Loss and Gain

I challenge you to present to me a person who has not experienced loss of one kind or another.  In return, I will give you $1,000,000.00.  Take your time, this could take a while.  Guessing you are still thinking because, as best I can tell, that person simply does not exist.  (Nor, for that matter, does the million dollars I just offered up, so it is all good.) Some loss is welcome: weight, debt and toxic relationships come to mind.  The vast majority of loss, however, sucks.  Or does it?

In the past several years, I have lost my breasts (to cancer), my father (fuckin’ cancer again), my son (to become my daughter), my marriage and soon, my oldest child (when he leaves for college in September).  Yes, that last loss is clearly a huge gain for him, but the guttural feeling remains the same.  No matter what precipitates the loss, you are still left without something which you had, leaving a void that will, at some point, need to be filled.  The question is how.

I was just 39 when the mammography technician escorted me to a small, private room following my imaging.  I instinctively knew that nothing good was going to happen in that room, yet it truthfully never occurred to me that I was about to be told I had breast cancer.  Why it was a shock is a mystery to me: my mother had been diagnosed when she was 41 at a time when young women simply did not get breast cancer.  Apparently, I had the arrogance of youth coursing through my veins, and it kicked my ass.  With two little boys at home (yep, they were both boys then) and a father and father-in-law that were both fighting their own cancer battles, I straight up did not have the emotional, physical or mental capacity for this.  But, guess what?  No one gave me a choice.  I liked my breasts well enough.  Were they as fantastic as they had been in my twenties?  Well, no, but they were mine and I would have preferred to keep them.  The surgeon told me at our first meeting that there was “no chance of breast conservation”…so there you have it.  File under: a loss.  It could have been much worse and as other friends of mine have faced this diagnosis I have seen just how easily I got off.  I had excellent reconstruction and if you want to get literal, I also lost the need to wear a bra.

When my father died at 68 from lung cancer I was as prepared as I could have been.  In fact, he far outlived his initial diagnosis which would have taken his life within the year as opposed to the nearly three that he rallied.  I recall a friend asking me once if I was prepared for his death.  “Hell, no!”  In fact, he did such a great job of living with cancer that it was easy to forget that those toxic cells had taken up residency in his lungs and brain.  The day he died he was pummeled by a stroke while getting dressed to go to the office.  I was, I guess, somewhat emotionally prepared, but the loss of his presence is felt every day.  Despite the warning, ultimately he was here one moment, gone the next.

I did not lose a child.  I shudder to even think of that.  No, I did not lose a child, but I did lose a son.  I used to live with a rambunctious, wild, rough and tumble little boy who seemed to be following in the footsteps of his older brother.  His name was George and the old-fashioned lilt of his name only made him cuter, his incorrigibility slightly more endearing.  Being the second born, he had secured my spot in the “mom of boys” society which, as I have written before, is a membership which anyone with the title wears (mostly) with pride and (always) with empathy for their female brethren.  Jessie is still the same person, in many ways.  She is not, however, the little boy I spent ten years trying to understand.  I love and adore Jessie, but I did lose George.

My marriage is a subject not for these pages.  I will only say that Rich was (and continues to be) one hundred percent supportive and respectful of Jessie’s transition.  I have often mentioned (and marveled at) his willingness to enter (and not run out screaming) The American Girl store on a busy Saturday when I simply could not.  The disintegration of our marriage was not related to either of our children, no matter their gender.  That being said, it is still a loss.

And now, as Harrison’s graduation from high school is just a few short weeks away, I am acutely aware of how different things will be around here once he has packed up and moved out.  The dynamic in the house will, yet again, change.  His absence will be palpable.  There will be one less car in the driveway, no more need for S’Mores ingredients to be at the ready, my lawn will overgrow more quickly and that fucking litter box will become my responsibility.  The sound of his iPhone shaking him awake, the errant hairs in the sink after he has shaved, the three clinks of his toothbrush against the porcelain to rid it of water after he has brushed, the incessant banging on the doorbell by his bestie Alex each and every time he is here (which is often), the piling of his swimsuits on the side of the tub after practice and his otherwise uncharacteristic impatience with Jessie will all be memories only to be revisited on school breaks.  The silence of his sounds will be deafening, but I will, once again, adjust to the loss.  He is off for great things.

Loss can very well beget gain.  My breast cancer took my breasts, but gave me the strength to be able to say, “I can do this” and (usually) mean it.  My father’s death took my dad, but left me with him sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, reminding me that “everything works out”.  George’s transition to Jessie took my son, but gifted me with a daughter who has more strength and chutzpah than I would ever dream to have.  The end of my marriage took my security and longevity, but left me with a friend and co-parent who knows all about every loss and gain.  And, finally, my loss of Harrison to the hallowed halls of UMASS is truly a gain of a fiercely kind and independent young man who is off and running.

Yes, I have had loss. So, too, have you and everyone you know.  There are days that I wallow in it and hover dangerously close to a “woe is me” frame of mind but, in the end, I know that it is all part of life. If I didn’t have these losses, I would most certainly have others and I might, as a result, have fewer gains.  That said, please, dear G-d, to not take that as an invitation to offer up any more losses in a quest to challenge me.  Deal?

As I write this the death toll in Oklahoma continues to be tallied in the wake of a vicious tornado ripping through town.  The loss there is incomprehensible: homes, schools, pets and lives. It is made even more horrible given the complete lack of warning for what lay ahead.  The only thing worse than loss, in my mind, is not having any idea it is coming and not being able to see clear as to what you are also gaining.  I’ve seen this over and over again as the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, many of whom have lost limbs, continue to emerge, each and every one of them all seemingly appreciative of what the loss has helped them to gain.  Unthinkable events can, in fact, make us stronger.

