How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.

Boston

Fred woke up yesterday complaining of a headache and tried gently to twist my arm into letting him stay home from school. And yet, he was sitting up, smiling and, later, even laughing during sillier moments in our conversation. I said to him, “You know, when I broke my leg, all the doctors would ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Getting you out of me was a 10, so I would tell them 7.”

He liked the scale, admitted he was a 2, and trotted off to school.

***

At around 3:00, I flew down the stairs to look for Max to tell him there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line. My high school friend had posted on Facebook that she was praying her sister, who had run in the marathon, would be okay. I was not getting any of this – why was everyone worried if the runners were okay? – so I googled the Marathon, and then turned on the t.v.

I watched in horror and indescribable sadness as the city that raised me went up in smoke. The historic library on the left of the scene that is replayed again and again on t.v. – that is where I fell in love with books for the first time. I went to the prom, met up with friends, had my first date, attended family and friends’ weddings, and transferred trains to get home from school daily all within a 2-block radius. A year ago to the month, Max, Fred and I went on an Easter egg hunt at the church down a little ways.

Watching my expressionless sadness and tears, Fred asked, “Mommy, how do you feel, on a scale of 1 to 10?”

I was not really up for talking, but I grabbed the opportunity to be consoled.

“Umm…I guess I would say an 8…I want to say 9 or 10 but that’s for the people who were actually there, who saw it happening, or for those who got hurt or had a friend or family member get hurt, or…”

“Die,” said Fred.

“Yes, the 10 is for those people who lost someone.”

“So you’re saying 8 because you grew up there?”

“Yes.”

“I think you can take a 9.”

***

I am grieving because, indeed, so much of who I am is tied up in this beautiful city and birthplace of America. Over San Francisco where the rest of our family was, my parents chose Boston – after fleeing China and Peru – to start all over again and to feel real hope for the first time.

Though we immigrated during a time of heated racial tension (I started school right at the explosion of the notorious court ordered desegregation in the 1970s), not once did Boston ever turn its back on us, not when my parents were struggling to learn English, not even when they had no legal right to even be here. Boston gave my parents work and community resources and a chance to rise out of their initial jobs as restaurant dishwasher and garment factory worker. By the time I was in junior high my father opened a new restaurant with a group of partners, and was now fluent enough in English to work the bar and to chat up all the customers. He became a loyal fan of both Boston sports and the Kennedys and is proud of the following four highlights in his life:  1) waiting on former Celtics great Dave Cowens in his restaurant; 2) shaking hands with former Patriots coach Bill Parcells in the Cleveland Circle theater restroom (my father is not shy); 3) shaking hands with Congressman Joseph Kennedy along the Charles River; and 4) being granted US citizenship after 20 years of waiting. His approval was held up in the red tape of the INS for years, until we wrote to Congressman Kennedy, who pushed his application through. Well into their 70s now and armed with a shed full of shovels and snowblowers, they refuse to accept my invitation to join us in a warmer, slower, gentler part of the country. But then again, my parents cannot move even if they wanted to; my mother is still working for the city, and she refuses to retire.

And the Boston Public Schools’ mission to elevate its working class children through opportunities and dedicated teachers allowed my brother and I to eventually attend colleges and universities that my parents never even dared fantasize about. My own greatest memories of childhood include piano lessons, advanced classes, trips to see the Nutcracker and the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, a 4 year scholarship to study studio art at the Museum of Fine Arts, a chance to design floats and costumes and march in the city’s Walt Disney Parade, an invitation to become a cast member of a PBS talk show with Dr. Tom Cottle…all of this came not from my parents but from the schools. The Boston Public Schools gave us what our parents wanted to but didn’t have the means to.

Boston is my adoptive parent, my angel, and today I miss it with an ache I can’t describe.

Yesterday so many either lost or are now clinging to the hope that my family has had in abundance. I grieve for those children, those runners, those spectators, and those families whose dreams were unexpectedly cut short in this magical city. That the city that gave us so much reason to move forward could be juxtaposed with scenes of danger and fear is mind-boggling.

But Boston is nothing if not fearless. And resilient. And loyal. We know her winters. We know her schools. We know her sports teams and her fans. We know her history in the formation of this country. Most of all, we know her people. They are people like my parents, who have soared on hope during their own periods of danger and fear and who in turn will stand by Boston’s side to the very end.

On a scale of 1 to 10, today I feel a 10: for sadness, for anger, for hope, for gratitude, and for pride.

boston                                      photo credit: Barewalls.com

Family vacations – the good, the bad, and the ugly

We just got back from our first family vacation in 2 years, and I overestimated my ability to keep up with my blog, so I apologize for the long silence (assuming you had missed me ;-))!

dolphin

We tackled our first theme park vacation in Orlando, having booked the trip at a prematurely optimistic point in my broken ankle recovery when everything felt great. (My ankle would start to ache again a few weeks before our trip.) We also decided to go during Fred’s (and half the world’s) spring break, which started over Easter weekend (smart move #2). Finally, we chose to drive for 2 days rather than fly. Smart!!

