Let It Go, part 3

We know letting go of some memories may prove rather difficult. Augusten Burroughs writes about life’s tough spots in This is How, a book that gives readers plain advice on getting through difficult times. And despite all of his advice on various woes, he states plainly that a parent will likely never get over the death of his child. Burrough’s verdict reminds me a little of George Bishop’s narrator in The Night of the Comet. He foreshadows troubles to come when he says, “it’s not true what they say, that you get over it–that with time, whatever happens to you, good or bad, drifts away into the harmless river of the past.” In his mind, “You never get over it. . . The past never leaves you. You carry it around with you for as long as you live, like a pale, stubborn worm lodged there in your gut, keeping you up at night.” I agree. Sometimes we think the worm has left us only to find it lies dormant waiting for something to awaken it. And yet, we expect people to let go of the past. And we expect ourselves to get past the tough stuff.

let it go
get past it
get on with your life

What do we mean when we say these things?
What do we hear when someone says these things?
I’m not enough. Not worthy.
It’s my fault.
You don’t have time for me.
I can’t be fixed.
I’m screwed or broken if I can’t move on.
If you can’t accept my pain, my thoughts are not acceptable. In translation: I must not be acceptable.

Instead of judging someone who has found the struggle to move on daunting, what might happen happen if we simply listened to someone tell of his pain? Really listened. Listened knowing that we didn’t need to agree or be part of the plan to fix it. Listened knowing that we are human and this listening means connecting. No approval necessary. Is it too hard to experience pain that another human is sharing because it feels too immediate, too real, too . . .painful?

Maybe it’s time to take out your own pain, look at it and share it.

The process is a challenge. Listening is hard work. I know because I have a hard time listening to my daughter’s pain. This includes the parts I would prefer not to remember –her indelible scars that scream: what kind of mother lets that happen! The parts I don’t like –the weight, the neediness, the nightmares, all that reminds me of what I don’t like of myself–the quick anger, the introversion, the depressing parts. The parts shellacked in fear–living a life that sometimes feels like we’re all going in circles, round and round on a pretend pony stuck on a pole, without the energy to reach for, let along grab, a single brass ring.

Yet, listening would help my daughter. It would also help me not just to accept her–all of her–but also accept the whole of who I am.

I am still learning (chances are I am not alone), not knowing how to let go of those things that have caused me pain, the ones that I have held on, perhaps, too tightly. The memories I have held onto for fear, for what I thought was love, or for a myriad of reasons I cannot fathom. If I listen and accept another’s pain, might it really help me let go?

In her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: when to make a change and when to let go, Eileen Flanagan writes that “accepting yourself makes it easier to accept others. Accepting others makes it more likely you will bring out the best in them.” I like this idea. Acceptance is a two way street that we can both travel on.

She reveals a simple idea: If I accept my pain and then it’ll be easier to listen to yours. The cool thing is that I might just bring out something better in both of us.

Flanagan’s idea takes off the pressure. I don’t have to fix your problem. I don’t even have to release these scars that I have. I don’t even have to move on until I’m ready. I can accept the mistakes and hard parts in the moments I remember that the person beside me has them, too.

When someone tells me of something they can’t let go of, I can try to recall how life can be painful. I can say I hear the pain in your voice. And I can even remind myself that if I want someone to move forward, listening might be the best way to smooth that path.

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Little Red Riding Hood left the safe path to gather flowers.

Addictions are hard to overcome. But I can’t deny that I like the thrill of teaching. Yes, teaching is an addiction. Like most addictions, teaching creates longing which can often be confused with passion. How does one sort out the difference between an unhealthy addiction and a thriving passion? My feeble mind can’t. Watching a kid “get it” is my kryptonite. No, having a parent tell me that I’ve changed their kid, that they couldn’t have achieved the next step without me is my weakness. I know I’m good –most days–at helping kids on that first step. Weak this feeling of success makes me. Every time I think I’ll leave teaching, I think on these kids who need me. I get weak in the knees, to borrow a cliche, rendering me unable to march out of this career.

That’s the problem. The weakness of my addiction to people needing me is the very thing that drives me towards the high-tail-it-and run!-mode. I don’t want to be needed. I want to be needed. I don’t want to be needed. Being needed is draining. It holds me in one place too long. Is there a patch or a pill to cure this insanity?

