Shelly

(This is the third essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series:

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

I write this not as a description of her death, but of her life. Far too much emphasis is placed on how one dies, rather than on how one lives. Often, upon finding out about the death of an individual, we feel guilt. This thought only lingers for a second, because our attention is turned to another, seemingly more pressing question: “How did they die?”

When a family member falls ill, the caregiver of that family member will receive hundreds of calls: friends and long lost relatives calling for updates. They want to know what is going on, but they want to know what is going on from a safe distance. They don’t want to come to the burning house, but they will gladly watch from their cars down the road. I lived in a burning home for six years, not fully understanding why it was on fire and why this fire could not be put out. After the house had burnt down, I was left trying to pick up the pieces of what the disease had torched. I barely knew my mom. It has been seven years to the day since my mother has died, and six years before that which she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, (which I understand now is the most fatal and terminal of all brain cancers). At the time of diagnosis I was ten years old, meaning that at best I had a conscious life with my mother for about six years: six years of life with her, six years of life while she was sick, and now seven years of life after her death. These intervals outline and provide distinctions for my own life with makers signifying before, during and after her illness.

Once, my dad told me that he doesn’t necessarily think that the soul goes anywhere when someone dies but is rather remembered and carried on by the people that have been touched by that person. That being said, the majority of the time that I knew my mother she was fighting a disease which had the capability to change her personality and how she acted psychosocially. Do I have enough memories of her to remember? Did I have enough time with her when she wasn’t sick to hold on to her?

A professor of social work once explained to a class I was in, that when a child dies, a parent loses their future, and when a parent dies, the child loses their past. I have spent the past six years trying to piece together that past; trying to figure out who my mother was; trying to learn about her life before she had me and before she had cancer, in an attempt to better know myself. I have sifted through pictures and old letters, and I have listened to family members tell stories to create an idea of my mother, which, although it may not be entirely accurate (as their descriptions have been adorned with details that my mind has created) I nevertheless hold on to when I need a mother; one that is stronger than the memory of her illness. The slow progression of the loss of my mother is a story which deserves attention and analysis as well, but that is for another time. I’ve spent too much time looking at people’s faces after I tell them that she is dead; too many unanswerable questions about where she has gone have been asked. This will not be another person facing and questioning her death, but rather it will be about her life.

*          *          *

An excerpt from my eulogy for my mother at her funeral:

We were driving to summer school and listening to 92.9 (because it used to be the oldies station) and we were listening to the song that went ‘I don’t know much about history, I don’t know much trigonometry, don’t know much about science books, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that one and one is two and if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this could be.” And you were singing to it, and you never sang, and you still don’t sing. That was when I last remember you happy. Maybe Stacy or Dad or someone else remembers a different time, but that is the one time that stands out in my mind when you were happy. And I look through all the photographs when you were holding me, and feeding me when I was little, and you were smiling so big and its like you are the happiest person in the world. And that is the mom that I will remember.

*          *          *

Although I am sure that these stories about my parent’s relationship were told to me at different times growing up, when I heard them in my dad’s eulogy at my mother’s funeral was when they really made an impact on me. He had written down notes on index cards, but he didn’t write out every detail, for the memories were salient enough that a script was unnecessary. When writing these stories down, I realized that certain dates, times and even certain situations might be slightly incorrect. I had to talk to my dad to get extra clarification for parts that I was uncertain about or remembered incorrectly. Even with the additional details he has given me, I will never know what the location of these scenes looked like, what they were each wearing and what their first and most visceral impressions of each other were. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to fully understand everything that has happened before I knew my mother, but I have also learned that this is something that every child must accept (regardless if their mother is alive or not) because some experiences can not be recreated even in the most descriptive prose. Despite this fact, I will try to do so.

Joel still likes to joke that Shelly stalked him. In 1989, Joel had just taken a residency position at University of Pittsburgh as an anesthesiologist at Montefiore Hospital.  On Thanksgiving day, Shelly was also at the hospital because her grandfather had fallen and broken a hip. This was the first day that Shelly and Joel met. This interaction amounted to nothing at the time, but would down the road. A year passed before the spring of 1990 when Shelly was driving home from the gym when she saw Joel pull into a liquor store. She parked her car, walked into the state liquor store and began casually perusing the aisles while waiting to look astonished that Joel was at the same store. Shelly had been at the gym before stopping at the store and didn’t have any money on her to buy anything, so she simply had to pretend to be buying something. After “running” into each other again, the two exchanged numbers and went on a date. In Joel’s opinion, the date had gone poorly, and he had no intention of calling her for a second one. What he didn’t realize was that he could not get rid of Shelly that easily. Since she also worked at the same hospital as a nurse, she looked up his number and called him when he was in the lounge at the hospital, demanding to know why he didn’t call her again. They soon started dating.

One night when they were out, the two ran into a family that Shelly knew. Shelly commented on how she had been his nurse when their now teenage son was delivered in his hospital. After the family left and said goodbye, Joel started doing math in his head.

“Wait a second,” he said. “If you were the nurse for that boy when he was born, how old are you?” It had never occurred to him that he could have been dating a much older woman.

Shelly just laughed and said: “Does it matter?”

As it turns out, she was six and a half years older than him.

Months continued to pass, and Joel began to realize that it was make or break time. If they didn’t break up soon, then they were on a trajectory towards something very serious (i.e. marriage). Joel was young and didn’t know exactly what he wanted yet. So one day while driving to a movie, Joel turned to Shelly and said: “Have you ever met someone that everything they do really annoys you?”

“Are you talking about me?” Shelly responded.

“Um well yeah…”

Without skipping a beat, Shelly responded: “You’re full of shit. Keep driving.”

This wasn’t the beginning of Shelly’s strong will helping her get her way. Members of her family jokingly warned him about this particular attribute. Women on her side of the family were known to be “pieces of work.”  Her strong opinions and lack of a filter someone allowed her to voice her mind often and loudly.

When she would go to a restaurant and didn’t like the food, she wouldn’t hesitate to let the waiter know. Each time my father would beg her not to say anything. He tried to get her to compromise and told her that it wasn’t necessary to make a fuss, but without fail when the waiter would come over and ask how their food was, she would respond with: “You know what? It’s pretty crummy actually,” and she would send it back.

Frequently at family events or dinners, the phrase “Shelly would have something to say about this,” is muttered. She would have said what everyone was thinking, whether or not it was appropriate. If a certain part of the family wasn’t invited to a wedding, or if someone was in need of an intervention, everyone knew that if my mom had been there, she would have either changed something or at the very least shared her thoughts.

*          *          *

Mom was deeply invested in her family and relationships. When she was sixteen, her father died from colon cancer. It was a quick progression, and he died within six months. He was buried in the family cemetery in Pittsburgh, which is where she is buried as well. When it was still a topic of discussion where my mother would end up after she died, I was adamant about her ending up with her father and the rest of her family. Caring so much about her family, she undoubtedly would have wanted to rest there, and I felt very strongly about this as well. My mother was very fond of her father. His name was Hymen, for whom I am named after (they took the “H” in Hy and used it for Holly). I don’t know much about Hy besides that he was left-handed (like me), though they made him write with his right hand in school, that he changed his name to Mark when he had to fight in the Korean war, and that he was also really good at the butterfly stroke in swimming.

Each day after her father died, my mom would walk home from school and find my grandmother in an arm chair, crying. She would then leave and walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, then walk around town in attempts to avoid her hysterical mother. Within a year of this, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move to Hawaii, where her dad’s twin brother lived and worked at the University of Honolulu. She completed her senior year at Kalani High School. I remember as a child looking at old pictures of her with friends on the beach from this time, wearing bracelets and necklaces made from sea shells. In her yearbook, she was the only white student — everyone else was Hawaiian or Asian. Her dark curly hair and freckled nose stood out even in the black and white photos of the yearbook.

