When a Mug is Not a Mug

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About five years ago, my boss brought in a bunch of extra mugs he had at home. We seemed to never have enough at work for all the hardcore coffee drinkers we were at the time. They were all sorts of designs and his wife was probably thrilled to get them out of the house. I know I would be. Mugs seem to multiply like rabbits over the years.

The “My Mom is the Best” mug used to stare me down every day. After Noah had died and we were desperately trying to get pregnant, this mug mocked me for two years from the cabinet above the industrial coffee maker in our break room. If a coworker was drinking out of it, I would watch the words on the mug as they went from desk to lips and back again. I would never ever choose it from the cabinet. Ever. Even if it was the only mug left, which it never was thankfully. I set a little goal for myself. Once I was a mother again, I would be able to drink from this mug. It became a talisman of what needed to happen. It had to happen. I need to be a mother again.

I choose this mug often now. Miriam is four years old. As I pour my coffee in and add my half ‘n half, I still can’t believe I made it through those years. I still can’t believe I have my perfect daughter, Miriam. I still can’t believe Noah is really gone.

Tangible things help us make sense of what is not tangible. The emotions that are too hard to sort through. The fears that are too big to rationalize. This mug stays the same as I change constantly. This mug waited for me. And I drink a lot of coffee.

 

Starting Forty-Nine

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Today I’m starting forty-nine. Forty-eight years came before this one. And each one of those years led me here.

I’m starting forty-nine with scarlet red hair. My sister-in-law, Sharon, seemed to sense what I needed for my jumbled pieces to fall into place. She surprised me with a trip to her hairdresser who brought out a younger version of me. The version that wasn’t afraid to stand out. The version that didn’t listen to naysayers. This scarlet colored hair makes me think it’s not too late. For anything.

I’m starting forty-nine chubby. I’m starting forty-nine putting everything into my writing. I’m starting forty-nine a few weeks shy of ten years of marriage. I’m starting forty-nine with holes in my underwear and socks. I’m starting forty-nine with a son in heaven and a daughter on earth. I’m starting forty-nine always exhausted but ready for everything. I’m starting forty-nine filled with fears and anxieties. I’m starting forty-nine as me.

My new scarlet red hair enters the room loudly while I’m still quietly observing. We work well together.

(Inner)Voices

 

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We’re talking about colors right now. I’m sitting on the bathroom rug and she’s in the bathtub.

“What’s your favorite color, Mom?” she asks in this crystal clear little voice. As I start to answer, she whispers the color she wants me to say.  I declare loudly “MY FAVORITE COLOR IS PIN…” and before I can finish saying the “k” sound, a tiny whisper says “no mommy, it’s green!”  I quickly correct myself loudly. “MY FAVORITE COLOR IS GREEN!” We do a few more rounds of this game. PURPLE! (no, blue!) BLUE! (no, teal!) I MEAN TEAL!! (yes, she’s four and loves the color teal)

I wonder what she does in school all day? From one activity to the next, I get snippets of reports on the way home. “I played Legos and dollhouse with Maddie and Lily! Then I do library and sand table and kitchen with Olivia and Gracie.”  I love picturing these little groupings of friends. How big her little classroom must seem to her at this age!

Her daily world is so small. But at the same time, it’s enormous. Expansive. Endless. It’s pretty similar to mine, really. Or any of us. Our mundane tasks get done while our minds wander. I ring up customers while I tell myself fictitious stories about their lives. I read and answer monotonous emails while thinking about my next short story. Or that trip to Dutch Wonderland we hope to take.

Not much in this world is more exciting than the imagination of a four year old. Miriam mixes “witch’s soup” with her green spoon in her watering can in the bathtub. She creates rescue missions with her stuffed animals in the slats of her headboard. She pretends to eat the Play-Doh spaghetti she makes nightly.

Our inner dialogue vs. the inner dialogue of a child can’t be too different, can it? We try to control our world internally while it assaults us externally. We stir up excitement in our minds as we go through our daily routine.  I learn so much from Miriam. How every moment is the opportunity for magic. Imagination. Daydreams.

I have this game I play with myself when I go to the bank drive-thru. (The uber friendly bank that prides itself on personal customer service) I send my cylinder filled with a deposit slip and ID into the tube. The teller greets me with a giant smile through the glass and calls me by my first name over and over through the intercom. It’s excessive but strangely pleasant.

“Will that be all today, Erica?”

“Are twenties ok, Erica?”

“Have a great weekend, Erica!”

