Moments of Engagement

When I find out a couple is splitting up I panic. Being married is like being in a club. Marriage can be awesome, but it is also constant work and sometimes it really sucks. When someone else’s marriage ends, even if that person is a stranger or a celebrity it is frightening. If that person can’t make it, how will Z and I? Marriage is the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. But there is strength in numbers. Because the knowledge that it could suddenly go south looms large.

When someone loses their battle with mental illness it feels the same way. When a talented, beloved, financially secure, success loses his battle with mental illness it is debilitating. A week and a half later and he is still in my thoughts for much of the day.The pain that his wife and children and close friends are in is so overwhelming it nauseates me. I mourn him. He was a  stranger, but I also welcomed into my home regularly through the television. He never knew me. I mistakenly thought I knew him.

I didn’t know him, but I know his disease intimately. I understand the hopelessness that led to his decision. The fog so dense it physically weighs you down, the agony of moving through another day, the feeling of utter uselessness, knowing with clarity that your loved ones would be infinitely better off without you as a weight around their neck.

The chance for another episode of severe depression is greater for me compared to the general population because of my history. I look at my sons, my reasons for working so hard to be well, and I know if I became depressed again there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do to prevent it. Manage it, yes. I am lucky enough to have a deep support system. But I cannot control my mental illness. I cannot will it away with sheer force or moxie or by pulling myself up by those bootstraps. More than 20 years with an anxiety disorder has taught me that much.

I am not depressed right now, but this news has settled over me like a heavy blanket, making it harder to take a deep breath, or engage in the word that feels fuzzy and just out of my reach. My constant companion, my anxiety has been more present. I worry. I worry about him, about where he is now, about if our souls go on, about what, if anything, comes after life. I worry about me, about my friends who suffer from mental illness, about my family who puts up with so much to help guide me through this life, about my still innocent sons who don’t understand mental illness, who shouldn’t have to understand it for a long time, but who will become very familiar with because of me. I feel guilt for the burden I am.

There have been moments of engagement over the last week and a half. I am holding on tightly to them. They aren’t always what I expect will snap me out of the darkness I feel.

Saturday morning I was dressing when C started screaming and crying downstairs. I knew he was probably ok, but the small part of me that imagined blood and destruction won out. I pelted down the stairs naked from the waist down and as I ran past the front door with the windows along its side I felt pretty damn sure no one would be ringing the bell at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. C was fine. Pissed at his brother, but fine. As I walked away from the boys the doorbell rang. The utter absurdity of the situation shook me out of my stupor.

The adrenaline rush of being stung by a bee just as I was finishing a particularly good run strangely made me feel joy.

The panic surrounding C when he pooped in his underwear while we were at friends’ for a cook out frustrated the hell out of me, but engaged me fully.

Reading the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book to T and watching his delight as he used his imagination to see what I was reading filled me with pure happiness.

My sweet, wonderful, hard working, speech delayed C looked up at me this morning as he said, “You go run?” His talking is enough to help me shake off the cloud of unease, but his recognition that running is part of who I am (after a life on non-exercise) made me proud.

So I hold on to those moments. I will mourn an extraordinary life lost as long as I need to. My lack of faith in religion will not stop me from hypocritically praying that the depression will never reoccur in my life. I get up every morning for my boys. I dress them and feed them and sometime even manage to take them to the zoo. They need me. And they motivate me to fight against the anxiety and the threat of depression. By needing me they have given me a priceless gift. The reason to live my life instead of hiding from it.

leonard men beach 2012

These three guys. I want to be my best for each one of them.

ice cream mess

A moment of delight from several weeks ago. He even managed to get ice cream in his eye. What a nut.

t jumps off diving board

One of the best moments of our vacation. It was so hard for my guy, who is anxious himself, to screw up the courage to jump.

Decay

T asked what the word god meant the other day. Talk about feeling unprepared.

“Some people believe that there is a higher being who looks over humans. The higher being is god.” Ugh, a four year old can’t comprehend that. But it was all I had. The conversation meandered until it somehow reached death.

