or Parkinson’s and its resulting dementia? And I find myself thinking that Parkinson’s is worse.

But the truth is, they both suck.

And, lately, I find myself bargaining with God again, although I have no idea what I’m bargaining for. All I know is that I’ve been praying for courage and strength to endure all this loss.

I need courage and strength in abundance.

How do you measure grief?

What advice do you have to help me cope?


Thankful

Posted on: November 22nd, 2017 by
12

In the United States, we are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday where we get together for a meal with our loved ones and reflect about what we are grateful for. Personally, I don’t just save my gratitude thoughts just for Thanksgiving; I am grateful for many things year-round.

But 2017 found me challenged to find things to be grateful for. It has been a trying year for me. My beloved cat Cosette died a year ago almost to the day (technically 2016, but it was close to 2017, so it counts). Then in July I was laid off at my job, a position I had held for 20 years. And in August, as so many of you know, my beloved aunt died. It was the latter that sent me into a tailspin from which I have not yet recovered. I have taken to heart all your kind words, dear readers, and it helps. Still, I am still grieving.

But, despite all this, I am hugely thankful for so many things. Here are just 10 things in the plethora of things I’m thankful for. Though they are numbered, they are not listed in any order of importance.

1. I’m so thankful to have Ari in my life. I oftentimes reflect what an amazing girl she is: kind, loving, thoughtful, and deeply caring about others’ feelings. She is oriented toward math and science, and to this day, says she plans to be a medical researcher, finding ways to cure diseases, such as cancer. She’s only 9 years old, so she may eventually change her mind, and that is fine with me. But her kind, authentic intent is there, and I love her for all that she is. She is very much her own person, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2. I’m thankful that my aunt was an important part of my life for so long. I was lucky to have her as a parent, and it was a privilege to know her so well. She has brought joy and love to my life and taught me the meaning of being non-judgmental and loving unconditionally.

3. I landed a new job! I am currently teaching part-time at a local community college. Although I still miss working with my colleagues-turned-friends at my former job, this current position is truly a step-up from where I used to be. I simply Love. This. College.

4. Speaking of friends, I made a new one — ironically thanks to being laid off. She and I always had a great rapport and talked whenever we were lucky enough to work on the same campus. After I was laid off, she was understandably quite upset and took the news very hard. So she reached out to me. And we’ve met a couple of times for breakfast. Turns out, we have a lot in common and have become good friends in a short amount of time. At our last get-together, which was less than a week ago, she and I discussed grief. She gave me the most meaningful advice, card and plaque; they were so heartfelt, I cried. And I realized that had I not been laid off, we might not have become such close friends.

The plaque my friend just gave me.

The plaque my friend just gave me.

5. I am so happy to have so many friends. They have lifted me up during the bad times, and they continue to do so. And they are supportive during the good times. I couldn’t ask for better friends.

6. I am lucky to be NED (No Evidence of Disease). I don’t know if I’ll always be NED, but for now, I will take it.

7. I am grateful for starting to blog again after a long hiatus. Truth was, I was being eaten up by grief, but blogging is therapeutic, and, in difficult times, I should turn to writing, not turn away from it.

8. I am thankful that our house is our home. It is filled with laughter and joy and happiness. We have fun together and love each other, and I couldn’t be luckier.

9. I’m grateful for our cat Hemi, who is a sweet member of this household and gives unconditional love — all his waking hours. It’s why we gave him his middle name, Romeo. When I first got the cat, his name was Hemi. He purrs like a Hemi engine, so I kept his first name.

10. I’m thankful for the blogosphere, #BCSM, and you, my dear readers, for being so supportive of me and for just being you. I appreciate your readership and am looking forward to another year of blogging.

What are you grateful for? Please feel free to share.


Pictures

Posted on: August 31st, 2017 by
4

About two weeks before Aunt Helene suddenly died, she requested something of me (unbeknownst to all of us, it was her final request of me). “Hon, I’m still waiting for you to send me those pictures….” Then we both laughed because she knew I’m not the fastest at such requests. In fact, like so many people, I get busy with life, but, nevertheless, I have a reputation in my family for not doing things on a timely basis. For example, it took me longer than usual to create a landscape painting for my brother and sister-in-law. (In my defense, it was a large painting!)