I pretend I’m a famous movie star, depositing royalty checks. My appearance in the drive-thru makes this teller’s day. I live in this little town in New Jersey because I’m humble and simple despite being world famous and rich. I’m often seen around town with no makeup. I still drive my 2004 Jeep. I’m down to earth like that.

It’s ridiculous, I know. But it makes me feel special for a few minutes. It makes me wonder what it would be like to be someone else for a little while. It’s just a little harmless fantasy. It’s my inner dialogue having a little fun.

To be four years old with magic everywhere must be incredible! I’m going to harness Miriam’s surplus energy and try to make my small world bigger. Through imagination. Through my inner dialogue. I cheer myself on from the inside while protecting myself on the outside.

Mourning Their Littleness…

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This is my rocking chair. It was my rocking chair with Noah. I remember shopping for it in Babies ‘R Us like it was yesterday. It was the softest and the widest and my 9 months pregnant body fit in it. Sold. My head was filled with the first time mom images. Perfect breast feeding sessions and storytimes and cuddling and Mary Cassatt-like moments. There is nothing like being a first time mom. The excitement and non-stop reading like it was a test you would be given on your due date. The advice and knowing smiles from the pros. The sisterhood that comes to the rescue if you say the word. Because we all know what it’s really like. The Good, The Great, and The Ugly.

I kept my rocking chair after Noah died. I’m not sure why. After all, we even got rid of our couch because that was too hard to look at-let alone sit on- without him. The rocking chair came with us to our next childless apartment. It stayed in the corner in the front sunroom across from where Noah’s guinea pigs played in their cage. They didn’t seem to know he was gone. There was usually one or both of our cats curled up in the seat, almost like place savers for me. They made my rocking chair look alive and loved instead of gloomy and deserted. Cats are good like that. I never sat in it. Not once. It was a monument to what we didn’t have.

About five years ago, my friend Ina wrote me one of many letters saying something that hit me hard. She herself lost her almost five year old son, Luca, in an accident. It’s been about twenty years now I believe. She has three other children and watching them grow is bittersweet. That part I understand. Watching them get to milestones Luca and Noah never will. Ina wrote back in my early days of loss of “mourning for the little children her growing children now were becoming.” I wasn’t able to really understand back then. I was still so numb and hopeless and simply sad. At least, I thought, you have other children. At that point we weren’t sure it would happen for us again.

But tonight I sat in the rocking chair while Miriam sang herself to sleep in her bed. The thirteen songs of The Trolls soundtrack. She was still wide awake by song number nine so she got out of bed and came to sit in my lap. We cuddled and held hands. I tried to synch our breathing patterns just like when she was a baby. I stroked her hair and touched her lightly behind her ears. “Pet me, Mommy!” she says.

I stared down at the top of her head and thought about what Ina had said in her letter years ago. I was now in the stage of mourning her littleness. I am hanging onto every bit of baby Miriam I can. She will grow on her own just fine. She doesn’t need me to push her any faster. And maybe it’s a little selfish, but I’m never going to turn down one of these nights in this rocking chair. This rocking chair has been through the ringer. I’m so glad it’s stayed strong. Because the payoff is beyond belief.

 

Trolls Lessons

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This is my new karaoke machine! Um, I mean Miriam’s new karaoke machine. And the soundtrack is Trolls. Miriam is singing her small head off and sometimes she lets me join in. This song is speaking my language. Damn it, Justin Timberlake!  You are so damn talented.

Get Back Up Again (lyrics by Justin Timberlake)

I really hope I can do it
‘Cause they’re all depending on me
I know that I must leave the only home
I’ve ever known
And brave the dangers of the forest
Saving them before they’re eaten
I mean, how hard can that be?

Looking up at a sunny sky, so shiny and blue
And there’s a butterfly
Well, isn’t that a super fantastic sign
It’s gonna be a fantastic day
Such marvelousness it’s gonna bring
Gotta pocket full of songs that I’m gonna sing
And I’m ready to take on anything
Hooray!

Some super fun surprise around each corner
Just riding on a rainbow, I’m gonna be okay

Hey!
I’m not giving up today
There’s nothing getting in my way
And if you knock knock me over
I will get back up again
Oh!
If something goes a little wrong
Well you can go ahead and bring it on
‘Cause if you knock knock me over, I will get back up again

Woah oh oh oh oh oh oh, get back up again
Woah oh oh oh oh oh oh, ahhhh!

I’m marching along I’ve got confidence
I’m cooler than a pack of peppermints
And I haven’t been this excited since
I can’t remember when!