In retrospect, having lost a parent at the same age as she did, I understand the need to pick up and move. I, however, didn’t do it until a year after her when I moved to Philadelphia, which, although wasn’t quite Pittsburgh, still put me closer to my family and my mother. We both felt an urge to leave our immediate family and move toward extended family, who were closer to our dearly departed. Some individuals who have lost a loved one feel the opposite – they want to hold on to their home as they remember it before. I felt this with my childhood home, but also felt the overpowering urge to go far away and get closer to people who knew my mother better. Even if it wasn’t in the same city, Philadelphia was closer to Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it was her lack of a father in the formative years of being a twenty-something young woman, but my mother felt the need to go back to Pittsburgh after a year in Hawaii. At that time she became particularly close with her mother’s father, Papa. During this period, she got her nursing degree and continued to be close with her older relatives and role models. She would visit relatives and call them frequently, while most of the younger cousins her age moved away to go to school or start a family. She remained firm in wanting to stay and take care of her loved ones. Hawaii had been what she had needed at the time of her father’s death, but as she matured she realized the necessity of being close to the ones she loved – especially the aging generation that she knew her time with was limited.

Very early on in their relationship, my mom asked if my dad would want to meet her grandpa. It seemed like kind of a strange request, so my dad’s response was: “Does he smell?” She laughed and told him that no, Papa didn’t smell. Of course, my dad ended up falling in love with Papa. He would visit him with my mother and help take care of him until they moved from Pittsburgh to Colorado Springs in 1992.  Considering it was Papa’s broken hip which had brought them together in the first place, this was especially fitting.

Even when she lived far away, whether it was Hawaii in high school or Colorado after she got married, my mom’s cousins admired how she would make it a point to call them or write to them on a regular basis. Her dedication to remain connected to those she loved was unparalleled. I have vivid memories from my childhood of her sitting at her desk, doodling spirals on sticky notes as she chatted on the phone for hours. Sometimes while she was on the phone, she would skim through catalogs, dog-earing pages that she liked. They were rarely magazines about celebrities or news, but rather contained pages of children’s sweaters, bedding and women’s clothing.

This soon stemmed into an obsession with catalog shopping (the precursor to online shopping), which she became a pro at when she was on bed rest with me and then my sister two years later. During this time period, she would lay in bed ordering boxes upon boxes of different items, often sending the contents back (much like the food in restaurants).

*          *          *

If there was one thing that I have heard repetitively, it is that my mother wanted kids more than anything. I often like to joke that when she met my dad, she was determined to be with him because she knew that her biological clock was ticking and that she needed someone to have kids with. When she was pregnant with me, she asked her physician if she could go on a trip to see her uncle in Hawaii. Her doctor said that yes, she had plenty of time before her due date. Unfortunately, she went into labor on the plane there. Luckily, her water didn’t break, and she was rushed to the hospital. She was able to fly back to Colorado with no complications, but with strict orders to be on bed rest. Even on bed rest, she had me a month early, on December 7th, and had to stay in the hospital until Christmas (which is my dad’s birthday). Having been a nurse at the hospital herself, my mother insisted on me having the best care. When she would wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she would call the hospital to make sure I was okay. Each time the nurse would assure her that I was okay and if anything was wrong they would call her. Additionally, my mother decided to bottle feed so that other people could feed me, especially while I was an infant in the hospital. This plan backfired when I refused to take a bottle from any hand that wasn’t hers. Even as an infant, I knew who my mother was and rejected everyone else.

My dad often jokes that mothers who have children when they are older become the overbearing helicopter mothers. My friend’s parents still remind me of times at soccer games when I was in grade school, and she would make sure that I was wearing three different jackets if it was under 60 degrees, or when she would run on the field during time-outs and aggressively lather sunscreen on my face as I complained about how ‘embarrassing’ it was. On each first day of school from Kindergarten through High school, she would buy me a corsage from the florist and pin it on my outfit before I went to school. Every morning she would meticulously braid my hair, put it in ponytails with decorative barrettes and match the hair ties to my outfit colors.

As I grew up, it became more and more apparent that I was a miniature version of her. My mom’s sister used to say that she was worried I would hit her because I was so much like my mother, perhaps bringing her back to their days of sibling rivalry and petty fights. Pictures of my mother and myself as children are almost identical, especially with our long brown hair. When my mom officially cut her hair short, she kept the ponytail (a relic that we still have in our basement today.) As long as I could remember (and even many years before I even considered the thought), she had short hair, but before that she was known for her long hair. Her cousin Phyllis remembers how my grandma used to shampoo my mom’s hair in a large wash basin in the basement in order to get all the shampoo out of her waist-length hair. Phyllis even remembers the smell of my mom’s hair “being a mixture of Dove soap and channel perfume.”

*          *          *

I will be the first to admit that things weren’t always perfect in our family, especially during her illness and after her death. There was one time after my mother died that my dad told me that the reason we couldn’t get along was because “I was a clone of my mother.” Whether this was intended as a compliment or as an insult, I took it as the biggest compliment I have ever received.

Despite problems throughout their marriage, I do not have a doubt that my parents loved one another. One of my mom’s closest friends was her first cousin, Janie, who was close with my parents while they were dating. (My dad even thought that him and Janie were close enough that he could come into the delivery room when she was giving birth to her first son. Janie did not share this sentiment, and he still claims that her head turned around 360 degrees, exorcist style, screaming at him to leave the room.) Janie remembers talking to my dad during a rough patch in my parent’s engagement when he had briefly called it off.

“She’s my best friend,” he told Janie.

When times have been rough with my dad, she has always reminded me of this time. She tells me that nothing is perfect, but that regardless, my parents loved each other. I also think that this is the reason as I have gotten older and become not only more of my own person but also more like my mom, I have been able to become better friends with my dad – reminiscent of when he met my mother 20 plus years ago.

When I was younger, I don’t think I emulated my mother as much as I do now. With time I have grown into my mother. In some ways, this is my attempt to memorialize her and keep her alive – to continue her legacy. Sure, some of my choices and preferences that are similar to hers are quite intentional. I went to nursing school as a way to explore the career that she was so passionate about. I will wear jewelry that was hers so I can look at my hands and think of her, and sometimes I sign her name on receipts to feel my hands outlining her name. Some things I simply love because she did, but some of it is unintentional and comes organically. Many of these things would have occurred independently of if she was still alive or not. I’ll comment on things I enjoy, and often my dad will respond, “You know who else loved that? Your mother.”

I have become engrained in my opinions, much like her. In her twenties, my mother too had a persistent, firm grip of what she liked and what she did not like, as anyone who knew her could tell you. Her decisions were her own – and own them she did. Many of my close, and some not so close, friends have started to say things like, “that is such a Holly thing to do.” This, I get from my mother. As I get older, family members accidentally call me “Shelly” due to our similar mannerisms and expressions. I never skip a beat when people do this. In fact, I love it when I hear her name.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

(This is the second essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series:

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

For months after we got rid of the landline, I would lie in my bed late at night with my cell phone and dial the old number: 7195994266. The number had been engrained in my mind, not out of necessity but rather out of habit. My mom used to write it on a sticky note and put it in my backpack in case I needed to call home when I was at a friend’s house or school. Eventually, I didn’t need the sticky note.

I would listen to the dial tone. Telephones are supposed to be there to connect you to people who are not with you at the moment. I was supposed to be able to dial this phone number and home would be on the other line. This phone was supposed to be anchored in this home. If I were to call it, my mother or my father were supposed to be there to pick it up.

Each time that I would call this number, I would listen to these rings and click the phone off before anyone could answer. I would repeat this pattern a few times, each time listening to an additional ring, waiting until I would get too nervous that someone had already claimed the old number before hanging up.

Then the last time I called, I waited too long. One ring too many, and someone answered.

“Hello?” the man who picked up the phone questioned the silence.

What was I expecting? My mom had died a few months before canceling the telephone service. Even if we still had that same number, she wasn’t going to pick up. I knew that, yet I still hoped that maybe she would be on the other line.