Eventually I asked, “What do you think happens after you die?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “I will decay.”

In the wise words of the Dead Milkmen, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!

When we were at my folk’s this summer T and my Dad watched some show on PBS Kids. That night T woke with nightmares about Decay. I assumed Decay was a bad guy on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something. Nope. The show they watched was about science. There was a jack-o-lantern in a classroom and after a period of time they showed it all collapsed and decaying. Unbeknownst to my father T was basically scarred for life by the rotting pumpkin. Little man talks about decay all the time now. The nightmares have also continued.

Cut to bedtime last night. Z was on campus at a lecture given by Tony Kushner (according to Z it was awesome) so I put both boys down. At first everything was normal with T. I got him ice water. We read a book. He turned off the light. I tucked him in and snuggled beside him. I started to sing I’ll Fly Away.

“Some bright morning when this life is over I will fly away” Didn’t get much further than that when T burst into tears. “I don’t want to die!” he choked out. “Stop singing that song!”

We’ve been singing that to him since he was born, it is one of his favorites. I didn’t realize he’d been paying attention to the words. Hastily I started singing Wagon Wheel instead. But the tears continued. This wasn’t T trying to get out of going to bed. He was terrified. “Mama, cuddle me really tightly! I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be alone. I’ll miss Daddy. Daddy is my best friend. Where is Daddy? I need Daddy?”

“Oh baby, Daddy is at work. He’ll be home later.”

“Call him. Call him and tell him to come home. I need him.”

“Baby, when he gets home he will come in and hug you. I promise you. Right now I am with you. What is going on? Why do you think you are going to die?”

“I am going to die! And I don’t want to! I don’t want to be alone! I want to be with Daddy and Mommy and Charlie! I don’t want to die!”

“Baby, baby, baby. You are not going to be alone. You are not. Do you know what I believe? I believe there is something inside us that makes us who we are. Our soul. And our soul never dies. If it loves other people it will always be with those other people. You and Daddy and Mommy and Charlie will always always be together. We love each other that much. And I don’t think you are going to die anytime soon. I think you will live to be a very old man.”

“Mama, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to decay!”

“People believe so many different things about what happens when you die. Some people believe that you are reincarnated. That means that you are born again after you die. Some people believe in heaven, which is a place you go forever with the people you love. Some people believe that nothing happens. You get to decide what you believe.”

“I want to be born after I die.”

He cried for a long time. I held him tight and tried to hide my own tears from him, tried to make him feel safe. I asked him why he was so worried about death, but he couldn’t explain it. Finally, finally he settled.

I, on the other hand, was badly shaken. What. The. Fuck? I felt sick to my stomach. His distress was so palpable, so overwhelming. How do you help a kid who is scared to die? Did I tell him the right things? Did I make it worse? I don’t want to lie to him. I can’t bring myself to tell him he won’t die. Death is the only thing I am sure of when it comes to his life. That and he will be loved by his family.

These are the moments that scare me the most when it comes to parenting. More than when he is sick or hurt. What is the right way to help your child navigate complex emotional problems faced by every member of humanity? As an agnostic how do I explain god? As someone just as frightened of death as he is how do I ease the burden that we all carry- that every one of us will die? How do I talk about an afterlife when my beliefs are shaky at best?

This child I love so fiercely, my boy who is already an overthinker, who is filled with fear, who is anxious, who is terrified of nighttime, how do I help him? It seems like it should be easy, he and I are so alike. So far I can feel his pain perfectly. His fear slips into my heart where it grabs the hand of my own terror. I didn’t think I had room for more anxiety inside me, but he has proven me wrong. I will always be able to absorb his. But what good does that do? I want to help him, not just understand him.

When Z came home I explained what happened. Z had tears in his eyes. T hadn’t brought up death to him, the whole thing seemed out of left field. Z did go up to T’s room and hug his sweaty little sleeping body. T slept through the night and well past his usual wake up time. Z and I both went in to wake him. C joined us and there was a family pileup in T’s single bed.

