I’ve written about grief a lot over the last decade or so. And much of that writing has helped me put in to perspective some of life’s biggest moments and emotions. Ones that could have easily swallowed me whole, and if I’m being honest, almost did.
But with reflection and the right tools, I feel confidently about the direction my life has taken. So, to celebrate my mom’s birthday on January 26th, and all the ones that were stolen because of her murder, here is a list of the pieces that helped me feel less alone while writing. Especially if you have a hole in your heart where a loved one left it, too. Because I think that’s all life is about: connection, community, and catharsis.
I don’t keep it a secret that life can be isolating.
I don’t sugar coat it that people need a healthy support system, and that without it, adulthood (and most especially parenthood) is nearly impossible.
So, if you feel like you’re struggling, you’re not alone. Maybe it means you haven’t found your village yet, the group of people who help pull you up when you’re down, or wipe away your tears when you can’t bite them back.
And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
It is, however, something that can be changed.
Each day is a new one, and with it brings unlimited potential.
I find whenever I leave myself vulnerable to the people and experiences around me, I am given quite a lot of delightful surprises from the universe.
Like the lovely ladies from the photo above, who have quickly become my village because our relationships are sowed in openness.
I found them at Starbucks, no joke.
In both meet-cutes I left my heart and mind open to finding new friends, and even more importantly, spoke what was on my mind. No cares for what was “cool” or “normal,” I made it clear who I was from the getgo and forged connections on honesty and openness. And I scored some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life in the process.
Simply by being raw and open (both with myself and others), I gathered a village that no amount or type of distance can ever weaken.
So, to those who are still searching for their familial friends: remember that life doesn’t just take a village, it also takes openness.
Learn to be yourself with respectful abandon and like will certainly attract like.
A few years ago I wrote a piece called “Where Does Hatred Come From?” In it I discuss my mother’s murder and what (I think) compelled my brother to do such a thing. But something else has been on my mind, a question I get quite a lot that usually makes my heart race and my tongue trip up:
“How on Earth did you survive?”
Let me begin by saying that if I’m being totally honest, it still feels some days like I haven’t. Survived, that is. The cycle of abuse is a road that is twisted, long, and arduous. I am still traversing it, and live with the bits of shame that victims often do. On other days, however, I have an answer to the question everyone is really asking – how do two people born from the same parents go in such vastly different directions: one a murderer, the other a motivator?
In more general terms, “How Can Love Find a Way?”
The reality is, it’s almost so simple it’s painful. The answer is that love and hate are both born fromattachment.
See, for almost every experience my brother had where he felt alienated and different, I had one where I felt accepted or celebrated. Or maybe even just O.K. with being different.
I came second. By the time I was born, my parents had been separated for a year. They were divorced when I was two, but my dad never lived with me. So, his absence wasn’t an absence to me, it was my norm. Thus, when dad ripped himself from our lives, it was only devastating to one of us.
Then came all our moves. Within my first sixteen years of life I lived in eight homes. I got used to change, and loved switching schools or classes. It gave me the chance to reinvent myself and make new friends. Jesse, however, was a bit of a pariah. Not by choice, of course, but by social design. He was short, chubby, and an easy target. I was short, chubby, and an easy target, but apparently the world thought that was more acceptable in a girl. I got bullied less and made more friends. So, when people didn’t allow either of us in to their lives or picked on us because we looked a little different, it was only really devastating to one of us. Especially since he had already been rejected by our father.
Soon, my brother started attempting suicide. He was institutionalized and given “help.” Here, at these bleak homes for ‘troubled youth,’ he learned to believe he was even more different than he could have imagined. That now, with a triple diagnosis of “mental illness,” he’d never really escape. This was probably the worst time of Jesse’s life. My dad never visited him; Mom and I were the only ones that seemed to care. And so, while I was in middle school, I visited mental institutions and wrote him letters, begging him to stay here with us. He would keep one of those notes in his wallet for years. Through all of this I learned how dark people can feel. But more importantly, I learned how good it felt to give people reprieve from their darkness. These failed suicide attempts were devastating for him, and of course, extremely devastating to me. But I had my studies to throw myself in to and excel at and friendships to seek asylum in. Thus, it was really only life-damaging for one of us. Especially since Jesse had already been rejected by our father and peers.
When my brother left high school after being told he didn’t fit in to the mold they provided, he eventually found exercise and drugs. He grew fit and powerful, more toxic. He had grown sick of being told by society how different he was, and with his newfound strength his previous shame was gone; now his emotions had morphed in to anger. In turn, he became extremely violent towards Mom and me. We were his scapegoats. There were tires slashed, holes punched in the walls, swift kicks to our guts (literal and figurative), obscenities screamed, and so much more. It was Hell.