I’m not sure why this need in me to be wanted competes with the gawd, I can’t be needed, and why the competition drains me. Why do these two halves of myself combat? I can say the same for wanting to belong. I often want to be part of a group, I long to be like Norm who walks into the Cheers bar and everyone knows his name—do you remember the theme song of Cheers—where everyone knows your name? I like that idea in theory. The idea that people see me as someone who is part of their social fabric feels comfy, like a well fitting pair of shoes. Why not?

Yet as soon as I feel that I belong, I feel shaky, I sweat, I start edging away. What’s the problem? I can’t deny that belonging brings a measure of comfort, but does it bring a measure of success? Is the problem that I’m always looking for a something but can’t figure out what “it” is? Or is my desire to do tough things (yes, it’s a quirk of mine: one must do hard things) in my life as a way of growing—or a penance for something I’ve done wrong—lead me away from belonging too much.

What is too much belonging? When is the time right to step away and leave them wanting?

I know right now that I’m not paid enough and feel a bit taken for granted. So that might be where I’m right in stepping away. I need more money to pay for my two sweet kids to go to college. That the job swallows me up doesn’t help. I don’t seem to have time for creative pursuits–for that which I long to do—write. When I’m planning the next lesson, reading the next essay or story, and the next and the next and the next, I drown in the next thing to do. Those nexts are almost as intoxicating as the high of being needed and the embrace of belonging. Deadlines met are satisfying.

Right now I figure I have two paths –though they stretch out in myriad possibilities. One is to make more money, solid money that I can count on for paying for college, stashing away for retirement, addressing the wear and tear on my home and car. The other is to forego the dollars in favor of immersing myself in what my psyche seems to demand—to write—to do something I’ve never done, to conquer a mountain that stands before me. Am I being unrealistic? Can I do this? Why am I compelled so? she asks herself as she stands and looks from the bottom to where mountain meets sky.

I feel as though I might not be able to breathe if I don’t make that first step off the path of right now, if I don’t take my foot off the shoreline of the now to go towards the shoreline of one day. That sounds scary. Both leaving and staying sounds scary. I love my students. They are sweet and wonderful. They are needy and intelligent. Though the gig doesn’t pay well, I have what looks like free time. (Looks like? a voice scolds.) I’m blessed in my career. The problem is that it doesn’t pay well and the free time isn’t free. My time is filled with ignoring my writing, overlooking my own needs to fulfill the needs of others. Working on tomorrow’s lesson plans and the next book to teach is much easier than sitting down to write. What is it that a writer said? “Writing is easy; all you have to do is slice open a vein and bleed.” Everyone I’ve talked to has said that writing is tough. You’d think that the truth would stop me in my tracks, but it hasn’t. I want to do the tough. I would hope my students and my children would want me to do the tough.

I worry, though. What if this dalliance on the path away from a secure harbor is self sabotaging? What if I’m like Little Red Riding Hood, leaving a safe path to gather flowers in the most dangerous way? What if I arrive at grandmother’s house only to find my own big, innocent eyes have led me to the jaws of large teeth of disappointment and financial ruin? What if I’m Goldilocks trying out chairs and bowls of mush to find the right fit, only to fall asleep in a bed that clearly doesn’t belong to me? What right do I have to be at this house that belongs to bears?

What ifs are horrifying. What if Red never left home? What if Goldilocks never ventured to places she hadn’t been invited? No story there. The irony is that the main character in my novel (I like saying “my novel” as if I’ve already arrived to my destination of “writer”) is a girl who doesn’t want her life to change, but change it will and change it must. Like X, I have to venture forth, otherwise my story will wither. I’ll read the stories others have written, I’ll teach the stories others have written and I’ll even do what I love, help others write their story, but my feet will be bound by my fear, and eventually I’ll be unable to move forward.

My little voice asks me if that would be so bad. I could become a tree with deep roots. I’ll be prized for my shade and bring comfort to others. It’s what I’ve been.

