Monday, September 16, 2013

Because Family is Important.

I'm going to be brutally honest in this blog, perhaps to a fault (I'm sure you never expected that from a Drissman), and I'm pretty sure that my family is not unique in the way I express below. But I have come to a realization lately. No -- not just a realization; something bigger, but let me start from the beginning.

Not everyone in my family agrees on politics (that's an understatement) and there have been times when it has created a little strife between cousins and family members. There have also been times that some family members have judged other family members and decided that they weren't someone with whom they wanted to associate.

Perhaps it's just me as a middle child/mediator, but I have found that I am able to look past people's politics (most of the time) and/or certain life choices and see them for what type of person they actually are.

One of the things my mom taught me is that family is important. She kept telling us that we only have four siblings in this entire world of billions, so even if we're angry with them, even if they are intentionally driving us absolutely batty, getting us into trouble, or pushing us away, we need to remember that they share our blood -- whether we want them to or not. It's a hard lesson to really absorb when you're fighting with your brother over the stupidest thing, but if it gets repeated enough times over the course of years, it finally sinks in.

In 1991, when my dad's family escaped from Russia (after the Iron Curtain came down), my mom and dad immediately flew us all (five kids ages 5-15) to Israel to meet them. Why? Because family is important. And the next year, my mom and dad moved mountains (and fought with the US government) to make sure that our second cousins, Misha and Dima, spent the summer with us in the United States. And several years after that, they made sure my second cousins, Anatasia and Dina, spent the summer with us here as well. Why? Because family is important.

We made an attempt years ago to start a Drissman family newsletter so that everyone could keep updated with all the extended cousins. It didn't quite take off, but I'll be trying again. I think it'll work this time around, being that we are all the next generation, familiar with the internet, and in our 30s and 40s with families of our own. We'll have things to share: photos of cute kids, stories of us watching them rip apart the house and playing with toys, learning interesting words, and making ridiculous faces.

My mom encouraged me to keep in touch with my first cousins on her side. Just because her family had some issues didn't mean that it should continue to the next generation. In fact, she didn't want it to continue; there was no reason for it to continue. It bothered her that she and her siblings weren't closer, and she'd be damned if she'd allow the same thing to happen to us. She insisted that my cousins and I never did anything wrong and shouldn't grow up without knowing each other, so I'm working on rectifying that.

So it started with my wedding.

I decided that no one's politics would get in the way of me getting closer to family, and, unless you broke laws, your lifestyle choice wasn't going to get in the way either. Thus I began really putting forth additional effort to get close to my cousins... of ALL generations.

After my mother passed away last month, more relatives got in touch with me. I became the "point-person" for my immediate family and have done what I can to pass on all the information. I have taken time each week to return emails, send photos, ask for photos, and keep updated. I feel remiss in my duties when I don't.

After my little brother's father-in-law passed away (three weeks after my mother), even more family and friends came forth to make sure that my brother and his wife, my family, and I were holding steady. 

September 11th was a tough day for all Americans, but it reminds me of my cousin's loss (his father died) and it's been tough. 

I've used all these as leverage to catapult myself into family unity. Before, I could only sympathize with other's heavy losses (we have had significant losses, but nothing so harsh as losing my mother) - now I have empathy. It makes me realize JUST how important family is and how tightly you have to hold onto them... EVEN WHEN YOU DON'T AGREE WITH THEM (or might not even like them).

[If it helps, think of it this way... You can always learn from someone, whether it's if you want to be like them or NOT be like them.]

I believe my mom realized that in the past year. Specifically, she and a particular cousin of mine were polar opposites politically and it got to the point where she felt she had to un-friend him on Facebook. Why? Because family was more important than politics. The political disagreements were getting in the way of her relationship with him and the politics simply weren't worth losing him as a cousin.

When my relatives are having a hard time, I send them a note on their Facebook wall, a text, a private message, an email to let them know that I'm thinking of them and sending my love (I'm not quite up to phone calls yet). I let them know that they are not alone in their difficulty, in their grief, or in their bad day. Because sometimes just knowing that someone is thinking of you really makes the difference in your mood (and sometimes it doesn't... but maybe it makes the next day better).

I don't always agree with my cousins. Some have wildly different political opinions that are wrong (sorry, had to stick that one in there); some are intermarried; some aren't Jewish at all. Do I wish that they married Jewish? Sure. I have opinions; who doesn't? But the real question is... 