A Taste of Northern Comfort

My personal world had been a little crazy for years now.  The day-to-day has brought, along with the same challenges we all face, a host of particularly unique issues, many of which I have shared.  Throughout each ordeal I have sought out varying avenues by which to cope: shopping, eating, not eating (that one didn’t last longer than an hour or so) exercising, writing, shutting down.  You name it, I’ve tried it.  I’ve sought comfort from wherever it might be hiding, hoping against hope, to find the elusive solace we all crave.

This week, I was one of those folks in lockdown as two angry, misguided, dangerous, disgraceful, clearly unstable assholes er, young men, started their day by detonating two bombs at The Boston Marathon. Then, in an apparent need for more (more what: carnage? death? fame?) took their show on the road shooting and killing an officer at MIT, maiming a transit officer and doing everything in their power to terrorize not just the City of Watertown, but the entire Boston area.  I know no one personally who was hurt…physically, that is.  As for the psychological hit?  Everyone got that one.

I work at The Container Store.  For the uninformed (read: those not fortunate enough to have one in their area), we carry everything one could possibly imagine (and an equal amount of items you could not even imagine, but do so need) to organize your home. No, make that your life.  When I arrived for my shift mid afternoon on Saturday (along with everything else in Boston, it was closed for the duration of the lockdown) the store was crazy busy.  At first blush it struck me odd: why were all these people, on the heels of the insanity of the week we’d just endured, filling their carts to the brim with containers and solutions and boxes and shelving?  What was wrong with us all: had we already forgotten what had happened?  But as I tossed that idea around in my head, it immediately struck me: everyone was simply trying to feel some control…even if only over their spice rack.  And I cannot say I blame them.

All day long during the lockdown I was trolling Facebook.  If I wasn’t following the newsfeed on my laptop, I was checking it on my Kindle.  Or my phone.  I had the news on, too: flipping between the three local stations and CNN.  I hopped over to boston.com and aol.com, but was more interested in what my friends were saying and sharing than listening to the media.  In whatever form, I simply couldn’t step away from the onslaught of, if we are being truthful, no new information.  About halfway through the afternoon I noticed on the sidebar of (the now public, read: ad-ridden) Facebook, a suggestion for a shoe I might like based, I am assuming, on my (many) previous searches on Zappos.  In the matter of about fifteen seconds, I clicked on the image, scrolled down to my size, added it to my cart and checked out.  I needed comfort, dammit, and I was gonna get it.

I felt better, if only for a moment.  I anticipate feeling better again when the shoes arrive in the familiar black and white box, although I do wonder if I will forever associate the neutral toned wedges with a day that will be etched in my memory just as 9/11 is.  Who knew a pair of (totally cute) shoes could hold so much weight?  Who knew that the desperate need for comfort would run so deep?

I updated my Facebook status at around 4:00 that day:

I am not a religious person. In fact, I am a strictly High Holiday gal. That said, I want to go to services tomorrow morning – just for the calm and community. This is so surreal, insane and alienating. 

Moments later, I began getting texts, phone calls and emails offering to attend with me (some of those offering aren’t even Jewish!) We were all in need of something other than the news which was unfolding down the street.  We all needed comfort.  As I climbed into bed later that night, having just learned that asshole suspect #2 was apprehended I couldn’t bear the silence in my room.  I clicked the television on and aggressively searched for a station that was oblivious to the unraveling of the world, ultimately landing on an episode of “The Nanny”.  It was all I could handle. (Aside: The following morning I did not wind up going to services.  I did, however, go to my gym, which happens to be a JCC (so it was kinda like going to services, just different attire) only to discover that it was so crowded that I had to park in Siberia.  Methinks I was surrounded by others seeking solace.)

Today, nearly two days after the nightmare ended, I still see unending signs of comfort-seeking.  In the early afternoon I pulled into the parking lot of the supermarket to purchase ingredients for what I consider one of the ultimate comfort foods (chili) to find the place mobbed.  It was a beautiful afternoon, one which would normally find the Boston faithful running around one of the many reservoirs or the Charles relishing the sun (that we haven’t seen all winter) and the warmer temperatures, saving their marketing for later in the day.  Instead, seemingly every single person on the planet was at the grocery store, filling their carts the way they do in anticipation of the next snow storm…not for fear of being locked down again, but, in my estimation, as a means to gain the elusive control we all want to sorta kinda feel like we have.  Having sustenance would make everyone feel better, in control of, if nothing else, their ability to pig out.  People were happily bumping into friends and acquaintances, stopping to talk.  Really talk.  To connect and laugh.  (Oh, that was me.  It took me three times longer to do my shopping than it should have having been fortunate enough to run into several people I know, not wanting to end the chatter and the connection.)

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I personally have not heard a lot of discussion about the specifics of Marathon week.  That could be a reflection of the people I surround myself with.  Or it could be indicative of the exhaustion we are all attempting to conquer.  “My” people seem to be less interested in talking about it and more interested in connecting.  They are exercising, they are shopping and they are eating (or not eating, which, frankly, I still cannot understand.)  Some, I suspect, are doing as I have done and are writing while others are shutting down.  All acceptable as far as I am concerned as long as it is brings them (us, you, me) closer to peace.

If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

If you are at peace you are living in the present.

–          Lao Tzu