He didn’t bring up death this morning. At school I asked his teacher and he hasn’t been talking about it there. Who knows? Maybe he’ll only be scared at night time. That’s how it was for me when I was his age. Maybe it will pass for a while. Maybe long enough for me to take a philosophy class on death and dying so I’ll be better equipped to help him. I’m kidding. Kind of.

serious face

Photos by Ellie Leonardsmith

Let’s end this one on a happy note. Z’s sister, our sister-in-law, and their daughter visited this weekend. Ellie is an amazing photographer and she took some family shots. If you are reading this in an RSS feed you might actually want to pop over to the blog itself if you are interested in seeing the new header picture. This was our “serious face” one. I really almost chose it for the header….

leonardsmiths

The lovely Aunt Dr. Kelsey and Aunt Ellie along with Graylyn.

cousins

Cousins! So many blue eyes!

happy k z

This man. He makes me so happy.

There will be more photos from the shoot on the next several posts. Ellie is amazing. If you are in the Twin Cities area and need a photographer check her out.

Happy Happy Birthday

My baby turned two today.

I wasn’t sure I wanted kids. I had no confidence in my ability to parent. Much of my 20s were lost to mental illness and a marriage that was imploding. Then things turned around. Z and I managed to find our way back to each other. He thrived at grad school I thrived working for Whole Foods. Our 30s were suddenly an excellent time. It felt new and particularly precarious. I didn’t want a kid to fuck up the balance we’d achieved. And then I accidentally got pregnant.

I was wrong. I was wrong when I thought my life would be over after having T. I was stupid and immature and selfish and wrong. T was hard work, but he brought so much love into our home. He managed to make Z and me love each other more and the love we felt for him-I am not trying to be a smug, superior parent here. I am not. But clichés exist for a reason you simply cannot comprehend the love you have for your child until you experience it. I’m not saying it is better than any other kind of love. I’m not saying I didn’t know what love was before T (I hate when parents say that-What? Folks without kids don’t know how to love? That is bullshit. Particularly ignorant and insulting bullshit). I’m not saying I love him and C more than anyone on earth. Honestly, I love Z just as much. Becoming a parent increased my capacity to love. I was hungry for another one. And it worked. When we had C my capacity increased yet again! These kids, they are like a feel good drug. I finally understand families that have a million kids.

I went from not wanting kids, to just wanting the one, to really wanting a second, to thinking we could handle a third. We cannot, it turns out, handle a third. Not financially, not lifestyle-wise, and frankly my uterus has been pretty damn undependable postpartum. There were complications with both boys and with the miscarriage.

Now C is two. We are really and truly done with the baby years. I will be weaning him this fall. My doc wants me to try some different meds and I can’t be nursing while taking them. It is the right thing for my mental health, which means it is the right thing for our family. I wanted to nurse him for two years and as of today I’ve met that goal.

But when I wean him I am done. Forever. I say goodbye to the phase of my life when I’m the mom of babies. The anxiety makes any kind of life change difficult. Hell, the anxiety makes it difficult when the body lotion I’ve used for years is discontinued. I’m scared to move on.

C and my nursing relationship has been idyllic. Do you hear that Jeff? IDYLLIC! His latch was great from the beginning and he’s never been a biter. I think we both feel emotionally recharged from the small breaks we have a couple times a day when we get to cuddle and just be together. He has always been much more physically affectionate than his big brother. When Z or I yell at him and he starts to cry his first impulse is to reach out to us so we can comfort him. Even though we are the ones yelling!

Right after T was born we got close to a family with a four year old son. That fall I remember looking at the boy and being astounded by how big and grown up he was. I simply couldn’t imagine T ever getting that old. And here T is, just a second later I swear. He is 4 and big and grown up. Shit, he’ll be going to kindergarten in a year.

