Sisterhood

Every year as December 21 approaches and passes I am filled with more emotions than I can explain. Most of them leave me with twinges of sadness or longing, but today I feel more than that. I feel fully grateful now.

When my sister died, I felt like an invisible tether was cut and my lifeline floated away with her. 

Then, with time’s passing I realized that the many humans in my life could help me regain my tether and form a new lifeline, if I let them. I’m grateful for all the family and the friends that shed light over the last five years time. I have learned more than I could possibly explain, but most importantly I have come to realize that gratitude is the key component to making my days robust. 

I am grateful for the circle of friends, (thank you to Maeve Binchy for your book to reference, but I digress), specifically the women who have become pieces of a sister puzzle in my life. I have learned that no one can or ever will replace or fill the shoes of my birth sibling. But here’s the thing, perhaps even the secret to understanding my personal loss and grief is this: time heals all wounds, or rather time transforms everything

I can now see that Debbie and I had the fullest relationship and set of experiences that taught me lessons, filled me with joy and hope, and can still make me laugh today. That was the true gift that time bestowed upon us, our memories and the moments that we shared. 

Now, I can clearly look at my other relationships that have blossomed in my garden. I know that each woman knows how grateful I am for them, but sometimes it’s helpful to say it out loud: Thank you. 

Thank you to the friends and family who have helped shape a new meaning of sisterhood for me. Thank you for sharing your little people when loss filled my life. Thank you for sharing a momento as a reminder of love I can wear every day.  Thank you for reading my blog and holding my hand from afar. Thank you for covering me with prayers and kindness when waves crashed down. Thank you for sharing humor and holidays when I missed that sense of knowing someone else’s thoughts on familiar days. Thank you for dropping off food, letters and care packages when I had tiny humans to hold and feed. Thank you for writing, texting, and calling me when fear and judgement clouded my mind and I sought refuge in your council.  Thank you for reaching out and sharing your gifts of time. Thank you for filling tea and coffee cups and holding my hand. Thank you for passing the cupcakes and saying eat up without judgement. Thank you for welcoming me to your city and showing me new adventures. Thank you for shedding advice on love, loss, and motherhood when the going got rough. Thank you for answering my texts, calls, and keeping a connection going, even with distance and time. Thank you for allowing new bridges to be built and time to heal. Thank you for holding me in hugs and allowing tears to flow without explanation. Thank you for sharing your weekend days and time to meet and chat. Thank you for holding my tiny baby boys and filling their hearts with love.  But most of all, thank you for allowing me the space, holding space and time and loving me just the way I am. 

You know that if you read this and connected in some way, I’m giving you a virtual hug and that I love you. 

Thank you.

Gratitude exemplified through joy and laughter.

Four Years Gone

You know what the funny thing about death is? Nothing. (Cue the sound effects please. I’m completely aware of the first line’s seriousness.)

What is funny however, is how death can make everything illuminated after the fog has lifted. By fog I mean, your initial emotions, the pain, the constant reminders, it’s the sense that comes after a storm has ceased. I would liken the passing of a loved one to experiencing a fierce storm in your own body that takes time to progress and then begin to calm.

It has been four years, to the day, since Debbie passed away. If I stop and mediate on that day, what transpired, how I felt in those moments, I am taken back to those emotions quite rapidly. Even with the passage of time, nothing can erase how an experience made you feel. I remember saying to my husband, “Now I know why people drink and do drugs. The numbness is a medication to what they’re experiencing in life. This hurts.”

Everything in life is a lesson. Once I understood this, fully, I became more present and open to facing the choices I had every day, and really, in every moment.  Learning how to grieve, face pain, and move through life with it, was and still is a journey. There are times, days, and moments when I am hit severely with a wave of grief that washes over me. I try to recognize my triggers, sometimes it’s just something as simple as a word, or a song. I find it helpful to create a visual of a wave and allow it to wash over me and provide a salve of tears. Nothing and no one can replace a loss because it is an experience that is now a part of your very core. The loss becomes woven into your story. It becomes a part of the framework that trails along with you every day.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: I have learned that I am not my grief, it is a part of me. I lean heavily on the truthful, beautiful, harsh, and comical memories I shared with the amazing person that Debbie was. Carving out an allowance of grace for my emotions and journey is essential. Continuing to learn about how the human brain processes trauma, loss, and growth has helped me tremendously be more empathetic towards myself and others.

