Welcome to the freedom trap

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This is how it feels… kind of.

I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that my mother dying of a freak stroke was one of the most traumatic and world-shattering things to happen to me to date, there is another side to my grief. A side I don’t normally share with others, because it’s ugly and taboo.

Here it goes: My mother’s death gave me a freedom I have never known before.

Let me explain. It’s true that she was my closest confidant, my guiding light and my biggest fan. But it’s also true that she had expectations of me. Many, many expectations.

I spent my entire life with a critical eye watching carefully over my every move. I felt my failures keenly, as my mother tsk-tsked me over a B+ or shook her head at me from the stands of a basketball game where I only hit 40% of my shots. “USE YOUR LEGS!” she would mouth furiously at me from her seat, as I tried desperately to keep my cool. Despite every coach I ever had begging me to stop looking constantly at my mother, I never did learn.

Nothing ever seemed good enough for her. A 3.7 GPA was good, but probably could have been a 4.0 if I’d just put in a little more effort. Losing 15 pounds on a crash diet was great, but if only I could lose 10 more, I’d really be in good shape. Scoring 17 points was a solid way to finish a basketball game, but if only I’d hit one more three, I could finally be on college-recruitement lists.

Needless to say, I had (have? Ok, ok HAVE) a complex. My inability to rip my eyes away from the bleachers really did a number on me. My entire life, I have felt less than; inadequate and unable to reach my supposedly limitless potential. And while I’m sure my mother was pushing me for “the right reasons,” her actions still shook my confidence, and had me questioning whether I would ever be good enough.

Meanwhile, if you asked anyone else in town, I was her golden child who could do no wrong. She bragged about me constantly. This dichotomy never ceased to amaze (or confound!) me.

All of that is to say that I always felt her judgment, even when she didn’t say a word. Take my writing, for example. I knew that my mother thought I was a great writer. But for some reason, I always felt that she didn’t believe I could — or should — make a career out of it. She never said so explicitly, and she never even came close to telling me which career path I should choose. Her fallback mantra was always, “I just want you to be happy.” But I never believed her. I never felt free. I always felt like I needed to take a certain path — one that would lead me to traditional success; one she could brag about and hold up as her own parenting win.

It’s also quite possible that a lot of that perceived scorn and judgment from her was in my head. Maybe I just watched too many 80’s and 90’s teen movies where the characters rebelled against their parents’ school/career expectations for them, and went to art school to follow their passions instead.

I was always envious of those singularly driven passion-followers. I chose the other path, the “practical” path and lived to make someone else happy. I now have two marketable degrees, and an endless pile of student debt that keeps me up at night. And the person that I did it all to impress isn’t even here anymore.

So, I’m free now. I’m free to pursue my dreams, and to write about whatever I want. I no longer have to fear the judgment of the only person whom I ever really wanted to make proud. And that’s really incredible, in some ways!

Sometimes, my newfound freedom makes me soar. It makes me feel limitless. Like, there’s nobody I have to please but myself. I can do whatever I want in this world and I only have to answer to me.

But other times, it’s just exhausting. Some days, I just wish I had my mommy to call up. I miss her guidance and support. Her earthly presence made me feel like I didn’t have to have every single thing in my life figured out. No matter how old I got, I was free to be a child with her. Now, it’s all on me; no coach, no scapegoat. My driving force is gone, and that can be pretty terrifying. Hence, my inertia as of late.

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All the time!

Freedom is a bit tricky in that way. You are free to pursue your dreams, but you’re also free to do nothing at all — to never move forward; to never try.

I’m not sure how to overcome the paralyzing fear that seems built into my brain, or how to drown out my inner critic, which sounds suspiciously like my mother. But I do know that ultimately, this is all within my control. It is my choice: I’m free to fly, and risk falling, or stay on the ground where it’s safe.

How I choose to move forward is what matters. I hope I will choose to fly.

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On surviving, and taking the long road to “success”

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While responding to a reader email this weekend regarding my latest essay “What are you willing to sacrifice?” I found myself grappling with the idea of finding happiness in success. Without thinking much about my words, I wrote the following:

“As for being happy, I don’t think that success with writing will necessarily make me happy. It would help, in terms of career and life goal fulfillment (like, not looking back on my life, and saying “you know, I should really have tried to make something of my writing. I was pretty good back there!”). But I really want to check that box and say, I tried. I’ve missed out on much of the opportunity for achievement in my life up until this point. I’ve never really lived up to my potential, and a huge part of that has been because so much of my energy has been tied up in healing from a laundry list of traumas: early sexual abuse, being raped in college, an emotionally abusive relationship, devastating injury, and losing my mother at 27. I’ve always felt a bit damaged, and I’ve learned to find happiness outside of the traditional ideas of success. But again… here comes the yearning!” 