A couple of weeks ago Z and I were out on a date for dinner. There was a family sitting to my left who had a boy who was about 7. I stared at him, couldn’t help it. I watched him interact with his family and I could not imagine my boys at his age. My eyes filled with tears when I realized I am going to blink and T will be that kid.

On the same night I told Z I’d donated some money we really didn’t have to a fundraiser for a boy in between the ages of our boys who was starting chemo. He is the kid of a friend of friends. I’d heard his father’s name thrown around by a group we were tight with for years. If he hadn’t moved away from Brooklyn when he did we would have known him. He was just like us. And his kid was sick.

A few days later we found out a classmate of a kid in our extended family was terminally ill. Nothing could be done for him. We were with family when we found out and someone commented, “At least all our kids are healthy.” “Yeah,” I said. “But the families of kids who get sick think their kid is healthy, too. Right up until they find out he isn’t.”

C turned 2 today and I don’t want this to turn into a post about sick kids. As of this moment we do have two healthy kids who are growing. Right now chances are good I’m going lose track of time for a moment and discover they are in high school. Them getting older? As much as it hurts it is the only outcome I desire.

I am heartbroken to leave this stage of their lives and my life behind. But you know what? In a couple of years they won’t be getting up at 5:58am every goddamn morning. And that, oh boy, that is a beautiful thing.

c and mommy celebrate

T and Z are traveling this weekend. We celebrated C’s day on Thursday. But C and I still went out and got a slice of cake today.

messy cake c

He really got into it.

2 years old

First picture taken after he officially turned two.

biter in trouble

Oh, the sulking! He tried to bite me and he was super pissed I didn’t let him.

To C, you crazy kid you, we cannot imagine our lives without you. You are fearless and brave and loving. You are frustrated and frustrating and an inconsistent sharer during the best of times. We love you, all of you. We cannot imagine life without you. Thank you for being the chronological caboose in our family train.

The Talk

Today I wanted to write about anxiety and mental illness and a party and agoraphobia. More accurately that is what I planned to write about yesterday when Z and I figured out our schedule for Sunday to include some writing time for me.

Right before we went to bed we saw the jury had come back and delivered a not guilty verdict. Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about anxiety and mental illness and a party and agoraphobia. But today I can’t.

Today the boys played in the backyard while Z worked on a climbing structure he is building for them. They ran around, they used toy hammers and chisels and mallets and screwdrivers. They hit each other, pulled hair, kicked. Time outs happened. I watched them play, yelled at them when they started in on each other, gave out kisses when T fell onto a stool. My mind was half with them and half thinking about Travon Martin and his parents.

My boys. My beautiful boys with their blond hair and their blue eyes. My boys who are too young to understand that terrible things happen in this world. We are trying to figure out how to explain it to T. He is still obsessed with guns and weapons. He isn’t allowed to play guns at home, he isn’t allowed to have toy guns. It’s all abstract to him at this point. You shoot at the bad guys. Case closed.

The other day I was making dinner while T sat on the sofa and watched Disney Jr. The movie Pocahontas happened to be on. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out. I walked into the room and looked at the screen. A young man was pointing a gun at John Smith and Pocahontas’s brother as they fought with a knife. Suddenly I remembered that the brother was going to get shot. T was riveted. I had the time to turn the TV off, but I didn’t. I stood there and watched it with him. When Pocahontas turned to the kid who shot and cried, “You killed him!” I faced T. “Look at that. Look. That gun killed that man. That is why Daddy and I hate guns. They kill people. The kill good people. They kill bad people. They kill by mistake. They kill on purpose. They are horrible and unsafe and we do not think it is cool or funny when you pretend to have them. Police have guns to protect us, but guns are dangerous. They can kill.”

A little heavy for an almost 4 year old, yes. But T has been fascinated by death for months, it has been a frequent topic of conversation.

So we are trying to let him know what we feel about guns. It is going to be a long road. Obviously he didn’t get what I was trying to explain, but over time he will. And many people will disagree with our approach. That’s fine. We are all allowed to have different views. We are going to teach our kids that in our family we do not believe in owning guns. We don’t think they make us safer. And frankly, we don’t think other people should have guns either.