Mom, left with little other options, called the police on him several times. When he was released, Jesse slept in an old car he bought from Craig’s List, other times at friend’s houses. But he wheedled his way back home each time, as many abusers do. Then Mom would eventually kick him out again. Within this cycle he somehow found his way in to the army twice, despite a juvenile record of domestic violence.
Mom and I reveled in our freedom from him whenever he was out. Without him home we were able to focus on our personal and professional endeavors. I was sailing through college with a 3.9, was an officer in my sorority, and had a great job working for Arnold Schwarzenegger right out of high school. For every hurdle Jesse had collided with, I was jumping over two at a time. And when he was eventually kicked out of the military a second time for erratic behavior, he came home to find me even more successful. Which made him that much angrier. Especially since he had already been rejected by our father, our peers, the school district, mental health professionals, and now the military.
He brandished his isolation like a sword, swinging it at anyone he saw as a threat, which eventually became everyone. Girlfriends, strangers, it didn’t matter. However, he swung most often at home. Jesse reached out to my dad a few times at this point, but Dad was dealing with his own demons. So, while my brother’s identifying parent was slipping deeper in to a depressive, drunken state far from us, seeing us less than he ever had before, Mom and I grew closer. She and I became best friends. We didn’t speak of our heartache much, because I’m not sure we ever had a grasp on what ‘it’ was, but our bond was deep and inexplicable. We knew we needed each other to survive the toxicity in our lives.Which made Jesse hate us even more.
Thus, two weeks after I finished college, Jesse killed Mom. It had been a long time coming; there were aerosol cans sprayed at lighters, knives thrown in to walls, online dating and email accounts hacked and spoiled. And despite my world being rocked, I survived. Because I had been shown in life that bad things happen. A lot. However, they always stop. And there’s always love on the other side. Or on the underside. Or somewhere; it can always be found somewhere. In the encouraging words of a teacher who didn’t know why I was at school as much as possible, but still let me have my safe place. In the stalwart support system of a sorority. In the home of a best friend whose parents may not have known exactly what was going on, yet still had an open door policy. In believing in someone even when they don’t. In my mom’s encouraging words and resiliency. Where there is hope extended, wherever connections are made, love can be found. That’s the answer to what saved me from a life of hatred and bitterness: hope in the form of attachment & love.
So, remember that next time you see someone who may seem different, struggling, isolated, or even angry. A little love can go a very long way, especially for those who haven’t received much. In some cases it could be the difference between a life of love and a life of hatred.
Thank you to everyone who helped me see the love when it may have been difficult to do so on my own.
If you believe you or someone you know may be the victim of domestic violence, please read the resources on the National Domestic Violence Hotline and consider reporting the abuse to the authorities.
“The tie which links mother and child is of such pure and immaculate strength as to be never violated.”
As seen in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven & Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, With Love
No one is ever ready to say goodbye to a parent, and I was no exception. When my mother suddenly passed away at the age of fifty-five, it was devastating. The only way I knew how to cope was to write. When it came time to write her eulogy, I welcomed the chance to honor her.
After reading the eulogy at her funeral, I folded it neatly and tucked it between the pages of her favorite children’s book, Love You Forever. When it was time to pay final homage to her, I felt satisfied as I placed my only copy of the book in her arms and helped to lower her casket.
Shortly thereafter though, I broke down. I could think of nothing but my mother. I missed her with every cell in my body. But most overwhelmingly, I could no longer grasp the concept of where she had gone. I found it impossible to believe that she was watching over me. If she were, I thought, then she would surely make her presence known. I pleaded with the Heavens to show me she was there, that she was still sending her love, and keeping a watchful eye. No such luck.
Weeks went by. I became depressed and broken, unable to fulfill simple tasks and care for myself. I stayed home. People came in and out, checking on me at all hours of the day. Family and friends tried to coax me out of the house, but all I wanted to do was hide. I wanted to hide from my harsh reality: I would never see or hear from my mother again. Finally, those who cared about me had had enough.
One night, my best friend and her partner came over with a plan to get me out of the house. I debated with them for over an hour, pleading for them to leave me alone. Two hours and a million excuses later, we finally compromised and I allowed them to take me on a quick trip to Target.
