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, and may help you as well. 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.
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.
I had the pleasure of being a part of the Expressing Motherhood cast for a third time this past month. Originally, I wasn’t going to share my piece online because as much as I pride myself on my openness, I know some things are too much. However, it was pretty damn freeing to share with a bunch of strangers and also well-received, so why not with my online community? 😬
A huge thank you to everyone who came to see it live this time around, and especially to Lindsay Kavet for giving me a little soapbox.
Thirty-seven years ago today my mom gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Three years ago yesterday, I gave birth to my own son.
Every cell in my body wants to have a sit down with her, to trade birth and/or parenting stories. But, as my brother stole her life eleven years ago, I haven’t been able to. I never will.
Yesterday I baked a cake. It wasn’t beautiful. No one in the family could identify what it looked like: a guitar? A banjo? A magnifying glass? I didn’t mind though; all I kept thinking about was the cake my mom made 30 years before, the one she served my brother’s friends at his 7th birthday, that looked almost the same way. I wanted to talk to her about it, laugh at their coincidentally-matching, misshapen figures. Maybe argue over whose was worse. But I couldn’t, so I wrote about it instead. This was was my way of feeling closer to her: writing and baking
Yesterday, my son’s birthday, I spent the day wondering if I’d hear from my brother. Far too much of the day was wasted wondering if he’ll, in a final show of selfishness, steal his own life. Sometimes I hope he does, sometimes I pray he doesn’t. Either way, I am healing from a life of trauma and abuse. And my abuser, despite being behind bars, still has a strange, distant power over me.
Not long ago I shared an open letter I wrote to my deceased mother. And as my latest Expressing Motherhood piece mentioned an open letter she wrote me that was read at a graduation-related event, I thought that it would be fitting this year (on her death date) to share it.
When you arrived on December 24th, 21 years ago, I knew you would be destined for greatness!
The doctor said, “It’s a girl, but she’s only 4 lbs and 16 1/2 inches!”
My mother said, “I cook chickens for dinner that are bigger than that!”
I said, “Her entire head fits in the palm of my hand!”
Yes, Amy, you were small, but as people say, “The best things come in small packages!”
We brought you home ten days later, nameless. I searched high and low for a name that would best suit you, to no avail. Until your brother Jesse came to the rescue and said, “I think we should call her Amy.” And so it was, you were named Amy.
Once you had the first name of Amy, how more befitting would it have been, but for me to call you ‘Amy Beth.’ And so it came to be, your name was once and for all, decided by a joint venture of your brother and me.
Now, being that you came early, a month early, that should have been a sign. Unfortunately, I was not in tune with human nature then, as I am now. But had I been, I would have known some things about you early on. As things go, not only did you mature emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually early, but also physically!
I remember driving in the car one day, when you were only 5 years old, and you saying to me, “Mom, will I have my period by the time I’m in college?”
Then your brother turned to you and said, “Amy, don’t worry, you’ll get it way, way, way before then.” And he was right.
Yes, you were early at that too. And yes you did get it before you started college. Way, way, way before you started college!
[Thanks, Mom 😑]
But now, as you are nearing the end of college, I must say, the things you have accomplished have definitely been filled with greatness! And I am very proud to be your mom!
Love forever and always,
…. So, now you know. I got my blatant honesty and penchant for over-sharing from my Mama. And I’ll probably never stop, because it’s how I keep her spirit alive.
“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.
She hunches over, furiously scribbling on the paper taped to the floor. It is there to catch excess paint from the ceiling, but the men have packed up for the day, and I see no harm in decorating the barely marred surface.
“Why not draw on the floor?” I had proposed when her tiny body got antsy after dinner and before bath.
I’m not sure any idea has ever sounded better. “I’m going to draw Daddy!” She proclaimed proudly. “He’s one hundred handsome,” Her voice tapers as she doodles and day dreams about the first man to steal her heart.
Moments pass, and I peer over her shoulder to see her work. Daddy’s rectangular body isn’t accurate, but it sure is adorable.
“Wow, great job,” I encourage her.
She smiles, “Thanks. Oh! I almost forgot.” The cap of the pink marker raps against her lips as she ponders aloud, “Does Daddy have freckles?”
“A couple, sure, but not too many,” I reply.
Chock full of gumption, she retorts, “Well, this is my drawing and I like making freckles. So, he’s gonna have a lot.”
Her arm works quickly as her marker dots the paper, and I cannot help but promote her artistic spirit, “There’s no arguing with that logic.”
“Don’t worry,” she adds, “I won’t give him as many freckles as you. You’ve got one million freckles.”