This concept — of fulfilling my potential — has been exceedingly salient in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve berated myself for not doing more. I’ve always thought myself to be a bit bored and lazy. I set myself lofty goals, and then when I (obviously) can’t fulfill them, I enter into the shame spiral. Whenever I read back on my old journals, I wince at how hard I am on myself. It’s always should, should, should. I’m never doing enough. I am always behind; always failing.  Continue reading

I too am done with being likable

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Photo credit: Flickr user JDHancock

When I was a little girl, I took my cues from the closest person to me — my mother. She was unapologetically large, both in personality and size. She made no qualms about getting what she wanted, whether it was a perfect medium-rare steak (she’d send back a steak as many times as it took to get it right), or a goal she was trying to accomplish. Nobody got in her way. She was fierce, loud, strong-willed and she didn’t take no for an answer. Good luck to anyone who tried to bully her.

She raised me to stick up for myself in the same way. I made myself heard. Loudly. I was a no-holds-barred know-it-all who dominated at sports, read three grades above my age and felt absolutely no qualms about leading in groups. I was bossy. I was precocious. I was strong. I was curious. I was convinced I could do anything: sing, dance, invent, act, practice law, write novels, create art. I wanted to master it all.

Alone in my basement, I created science experiments, breaking into my brother’s big kid chemistry set to pilfer supplies. I checked out books at the library about building tree forts as well as sewing and baking. I aced Tech Ed in school and beat the boys at gym. I was our school band’s second chair flutist and chosen to read my essay at elementary school graduation.

In middle school, the bullying started.  And so, too, did my self-awareness. I began to notice how many people looked at my mother with contempt. I observed their posture, and the looks on their faces when they spoke to her. They hated her. Even when she was being nice (which she mostly was), she seemed to rub people the wrong way. Especially men. It always seemed to me that most men couldn’t stand my mother. After all, she had a triple whammy of “unlikable” traits: she was fat, outspoken and female.

The woman who was once my hero, the woman who I once painstakingly modeled myself after started to seem a lot less aspirational. I didn’t want to be hated. I wanted to be liked — desperately so.

My mother would tell me to ignore the bullies; “They’re just jealous!” she would say, “you can’t hold yourself back to appease others!” But I was hearing a different, much stronger message: I was annoying. I was a show off. I was too much. I needed to tone myself down.

I eagerly sought friendship and approval. After getting straight A’s my entire life, I realized in high school that getting straight A’s doesn’t make you prom queen. It makes you a threat. It makes you full of yourself. It makes you stand out in all the wrong ways. To be a woman who makes herself large, I learned, was a grave mistake.

I didn’t want to be alone at the top of the class. I wanted to make myself easy to digest. And so began my long descent into mediocrity.

I morphed myself into whoever was around. I used to be very bad at playing these roles, which at first made me even more annoying than my overachiever self. But I got much better as I went along.

In high school, I was a basketball playing hip-hop head, who’d fervently trash any other girl to look cool around her guy friends.

In college, I became a rugby playing, toga-wearing, beer funneling, “easy going” party girl.

In my young twenties, I shaped myself into the quintessential cool girl, complete with Jennifer Lawrence-like schtick: “who me?! I just happen to be hot, funny, whip-smart AND self-deprecating enough that I present no threat.” I spent an ungodly amount of energy being approachable and pretending not to care about things.

In law school, I decided to be the comic relief slacker, despite receiving a scholarship for having one of the highest LSAT scores in my year. I skipped class, went out drinking, and blatantly and boldly told my professors I didn’t do the reading when called upon.

People liked me. Of course they liked me. I was giving them exactly what they wanted: a diluted version of myself. I did everything a woman should do to be liked: I apologized profusely for taking up space and trimmed myself back until I was a shell of a human being — an easy pill to swallow.