We are going to have to have a lot of difficult conversations as the boys get older. But we don’t have to have The Talk. Our boys will never be told that they can’t run in public for fear of raising suspicion of the police. Or that they can’t wear a hoodie without being targeted as a criminal. Our boys will think of the police as people who will help them, not as ones who will accuse them of crimes they didn’t commit.

Our boys are different than black boys or brown boys. They are going to get different opportunities. They are going to be treated better-I was going to type for their whole lives, but you know what? I hope and pray (fake pray? agnostic pray?) that it won’t continue for their whole lives. I hope equality happens in their lifetimes.

Today I’m numb and sickened and horrified by the world we live in. I will never understand what it is like for Travon Martin’s parents. And I’m not even grateful for the privilege that accompanies the color of my boy’s skin. It is dirty privilege. It is wrong.

These words don’t come from some ivory tower of race relation perfection. I’ve done and felt plenty that I’m ashamed of in my 36 years. I need to do better. Z needs to do better. You need to do better. We all do.

family cl

I wish we lived in a country where all families were treated with the respect that our family receives.

Neighbor

When we decided to move to Syracuse Z wanted to buy a farmhouse with outbuildings on a whole bunch of acres in the middle of nowhere. I told him he could have all that jazz with his second wife, but if we were moving to the snowiest city in America and I was going to be alone in the house with a baby all day then that house needed to be in walking distance of…something.

Our search centered around the University Neighborhood and the house we purchased is a few blocks from a little business district with coffee shops, restaurants, a live music venue, a bike shop, several thrift stores, and a library that caters to kids. On top of all that there are two parks and a Natural Food Co-op within a 10-15 minute walk.

You can’t sugar coat it, the weather sucks here in the winter-that-seemingly-knows-no-end. But here’s the thing, when spring finally arrives it is amazing. Summer is magical. Fall is arrestingly beautiful. There really is a lot to like.

When it finally warms up a bit the sidewalks fill with folks out for a walk. In a lovely and organic way you sort of get to know your neighbors around here. You might not know their names or their stories, but you know them by sight. It’s fun to see people you haven’t seen since last fall.

Late Monday and Tuesday afternoon the boys and I took a walk to one of the coffee shops. Monday’s walk was less than ideal. I carried T most of the way as he wept because he didn’t want to go. But I wanted an iced coffee, damn it. And he was a peach on the way home. Which was good because although C was a delight for the first half of the walk, he decided to throw an extravagant tantrum on the return. Tuesday’s walk was just plan awesome. Both boys were into it. I was into it. Life felt good.

As we ambled past the big yellow house a block and a half from our own I idly wondered when we would see the couple who lived there next. We’ve been stop-and-say-a-few-words friendly with them since we moved in. Or Z has and I try to be. My shyness and lack of social grace will be no surprise to anyone who knows me. Our home has a front porch that is only accessible from inside the house which affords a level of privacy somehow. People don’t tend to notice us sitting there when they walk by, the voyeur in me loves it. In the summer we like to sit out there with a drink after the boys go down. The couple from the yellow house would breeze by, him running and her riding slowly by his side on her bike. We got a kick out of their routine. And she was always incredibly friendly and sweet to the boys when she saw us out and about.

Today I went to get my teeth cleaned. The dental hygienist looked at my chart and said, “Oh, you live on Allen Street. A woman who goes to my church lives on that street. She just passed away in March.” I told her I was sorry, but didn’t think much of it at first. The hygienist was old enough to be my mother. I assumed her friend was as well, which is certainly sad, but not unusual. It became clear that she really wanted to talk about the passing of her friend, she started to explain exactly which house the couple lived in and my heart sank. I asked how old the woman who passed was. “Thirty-three.” she said.

Her name was Rachel. I felt numb as I realized we’d never see her on our neighborhood walks again. And frankly I feel outraged. For her husband, her family, and mostly for her. For the loss of the life she was leading. For how precarious and unfair and painful and wasteful this life can be.

