On April 26th, 2014, we will be participating in the Donate Life 5K for the 5th consecutive year. This year, our team name has changed from “It’s What’s Inside of YOO that Counts” to team “We Love YOO Susan.”
If you want to walk/run with us in Fullerton, CA on April 26, you can sign up to join our team at this website. You can also help us meet our fundraising goal by making a donation. Thank you to everyone who has already helped us raise money to promote organ donation.
I seriously considered not participating in this year’s walk (and will still reserve the right to make that choice as a “game time” decision), but I am motivated to follow through with the event (if by nothing else) by the exasperated reaction I imagine Susan would have over my indecision.
A few months before her passing, Susan mentioned to me that she would like to design this year’s team t-shirt. To honor her plan, as well as her skill with all things hand-made, we are using one of her drawings on our new team shirt:
Susan drew this picture and had it made into a stamp by an artist she found on Etsy. Our cousin Jason put the shirt together, and Cindy is organizing the shirt orders. The shirts will be American Apparel, dark grey/black with white print. If you want to order a shirt, please email Cindy at email@example.com with your gender and size as soon as possible.
If you are able to attend the walk this year, stop by the Circle of Life Garden to see Susan’s sign. When I emailed the event’s director to update my address and inform her of Susan’s passing, she kindly offered a complimentary sign to honor Susan. The sign will have her picture as well as one of Susan’s favorite quotes that captures so much of her spirit – “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
They say losing a loved one changes you forever. I believe it. I will never be the same again, and there’s some comfort in that truth. Of course I will never be the same again! How could I? Most days, I feel like I’m trying to get some footing in a constantly shifting world, trying to figure out how to live this new chapter of life, and how to adjust to what is now, apparently, “normal.”
One of the most surprising changes has been my perspective on Peets, my dog. I have come to a stark realization: Peets is… just a dog. He is not my soul mate, he is not extraordinary, he is not compassionate, he is not my friend, and he does not understand me; he is simply a dog. It sounds silly, but this is quite the discovery for me, considering who I was before October 2013.
I adopted Peets in September 2009. Susan had just had her 2nd transplant in June, my mom had moved in with her to be her primary caretaker, and I was looking to make my life as stable as I could (I’m not someone who likes uncertainty). So, I bought a house, adopted a dog, and “nested” as much as possible. I furnished and decorated my house in a matter of weeks, and threw myself into caring for my new dog.
Behavior training, agility class, dermatology visits, day care, professional grooming, gourmet food, Peets had it all. His pictures decorated my classroom, and he was always the subject of any grammar exercises I created for my students. I’m sure hundreds of my former students remember nothing about gerunds or participial phrases, but I’ll bet they remember my dog’s name. When Fidel and I were wedding planning, one of the main criteria was how pet-friendly the venue was, since Peets would be, without question, our ring bearer. When I would gush over Peets, in my Peets-specific (read: embarrassingly high pitched) voice, Susan would say, “Woman, get a hold of yourself!”
Peets was the only other being with me and Susan when Susan suddenly passed. In the weeks immediately following her passing, I was angry at the dog. I know it was silly of me, but I expected him to somehow share in my trauma, pain, loss. Seeing him wag his nubby at the sound of the treat jar, or stretch out in a sunny spot as if the day was just another normal one angered me. How could this dog have experienced what I experienced, and be so unaffected?
I’m not angry with him anymore. I’ve accepted that he is, and always has been, just a dog. Now, I not only intellectually know, but also actually believe, that I cannot expect him to understand me, or comfort me in the way that I wanted him to. He does still bring me nice moments – at our last Mora family reunion, he was so calm and sweet that he may have undone a long history of dog-phobia for one of my sister-in-laws. And even if I don’t ever gush over my dog the way I did before losing Susan, Peets will always have a pretty cushy life. He will always be well taken care of and treated as part of the family. A family that is smaller now than it should be, but a family nonetheless.
When I imagine telling Susan about my new perspective on Peets, and my discovery that he is just a dog, I can hear her tell me, “Um, yes.” Well, Susan, it appears I have finally gotten a hold of myself.
When Fidel and I moved in next door to Susan last June, Susan’s nightly exercise was to walk over to our apartment, knitting and blanket in hand. We would chat and watch a movie on the couch, and Peets would snuggle in somewhere. One night, he got up with a blanket draped just-so over his head. Susan snapped a photo of him on her cell phone, and I found it in the “Blog” folder on her desktop. She labeled it “Peets Jedi.”
For my 31st birthday a few years ago, Susan had custom sister necklaces made for us from an artist on Etsy. She packaged them into two boxes, one with her set (“S” and “big sis”), and the other with mine (“C” and “lil sis”), and of course, I ended up opening her set first. A bit “slow on the uptake” (Susan’s words) I had to open the other to understand that we each had our own set. I proudly wore my set on a regular basis, and now lovingly wear both of our sets. I found this picture on Susan’s computer:
I’ve been thinking a lot about sisterhood as I navigate this grief journey. I’ve realized over the past few years that not every pair of sisters share the same kind of closeness that Susan and I shared. Some people, in expressing their sympathy for my loss, have said, with very kind intentions, “You didn’t just lose your sister, you lost your best friend.” I appreciate the effort to validate my sorrow, and I suppose for some people, “best friend” means more than “sister,” but for me, sister encompasses so much more than “best friend.” So what exactly makes sister so special? Here are some thoughts I’ve had on the subject:
1. Sisters are life-long. As cliche as it sounds, no other relationship is as permanent, constant, and uniquely linked. Parents had a whole life before we, their children, were born. Friends are great, but they change, they come and go, and they often shift with life’s circumstances. Life partners/significant others are (usually) met after we’ve become adults. From day 1 of my life, I had Susan.