The other voice says no. There is time for that (no, I can’t guarantee there’ll be time for anything). Now is the time to step forward, to take one step into the darkness, towards the light blinking far off in the distance, like a guiding star. I can’t deny I feel fear. I don’t know where my steps will take me because I haven’t been on this path before. But that’s what’s exciting. One deep breath and one more step. Exhale and one more step. Into the darkness with the hope that the journey will be an adventure, that there will be places to rest, that there will be friends along the way, that I will find the strength to quell my enemies—including my own doubt, and arrive at a different place-whole and filled with the thrill of being me.

Wolves, I’m coming.

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Let It Go Part 2

I have been told that we can’t be defined by one experience. Though I am more than the sum of my parts, am I not the total of my experiences? Despite the challenge of moving beyond some difficult memories, I practice seeing my daughter– daily, if not weekly, as someone who creates amazing paintings, an ambitious college student, generous, and as a person who brings beauty to this world when she insists vases with flowers will help me appreciate beauty. This practice helps me see her as more than her diagnoses of BPD, GAD and OCD and I can convey the more in our conversations.

Despite both of our positive practice, none of us is prevented from feeling the blunt of her disorder’s behaviors. In addition, while she has overcome many of her learning struggles, her severe math anxiety holds her back completing her education. Are these parts of who she is? What about the three major surgeries she suffered through by the time she was fourteen or the loss of three beloved family members, all within the year after her extended stay of a couple of months in the hospital. Try as I might, I have had difficulty letting these difficult memories go. I am reminded in the stillness of a night, when she’s out late, and sometimes even when she’s sitting right beside me.

In some of our darkest times, I remind myself that no one gets out without scars. But while most of her scars are not visible, nor all that she has had to contend with in her twenty some years, sometimes I think people, especially family members, would like to overlook the fairly hefty blocks of crap she’s had to manage. At times, I get the sense that they cannot deal with the whole person that my daughter has become. And she’s perceptive enough to know this.

All this is leading up to a conversation I had with that sister in law. It turns out that a couple of weeks earlier, while at SIL’s house visiting for the weekend, my daughter had rehashed an unpleasant experience involving another family member. As the anniversary of the event approaches, her struggle to resolve her feelings about the experience has become more evident. Her aunt’s response, “I don’t want to take sides” may not have intended to be dismissive, yet the effect was to sweep away all of her feelings. In one month last year, my daughter had her car stolen (it was recovered thankfully), raped, had a “friend” disregard the rape, and ignored by ineffective police, and was let go from a “job” by a family member. Her aunt’s comment felt like one more person who swept her away like day old trash. It isn’t surprising to me that this simple remark led to an evening’s emotional meltdown.

A few weeks after the meltdown, the family met at a park for an informal Father’s Day potluck picnic SIL had arranged. She and I stayed behind. Noting my daughter’s absence at the family picnic, she made a remark about an uncomfortable coolness in the family. I steered her towards the exchange that happened at her home a few weeks ago. Attempting to defend my daughter regarding the event she’s grappling with, I paused for her response. What I received was the line of a Disney song: she needs to “let it go.”

My mind went blank. Let it go? Which part? Stunned into momentary silence, I dug deep knowing this was an opportunity to be an advocate for my daughter and others with mental illness. I shared some info with my SIL about BPD and ways my daughter looks at the people in her world. I explained, “Her remark wasn’t about asking someone to take sides, but rather about confirming that someone had listened. Mirroring back what she had felt and said isn’t taking sides, it’s letting her know that she has been heard.” We moved onto other topics and finally hugged each other goodbye. And while I think she heard me, I am still stunned by her lack of understanding and inability to listen.

“Let it go” rings has rung in my ears ever since.

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Let It Go Part 1

There’s a ridiculous scene that I adore in Forget Paris: Debra Winger is driving to the vet a poor pigeon who had become stuck to sticky paper set out to catch a mouse; as she hits a bump in the road, the pigeon flies up and becomes stuck to her head, sticky paper and all. Within a story of the most memorable events of Billy Crystal and Winger’s strange relationship, this one captures the way love and life is more than sweet under the moon memories.

That funny slapstick moment also reminds me that memories are like that sticky paper. Sometimes a memory sticks and won’t let go. That’s a good thing for some memories. The day my daughter was born and the way she turned her head to look at me when I first spoke her name to her, and the day my son slept in my daughter’s arms and everything about her softened are two memories I don’t think I’ll ever want to forget. Then like Winger’s embarrassing, dangerous flapping pigeon, there are those other moments: when I explained to my son that his sister was in a coma, like in the movies and he agreed that she looked like Sleeping Beauty (despite the tubes and machines); his face went tight and he told me that this was different because the person lying there was his sister. How does one let go of that memory? And should I?

