Tag Archives: regret

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.


Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.


Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.


a very good housekeeper

You died, and I have struggled.  You spoke with such breeziness in your final weeks of life: Oh, I don’t have to worry about you. But maybe you should have. Maybe then you would have turned your beautiful face to me and said How can I help ease the impossibly painful? And I would have told you.

Yes, complaining about this might be proof that I am in fact the worlds biggest asshole, but it has been hard to get over, Mom. Every time I think I find a shred of peace with this, I stub my toe on it again.

What is “this?” you may ask. I’ll tell you now:

You didn’t talk to me. You kept your emotions stowed away like Christmas presents hidden from a four-year old.  You were sick and you were dying and I knew nothing of what was in your heart.  I’ve had people I barely know clutch my hand with bony, cool fingers, stare straight into my eyes with a watery gaze and tell me how it is for them.  What its like to die.  What they are proud of.  What they regret.  What they hope for their loved ones after they are gone. And you did none of that. You were free with your smiles with everyone on the elevators, in the lobbies, with every cashier, every nursing attendant. You smiled and you smiled and you were polite and gracious and never complained, but you never opened up either.

It is selfish of me to have wanted more from you. It was your journey, your business.  But I felt betrayed because I wanted to give you what you gave me. From the beginning of my life till the end of yours, I would bare my soul to you, all the joy as well as all the pain, and you would listen, take it all in and love me regardless. You were my best friend; I wanted to be yours too.  Yet when you needed me the most, I was not to be trusted. The opportunity to support you in death as I was supported in life was refused, and this seemingly reinforced the longstanding suspicion that I was not worthy to be your daughter.

I know, I know.  But I wasn’t. You were the rarest of creatures: beautiful, unfailingly kind, bright, funny. You daughter should have been someone less average.

It is difficult for me to understand why you closed the door on me at the end.  And it wasn’t just me; I’m not sure that you trusted anyone with your fears and your grief. Perhaps you were too afraid at what you would find in the dark recesses, so you sealed them off and acknowledged only the sunshine. Maybe you did with your heart what you did with your home: locked the basement door, opened the living room blinds, arranged the flowers, fluffed the pillows.  Made everything beautiful and tidy before you left. This makes some sense.  You were always a very good housekeeper.


informed consent

Shortly after my mother was diagnosed with the lymphoma that would take her life, I was chatting with her and my stepfather about upcoming appointments.  I don’t remember the details, but he and I started anticipating the course of her treatment “first this, then that, followed by something else if another thing happens.” We were trying to plot out the twists and turns of a journey that is unpredictable, although we try our best to pretend otherwise. The conversation rapidly turned into my stepfather and I talking about my mother’s illness without including her in the discussion.

Hey, she interrupted. You know, its my choice.

What do you mean? We turned our heads towards the woman we loved.

Its my body.  I will decide whether I want treatment or not.

And she did decide.  She made many choices along the way.  She filled out informed consent forms.  She received printed lists of side effects, weighed pros and cons, talked to doctors and nurses and friends and family.  She said yes to chemo, many times over, knowing that it could trigger a cascade of events that could be life threatening. She said no to surgery, no to palliative radiation at the end of life, procedures that had the potential to give her more time, less pain.  Or maybe not. Who knows?

When I was working in bone marrow transplant, I thought the informed consent process was complete bullshit.  How could people know, really understand, what they were agreeing to? The pages and pages of potential risks and benefits, but really what it comes down to is a single patient plunging into the cold water. Some resurface on the other shore, some don’t, and you can make some predictions about probabilities but more or less, these outcomes remain the domain of powers greater than human insight. We can ask a patient to sign on the dotted line of consent forms, but for all the information and teaching and collaborating, any health care choice remains a leap of faith.

Life isn’t much different.  I’ve made choices that showered me with blessings, others that haunt me, a cluster of silvery specters that float in the corners of my mind during in the early morning hours. We all have moments where we reach a crossroads, and sometimes we don’t even realize these moments are occurring, have occurred, until years later. I’ve hit the junctures, I’ve tried to be informed, as best as I could be, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Its a plunge into icy waters, a journey into the unknown, a grasp at the hand of God.  I’m still swimming.

one year without her

Last year, my mother was dying– slipping from the hands of those she loved, carried away on an invisible current, far beyond the horizon.

