"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Time Passes, Memories Fade, the Heart Heals

Sometimes I long to go back to the days when the passage of time meant simply that, nothing more. Now it means so much more to me than just time marching forward. Thankfully, I'm long past the days when I kept track of each hour, day, and then week that passed, each one marking my loss. During those days I would wake each morning equally amazed and dismayed to realize I was still here, and that my heartache and loss hadn't disappeared during the night.

Today, 2 1/2 years after the day the world and my life as I knew it ceased to exist, I no longer mark time's passing with such sadness. As hard as it is knowing I've lived 2 1/2 years without my sister, I'm also at peace. As much as I can't stand cliches, it really is true that time helps heal all things. Not long ago I listened to this song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. The lyrics describe almost perfectly how I feel. The living, breathing, vibrant, funny, mercurial Julie that I knew is fading away, replaced with softer, faded memories of her no longer tinged with heartbreaking grief and sadness. I'm letting go, and that's okay.

This is for you Jules. Gone, but never forgotten...XO

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mehndi Memories

The travel bug is biting me again. Lately I've been dreaming of another big adventure. The news of a fire in a Dhaka, Bangladesh slum just about a mile from where my brother and sister-in-law lived reminded me it's already been two years since my last trip somewhere faraway. As I read the reports of the fire, my memories of that trip came flooding back to me. I was there exactly two years ago this week. Sometimes it almost doesn't seem real that I was there, and other times I remember things like it was yesterday. It hardly seems possible that in the midst of such a chaotic, upside down year that I was able to pull it together enough to make it happen. If you're wondering what took me to Bangladesh, I wrote about it here and here

Last night I looked through this photo album I made of the trip. Looking at the pictures brought so many sounds and smells of Bangladesh back to me, and a strong craving for some delicious, sweet tea! I could almost taste the flat bread that was served with nearly every meal, and I really wanted some hard boiled eggs like the ones we had each morning in Srimongal. Why did they taste so much better there than they do at home? Everything tasted better there, as you can see by this picture of me loaded down with my daily supply of sightseeing snacks. It's funny to think that I was worried about not being able to eat while I was there. If it weren't for all the walking and profuse sweating I did, I would have come home at least ten pounds heavier!
Travel to foreign places and exposure to cultures and traditions that are different from mine is exciting, but it also helps me appreciate the everyday things I take for granted, like sour cream and onion Pringles and Sprite. Their ready availability at home makes me immune to the simple pleasure they can bring. Finding them across the world delighted me and made me savor every delicious bite. But I think what I like the most about traveling is how it connects me to the world. There's nothing like seeing how other people live, even those in one of the poorest countries in the world, to remind me how similar we all are. Whether someone is a poor rickshaw driver living with their family in a slum, a wealthy business owner, or just an average middle class American like me, we all treasure the same things--family, friends, security, love and companionship. 
This picture I took of a young village girl is framed and hanging in my home. I often look at her face and wonder what she looks like now, and what her life holds in store for her. Not long ago I mused out loud to Mike about what her life will be like. He said she'll never have anything. I disagree. Look at those eyes, see the sparkle and the happiness in them? She may not have anything by my standards, but that doesn't mean her life is less than mine in any way. Her world and her future will be vastly different than mine, but that doesn't mean that she won't be just as happy and fulfilled in her life as I will be. I don't know this girl's name, and I never will, but every day I look into her eyes and am reminded that every life is important, and every person deserves basic human dignity and respect. That's a realization I don't think I could have ever fully understood without traveling to Bangladesh, and a lesson that I'll always remember and be forever grateful for. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ten Thousand Things

It's weird to be part of a club that most of the time I don't know who its other members are, which is odd because it isn't really that exclusive of a club. People pay an incredibly steep price for admission. Still, many choose to remain silent and unknown in the shadows. Yesterday, around the world many met at an annual gathering to mark the one day each year dedicated to us, the survivors of suicide.