A sister in law told me last week that my daughter needs to get past her bad memories. I get what she means. The sentiment echoed a question that my son asked me: “Why bother hanging onto painful memories?” Yet, aren’t some of even the unhappy events in our lives teachable moments that can help us navigate through life? Are we to cling to the happiest moments, as if a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean? Which memories should we release? Can we release them?

What is one memory you would like to let go of?

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Rage against the machine

It has been a tough laundry week. That might not mean much to you, but for someone who lives with an OCD sufferer, messing with the state of clean is dangerous territory.

While some with OCD compulsively wash their hands, others wash their clothes. Henrietta L.Leonard writes on The Dana Guide, “Someone obsessed with cleanliness might do so much laundry that it affects the household bills.” That certainly describes my daughter. I recall one week when she was at camp and the laundry was cut by more than one half. One of the tell tale signs that she had fallen prey to the OCD Monster was how she approached laundry. She had a system.

Before I continue, I want to tell you that I, too, have a system. Linens, towels and sheets go into one hamper, my husband’s darks in another. My clothes, mostly delicates, are washed separately. The rest of my system is simple: Hot water and bleach for linens, cold water for darks. Delicate cycle for most of what I wear and his dress shirts; jeans are always separate with socks and polo shirts. I dislike piled up laundry and find folding towels soothing. Though I prefer it, I’m not tied to this system. All one has to do is look at my laundry room to know that I can take or leave it, er, rather shut the door on it all.

My son also has a system. His clothes are his problem, and he handles it well; most of the time. He can fit most of his clothes, including his own towel, into one washer cycle and 90% of the time, he puts them in his room without nagging. His system: leave my clothes alone. While we can’t classify his preferences as OCD, we can safely say his way is picky.

My daughter, on the other hand, follows her system rigidly and requires nagging. To be honest, I’m not sure of all her steps; I just know they must be done in order. All clothes must be picked up off her floor. I find it incongruous that someone with OCD can be so messy, yet several experts have confirmed that OCD can cause messiness because one step towards cleaning can cause sufferers to go on a cleaning binge. Avoidance, they rationalize, forestalls the madness. I’ve observed that when her room deteriorates, meltdown mode hovers on the horizon. Once her clothes are picked up and tumbled into a laundry pile, bed clothes are next. And oddly enough she’d rather sleep on a mattress without a sheet, (ugh) rather than mess up the system. Her clothes, though mostly darks, are often thrown all together into the washer. We reached a victory in her OCD recovery when she stopped using hot water for every wash load. But challenges still abound. And the piles continue. If someone touches her clothes, namely her father, she feels compelled to rewash the load. She requires several days to complete the cleaning cycle, mostly because tidying up the common areas (the back patio and front porch, if she’s truly worked up) must happen before she can complete the folding and putting away of her clothes. Bed linen must be put on, then clothes can be brought in from the laundry table. This becomes a rigid system when anxiety rules.

All of which was tested, after the dryer went out. Mind if I stop for a moment to share that I love hanging clothes on the line in the summer? Thus in the middle of a dryer failure, I have happily hung clothes on two laundry lines on the back patio. I admit it’s inefficient. One has to plan. But there’s the savings on the energy bill. And there’s the sunshine and the late after breeze swinging the clothes to and fro. Despite this and knowing I’m capable of spending the summer without a dryer, I thought about the cash I had saved up for such emergencies. Dryers are important, life-saving devices, right? Because we have busy lives and better things to do, a modern dryer could move us along. I thought this right up until last Thursday night.

