August 17, 2011

Death, yoga & getting naked.

I was a complicated girl early on. I’ve always wanted to know why and what for. I’ve felt that if I could understand why things were as they were, then I could make sense of it.

What I am presenting to you below is my journey from that to where I am today, understanding that things do not have to make sense, and that mystery is very much a part of this Earthly life.

In order for me to do that, I need to get naked. I need to slowly peel off these layers that I have so carefully articulated on to my body, hiding all of the parts of myself that I have hated and still struggle to love. I have to show you my fatty bits and my wounds. Some of these gashes are healed over. One might only recognize what was once a bloodbath as a tiny scar on my skin. Some of my wounds are fresh, and I am working daily to clean them and create an environment for my body in which to heal.

My story is sad in parts. It is uncomfortable in others, it is unbelievable once in a while, and it is the fiber of who I am. It makes up the woman who posts yoga poetry, who teaches yoga classes and who works her ass off to stay above the water line some days. Please, as you read, know that I am showing you this because I want you to know that you are not alone in your pain, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. I ask that you do not judge me, and also that you do not pity me.

This is my story of loss, and it is also my story of swimming towards hope because there is no other acceptable option for me. It is about me locking eyes with yoga at exactly the moment I was about to drown, and how, through extreme and painful loss, my yoga practice and teaching has deepened.

It starts like this:

Almost my entire family is dead.

I am an American citizen, and I have lived in America my entire life. I do not come from a war zone, and there wasn’t a terrible bus accident that claimed the lives of the people who raised me, and the people whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I am no different than you.

I had a very small family. It consisted of my brother and me, my mother Linda, father Robert, and maternal grandparents Dallas and Blanche. We were a small town family, and we all lived within a five minute walk from each other for the majority of my life. I visited with my grandparents at their house every Saturday from the time I was born until I moved away from home at 35 years old. I did not leave to go to college. I did not leave to do anything, really. My life was my family, and what was missing from my family was my life’s mission to create.

The only person who created chaos in my family was my father. He was brooding and egocentric and manic depressive. This meant that

Dad and Me.

there was no fun to be had around him.  We waited until he left to whoop it up.  When he was around, I made it my job to attempt to make him happy and be a part of our loving family. It did not work, ever. My father did not know how to let love in. Still, he was surrounded by two children, a wife and in-laws that loved him very much and hoped for him to come to the proverbial dinner table one day.

My grandparents were my second parents. There is no other way to describe it. I was as comfortable in their home as I was in my own skin. I was adored unconditionally. I was the light of their lives.

My mother was the light of mine. She was a gorgeous creature who had no idea how beautiful she was. She was loved as much as she loved by everyone except my dad. She was an angel who, over the years, became wounded by the lack of love from her husband. Still, she loved the planet and nearly everyone on it. She would listen to near strangers for hours talk about their dead dog and cry right along with them. She taught me to love.

This is the story of how they left this planet, one by one, most far too soon.

My grandfather died in August of 1997. He went in for a routine surgery, caught infection and passed away. We stood around his bedside at 4:30am, holding hands as they turned the machines off and he took his last breaths. My mother cried out as he died in a way that I can only describe as coming from the center of the Earth and rising up through her. My father, for the first time in his life, took the helm and carried us, the women of the family, through the shock of his death.


Even though I had not even considered practicing yoga and perhaps had not even heard of it, my practice began that day. My brother and I hugged for the first time since we were small children in the middle of the street as we left the hospital. I was practicing letting go, or Aparigraha, although I did not know it. We were letting go of years of childhood anger at our father as we embraced. We had fought like maniacs (not such an exaggeration) since we were eight years old or so. We fought constantly as older children and early teens, and we fought violently. As older teens, we kept our distance. We didn’t speak and we didn’t touch. That morning, we became friends. There is not a moment that I do not thank my grandfather for that parting gift. I believe that there was a force beyond our comprehension bringing us together. If you knew us, you might understand. We both had built these Great Walls around us, and they broke in that moment, simultaneously, in the middle of the street.

My father died on January 23, 2000 from lung cancer. I did not know that he was ill, as we had become somewhat estranged as I came into my early 20s and was thinking and acting in the best interest of my own emotional state. We still talked on the telephone weekly, but he and my mother had divorced in 1998, and he remarried a blink and a half later. I knew that I loved him, but we had lost all ability to communicate. His wife disliked that he had children, and let us know that we were not his priority, that she was. With all of this happening, I kept my distance from him. I still wanted my daddy and he still wasn’t my daddy. The day he died was the day after my 25th birthday. I was on the telephone with my mother when she received a call from his sister with the news. She came back to our call after placing me on hold. “I’m coming over,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m coming over right now.”