Since my mother’s death, I’ve become more “myself” than I’ve been in decades. I no longer work so hard to keep up a facade. My priorities have shifted seismically. These days, it feels foolish to waste my energy molding myself to please people who couldn’t care less about me in the long run. I now try to focus on the people who matter; who like me both in spite of and because of my flaws. I know my bold personality is not for everyone. I know I can be polarizing. I always have been, despite bending myself to the point of exhaustion to be liked. About half of the people I grew up with still hate my guts to this day. I’m learning to be ok with that.

Yet as much progress as I make, resisting the pull of being liked is still a struggle. Social media isn’t exactly a bastion of authenticity. We all want those “likes”; that validation that we matter. Even in my writing, I find myself pulling back from certain topics and thinking more about my audience than what I’d really like to write. I am constantly vacillating between making my voice heard and diminishing myself to convenience others.

But I am sick of playing by the rules. I am sick of worrying about what people will think, or say behind my back. I am sick of holding back my opinions and refraining from going after what I want. I am sick of making myself small.

Nobody likes a know-it-all. I know, because my mother was one. Sure, she could be frustratingly obstinate, and she definitely needed to learn to apologize and admit when she was wrong. Yet despite her flaws, I can’t help but admire that she never dumbed herself down or shrunk herself for anyone. Their opinions be damned.

I think my mother had it right. I, too, am done with being likable.

The gut punch of grief; what it’s like to be triggered.

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The old soccer crew. I’m #20 and you can see my mom hiding in the back sporting her shades, probably wearing a tracksuit.

Let me set the scene: I am waiting to get on the field to compete in a soccer tournament. I stand in a solemn circle, surrounded by the girls I grew up playing with. Their faces are all the same, except we’ve all aged some since we last played together. Laugh lines mark our faces, and a few of us, myself included, are showing grey hairs.

I feel a misplaced anxiety, and I am sure everyone is picking up on it. My bad juju is palpable.

Our longtime coach calls me out: “Chelsea, what’s going on over there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce. A few of my teammates avert their eyes. “What?! Do you all want me to go into hypoglycemic shock?!” I say dramatically, knowing that that’s not really a thing. My starting position has clearly gone to my head.

“Fine. You have 15 minutes,” Coach says, obviously annoyed with my antics.

I wander hurriedly and find myself walking into Grand Central Station. I enter the main concourse and marvel at how much is happening around me. I start to panic — I am really feeling the time crunch of getting back to my team. How many minutes has it been? Surely at least 12! I run towards Grand Central Market and when I enter its doors, I strangely find myself in a high school gymnasium. There across the basketball court is none other than my mother, coaching a game of teenaged boys.

She’s standing there like a beacon in her typical hunter green Coventry High School tracksuit and athletic t-shirt, calling out plays. She sees me across the gym and waves distractedly in her familiar I’m-busy-but-glad-you’re-here way. I am so incredibly relieved to see her. My anxiety falls away completely. I need her. I need her right now, I think. I break out into a full gallop towards her and she hurries towards me, too, looking confused.

As I reach her, I fling my arms around her, enveloping her much shorter frame. I am desperately sobbing and convulsing with gratitude that she’s here; that I’m feeling her body in my arms.

“Are you ok, hun?!” she asks, obviously concerned.

Hearing her voice sends a shockwave through my system and my conscious comes crashing in, reminding me; it’s not real, it’s a dream. She is dead.

—————

I wake up and come back to reality. There is no one to comfort me here.

I am not ok.

I am shaking and very real tears are streaming down my cheeks and onto my pillow. This is no way to start my day, much less a day I had high hopes for. My puppy looks curiously at me through his crate. He is ready for his morning walk, but in this moment, I am paralyzed with devastation.

I exhaustedly run through a list of today’s “musts” in my head: I must walk the dog, fix a healthy breakfast, hit my deadlines. Everything else is negotiable.

I bargain with myself: Chelsea, if you get out of bed and make it through this list of things, you don’t have to do anything else today. You can be off the hook. Emails can go unanswered; to-do lists and blog posts put on hold. 

So it is, to be triggered.

The smallest thing — a memory, a dream, a smell, a song — can derail me and send me spiraling. Just last week, I went into a tailspin over the 11th anniversary of my rape. I thought I would be fine (some years, I am) but this year, my body decided otherwise. I spent the week emotionally eating (immediately followed by self-loathing for emotionally eating) and putting off anything I could possibly push back. I’m totally regressing, I vented grumpily, I thought I was over this. I thought I had more self-control.  