I don’t have a tidy summation for this story. The thought of spouting platitudes frankly nauseates me right now. I’m just sorry and incredibly sad.

neighborhood flowers

Bulbs planted throughout a lawn. This is truly a beautiful neighborhood. I wish Rachel was still able to enjoy it.

Best Day

Wednesday was the best day I’ve had in months. I went to a funeral.

When you are celebrating the life of a good man who lived a long life there is room for tremendous joy.

At the church there was a line stretching down the length of the nave, through the door, and down the steps of the main entrance. My Great Aunt sat in front of the first pew as people waited to pay their respects, her sons and daughters-in-law lined up beside her. That line of people didn’t grow shorter as it neared noon when the service was to begin. Over the course of almost two hours hundreds of people waited to speak to the family. The line of people represented how loved Uncle Jim and his family are in their community. Finally the funeral director asked people to take seats, assuring them they could greet the family following the program.

Explaining the tangled web of extended family who traveled from near and far would take all day. Uncle Jim was an only child who had lost his father before he turned 30 and his mother in his early 40s, but he married into one hell of a clan. His wife was one nine, eight who lived into adulthood, seven who had kids, who then had kids, who have started having kids. Four generations of folks, many who hadn’t seen each other in decades laughing and crying and itching for a drink.

Uncle Jim missed one hell of a party. The mass, the eulogies by his two sons who were lawyers just like him-the first so hilarious we all felt a bit sorry for Matt because there was no way he could follow the performance his brother gave. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Jimmy shared the fun, but Matt shared the soul, the quieter part of his dad, the family man that so many people relied upon. Paul sang with his daughter and again with his band. We moved to a church down the road for a lunch and the music continued, two granddaughters sang, the grandnephew who is in the Navel Academy Band played bagpipes. Phil wrote a poem for his father, Bill read a letter from his son who was unable to attend because he was in the middle of a mission on a navel ship. But some of Uncle Jim’s ashes will be sent to that ship for a Navy Funeral. And later the extended family made our way to our Aunt and Uncle’s home where we talked and ate and drank and laughed and remembered and cried a little for hours.

All of my first cousins were there, save one who had a last minute emergency at home, and she was missed. We caught up with each other and talked about how we don’t see one another enough and listened to stories about our kids. And I felt so lucky. Listen, my huge and messy family isn’t perfect. Uncle Jim wasn’t perfect. His kid’s aren’t perfect. I think I’ve laid out a rock solid case in this blog that I’m not perfect. I’m not trying to whitewash this crazy and sprawling group of people. But I do feel lucky. I love being part of this family.

Uncle Jim wasn’t perfect, but he was an incredible man who touched many lives. The love for him on Wednesday was so real. He lived to help other people. He welcomed anyone into his home. He was honorable and kind and he loved fiercely. The legacy he left behind-hundreds of people waiting to tell his wife what he meant to them, five sons who payed tribute to him with grace and love, family that traveled from all over the country to be there to say goodbye. You could see what a rich life he had and how many people he touched.

My nuclear family were together, my parents and sister and I. Before we drove down I pointed out to my parents this might be the last time the four of us are together, just us. My sister and I have families now. It makes sense that our group of four has grown, and it has grown for the better. Hell, my sister and I are lucky that our husbands didn’t bat a lash and said go, we’ll take care of the kids. Still, it was a lovely and bittersweet family time for us. We spent the day together talking about the graceful job Uncle Jim’s family did in setting up the events. We talked about how Uncle Jim had gotten this life thing right. All of us are going to die. What are we going to leave behind? I don’t think many people take advantage of life in the same way that Uncle Jim did. He left behind a real impact on so many people. I think all of us in my family sort of vowed to try and be more like him.