As we walked through the aisles my feet dragged. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be anywhere. Nonetheless, we perused the make-up, electronics, and home goods aisles. They were there to offer me an outlet, and I was only there to placate them. After several more minutes of mindless meandering I was done. I told them I had to go back home, that I needed to get out of there.
“Alright, but first we have to stop by the candy section. A little sugar will give you a pick-me-up,” they reasoned.
I swallowed my pain and continued. I picked out a piece of candy just to avoid my friends’ concerned stares. At the checkout, we dropped our items on the conveyor belt and waited in line. I looked at the merchandise arrayed at the checkout. At the top of a shelf, on top of the candy, hair ties, and hand sanitizer, sat a book, a copy of Love You Forever! I snatched the copy and skimmed the pages, enjoying the pictures of a mother cradling her child. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? How would you like to pay for this?” the cashier asked.
I snapped back to reality, but ignored her question. “Why is this book here?” I demanded to know.
“I’m not sure, ma’am. Maybe someone was planning to buy it but chose not to in the end? They were probably just too lazy to put it back… It happens all the time, unfortunately. Thanks for pointing it out.”
I felt compelled to know more, and am still not sure why I asked my next question.
“Where are the rest of the copies of this book?”
“Wow. You sure love that book. The rest are probably in our book section, but I’ll scan it just to make sure. Sometimes when a book is on promotion it is moved.”
She scanned it. The machine made a few loud, shrill beeps.
“Huh. That’s weird. It’s not scanning. Let me see…”
The few moments I waited felt like eternity. A ball of excitement mixed with anxiety formed in my stomach.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. This book isn’t scanning. In fact, I dont even think it’s from our store. I’m not really sure why it was sitting there… If you’d like to buy it ma’am, I apologize because I guess it’s not really available for purchase. But… I mean… I guess you can… Just take it? It’s not really ours to sell.”
My heart fluttered as I gingerly took back the book. I cradled it in my arms and as I did, I felt a sense of security envelop me. I knew this was a message from my mother. It was a message of love, support, and understanding.
It was her way of saying, “I will love you forever, no matter what.” And I’ve never doubted that since.
I have lost many friends over the years. A few were stolen by Death (may they rest in peace), but far more of them I have lost to life.
Some of those losses have been easy; a simple cease of communication was enough to loosen our bonds. Other endings have been sloppy & painful, leaving both parties scorned. Some are intentional, others unintentional. But the common thread among all of them is that they have been necessary.
See, I believe everyone comes into your life for a reason, but not everyone stays. Those exits happen for a reason, too. We cannot expect to be able to keep everyone. We are dynamic, as are what we need and what we want. Our relationships must ebb and flow, too.
So, to those friends who I have moved on from, or that have moved on from me, I wish you the best of luck in life. My absence does not mean I am wishing you ill will; on the contrary, I hope you are soaring. I hope whatever may have caused the gash between us to have healed when your wounds were less fresh. For, it’s true: we cannot find a place for everyone in our lives. But, we can always find a place to wish them well.
“There are things our parents choose to do that stay with us forever. These actions, good or bad, teach us the lessons we carry into adulthood and especially parenthood.
Like the time my older brother found a wallet filled to the brim with cash. I was four and he was seven, but as children of a single mother in the eighties, we already knew the value of a dollar; Mom was never one to shelter us from our reality. I remember my brother handing her the leather square in the narrow aisles of a pharmacy. Mom had just tearfully admitted to the clerk she had only enough money for one antibiotic regimen, but two sick children. After she grew a bit sharp with her tongue, as she sometimes did, she was given back the prescription slip and turned away. Only moments later the Universe delivered her a wallet full of money.
I remember Mom looking around, then stuffing it deep underneath her arm in one swift movement. When we arrived home, she unearthed it from her purse, then began counting out the bills onto our hand-me-down coffee table. When she finished at just over a thousand dollars, she pulled out the Driver’s License within the plastic protectant and picked up the phone beside her. We waited with baited breath, unsure of what her next move would be.
“Operator? Yes. Can I please be connected with a ———– from Studio City?”
Moments later she was chatting with a very worried man who wanted to know the whereabouts of his wallet and missing mortgage payment. She offered him her work address and told him to pick it up the next day, but not before confirming how much dough he expected to be returned to him.
When she had replaced the receiver in its plastic cradle, my brother asked, “Why didn’t you return the wallet to the pharmacy if you weren’t going to take any of the money yourself?” To which she replied, “I don’t know if they would have returned it with everything inside. But, I knew I would. I don’t take what’s not mine, because that would be assuming we need it more.”
