“You always remember to keep my glass half-full instead of half-empty, and that is a special friend,” Carla wrote some time before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
I did one of those half-smirk, half-eye roll, half-sure-got-her-duped faces, took a big gulp of my half-empty glass of wine and started thinking about the year that was rapidly receding.
Honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was the end of a decade until Christmas night when my sons revealed their respective top-25 movies of the decade. Somewhere between Rachel Maddow and Words with Friends, I had missed the countdowns – the Decade’s Defining Moments, the Decade’s Darkest Dating Disasters — though one would think I’d have caught on with my girl, Taylor, winning Billboard’s Woman of the Decade award.
No, to me, it was just another New Year’s Eve at Amarone’s Restaurant with the Santostefano’s; the only thing raising the bar was an unexpected sighting of Victor and Joan Cohen.
New Year’s morning, after checking in on Facebook and seeing that my friend, Madge, had already broken her resolutions by eating Hershey Kisses for breakfast, I laced up my sneakers and headed out to the gym where I do some of my best reflecting.
How in the world did my friend Carla get the idea that I was “a genuine person” who always reminds her of what’s important? I spent half an hour on the treadmill, powering up the incline to sweat out any illusions of being anything to anyone other than my father’s daughter who taught me to always expect the worst and I’d never be disappointed.
To channel my inner pessimist, I jumped onto the stationary bicycle and started pedaling away, tallying up my decade of losses.
The daughter had just started at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2010 and Max, his friend, Jamal, and I were heading down for a visit. The boys were huddled over fake IDs in the back of the minivan, scheming about how they’d get into the frat parties. We were 413 miles into the drive when I got the call from my doctor confirming that I did, indeed, have breast cancer. I subsequently had both bosoms manhandled, removed, and reconstructed. I came home with blood-filled drains hanging out of my sides, I couldn’t lift my arms above my head, and had to make a late-night trip to the ER after ripping my stitches doing laundry the day after I got home from the hospital.
In early 2012, we lost our lovable lab, Chester. Though, in actuality, he wasn’t all that lovable. Ask the daughter how she felt when we brought him home from the shelter and he immediately chewed the head off of her favorite American Girl doll. Or the mailman whose hand he nipped at every day when the mail was pushed through the slot in the door. Or Dan Yevin from the bus stop, who stood bravely between his daughter, Tati-ati-ati-o, and Chester’s bared teeth as my spouse, who had never had a dog before, and thus had no idea what beasts are capable of, scoffed. “Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” But, of course he did, he hurt our hearts horribly when he finally died.
As Super Storm Sandy reared its ugly head in October of that year, my best friend, Claire, was battling a typhoon of her own. This was my go-to girl, the one I spent more time with than anyone else in the world. We ran our worlds together, raising our kids alongside half the other kids in town, sat on bleachers till our butts were sore, ran the schools, ran the sports leagues and ran ourselves ragged. She landed herself in the hospital, and we who sat vigil for weeks, were told there was a good chance she wouldn’t make it out alive.
In 2013, I lost another kid to a far-away college. The previous year, while deliberating for months on end about whether to go to Rowan University, I mentioned to Max he could always transfer if the football scenario didn’t pan out to his liking.
“You mean, I could go to UCLA or USC?” he asked, eyes wide.
“If you can get in, you can go,” I promised, assuming it was a safe bet.
“You can’t let him go to California,” my friend Margaret said. “He’ll never come back.”
As fate would have it, Max got straight As at Rowan, gave up football, and transferred to the University of Southern California. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was that rearview mirror glimpse of his face as I pulled out of the parking garage in south central Los Angeles. I cried buckets that day thinking I could have kept this from happening. Instead I was leaving my uber-social second son 3,000 miles from home with a roommate whose first language was Chinese and whose first, and only priority, was studying.
In 2014, the youngest went to college. The middle one was still in California, the daughter had gone off to live in New Orleans, and we were at long last empty-nesters. It was what I had yearned for since the day my kids were born, yet somehow our voices echoing off those empty walls didn’t sound quite as melodious as I had imagined. Then, as if to validate the void, the kid quit baseball, giving up his spot on a Division I team. After thousands of hours of training and dreaming and nursing a torn shoulder, he hung up his cleats and I reluctantly and despondently gave up my spot on the sidelines.
In 2015, the kindest of all my college cronies succumbed to lung cancer. Chris battled it out for a good three years during which we continued our yearly All Girls’ Weekends together. She was the best dying person I’ve ever known, but probably because she was one of the best people I’ve ever known. She talked about it. She cried about it. She laughed about it. She went on trips with her husband, to Disney World with her daughter, and prayed really hard. But, still, she died.
