In the Silence With My Mom

My mother has been dead for almost eighteen years yet I still think about her all the time. But how I think and feel about her has changed because in death, I feel like I’ve gained more of an understanding of her life and how she lived.

Growing up, especially after I began writing, I felt like I was more like my dad. Why? Because I was creative and inquisitive like him. Yet as I look back, I realize I was more like my mother than I ever realized. I was shy and quiet like she was, reserved until she felt comfortable enough to let her guard down.

My dad always said my mother had grace under pressure and how he loved that about her. I’m going to say that grace under pressure isn’t always a good thing. For her, it was the way she learned to be from very early in her childhood in how to deal with things. She never told me a lot about growing up but what I did learn made me understand why she was one to fight like hell to keep it together. It was why when she got sick I made it clear to her that when it was just the two of us she could let down her guard and bitch, rant, and rave about her illness and the shit that came with it.

My mother would be one to say she had no real imagination or creativity. That wasn’t the case because although she didn’t write or do anything creative like that she had imagination in her own way. She loved to read, watch movies, and listen to music. And she loved art and beauty and nature, too. But she was not encouraged at all growing up to be imaginative and curious. In fact, she once said to me about her childhood: “God forbid you had an original thought in your head.”

To rise up from that and not turn inward as hard as her mother did (my grandmother was an extremely conservative woman), was a gift my mother gave to the world. My mother’s opinions were more practical than anything, something I have a great respect for. For example, she didn’t object to two people living together per se, but just felt that marriage gave people more rights if a situation like that went down the toilet. She also used to say, if they’ve done it to someone else what makes you think they won’t do it to you? She’d follow that with, because people like that very rarely, if ever, change. Also, when I started working she told me two things: the walls have ears, and don’t go fishing in the company pond.

In the early 1980’s, my mom went through what she termed her ‘rebellious period’. It was mild by any means of comparison: going to a movie by herself, going out drinking with co-workers, listening to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ album (which I traded her for with an Air Supply tape- though she’d come and borrow the Prince album all the time), reading books about gay people (she grew up super-conservative Catholic so she told me this was seriously-forbidden territory to her). Looking back, I wonder just how much shit she got for this. Probably a ton but I was glad she took me along for the ride because we began to talk one-on-one very honestly about a lot of issues. It was good preparation for what was to come later.

But as I write about breaking my own silence, I think about my mother’s silence. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, all she ever heard was that she had to be strong and fight the damn disease twenty-four/seven. But what no one told her was there would be motherfucking assholes who would say some seriously fucked-up insensitive shit that she would have to suffer in silence with because of her job or something else being on the line. It was why I was so damned determined to give her a space to vent and rip it all to hell. And trust me, we ripped it all to hell together on many, many occasions. I told her the day that we couldn’t talk like this was the day we would be at the end. Three days before my mother died, a tumor in her brain took away her ability to speak.

As I get into my story of breaking my silence, I’m beginning to realize how much of a part she has in it. How much her own story mirrors mine in many ways. And it’s a good feeling. Because despite all these years without her, this is proof she’s still with me. It’s proof that we never forget those who go before us. This is what I will tell anyone who has lost loved ones, or who may ask how you would deal with that loss if it hasn’t happened to them yet.

Grief isn’t silent. And no matter how much time passes, the stories are still there, just waiting to be told.

Reclaiming Happiness for Healing

When the movie ‘Flashdance’ came out in 1983, I along with millions of young girls wanted to be a dancer and have it all. We all had the soundtrack album, the leg warmers, and the ripped sweatshirt. In 1983, I was nine years old and definitely not dancer-material, or physically coordinated at all. And in that year, that was painfully driven home every single day in P.E. (physical education) class when we did our exercises to the song ‘Flashdance (What a Feeling)’ by Irene Cara. By the end of that year of P.E. hell, I learned how to hate that song and for close to thirty-five years, I couldn’t listen to it without those awful memories of being picked last for any team, laughed at when I fell on my ass, and glared at daily by the P.E. teachers I had.

But in 2018, I reclaimed my love for that song.

It started on a Uber ride one morning when I was in very heavy traffic and unable to take my hands off the steering wheel to change the radio station. So I had to listen to the song, and when I did as a forty-four year-old woman, I heard these lines:

All alone I have cried

Silent tears full of pride

In a world made of steel

Made of stone

(Lyrics by Irene Cara and Keith Forsey, Music by Giorgio Mororder)

When I heard those lyrics, I shocked and amazed that I had forgotten them. Then I got back to my place and put the song on my phone and put my headphones on to listen to it again while I made breakfast. But when I heard those lines again, I bawled my brains out over a plate of breakfast tacos. Luckily no one was around to see that and my pets kept their distance from me.