But Aunt Helene put gentle pressure on me with this request. She had been in the hospital for months now, and she desperately wanted the most recent photos of Ari, her great niece. Let me say, she was always hungry for pictures, so I can honestly say her most recent request was nothing new and certainly not a premonition.

My aunt was obsessed with photos of her great nephews and great niece. And I mean obsessed. She studied each picture carefully and oohed and ahhed over it. She noticed things in each picture that I didn’t even notice. “Hey, doll, in the picture where Ari is wearing those white shorts, she seems to have a thoughtful expression. What was that about?,” Helene would ask. “I don’t know,” I’d say, clueless. Truth is, Helene often saw too much into things, and so I think she projected her own thoughts and feelings onto Ari’s various expressions.

Aunt Helene always showed and sent the pictures to her friends, and in the blink of an eye she would put newly received photos in frames.

The day before her funeral, my brother and I went into Helene’s apartment to do some light cleaning. She treasured my artwork, so there were some paintings. But we marveled the most at how many pictures were in her small apartment. Photos of her loved ones were everywhere. So many photos in every room of the house. My brother and I decided which ones we wanted and divided them up a bit. But we found other treasures: old pictures of my aunt with her friends. So that evening we put them in a photo album in seemingly chronological order for her friends — coming from a distance for the funeral — to look at and take the photos they wanted. After the funeral, at lunch at a restaurant, my aunt’s friends enjoyed looking at all the pictures and taking the ones they most treasured.

While my brother and I were cleaning through Helene’s apartment, I thought back to Helene’s final request of me: for photos. For some reason, I sent them right away via snail mail to her hospital address. Usually, she called me when she received them and would wax poetic about them, but she never brought them up, and I didn’t have the courage to ask her if she had received them yet, lest she be disappointed she didn’t yet have them. So we talked about other things, but did not mention the photos.

Then she died. And I wondered with my grief-stricken heart whether the photos had arrived before she died. Did she see the most recent pictures of Ari? I knew the pictures would have comforted her, and I believed I would never find out.

Then at the cemetery, the rabbi gave my brother all of Helene’s possessions that were in the hospital, and the photos I had recently sent were there. My aunt had already put one of them in a frame. The mailing envelope was opened and the pictures were loose. During one of the saddest moments in my life, I felt a spark of joy.

She had seen them.

Despite her suffering from COPD and back pain, she had the happiness of seeing pictures of Ari one more time. The pictures shown in this post were among the batch of 16 photos Aunt Helene received.

Ari at her most recent dance recital

Ari at her most recent dance recital

The girl takes selfies now!

Unbeknownst to my aunt’s friends, I plan to keep Helene’s memory alive by paying it forward to her friends, who’ve known her since elementary school. I will regularly be sending them photos of Ari, the way Aunt Helene did. It’s a small offer of comfort to them, as they grieve for this beautiful person lost.

What is/are your favorite picture(s)? Feel free to write about it/them.


Aunt Helene

Posted on: August 25th, 2017 by
16

Helene's 50th

Many in the online community got the news a week ago, August 18. My precious Aunt Helene died earlier that day. While her health was diminishing slowly, her sudden death came as a huge surprise to us. I am having such a difficult time coping, and I have never felt such searing, raw emotional pain.

I carry this unbearable grief with me because she was more than my aunt to my brother and me: she was our parent, too. I do not say this flippantly. I loved her as a daughter loves a mother, and I told her so, and she told me she loved me as a daughter.

My Aunt Helene had no biological children. She had my brother and me. And we had her. Of all the people in life who could’ve been our third parent, we were so fortunate to have her in our lives. She was one of the most amazing people ever to grace this Earth. It’s so difficult to capture the essence that is my aunt — I won’t say that was my aunt — because she forever exists in my forever-broken heart.

Helene and me years ago.

Helene and me years ago.

So I figured I’d take a break from crying and the weariness that accompanies deep grief to list many random things — a mere microcosm of the infinite things — that made my aunt so wonderful, beautiful, special, and endearing to me. She was funny, sweet, kind, insightful, intelligent, and loving. She was a petite, thin woman. Despite her diminutive size, she had the greatest heart I’ve ever known, and she loved unconditionally.

The following are just some of the experiences I remember, mostly between her and me. They are not listed in any order of importance.