Will it make a difference in how I view them? Will it change how I treat my cousins and family?


They are my Family, by blood or marriage. They are the only cousins and relatives I have in this world and their differences make my family and life interesting. I know that they are people that add to my community and world, whether it's in a way I can appreciate or not. Each relative adds to my life in their own way and I would miss their addition if they weren't there.

I learn from each relative; I thrive on their stories and photos and hobbies. I make it through each day because they reciprocate the care and love, even if we don't speak regularly.

I force cousins to write longer emails to me; I try and email cousins with updates -- even to those cousins who aren't as open and friendly (because I've found that they really do like hearing from me). I learn about hobbies of relatives so that I can share in their joy and passion, and you know what? It makes me a more knowledgable, well-rounded person too.

In the end, almost all of the billions of people who live on this planet will not care who you were or what you did. But your family will. They will remember your stories, your photos, your hobbies, and your quirks. They will love you despite your faults, hiccoughs, and wrong choices. They will value who you were and what you did.

So hold them close. Value them. Call them or write a note.

Why? Because family is important. 

And they are YOURS.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Three things

Right now, my life seems to be revolving around pregnancy, Jewish holidays, and the loss of my mother. It's quite a doozy of a combination and I don't quite know what to do with it except take my life day by day, and sometimes, moment by moment.

I'm trying to focus on the future and on my family. Since I got married in the past year, I have done everything I could to keep my family in touch (using my wedding as a starting point). In the past month, after my mother's passing, my family has been even closer. I've heard from family in Israel, Belgium, across this country, and in my own state. It's been wonderful and I really hope it stays this way.

I love writing, but I'm having trouble picking subjects on which to write. They all seem... unimportant somehow.

I'm sure I could write an article on Syria and what I would do if I ran the proverbial zoo (thank you, Dr. Suess); I could write an article on pregnancy and health concerns (hello Lovanox), or I could write an article about the meaning of Sukkot, the transience of it versus the permanence of other things.

Hell, maybe I'll write on all three, but the holidays are ticking closer, arriving in three nights and lasting for three more days. And again, the same thing next week. So my time has been compacted, as well as my 'to-do' list before it's time to light the candles. Without my mom, once again. When I recite her favorite blessing as the flames go up (shehechiyanu).

So this little blog was just fluff... a piece to make me feel better about publishing something before Sukkot. And yet, still, I feel like I'm missing something even as I do so.

I guess it's still my mom.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Um... Modesty, anyone?

"Make no display of your talents or attainments; for every one will clearly see, admire, and acknowledge them, so long as you cover them with the beautiful veil of modesty." -Nathaniel Emmons

If you replace the words "talents or attainments" with "breasts and sexuality," then I have the perfect advice for Miley Cyrus.

I know that this subject is already way over-analyzed, but I had to put in my two cents...

It is painfully obvious that Ms. Cyrus is trying way too hard to escape what she sees as a horrific, virginal past life. Her (in)famous behavior on the VMAs and in her music videos is not artistic, not shocking, not racy, nor can she claim she is breaking new ground in music or feminism.

It is embarrassing, vulgar, and trashy.

Whatever happened to young ladies and women leaving something to the imagination? Perhaps a little cleavage, a slit up to the thigh, something sensual and mysterious instead of blatantly sexy and outrageous.

If nothing is left to the imagination -- and with Ms. Cyrus, NOTHING IS -- then why should anyone be continued to keep watching or coming back? With Ms. Cyrus, we are watching because she is a train wreck. We cannot take our eyes off (yet another) tragic downfall of a beautiful, talented girl. She has turned into another young Hollywood/music woman who doesn't hold herself in high regard, and is headed on a downward spiral.

I'm not asking that she dress like a nun or cover herself with a burqa and hijab. I am simply suggesting that less is not more. Less is less.

Implied nudity is more sexy than twerking. Suggestions of sensuousness is more sexy than nude, plastic undergarments. I don't know where Ms. Cyrus learned these lessons (clearly she hasn't), but someone needs to please take this girl under their wing and make sure she's okay, teach her how to respect herself and her body, and perhaps give her some therapy.

This would go a long way in improving her mental health as well as her career, unless, of course, she intended to become a laughingstock, sideshow, and short-term star...

For better OR worse...

