Lessons from my Grandmother: You Have to Breathe

I walk through the neighborhood in what for me is an uncommon pose – earbuds in, sunglasses on, shunning the world. I’m listening to a meditation app I purchased months ago. I programmed it to remind me every morning to meditate, and I ignore it every day. I decide to try it again. I choose from its menu: Stress-reduction, Sleep, Gratitude, Happiness. I pick the last. Everyone can use some more happiness.

It’s sort of cheating to walk while meditating, I think, as the lady’s calm voice tells me to sit straight and close my eyes, but it’s what I’ve decided to do. The meditation lady can’t judge me; today’s 12 minutes of happiness are about self-love, and learning to stop self-criticizing and comparing. So there will be no judgment of my walking-while-meditating. Besides, I once heard that “walking meditation” is a thing, so I have cover.

It’s also likely cheating that I’m carrying letters to the mailbox, but multi-tasking makes me happier, so good for me. Still, my fingers can’t release and relax entirely until I drop those off. Once I release them, I concentrate more on my breath, and not getting hit by a car when I cross the street.

“Feel any physical discomforts in your body. And rather than wish them away, acknowledge them, be aware of them, send kindness to them. Breathe into them.”

I forget to breathe and instead consider that I’m generally happy enough, so maybe this meditation on “happiness” might be wasted. Maybe I should have picked a different category. Patience. Forgiveness.

But as I turn the corner past a gorgeous house, bigger and newer and for sure cleaner than mine, I realize that I have been judging myself, thus decreasing my happiness. I’ve been judging my frustration over my writing not flowing lately. The app lady isn’t saying “don’t feel frustrated,” I think she’s telling me not to judge myself for being frustrated, not to judge my writing being stuck. Embrace or accept the frustration. Let it be.

Hmm, I think I feel happier?

My grandmother had radiation treatments for a tumor in her jaw earlier this year. They were not easy, but the tumor was painful and keeping her from eating, so the treatment was necessary for her comfort. The treatments were twice a day.

Just getting out of her building, into and out of a car, and back again, twice in one day was a herculean task. Her attitude could have been, “Forget it, I surrender.” But instead she chose to face it: “If that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do.” I accompanied her a few times.

The waiting room of a radiation treatment clinic can remind you of what you have to be grateful for. As I sat waiting for my grandmother to be called, a 17-year-old boy in Nikes and a forty-something man in a black suit and kipah asked each other how radiation was going for each of them – it was the exhaustion they agreed was most difficult.

For Lilli, the most difficult part might have been going from seated in her wheelchair to lying on the metal platform. At home, she was often scared just to go from her wheelchair to the couch. Courage. Here, she  had to lie down on the cold, hard metal, no cushion, no pillow – no guardrails. They placed a hard plastic mask shaped to her face over her, and she had to stay motionless while the platform ascended closer, closer to the source of the radiation that would hopefully give her more time, with less pain. She was allowed to drape over her a small, soft, blanket knitted by Marni.

I had more than once been in dark movie theaters with Lilli, when she was the only person in the audience to scream out in fear when a slightly startling event took place. Stillness, quietness, in the face of fear was not her natural state.

The two radiation technicians treated her respectfully and tenderly. She was no doubt afraid. Of falling off. Of being zapped with radiation. Of cancer. Of dying. But she did not complain or cry. She did not ask “why me.” She did what had to be done.

They called me back in when the treatment ended.  The two technicians were helping her into the wheelchair.

“The key is meditating,” she said to all of us. “You have to breathe.”

She would be back later that day. The tumor would shrink enough to give her more comfort, more time. To give us all more time. And maybe a few more lessons in happiness.

Dancing

Ballroom Dancing circa 2002

Greatgrandchildren

Laughing with all 7 great-grandchildren, Oct 2015.

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We Always Root for Overtime

The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying. … Continue reading

An Upbeat Playlist for Stressful Times

We entered singing. My sister and I had ascended the stairs into the “great room” of Belmont Village to visit our grandmother, and the joint was jumping. Residents had gathered to hear the musical stylings of a guest singer. It was impossible to refrain, so why try? We opened our voices and danced over to her. (It is easy to spot her, the redhead, from behind, or really from any direction.)

When she saw us, she bestowed her perennial gift, a contagious, nearly-crying smile that says better than words can, “I’m so happy to see you.”

I needed that. Then the singer said, “Remember, music is the best medicine.” I needed that, too. This past Sunday, at dance class, the music, the dancing, the singing along. I need it. You know you need it, too. These are trying times. Play your music loud and often.

Without further ado, a (starter) playlist for stressful times. Play loud.  Play often. Dance. Sing. Repeat.