I’m glad I bawled my brains out over those lyrics because after that, I began listening to the song and not thinking about being bullied and teased as a little girl. I began thinking of myself as a woman who had survived all that shit and was on the road to becoming the person I have always wanted to be. And that person is one who can smile and sing along (quite badly, I will admit) to this song and yes, even move around to it. It was like I was telling myself it was okay to cry those tears in silence alone in a shitty world because if you listen to the rest of the song, you’ll understand why this is so liberating.

For many years, I glossed over a lot of those memories of my childhood and adolescence, unwilling and unable to talk about the shittier aspects of it. But because I had stayed silent about those shit-times, I had buried the good times, too. Because despite being bullied and hated as a young child, I had an imagination and through that imagination I had hope. Hope that I could live in a world where maybe I wouldn’t sing and dance, but where I would find my dreams and make them happen. I’m working towards that now and realizing I’m so much stronger than the lies all the shit-bag assholes of this world ever told me.

And being stronger than you think is also a message of the movie ‘Flashdance’ as Alex (played by the awesome Jennifer Beales) learns in the movie, too. That year in that P.E. class took that away from me, too but I’ve gotten that message back. So I want to say here to anyone reading this: you can reclaim the good and learn how to put the bad away in boxes and store them. You’ll never forget those bad memories but when you box them up, you take away their power and you remove their sharp talons from your heart and soul.

I recently found the word for this reclaiming process: healing. Healing is when you find joy and happiness that you’d lost, or had taken from you. Healing is when you find the good behind the bad. Healing is taking a deep breath, wiping away your tears, then smiling and singing along with the old songs that made you want to dance.

I don’t think I can stress the importance of healing now. For me, when this word came to my mind it was like a punch to my stomach. It knocked the wind out of me and pissed me off like pain does. But know this: healing is not rebellious and radical. And if someone sees healing as rebellious and radical, they can take that and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. We all have wounds we need to heal from. It’s not an easy process but one that’s well worth it.

Healing is what gives me the ability to write now and bring three very important projects together. It’s slow-going at times but that’s alright. The shit-heads of this world are wanting to burn it down and not nuke us like they wanted to back in the 80’s so there’s time to write.

Most of all, there is time to heal.

Writing Through Grief

Many years ago, before my mother died, I heard I was too comfortable talking about death.

I wasn’t comfortable at all. I just learned to talk about it because I knew it was going to happen. There was no comfort in talking about it or what would have to be done when it came. In fact, the first time my mother and father sat down with me to talk about their deaths and what would need to be done… I got up and walked out of the room. They never held that against me but for many years, I felt enormous shame and guilt that I had done that. I was maybe twenty-one or twenty-two years old (I’m a bit hazy on the exact time frame), just a scared kid really and they knew that. But I knew I was being asked to put my fears aside and prepare for what was coming and I had to learn how to control my emotions and focus on the tasks at hand.

But there was no comfort in that and hearing that hurt me deeply. I tried to write it off as thoughtless bullshit or casual cruelty. But there is no justification for either one. Whether you’re thrust into the grieving process by sudden death or slowly pulled into it by a long, slow march to death, there is never any comfort in death. Yes, death takes away suffering from the person who died, but it leaves those behind with pain that only eases over time.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be writing about my grief. In October of this year it will be eighteen years since my mother died, and it’s been nine years since my father died. Both died after long and protracted illnesses I was there for every step of the way. Yet I was not given the opportunity to talk about my feelings while they were alive as I felt like people couldn’t handle what I was going through, or didn’t want to deal with me and my feelings. So I boxed those feelings up and put them away. Over the last couple of years, I opened those boxes and went through everything I put into them.

Writing about my grief is my grief-into-purpose moment. So many of us are grieving right now: for our loved ones who’ve gone before us, for those we’re watching on that final journey, for those we know who share our pain, and for a world that is changing, and for the fear and violence in our world now.

I have heard accusations in the past that I was trying to be a martyr for talking about my feelings, or that I was being a martyr for not talking about them at all. It was like if I tried to say something, I was only doing it for martyrdom. But if I said nothing I was also doing that for martyrdom.

I have never, ever, been comfortable with attention on myself. I experienced a lot of humiliation and pain whenever I did seek attention when I was young, so much so that I tried to run and hide and only step onto a stage in my imagination. Again, maybe it was just thoughtless bullshit and casual cruelty but there is no justification for either one. I want to say this to anyone who thinks a quiet person breaks their silence for attention or worse, some sort of martyrdom: no, that’s not what’s it about at all.

