“Though much is taken, much abides…”

Much is taken

This week, my father would have been eighty years old. He always said he didn’t want to live past eighty, which horrified me at the time. I wonder if he’d have felt that way if he had lived until 79. But anyway, he didn’t make to 80. Or to 79. Or to see his grandson, or take his granddaughter to the playground. He has been gone for an awfully long time now. I want to celebrate his milestone birthday with my kids. But how can I celebrate without him?

Well, that was all taken. And what else? COVID has been going on since March. The end of my kids’ preschool and kindergarten was snatched from them. I was particularly sad about preschool because I’d found a really unique preschool that my kids attended for two years–even before COVID I was feeling sad that we had only a few more weeks left. The Wednesday before school closed on Friday, I came down with the flu and couldn’t go. So no chance to say goodbye to all the kids or their parents whom I’d gotten to know, or the teachers I’d trusted my kids with for two years.

My hair has turned gray. I’m not sure when it started, but it has accelerated a lot. I feel old.

Much Abides

My mom had cancer. My dad had cancer.

I don’t have breast cancer.

A few weeks ago I went in for my first mammogram. I figured it’d be fine; just a screening exam. I have no family history of breast cancer, and no real risk factors. Of course it wasn’t. I got called back. There were two findings, one probably nothing and one had a 50% chance of being malignant. Maybe mammograms don’t hurt for some people. Boy did they hurt for me, and they kept hurting for a week.

Anyway I had to go in for a breast biopsy. It was a long and scary week waiting for the biopsy. It was also a long few days until I got the results. I think it was my mom and dad having cancer, and having lost my dad, that made it hard to go through that. In fact, I pretty much lost my mind. Other people seem to face these things calmly; now I know I don’t.

Anyway, I had a benign tumor, and life resumed. I thought I’d be happy after that negative diagnosis, but the fear has taken a while to wear off. I guess this is why some professional societies don’t recommend mammograms at my age. You get screened, you have some benign tumor that probably would have disappeared on its own in a few years anyway, and then you have this awful anxiety-inducing biopsy experience that leaves you with a 14 gauge hole in you.

My husband has a job. A real job. We bought a house. My son turned five and is definitely a boy now, not a baby.

Thanks to COVID I’m not sure my job is secure, but at the moment it does seem to be stable. And really, I’m tired. I’d love to quit for a year and write a novel, or at least some short stories, and poems. It’s strange being in midlife; you really become aware that time is moving quickly and the clock is running down, and you have to make it count. Your older relatives, great uncles and great aunts, begin to die and the younger ones being born don’t really quite make up for that loss. My friend told me his mom, at 90+ was tired of living. I think probably after a while one gets weary of loss. Your parents, your spouse, your friends, maybe your siblings if you live that long.

I’m not there yet. I didn’t want to join my dad yet.

I am grateful for the roses in my garden that I inherited from the previous owner of this house. It is the first time in a long time that I’ve had a garden (including lilies). I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

So that’s where things are. I am OK.


It has been almost five years since my dad died. I have been forgetting.

I found an old voice mail and I listened to the sound of his voice, which I hadn’t really forgotten, but the memory wasn’t as fresh and at my fingertips as the recording. I forget exactly the things he used to say.

But along with this forgetting, I have also forgotten the pain of his final days, and the great emptiness after.

Half done

Someone told me the only remarkable thing about your 40th birthday was that you stopped dreading turning 40.

And that’s been sort of true.  I had a wonderful birthday; it was a Friday.  I took the day off work.   The kids had a Mother’s Day celebration at school and so a bunch of 2-5 year olds sang me happy birthday.   My mom and I watched their performance.   In the evening, I took the kids to a local lemon orchard.  I don’t know what I had expected to happen, but it was one of the happiest days of my life.

I am so much happier at 40 than I was at 30.  I am no longer worried about meeting the right person, and I am no longer under the clock to have kids.  After spending almost my entire life in cold places, I live where I always wanted to live, in a warm place.  My husband is in fellowship which (in some ways) is less bad than his residency was. My career is finally in a situation where I enjoy my daily work and there is a heavy technical component.  I earn more than I used to.  Statistically, my fertility is likely gone but that doesn’t hurt as much as I would have expected…even if my body worked, I am physically and mentally tired, and I don’t feel that I would be able to raise more kids at this point anyway.  I had no idea how hard it was, especially the newborn period.

But despite the positives, of course I am scared. The immutable fact is that the glass is half empty now.  And the part that is full…who knows what the dregs will contain.  I saw both of my parents suffer with cancer and it was terrifying.  There is more loss ahead of me, assuming I am lucky and live out my natural lifespan.  My mom will go one day.  My kids will grow up and move away, and maybe I will be dependent on them for basic life needs.  Statistically I will probably outlive my husband.  My hair is greying and my body aging, and my friends have been saying they are old for years.

My kids are growing up, slowly and fast–“the days are long and the years are short” and all. I love and am enchanted by the people they are, and yet sometimes I also miss the little people they were; how they didn’t understand anything at all about the world, and therefore were entertained by the smallest things–a new shape, or a color. They don’t remember those little people, either. So I am alone with those memories.