“Hello, is anybody there?” The voice questioned again.

No response. I exhaled into the phone.

“Whoever this is, can you please stop calling this number late at night?”

Click. I hung up. That was the last time that I ever called my home phone number. It was no longer mine.

*          *          *

I watched my parents build the house. I was five, and my sister was three. To get to the plot of land they had chosen on Dante Way, my parents had to walk up past where the road ended because we were the first house to be built at the top of the hill.

Sometimes, after kindergarten, my mom would pick me up and drive to the interior decorator’s office. Her name was Joan, and she would send my mom home with tile samples and swatches for window treatments. Even before moving to Colorado, my mother agonized over the smallest design details. For example, she had her grandmother’s couches reupholstered so that they were the right color scheme to match her ideal decor. Nothing was going to be good enough until she had it her way, and that is why the house on Dante Way was my mom’s house. She sat with designers for hours picking the exact shade of cherry wood to finish the kitchen floor with (which, incidentally, would turn out to be a horrible decision seeing as cherry is a very soft wood and not suited for kitchens, children, or dogs for that matter.) She wanted the living room to match the reupholstered furniture. Each detail that she put in was refined, and more than often seemed slightly ridiculous to my father. She insisted that the wall separating the living room and the kitchen should be curved, which was difficult for the builders to accomplish because she also wanted the dust boards to be made from individual panels of real wood. She hated when cabinets in the kitchen didn’t reach to the ceiling because “it just collects dust up there” so her kitchen had cabinets so tall that she couldn’t even reach the top shelf without the help of my dad and a chair, though they were aesthetically pleasing. Instead of plain, one color accent walls, she wanted marble-looking walls with varying teals, golds, and grays. When the walls were being painted, I helped brainstorm how to execute my mom’s vision and suggested painting a scene from the Wizard of Oz on the wall with a rainbow. The painters laughed, and my mom promptly turned down that idea, opting for a more tasteful option. However, she did professionally frame the artwork that I drew in preschool and hung it around the house. The frame was about 100 times more expensive than the artwork that it displayed. The house was hers inside and outside. She picked everything; she signed off on everything; she gave her blessing.

Her requirement of perfection probably stemmed from a desire to emulate her ideal vision of home. Home was not in Colorado for her; she didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh again as she had so many years ago, even before she had met my dad. However, when my dad got a job in Colorado, she begrudgingly packed up her apartment and journeyed out west. Her refusal to leave Pittsburgh and uproot herself is ironic, considering that as a teenager she had decided to do just that. After her father’s death, she would walk home from high school everyday to find her sobbing mother at home. My mom would then leave her house, walk to the convenience store to buy lemon wafers, and spend the rest of her afternoon walking around waiting until she could go home. Eventually, she couldn’t handle her mother crying anymore and decided to move to Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father’s brother lived.

*          *          *

For me, after her death, things at home seemed to stay the same for awhile. We never got rid of our answering machine that my mom had recorded: “Hi you’ve reached the Kellners. We aren’t available to take your call but leave us a message, and we will get back to you as soon as we can. BEEP” I remember we never realized that this was something we had to change, and in fact I rather liked it. The months after she had died I would call the home phone just to listen to her voice on the end of the other line. To me, the answering machine was anchored to the foundation and ideals on which that house was built, and maybe because her voice was on the machine, she would be there when I got home.

For a while, her clothes still hung in her closet. Much like her voice on the answering machine, she remained. This lasted until my dad made my sister and I spend four hours sifting through sweaters, t-shirts, and Bermuda shorts, deciding what to keep and what to give away. Just like her death, she was there one second and gone the next. Empty. Half of her closet disappeared like a time lapse in a movie. We were allowed to keep what we could keep in our closets or what would fit us. Everything else had to be placed in large black plastic bags to be taken to Good Will so that someone could pay two dollars and fifty cents for her knitted sweaters or the long red dress suit she had bought for a wedding. Someone else would slip on her black sandals and wear them out to run errands, never knowing that they had purchased a dead woman’s pair of shoes. Someone would disregard the initials she scribbled on the inside tag of an old t-shirt and have no idea that they were there so that the nursing home she lived in could return them to her. No one would know that.

Our cleaning out of her clothes seemed as if it had come out of nowhere. The house had stayed the same, the pictures remained up, even the answering machine remained for awhile. The fact that these details in the house (the design of the cabinets, the decorations, the fabric on the window treatments) hadn’t changed at all made the emptying of her closet seem wrong. That was when I realized that it wasn’t her house anymore.

Looking back now, I understand my father’s urgency in the removal of her clothes. It probably wasn’t as abrupt as I had imagined at the time. I realize he had probably been thinking about it for weeks, maybe even months. I found comfort in living in my mother’s house, but I didn’t realize that maybe he didn’t. Her six-year-long fight with cancer changed who my mother was and slowly destroyed her over a drawn out period. As a child, I didn’t fully understand the severity of her illness and therefore didn’t say goodbye until she left our house for the nursing home two months before her death. However, my dad understood that my mother shouldn’t have lived as long as she should have. He understood words like “prognosis” and therefore he began saying goodbye shortly after she was diagnosed. He started grieving long before my sister and I did, and so even though his grieving seemed rushed in my eyes, it really had been going on for many years. Grief changes you, and everyone reacts to it in a different way. Although it is one disease process, it manifests itself very differently in each person. It can bring one daughter to cling to remnants of a home, while another flees 4662 miles. It can bring one spouse to stay in the house sobbing in an armchair, while another tries to find a way to allow room for the new.

Although it was realistically a few weeks after we got rid of her clothes before my dad’s sickeningly spunky thirty-year-old girlfriend moved in the house, it seemed like it happened overnight. Another precipitous and hurried change. Within the blink of an eye, the void in my mom’s closet refilled with a slew of clothing from popular stores and “trendy” boutiques. She (along with her clothes and tastes) didn’t fit the motif of our home. She attempted to cover up my mother’s designs by placing seasonally themed decorations around the house: wrapping ribbons around the stairs for Christmas and putting “decorative” bunnies on the porch for Easter. My mother would have denounced these decorations as tacky and distasteful. I was beside myself when his girlfriend hired the same painter who had painted the intricate walls for my mother twelve years ago to come in and paint over her bedroom in baby blue.

What none of us realized at the time was that removing my mother’s items wouldn’t remove her from home. That house would always be hers, regardless of my insistence on staying, my father’s hopes to move on, and his girlfriend’s attempts to disguise the house as her own.

*          *          *

A year after I had left for college, my dad told me that he was going to be selling the house. I struggled with this. All my friends had homes to go to when they came back for the summer; all of their childhood memories would be in the same place, and the posters on the wall wouldn’t have been moved. When I came home, everything was in boxes and my dad had hired a realtor to make the house “sellable.” This meant taking down pictures of our family, which he explained would allow the buyer to picture themselves in the house, and covering the vibrant yellow walls in my room with an indifferent matte eggshell.

The whole process seemed to have happened overnight, leaving me the little time to process. All of a sudden my father announced we would be moving, and the house was sold within a week of the realtor being hired. It’s what every person is trying to sell a house dreams of  – a quick and easy selling process. However, I secretly wanted it to go on for longer. The seemingly precipitous nature of the house sale was most likely due to my inability and unacceptance to leave. I had accepted that she had died. I understood that, but I still hadn’t let go of her home yet. I had already lost my mother, and I didn’t understand the reasoning behind letting go of physical reminders of her. I didn’t want to let him leave my mother and her house to a family who knew nothing of the minute considerations that went into every painted wall and detail in that home.

After we had moved to the rental house, while we waited for the new house to be built, I struggled to find somewhere to call home. My mom was where home was, and that house was where she was. I had anticipated grieving her death, I had grieved her death, and now I had to grieve the loss of the home which in so many ways embodied her. With both of them now gone, I felt as if I couldn’t go home, let alone find a new one. Traveling scared me, and packing caused me anxiety. I was reluctant to travel for fear that without having myself rooted in one place, I would be like a balloon being released from a child’s grasp; floating away aimlessly and never come back. I wanted somewhere to be anchored, somewhere that I could always go back to, but I couldn’t find that. Apartments in college aren’t home, and rental homes in the city you were born in aren’t home either. I had always imagined that even as I changed, my home would remain the same.