After my sister died, I didn't know how I would go on living, and I definitely didn't think I'd ever consider myself a survivor, which is defined as "one who survives; one who endures through disaster or hardship." 

There's a deep bond and connection between fellow suicide survivors that's hard to describe. They get it. All of us lost someone who lit up our lives, whose very presence in our world made it better, and we lost them in a tragic way. I find it incredibly comforting to be around others that know the kind of journey I've been on without having to talk about it. They're on the same journey and know how harrowing it is. They know the heartbreaking loss, the grief so intense that it causes physical pain, the sorrow of having someone take their life away, leaving those they loved and who loved them bereft and lost, facing the rest of their lives without them. I don't have to explain to them what it feels like knowing that things I once took for granted are no longer to be. My sister won't be beside me in our golden years. Our plans of being two feisty old women enjoying life to its fullest are now just memories. 

They know about the thousand times a day a song, a word, a place, a smell, a phrase, causes a memory to surface, turning everyday, mundane moments into an effort to stay focused in the present and not give in to the emotions caused by the triggers. 

They know about the nightmares--the vivid, awful scenes in our minds of finding loved ones dead by their own hand, seeing the lifeless body of someone whose presence lit up our lives and many others. And they understand the merciful peace of mind that comes when those nightmares and scenes start to fade. 

They understand the yearning for answers to questions that are unanswerable, the effort it takes to find resolution and move beyond questioning to acceptance. 

They know the unique way suicide has of shattering the innocence of even the most mature, worldly and jaded people. To them I've never had to explain the particularly toxic mixture of guilt, anger and resentment that suicide survivors so often feel. We all know about the lives interrupted, life plans forever altered, tasks we are forced to undertake, things we have to learn for our own survival. None of us ever wanted to learn such hard life lessons, to become experts on the suicidal mind and the underlying mental health issues contributing to suicide. But with this knowledge comes power - and more importantly - acceptance and healing.

Until my sister's death, I had only a basic understanding and knowledge about the disease that caused her death, bipolar disorder. Now I know that the very characteristics that made her loved and adored by so many were hallmarks of her disease. She cared so much about others and the world, that she couldn't cope with the pain and suffering around her. Most people with bipolar disorder care too much. Their caring overwhelms them. It causes them a level of psychic pain that most us will never understand. They leave us not so much because they wish to die, but because they just want to escape the pain they're feeling and are no longer able to see any other viable way to escape it. 

I'm reading the book 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed, which is the story about her personal journey through grief after losing her mother to cancer. In it she describes her mother's love, "The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. It was the ten thousand named things in the Tao Te Ching's universe and then ten thousand more." I wept with recognition and understanding when I read those words. My sister's love was that large. All of us - her family, friends, and especially her nieces and nephews - basked in her love. Losing it was devastating beyond words. 

What a relief yesterday was to be surrounded by others who understand such devastation. I didn't fully understand the power of a day marked and set aside just for us, International Survivors of Suicide Day, until yesterday. The night before as I read 'Wild' I couldn't help but think of all my fellow survivors when I read these words of Cheryl Strayed's: "Nothing would put me beside her the moment she died. It broke me up. It cut me off. It tumbled me end over end. It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again... I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods."

We're all on our own unique, individual journeys out of the woods, but I know without a doubt every one of us will heal and be able to take our place among the ten thousand things again because we're strong. We're resilient and brave. We're survivors. 

Basking in Julie's Love
Aunt Julie and baby Hannah
Julie and her dog Phoenix

Aunt Julie with Hannah, Mason and her dog Phoenix

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

High Heels and History Lessons

Last Thursday, Mike, Gillian and I attended one of my favorite local fundraisers, the Ogden School Foundation Fall Author Event. The foundation raises funds for Ogden School District which has some very challenging demographics, with a high percentage of low-income and ESL students and minimal school budgets. The money they raise is used to provide educational enhancements, including classroom grants for indivdual teachers and educational tools and supplies that individual school budgets don't allow for.

