The only comparison I can think of for this day is that of a fingerprint…it is a November day in Minnesota like none that has ever been, and none that will ever be. It’s supposed to be snowing, dark, chilly…and instead, it’s crisp, bright, 60s. One last day to go for a run. I immerse myself in the sounds of the birds flying south in families over the water. I immerse myself in the bright leaves and the crunch they make as my Asics hit the pavement. Although raised a Jew, I have been reading about Buddhism and mindfulness and this is what I practice as I take in what I know will soon disappear
I will never break from my Jewish roots, but I wanted to study something that interested me, and that was not fed to me in my formula. Buddhism has helped me find peace in a tumultuous world. But as I have not yet mastered remaining fully focused on that which is around me, on this morning, the sun shining through the trees facilitates my mind wandering back into thoughts of the past. It still doesn’t feel real, but as my legs keep moving, tears well up in my eyes as I once again practice immersion—into the fact that it did really happen.
“And when the king is up he’s up, and when he’s down he’s down, and when he’s only half way up, he’s neither up nor down!” She bops her body up and down, standing on the toilet lid facing my niece in the bathtub, who is covered in suds and giggling. She tries to mimic her hand gestures, enjoying the ‘clown’ she knows as “Bubbie.” (Grandma in Yiddush) It is one of the few words she can pronounce well. Bubbie is in visiting from Florida—my sister-in-law’s Mom—and enjoying the miracle that her daughter and son-in-law (my brother) were blessed with after many failed attempts. It is a testament that if you try hard enough, you can make anything come true.
My niece was born in Florida, and I lived down south at the time right near my brother’s house. Always welcome at my brother’s mother-in-law’s house, Fran, for the Jewish holidays, I easily remember the hustle and bustle of my sister-in-law’s brother and his kids, my brother and his daughter and Fran, usually sporting something bright yellow, preparing the feasts in the kitchen…the smell of chicken matzo ball soup and brisket.
It was in March when I was on my way to a job fair for teachers. My phone rang, my mom on the other end of the line. “I have to tell you something,” my mom said solemnly, and I knew it was drastic, because she didn’t follow it with “but everything is okay.”
“Fran died,” she said.
“She killed herself, didn’t she,” I replied knowingly. And then I got angry. Why was Mom telling me this when I was on my way to a job fair, had to be presentable, was wearing eye make-up that was not waterproof? “I can’t talk about this now!” I shouted into the phone. “I can’t believe you couldn’t wait an hour to tell me!” I pulled into the parking garage and put on a happy face for an hour. I didn’t know the severity of Fran’s depression, but I knew she had previously had some mental illnesses in her family. I witnessed her going off on her own, always just to walk and take pictures of tiny aspects of life most people would never notice—the hinge on a door, the crust on the wheels of a grocery store shopping cart, paint peeling off the side of an otherwise perfect white fence—and it was this aspect of her I admired most. She was her own person…but deep inside, she was suffering worse than I had realized as someone who was close—but a step too removed.
“How old was I when Zaide died?” my brother wanted to know. Would his daughter remember Bubbie?
My mom got angry, thought Fran was selfish, had just spoken with her two days prior about plans for her visit to Minnesota the following weekend. Having dealt with depression myself, I, unfortunately, had a better understanding of the feeling of wanting to give up. Feeling so down that you might never get up again and if that was going to be the case, was life worth living? Fran wasn’t trying to hurt anyone else, merely taking care of herself, and doing what she thought would make her happiest. It was difficult to explain to someone who had never been on Xanax or Citalopram.
I heard on the radio an advertisement for a free documentary showing of actor Joe Pantoliano’s No Kidding, Me Too, a film he made to erase the stigma on mental illness and to discuss his own battle. Mom decided to come with me.
I GPS’d the address, and as we neared the establishment where the movie would be shown, everything began to look familiar. We were going to a viewing at the same place where the job fair had been held the day I got the phone call from my mom about Fran’s death. I had never been there prior to that day, or since that day, until we pulled into the lot.
I was floored. There are no coincidences. It was weird, and unimaginably impactful. Or maybe I was reading into it more than I should? I didn’t know, but what I did notice were the chills I got upon recognition.
We listened to Joe talk about his journey. About how he thought he’d be happy When…when I become famous…when I become rich…when I get married…and how he realized his When never came. He was mentally ill, and started No Kidding, Me Too! (http://nkm2.org) to erase the stigma against people suffering from this “Brain Dis-ease” as he likes to put it. He showed us an impactful movie with gorgeous young women on the outside, who were suffering on the inside. A popular high school kid who jumped out the window hoping to kill himself, but instead ending up in a wheelchair and realizing life was worth living. There was no hope for the eye make-up in that room.
And my mom and I looked at each other…our faces soaking wet…and then, simultaneously, we noticed the same stream of sunlight coming through the window of the room as the credits on the documentary rolled. After four gloomy days in Minnesota, misty, rainy…there it was. Joe kept talking, and Mom and I looked back and forth from the light to each other in shock and amazement. And then…just like that…it was gone.
That’s when I knew Fran would always be here.
On my way down from the playroom, I am carrying my 3-year old niece Sadie (lovingly known to me as Sunny). Photographs adorn the walls of my brother’s house, and Sunny Shine wants to stop and look. “Rara,” she says, pointing to my sister—Aunt Rachel. “Grandma,” pointing to my mom. “Daddy, Mommy, Bubbie…”
“Yep. That’s Bubbie,” I confirm, as she bounces up and down and happily chants “Up dow Up dow.”
The sun shown through the trees this morning, when it wasn’t supposed to, just as it did after the movie. And I know that Fran’s fingerprints are all around—and always will be.