When a couple gets married in America, it is expected that somewhere in the vows there will be mention of "through better or worse, sickness and health, til death do us part," or something along those lines. It's a phrase that is utilized, but no one ever actually wants or expects to experience the possibly difficult side of marriage: a severe illness (whether physical or mental).

This severe illness happened to my parents. I say it happened to both of them because parents are a team. They work together on building the family unit, so when one is incapacitated, the other is heavily affected. Even if there are no children involved, an illness can be catastrophic to the marriage relationship (90% of all marriages that have a spouse with bipolar disorder end in divorce, and men are 6x more likely than women to leave when a serious illness strikes).

In 1984, my dad suffered from a major heart attack and was hospitalized for two months before he was healthy enough for triple bypass surgery. He even died once on the table. He then had to go through recovery and we had to change our family's diet. In 1989, my dad suffered from a major stroke which incapacitated him for over a decade. Because of that, my mom effectively had six kids to take care of and only savings to use. Until last month, it never once occurred to me that my mom would have left him because of it.

I was having a conversation with my husband about this and he mentioned that he knew a husband who had left his wife after she suffered a TBI (traumatic brain injury). My husband knew because he had been helping her recover and go through rehab. People with TBIs are not vegetables; they know what's going on around them. She was aware that her husband had left her and why he did so. How sad. My husband asked me about my parents... I had no answer except the truth: It simply hadn't occurred to me that my mom leaving my dad was an option.

I have difficulty not judging someone who does so, especially because it hits so close to home. I acknowledge that there may be situations that are extreme (and, in fact, heard about one this morning where a husband had MS and it affected his brain to a point where he became physically abusive), but other than those cases, how can someone simply give up on their spouse because things didn't go in the direction they expected?

We don't get to pick what our future is with someone and it's naive to assume it will all be roses. People get married and should be in it for the long haul. My mother had 40 years with my dad before she passed away suddenly last month. She didn't have an easy time of things, but through it all, persisted and fought for her marriage. She always, publicly, had a smile on her face. Privately, she struggled.

My dad didn't have it easy either. Aside from his own health struggles, toward the end, my mom had diabetes, chronic kidney disease, kidney cancer (which she beat), and colon cancer. He worried incessantly but never wavered. In fact, it only allowed me to see just how much he loved and cared for her, which I didn't always necessarily see when I was younger.

But a marriage is a marriage -- for better or worse. If ever my husband got sick or injured (G-d forbid), I'd follow my mother's example, tough it out, and take care of him. I'd expect my husband to do the same with me. We've even spoken about it and, as difficult and morbid as it is, have discussed potential medical situations and started preparing for their possibility.

I married my amazing husband because of many things: one of them is his strength. I need him to be my rock when I'm tired and to take care of me when I'm sick. I need him to be there for me and with me, and I know he will, just like my mom was there for my dad all those years. I married my husband because I know that, for better or worse, he will be by my side, holding my hand as my partner in life.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Jewish Way of Mourning


My pursuit of happiness has been interrupted this past month with the sudden, and unexpected, death of my mother, Harriet Carole Gaba Drissman (Chana Tziril bas Teibl). She was 73, between her Hebrew and English birthdays - young by today's standards. Definitely young by my standards.

Many people have asked me what happened; if it was expected. I've tried to find the simplest answer for them: she had chronic issues but they aren't what caused her death. So NO, it wasn't expected. I know they are asking because we try to understand death and to get some sort of grip on it, but I'm not sure repeating the same information, over and over, to dozens of people is helping me.

What is helping me? 

I suppose it is the Jewish approach to mourning. Seven days of Shiva, 30 days (Shloshim) - which continues for 23 days after Shiva ends, and then 11/12 months of mourning (for a parent).  Some mourn for 12 full months, but others only mourn for 11 months (because we don't want to acknowledge or feel that our lost loved one would be waiting to get into heaven for the full twelve months).

I dreaded the funeral and I'm still not up to speaking about it. But Shiva was mostly helpful to me (it’s different for everyone – some do not find it helpful). I got to see whom my mother touched by speaking to them, laughing with them, joking with them. I heard stories that I hadn't heard before.

My baby brother's married friend got pregnant. As soon as she found out she was having a baby girl, my mom went shopping and dropped off baby clothing to the girl's mom (my mom's bank teller) and wished her a hearty congratulations.

My friends had a baby girl 10 months ago. When she was born, my mom went out and bought them an entire set of Little Midrash Says. They read it to her on a regular basis. That way, they thought of her and she has been with them each time.