It doesn’t help that the one thing in the world that could instantly make me feel better is a hug from my mom and her steady assurance that I’ll be ok — even when I really, truly believe otherwise. She had a way of grounding me and easing my anxieties (like the time I was having a panic attack over my law school student loans, and she said, “relax, people take out loans this size all the time. Only they’re called mortgages. You invested in yourself instead!” and I instantly had a sense of perspective and calmed the hell down). She was my safety blanket. The world can feel like a cold, unforgiving place without her.

This is my life with depression/PTSD in a nutshell. Yesterday, I thought I was doing ok. But that was then and this is now. Today, my reality is different. Today, I must navigate this ever-lingering darkness whether I want to or not. I cannot cast this pain out of my life, though at times I’d like to. My mother’s ghost haunts me, touching everything I do.

Sometimes I feel like myself again for a spell, and I’m convinced I can take on the world. But it doesn’t take long before I’m swept back into my grieving state; hopeless and frantic — torn between waiting for the storm to pass and wanting to cease the day regardless of the state of my anxious mind. I have no idea how long this will go on for; maybe forever. I take great comfort in knowing that the “good spells” are becoming more prominent, and the bad are fewer and further in between.

I have no idea how to feel better. Right now, I’m just riding the wave and trying not to push myself too hard. Truth be told, if I was kinder to myself and paid more attention to my self-care needs, I probably wouldn’t be so easy to knock out in the first place. Besides, I spent the last year trying to control everything around me with an iron grip, and I was miserable. I cannot control my grief and it doesn’t have to control me. I must remind myself that the bad feelings will come and they will pass. I can only recognize them, let myself feel them, and move on from them when I’m ready to. Today will be tough. Tomorrow will hopefully be better. My to-do list will likely suffer yet another week in limbo. It will be ok, so long as I keep moving forward and checking off my “musts.”

Such is life, and perhaps this will always be my “normal,” finding balance between giving in to the darkness and pulling myself back towards the light.

Perhaps I will always teeter at the edge of the void, and it’s by sheer will and tenacity that I don’t fall in.

Perhaps I’m not doing nearly as badly as I think.

Perhaps my mother always WAS right, after all: I. Will. Be. Ok.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost, But I Feel Lost Without Wandering.

Lately, I’ve been having a crisis of consciousness. I’ve been forced to confront something in myself that I didn’t realize was tearing at me so strongly: I haven’t been on a trip, a REAL trip, in nearly three years. For the record, a “real trip” by my definition is 1) traveling somewhere foreign to me, 2) where I don’t know a soul, 3) for at least a week.

I was once filled with wanderlust; an insatiable need to not only see the world, but to be a part of it. I didn’t just want to pass through a country, taste their food, see their major tourist attractions and move on. I wanted to know what it was like to live there — to get to know the hole-in-the-wall places I couldn’t find in Fodor’s, to meet people that pushed me out of my comfort zone, and to say “yes” to things that terrified me.

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The Great Pyramids, Egypt. 2009.

In my 29 years, I’ve visited 20 foreign countries and 30 of the United States, and throughout my travels, the pervading sentiment has been “more, more, MORE!” But for the past few years, I’m simply not feeling the pull to faraway lands.

Sure, I’ve gone on mini-trips — long weekends to the mountains, extended visits to out-of-state friends. I’ve moved to a new state and explored my new surroundings. But for some reason, I can’t bring myself to really travel.

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Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey. 2009.

Not only that, but my whole attitude towards the nomadic lifestyle has changed… soured, even. I’m afraid my eyes will roll right out of my head when I see an article urging me to quit my corporate job to travel or live on an island; promising me that enlightenment is just a plane ride and a generic, well-curated travel blog away. “Live your best life!” they say, “anyone can do it!”

Easy for you to say,” I think condescendingly.

Faerie Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland. 2010.

Faerie Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland. 2010.

I find myself resenting my friends who constantly travel, even though I used to be one of them and at one point, that life meant everything to me. And then I resent myself for resenting people I care about for living a life that makes them happy. What’s my problem? In the deepest recesses of my heart, I know that my way is not the capital “r” Right way; that every person is different and that what makes each of us tick is something deeply personal.

I know that I am, quite frankly, being a hater.

The problem is in me. And I know where it comes from: my mother died, unexpectedly and horrifically, and my internal sense of security (however imagined it may have been) has been disturbed.

The need for stability has taken over my life — routines, appointments, lists and steadfast control over my schedule are keeping me “safe,” or at least are offering the illusion of safety. I am fighting day and night to bring back my sense of security in this world.