If I could tell my sister anything it would be this:

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for always loving me, even when I was hard to love. Even though you’re not here physically, you’re always near to me and in my heart, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m using my elephant memory that you said you’d rely on. You’re still teaching me so many things, thank you. You’d be so proud of your son. He’s grown tall, and handsome and he is still really sweet. He knows how to be kind and he can be humbled by life which is key. He’s so loved and he’s doing fine. He loves his cousin Leo, who holds your initials. You’d love your nephew too. He’s a spunky, book loving toddler who is obsessed, with your Declan. He calls him, “Yea-Yea,” and tries to talk to him with every phone call that comes in. We’re all ok. I love you more every day.

Love,

Your little Sister

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Butterfly Heart

Sometimes someone who knows you well says just what your heart needs to hear. “Don’t let yourself be hardened by the world Rachel. Don’t close yourself off from those feelings. Enjoy those times and keep your heart open.”

(Insert tears that spring forward.)

Something about this time of year is challenging for me, for a number of reasons. So I reflected and realized a few things.

Each school year I am reminded of the fresh opportunity I have to work with the next generation. I am so reminded and reminisce on how I would share with my sister our plans for the next school year. To say that miss her is an understatement, it is a yearning I feel in my soul and always will.

Everything changes in an instant, in a moment. The only constant is change, this I know. I have watched my baby boy growing like a weed over the last five months and it feels like just yesterday he was in the womb kicking me to let me know he was there. I look at him and I wonder who this little person will be. I watch him in wonderment as he observes the world.

Whenever I read a new book or see a, back to school book list, I stop and think about Debbie. Occasionally I still have a mind slip and think of telling her something. It’s like a small heart tug when that happens. A little pull each time I long for communication.

This school year I am excited for the new group of students to work with, the new and old book friends that I will get to share with them are inspirations from Debbie. I can’t wait to share with my students and continue to tell our son how this amazing librarian auntie of his still touches lives today.

We always read one of her favorite books to LDB each day, The Very Hungry Caterpillar 🐛. Much like in the book, I felt enveloped in a cocoon these past five months. I am ready to spread my wings and fly, but unfurling the wings and jumping off is always the hardest part. 🦋

A year in the tides of grief

One year since Deborah Leah Alvarez left this earth has meant that: 12 months, 52.1429 weeks, 365 days,  8760 hours, 525600.432 minutes, 31536025.92 seconds have passed.

~Analytically speaking it means all of the information above.

~Speaking from the heart it means that all of the varying shades of the rainbow and everything in between has gathered, washed, and moved through me in this time frame.~

It has been the crashing of waves.

It is the rise and fall of the sun.

It is every first sighting of a bright shining star.

It is the moon beams slipping through cracks in my window.

It is first moments when a heart leaps for joy and falls in the realization that the one you are about to tell cannot be spoken to directly. 

It is the re-learning to accept your new heart’s layer, with all its flaws and all. 

It is the re-building of faith when seeking through the depths of a hallowed despair. 

It is the first feelings of happiness and allowing the heart to feel joy. 

It is learning that love may not be diminished by the inability of the tangible, yet transpired into the spiritual realm.

It is what Truvy said in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

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Death has a strange way of bringing the best and the worst out of the people it touches. I have found that through my own grief I have learned to love myself in ways I never thought possible. I have learned that forgiveness is a crucial component to my happiness. Forgiveness has taught me that I do not need to seek a right or a wrong answer, but rather seek to find a state of contentedness that I dwell with and release my tethered connection from anger in order to allow the emotions to turn into love.

