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What I Learned from My Mother
by Julia Kasdorf
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
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I was 21 and had just graduated college. I was two months away from marrying my best friend, but I didn’t have a job and neither did my then-fiance. And I was completely insecure in the choices I was making. Should we still get married if we have no money? How can I earn money as a writer? Is that even possible? When should I go to grad school? I love my fiance, but am I capable of being a good spouse to him? Am I ready to be an adult?
How do I cope with all of this anxiety?
And I was beginning to notice things about myself. That if I was at my apartment alone without my roommate around, I was doing one of two things: crying uncontrollably, or laying on the couch like an overcooked vegetable watching reality television. My “anger management” techniques, though inherited honestly from my German-American family, were highly ineffective, unhealthy, and were not conducive to being someone’s spouse.
I wasn’t writing.
I wasn’t looking for a better job.
I was letting the negative things in my life strangle the positive things. I had a college degree I’d worked hard for, but I had no job. My confidence in my writing and my professionalism were rock bottom. I had a great relationship with my fiance, but I was terrified that I would ruin it with my obstinacy and insecurity. I had faith in a God that has consistently been faithful to me, but I felt unfaithful to Him by living in fear of the future.
And I knew my friends couldn’t fix me.
So I went to see a therapist I knew. And we began to unravel a few things.
First: are you sure you want to get married?
The answer was unequivocally and irrevocably YES. Yes, I did want to marry my best friend. Even if we lived with his parents for a few months while we got on our feet, even if it meant that we wouldn’t be able to go on a honeymoon or buy better vehicles or go to grad school right away, I knew with every part of me that we would be honoring God and one another if we chose to work through those things together in marriage.
Second: since I’m getting married, what do I need to do to be an emotionally stable spouse?
All of us were raised with habits, good and bad. And then, at some point, we realize the unhealthy ones are getting in the way of constructing positive ones. We have to deconstruct the unhealthy habits – admit them, analyze that pattern of behavior, let go of it, and then try – painfully at first – to speak, act, reach out, apologize, forgive and encourage in new ways.
Third: how do I learn to cope with my mother’s unstable health?
There are days when I’m overwhelmed. There are days when I feel numb to it. And because I am the oldest child and the only girl from my family of five, I will always feel responsible for the well-being of everyone else. I will, instinctively, suppress my emotions in an effort to accommodate those around me. I will, instinctively, believe that if I just “keep it together” I will find a way to fix the situation. I’m learning to confess my grief, my doubt, my fear. I’m learning to let my faith sustain me. I’m learning to be honest with myself and with others about how I feel in a given moment.
And I had to my ask myself this question:
Is going to therapy a sign that I’m broken, or that I’m healing?
We reap what we sow. We have to do the hard work of uprooting the negative in order to make room for positive things to grow. There’s a lot of sweat and tears and patience and prayer involved. A lot of talking and crying and brutal honesty. To bear the fruit of a healthy life, I had to find the help I needed to unearth a better way of living. I hope each of you find the courage to do the same.