Well past midnight, I was tucked in, blankets up to chin, snoozing away. Suddenly, the house erupted in yelling and I was yanked out of my dreams. Why were our two kids were arguing at an ungodly hour? Apparently, our son need to wash work clothes, and our daughter’s clothes were hogging the washer. Because he played video games too late, he had forgotten he was working the next day and needed clean clothes. She couldn’t very well hang up clothes at 1:30 in the morning and putting them in a basket would mess up the system. Having anyone touch her clean clothes is forbidden. She yelled. He yelled. He called her crazy. Despite the yelling, I was starting to doze off when I heard footsteps and things scatter onto the floor. She had retaliated by sweeping everything off of his desk onto the floor. Now I was worried that he’d retaliate. My imagination running wild with expensive irreplaceable things broken, my husband stalked down the hall to send them once and definitely to bed.

The next day, mostly avoiding each other, we all dragged around. About noon, I saw them: a pile of my son’s damp, washed clothes in a basket waiting to be hung up. He had woken up everyone to have clean clothes, yet here they were, waiting for him. I nearly went ballistic. I took a deep breath and exhaled. Then, I made a decision.

No dryer. Rage all you want, my children who are spoiled by modern machines. I’m not budging. Not until the bitter taste of the truth that the world doesn’t revolve around you has settled on your tongue. Not even OCD will move me. Be inconvenienced. It’s time you adapted to a different way of doing things.

When I’ve decided that I AM tired of wearing dirty clothes because I forgot to hang the laundry out to dry, I’ll change my mind. But not until then.

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If one shoe is all there is

While speeding off to a doctor’s appointment this morning, I tried to reassure myself that a level of anxiety about an ultrasound is acceptable. The doctor ordered it because she felt something. But why think about what has happened inside my body when the results might show nothing at all. Why worry about what’s to come? I told myself that the next step can only be the one right in front of me. I breathed in and used jedi mind tricks to psych myself to calm. I still felt anxious. A hospital is still a hospital and hospitals just aren’t my favorite places. So rather than look at frightening possibilities, I focused on what was around me. It’s a trick I read for dealing with rising panic. “What do you fingers touch? What can your eyes see?

That’s when I saw it. Sailing through the last light before my turn, I saw a man’s black dress shoe on the side of the road.

I can’t be the only one to wonder about single shoes. Does anyone else wonder where the other might be? Perfectly good things stranded on the roadside bring out a little mind wandering. The time I saw a glove on the median spy plots swirled in my mind. With a shoe, the stories are a little more grounded. (No pun intended.) I imagine the owner of said shoe, arriving at his destination and reaching for his shoes that he could have sworn he put in the car, only to find one on the roof of his car. “Son of a … “ He hits the car. He looks at the shoe that survived and knows he’s missed something, retraces his steps in his mind, but comes up empty. Now what?

It’s all nonsense the way our minds fill in details, right?

But once I get started, I find it easy to continue. What if there’s a mother whose son left his shoes on top of the trunk. They were on their way from his graduation to the restaurant to celebrate. Don’t ask why a teen does silly things? The family is astounded that her son has made it to graduation, considering all the crap he’s pulled. The homework drama. The girlfriend chaos. The poor choices for friends that leave him upset and the house upended in the wake of his confused pain. His mother remembers the sleepless nights she waited up for him, no phone call to assure her. The yelling and arguing. Addictions along the way. She’s tried to understand how to take care of this adult-child/child-adult who been diagnosed with . . . , what did the doc call it? A mental disorder? Borderline something or other? Her beautiful son? Is it her fault? Should she have been tougher on him? Shouldn’t she have seen the signs? What did she miss? She tries to retrace the steps of her life, but the shoes, the shoes. Aren’t they just another sign that she can’t parent? Turning back isn’t a viable option.

Then there’s the fed up girlfriend. I imagine that she’s tired and feeling powerless. While on the way to her boyfriend’s house to pick him up, because he says her house is out of his way, she knows she should stop and get a snack before she loses it. She’s tried to block out the last time it happened. She skipped lunch that time, too. Her stomach growls. But she doesn’t stop. She looks at the stuff he’s left carelessly in her car. It hits her that if she doesn’t act now, she’ll lose her nerve. “I’m done with you!” she yells as she tosses out his crap. One by one. Out goes the tie. A shoe. A pair of sunglasses. Another shoe. She knows it feels edgy and over dramatic, but it also feels insanely powerful. She makes a u-turn at the next light and heads toward her dad who will remind her, didn’t I tell you about that guy? She cringes. He saw signs. What were they? What did she miss?