The author event is their biggest fundraiser, and one of the most anticipated local events of the year. Over the years they've brought in some literary heavy hitters, including Ray Bradbury, Chaim Potok, Shelby Foote, George Plimpton, Sandra Cisneros, Stehpen Ambrose, Jon Krakauer, Tim O'Brien, Geraldine Brooks, Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket, Stephan Venables, Alexander McCall Smith, Billy Collins, Ken Burns, Amy Tan, and David McCullough. I was lucky enough to serve on the foundation's board of directors for six years and had the opportunity to personally meet many of the authors.

This year's featured author was Rick Atkinson, a three time Pulitzer Prize winner and a military historian. He wrote the bestseller An Army at Dawn, the first book in a trilogy about the history of the American Army in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe during World War II. Coincidentally, the event happened on the 70th anniversay of Operation Torch, when U.S. and British forces invaded North Africa. For a history nerd like myself, I loved the historical significance!

The banquet room was decorated in a patriotic theme, with an amazing private collection of authentic period military uniforms and other artifacts on display. Local WWII veterans were invited as special guests that evening. One of the highlights was the recognition given to a local 95-year old WWII veteran, who was there in his full dress uniform. Yes, it still fit! Here's a link to a story about him. foundation-salutes-north-ogden-veteran.  

World War II was of such historical significance to the U.S. and the world. As Rick Atkinson pointed out that evening, veterans of WWII are dying at a rapid pace, and it's important that younger generations hear their stories, so that we understand our own history and can pass on their stories and experiences to subsequent generations.

Of course, Gillian wasn't as enthralled with the message as I was. She started the evening in high spirits, excited to be wearing a new dress with sequins on the bodice and a chiffon skirt. She of course needed appropriate shoes, and borrowed my black patent leather peep-toe pumps. The fancy dress meant she couldn't carry just any old purse either, so she also borrowed one of my evening bags. It happened to be the one that  I planned on carrying, so she ended carrying one purse for both of us. That's one benefit of taking my daughter along to functions with me--I don't have to worry about juggling a purse along with my cocktail!

Before the salad course was finished, she was bored and looking for distraction. Even the novelty of butter balls (which according to her indicates we're at a "really fancy event") wasn't enough to keep her entertained. I guess she'd expected a more light-hearted evening, since two years ago she went with us to see Lemony Snicket and we all laughed so hard we cried. So much for my hope of enhancing her historical education by exposing her to a well-known and respected author and historian. I gave in and handed over my iPhone so she could entertain herself playing games.  Oh well, hopefully someday she'll remember the experience, and maybe even pay a little extra attention when she's learning about World War II history in school. Sometimes it takes years before exposure to such educational things actually clicks and causes a lightbulb to turn on inside our heads.

I wish I'd gotten a picture of the three of us all dressed up. We all clean up pretty well, if I do say so myself. Here's a picture of us at another recent fundraiser for the local Boys & Girls Club. It was more Gillian's speed, as it was super casual and featured a photo booth with props! It's fun being able to take her with me to some of the many social events I go to throughout the year. I joke that I'm a professional seat filler, and I can work a silent auction like nobody's business! Besides learning how to make the winning bid at silent auctions, Gillian's also learning some social graces, along with being exposed to influential people in the community and causes that are important to me.

Not very long ago, Gillian would play in my closet, trying on my high heels and dresses while I got ready for an evening out. Now she's wearing those same high heels out, going along with me instead of staying home with a sitter. My mom pointed out to me what a fun, amazing age Gillian is at right now. On Thursday night she was thrilled to be getting dressed up and going to a grown-up event. Having the right dress, purse and shoes was critical! The next night, she proudly posted this picture of a blanket fort she and her friend made. I love the contrast, and I love that she's still at an age where she can enjoy both, because I know it won't last forever.

Gillian's Fort