Family is so important. I’m damned grateful for mine. While sitting around the kitchen table Uncle Jim’s son Paul told my father that he quotes something dad said years ago all the time. Back when my sister and I were teens we were visiting and playing with Paul’s kids who were toddlers. My father looked at us playing and then he looked at Paul. “You think it’s really great now, this kid thing. But I have to tell you it gets more fun every year.” Paul said he tells that story to anyone who bemoans the fact that their babies are growing up.

I am lucky to be part of the family I grew up in. I’m lucky to be a part of the family I’ve created with T and the boys. But even if you didn’t grow up with a supportive family it is never too late to create one. I’m lucky to be a part of my families. But it is what we do with that luck that matters.

Uncle Jim’s life and death taught me that family is what is important. Community is what is important. Who we love, who we help, how we can make each other’s lives better. It seems so simple, but it takes a lifetime of work. Uncle Jim has inspired me to get working.

grandma t

Grandma cuddles

grandpa c

Grandpa cuddles

liver and onions

My Dad used to play this game with my sister and me when we were tiny. He calls it operation-he pretends to cut open the boys’ bellies and he takes out the liver and takes out the onion, and then he discovers they are full of baloney…

Uncle Jim

Before we boarded the plane to move to New Zealand in the fall of ’88 my family took a big trip back East to visit family. Most of it is a blur of faded memories, the clearest time is the few days we spent at my Mom’s Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim’s house. I was 11, just old enough to realize that Mom had a life before we were born. It was during that trip that I really started to understand how much she was a part of their family.

She lived with them and their five sons for a time while she was in college. Her parents moved away from her hometown and the solution was to stay with family while she finished school. She was the youngest child of three, but at Aunt M and Uncle J’s she was the oldest kid in the house and the only girl. I remember laughing as Aunt Margaret told my sister and me how foreign it was to deal with a young woman’s hormones. She said no one ever knew what Mom’s mood would be. Some days she’d come home from school happy as a clam, others there would be a storm cloud over her head and she’d stomp up the stairs without a word and slam the door to her room. Being those hormones had only just started to take root in me I had the luxury of feeling superior about Mom’s unreasonable behavior. Hubris sure is a bitch.

Beyond the stories, which my sister and I ate up, it was so awesome to see that she belonged in their house. She knew where everything was, she was comfortable. Aunt M and Uncle J claimed her as their own. And they just seemed so….cool. They had a lovely pool in their backyard. Aunt M is an incredible cook and baker. She magically whipped up meals from scratch in record time in her kitchen while Uncle J mixed the drinks. That trip I had my first sip of an Old Fashioned as I listened to my mom wax rhapsodic about his bartending prowess. She told us she’d never order an Old Fashioned anywhere else because no one made them like Uncle J.

Early this morning Uncle Jim passed away. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to my Mom who told me it wouldn’t be long. I haven’t seen Uncle Jim in a number of years, which is shameful considering they only live two and a half hours from Syracuse. But we had T the week after we moved here, and every time a trip was scheduled something would happen-T got sick, I had a miscarriage, C got sick. It felt like we had time, so I didn’t stress over it. And now it’s too late.

When I called Z to tell him the news yesterday I began to cry. I cried for Uncle Jim, who was a good man. I cried for Aunt Margaret. Z and I have only been together for 15 years and the thought of living without him makes me sick to my stomach. I cried for my Mom who lost someone she loved very much. I cried for Uncle J’s sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, for the hole that will always be in their lives. And I cried for myself because the idea of losing either of my parents is paralyzing.

Death stings in a new way since I’ve become a Mom, the stakes are much higher. And life feels much more fragile and temporary. Because duh. But before T was born death felt distant and life long. I’m sure most adults don’t need parenthood in order to have a more realistic understanding of mortality, but I sure as hell did.

Tonight I will raise a glass to Uncle Jim. I will miss his gentle teasing, his amazing stories, his humungous heart.

Uncle Jim

Before his illness Uncle Jim was a big man, he carried his ample middle with a bit of a swagger. He was the kind of guy who belted that sucker right around the center, no cinching underneath so the gut spilled over. I like that in a man. It is honest and confident and bold. And totally badass. Just like Uncle Jim.