So, with the ugliest pair of Easy Spirit sandals I could tolerate, a car trunk packed almost to the roof, and a 9-year old fully outfitted with electronics, headset and snacks, we were off to undergo the parental rite of passage/sacrifice of Making One’s Child Happy.

The following is what I have learned about vacationing with family:

  • Don’t believe family members when they say they’re “okay.”

Max drove all 10 hours to FL. I have anxiety issues surrounding driving on highways and in unfamiliar places so I couldn’t relieve him. We got in late afternoon and took it easy, then decided to hit the Kennedy Space Center the next day. But something was off. As if a typical 9 year-old child doesn’t challenge your nerves enough on a regular day, imagine what it feels like when you’re (both) exhausted and cooped up together 24/7 in a small hotel room or in 45-minute line after 45-minute line in 80+ degree heat. By the third day (because it is always the third day of a trip when your world explodes), I had sent a text to my girlfriend back home telling her this family vacationing thing was all a mistake.

Another friend of mine once told me that she and her husband have a 3-day (see?) grace period with each other when traveling; for those first 3 days, snapping and short tempers are understood and forgiven. It’s the exhaustion talking. For many people including myself, there is this pressure to not waste a minute of a trip because you’re there for a limited time and especially if you have already spent $$$ on park passes. Next time, though, I’d be willing to take a full day or two “off” to let the tired parties rest – book a massage ahead of time for the driver, sleep in, take turns relieving one another of childcare duty (assuming you are traveling with another adult).

  • Don’t believe your child if s/he says s/he’s not hungry.

Fred waited 2 years – not an insignificant amount of time when you’re 9 – to visit Legoland. So as soon as we got there, he was salivating at every ride and at every store and at every play opportunity. He had no idea that he was hungry. By the time we were finally able to tear him away to eat, it was already 1:00 p.m., and the funny thing about eateries is that, when you’re starving, there doesn’t seem to be any around. So we walked and walked until we came upon a panini place. Max searched and waited for a table to open up while I waited in line. The line, which didn’t look that long, took 40 minutes to move. By now it was 2:00, if not later. Max helped bring the tray of food back to the table which was, incidentally, very wobbly, and because the lid had not been placed tightly on my large Dr. Pepper, the whole cup splashed all over my chest, legs and feet when Max set the tray down. It seemed like a fitting end to the torturous wait for lunch and, picking up on my mood, Fred refused to eat, which only made me even more exasperated. Our bickering finally culminated in him sobbing, “I didn’t wait 2 years for this!” And with that he reminded me of what was important. I stroked his hair and face and apologized and he finally picked up his sandwich to eat.

My tip: start scouting and getting in line for food a good hour before you know your children will be hungry. (I’d brought snacks but on this particular day, they didn’t work – Fred was too excited to acknowledge that he was hungry.) Or, get in line well before the lunch crowd hits.

  • Let it go

I had a lot of rules and expectations crossing over the FL border: wake up early each day and leave for theme park by 8:30; order only water as the beverage at dinner; order soda a maximum of 3x over the course of the vacation; delay bed time by 30 minutes maximum; refrain from purchasing unnecessary souvenirs; update blog mid-week.

We followed none of it. We’d get back to our hotel at 9 p.m. at the earliest and sometimes couldn’t make it out the door the next morning until 11. Fred came home with stuffed animals, Lego sets, Lego shoes, postcards, and a small $8 Kennedy Space Center keychain for keys he doesn’t have. My soda rule for him also went flying out the window, even though we’d “agreed” on it before leaving home. It’s just hard when on most kids’ menus the only available drink option is soda, and every child, it seems, is walking around Legoland with a gargantuan Lego shopping bag. I could either auto pilot “If everyone jumps off the bridge, does that mean you will too?” and brace myself for battle or simply give in (within reason, that is). Given how much bickering had already taken place, I decided to let these battles go. “It’s vacation,” became my new mantra. And with that, I gave myself permission to stuff myself to the gills as well (and returned home with an extra 5 pounds).

Oh – and the most important thing to let go of? The illusion of the perfect vacation. Just because we’re sitting on the Riviera doesn’t mean we don’t still get hungry or sick, don’t still make mistakes, don’t still feel any emotion other than joy. We’re human regardless of where we are geographically or how much we have invested in this get-away.

  • Savor

What snapped us back into place time and again was the big picture we kept inside of us: We’re on vacation…and not just any vacation, but a 9 year-old’s equivalent to my personal dream of visiting Fiji Islands or the Taj Mahal. The joy for us was seeing the delight in Fred’s eyes over and over and over again: when our car entered the parking lot of Legoland, when he got splashed wet at the killer whale show at Sea World, when he took a lick of his first dolphin-shaped ice cream. Though there were times when I had rated this a “so so” vacation because I lacked the power to make it absolutely perfect, Fred recalls only that it was one of the best trips he has ever taken. Children have an amazing way of not dwelling on the small moments of unpleasantness – the long lines, the growling stomachs, the traffic, the small fights. I realized, then, that Fred had created his own power to make the perfect vacation.

Jet kite FL

What did you do for spring break? What have been your best (or worst) vacation memories? Any tips?