  1. Michael Jackson (just about anything, but let’s go with Wanna Be Starting Something
  2. And another Michael Jackson, Black or White
  3. American Authors, Best Day of My Life
  4. Marvin Gaye, How sweet it is (to be loved by you)
  5. Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
  6. Kinky Boots, Raise You Up

(And, for a change, try a nice quiet 10-12 minutes with the Calm App gratitude meditation. Be grateful for your lungs, and legs, and all the other parts needed for dancing your stress away.)

Love,

Laura

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How to Conquer Death

 

We time-traveled to 1991 last week. It was our 25th college reunion, and it filled my well. For a bubble of time, my husband and I and many friends reverted to being occupied primarily with having fun together – asking what we want to do next, dancing, staying up too late, eating cheesesteaks at 3am.

In the week leading up to it, trivialities crossed my mind: What will I wear? Is there time for a facial? How can I have a pimple in a wrinkle?

Christopher’s wiser thought: “I’m so grateful we are still here and healthy, and able to see so many friends who are still here and healthy.” Yes, that.

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As we reveled, our younger son and his grandparents binge-watched one of their favorite shows on the Smithsonian channel: Air Disasters. By the time we were flying home from the reunion weekend, he was well-acquainted with the aviation science behind a dozen different crashes. We thought of each of them during the abnormally shaky take-off, and mid-flight bumpiness.

I can’t be the only one who things about life and death in those instances. Death scares me. And I hate that scared feeling. It’s the second worst part of dying, I’d venture. In those terrifying moments, I talk myself through why I should not be afraid. It comes down to gratitude for my life so far.

Let’s start with loving parents and a protective playmate in my sister. Ample resources for food, shelter, and ballet lessons. Good teachers in good, safe schools. A mostly unscathed adolescence, with enough social pain to help me guide my children through their bumps and bruises. Glorious teenage friends, and yes we did own the world for a time. I had letdowns, and silver linings, and learned that you can’t always tell the difference between a blessing and a curse in the moment.

I had the grace to choose a career I wanted, and to make friends who continue to inspire me. I had the brilliant luck of finding Christopher, the love, the caring, the tenderness, the support, the babies.

Oh, the beautiful delicious babies, so big now.

There are many things still to do, many more words to write, hugs to hold onto. I’m greedy for more more more. But even if I live to be 120 years old, it may never be enough.

So I try to remember this:

If we are souls incarnate, and if souls are mysterious energies spinning around in the universe, this one universe in a hundred thousand, and if we get to land on Earth for a while, in the midst of millions of galaxies, in all of creation, then we ought not complain when the ride is over. We have to try to be grateful we had the ride at all. It’s like going to Kauai: You’re sad when you leave, but you were lucky to have been there at all.

I turn my head and look out the wide glass doors of my house to the trumpet vines beginning to cover the trampoline. The blessed beauty of chlorophyll, of greenest leaves and caterpillar temptation. The radical genius of hot coffee and sweet cinnamon dough. The miracles of being:  A kiss. Soft skin warm. Baby faces and little-boy-bellies, blossoming young men. Tickles that still yield laughter. Oh rapture.

 

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I wanted to tell you.

I’ve been wanting to tell you some things, but I haven’t had enough time or patience to give them their due, to connect them in a coherent story. So they sit in my head, unsaid. Sometimes I’m too busy living my life to write about it. Not writing makes me grumpy. It’s a physical need, to process through words, to wonder. But things move fast, and writing requires stillness.

So I wanted to tell you some things and it may not be perfect.

I wanted to tell you that we’re not too old to play. I nag my kids to go outside and they turn it around, ask me to play Capture the Flag. I have to force myself say yes. Lo and behold, despite myself, I have fun.

I wanted to tell you that my 15 1/2 year old niece joined in last time and was as into it as any of us.

I wanted to say how fast they, and we, grow up. My sister pulled into the driveway to pick up this teenage girl who had been screaming with abandon, “Get the flag!! Get the flag!!” My sister moved to the passenger seat, and my niece took her place behind the wheel. I watched her drive away.

I wanted to tell you to keep playing, as long as you can, even though our bodies can’t keep up with our spirits. A couple of weeks ago my husband’s softball team learned that bitter lesson three-fold, with a broken leg, a torn Achilles, and a fractured finger. Yet wary teammates will return to the field, weighing real risk against real fun.

My Dad plays football every Sunday with the same group of guys. Football is for him like writing is for me. It fills his well. Last week a player came out of the game feeling sick. Tight chest and nausea. My Dad rushed his friend to the hospital a few blocks away, where he had a heart attack in the waiting room, surrounded and saved by paramedics, thank God.

I wanted to tell you so much more, to unravel the string of words that is knotted in my heart and head. I wanted to tell you to play while you can, that there’s not enough time not to play. There’s not enough time for perfection.

I wanted to tell you I appreciate you.

And it’s time for the next thing…

 

Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.

How to See Miracles

My grandmother Lilli Diamond has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.