“Mom, you had better tell me what the f*** is happening right this minute.”

“Your father died.”

“Okay, you can come over.”

We sat and cried and smoked cigarettes. My brother came over with her and sat quietly. My best friend from childhood came over and yelled at my roommates for being inconsiderate, and I felt two things: devastation and relief. I would never have my daddy, but there would be no more fighting.

The day after he died, I received a birthday card from him in which he wrote in very shaky handwriting, ‘I will always love you, my little girl.’  There it was. The moment I had waited for my entire life.

The day after that, I received a card from him telling me that he did not tell me he was sick because he knew that I wouldn’t care, that I didn’t want him in my life, and so he was giving me what I wanted: he was dying.

So began my Aparigraha; the non-attachment to outcome. So also began several years of therapy to get over such an asshole thing to do to your kid. So began my mother’s intense hatred of my father for doing such an asshole thing to her daughter, and, in turn, so began my yoga practice. Over the next 10 years, I learned to love my mother for loving me, to pretend not to hear the things I know she tried not to say about my father, and to love my father in spite of his emotional shortcomings.

My parents on their wedding day. My mother was clearly a hippie.

My physical practice began, or, it began about three years before it began. The voice of inspiration was whispering in my ear to pick up a mat and find a yoga class (classes were not as prevalent as they are now, seven years later). I pushed the thought away, again and again, and then I began to hear this: You have to take classes before you can teach.

Um, what? Teach yoga? To quote the kids today, WTF?

A chain of events led to me running into a studio owner who was starting a teacher training program that I had the foresight to beg to be allowed into even though I hadn’t ever taken yoga. I promised to really, really take yoga if I was allowed in, and by the grace of the Universe, I was allowed in.

I was practicing, I was learning the foundations of the asana and the philosophy, I was in therapy, I was learning to let go of my father, and of the pain. Soon I was teaching, and I was bringing my life experience to the table. I was telling the students things that I needed to hear, like, ‘everything is already okay,’ and ‘let go of all that do not serve you in this moment.’

My grandmother started to decline in this way that one would only notice if they knew her blood and bone, like I did. The roles began to reverse, and I was the one who was taking care of some of the things that she would have taken care of, like writing out her monthly bills or picking something up at the store. My mom, my brother and I all helped out as she became more physically and emotionally dependent on

Me, Mom and Grammie

us. She would get frustrated easily, and then she would get forgetful. She eventually became somewhat apathetic and would watch television all day and smoke cigarettes from the time she woke up until the time she went to bed. I could not even think of teaching a class after I left her house because after leaving, I would need to launder everything I was wearing and shower.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007. She was shocked. The day she was diagnosed, she cried, “Why is God punishing me? I am a good person!” and then followed up with, “I’ll tell you what…. When I get home, I’m going to have a Goddamn cigarette.”

The short story is this: We all took care of her as she declined, then rebounded, lost her hair, buried her dog, went into remission, gave up on life and was diagnosed again in 2009. The three of us (my mom, my brother and I) ran ragged trying to get her what she needed and still let her stay in her house, without any help. My mother was the champion, though, and also the martyr. She exhausted herself completely, took no time to recharge and then lost her temper with us, the children, because it still wasn’t enough to make my grandmother take an interest in life again.

I had an opportunity to move away from home in 2010 and I took it. I went from a small town in CT to just outside of NYC. I had to leave. I was trying to get my mom to hire a home health aide for my grandmother, but there were too many reasons why she couldn’t.  We were constantly arguing because I was trying to be the light and she was enveloped in the darkness of her mother giving up and leaving her after my mother had spent her entire life being there for my grandmother.

On the last day of my job in CT, three days before I moved to NY, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. There was an enormous tumor that was blocking off fluid drainage and so she was hospitalized with 30 pounds of fluid in her upper body of her 5- foot frame. I sat with her and told her that I would come and live with her. That I wouldn’t go to NY, that my partner could move there alone and I would stay. She looked into my eyes and she said, “You have a life to live. You have to live it.”

And, once again, I had to acknowledge that even though I did not know why this was happening, why after such an emotional decision to move away after 35 years, my family needed me more than ever and still I had to go, that I did have to go.  And so I went.

I began teaching soon after I arrived in Queens, and I traveled to CT weekly to visit my mom and my grandmother. My grandmother’s hair was back and my mother’s had fallen out. They had chemotherapy together. My brother was an amazing force during this time and took care of them like a champion. It went on like this for several months.