Like my mother did when she moved to Hawaii, I searched for home when I moved to college. As a young adult, I traveled across the country and felt for roots, but also like her I would realize after a few years that home hadn’t gone anywhere. She went back to Pittsburgh, and I went back to Colorado: these places were home. It took my father moving into a new home alone (without my mother or his now ex- girlfriend) for me to accept that he now had his own house, independent of my mom, and that was okay. His house was new, modern and very different than our previous house on Dante Way. It wasn’t my mom: there were no accent walls with gold and teal, no framed pictures of drawings that I made as a child and no patterned drapery, but it was my dad: sharp modern lines, LED lighting and reclaimed wood. Now, as I look back, I realize home wasn’t any of these individual aspects. These were mere adornments which decorated the idea of what I thought was home.

I have been able to take pieces of my mother, which she had taken from her old homes, which are especially cherished because they move from place to place. My favorite is my grandfather’s dark, reddish brown leather stool which I imagine at some point had a chair that matched it. It has little wheels on the bottom that squeak every time you try to move it, and the leather on top is ripped and torn so badly that you can see the yellow stuffing inside. Unlike the old furniture that my mother had reupholstered, she never had the stool fixed. It wasn’t in her nature to leave something broken and falling apart, but I think she wanted to keep it in it’s original form as best as she could. She didn’t want to change any part of her relationship with her dad, and that stool, the physical manifestation of her relationship with her dad and her relationship with her childhood home, didn’t need to change either.

Throughout the years I have learned that houses change, but home exists on a continuum. This continuum exists as long as memories are moved from house to house. The home doesn’t change entirely, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t disappear, but it evolves, and because of that, you can go home again.

Patrilinear

(This is the first essay in a three-part series)

A commentary on this series: 

 

I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).

I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time.  I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.

I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.

Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion.  Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.

*          *          *

Too often I fear that to write about an important relationship, we wait until that person is gone -whether it be the passing of a family member or the conclusion of a romantic relationship. We write about people to solidify a memory and create a legacy, ease the guilt of not reaching out before it was too late, or to help bring clarity to the realm of the unknown. This type of writing can be therapeutic in it’s own right and assist in creating closure. To write this kind of reflective piece, one has to ask for secondary accounts of an experience and draw on deep-seated memories that have often faded through the years.

The first book that I ever read that made this fact brutally clear to me was Annie Ernaux’s La Place, which I read in a French class in college. This book was a reflection on Ernaux’s late father’s life and the relationship that she had with him. In it, she examines the distance which evolved and grew between her and her father as she got older.

As children, we do not understand why or how our parents act in certain ways. On a superficial level, we can’t understand why we can’t go out to the ice cream store down the street every night after dinner or why as a six-year-old we aren’t allowed to see Britney Spears in concert. On a more serious level, we also question our parents’ shortcomings; we see them struggle with decisions, finances, and relationships. Without fully understanding the levity of certain events that becomes clearer with age, we become disappointed and heart broken when as children have the realization that our parents, like everyone else, are merely humans and are prone to err.

This is not my attempt not to reflect on lost loved ones and experiences, but rather to reflect on my relationship with my father. This is not to function as a eulogy but as a pounding of the fists (i.e. high five) to the unique experiences and relationship that we share. I do not want to examine the distance that has grown between us as time has passed as Ernaux did, but rather the distance which has shrunk as I have grown older and, in some ways, he has grown younger.

*          *          *

Growing up, there was always a general idea that I was expected to do well and try my best. It was never explicitly controlled like some of my friends who were given money if they got A’s or were grounded if they didn’t. I wasn’t lazy, and I was productive during and after school, but at the same time, I was never punished for doing poorly on an exam or not participating in a set amount of extracurricular activities. My dad wasn’t strict, I never had a curfew, and there were few rules. He would later describe his parenting tactic as reminiscent of a toy sailboat in a bathtub: gently blowing it in the direction that he would like it to go, without actually picking it up and changing its trajectory. Despite being allowed to do whatever I wanted, I never felt the need to stray, for fear of disappointing him.

My father grew up under a similar underlying expectation. He was never told that he could or couldn’t do something, he rarely got in trouble, and his parents never worried about his trajectory. Similar to my experience, expectations were never laid out; rather, they were simply present. He would skip out on events with friends or try new things because he was scared of dissatisfying his parents. When he was in middle school, his grandmother taught him how to sew. Once, his friends asked him to come throw the football around, and he said he couldn’t because he had to sew (an incident which he never lived down). In junior high, he won a competition in class for creating the toothpick bridge which could hold the most weight. In high school, he was president of the Science Honor Society and in 1980, he graduated second in his class, and was off to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

*          *          *

“I feel like I missed out on a lot of my childhood, and that’s why I am so down to try new things as an adult,” my dad told me while drinking a glass of wine, thirty years post high school.

He’s wearing cool” hipster” glasses with wooden frames, red corduroys, vans and a designer button down shirt that he found at Nordstrom Rack. He’s 53, but he looks and acts like he is 35. I’m used to comments from my friends on his good looks and how he doesn’t look his age. I rather enjoy it to be honest. Not only does it give me hope that I will age well, but it makes me happy to know that my dad is in good shape and taking care of himself. I like to brag about how he acts like a young person, but not in a way that some older people do who have held onto their childhood and act immaturely. He isn’t immature (most of the time), and understands his role as a father, physician, and adult. However, he has been able to “stay young” in a sense.

“Wait,” his friend who sits across the table from us replies. (Note: this friend is also 53 but looks about 45). “You think you are having a second childhood because you were scared to have fun when you were a kid?”

“Yeah, I think I am,” my dad said as he tells us about his most recent purchase of a skateboard, which he occasionally rides to work.

*          *          *

Most children who participate in illegal activity do so without their parents knowing or without their parents in attendance.  However, my father and I can both say we were not in that majority. Before my dad went to college at his father’s alma mater, my grandfather owned an orange 1975 Corvette which he gave to my dad to drive during the summer. At the end of the summer, my dad made sure bring it back cleaner than when he had left it. Of course, my grandfather never specifically said that he had to, but being who he was, with a desire to please his parents, my father decided to do this on his own. While he was cleaning out the car, he found the butt of a joint. When he got home, he carried the roach into his house. He went into his parents’ bathroom where his mother was getting made up for the evening and showed them the joint he had found in the car. His mother immediately covered her mouth with her hands and started shrieking: “Oh my god, Oh my god!” My grandfather on the other hand just burst out laughing.

Later, when my sister and I were teenagers, my father illegally snuck us into a Sean Paul Concert in Costa Rica. My dad had heard on the radio that Sean Paul was coming for a concert at this festival about an hour away from where we were staying. Naturally, he thought driving to a part of a country we know nothing about to see a hip hop artist that we didn’t particularly know, would be a brilliant idea. We showed up and immediately were turned away because my sister and I were clearly under 18. He tried to barter with them in Spanish but they wouldn’t allow it, so we got back in the car and started to drive away. As we were leaving, we drove by a big pick-up truck with the festival’s name on the side of it. They flagged us down and motioned for my dad to roll down his window. They asked us in Spanish: “Why are you leaving? The party is the other way!” and my dad explained the situation. They replied that they worked for the festival and if we got in their car they would drive us inside. I don’t know in what world this was a safe idea, or how it was setting a good example for his young children, but my dad decided ‘yes, lets get into a stranger’s car and hope they bring us to a Sean Paul concert.’ To say the least, it worked out fine, and I was the one freaking out the whole time that we were going to get arrested and thrown in a Costa Rican jail.