Never does a day go by that I do not think of my sister or long to share something with her. She was my closest friend, mentor, and supporter. What she has bestowed upon me and continues to bestow upon all of us is the love and light she shed while here on this earth. So many wonderful humans near and far have shared their love and connection with Debbie over the past year. Connectivity was something Debbie strived for. She believed whole heartedly in the fact that humans need to seek for love, education, honor, humor, forgiveness and generosity. Thank you for connecting so many of us Debbie and continuing to do so. Your rainbow touches near and far.

Through writing I have allowed myself to find solace in words that were far too difficult to communicate in person. Thank you so much to all of Debbie’s and our friend’s, our family members, her colleagues, her admirers, her blogging friends, and her supporters over this last year.

~Like waves crashing upon a shore, rays of sunshine were beamed down upon us, with which we were able to dry our tears with each loving gesture, made by all of you.~

Thank you. 

I leave you with words, as my sister would have wanted.

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For me, I leave you with a song that speaks to my heart:

 

May her life be a blessing: Deborah Leah Alvarez.

 

Add some vinegar to it…

One of the best gifts my sister bestowed upon me was her knowledge.

Knowledge for life.

Knowledge as a mentor teacher.

Knowledge about being a human.

Knowledge as a mother.

Knowledge as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a woman, a human, you name it.

Most of all, it was the knowledge that she learned about self-care in her last three years of life that enlightened our relationship. It was through our discussions, her advice, and pearls of wisdom that I truly grew as a person.

I knew what self-care meant as a concept, but I did not always act upon it.

She taught me that it was not selfish to put yourself first.

It was not selfish to eat healthy, take time to create and cultivate, to exercise, to love and cherish my body regardless of the pain that I went through from time to time.

She taught me that boundaries are healthy and that kindness is a choice that you can always act upon.

One beautiful gift she shared with me along the lines of self-care was acupuncture. This act of sharing an amazing healing arts center revolutionized my health. Acupuncture has been a key ingredient in my recipe for survival and loving myself through my life journey in the last year.

I often have joked that the acupuncture specialist I see is also my therapist. She is an advisor, a healer, and a listener. She helps me feel more balanced, and allows me to feel safe enough to strip away the outer coating I shield myself with. This provdes me with the opportunity to expose my truths and reveal myself openly to my connect my mind, body, and spirit.

There is something to be said about allowing yourself to be vulnerable with a health care advisor whom you trust and recognize has wisdom to share, when they truly listen to you.

She asked me recently, “How are you feeling…” and I said, “I’m getting there, working on feeling better, not there yet…” She said, “You need a little embellishment, a little bit of balsamic vinegar to take the recipe to that next level… to get it there, here we go…”

Small prick one, small prick two, “What about now? (Pulse check) Yes, that’s it.”

Who knew that the girl who feared shots and begged for them to be over as a small child would regularly seek the counsel of a Chinese medicine specialist. This same girl looks forward to the tiny pricks that provide balance with miniscule needles.

Sprinkle some vinegar into your routine and see what comes of it. You just might surprise yourself.dsc_7048

Photo credit: K. Sciuto

~9 months of passing times~

During my morning drive the waves of feelings emerged as the sun streamed through my window pane. Today is the 21st.  Today is the day that nine months ago my heart broke as my nephew had said to a friend. My heart broke and felt like it dropped out of my chest and numbed with stillness. Over the last nine months my heart continues to thaw. Sometimes it bursts with happiness. Sometimes I catch myself and my breath in one go as it all comes whirling back in my mind.  A loss is difficult to explain. All to easily  or simply put when asked simple questions throughout a day.  I am always holding the threads together and forever weaving and unraveling all in the same motion. Yet it is the act of continuing that I stride with.

Pursuing.

Remembering.

Sharing and reflecting, this is what helps ease the process of grieving.

Life was never meant to be tread easily.

It is with each step of action that I take, I consider my blessings, and multitudes of gratitude that I can meditate on to help lift me up.