My grandmother threw a temper tantrum one day after grocery shopping, throwing frozen pizzas at my mom and saying that she was a baby because she needed a home health aide to come in and help her take care of her. My mother and my brother decided together to take her to the hospital after she threw herself on the floor. I received a call that they were in the hospital and would call with updates. We all knew that she wasn’t coming home. She didn’t have the drive to live. Every one of her siblings had died, as had her husband. She felt unneeded.

She was in the hospital for two weeks, eventually having a heart attack on December 23, 2010. She was resuscitated and put on a ventilator. I drove up from NY to be with her, and I held her warm and lifeless hand in mine for hours. We all went home on Christmas Eve and talked about what needed to happen.

Christmas morning, after opening our modest gifts, we went to the hospital together and took my grandmother off of the ventilator. She woke up and we had this amazing hour and 20 minutes with her before her last breath, looking into our eyes, unable to speak, with tears filling and spilling from her eyes. We told her it was okay to let go, and that we would be okay. My mom at one point looked at her and asked, “What do you see, Mommy?” It was heartbreaking to see my mother, so tired in her wig, standing over my grandmother and asking her what she was looking at on the other side. Later my mom would say, ‘Didn’t she look like she was trying to tell us something?’ We wouldn’t know what that perhaps was until three days later. On Christmas night, we all sat together and talked about my grandmother.  My mom and I had this moment in the kitchen when we were cleaning up from dinner. I expressed my regret at not making my grandmother a great-grandmother, like she had always wanted. My mom took my face in her hands and she said, “My baby, all we’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy. It’s okay that you didn’t make her a great-grandmother.” She told me how much she loved me and we held each other so, so, so tightly and cried. I didn’t realize we were saying goodbye to each other.

My mother and grandmother.

My grandmother’s funeral was three days later, on December 28, 2010. I met my mom for coffee in the morning. She looked so tired. The service following the funeral was to be held her house and she had woken up early to clean. We all left together, and as we got in our separate cars, my mother said, ‘Do you know where the funeral home is?’ I responded with a little laugh and an eye roll. ‘Mom, we’ve been there so many times… of course I know where it is.’ Those were the last words I said to my mom on this planet.

She got out of the car with my brother and walked ahead of us, where the funeral director greeted her. She and my cousin walked in to view my grandmother’s body before the service began.  My brother and I waited in the ‘family room’ to greet people as they came in to the funeral.

Just a moment later, I saw my mother run by me with our cousin close at her heels. She ran out the door, and I ran to follow her. She was kneeling on the ground, crying (I thought) with people holding her up. I ran back inside. It was too much to see. My heart was breaking for her. She was with several people and I cried on a family friend’s shoulder. Commotion began to ensue. People were rushing, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. I went back outside, where my mom was on her back, mouth open and eyelids fluttering. Her legs were being held in the air. Family, friends, they tried to tell me that she was having an anxiety attack, but I knew that she was dying. The EMTs came and in-tubated her after attempting CPR. My brother was in the room with her, and declined when they told him to leave. From the family waiting room, I could only see her legs and her winter boots in the doorway. I saw her briefly and noticed her wig had fallen off. I knew in that moment that she would not survive. I had never seen my mom without her wig, and I knew that she would have not been able to go on if she knew all of the people saw the results of her seven months of chemotherapy and radiation. To think about the gap between that and dying seems huge, but my mom was an extremely proud woman who thought of cancer as an inconvenience and never complained, never put herself first. To have been the center of attention would have been too much for her.

The EMTs put my mom on a stretcher and took her out through the front doors of the funeral home, past all of the people waiting to come into my grandmother’s funeral. My brother followed the ambulance to the hospital and promised to call. I stayed, thinking I would attend Grammie’s funeral for both of us. I did not make it in. My brother called ten minutes later to tell me that our mother had died.

I went to the hospital to meet my brother while the funeral went on without us. I could not view my mother’s body. I felt like I could shut down and die at any moment and I went into self preservation mode, sitting instead in the bathroom whispering the words to myself again and again, “Mom died. It’s okay. She died at Grammie’s funeral. It’s okay. We’ll make it through this day alive.”  I stood and looked at the face I no longer recognized in the mirror. I appeared old and confused to myself. My brother went in to say goodbye to our mother for both of us.

There have been moments when I regretted the decision to stay behind in the bathroom. I know that she would have tried to come and say goodbye to me, even under the circumstances. I must take solace in knowing that I was a good daughter to her, and that she would understand that losing the two women who I loved more than anyone else on the planet was too much for me in that moment.