And at a very young age of four, I learned what my mom’s credo was: honesty must come before anything, including my own needs.
Speaking of Mom’s honesty, I’ll admit it wasn’t always my favorite. She had little filter, and people were often made uncomfortable by her. For example, she once wrote a letter that would be read to my entire sorority at a graduation-related event, which she knew when set out to write it. Despite this, she described in the note how I matured early, as well as that by the age of five, was already concerned whether I’d “get my period by college or not.” See? You’re uncomfortable. So, yeah, I didn’t always enjoy her openness.
But if Mom’s actions taught me anything it’s that the world needs honesty, even if people have trouble digesting it. There was the time she beat me to picking up the phone, and Corey Feldman was on the other line. At the age of seventeen I began running his website, and over the next four years would help him a great deal with local appearances. But, in this moment, he was my boss, and Mom was my very uncool parent who I obviously still lived with.
When Mom realized the gruff voice on the other end belonged to Corey, she was thrilled. She cooed,”Hey Corey! We actually just finished watching one of your films.” She hit the speaker phone and winked at me playfully.
“Oh, yeah?” he replied. “Which one?”
“Amy? What was it called?” Meanwhile, I have turned a ripe shade of red and was silently begging for the phone. But I whisper my reply nonetheless, “Edge of Honor.” She repeats me, and for a moment things seem O.K. because, hey, she hasn’t embarrassed me. It’s a miracle! Then she concludes, “You looked really drugged out in it.”
My heart fell into my stomach, and I instantly tasted bile. I held my breath as my recently exciting social life flashed before my eyes.
Corey waited a few beats. Finally, he replied, “Well, that’s because I was.” And with that, the floodgate opened. He talked about his difficult childhood and former addictions, and Mom listened. Just before Mom finally disengaged the speaker and handed me the phone, Corey asked her to attend an anniversary screening of The Goonies as his date. Much of the cast would be there, and he was inviting her to sit with them.
And, in all my years as one of Corey’s assistants, this would be the most Corey ever opened up. Thus, driving home Mom’s point that transparency is the most healing policy.
Mom’s emphasis on honesty was the most recurring lesson I ever received from her, and I suppose it is what led me to this point. To being a mother that strives to create children who are fair and thoughtful. And to pursuing a career that is intended to inspire mental health and a more accepting world. But, every parent leaves their children with indelible memories that turn into life lessons.
Maybe my children will be up here in a few decades talking about me, and with any luck, it’ll be positive. Maybe your children will be up here narrating what you did with your time as a parent. What will our actions teach our children? I wonder what sort of world they will create together with these lessons.”
To listen to this via Podcast, click here, but please pardon my opening night jitters.
I know it often seems a weird place to talk death, on the Internet. And perhaps it’s true that just as misery loves company, grief needs love.
This death, however, is a bit different than most. When my father died just over two years ago, the world lost a brilliant soul. He was handsome, charismatic, musically gifted, funny, and warm. At one time he was even a successful ethical law professor. Yet, he was also tortured. He lost three wives and a son tragically, sired two children he did not father, and lived with layer upon layer of consequent guilt and grief.
Dad avoided his biggest issues by drowning his emotions in alcohol. Thus, his addiction made him unreliable and disloyal. He lost jobs and relationships, burned bridges.
And then one day, his addiction killed him. He finally lost his psychological and physical battle against alcohol when he was 66. But the way I see it, he began losing his battle 50 years ago, when he started drinking.
In my last conversation with my father, I told him I was writing a memoir. He replied that he understood, that he had seen his fair share of torture, too. That he had learned being an open book with me helped alleviate some of the pain. I was lighter after talking to him about it. Then, he died a week and a half later, and I believe he is now lighter than he has ever been before.
So, as I broach the subject of death this time, it is with a different lens than I often do. This is nothing like the grief I have felt in the past. This time death has offered the loved one lost an ultimate peace he never experienced in life. This allows me liberty to put my heartache behind me instead of focusing on what I’m missing. And while I am being candid, time has also allowed me space to celebrate Dad’s successes, instead of being reminded of his shortcomings.
Dad is at peace & I am at peace knowing this. This death means something much different; it offers me a space to give love when I couldn’t offer it in life. ❤️
A huge thank you to Amy Newmark of Chicken Soup for the Soul for asking me to be her guest on today’s Friend Friday podcast show! She interviewed me about my various CSS stories, and we had the chance to chat about writers’ groups, as well as our random run-in on my birthday. It’s always a pleasure to be a part of this extraordinary organization. 💓