Or maybe the shoe belonged to a man who arrives angry. He’s our man. He’s calling himself an idiot and feeling like his life is out of control. He’s too old to be a grandfather of five, he tells himself, feeling old and forgetful. And now this? He hates his job, but he’s worried about the kind of job a man could get at his age. The missed opportunities. He closes the car door and thinks what if this is as good as it gets? What if this is all there is?

What if this is all there is? No headline accomplishments. No fiery romance. No magic circus tricks. Kind of feels disappointing, doesn’t it? It’s that the way it is supposed to be? Is that all there is?

He begins to sing “Is that all there is?” Soon he thinks about his wife and the way she used to sing Peggy Lee’s song imitating the singer’s throaty voice. He laughs at himself. Just the way his wife would have, kindly and lovingly, at his worry, at his forgetfulness, at his fear.

A young woman pulls into the lot and sees the man smiling. Walking over to give her grandfather a hug, she feels better than she’s felt in a long while. She tells him she’s famished. His daughter drives up with his remarkable grandson who has finally graduated. Wasn’t sure he would do it, he thinks to himself as he grabs the grandson close and with his eyes shut gives away all of his wishes for the young man’s future.

And as the mom presses the car lock on her key chain, she sees her son in his stocking feet, hugging her dad, holding her niece’s hand. That’s when she remembers so many years ago when her son refused to wear shoes and her dad told her, Hell I never wore shoes til I was seven and that’s only because the teachers made me. Her family is here and she knows if that’s all there is, then it’ll have to do for now. If that’s all there is, then it’s time for a glass of good wine to celebrate all there is.

The stories I tell myself sometimes are silly. It’s all just in my head. But so is the acceptance of things as they are or will be and have been. Every day that has passed is all there is. If that’s the case, then we can either hide in worry or we can put one foot in front of the other, with or without a shoe, and celebrate each step.


Final note: after I wrote this, the doc called. Nothing to worry about. Today I’m definitely celebrating.

One last thing: My mom loved Lee’s song.

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is
then let’s keep dancing
break out the booze
and have a ball
if that’s all there is.

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Grief can’t be tied up with string

One of the songs my daughter and I used to sing was “My Favorite Things.” The fanciful notion of roses, kitten whiskers and packages helping us through the tough spots in life has always appealed to both of us. Funny thing is that sometimes life brings you so low that pretty things alone can’t help. When I get to that point, I either have to cry or write. Sometimes I do both.

Last year I wrote a short story about a package that had been left on my doorstep. As summer approaches and I feel the demanding call to get back to writing again, I have returned to the story. The discipline of writing during the school year doesn’t come easy for many reasons (ok, some are excuses): job-demands and mother-demands crowd the top of that list. As a teacher, I watch others write and support others as they write. And as often as I make a commitment to write while they are writing or complete my own homework, I break that promise to myself and complete tasks that insist attention. This summer, I’ve returned to the firm commitment to seize time for my own writing and my own needs.

Back to the story: that package left on my doorstep held a life in leftovers. I saw the box on an October afternoon about six years ago and after glancing at the lack of a return address, I elected to ignore it. Somehow I knew who it was from: my father’s wife. She packed up the things from his former life and the things she did not value. I wish I could say that it was a lovely gesture, choosing to share with me some of my father’s past. But I can’t give her that credit. For starters, the paintings he promised to me weren’t in the box. Instead of providing comfort, its contents, reminding me that I loved an absent father, would explode my life into pieces, the shrapnel lodged in my heart. I’ve cried every October since.

The story of the package is one of a series of life with my largely absent father who died suddenly, a year filled with losses. Here’s the thing, I’ve struggled with the story because I don’t want it to sound like some mushy, pity-me memoir indulgence. Plenty of kids in my neighborhood have had absent parents or worse. But the story needs to be told, or should I say, I need to tell my story, so I can move from victim to survivor. Hiding the broken part of me has left me one step short of healing. I wonder if we hide our broken moments, our broken parts, can any of us heal?

Though I still return to the grief of a deep loss that started over 40 years ago when he first left, I know I want to stop sliding backward. I know I am strong enough to move forward. As I write and rewrite, I rebuild myself into that someone stronger. It’s summer and the days are filled with sun and time. I am ready.

What broken moments and parts could you offer as a gift to help someone heal?

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