Those final days were busy; turning Mom and medicating her every two hours around the clock, caring for Grandma too, coordinating family phone calls, cooking food, cleaning house,all while grieving hard. I would gaze at my dying mother with a broken heart, filled with regret for all that she would miss, all that I would miss. Some moments I would rage and shake with body sobs that emerged from the abyss  and other times I felt like a shell of a person, and if a strong wind blew my way I would crumble to ash.

Mercifully, it was gentle:  She fell into a deep coma and on December 13th, as we held her hand she took her last breath.

Anger comes and goes like the weather, and at the moment my fury of a few weeks ago has drifted away. I am sad, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss her.  But I also feel  peace and comfort, as though she is sending me a hug from beyond. I can’t explain it, I can only accept it.

025 - CopyPerhaps she is still here, among us, in the flowers and the birds and the water and the sunshine.

the trappings of December

Not even 36 hours into December, and it already feels like a long month.

Last year around the first of December, my mother asked me if I thought she’d live to see Christmas.  I told her I didn’t know, with a not-so-hopeful tone to my voice. Her shoulders fell, and she turned her gaze downward- she mostly communicated with her body language; her gestures  betrayed the feelings she so rarely voiced. I quickly added that I hoped so and gave a weak smile, but it was too late.

I wonder why I needed to be so brutally honest in that moment.  My mother loved Christmas.  The holiday music, the tacky sweaters (she owned at least 6), the family gatherings.  I wish in that moment I had held her hand, and looked into her eyes and said something upbeat, like “why not?” or “Christmas with you would be wonderful!” She would have done something like that for me.

She didn’t live to see Christmas, but she almost made it; she died on the 13th, and she got to enjoy part of the holiday season. Christmas of 2011 was nothing like Christmas Past, but her cousin artfully decorated the inside of the house, and we strung multicolored Christmas lights along the roof that cheerfully twinkled in the long, dark nights.  I found CD after CD of Christmas music, and played the familiar tunes softly for my mother as she was unconscious in her bed.  The machinery of thoughtful friends and community members kept us fueled with sugar.

This year, the holidays have returned to semblance of the norm. I participate in the holiday parties,the home decorating, the gift exchanges. I unfurled dusty decorations that haven’t seen the light of day in two years; my husband hung multi-colored orbs from our mesquite tree that sparkle in the Arizona sunshine.

Holiday rituals bring me joy, but I feel her absence so acutely.  The songs that ushered her out of this life fill my ears and I long for that which has slipped away on an invisible current.

I will always remember her padding in the kitchen, making cider or cooking up a beef dinner for her relatives wearing her latest Christmas sweater acquisition, jingle-bell earrings flashing under the fluorescent light.  She would flash me a big smile and say without words that yes, this is the best stuff of life.

Christmas 2008

Christmas 2008

the last thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2011 was the last holiday my mother lived to see. I hear Grandma’s voice in my head (regrets are as useful as tits on a bull, Katy) but still, I find them creeping in, uninvited guests that stay long past their welcome.

It was a special day, the last Thanksgiving.  My coworkers gave us a full Turkey dinner, more than enough delicious food to feed the family for days on end.  Mom was strong enough to eat a little and enjoy the company of her dear ones. The day was full of gifts from start to finish.

But I was tired.  I was angry.  I was overwhelmed with the relatively simple task of reheating our Thanksgiving feast from AJ’s. I tried to coordinate everything seamlessly, and never before had it been so difficult to ensure all the food was simultaneously hot to be served for our 10 or so family members.  I had mixed success, and it frustrated me. Thank god I didn’t try to actually cook. When I wasn’t feeling full of gratitude and surrounded by love from all directions, Thanksgiving found me to be an irritable bitch.

I know Thanksgiving also carried sadness for Mom. She always loved to cook huge meals for her family members during the holidays, and she always make it look easy.  Her eyes grew glassy when she saw me running around the kitchen and she said softly “I’m sorry I can’t help.”

I was sorry too, profoundly sorry.