And it seems my wanderlust wandered off to find a soul that rambles, like mine used to.

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Ait Benhaddou, Morocco. 2010.

I hate that I now feel a visceral aversion to something that used to be such a big part of me. And worse, I am constantly bombarded by messaging telling me to do everything I can — travel, take risks, uproot myself while I’m still young, before life gets in the way, or worse, slips completely out of my hands. I’m in the prime of my life, but I can’t enjoy it fully. I still find myself here, stuck, treading water.

The truth is, when your entire world is uprooted by a phone call, displacing yourself to distant lands can seem impossibly scary. Foreignness suddenly reads to me as deeply lonely. These days, I crave familiarity; comfort. I crave something my passport could never lead me to.

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Somewhere in the desert, traveling across the USA in a VW bus. 2011.

I think back on last Spring, a year or so after my mother died. My father suggested going to Germany. His is a grieving process that has propelled him to live like he’ll never get another chance (newsflash: none of us will), whereas mine has been a drawn out exercise in desperately trying to regain my footing. I told him “yes, I’d love to!” while deep inside, I panicked. Even now, a year later, I still don’t feel ready to relinquish the calculated control I’ve exerted over my life since her passing.

I must admit, I am feeling rather impatient and fatigued from expending so much energy to heal. I am eager to feel like myself again, even though I know time is the only solution, and that ultimately, I am forever changed. The “myself” who ran wild through Europe falling in love at every hostel I stepped foot in is gone. But something tells me my intrinsic need to see the world is not gone forever. This upheaval of my sense of self is temporary; the disinterest, the complacency and the unrelenting fear.

They say not all who wander are lost, and I really believe that to my core. Wherever my wanderlust is off to, I hope it’s somewhere nice, running wild with the free spirits that used to be my kin… right where it belongs.

Grand Canyon, USA. 2011.

Grand Canyon, USA. 2011.

How a Trip to IKEA Reconnected Me to My Mother

Let’s start by rewinding a few years:

The year is 2012. I’m 26 years old, it’s a cool spring night, and I’m impatiently waiting in front of Union Station in New Haven for my mother to pick me up. She’s about ten minutes late and I’m fuming, like only a spoiled daughter could.

As if I haven’t been through enough already! I think, grimacing at the memory of weaving my way through a crowded, rush hour packed Grand Central Station with weekend bags in tow (If you’ve never experienced this, it’s like the ultimate game of frogger, except not only will you get run over — you’ll also get yelled at for not getting out of the way fast enough. Just one of NYC’s many charms!). As if that wasn’t enough,  I’d also sat for 1 hour and 40 minutes on a slow crawling, standing-room-only Metro North train that somehow managed to smell of porta-potty, even though I wasn’t in a bathroom car.

My mother pulls up in her Jeep and immediately launches into an excuse for being late — something about the return line at Target.

“It’s all right.” I say. “I just want to get home and see the dogs.” I decide not to lay into her, because she seems so bubbly and I don’t want to ruin the hour-long car ride ahead of us.

“Okay, we just have to make a quick stop at IKEA first,” she says nonchalantly.

I let out the ultimate groan.

“What?!” She asks innocently, full well knowing I am about 30 seconds away from a night-ruining meltdown.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a quick trip to IKEA!” I complain. “They make you walk through their entire stupid ‘showroom’ AKA a mile-long elaborate maze of cheaply produced particleboard furniture with strategically placed displays of $1 junk to keep you in there for hours and hours. There’s a cafeteria, for crying out loud! I don’t trust stores with cafeterias. They’re trying to trap you!”

“It’ll just take a second!” She says in her teasing voice. She apparently came into this interaction knowing I would be pissed, and she is now refusing to lower herself to my level, lest she let me ruin a perfectly good trip to her beloved IKEA. “I’ll buy you chicken fingers.” A peace offering.

“ABSOLUTELY NOT! I will not waste precious chicken fingers calories on IKEA!” I blurt out grumpily. But my blood sugar and patience are running low, so I know that I really have no choice.

———

This about sums the majority of my trips to IKEA. I would kick and scream, and my mother would soothe. I would vow never to go back. She’d always find a way to trick me into it (like holding me hostage, needing a ride home).