*          *          *

In 1981, my father moved into his freshman dorm in English House on 36th Street and Sansom in Philadelphia, (a ten-minute walk to where his father had lived several years before him.) His parents flew up from Florida with him to help him move in. Months passed, and when the leaves changed on the trees, my dad, who had never experienced a real autumn, was so excited that he sent his mother an envelope filled with orange, red and yellow leaves that he had collected.

Thirty-one years later, I flew from Colorado to the University of Pennsylvania with my dad and sister. This would be one of many times that he would visit me at college. I moved into my freshman dorm at Kings Court which was connected to English House, on 36th Street and Sansom in Philadelphia. Once every few weeks or so I would call my dad back in Colorado to tell him about my experiences at his alma mater.

I came home after the semester, and my dad asked me about partying. He had been at Penn years before, so he knew what it was like and wanted to know how it had changed. This was the first time he had asked me about this. The first time your parents ask you about drugs, sex, and alcohol you lie because you aren’t sure how they will react. You aren’t even sure how they feel about the concept in general, let alone when it concerns their daughter, their legacy. So, naturally, this time, I lied about it. “Yeah, sometimes I drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs.” The topic came up once again when I came home for the summer after my first full year. This time, I didn’t plan on lying but just to be safe used the classic “I have a friend who…”. I told him that I hang out with my friends when they smoke weed. He turned to me, looking kind of troubled and asked, “Do you smoke when you are with them?”I was cornered. I didn’t want to lie to his face, but then again, with that expression on his face, I was concerned that I was going to be reprimanded. I decided to be honest, and take my chances that maybe my dad, the son of a man who smoked pot well into his 80’s, would be alright with it. I said, “yeah, sometimes I have smoked with them.” He smiled, looking relieved and responded: “Oh good! I was worried you were the weirdo who just watches  doesn’t partake!”

*          *         *

In the summer after his graduation in 1984, my dad moved out of 313 South 40th street. This house was across the street from Allegro’s Pizza, a popular place which received more business after midnight on weekends than during dinner time on weeknights. After a night of partying, stopping by for a slice of pizza was a lasting tradition. He lived with eight guys, and they had spent the week before graduation cleaning the house before their parents came. Regardless, my grandmother still refused to use the bathroom, deeming it “disgusting.” My dad couldn’t understand why she found their house so repulsive considering they had spent so long cleaning it. Years later, my dad reflects on those four years in College as the four best years of his life. By the time he graduated, he subscribed to the work hard, play hard mentality. He then went to medical school and residency before moving to Colorado Springs.

*          *          *

My dad bought me a sticker that reads “Keep Colorado Springs Lame” that I have on my laptop.  The phrase is a spin off of what more fun and hip cities use to draw people to come to their town like “Keep Austin Weird” or “Keep Boulder High.” The tongue-in-cheek sticker reminds me of my dad’s sense of humor and our ability to laugh at ourselves, and especially our own town. (However, I do have to say that over time, a few cute coffee shops and hipster bars have opened around town which has helped Colorado Springs be a little less lame.)

Although I didn’t grow up in the downtown area, it reminds me of my childhood and my dad in particular. It is the location of the hospital that he works at, and where my sister and I were born. Memories in Downtown Colorado Springs smell like the chlorine of my dad’s black and yellow mesh swim bag that he would leave in the 1999 Subaru Outback after swimming in the morning and the somewhat moldy smell that the car pushed out of it’s air conditioners when it was too hot in the summer. They feel like the black leather seats of the cars sticking to my legs. They sound like early 2000’s pop like Sugar Ray’s “I just wanna fly” and the pre-recorded voice on the radio station which told you the weather, saying phrases like “partly cloudy” with an emphasis on the “au” sound in cloudy.

When I was in elementary school, I used to sit on my dad’s lap when he would read emails from work. His secretary, Gloria, would send him an email every night with the schedule for the next day and sign the end of the email “G.” I thought this was hilarious and after watching Ali G (a Sasha Barren Cohen TV show) probably at far too young of an age, my dad and I started calling each other “G.”

Despite the clarity with which I remember cute memories, they are not used as a mechanism to give a false sense of sentimentality. My father did not cry when he saw me in a prom dress, and his immediate response to almost anything could be summed up with a quote from an Austin Power’s movie. His brash jokes and comments could come at any moment, and he rarely had a filter.

When I shadowed as a volunteer at his hospital, I would introduce myself as “Dr. Kellner’s daughter.” Without a doubt that answer would elicit a response of a smile and followed by either: “you know he has the dirtiest mouth in the hospital?” or  a joking “Oh, I am so sorry.” The person was always amused and happy to talk about my father. Sometimes in the OR, different physicians would put on music during cases. He would threaten to stop the case if someone played undesirable music such as Journey or Nickleback. The first time I ever heard “Gold Digger” by Kanye West was because my dad played it to me in the Subaru Outback after discovering it in the OR. He commented about “how filthy” the song was even though neither my sister nor I had the slightest idea what the hell Kanye was rapping about.

Another one of my favorite stories of my dad was when he was putting in an epidural into a woman in labor, and he used the term “tramp stamp” to describe where he would be inserting the needle in relation to her lower back tattoo. This woman did not like this term. There on after he was very sensitive in his use of terminology when regarding lower back tattoos on pregnant women until one day when describing the procedure to another woman she corrected him saying: “it’s a tramp stamp. Call it what it is!” My dad was ecstatic and told her about what had happened previously.

For lack of better terms, (and because it allows me to use pop-culture slang in describing my dad), he “keeps it real.” He is open with how he feels and doesn’t sugar coat – a quality that I not only hope to emulate but appreciate in other individuals. There is something to be said in the transparency in which he carries himself. He isn’t malicious, and all of his commentaries is in good fun. If anything, growing up around this kind of humor has helped prepare me to be able to sit in a room full of boys and shoot the shit. Sometimes, I will say something as blunt and crude as something my dad would say, causing even boys to laugh hysterically at this little girl making ridiculous jokes and stabs at friends. Whenever this happens, I feel like if my dad were there, he would certainly have given me a high five.

Naturally, some people don’t find his sense of humor amusing. Growing up in the city which U.S. News dubbed as the “Vatican of Evangelical Christianity” wasn’t the best environment to hide my father’s outspoken atheist opinions. It was all a part of the irony that was my dad: a hip, young, Jewish and very atheistic doctor who lived in the lame, extremely Christian city. In some ways, he was trying to pick a fight in attempts to point out how ridiculous the whole concept was. He is deep rooted in logic and the scientific world, and because of that, the entire institution of religion puzzles him. If we ever go to a friend’s house for dinner and they say a prayer before the meal, my dad does not bow his head and close his eyes as is customary and rather keeps his eyes open looking around the room. His argument is that if anyone sees him then, it means that they weren’t closing their eyes and really praying. (Touché.)

In 2006, the head of the evangelical church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard, was accused of having sexual relationships with and buying crystal methamphetamine from a male prostitute named Mike Jones. Unfortunately, for many years before this incident, Ted Haggard, who was married with children, had been preaching against homosexuality and drug use and this incident made him the biggest fraud that the Evangelical Church had ever seen. The Evangelicals were outraged while my dad was metaphorically rolling on the floor laughing. This, of course, coincided with the year that my sister and I were finally allowed to get pet gerbils. I named my gerbil Mickey after Mickey Mouse, but my dad being the child he is, thought that Mickey was close enough to “Mike” and then convinced my sister to name her gerbil Ted. This sealed their fate as gay evangelical gerbils before my sister and I even understood what had happened. (Thanks, Dad.)

According to society, fathers are supposed to be overprotective and cautious of their daughters. My dad was supposed to open the door for my first boyfriend with a rifle in his hand threatening: “if you do anything to hurt my daughter…” — but my dad doesn’t own a gun and called my ex-boyfriend “Dude Brah” to his face. My dad’s vulgar and crude sense of humor has resulted in daily conversations and poignant jokes about the lack of censorship exhibited in our house. It’s unconventional but thank god it is.