I know I told her that day that I loved her, I was grateful for her.  But I was fearful, and the months of protracted loss had chewed me up and left my insides looking like a seasonal squash.  I was angry that I was sharing my last Thanksgiving with my mother.  I had lots of expectations to let go of- years ahead of beautiful holiday dinners, perfectly prepared, cooked with her at my side.  I did the best I could do, but I wish that I could have released, let go, allowed myself to be rooted in that special day, that special moment, and feel the joy of having her with me, of being her daughter.

She knew my heart as well as anyone, and she knew I loved her.  I just wish I could have done things differently. It would have been more enjoyable for everyone involved.

This Thanksgiving I miss her, but I have also done some recovery. I have a wonderful life, full of blessings.  Today my heart isn’t like a the limp guts of a stringy squash; rather my heart is full of gratitude for a multitude of things, but especially gratitude that my life started with this tremendous woman, that I was able to know her and call her “Mom” and share my life with her for 31 years.

Thanks for the wonderful memories, Mom.  You were incredible.

the last Thanksgiving, 2011

one of the haunted

Halloween.  Día de los Muertos. The season of the undead, of ghosts come to visit the living.  The stories we tell this time of year speak of forbidden desires and longing for that which we cannot let go. The fear of ghosts we felt as children grows into a thrill to think maybe those that have left us aren’t really gone, that maybe they can come back to give us messages, check up on us, or just to have a good time in the way you can only on Earth.

I have always had a skepticism about the afterlife, but when my mother was dying, I held her thin hand and asked for her to come visit me after she had gone.

If you can, anyway that you can, I want you to come to me and let you know that you are there.

She amused me and said she would try.

She hasn’t done a very good job.

I live 40 miles from Mexico, and calavera skulls stare at me from store windows. Miniature skeletons drink alcohol or play mariachi tunes.  Carved pumpkins glow yellow in the dying sunlight.  It is the season to celebrate the haunting and the haunted, but I am not one of them.

She simply isn’t here.

I don’t hear her voice, feel her sweet presence.

She is gone.

In this season of ghosts, I wish my dear one would visit.  I wish I was one of the haunted.

why I want a second tattoo

I want another tattoo.

Yes, that’s “another.”  Do you know 40 percent of adults in the US under age 40 have a tattoo?  Like most women in my demographic, I was inked before I hit my 20’s.  I have only one tattoo, a spiraling sun on my lower back.  It was drawn by my best friend. Naturally, she sports a moon in the same anatomic location.

When I walked into the tattoo parlor the first and last time I was depressed, a college dropout who worked part-time at a restaurant where I would soon be fired.  I had been recently dumped over the telephone by a bipolar barista.  I didn’t know it then, but the tattoo symbolized my desire to both expand and regress.  I wanted a bigger life than struggling to pay rent, struggling to date crazy people.  It was a life I knew I could have, but I wasn’t quite capable of it yet. I also wanted to go back to childhood, to the safety of my parents, to a life of certainty and ease. The sun has faded now, but back then it was a flaming orange and yellows.  It promised warmth, passion, abundance, as well as a connection to a woman who is a sister to me, who I grew up with.

my sun tattoo. required flexibility to photograph

The tattoo artist didn’t pick up on any of this either. To that burly man who looked like he could be a member of the Hells Angels, I was just another stupid teenager who wanted a sun tattoo.  He almost rolled his eyes when he met me, but he obliged.  Stupid teenagers paid rent for many tattoo parlors in the late 1990’s I imagine. I laid on my stomach in near silence, my shirt hiked up and my shorts pushed down as the tattoo needle buzzed and he changed part of me forever.

I never regretted this sun. It remains well-covered in most any social situation and I don’t see it very often, but its still there, a faded version of the flaming orb it once was.

This time, I want a tattoo in a visible location.  A riskier proposal if you have graduated from restaurant jobs and are now a health care provider in a major academic medical center. Ink on the lower back can be ignored if you regret it later, but a tattoo on the forearm cannot.