My mother had an inexplicable love of IKEA which knew no bounds. Okay, I guess it wasn’t inexplicable. She loved decorating, and IKEA kept her design ideas within reach. She was not a rich woman, but she could make a room look luxurious and modern for under $1000. She would start by looking for inspiration from HGTV or high end magazines like New York Spaces, and then look for some key pieces that could be substituted out at IKEA to save money. The rest could be pieced together through discount retailers (like Home Goods or Target) and one or two investment pieces would be purchased at her other go-to design retailers like CB2, Pottery Barn, Macy’s, West Elm or Pier 1.

She was very talented, and very passionate about design. I perpetually teased about her hobby, but also utilized her skills endlessly — not only for my own decorating projects, but also for my friends’. Her decorating advice alone has left her missed by many.

So, when I moved to a giant old fixer-upper house at the beach, I felt her absence with every decorating decision I made. Some, I made in spite of her (example: she was not a fan of string lights… which are present in nearly every room in my house), and others I made inspired by her. Some projects, I felt I couldn’t even touch without her advice.

“I wish I could channel Nance,” I’d complain to my friends. “I feel so lost! It’s too much!”

This sentiment felt exceedingly more prominent as I decided to tackle my backyard. The space was strangely shaped, had noticeable and ugly damage from Sandy, and was overrun with birds and squirrels, because nobody had really been taking care of it or spending time out there.

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BEFORE: A hunk of dirty cement in need of some TLC.

My mother could always see the potential in a space, which happens to be my biggest struggle. I have good taste, and a knack for mixing patterns and decorating styles, but I have a really hard time envisioning the potential of an undesirable space. I called in for backup and consulted with Bonnie and my father. They both agreed something could be done — the patio could be salvaged, and shared their ideas.

I spent weeks researching ideas and searching for the lowest prices on each piece I needed. I used to outsource this arduous task to my mother, so doing it myself made my appreciation for her hard work as a designer grow with each passing day.

When it came time to actually go purchase the stuff, the dread came. Dave and I dragged our feet on trekking to IKEA with everything we could muster — no excuse was too insignificant to convince us to put it off. But finally, we could make excuses no more; a beautiful Saturday with no plans was ahead, so we put on our big kid pants and took the plunge.

As we walked through the doors to the Elizabeth, NJ IKEA, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. The smells, the sights, the colors, the setup — it was all there, just like I remembered it. Only, this time I didn’t hate it. I felt something. Something I haven’t felt since May of 2013.

I felt my mother.

I am not a spiritual person. Though many people told me my mother would guide me, speak to me, or be present in my life, I did not believe a single one of them. I know myself, I thought, and it ain’t gonna happen. And I wouldn’t say being in IKEA was really like any of those things. It was more like… I felt connected to her spirit.

For the first time since her death, I didn’t picture her in my mind’s eye as an agitated corpse of a human in the hospital, without proper cognitive function, struggling to fight despite having no hope. I remembered her as a full human — a person who loved this crazy warehouse and their suspiciously cheap swedish meatballs.

I could almost see her pointing things out to me and driving Dave nuts with her longwinded exploration of every room and every idea in her head (don’t worry, I took over that part for her).

She was, in a sense, with me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lost nearly every place that connected me to her, or maybe it was the spirit of doing a weekend decorating project. Perhaps it’s just that time has passed, and I am finally healing from the trauma of her horrific death. Whatever the reason, it was a surprisingly calming experience, especially after I had expended so much energy dreading it.

That Saturday, after a long, hard day of work on the patio with Dave, I stepped back to marvel at what a little elbow grease and a trip to “stupid” IKEA can accomplish.

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AFTER: A backyard oasis

I sent a picture to my dad. “You have your mother’s touch. She would be proud.” Through my gratified tears, I thanked him, but couldn’t help but wonder why I felt so emotional about this project. It was just a backyard, after all.

But it wasn’t just a backyard. I had finally felt her. I channeled her. I had applied her lessons and was able to create something glorious out of what was honestly a tarnished space.

Most amazingly, I had enjoyed it.

Sneaky Nance. Through all of her making me watch HGTV, and dragging me through IKEA, and sending me links to consult me on her projects (or sometimes, our projects), and leaving her decorating magazines all over the house, and “hiring” me to put in floors and paint rooms, and always designing me my own space that inspired me and fulfilled my needs… she had slowly indoctrinated me to care about my surroundings, and to take pride in building them myself.