*          *          *

To this day, my favorite party trick is after explaining to friends how cool my dad is, calling him on the phone and having him answer, without fail, with: “What up G?” I may not have been to a father-daughter dance with him, but if that one phrase doesn’t tell you about our relationship, then I don’t know what will.

Thanks, G.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Weeks in London

I have a confession to make about moving to London: it was difficult.

This is something that was hard for me to admit because I was convinced that I should be having the best time as soon as I stepped off the plane. This inaccurate impression was formed by two different factors: 1) the small group of people I talked to before moving abroad and 2) the social media which I consumed daily. Social media, specifically Instagram, showed me friends, and even strangers, having the most amazing travels around Europe, studying abroad, and experiencing new places. I imagined everyone who got here made small, close-knit circles of friends within hours and that the bar hopping and fun nights started the day they arrived. What I failed to glean from these shiny and edited photos was that they were not an accurate representation of the entire emotional spread of how people feel. They were only published online because they portrayed the very best moments.  Maybe I wasn’t the only one not having the best time right away? Having realized this, I looked at my own Instagram feed. I had posted quite a few photos since I arrived in London and they were all positive portrayals of my short time here. Of course, I didn’t want to show or admit that the first two weeks were incredibly hard –why would I want to do that? Instagram is not the place to share that sentiment. I had wanted to continue the trend that it’s all fun and games and that “going abroad was absolutely the best year of my life.”

If you have ever spent more than a couple of hours with me, you will likely know that without fail, I worry more than I should. I hype up even the smallest thing into an enormous problem. Due to this terrible habit, no matter how prepared I was to move to London, I knew that stress was inevitable. Are my bags going to meet the requirement? Did I fill everything out correctly on the form? How am I going to get my bags to the Airbnb? Will I make friends? Will I find somewhere to live?  The anxieties that I had were endless. I had thought that if I planned with enough color coordinated lists and agendas, everything would go smoothly. This belief was setting myself up for disaster; no matter how things played out, it was never going to meet my unrealistic expectations.

In addition to the stress I experienced, I also felt another emotion: loneliness. I didn’t have friends (yet) to get drinks with at night or chat over a bowl of icecream. I was staying in an Airbnb, and although it was in a prime location, I wasn’t motivated to go out on my own, relying heavily on cutely named British cereals like Shreddies, to combat boredom, laziness, and loneliness while flat hunting online. Despite the fact that I was able to learn to sit with my loneliness in the past, I had to relearn the skill in a new city. The “loneliness” I felt in college was entirely different. During my four years at UPenn, even if I had a meal by myself, I knew that later I would meet up with friends or run into acquaintances on the walk home. In essence, I was never alone. Here, in London, I experienced a much more visceral type of loneliness – one where I knew that I wasn’t going to see a familiar face anytime soon. My family and friends back home were in such a different time zone that I had to wait until late hours in the night to talk to anyone. The only other time I knew as few people upon arriving in a new location was the beginning of freshman year of college, which seems like a joke now. During freshman year you are thrown into a group of peers in which you are required to participate in exhausting and annoying “get to know you” games until your friendship is finally solidified singing drunk renditions of popular songs in gross fraternity basements.  Although I could have lived in student housing much closer to my university in London, I knew even if finding a flat in the city would be stressful, I wanted a different experience than freshman year dormitories. I was prepared to find my own place, find new ways of meeting people and making connections, but it still didn’t feel easy. I’m supposed the be the girl with the plan, why wasn’t everything going according to my exact plan?

I think one afternoon that I had accurately sums up my frustration during my first week. It started with a two-hour, six-part phone call to my bank account in the United States in attempts to wire payment for a flat I had found. The good news was I found a flat and someone to live with; the bad news was the wire could take up to three weeks to clear. I hung up the phone in tears, worried and discouraged. By 6 pm, I had deemed it was necessary to get out of the house and eat something that didn’t consist of sugar coated carbs. I google searched the best places to eat alone in London. After awhile of online research, I found a Thai restaurant in my area and decided to check it out. I kept telling myself: This is going to be good for you. You can have a meal alone. I used to eat alone all the time in the states and rather enjoyed it, but something about being in a new country made me scared to do so. I felt like everyone knew I was foreign and would secretly be judging me as I ate noodles by myself at a table set for two. I walked by the restaurant and bailed last minute, looping back around to my Airbnb. Everyone had been sitting with other people and chatting about their days and experiences, and I had no one.  Determined to not have the evening end in complete failure, I decided to stop for a glass of wine at a coffee shop/ wine bar near on the way back. Unfortunately, the  shop only took certain credit cards and cash, neither of which I had on me.  I went home defeated, only stopping at Tesco to get a bottle of water.

During my stressful first week, I shared my feelings with only a few people. Every time I would vent to someone I got the same response: “It will be okay.” This was not what I wanted to hear — not because I didn’t believe it, but because it made me feel guilty.  Deep down, I knew that nothing was terrible and it would all work out. I had a bank account with money (albeit American), and if need be, could extend my Airbnb or get a hotel room. Was I that spoiled that I couldn’t move abroad and make friends? I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was so privileged to be able to have this opportunity and knew that I should be enjoying every moment. In spite of the fact that I had only been in the UK for a few days, I felt like I was wasting my experience. “There isn’t even a language barrier, come on,” I thought to myself. “I don’t have an excuse.” I took every moment to scrutinize myself for not trying harder, or joining more Facebook groups in attempts to make friends.

As per usual with most of my concerns, everything worked out, and after moving into my new apartment I immediately felt a wave of relief.upon moving into my new apartment, I felt a wave of relief.  It then became glaringly obvious that I wasn’t allowing myself to admit my pitfalls during my first few days here.I recalled a phrase that was particularly poignant during times in college when I was struggling: It’s perfectly okay to admit that you are not okay. I needed to allow myself the time and place to adjust.   Moving across a state is often tiresome and frustrating, so moving across the pond was allowed to be difficult. It was okay to feel lonely, and if nothing else, I could use that loneliness as a catalyst to help me meet new people and try new things. The worst thing that could happen was someone didn’t want to be my friend, and if that was the case, then I was no worse off than I was in the first place. I don’t need to feel guilty about struggling for a few weeks when I still have the rest of the year to explore when I am finally in the correct mindset to appreciate the experience to it’s fullest.This weekend, I met up with a friend who is studying abroad in London who still goes to my alma mater back in the states. It was so nice to see a familiar face and skip all the repetitive formalities of meeting a new person. After talking to her, I recognized that she was having difficulties adjusting as well. I would have never known this had we not met up, as her social media (much like mine) showed her smiling at tourist attractions and with new friends.

In a previous essay,  I had written about my personal struggle with appearing and being happy, but didn’t think to apply it to this situation until recently. I had just assumed that since I was in a new place, it was necessary to adopt a new way of living and meeting people.  London is no different than Colorado, Philadelphia or New York when it comes to giving myself permission to not be 100% all the time. I have to treat this move like any other experience. Now, three weeks in, I am more than ready to have one of the best years of my life, and it is okay if I take that at my own pace.

 

 

 

Taking (and passing) the NCLEX

Okay, so I am playing a bit of catch-up today as far as writing goes, but first things first – I am officially a registered RN! Wait, Holly, you went to nursing school? You aren’t going to pursue that as a career. Yes, I know, it is a bit random, but I did, in fact, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

So anyway, this is going to be a post dedicated to my undergraduate degree, which happens to be nursing. Although I am not pursuing a career in nursing (at least for now), I still worked very hard and am proud to say that I recently passed the boards (NCLEX). If you are curious as to how I ended up getting my degree, you should read this piece that I wrote around graduation time when I was getting questioned a lot about my degree choice. You can find the original article at http://toodamnyoung.com/2016/05/09/why-i-will-not-apologize-for-the-past-four-years/.

I guess I’ll just go into how I studied and what I did for that godforsaken month leading up to the exam!