Later that year, I became a Mets fan. That was the season when Cespedes wasn’t hurt, when Wilmer cried, and when Matt Harvey was still The Dark Knight. It was also the year when they lost to Kansas City in the World Series.
Then, there were some lean years, when I didn’t lose much more than a refrigerator here, a light fixture there. Freelance work came and went, but nothing to cry over either way. Life rolled along. Kids graduated, the house ebbed and flowed, filling up, then emptying out again.
In 2017, our beloved Virginia Duncan passed away at the tender age of 100. She was my father-in-law Paul’s late-in-life sweetheart and someone I loved almost as much as he did. A year later, Paul’s congestive heart failure got the better of him and we lost him as well. As gruff as I am glib, Paul was a gem of a grandpa. A remarkable relative. And a close-to-perfect role model for my close-to-perfect spouse.
To round out the decade, I lost both my knees, after years and years and more years of living with pain and rationalizing (despite many, many, many previously successful surgeries) that the fear of the unknown, the months of rehab, and the pain of recovery was way worse than the relief I’d eventually get out of having my knees replaced.
Which brings us up to the final goodbye of the decade. The Old Minivan. That good old guy got me where I was going for close to fifteen years. The stories it told, the kids it transported, the memories it held were surprisingly hard to let go.
So, back to the glass half-full.
Anyone who has ever known me for thirty seconds, knows that I can deal with death and doom, but it’s the little things in life that throw me into a tailspin. Ask my friend, Patty. I’m the one whose entire cruise can be ruined if I get on board to find they’ve banned straws. Talk to Kathy, Holly or Ann. They’ll confirm that if I so much as graze the human next to me in yoga, all notions of Namaste are negated. No, I am so not that person who Carla thinks I am.
Rather, I’m the one who one who gets indignant at a restaurant when the waiter forgets my extra cup of ice. The one who has to have a fan blowing in my face in order to fall asleep. And the one who can’t sit next to anyone in the movie theater, lest I hear them breathe.
But, something happened on New Year’s Day as I was thinking about Carla and my decade of losses. I started thinking about the wins from my losses.
I may have had cancer, but it hasn’t come back.
As traumatic as it is for even the most hardened mother to watch her children fly the coop, I’ve also been lucky enough to see them soar.
Even the most cantankerous of canines leave a hole in the home when they cross over the rainbow bridge. But shortly after Chester left us, another rescue dog came into our lives. He was as friendly as Chester was foul and as crazy as Chester was calm. We named him Griffey, after Leo’s favorite baseball player. Though he’s getting a little gray around the edges, his ears aren’t quite as sharp, and his eyes are getting a little cloudy, he’s still a boundless bundle of energy. And, despite the endless vacuuming of dog hair, even I have to admit, he just might be the best dog ever.
My friend, Claire, after a long and rocky road recovered, reminding us all never to take our friends or mothers for granted.
Knowing in my heart that it was his choice to go so far from home, I finally let go of my Max angst. As it ended up, USC was the best move ever, stretching him in ways he and we never thought possible. And, while Margaret was right, at least California graced him with a girlfriend who, with any luck, is the love of his life.
Despite the void felt in all of our lives, had he not given up baseball, Leo never would have discovered his creative side, and the talent that just may be what ends up giving him the biggest hit of his life.
Though we think of her always and miss her terribly, what our college friend left us was faith. Faith in knowing that if we live every day until we die, if we keep showing up for the All Girls’ Weekends, if we keep appreciating our families and friends, then when our time comes, it’s going to be a little bit easier for everyone.
And while they haven’t come close since, after the 2015 season, we’ve secured a spot on the first-base line at CitiField. We became Mets season ticket holders. Just in case.
Virginia and Paul’s presence are greatly missed, but we have lots and lots of boxes of photos, memories, and yes, ashes, piled in our basement to remind us of what they meant to us, in life and beyond.
As far as the knees go, well, somehow, someway, I gave in and got them done. And now, after years of groaning, months of icing, and weeks of sleepless nights, I run and jump and play like a teenager. Or at least like an early old-ager.
The Old Minivan has been replaced with a shiny new car with all the bells and whistles. I wouldn’t give up those mega trips with kids in tow for all the Hyundais in Hollywood, but a little auto aloneness right about now is right up my alley.
As I jumped off the bicycle and headed to the wall to do my squats, I marveled over how, just a few short months ago, I could barely stand. And here I was, deep knee-bending my way into a brand-new decade.
And, I know it’s all because of the Carla’s in my life. The ones who think I’m brave and strong and optimistic. The ones who stick by my side when I’m being silly and stubborn and stupid. The ones who are always grabbing my glass and filling it up before I even realize it’s half-empty.
Thank you, friends, and Happy New Year.