1. She was the first one who ever polished my nails and taught me how much fun that could be. Girly activities were the norm as I was growing up.
2. She taught me the importance of self-esteem and self-respect; she had such a huge influence over me that I can easily say she made me the person I am today.
3. She was a great listener. She always inquired and listened as to how my brother’s and my lives were going. She knew everything about us and took great joy in us.
4. When I was a child, she and I had frequent sleepovers at my grandma’s (my aunt’s mother’s) house and we stayed in the same pull-out couch-bed, watching TV, laughing, and having fun.
5. In her younger days, Helene was a world traveler; she always got us souvenirs. She constantly thought of us. We were the light of her life.
6. Born, raised, and living in Manhattan, NY, Helene was trendy. She LOVED the city, and nothing surprised her. She was accepting of all people. And she was never a snob about living in a trendy part of town, (even if it was a rent-controlled public housing apartment). She wore cute clothes, and I always admired her flair for fashion.
7. We loved our walks to Greenwich Village, just to experience this part of the city over and over again.
8. When I was married and had no money, she bought me lots of cute work outfits and casual clothes. She was by no means rich, but she made sure what money she did have was spent on me and that I was well-dressed. She rarely spent money on herself, but when it came to me, money was no object.
9. She called everyone “hon” and “doll,” and I treasured when she addressed me in this way.
10. Everyone loved her, except my ex-husband. Helene told him off privately, as she saw he was neglecting me. She told him, “Beth doesn’t look good, and I don’t like it. You’d better get a job and start working.” Bravo, Aunt Helene.
11. She loved spicy food. She’d add Tabasco sauce to already-spicy dishes, and she’d love it, even when her face turned quite red.
12. She knew a woman from work who was about to become homeless. My aunt took her and her teenage daughter into her apartment so they would have a home until they got back on their feet.
13. Helene allowed her friend’s adult daughter to live with her for years so she could get back on her feet.
14. She attended my very first book launch (I had an essay published in an anthology in 2007), and she was so proud of me.
15. To get physically ready for the said book launch, she and I put on makeup and dressed to the nines at her apartment with an Alicia Keys CD playing in the background. I will never forget that wonderful evening and how important she made me feel.
16. I wanted to buy an autograph pen for that book launch, so she took me to a cool pen place in her neighborhood. She proudly told the salesman, “This is my niece, the author, and we are looking for a pen so she could do a book signing,” and in the next breath, to indicate it should be reasonably priced, she continued, “But she’s not that kind of author, so we don’t want to go too expensive, hon.” I still have that pen, still sign books with it, and I treasure it.