For about a month I dedicated myself to studying just for the NCLEX and studied multiple hours a day. During that period, I scoured the internet looking for study guides, calendars, tips and tricks and what average scores were on different question banks and practice tests for people who had passed. Although there are so many  bits and pieces of advice and information out there, I felt like there were very few “quick guides” or even study schedules to help me (I like organization and planning things out if you couldn’t tell.) Because I couldn’t find one place with all this information I told myself that once I had passed, I would make a blog post solely dedicated to the NCLEX to help people who wanted or needed more guidance like I did.

First of all, I didn’t start seriously studying until a month before my test date, which was four months after I graduated. Some people say that you should take the exam right after graduation, others say that you should study for multiple months. Either way, I chose to do this for various reasons but mostly because I was burnt out and also had summer trips at the beginning of summer that I wanted to relax and have fun.

The first thing I did was content review. I am someone who needs to understand the pathophysiology and what is going on before I can start doing practice questions. The way I went through this was by systems such as cardiovascular, neuro, psych, respiratory, etc. (Note, I did include pharmacology at the end of each section for meds that was relevant to that system. If I was struggling with a concept having to do with meds, I would rewrite it at the end of the review in a section called “Pharmacology” however I felt that doing an entire section dedicated to pharmacology would be a bit much.) I would do one or two systems a day and used a combination of different online, print and podcast reviews. I learned later that some of my initial outlines didn’t include everything that I needed so as I learned new information I added to them. Having basic knowledge that I could add on to was very helpful. For some people, you won’t need to take 100+ pages worth of notes, but I know that writing notes is necessary for me to really absorb the information.  iAdditionally, organizing the notes in a way that makes sense to me was important to help the information stick!

I had also purchased the Kaplan 2016 Nursing Guidebook with two practice tests. I got the kindle version so I could read it on my computer. I read the first half of the book which goes over information on the test and outlines how the NCLEX is organized. It isn’t laid out by systems like the exams I saw in nursing school, but rather was put into different categories like “safety and infection control” and “management of care.” Learning the differences between nursing school exams and the NCLEX  helped me transfer the content review that I had just finished and turn it into something that was useful for the NCLEX. This book went through each category of the NCLEX while explaining different strategies to answer questions using a decision tree. At first, I didn’t pay close attention to the strategies, but later on, when I started doing practice questions, I realized that when I was stuck that  I could use the decision tree to tackle the question in a way I usually wouldn’t try.

Next, after going through the first half of the Kaplan book I started doing practice questions by system on this website: http://nurseslabs.com/nclex-practice-questions/. They have over 3500 NCLEX style questions that are organized based on system or over-arching category. At this point in my studying, it was still nice to have everything broken down into different sections. I would try to do anywhere between 300-500 questions per day, which I know seems excessive but it was really helpful for me. Even though sometimes I didn’t want to, I had to make sure to go through all the rationales for each question – even the ones I got correct!

I didn’t complete all of the 3500+ questions, but after I had been through a few different practice quizzes for each section and was scoring decently (around 60-65% on average), I decided to move onto the Kaplan Q Bank. You can buy a month up to a year subscription of NCLEX style review questions on their website, and I believe that these were significantly harder than any other practice test I had taken. The site is designed to look like the NCLEX exam which is helpful to get you prepared for what you’ll see at the testing center.  I didn’t get through all of these questions either but tried to finish a little over half of them before it was time for me to take the exam.

With about a week left of study time, I created a Quick Facts Study Guide (pdf here: nclex-reminders) that had lab values and other quick information that was necessary to know for the exam. To create it, I used notes from various last minute notes for the NCLEX that I found online so, in essence, it is a combination of what a lot of people thought were critical to know for the exam. Each night I would review this guide and jot down other things that I thought was important to remember based on the practice questions that I had seen that day.

A few days before my exam took the two full-length practice tests that came with the book that I purchased (one online and one in the book). This helped me realize how much stamina I would need if I theoretically were to need all 265 questions.

I know that on the day before and the day of the test people say not to study at all but of course, I did. If you know you don’t do will with this, don’t do it! I read everywhere online not to study the day before or the day of, but I know that is not how I function. Whether or not last minute facts stuck with me they did help ease my mind that I was actively still trying to learn more. The entire exam took me about an hour and thirty minutes and the computer shut off after 75 questions. This was very nice because even though it had only been an hour and a half I really couldn’t image staying there for six hours! So all in all, I passed, and I hope some of my study guides and experiences can help others do the same!

Other notes:

I made and attached a calendar  of how I broke down my studying the month before my exam. I tried to have “light days” on the weekend, but I did not skip a day.

(pdf version of calendar here: nclex-calendar)

nclex-calendar

A note about Q-bank questions: These were the hardest questions by far. I read online that above 65% of these was indicative of passing. On average I was getting between 49-59%, so I felt nervous. A few scores were higher but not typically. Although I only got through a little over half of the Q bank, I tried to do as many as I could each day, anywhere between 150 and 300. Typically I would do the max number each time in addition to selecting “all” for the questions to simulate what a real exam would look like. Sometimes, when I would go over one practice test and identify an area in which I wasn’t doing well,  I would do about 20 questions of just that section.

 

Over Thought Everything I Can Think of into Symbol…

For a few weeks now I have settled into a kind of generalized anxiety. Even though it can be suppressed on most days, it still is nagging me like an itchy tag in the back of a shirt. Without a doubt, this uneasiness is a product of my terrible habit of overthinking almost any and everything I can think of.

I am my own worst critic and as I have gotten older I have learned that every situation cannot be looked at through one lens, but rather many. Allowing myself to look from multiple angles has been beneficial in considering how others are feeling, justifying mine or other’s actions, and understanding the bigger picture. However, this has precipitated massive overthought and meticulous analyzing. It creates a boundless loop of “well, maybe it is my fault…” or “I can understand why so-and-so did or felt like this…” When I get into this state, I can’t snap out of it and I need someone to bring me back to reality.

I struggle particularly with situations in which another person and myself have different opinions on a matter. Typically, I try to pick the path of least resistance and upset as little people as I can with my decisions. I want to be well liked and if I know that my decisions are in accordance with that of the majority, I fear nothing. When I decide to make a conscious decision for myself and by myself, that is when the broken feedback loop starts. Did I make that decision because I just being selfish and stupid? Was that a bad decision? What if something else had happened?

I recently was listening to the talk show “Invisiblia” on NPR. The episode was called “The Secret History of Thoughts,” which had originally aired in 2015. Co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller discussed three different schools of thought regarding how our thoughts affect our lives and how we can approach them to solve problems. Throughout history, there have been three distinct phases of thought in which different professionals believed that there were particular ways to analyze thought to solve problems and create a more clear, happy and healthy mind.

The first phase is that thoughts have meaning. This Freudian theory believes that ones’ thoughts are very intimately related to who he/she is. Jonathan Shedler, a psychologist in Colorado, stated on the podcast: “There can be a tremendous value-profound value- in understanding where they [your thoughts] come from.”

The second phase doesn’t ask the patient to follow his or her thought, but rather to challenge the thought by asking: “Is there any truth in these thoughts that I am having?” In essence, you contradict the thought you are having to evaluate if there is any part of it rooted in reality. As Spiegel sums up, this phases’ belief was that ‘maybe people shouldn’t always take their thoughts so seriously, particularly a certain subset of their thoughts.”

The third phase’s premise is that you are taking your thoughts too seriously and that it is necessary to ignore them. Therapist Miranda Morris states “We’re going to work not on getting rid of it, but on changing your relationship with it.”

After listening to the podcast, I realized that I can pull different strategies from each phase to help combat my over analyzing antics. For example, I can use the second phase to help me work through self-deprecating thoughts like thinking I am a horrible person because of an isolated incident or that I am not loved. I need to walk myself through steps in which I evaluate if a particular thought is actually true, or if I am just being overly hard on myself. I have to ask myself: “Are there other instances to justify this thought or am I just overreacting?” This can help determine if I need change or fix something in my life to eradicate the thought or can I move to the next phase and ignore the pesky thought. Going through steps like this still allows me to look at situations at different angles, but it prevents me from the tiresome back-and-forth that plagues my everyday musings.