I’m off on this remarkable adventure
Just riding on a rainbow
What if it’s all a big mistake?
What if it’s more than I can take?
No! I can’t think that way ’cause I know
That I’m really, really, really gonna be okay

Hey!
I’m not giving up today
There’s nothing getting in my way
And if you knock knock me over
I will get back up again
Oh!
If something goes a little wrong
Well you can go ahead and bring it on
‘Cause if you knock knock me over, i will get back up again

(Get up, get up, get up) woah oh oh oh oh oh oh
Get back up again
(Get up, get up, get up) woah oh oh oh oh oh oh

I’m okay!

(Get up, get up, get up) woah oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
And if you knock knock me over, knock knock me over
I will get back up again

 

This is the ultimate self-affirmation song. Forget that it’s sung by a small pink troll. This is an important song.

Let’s dissect.

Unhappy monsters are trying to eat the happy little trolls because the monsters believe that is the only way that they themselves can truly be happy. Woah. That is deep. Princess Poppy is terrified of these monsters too but she will brave her fears to save the happy ways of her people.

It’s a big mission. She has self-doubt. She has setbacks. But she has determination. And she repeatedly tells herself “it’s all gonna be okay.” She also wants the unhappy monsters to be happy too. She wants to show them, through her endless supply of rose-colored glasses, that you can be happy. Not just by devouring others, either.

Resilience. That is an underused word in our vocabulary. I don’t hear that word often but it seems to sum up so many feelings. If we’re not resilient, we cease to exist. Illness. Rejection. Disappointment. Relationships. Grief. Failure. Money. The resilience that Princess Poppy sings about is a rah-rah song for us all.

I’m obsessed with signs and symbols. Most of them only make sense to me. They’re like a little game I play with myself. Some days teetering on the edge of OCD, signs and symbols are my version of rose-colored glasses. Like Princess Poppy says:

“And there’s a butterfly
Well, isn’t that a super fantastic sign”

Today I took Miriam to the park. It was cold but beautiful. She was all rosy cheeks and smiles to be outside. We ran through the soccer field and climbed the bleachers. We played I-Spy. We climbed up the slides. While we ran back and forth until we were both breathless, I stopped in my tracks at this brown leaf.

“Miriam, what does this leaf look like?!” I asked.

“A BUTTERFLY!!!!” she yelled.

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It is my nature to dream. It is my nature to want to simply be happy. I’m not always successful. But I am resilient.

 

 

 

 

Make Light of the Situation

 

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I was once called “happy-go-lucky” and it was not meant as a compliment. I’d say that happened about fifteen years ago. That verbal exchange has since, ironically, become an inside joke for those closest to me.

I think about that label a lot. Happy-go-lucky. (I enjoy a word spelled with dashes)

Does that mean I’m an optimist? Maybe it was meant to imply that I can’t be taken seriously? Maybe, being a “happy-go-lucky” person, I perceive very serious situations as not so serious? Maybe it’s all a big joke to me? Frivolous, silly, ridiculous.

After my son Noah died in a swimming pool accident a few weeks shy of two years old, I was talking to a close friend about how well it always “appeared” I was doing. I never knew I had this auto-pilot setting. The “happy-go-lucky” girl in me felt obliged to make others happy, or at least comfortable, before myself. Even in the most serious of life’s events, that was still my instinct.

I’ve always deflected with humor. Although crying is what kept me from exploding due to fluid retention, it is the bodily function that made people the most uncomfortable.  Maybe they were afraid if they joined me in crying, they weren’t being supportive? Totally inaccurate. Or maybe they were afraid they’d make me feel worse? Totally impossible.

Judaism is wise when it comes to the rituals after someone has died. After Noah was buried at a graveside service with over 300 friends and family members surrounding us, the rabbi had everyone line up on either side of the path leading from the grave. My husband and I were to walk through this parting of people as a symbol of support. It is a beautiful tradition. But looking back on that moment, I even felt the need to greet everyone along the uneven bricks. I went from the most guttural of crying as I sat in a folding chair at my son’s burial to this politely smiling woman thanking everyone for being there. Of course, I was in shock. That is undeniable. But for some reason, I had the need to show them all I was okay. Which is ridiculous of course. I hugged and kissed and smiled and thanked my way through the friends that travelled so far to be there in a day’s notice. I comforted them by pretending to be anywhere remotely close to my right mind.

Noah died six years ago. We’ve since had a daughter we named Miriam that is sunshine incarnate. She just turned four. We named her Miriam after hearing “Miriam’s Song” sung in temple one Friday night. We were in the throes of grief and failed fertility treatments and hopelessness. And suddenly the happy-go-lucky version of me poked her head out and I whispered to my husband, “I like the name Miriam. If we have a girl, let’s name her Miriam, ok?”