I think it’s good to see and hear people talking about grief and loss. It’s good to see it move past funerals and graveside services. It’s good that people are saying I understand your pain because I have felt pain, too. And most of all, I’m glad there is a man who is inspiring people to work for a better world by saying we have to turn grief into purpose (Joe Biden, 2020).

Cruelty to me is an absence of emotion, and not acceptable in any way, shape, or form. I will not absolve it, and my way of forgiveness for it is to describe it like this: forgiveness is when I remove razor-sharp talons from my heart and soul, wash the blood off, clean and stitch my wound close, then put a bandage over it. In time, I will learn to let go of the pain, and to know that I don’t have to let myself be hurt like that again.

Grief is not a razor-sharp talon in my flesh. It’s a shock to the heart, a body-blow that knocks the wind out of you. But you can recover from that, stand up straight, and breathe through the pain. And you learn to breathe again by feeling your emotions, and putting them into words. You don’t really breathe, or live in silence. Grief does not need to be silent, not in your mind, your heart, or your soul. Words and memories will always be there, even if you box them up and put them away.

When you’re ready, you’ll open those boxes and go through everything. And you’ll find the words for your feelings. And you’ll have a shield against cruelty, against those who would harm you for speaking your truth, and your feelings. I choose to write about my grief, and to break my silence over it.

Writing For Therapy, Knowledge, and Healing

Four years ago, I set out to use writing to try and figure out why I thought and felt the way I did. This is what I call writing as therapy because I was working through mental and emotional shit to gain knowledge. I thought therapy and knowledge would be enough until this thought came into my mind: I need to heal.

Following that thought was this one:

Since when did the thought of healing become a radical and rebellious idea?

Right after I typed that out yesterday, I got up and stalked around my room with a serious urge to rant and rage. Why? Because healing meant I would be letting myself feel happy and letting go of pain and misery once and for all. That’s a radical and rebellious idea for me because all my life I have felt like I had no right to be happy, and especially no right to express my feelings of happiness.

Writing on the non-fiction triumvirate as I call it now is not easy at times. But I do gain satisfaction with myself for my writing even though it’s a lot of hard work. And that satisfaction does make me feel happy. It’s not shout-in-the-streets joy but a deep-seated feeling of happiness from doing what I want to do. Yet why does writing the word ‘happy’ itself and thinking about feeling it hurt so much?

The answer to that last question is a long and complicated story with a lot of chapters. But now that I know the end of that story, I can write it. Because to heal is to let go of what’s hurt you and held you back. My fear behind this is that someone won’t like that I’m moving on, feeling the way I do, and most of all, expressing those feelings. My first instinct used to be to retreat, and my newer instinct is to rant and rage on the page here. Now I know I don’t have to retreat, or rant and rage. I just need to write, to heal, and be happy.

But yesterday I also wrote this: I’m not responsible for someone else’s feelings, especially if I’m not doing anything wrong. I will tell myself this now: just because someone has come at me in the past with either raging bullshit or passive-aggressive good-intentions doesn’t mean I have to take that shit any more. Or be scared that I can’t deal with it.

Healing is telling myself I can do something, and that I’m a lot stronger than I have ever realized before in my life. And that writing, Uber driving, sleeping, watching stuff on my laptop, listening to music, or maybe someday having some sort of social life is not out of the realm of possibility for me. That old fears are not my present anymore. I know I can work through the times where I want to rant and rage, or run and hide. Working through those rant-and-rage or run-and-hide moments is what led to this piece now, which I am forever grateful for.

Four years ago, I had no idea what my journey would lead to. But then no one else would have known either. I’m glad I have reached the point I’m at now where I can begin to embrace healing. Healing is not a radical and rebellious idea to me now. It’s not just a need, but something I want to do.

I know we live in some seriously fucked-up times right now. But I also know this: the future isn’t written. We write it in the present. As a writer myself, I write it every time I sit down and put words onto a page. That’s a hard realization because looking at a blank slate and thinking what could go wrong is scary as hell. And it’s not easy to think of what can go right either because of the unknown. Hope to me is accepting that things can work out not just by thinking about it, but by doing something about it.

My ‘doing something about it’ is writing. And publishing here to start with.

And most of all, I want every reader here to know the most important thing I’ve learned over the last four years:

You have every right to your thoughts and feelings no matter what they are, good, bad, ugly, or anything in between. And you have every right to deal with them in whatever way you choose to.

And in my case, that includes writing about them.