I also need to accept that choices in life aren’t always going to be binary: black and white or right and wrong. Often times, there are millions of different ways that a situation can pan out. Each decision we make is tainted by our own personal opinions, experiences,  and views on a particular situation. From where I sit, I am at the center and everyone else that is in my life falls somewhere around me; whereas exact opposite is true for someone else. I am not the protagonist of their story and they are not the protagonist of mine.

It is important to weigh other’s opinions and preferences but at the end of the day, you have to make sure that you are the protagonist in your own life and not a supporting character in your own story.

Even though I have taken the time to consider how to prevent my overthinking, I realize that at some point I simply have come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I fixate on an event, decision, or experience, I cannot change the past.  If I have hurt someone, by all means, it is necessary for me to apologize sincerely and use the experience to help me be a better person and make more educated decisions in the future, but obsessing over it isn’t going to help anyone.

The first time I realized this was four years ago when I had come home for the summer after freshman year of college. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend at the time, and even though I was the one who ended it, I was having major regrets about the decision. I was talking to my cousin, telling the story over and over again and going through different hypotheticals. Eventually, she stopped me and said: “Whether or not it was the right decision, or you wish you could undo it, you can’t, so there is no sense is continuing to over think it. It happened, and the only thing you can do now is to move forward.” Although this seemed harsh at the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear to give myself permission to be okay with my decision. Even though that was many years ago, I have to continue to remind myself of the lesson: no matter how much I analyze past actions, I can’t change them. Looking back on previous experiences and exchanges is valuable and important, but having them consume my present isn’t healthy.

In the past week or so, I haven’t stopped overthinking entirely, but I have been able to stop myself from getting into a downward spiral of negative thoughts. Slowly but surely I am learning to be confident in my decisions and approaching thought as something that I have the ability to control and handle. At the end of the day, my thoughts should be helping me be better, and not working against me.

Link to the transcript from Invisibilia:  http://www.npr.org/2015/01/09/375928124/dark-thoughts

The Moment Before You Need More Happiness

Six months ago, over Christmas break, a group of friends from high school and I decided to get together for drinks. A few of the girls I had remained close with, while the others and I had drifted apart and took a more passive role in each other’s lives. After a bit of small talk over crappy beers, one of the girls who I hadn’t kept in touch with looked at me and said: “In all your pictures you look SO happy. I wish I was that happy.” This comment caught me off guard and has been echoing in my head since that day.

What did she mean by that? Am I really that happy? Aren’t I supposed to look happy in pictures — isn’t that the point?

The reason I have been so preoccupied with her seemingly meaningless observation is the emphasis which I personally place on the word “happy.” The word carries a certain weight; it has gravity to me. Some words (mostly negative ones in fact) have a triggering effect which conjures bad memories or experiences for people. Although the general concept of happiness is far from a negative one, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth because of my personal relationship with “happy.”

Now a days, there seems to be an epidemic of sporting the ultimate happy mask on social media: post a picture of you smiling doing something fun or interesting and then you must be happy. However, my fixation with being happy started before I had a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account. I learned at a young age that when I told someone I was happy (whether or not it was true), he or she would smile, seem to get some sort of personal satisfaction with that answer, and then leave me alone. I lived for that response. The fact that I could say one thing without having to explain personal emotions I didn’t want to feel or personally acknowledge was astonishing to me. I strived to be “the girl who was happy,” thinking it had some sort of novelty to it. Even when I wasn’t happy and was experiencing loss, facing challenging relationships and struggling with various aspects of growing up with a sick mother, no one really knew how unhappy I was. Years later, when I would tell friends and family about my struggles and how terrified I was, they always seem shocked. They would look at me and say: “But you always seemed so happy!” and I would respond with:“I know, you’re right. I always seemed so happy.”

Unfortunately, I think that for a good portion of my teenage years I wasn’t really happy. That is not to say that I didn’t feel happiness and experience immense joy at points — I did, but I didn’t understand that happiness could be a state you are in, not just a fleeting moment. I understood how to convey the emotion; however, I never fully understood the significance of it. I simply thought that if I said it enough times, it would come true.

In college during my sophomore year (the year of college which I struggled the most) I wrote an article for a school blog about happiness. The short article was an attempt to convince myself, as well as others, to be happy. However, this blog post was another mask I created to cover up inner unhappiness. It was a far cry from a solution to the problem I had been facing for years. I didn’t understand that to have a solution, I would need to pick apart the problem.

Learning how to be happy and be at a place in your life where you feel a general ease takes time and work — something that I never wanted to admit. It is a situation similar to the one that I experienced as a child when my mom would clean out my closet. She would start by taking everything out of my closet, which would initially create a bigger mess. The first time that she did this I was on the verge of hysterics, convinced that she was just making it worse. Of course, at the end of it all, the closet was much cleaner. After realizing that the experience wasn’t as traumatic as I had expected, I let my sister in on the secret: yes, her closet would get a lot messier before it got cleaner, but in the end, just like my mother had promised, it would be much cleaner.

Although I learned this lesson long ago with regards to my closet, I never understood how to apply it to my emotions and feelings until recently. I had to realize that to be able to be in a happier, better place in my life, things were going to have to get a lot messier before it got a lot better.

As I have gotten older I have learned more about happiness: how to attain it and how to deal with aspects of life which are both sometimes in and out of my control. About a year ago, for the first time I really felt happy, (and it wasn’t the fake kind I had been telling people about for all those years growing up.) I can’t describe it, but things felt different, and I felt different. It was good. However, once I felt that way for a period of time, I didn’t know what to do next. I felt like there was nothing to be done.

If I had really achieved happiness, what else was there to do? If I climbed the mountain, couldn’t I just hang out on top? Was this what complacency felt like?

In Mad Men, protagonist Donald Draper states: “But what is happiness? It is the moment before you need more happiness.” My first reaction when I watched this particular episode was: “Oh geez, so metaphysical, Don” (note the sarcasm). However, upon further evaluation, I realized how poignant it was. Most people, as Don noted, haven’t learned how to maintain happiness. People who have lost extreme amounts of weight will tell you that even though losing the initial weight was difficult, the most demanding part is maintaining their new habits and diet. What’s the point of losing all the weight if you are just going to gain it back right away?

This same concept can be applied to achieving happiness, and I am still working on the maintenance piece. Understanding that I can be generally happy and still have bad days has been hard. I am figuring out that I don’t have to be experiencing extreme euphoria weekly to be a happy or well-rounded person. I have been pretending for so long that it is easy to revert back to old habits. Sometimes I question if I am really happy or if it is a combination of external factors which are influencing me to act and present myself in a certain way.

This past year I made a new friend who every time he would see me would say something to the extent of: “Aw, I love you! You are just so happy all of the time.” Each time, he mentioned this, I would cringe a little. I knew he didn’t know that was a sore spot or mean to make me feel uncomfortable. My fear was that if he ever saw me upset, he would be caught completely off guard because I was supposed to be the happy one.

I have started to come to terms with the fact that I can still be the happy one and have moments of defeat and unhappiness. It is necessary to struggle, grieve, and feel sadness and anger. These emotions make the happiness you feel that much better. I know that I am going to experience uncomfortable situations, pain, and have plain-old bad days, but I also am learning to give myself permission to admit that it’s perfectly okay to not be okay all of the time.

Life is too important to spend large amounts of time and energy cultivating relationships which don’t yield a genuine harvest or living at the mercy of negative pressures, both external and self-inflicted.

Due to this fact, I need to continue to figure out what relationships, career paths, geographical locations and various other influences in my life bring me to a happiness which is sustainable and real. I want to be able to look at someone when they say: “Wow, you look so happy in all your photos” and respond with: “Yeah, it’s because I am.”