I really didn't look forward to the end of Shiva. Partly because I liked hearing the stories and seeing all my nieces and nephew, but partly because I wasn't ready to face the "new normal." I'm still not ready but I don't have much of a choice.

The First Week, Post-Shiva
This week, the first full week after Shiva, has been ridiculously difficult. I miss my mom. At every moment I am a breath away from tears. I keep expecting her to walk in with her wobbly walk, silver cane, and a smile on her face. I can't text her anymore. I can't call her anymore. All I have left are my memories, my photographs, my videos, and one of my last texts from her, "xoxoxo."

In some ways, Shloshim is much worse than Shiva. At least at Shiva, there were people around telling stories of my mom, my brothers and sister were around, my husband was there, everyone was taking care of me and making sure I was eating and drinking.

Shloshim sucks. My siblings have returned to their lives, my husband is working, and I am home. Alone. Doing nothing but try to convince myself to shower and get errands done. I think of my mom all the time.

My Shloshim for my mother ends at Rosh HaShanah. I can't cut my nails, listen to music, buy new things, wear new clothing, accept gifts, and cannot shower or bathe for pleasure. I cannot attend social events or social gatherings.

My nails are getting long and making typing difficult. I am pregnant and will need new maternity clothing in the next few months. I have friends who are celebrating birthdays and baby events. But I'm okay with all of that because the restrictions are forcing me to address my great and terrible loss.

I have lost many people in my life, more than most. But they were never someone for whom I had to sit Shiva on low, uncomfortable chairs for a week. What I learned from those losses -- the hard way -- is that I need to confront and address the loss or the loss will overwhelm me and my crippling emotions will be uncontrolled, popping up at random times.

Each day people and friends call and text me to see how I'm doing. I don't answer the calls; I'm not up to it yet. Other friends are urging me to take the time I need, that everyone recovers at a different pace. When I have a bad day (or night), I text friends and cousins I know who have experienced the same loss. 

I don't smile like I used to, but I know eventually that will change. Eventually, the memories that make me cry and miss my mom the most are the ones that will make me smile the biggest (or so I’ve been told). I'm not there yet.

But I'm grateful that I had her for 35 years. I'm grateful that she attended my wedding and walked me down the aisle, on the beach, barefoot, with my dad and me. I'm grateful she knew I was pregnant and expecting at the end of January. I'm grateful that she saw ultrasounds of the cutest baby ever (her words). I'm grateful that I got to live with my parents and get to know them for years after I moved back home. I'm grateful I inherited some of my mother so that I can remind others of her.

I can't ignore the pain - I'm spending lots of time at the hospital because my husband's grandmother is sick. I can't ignore the pain because others I know and care for are going through more pain than I am. I can't ignore the pain by distracting myself with happy, laughing children. I want to so badly... but I can't ignore the pain.

I'm grateful I have this time forced upon me. I am now sitting at home, going through photographs of my mom so I can put together memory books for my siblings, my dad, and the grandkids. I am making a list of the things my mom loved, like polka dots, reading historic romance novels through her father's magnifying glass, painting, and playing Scrabble (she beat me in our last game).

There are some things I don't understand about Judaism. I'm not sure I understood this before I lived through it. But the 7/30/365 is really helping so far. I can only hope that the remainder of the Shloshim and the year is just as rehabilitative as it can be, considering the circumstances.

The Second Week, Post-Shiva
Ups and downs. I was warned that every day is going to suck, just some less than others. I spent her birthday with my girlfriends at the pool, recovering in the sun. I haven’t been outdoors all summer since much of it was at a hospital.

I’ve started eating again, which pleases my husband. I lost five pounds the week of Shiva and he got nervous. My appetite has returned, but this time baby prefers meats and heavier dishes. I still think of my mom, but I’ve started speaking about her out loud instead of avoiding verbalizing my thoughts. I still want to cry, even now.

I continued going through my photographs on my laptop and found a video I took of my sister’s little girl. My mother was in it and she spoke. It was probably only 5-7 seconds of her speaking, but IT HAS HER VOICE. Last week I already couldn’t remember her voice and I was horrified. I felt that, when I found this video, some of my prayers were answered. I felt a little better.