2. Sisters make the greatest allies; we’re in it (“it” being the difficult thing that is life) together. Our parents fought a lot when we were kids, and Susan and I always took comfort in each other. I remember the two of us huddling together in the closet to “escape” the fighting, back when we were small enough to fit in a tiny closet together. We would talk about various things to try to tune out the fighting, or we would conduct our own review of their fighting (with our astute, probably 5 and 7 year old perspectives). Twenty some years later, we huddled together in various UCSF hospital rooms and ICU beds. On the hardest nights, when Susan had so little energy that she couldn’t talk (and we all know that those were rare, and truly scary times), she would just hold out her hand for me to hold. I would sit at her bedside, holding her hand, just the two of us, her eyes closed, mine watching my greatest ally.
3. Sisters “get it.” No one else would care about the minutia of each other’s daily lives, and we would never expect anyone else to care. We once chatted online for 40 minutes about what color cell phone case I should get (we decided on green). I never had to realize it before, but I now know that I basically go through each day of my life mentally storing details to relay to Susan. After college, when I moved to LA for grad school, Susan bought me my first cell phone and mailed it to me so that we could have daily catch-ups while waiting for the bus in our respective cities. I constantly catch myself making a mental checklist of things to tell Susan. Yesterday’s list would have included the angry bus driver who honked his way through Golden Gate park; how I ordered my usual pumpernickel bagel at Noah’s and then discovered that they have pretzel bagels (did she know that?); Peets (our dog) eating not just all of the peanut butter inside of his Kong (dog toy), but also a good layer of the plastic; and (in detail, probably word-for-word detail) the ongoing phone tag and voicemail messages to schedule my next grief counseling session. It’s also hard not to be able to sit and listen for her account of what she ate throughout the day, the frustrating problem she ran into while knitting current project X, the funny cartoon she saw online, what interesting articles I missed out on because I’m not on facebook, and what she thinks we should order for dinner.
During her prolific book-binding months, Susan made me a travel journal, and this page she included pretty much sums it up:
The past six months have been an unprecedented time of change and transition for me. We moved to SF in June, I quit my job in September, and then put my intensive job search on hold when Susan suddenly passed away. I’m taking time to slowly figure things out since a) the most constant person in my life is no longer here and my life has thus been turned upside down, and b) I have no idea what I want to do professionally, except that I know I don’t want to see 150+ teenagers on a daily basis. I feel fortunate for this time of limbo – I’ve never really not known what I wanted to do next, and I’ve definitely never been able to take this kind of time off of work (after all, I am the gal who worked as a “sandwich artist” at a gas-station Subway after earning my UC Berkeley degree). Thank goodness for my amazingly supportive husband and spousal health benefits.
To buy myself some time before having to find a full time job, and to have distractions that force me out of the house, I got a part-time retail job, just like my high school days. Thankfully, minimum wage is higher in San Francisco, and I am able to fully appreciate how EASY this job is, compared to teaching. Granted, there are tough moments, like when one of Susan’s UCSF ICU nurses came in as a customer and I had to relay the news of her passing. Not bursting into tears on the sales floor was a challenge. Or when customers in the fitting rooms tell me their name is Susan and I have to say “Hi Susan, my name is Carol.” Saying our two names together aloud sharply echoes the emptiness of my heart. Since part time minimum wage obviously brings home nothing close to the dual income we depended on when we rented our apartment, I’ve been trying to supplement it with other jobs (if you know anyone who needs a reading/writing tutor, let me know). So, for the first time in my life, last weekend, I babysat. Not pet-sat, but actual baby-sat. Most people know that as much as I love four legged “babies,” I am quite nervous about the two-legged variety. Thankfully, it was much less scary than I feared it would be. And unexpectedly, I found I have much in common with this 8-month-old charge. After about an hour of sleep, she woke up, looked around, realized the person she wanted wasn’t there, and burst into unbridled screaming and crying until sheer exhaustion finally put her back to sleep. So bring on the baby-sitting – the experience actually made me feel surprisingly normal, and understood.
The holidays are obviously a difficult time for grieving families; I fully expect them to be so for us for decades to come. The fact that Susan loved the holidays (while I’m usually indifferent and/or cynical about them), her birthday and thanksgiving usually fall within the same week, and that the season starts on the heels of October 16th, exacerbates the challenge. Thanksgiving was by far one of the hardest days of the past few months. I am approaching this Christmas Eve and Day with much trepidation.
Last April, Susan had emailed me the link to this LA Times op-ed piece (she often sent me interesting articles by email because I am not on Facebook). I remember talking about it with her, and the two of us agreeing on how apropos it was, especially when we reflected on her time in the hospital. I think about what’s providing comfort to me these days, and I realize how much of it is just the silent acknowledgement that I am deeply grieving. In thinking again about the “Ring Theory,” I realize it must also be the “dumping out” of those on the outer rings. As much as people try to provide comfort through words and actions, it’s the quiet acceptance and acknowledgment of my grief, and my position in the inner-most ring, that helps.
My therapist has told me that right now, in the immediate months after this loss, it’s very important to let myself feel what I feel. Easier said than done; my knee-jerk reaction to feeling anything “bad” is to feel guilty about it. I’m trying to let myself feel angry, selfish, or entitled without feeling guilty about it, but it feels wrong in so many ways. Today, I am trying to let myself feel “grinch-like” about Christmas without feeling obligated to have the eye-rounding-and-face-softening-de-grinching ending.