“True,” I once again agree.
“But, Savta Dasi (the Hebrew word for grandmother combined with my mom’s nickname) had INFINITY freckles. More freckles than anyone on the planet!” I watch her tiny face brighten as her reflections revive my mother’s memory. A silly grin spreads across my face.
In the midst of my grief, I have found my greatest sadness over memories Mom and I never got to make. I suppose that’s the biggest pain in all grief: time lost.
But, then life has this beautiful way of reminding you (even in conversations about freckles) that your ultimate merit is not found in how long you live, but how long your your sweet memory persists. For Mom will be gone eleven years this September, and my daughter only turned five in June.
It is moments like these that surely define our lives. That remind us it is less about how long we live, and more about the weight of our impact on the world. 💓
When I was pregnant with Charlotte someone in the Starbucks line imparted a piece of wisdom to me. This is a frequent occurrence during pregnancy – advice, words of wisdom, warnings, congratulations – strangers offer them all. Few are gems, but for some reason this woman’s words still echo through my mind to this day, four years later. Perhaps it was the fact that she was toting two little ones, her hair was askew, and her smile was both defeated and effervescent at the same time. It’s possible that I recognized a future soul sister in her. It could be that I was hungry for guidance and support. Whatever the reason, I listened. And even though I often forget what I’m saying mid-sentence, or even more frequently return from the grocery store with half the things I need and double the things I want, this phrase embedded itself in my brain. Presumably forever.
“The days are long, but the years are short,” she had said kindly yet frankly. I committed the line to memory as we continued to banter light-heartedly. As I mentioned, I will have had hundreds of run-ins with people by the end of both of my pregnancies. But, this one. This one clearly felt different.
Eventually, as those first months of sleep deprivation and hormonal rollercoaster rides melted away, and I dug myself out of the trench that is the transition from pregnancy to postpartum, life went on. At both a snail’s pace and break neck speed. My days often felt undeniably (and oddly) long AND short; I spent them mourning the loss of the family I grew up with, no matter how dysfunctional it may have been, while trying to balance the creation of a new one. I was happy and sad. And then I was pregnant again. Charlotte soon turned two. Adam arrived. My daughter started school. She was quickly out of diapers, and he was sitting up. The next thing I know my kids are three and a half and eight months, and my heart has octupled in size.
And within the proverbial blink of an eye, the tragic calendar count I have been conducting amidst all of life’s curveballs gets much closer to a decade than to any other convenient measure of time. Nine years to be exact. Nine years since Mom was killed. If you had asked me to write about my life that day in Starbucks four years ago, my reflection would have been much different. I was so fractured then. Despite having found love, buying a home, working steadily, and being pregnant, I was slogged down by sadness. I was in the deepest pit of grief still, attempting to crawl my way out. My stance was that the woman who had given me life, only to have hers selfishly taken away, was missing out on all these events that she had begun dreaming of the moment I was born. It felt so wrong to rejoice without her. So, as my life continued on an uptrend, as did the difficulty of moving on.
But now, as we approach this ninth “anniversary” of Mom’s death, it is clear to me that this extra time passed has helped to heal a good deal of my wounds, and that my frame of mind is evolving. It is true that some days I still spend a little sadder than others. I catch myself standing at the edge of the gaping hole that grief always leaves behind in its wake, teetering between the me that is present in all my current love and slipping back into the me that is rooted in my painful past. But what also remains true, and what I often remind myself of, is that I have lived nine whole years since Mom died. Within those nine years I met the love of my life. A stubborn, handsome, funny, incredibly loving, supportive, relentless, nutty man whom Mom would have loved. We moved a bunch of times, sold a home, bought one. We planned our dream wedding. We honeymooned. We made babies that we adore more than life itself. We live our lives every day, not loving every moment, but valuing each one. We have done all these things, and despite the sadness I felt amidst many of them, I often look back with so much fondness. These are the highlights of my life. They would have been the highlights of my mother’s as well. She would never want my happiest recollections to be so tainted.
Thus, if my grief, heartbreak and *parenthood* have taught me anything, it’s that every moment matters. So, as I begin this tenth year without my mom, I choose to reflect on that wise saying a nice lady in Starbucks once shared with me. “The days are long, but the years are short.” Why should I waste these precious minutes scarred and jaded, when they will so rapidly weave together to create the fabric of my whole lifetime? This annual commemoration (also conveniently always “celebrated” around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I vow to try my best to be content in every beautiful, poop, tear, and laughter-filled moment I’m gifted with. Because before I know it, the days of my live will morph into years. And I’m planning on filling mine with more than enough happiness for both Mom and me.