pen

17. She had a unique, fun, and colorful way of speaking, saying “fabu” for fabulous and “No can do, hon” if she felt she couldn’t do something.
18. She loved taking pictures — of everything. When I gave my brother a special baseball, a post on which I will share at another time, my aunt took a zillion shots of the baseball, me presenting the baseball to my brother, and then my brother looking at it. Kind of goofy, but she was always fun.
19. She doted on her grand nephews and niece and was loved by them in return. She got to watch 19-year-old Ben grow up into a wonderful adult. When Ben was a baby, she marveled at his growing vocabulary, obsessively listing each new word he said. When he was a kid, each time he would visit (which was often), she would hide a small present for him in the same drawer, one that was part of a clock. She loved four-year-old Daniel and waxed poetic about him. She loved 9-year-old Ari and encouraged her in ballet.
20. Helene was horribly afraid of cats. She’d say, “When I look at a cat, hon, I see a lion.” And she surely did. I had a cat when I was a kid, and Helene would come over and immediately cling to the walls when my cat appeared.
21. Despite her feelings toward cats, she empathized wholly and completely and sincerely when my cat Cosette died.
22. I went through chemotherapy and radiation physically alone, but I now realize I was never alone. Helene called me constantly to see how I was and to give me advice. She survived breast cancer, so she knew how to help me. Even if she never had had breast cancer, she would’ve known how to help me.
23. Whatever was important to me and my brother and our children was important to her.
24. She helped me get through my divorce by keeping me busy and making me feel special and loved. She was astonished at how I seemed to blossom so quickly from being released from a horrific marriage. “Well, doll,” she said to me repeatedly and proudly, “since you got divorced, you did a 360-degree turn from where you were.”
25. When I was getting diagnosed with breast cancer and called her up suffocatingly crying, telling her I was convinced I would die, she always managed to calm me down by telling me I would be OK. She convinced me to reach out to the American Cancer Society and Gilda’s Club Chicago. While my parents rejected me and refused to talk about cancer, Helene held onto me emotionally and listened to my fears.
26. She supported my adopting a child and gave rave reviews about me to a social worker at my adoption agency, attesting to my fitness to be a mother. Apparently, the social worker was impressed with all her praise about me.
27. When I was dealing with the effects of chemotherapy, Helene gave me one of the best, most thoughtful gifts: a professional massage. After eating Chinese food together for lunch before the scheduled massage, I got really sick and was in pain, so I no longer wanted the massage. Helene coaxed me to go through with it anyway, even for five minutes rather than the hour she paid for. When the masseuse worked on me, I felt the pain leave my body. Post-massage, when I entered the waiting room where my aunt was, she said, “You were so pale before, doll, but now you have color!”
28. She loved all her friends. And she loved all my friends, and she knew all about them through me. She even got to meet a few. And they loved her too.
29. When I had a scare five years post mastectomy and an MRI indicated a mass in the same breast that had had cancer once before, my aunt flew in to stay with me a few days in Chicago — putting her fear of cats aside to be at my side. Her love for me transcended her fear of cats.
30. She cried to a good friend when I was wheeled into the room where the lumpectomy/biopsy procedure would take place on the mass found in my MRI. Though she stayed happy in front of me, she told my friend, “This fuckin cancer!” and sobbed. A few days later, my aunt literally jumped for joy when the doctor told me the mass was benign.
31. She loved jewelry soooo much! Her favorite TV channel? Anything featuring jewelry. Her reason was simple: “Jewelry makes me happy. There’s no war, bloodshed, or sadness with a jewelry channel.”
32. I got my ears pierced as an adult. My pro-jewelry aunt was trying to convince me to get it done for as long as I can remember. When I finally decided to get my ears pierced, she accompanied me. After the piercing, she gave me a kiss and a lollypop usually given to kids. We giggled.
33. When my cat threw up a furball while I was recovering from my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene — the hater of all things feline — cleaned it up, as I couldn’t yet bend. She mumbled under her breath “That sonofabitch!” but I smiled, thinking the whole scene funny.
34. When a good friend visited me as I laid in bed recovering, I related to her how Helene cleaned up Cosette’s furball, and then I started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t stop. Although I was laughing at an unpleasant predicament involving my aunt, Helene later told me she felt happy hearing me laugh for the first time in a long time.
35. When I had my bilateral mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, Helene and my brother flew out to be with me. My brother and aunt were there during my hospital stay, and they took great pains to paint and to set up my future baby’s room. Helene stayed for five weeks, living with me and my cat! She got used to Cosette, but she always felt trepidation around her. And she had to endure that cold Chicago winter, and the snowstorm that took place the night before my surgery. The winds were brutal, causing my aunt to say, “What is this place, doll?” She was much more acclimated to the more moderate-but-still-cold climes of Manhattan.

When I was finally home from the hospital, Helene changed my dressings regularly, helped me measure fluid from and empty those horrible Jackson-Pratt drains, accompanied me to my doctors’ appointments, bathed me, lotioned me up, and put me to bed. After she bathed me one night, I cried, saying to her, “I can’t even take care of myself. How am I going to take care of a baby?” And she answered quickly and optimistically, “By the time you get your baby, you will be in much better shape.” And she was right.

To this day, we never told my parents about this intense surgery or Helene staying to take care of me. They historically have not been supportive with my health issues, and they would not have helped me through this crisis. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Besides, Helene was my confidante, the keeper of all my secrets.

So this list gives you a taste of what Helene was like. I cannot believe she’s gone. And though I have pictures, I’m afraid I’ll one day forget what she looked like. I will miss her infectious laugh and the various expressions on her face. I will miss her kind green eyes and so wish to hear her voice, particularly when she would greet me on the phone and say, “Hi Beth!” with all of her enthusiasm, even when she was not feeling her best. I will miss picking up the phone or telling her in person the latest things going on in my life and all about Ari.

The other day I stumbled upon several voicemails from Helene.

Amazingly, I had saved them.

I miss her so much, and the grief is never-ending. My heart is torn apart. I know I am lucky to have had her in my life for so long, but I selfishly and greedily want her around for many more years.

Helene in dress

The pain and loss I feel is unbearable and immeasurable.

Back to crying.

How have you dealt with grief?

Feel free to share how you lost a special someone in your life.

What do you recommend to help me better cope with the loss of my beloved aunt?