We went back to the funeral home about fifteen minutes later. We had to bury our grandmother. We numbly drove to the cemetery. As fate would have it, the minister who spoke at the funeral could not come to the cemetery and so the funeral director turned to me to say some words about our Grammie (a decision hastily made, in a moment when nothing was appropriate). I wanted to crawl in the ground, but somehow I found some words to say. The words were brief, and perhaps not appropriate for most funerals, but for those who knew her they were most appropriate. I said that she was full of piss and vinegar and also one of the most loving women I had ever known.

We left the cemetery and went back to my mom’s house, where we were supposed to have a party in honor of our grandmother. We asked that no one attend, that we needed to be alone. We sat in her house among her things in silence, all of us in our own thoughts. People who were unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral began to call the house to offer condolences to our mother. After two or three phone calls, we just let it ring. Several hours later, we tore the Christmas tree down and threw it away. We went back to the funeral home to discuss arrangements for our mom.

The days that followed were filled with cleaning out our mom’s house. She was sentimental, but not at all organized, so there was a lot of going through bags of pictures we had drawn as children, letters to Santa, Barbie clothes, toy trucks. I simply do not understand how we made it through those earliest days. I stayed in CT for a week and then came back to NY to attempt to appear human.

I have taught yoga through the entire process. There have been classes where I’ve cried while the students were in Savasana, when I’ve felt my mother’s spirit with me as I spoke about letting go, and times when I’ve nearly had to drag myself into the room to teach. There were also a few days when it was not possible for me to give anything out to anyone and I stayed on my couch and bawled my eyes out.

For me, yoga in the face of deep grief is nothing short than a connection to the divinemy divine. It’s an acknowledgement that although my heart is shattered, breaking, just an absolute mess, it’s still part of this body that is going on in the shadow of this grief. It’s still part of this body in the deep surrender of Pigeon pose or the strength of Warrior III. It is with the breath that I warm the cool corners of the shadow of my grief and slowly begin to deem those corners once again inhabitable. It is through the practice that I begin to creep back into these places inside of myself and turn on the lights.

It’s frightening to begin the process of moving on. On one level, the very deep level of shame, it feels like a betrayal to the women I loved so deeply. How DARE I go on?  But then I hear the voice of my mother. It is the same voice that cooed to me as a baby, grounded me as a teenager, debated with me as a young adult and supported me as a grown woman and a yoga teacher who is attempting to help others heal through the practice. I hear her voice, the same I’d know from a million miles away tell me to go on. I hear not words but her very essence with a hand on my back giving me a little push. She tells me through this essence that perhaps we’ll see each other again. She tells me she wants me to live and to be happy. She even tells me that it’s okay that I sat in a bathroom at a hospital instead of kissing her face one more time. She tells me to teach, to say what I need to learn out loud so that others have the same opportunity. She tells me to practice, to seek out teachers who understand grief and joy mixed together in the same glass, and also to practice on my own, to trust my intuition to know where I need to go.

I teach and I learn to practice on my own, to be with my thoughts of grief and joy, of sadness and hope. I know that it is the right path for me, no matter how frightening it may feel in those moments when there is more grief than joy. I know that all things pass through this life, whether it’s someone like my beautiful momma or fear in my mind. When we choose to release the fear and live fully, this is where the magic, the healing, the evolution happens.

So I stand here, naked and bleeding, heart broken, alone and frightened, and I tell you that everything is already okay, just as it is. If I had a choice, the people I love would be with me, but there are some things in this life that we are not in control of. I will bleed for as long as it takes to cleanse the wound of loss. I will move, and I will breathe, and I will live, for I am alive and for me, my only choice is to live. It is not a matter of being strong, for there are moments when I feel like sleeping for months, years, ever. There are moments when I think of the children I may have some day, and that my mom, my angel, will never hold them, where I feel like I simply cannot go on. There are seconds that come up on me like a thief in the night and steal my breath away when I think about celebrating Christmas without stuffing a stocking for my mom or receiving the calendar from her that I would have never picked out for myself.

I do not know how I will go on without the people who raised me, but I know I will go on and that I will bring the precious lessons from my practice with me as I do. I pray for solace, I pray for compassion for my own humanness, and I pray with all of my heart that after this life is done, that I will see my mother’s beautiful blue eyes again, embrace my father, make inappropriate jokes with my grandmother and show my grandfather who I became after he left.

In class, when I tell you that you are precious, you are perfect as you are, and you are exactly where you need to be, I am talking to both of us.

Practice, follow your hearts and breathe.






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