Today is a day that I have an opportunity to build upon with my future. How wondrous it is to be a given the very gift of life. I am here. Hineni. הִנֵּֽנִי

She is with me still. Two hearts became one in spirit. Love you to the moon and back Debbie, always and forever.

We Remember Them

By Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer
At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring; We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer; We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength; We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart; We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make; We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share; We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs; We remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as, We remember them.

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8 months with dragonfly tears

Reflect: Sunday the 21st marked 8 months.

Eight months of grieving and missing, and waking up and realizing that it wasn’t a dream, but that my sister is gone and I miss her every single day. I still find myself thinking, “Oh I can’t wait to share this with… I know that Debbie would love…”

Acknowledgement: It wasn’t until a day later that I really had a full, long cry of sobbing, angry, and sad tears of longing for my sister.

Find joy amidst the tears, always: I went back to her youtube channel and was watching videos she had posted for me throughout the years. I was trying to remember her voice perhaps. Hearing it made me realize just how much I missed it. Those quick chats, phone messages, and conversations I thought would always be available until two year’s ago reality clunked into view. Hearing the intonation of her sharing her thoughts in her vlogs throughout the years she lived in Hong Kong made me smile and laugh.

The tightness in my chest released with the flow of tears that over came me.

Communicate: While enjoying the view of our beloved, Portland Rose Garden recently I remarked to to my husband, “I sometimes find it hard to believe that she is gone because I feel like she’s right here with me, like in my heart, but I know the physical reminder is there.”

rose 2016 PRG

Maybe that is why it was so hard to watch the videos….because it reminds me that she isn’t here, physically any longer.

Miracle moment: I had a beautiful moment while meeting a friend the day before the 21st. She had just sat down and a dragonfly fluttered by and landed briefly on her head. It was beautiful, sleek, green, with iridescence.

Dragonflies.

I never would have thought it before, but whenever I see one, which has been very frequent this summer, I know it is a sign from Debbie. A little glimmer that her spirit has transformed and she is listening from afar.

I smiled and said, “It was a dragonfly! Whenever I see a dragonfly I feel like it’s a message from my sister, she’s here with me.”

I had a recurring dragonfly encounter while visiting Utah this past June. I was walking to and from my friend’s research building on a campus in SLC. I exited the building and made my way across the grass that laid underneath the scorching sun and 100 degree day’s heat. Suddenly, I was being ushered to my bus stop by a fluttery friend, a beautiful dragonfly. It flew with me for about  a block and disappeared. Sure enough, on my way back hours later, the dragonfly visited again when I trudged back towards the building.

Same thing the next day.

Nature provides the best escorts, what can I say?

Take Action and Honor: This past month I completed a wish for Debbie. Well, really began the process after careful consideration, thoughts, and emails with a couple of her close friends. I began the process to archive her personal blog in order to create a book of her work that she cultivated while trying to cope, survive, and research her experience with cancer.

Find healing: It felt cathartic, and challenging to work on it extensively. I realized how important it was for my words to be as clear as possible in the creation of the forward and afterward, and the importance of the bibliophile I was writing about. Honoring her memory, her work, and her perseverance brought me closer to understanding what an amazing woman she was.

Small miracle moments of hope fly all around us. Sorrow has been transformed into something beautiful, effortless, and full of joy.  Watch for rainbows and dragonflies friends. And of course, for sparkles in the light.

Dalai Lama on Loss:

Dear Debbie, Vol. IV

Six months passed yesterday.

With the warm breezes of June it swept in like a burst of sandy wind across the skies in Utah as I saw the day pass by one moment at a time. The sun beat down, the sky stretched out blue, cloudless, like a picturesque day.

I found myself breathing easier, although embarking on my own new journey brought more mental work than I had anticipated. Exercising your mind, your spirit, and your essence of humanity takes conscientious thought, strength, and work. That is where I am currently residing at the present time. I found Gabrielle Bernstein’s work and have been knee deep in the majestic possibilities that time, thought, and love can bring forth.