And why now?  I think I want to look different. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but loss has marked me on the inside.  My grief is woven into the fabric of my being.  And what I have gained and loved and been blessed with has marked me too.  An arm tattoo is a way of showing that I am different on the outside as well as on the inside.  I am not the same person I was on the day I was born.  I will not die the same person I am now.  Life is an unfolding, and tattoos can serve as roadmarkers along the way.

I’m not sure I’ll go ahead with a second tattoo.  I’ve been thinking for months and I still have some more thinking about it to do.  Age makes a girl more contemplative. But who knows?  Maybe it is time for another roadmarker.

all that I have

What should have been, would have been rolls around in my head like a marble in a tin can.

dink. dink. dink.

She should have lived longer.  She would have taken care of Grandma, and Grandma would have spent her last days surrounded by a love as encompassing as the sun.  She would have been so happy.  

It should not take an act of God for a healthy woman to get pregnant.  She would have rubbed my back during labor. She would have cooed into my baby’s ear. She would have been so happy.

She should have had a sixtieth birthday, a seventieth, an eightieth.  A retirement party. She should have traveled with John to Europe, Asia, British Columbia. Bisbee. They would have sent me postcards from beyond, taken couple photos kissing at a vista wearing matching cargo shorts. She would have been so happy.

dink. dink. dink.

There is no would haves or should haves.  There is only the now, and the now echoes with her absence.  Grandma has dementia, and will need to be placed in a care facility soon.  My stepfather is lonely and distraught. I have no baby. Our hands are empty and searching.

I become sad.  I become angry. I long for a future that can never be; I rage at a world that brings beautiful things into existence only to tear them apart.

Moments of reprieve come in glimmers, where the tin can rattle stops for a second, a minute or an hour.  I walk. I run. I feel the earth so sure beneath me, as though pressing upward to meet my feet. I feel the air slip between my fingertips, travel down my throat and out my nose.  I lay in bed and feel my blood warm the tips of my toes, pushed forward with every squeeze of my relentless heart.  My fingers meet my harp strings and I feel comfort in a meaning that exists beyond words.

I don’t have what I want, what I thought I would get. But my grief opens me to the gifts of the present:

The breath, the heartbeat, the shuddering of trees in a rainstorm, the beat of a wing against a yellow sky.

The clouds build up.  The sun lights them in a show of fiery splendor.  Then darkness comes, and they disappear as silently as they were created.


People say I’m doing better.  I suppose they are right. I have put on 10 pounds this year.  I’m more energetic, with a ready smile.  But grief is a funny creature; she lurks just under the surface, ready to crawl into my throat and choke me when I least expect it. 

August 2011. Her kidneys were failing but we found joy in each others presence.

I’ve felt depressed this week.  An astrologer thought it might have something to do with the position of Uranus.  As beautiful as it is to believe a distant blue dot could hold such planetary sway, I think its just that I miss my mom.  She was so wonderful to talk to.  Engaged, honest, warm.  The perfect confidante.  I can’t say I’m lonely, but I’m lonely for her. Its a deep ache that all the well-meaning loved ones in my life can’t alleviate.

I’m in Flagstaff for a conference, and there is something about a solo road trip that was good for me. As my tires spun up Interstate 17, I reached a place beyond my sadness. One where grief and joy can live together.  Because if the ache cannot be alleviated, then I must learn to be happy around, beside and within the  sorrow. 

I believe there is a place where you can mourn the rabbits or coyote or deer splattered on the highway, the bugs on the windshield, the suffering of all creatures everywhere.  Bemoan the missed opportunities, the past memories that were as unappreciated at the time as they were beautiful.  Long for the loves that left, and the ones who you could have loved but were never brave enough to.  The idea that never worked out, the dream that vanished into the ethers, the future you planned on but never came to pass.  Vanquished beauty.  Sickness. And in this place of mourning your heart can crack right open as you drive your car or van or truck into a beautiful Arizona sunset painted on a backdrop of purple mountains.  You can feel good as your trusty vehicle carries you up, up into those purple mountains, the steady whirring of tires a drone beneath your favorite songs pumping out of the speakers.  You are dazzled by beauty, by how lucky you are, how healthy your body, how full your life. In that moment you have it all, in the only way that matters: sadness and joy, laughter and tears, hope and pain, in perfect integration.