As I grow older, the memories of my youth seem to stand out more. A summer trip to India when I was 10 stands out above almost all the rest. I remember that trip as among the happiest times of my life. It was a different kind of happy than becoming a mom, though that was of course a joyous occasion also. The thing was that childbirth was (along with the joy) scary and painful and exhausting, and since I hadn’t raised kids before, I didn’t really understand what was ahead. I was reliving it all this morning, and I just realized that while I cut my daughter’s cord, I don’t remember who cut my son’s. I suppose one of the medical personnel must have done it. Those memories though, stand out too. Such is memory–most ordinary days fall through the sieve; a few, though, remain forever. Someone said they make a soft pillow to lay one’s head on in old age.

Five years on

A few days ago marked five years since my dad fell in the snow, which was the first symptom of his brain cancer.

We no longer live where there is any snow.  But some things don’t leave you.

I didn’t know it was the anniversary, because I hadn’t checked the calendar.  But I knew it when I went to bed.  I closed my eyes and I was in the room he died in, and I saw his spirit rush out of his chest like a green-blue honeycomb of light.  My son had a rattle with that pattern, which is the sort of random nonsensical association that one makes in half-asleep dreams.  In my dream, I remembered the Hindu teaching that the body is temporary; but the soul is eternal.

And then suddenly I was in the room here and now, and the light formed a honeycomb around me and he was here, and my own light came out of my chest and joined his.  And I was so afraid it was a dream and I would lose him again that I sobbed and sobbed.  I had a bad cold and my nose clogged from all the sobbing.  And of course I checked the date and it was almost midnight, on the day that five years ago he fell in the snow.

A therapist would call this the “anniversary reaction.”

It happens every year.  I don’t ever consciously know it is the date, but the heart knows and the body knows, I guess.

Three months left

I will turn 40 in three months.  It is a milestone I am really afraid of; the first half of life is building up, and the second half is ramping down–a long goodbye…goodbye to health, and beauty, and youth (if one is fortunate), and ultimately to life and everything and everyone that one loves.  Maybe it all happens slowly, so that there is time to prepare.  Maybe, by the time one is close to the end, one accepts and welcomes it.

Have I done everything in my life that I wanted to?  For the most part, I have.  I married, I had kids, I have been semi-successful at my career; I have published writing.  The one thing I haven’t managed is to lose weight and keep it off, but I am perpetually working on that.

I am worried today that I am about to lose my best friend.  We normally text every day, and it has been three days.  I have seen the friend post on social media and answer people there; I have seen the friend active on other platforms.  I guess the friend has been answering me less and less–they volunteered the other day that they were busy but no less fond of me.  I don’t know whether to take that at face value or not.  I have been feeling a bit tight in my stomach today, wondering what it is I might have done or said wrong.  And wondering why the friend didn’t tell me, or give me a chance to fix it.

Maybe the friend really is just busy.  Or maybe the friendship is dying.  I haven’t asked or said anything.  I don’t want to be needy.

I once mentioned to this friend that I wrote fiction.  The friend badgered me until I gave away my pen name.  Now I wonder if I am about to lose the friend.  The same with an ex of mine–he too pushed and pushed until I gave him my pen name.  Then he left.  And I am left knowing that he left my life, but still has access to my private thoughts.  I suppose all writers have that problem.

Four years on

Today, four years ago, my father died.

Four years.  That is a presidential term; the interval between Olympics; the space in which my newborn son became a boy with opinions all his own.   It is the length of high school, or college, or a medical residency in some specialties.  I don’t know if four years is a short time or a long one.  As I age it seems shorter; both an eternity and a moment.

Out of necessity, I have built a life without my father in it.  He has not seen my new job, my new house, the place I live now, or his grandson.  He did not see the current presidency.  Sometimes I think of fathers as something in another universe; something other people have.  Sometimes I miss him terribly.  I find I have trouble looking at photos, or listening to saved voice messages.  Sometimes it is easier to put him and it out of my mind; when I see photos or hear his voice I am reminded what I lost.  I dream of him sometimes, and the dreams are still painful.

This year I moved across the country to a place with no fall colors.  The house where he died (and where I grew up) is for sale.  We have lowered the price twice, but nobody is buying it.  It makes me sad that the house that meant so much to us isn’t worth anything to anyone else.

The last three years, around this time of year I have become uneasy, anxious, and depressed without even realizing that I had come to associate early fall with his death.  I wanted to take the day off work.  Here on the other side of the country, those subconscious triggers don’t exist.  Here it is always summer.  I am not surrounded by the house where he died, or the places we went together.  His things are in my garage, packed away in boxes.  I don’t know if it feels harder or easier to have lost those connections.

I miss him, but in a different way than I did nearly four years ago when I wondered how I could go on.  The missing is like wallpaper; it is there and visible, but life goes on around it.  The horror of the last days is there, but the edges are dulled.  I have not Googled his cancer in a long time; how he died does not matter any more, only that he is not here.