I listened to the Dalai Lama yesterday. He was visiting the University of Utah for a special engagement. You would have loved his words, his insight, and especially his humor. I found this particular story enlightening:

A question from the audience was answered by the Dalai Lama, “My father passed away from suicide recently. I find myself filled with sadness all the time. What guidance can you give me about the place that he is now in?”  The Dalai Lama ended his explanation of what grieving may look like with the words, “No amount of sadness can bring your father back….Your father can feel your sadness if you remain as such…you must work to fulfill his will and live.” One more phrase that spoke to me was, “Compassion, love, open mindedness, investigation, questions, these bring forward the opportunity for answers.”

I felt that it must have been beshert that I was here in Utah. Here visiting Katie. Logged into the wifi as a guest, saw the universities home page and was struck by the opportunity that laid out in front of me…the Dalai Lama, his message, and the sense of love that his presence provided was eloquent timing for me as a mere mortal on Earth.

If I were to recount what the past month has brought forth in my small little world, our Oregon community, our nation, and our world it would be filled with joys, with sorrows, and with a flood of tears and rainbows. I do not wish to recall this list because I know that your presence is felt and already knows.

I will end this blog with a beautiful array of faces and places that mark moments on this journey. I shall leave this blog with some quotes from your sweet boy who enlightened me days ago.

“Aunt Rachel, what do you think death is like? Does it all go still and black, or do our bodies stop, but our mind goes somewhere else?  Wouldn’t it be cool if we went on to continue with our thinking, and go to this other place?!

Sometimes I think about what other people have seen, you know? Like what has he or she seen in their life? In their experiences. I want to know!”

I’ll end with this quotable moment…

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Stop. Just breathe.

Stop.

It’s a four letter word that has power. It holds the opportunity to communicate a clear, yet simple message.

So why is it so hard to say?

It is the one word I use when a student is being inappropriate, a boundary violator, or seeking my advice as to what to say when someone bothers them.

Say, “Stop.”

What is it about all this noise around us today? It seems to be a spinning vortex of information, misinformation, communication and miscommunication. It is nestled into every moment of every day.

Stop.

Are you listening?

Do you listen when someone speaks, or do you wait to respond? Sometimes I do both. It’s a work in progress.

Do you ever find yourself oversharing or emotionally vomiting with words?

Stop. Just say, “STOP self.” And do just that, stop.

No one needs to be the bearer of your misinformation, your quandaries about another, or the oversharing bulldozer of what is unnecessary data.

Hanging in my classroom is the following poster below that has the word THINK written vertically. It was made into an acronym for a few concepts.  I saw the idea online a long time ago, and I made my own poster. Consider the following before you speak, share, or “share” through social media…

T-is it TRUE?

H-is it HELPFUL?

I-is it INSPIRING?

N-is it NECESSARY?

K-is it KIND?

All too often we are not provided or providing the possibility for communication that is quality, confidential, and kind. Listening to my friends, my loved ones, my colleagues, my acquaintances, often times I see my reflective behavior in them. My energy level shifts, my mood can fluctuate, and can be a barometer at times unless I truly concentrate on what the person is saying, before I allow my emotions to come forth.

I have practiced something with my students this year called, “problem solving mediation.” Now, it might sound simplified and silly, but it is the same elemental principles in having a crucial conversation as an adult. It can be challenging, but with continued practice, it can work.

Instead of saying, “YOU this, you that, you are, you did that….stop and think.” What impacted you as an individual? The, “I, me, my, mine of the issue.” Start with an I statement, breathe, and proceed providing adequate time for the other to share and communicate when they are done.

Now, it does not always solve every issue, but I do feel that learning the basic techniques of communicating your personal perception, emotion, concern or question is essential for little and older people alike. Start with the I, use THINK, and then communicate. It is better to attempt to work it out, then ruminate on a negative vibe or feeling that festers with time.

If I have learned anything from my losses this year it is this…

Life is too short. Don’t waste it with, “I’m going to….you should’s, or he that’s…” speak up, enjoy it, work on it, make progress with the simple steps you take every day.