So the label that was meant to diminish me actually is what sustains me. I never realized how “happy-go-lucky” I actually was until I needed to be. And now that character trait is what will push me through any difficult days to come until we’re done on this earth.

Of course “difficult” becomes a relative term after you lose a child.  I just found out my husband may be out of a job in the very near future. We are never more than a week ahead of bills. In fact, we are always behind. Dance classes and little family getaways are pipe dreams. And yes, I find myself freaking out a little. I’m also scared, frustrated, and sad. I search for that “happy-go-lucky” girl to remind myself that it will all be ok. We’re healthy and together with a roof over our heads and food to eat. Maybe “happy-go-lucky” actually means to know what’s real and not real. And to take most of it with a heavy dose of faith and a tiny grain of salt.

 

Mismatching Mugs For Love

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On one of our first dates, we wandered around a shopping village holding hands. I’m sure we both had iced coffees in our free hands. It was August of 2005.

We wandered into one of those kitchen supply stores. The ones that have little sampling stations throughout the store of fancy dips and fancy pretzels. Hal loves that stuff. We wandered separately and then together and then separately again. Down the aisles, looking at all the cute plates and gadgets and popcorn makers and hot chocolate sets and cheeseboards.

We knew from the first date we were done looking for each other. I had an inkling from one of the two dozen phone calls, before we even had our first date, that we would get married. Every item on the shelf in this kitchen store was like a crystal ball into the future that we had ahead of us. The home we would would set up. The meals we would have together. The mornings and the nights. I was pretty sure he felt the same way. I know I did.

We found ourselves at the wall of coffee mugs. They were “4 for $12” or something like that. Hal picked a dark blue and a purple. I already had a purple in my hand and was choosing my second color. We were going to get two mugs each for $6. The moment I saw Hal had already picked a purple mug, I instantly put mine back. I knew that these mugs were all going to live together in the same kitchen cabinet some day. I wanted them to make sense. I wanted four different colors. It was a very clear decision for me then. And it’s a very clear memory for me now. I picked light blue and green.

Those mugs got packed up to live together, as predicted, about 8 months later.

They’ve stayed mismatched throughout apartments and  jobs.

Babies and pets.

Healthy days and sick days.

Life and death days.

Happy, sad, and status quo days.

Times of fear, discontent, and times you just want to scream until you can’t scream anymore days. I hate those days.

Times of joy and excitement. Positivity. Optimism.

“Things are going to be alright” days.

“Whew, that was a close one!” days.

Our mug collection has grown over the years to epic proportions. We sold a bunch at a garage sale one year and still have too many more packed up in the attic. But these four mismatched mugs are always front and center in the kitchen cabinet. They bring me right back to that kitchen store in those early dating days. Before we could possibly could know what we had ahead of us. Those mismatched happy colors.

The perfect match is actually a mismatch sometimes.

 

Eat ‘Em Up…Yum

Just reminding myself of some things at a time of some stress…

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I put this whole pancake syrup container in my mouth at lunch the other day. Unopened. I was demonstrating to a friend the level of stress eating I was at lately. If it’s not nailed down and is remotely edible, I will put it in my mouth.

I’ve tried to start being more aware of what my triggers are. It’s like having an ‘out of body’ experience. I watch myself as I eat another unsatisfying and poorly made bagel with insane amounts of butter. Or another slightly stale cookie or potato chips.

It doesn’t matter if I have a protein bar, placed smugly in my purse that morning with the best intentions. I will eat that sucker too. And sometimes not even remembering the first bite to the last.

I can’t stress enough how I’ve never been a skinny mini. I’ve always liked to eat what I wanted when I wanted. It’s not the weight I’m…

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I’m That Mom Who Cries At Everything

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My mother was constantly caught off guard by commercials in the 70’s and 80’s. She would just stop and stare at the television , instantly engrossed in the Band-Aid brand tearjerker or Folger’s coffee warm and fuzzy wakeups with surprise visits from grown coffee drinking children. And every time the commercial came on, she would stop and watch it like it was the first time. And then she’d cry. Not a debilitating “crazy person” cry. But she would be teary-eyed for a few minutes as she went back to cooking or reading Good Housekeeping or admiring my brother’s latest Lego creation.

I didn’t understand the concept of ‘happy tears’ as a child. I’m not sure most kids do. I can remember asking why she was crying after one of those commercials had done their damage. “Because it was happy,” she would say.