Our last project together just before she passed (my room in NYC) cemented the design-on-a-dime education that she gave me. And I guess it’s time to finally admit it to both myself and the world: I like decorating.

There, I said it.

I am once again reminded that I am my mother’s daughter, and I am amazed that she still has lessons to teach me.

Like: I am not a rich woman, but I can turn a crappy backyard into a beautiful little oasis by the sea for less than $500.

My Funeral Tribute to Nance

This Wednesday, July 17th, we said goodbye to my mother, Nance. She put up an impressive fight in Palliative care. In fact, the doctors joked that they would no longer be making predictions about my mother’s condition, because she would somehow defy them at every turn. So Nance, right? She died exactly six weeks after her stroke, on July 11th, at around 8 PM, with her family around her.

Despite my intense anxiety to do so, I spoke at the funeral. I just felt this pull, like I had to. For both Nance and myself. She was my best friend, so I didn’t really feel much choice in the matter. That being said, I can’t even express how nervous I was. I couldn’t sleep on Tuesday night, because I was so anxious! I truly thought I might projectile vomit standing at the podium. Which, come to think of it, Nance would have really enjoyed. It would have given her a (way-too-long) story to tell for the ages. So maybe it wouldn’t have so bad. In any case, I didn’t throw up in front of everyone I know. Phew. And I only choked up once-ish, which was a major surprise to me.

Many requested that I share my speech, so I decided to post it here. I hope you enjoy it.

RIP, Nance. You will be so missed.

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I’ve been fighting myself on what to say up here. Part of me wanted to go into a dissertation on my relationship with my mother and everything that she means to me, but that doesn’t feel right. Part of me wanted to tell you everything I know about her, and hope that it’s enough. But let’s face it: the woman could talk, and we’ve only got an hour for this thing. Perhaps the biggest part of me didn’t want to get up here at all today. How am I supposed to boil down what my mother meant to myself, my family and this community? It seems completely impossible.

I keep going back to our last conversation, the night before her stroke. I had crashed my bike… and by crashed, I mean… ran it into a parked car while not paying attention. I messed up my front tire and brake system pretty good, and I was generally just upset about the accident and my role in it. Plus, I was dreading what I would have to spend to fix my bike. Naturally, my mother was the first to know about what happened. After asking if I was ok, she went right to work on talking me down from my anxious ledge. She said to me, “I’m just glad you are ok. Things can be replaced — people cannot.” 

And that was the last thing she said to me.

As I struggled fiercely to write these words, her last piece of advice reverberates through my head. People cannot be replaced. That is a fact of life. Nobody on earth could replace my mother — the woman was a colossal presence with insurmountable spirit. Whatever her faults and foibles, her life was dedicated to doing good and enriching the lives of those around her.

So I thought I would talk about Nance in a way we could all relate to, because nothing could express everything she meant to everyone. I just wanted to share some of her best qualities — those that resonate with me every single day. I hope they will resonate with you, too.

Nance was selfless & sacrificed for what she loved, and what was important to her:

She left a successful insurance job to spend more time with her three children, even though it meant temporarily sacrificing her career aspirations. She spent time with us, every day. And she never regretted it once. In her years doing daycare at our house, she came to love every child who walked through our door as her own. She couldn’t help it, it was who she was. Now that I look back on her life, it is clear to me that the money and success she left behind was insignificant to her compared with the hours, games, meals, day trips and activities she did with us every day. Josh, Adam and I always came first.

When I was about 10, I got cut from the AAU team I really wanted to play for. There were other teams in the area, but none of them appealed to my competitive spirit. So for two years, my mother tirelessly trekked across Connecticut twice a week, from Coventry to Mystic, so I could play on the AAU basketball team I wanted to. She never even complained about it — even when I did.

She took a job as athletic director at Coventry, even though she was woefully undercompensated for her time. Yet she couldn’t fathom leaving. She wanted to do right by the kids lucky enough to live in this town. Because she loved it. Because she cared too much to give it up. Because in her opinion it was rewarding on so many other levels — money was too far down on the list of priorities to change her mind.

Most amazingly, I don’t think she viewed any of this as a sacrifice. It was what what she wanted and what made sense to her core.