If you need to take some steps backwards for grounding then do so.

Quit apologizing.

Stop agonizing.

Get up, get moving, and start doing.

Do for you, do for Debbie, live and enjoy what you are offered today, and simply be grateful for the opportunities that are presented.

As challenging, as uncomfortable, or as difficult as they may seem.

Face it. Live it. Love it.

Breathe.

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Dear Debbie Vol. III

Today marked five months.

Five.

I still approach the number twenty one now with caution and angst.

Today was a long day. I had this urgency to clean. To clean everything in the house. I am sure that part of it stemmed from wanting to,”spring clean,” prep for people coming over, but also a deeper reason that lingered beneath the surface.

I wanted to clean and get something out of my system.

I clean for two hours and sweated it out while scrubbing versus dancing today.

Then I spent two hours in the car going back and forth to what I thought would be a first activity at the D. Center for Declan, which turned into hours in the car…. Oh well. Ce la vie. There will be other ones. Lesson learned: always check the location especially when they do not communicate it to you.

A few things I want you to know about life in the last two months since I last wrote to you:

~Everything changes regardless of your emotional or physical state. It all changes, constantly. I know, “news flash…” right?!

~Spring has sprung: My tulips bloomed and blew away. My irises grew and opened, and stood tall and proud. They made me think of you every day and how much you loved purple irises, just like mom does. I brought her some on Passover.

~Passover was lonely without you to sing Dayenu with. I missed you. Terribly. Especially our silent communication we would have with subtle eye glances across the table.

~Declan has gotten taller, and thinner, and gangly. I told him he might grow to be six feet five inches tall the other day. He rolled his eyes at me. I could feel it through the back seat of the car while we had the conversation about, “Why kids don’t drink coffee. … so they can be tall of course,” Hahahahaha.

~He won an award for his P. Theorem Project. You would have been so proud of your boy. He explained, THE WHOLE, thing to me, at the STEM Fair, and I listened intently to each word he said. Smarty.

~He made cookies with us recently and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He told me today all about his Pioneer Camp/Field trip and how his favorite part was making biscuits. His love of carbs, like ours, runs deep.

~Declan still gives the best hugs, after Andy of course.  The squeeze you hard, hold on fast, and feel the love kind of hugs. That boy was taught right. Hug, hold, and love. ❤

Lastly these are my cosmic nature moments where I felt your presence the most…

I spotted a faint rainbow last month, it was one of those that are hard to see, but is fleetingly beautiful. If you rub your eyes, than it’s gone. But I saw it. I saw you.

When the robin followed Declan and I home on our walk before bedtime, she hop, hop, hopped after us, and then was there when walking down our street again. Watching, and hopping along, and waiting. I felt like she was this happy little robin mommy walking us home.

My crow crew greets me each day when I come home from work. I always think of the book and movie, “Cold Mountain,” when I see a crow. They say that they are the birds you see that represent your family who have come and gone. So I always think of you, and Grandma Lilli, and Grandpa Bob. I think that there must be some circular process to which nature presents itself as this loving force that reminds us of all that has been before us, with us, and that will come after us.

There are so many more things I want to tell you, and I do in my head, all the time. I am working on focusing my energy into all the positive memories we made. I am really trying ever so hard to retrain my mind on positive happy visuals of you and me and our family. I have found some books, positive mindset videos and speakers, and I am actively working on my mindset daily. Key word: work. Life is such a process. The journey is raw and real.

Lenore once told me something I remind myself of, “Grief is a part of our lives. It is an important part of life. But it is important that grief is not what makes up your life, or the only thing about your life.” Just know that I will heed advice and live and laugh profoundly, but I will always remember and say your name to whoever will listen. You left such a legacy of glistening moments in so many people’s lives. I love hearing their stories and collecting them. I learn from them, and I am beginning to let moments sparkle again. I am singing again, and it feels spiritually healing and also exposing of many wounds from the past that we shared and I am working on mending alone. I love you with sparkly tears.

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