I’ve never been a crier. I’ve found all it produced was a headache. Instead I would find myself deep in thought, bordering on meditation, when something very serious or sad happened. When all my brothers, our spouses, my nieces, and my father gathered around my mother’s hospital bed to take her off life support, I remember being very calm. I was more concerned about the comfort of everyone else. I didn’t want to break down. I just took in the moment. Removed myself and immersed myself simultaneously.

Three months later I suffered the worst loss. My two year old son, Noah, died in a swimming pool accident. He was our only child. Of course, shock played a big part in the non medically sedated state I usually I found myself in. I just went on auto pilot from day one. I had no idea I could do that. I just did. My husband needed me. I needed me.

Two and a half years later, I became a mother again. Miriam Phoenix was born and we were about to emerge from the worst and re-enter the best again. It was a happiness magnified by the most giant magnifying glass ever. It was also incredibly complicated. This sadness and happiness needed to make friends if we were going to be the parents Miriam deserved.

I found that the tears flowed more easily at the happy stuff. The firsts. The first time my husband spoon-fed her. The first time she mimicked my voice. The first time she kissed me before I could kiss her. The first time we all walked together, Miriam in the middle holding our hands. To everyone else we looked like a normal family. The grief was always going to be trailing behind us. I would always try to outrun it. But I was terrible in gym. And sometimes it caught up to me. But I didn’t cry. I just didn’t.

Miriam had her nursery school Holiday Show a few weeks ago. As I sat waiting for it to start, I looked around at all the other parents. They were laughing and commiserating and simply being normal. I waved to a few mothers I knew. I went back to being immersed and removed simultaneously. My mother bubble.

The show started with the older kids. They filed out in front of the giant bulletin board decorated with construction paper candy canes and dreidels in one white-shirted line.

And I lost it. I started crying. This wasn’t even my child’s class! I just cried and felt it all so strongly. I glanced around at how many of the other parents were unaffected by the cuteness of this. How hard these kids worked on this show! Learning their songs and their adorable hand motions. I was overwhelmed. This will never happen again. These kids. These songs. How can you not cry?

Miriam’s class was next. My cheeks hurt from smiling at her. She was so proud. She loved the audience. She was totally in the moment. I cried. I looked around to see if I could find any fellow criers. Nope. Not a one.  Maybe it’s me. I want more criers in my club. Happy criers love company.

I will continue to cry at every Back to School night. Every teachers conference. Every time Miriam pushes me out of the door of her classroom and says “Mommy, gimme a kiss. And a biiiiiig hug” and throws in a “see-you-later-have-a-nice-day!”

In fact, the happy tears rolled down my cheeks just this morning. Miriam woke me around 6:30 am to tell me that she was having so much fun in her new big girl bed. And then she went back to sleep.  I just let the tears roll and eventually went back to sleep myself. I will cry happy tears every day and I encourage you all to do the same. And let’s all meet up in the tissue aisle one day, ok?

 

 

 

 

Hang Your Cape on the Door

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The one-eyed cat is running frantically back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom. The fat lazy cat is sitting in the laundry basket that is finally empty after an hour of folding clothes I don’t even remember anybody wearing. The basket is still a little warm somehow and she is not budging. It’s midnight and I am hanging up my cape for the day. A little glass of sake will swirl and swish around in my brain just enough so that I’ll be able to sleep.

Because quite honestly, it’s not going well right now. Let me clarify. It’s actually going just fine. Certainly a zillion times better than it’s going for many other people. But I was just aggravated today for so many tiny things. I can list them.

-It’s all going by so fast. And that makes me sad and pisses me off.

-I feel exhausted most of the time. I feel aches and pains that I know I shouldn’t but my extra pounds and lack of exercise time contribute to feeling like a blob of a woman.

-I let the world of Facebook pictures get to me sometimes. I know it’s bullshit. Those kids are not perfect all the time. I’m jealous of their vacation. I’m jealous of the fact that they have more than one kid. I’m ashamed of the pasta and chicken nugget meals with zero vegetables we end up eating most of the time. I’m too tired to argue.

-I lose it sometimes. I don’t yell. But I freeze in this defeated state and my eyes tear up and sometimes an actual tear rolls down my cheek. Not often but sometimes.

-I have small anxiety attacks. I worry about money and jobs. I worry about our health. I worry about our safety.

-I wonder if we’ll ever get to Disneyworld. Or even back to Dutch Wonderland.

-I question my parenting. I know I’ve got the fun part down. I’m a really fun mom. But I worry about the other stuff. I know there’s no handbook. My mother never used one. And I turned out just fine.

Just like the old motherly saying of “everything will be better in the morning” I wait to see if that’s true. I hang up my cape. Actually its my daughter’s cape. But I can pretend they make it in my size. Because they should.