**                        **                        **

Because my husband’s grandmother is in the hospital and we didn’t know the outcome, his mother and sister flew in from Israel. They have been here all week and at first I accompanied them to the hospital. I only did that a few times because I realized it was too soon for me. It didn’t help that she was in the same room that my mother had been prior to being transferred to ICU. Sitting there, knowing all the nurses, seeing another person I care about sick… I stopped going.

I went to synagogue with my dad and when they collected names of sick individuals (so they could say prayers for them), he automatically said my mother’s. My heart broke all over again and I cried. I seem to have a harder time at synagogue – I haven’t gone one Shabbos without crying and needing tissues. I have been looking forward to Rosh HaShana more and more this week. I need to get rid of this year; it has been way too difficult for me. I need a fresh start. I prayed for a relaxing Shabbos, one where I might be able to breathe, and after Shabbos received bad news. My brother’s father-in-law passed away suddenly on Shabbos morning.

The Third (and last) Week, Post-Shiva
My brother now is hosting Shiva again, the second time in a month. Once for his mother, once for his father-in-law. I went to the funeral and was a mess. I avoided the cemetery for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t emotionally healthy for me to go; (2) Jewish custom dictates that a pregnant woman shouldn’t go.

I went to Shiva this morning. Everyone in the family was there, and I know most of them relatively well. Some from college, some through my sister-in-law. It was horrendous pain all over again. I lost control and my headache returned with a vengeance. And unfortunately, we now have another something in common: we have both lost a parent at too young an age and so suddenly. I’m reminded harshly of the great and terrible pain of losing my mom, of all the future memories I am now cheated out of, of my children knowing her in person. Eulogies I heard at the funeral suddenly transposed into eulogies for my mom. Staring at the pine box in the front of the room reminded me of my mother’s pine box.

**                        **                        **

I think again of Rosh HaShana coming up (this Wednesday night). It will cut off our Shloshim and we will move into the third phase of mourning for my mother, the year. This year has been challenging, to say the least, and I have only two more days to gather and hold this grief to me. My brother hasn’t yet shaved, my nails are still long, and I still avoid music if I can.

Somehow, life still continues on without her. My husband goes to work, the post office still delivers mail, phone calls from solicitors keep coming to my dad’s house. My father replies, “Harriet is deceased.” They say sorry and hang up. I open mail to my mom and call to cancel appointments explaining that she passed away three weeks ago.

My wonderful husband and I started cleaning and organizing the house, and I’ve decided there’s nothing more cathartic than manual labor, sweating, and the smell of cleaning supplies.

I miss my mom terribly. I miss everything about her. My dad and I spent today together at Greenfield Village and I kept thinking about how she would have gotten around the museum, what job she would have liked best there (she occasionally talked about becoming a docent there and dressing up in 18th and 19th century clothing), how we would have gone into the millinery store together. I didn’t mention any of that. I’m sure that my father was thinking it too.

Instead, he and I tried forming new memories. We walked around together, read signs, got strawberry lemonade slushies, took some photographs (I stole some of him), and, at times, just walked together in silence.

Life is not the same without my mom. It will never be the same again. The hole in my heart is still the same size and the edges are still tattered and bleeding.

But I keep looking forward, thinking of my dad, my sister and brothers, my in-laws, my nieces and nephew, my baby that my mother was so terribly excited about. I keep thinking about my husband, with whom I celebrated one year today.

My mom always had a smile on her face, and if there’s one thing I can try and learn from her, it’s to smile… if for no other reason than to keep them wondering what you’re thinking.

So my Shloshim is almost over, and I think I’m in [slightly] better shape than I was three weeks ago. I’m not ignoring the pain; I’m not suppressing it. I don’t know how healthy I am, but I’m doing what I can to embrace the pain, because next week will be a new step in mourning even though the hole will still be there.

I continued with my artwork, took new photographs this week, will start sketching and painting again next week. Continued with my Scrabble games so that maybe, just maybe, I can attain the same ranking that my mom did. I call my sister and go see my brothers. I text them more regularly to tell them I love them dearly. I talk to my cousins more than I used to and hug my aunt and uncle whenever I see them.

I end Shloshim with the Jewish New Year. The shofar will blow and I will cry (my mom loved the sound and so do I), but we will get a fresh start and a clean slate – one we badly need. Hopefully this coming year will be one of health, new life, success, and joy for me and those I love.

As for those you love, hug them. Call them. Text them. Tell them how you feel. You never ever know what tomorrow will bring.