I am more at peace with the fact that this life may be all there is, and that I may not see him again.  Because I haven’t seen him in a long time anyway.

The memories that stick out in my mind are like the little points of flour that remain when the rest has fallen through the sifter:  A walk in the park; a swim in the park pool; a trip to the Indian restaurant in Cambridge MA.  They were once mundane, and now are incomparable rarities that I touch in my mind, knowing the mold is broken, and no more will be made.  And let that remind me to live my days well, because one day my children may remember our trips to the park, or our adventures in our old house, in the same way.

Sept. 11: Seventeen Years

Where was I on 9/11? I was beginning my second year of graduate school. It was a beautiful New England September day. I had my first ever presentation in front of other grad students and my advisor in two days, and had planned to spend the day preparing. As I was arriving at the physics building, I walked by construction workers in a pickup truck blasting news radio, and thought it was odd. When I got to my office, my officemate and his wife told me that planes had crashed into the WTC.
My dad was at work in one of the areas that was on the news. I called for what seemed like hours until the phone finally connected. I somehow (I don’t believe I had a cell phone yet) connected with my then best friend, and waited for her. A British couple, not having heard, I guess, asked me directions.  My friend and I went to one of the big lecture halls and watched on CNN.

Eventually I went home; I was unable to focus at all on preparing my presentation the following day, and it ended up not going that well. There were no planes at all overhead, except fighter jets.

I simply can’t believe it’s been 17 years, because the memories of that day are fresh for me, and vivid.  There is an entire generation of kids, including mine, who don’t remember that day.  I guess all of history are like that; Pearl Harbor Day, major wars…at the time they are so much a part of the collective experience that you can’t imagine anybody NOT having been touched by it.  But slowly time passes, and eventually there is nobody living who has a firsthand memory.

For sure, those of us who were alive that day will never forget.

I remember how open airports were before–how you could walk up to the gate and say goodbye to your loved ones; buy an open ticket and show up at the airport, as though you were boarding a bus, and be where you wanted within hours.  All of that changed, I guess permanently.  I wouldn’t even remember myself, except that I made an effort to.

Our kids won’t remember the time when things were simpler; when it never occurred to anyone that a plane could be used as a bomb.  That makes me sad.

Strange Dreams

Well, here we are on the other side of the country.  Last week I finally got new car plates, which I guess breaks my last legal tie to my old home.

For the last two nights, I’ve had strange dreams.

In the first, I was in grad school again, awaiting my thesis defense.   Which is a usual variant of a dream I have. Except this time–for the first time–my PhD was in my new field, not the original one that I did my PhD in.  The work I was presenting was the work I had done post-PhD.  And I felt OK about it.  I woke up at 5 a.m., fell back asleep and re-entered the dream a few times.  I just remember one of the series; I was in a dorm room–not one I recognize.  A grad school classmate of mine named Jason walked in.  I remember wondering how he could just walk into my dorm room and feeling somewhat powerless.  His blonde girlfriend was with him and they started making out.  My walls were decorated with loudly colorful photos of Hindu gods that I had gotten from the temple; I remembered putting them up not because I was religious, but because I had no wall art and I assumed nobody would ever visit me.  Jason and his girlfriend started making out, which was in contrast with the traditional Hindu deities all around, and I felt quite uncomfortable.

Jason left.  She asked me how it had been, balancing work and family.  I felt old, and said it had been very, very hard.  As I spoke she started crying and I recognized that she must be pregnant herself and worried.  I held her and for some reason started crying too, but also wondering why I was crying.  When I woke up we were crying together.

Then in last night’s dream, I was back in my childhood home.  There was a tornado coming.  I remember seeing the funnel cloud, which was a double funnel, then thinking back to whether in my waking life I had ever seen a real funnel cloud (I’m not sure; I saw many things I think might have been funnels).  There was some sort of inspector visiting, as was my dad’s whole family.  I can’t remember if my dad was there too.  We all went into the basement with a weather radio and huddled there.  The inspector was proud because by the time he got there we were all already in the basement.  In the end I think the tornado missed us, and I woke up.

Our transition to the other end of the country has been okay.  The place we live now is much more diverse than the ones we left.  There are cultural activities for my kids within easy driving distance.  The downside is that I have a lot more responsibility than I did at our old home.  I see my husband much less…back in residency, he would have five or six bad rotations in a year where he arrived home very late; now it’s the same thing every day and it’s like a permanent bad rotation.  I am tired almost all the time.

Moving day approaches

My mom said today that there were three phases of her marriage; before kids, while raising me, and after.  She said that the phase where she and my dad grew apart was when they had me.  That before me, her marriage was like an extended six year honeymoon.  Then with me, there was financial strain and other strain.  Then after I left for college, things became wonderful again.  That in retirement they were always together and very much in love.

At the age of 39 I heard my mom say, for the first time, that if she hadn’t had kids, she wouldn’t have regretted it.  I don’t know what that means, exactly.   I don’t feel bad that she said it, though perhaps I ought.  I never felt unloved.  It’s hard work raising kids, but in my case if I had not, I think I very much would have regretted it.