My mother was also committed and involved, sometimes overly involved:

When my mother decided on something, she was in 100%, no questions asked. The woman makes things happen! And good luck for anyone who thought they could steer her otherwise. Some might call this “stubborn” — but I call it focused. Each summer when I was in college, my mother and I would sublet an apartment on the Upper West Side. The year before I graduated, she told me “I’m going to get my own apartment in the city next summer.” “Oh, really?” I said, incredulously, “How are you going to convince Dad?” “I have my ways.” She told me. And sure enough, about a year and a half later, she and my father signed a lease to our family’s first NY apartment. She had her ways, all right: she scrimped, saved, researched, and reasoned endlessly with my father. And in the end, he was all the happier for it. I’ve often heard him remark on how glad he is that they had the time in the city together that they did. Where many people focus on the roadblocks, my mother zeroes in on the ultimate goal. She will stop at nothing to accomplish what matters to her.

Speaking of her commitment: She never missed a game. And I had thousands of them. I played on multiple teams during every week of the year, and she was there for all of it. She took me all over the state, the country, and even the world, to give me the opportunity to seek out fulfilling competition. And long after I’d left both the court and the field, she never missed one of your kids games, either. Her endless commitment to supporting young athletes was incredible — almost mind-boggling, if I’m being honest. Did she ever get sick of watching 14-year-olds play soccer? No. Did she ever tire of attending scholar athlete banquets? No. Did she ever take a week, a day, or even an hour away from thinking about how to improve Coventry Athletics? No. Not even when she was on vacation. Not even at my frequent prompting for her to relax and let go for a little bit.

High school sports were not the only things she found herself overly involved in: My mother would frequently decorate my friends’ apartments, sometimes without prompting. She would spend way too many hours watching Big Brother. And Big Brother After Dark. And the Live Newsfeed Online. And maybe she cruised the online forums, but it’s not my place to say. She still assisted with my taxes, and helped me ask for a raise, and always knew how best to approach a harry social situation. She asked the tough questions that got us all to open up against our own wills, one time or another. Not so she could gossip, but so she could help. Every time over the years I tried to shut her out, I would find myself back under her spell, dying to know what well-reasoned advice she would dole out.

She was always in there; always on top of things. She chaperoned, class-parented, troop leadered, coached, taught, fundraised, argued in front of the board, built alliances, mediated, advocated, educated, guided and advised. And she somehow did it with ease.

Which brings me to my last, most important point. She cared:

My mother cared about everything that I had to say, even when it was drivel. Who will care that I just went to spin class? I know, Nance! Oh look, a new restaurant opening in the neighborhood – better text Nance. I have an 8 minute break in my day — I should probably call my mother and talk at her to fill the void. It’s incredible to me that she sustained a genuine interest in the minute details of my life. Even when I could feel myself being tiresome. Even when I overanalyzed past the point of any reasonable thought. She entertained it all. And she cared every single time. Some would say that’s what mothers do, but it went beyond that with my mother. She really cared. She really listened. She really wanted me — and everyone — to feel important.

We were all important to her. Everyone in this room — even the few who are here to support me that she never met. Every single one of us mattered. She was behind us at every triumph, bump in the road, success, and failure. If you ever had a conversation with my mother, I’m sure she bragged about me to you. I’m sure she went on way too long and you probably seriously questioned if I could really be that great. I’m not, but my whole life, she was the one person who REALLY believed in me. And that made me better every day, and still does. Many of you have told me that I was her pride and joy, and I think you’re mostly right. But what you probably don’t realize, is that you were her pride and joy, too. She bragged about you, constantly.

Her athletes and coaches were a continuous source of pride. Each year she looked on as her teams defied expectations and bragged about their victories, both large and small. And she wasn’t just proud of the volleyball team (but seriously, who wouldn’t be?!). Sometimes it was simply an underachieving team turning it around and having their first winning season. Other times it was a kid having the guts to come out of the closet and into the open, accepting arms of their team. She cared about every single one of those kids, and by extension, their families.

She cared deeply about her friends and colleagues, too. I know about your loving marriages, school acceptances, beautiful vacation homes, new jobs, engagements, pregnancies, house purchases, moves, and promotions. I know because she told me, with enthusiasm and genuine support. I know because you mattered to her. She was in your corner, rooting for you at every step. My mother will always be in your corner and in mine.

So here’s to the woman who brought us all here; who spent her life loving and giving herself to so many. Sometimes she pushed us too hard, but we strived because she believed in us.

She cannot be replaced, but she will live on, through each and every one of us. Let’s all give her something to brag about.

We love you, Nance.

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Nancy-Jean Levinson (Doster)

February 20, 1954 – July 11, 2013