I Brought My Mom

I am a fiercely independent sixth grader. Two months before my elementary school graduation, I am relentlessly determined to prove my autonomy to my mom.

My mom, who has been waiting in the parking lot to pick me up, before the bell rings, every, single, day of my entire school career. My mom, who has been to every dance recital, soccer game, swim meet, and activity in between. My mom, who has attended every parent-teacher conference, driven every carpool and pre-quizzed me for every vocab test I’ve ever taken.

My mom who has chaperoned every field trip. Every, single, one.

She never hovers, interferes or gets overly involved. I am confident and outgoing and popular. I don’t need her support, or assistance. Besides, she is preoccupied with the overwhelming needs of the saddest, most pathetic kids in my class: The girl with terrible hygiene and a complete inability to make friends; the one with the chronic motion sickness, seated at the back of the school bus, on a windy road; The kid who misses home, or his dog, or wets his pants. The kid who rips his sweatpants during a team-building exercise or burst into tears at the top of the trust fall.

In every crisis, my mom swoops in to hug them, soothe them and parent them. They attach to her immediately, and refuse to let her go.

I am facing a transition to junior high school and in the market for a badge of maturity. I convince my mom to set aside her permanent chaperone invitation, so I can spend my last week-long field trip, alone.

She loves the multi-day trips the most. She hikes and plays all day, and eats unlimited dessert at night. She gets to show off the acting skills she always talks about, and enthusiastically respond to every request of her thirty, adopted kids.

But in the name of honoring my burgeoning adulthood, she sacrifices her unpaid vacation, and agrees to let me experience my first field-trip ever, without her.

We arrive on Monday. I feel uneasy, but excited. I feel brave like Caddie Woodlawn, and sophisticated like Anne of Green Gables. I am the inspirational heroine protagonist in the historical fiction novel of my own creation. Simultaneously, I feel a rare sensation of ordinary. Suddenly, I’m just like the other kids. I have no back-up plan, or safety net, or personal medicine cabinet, in case I get sick.

On Wednesday morning my hiking group is crossing the peanut butter river on a narrow, wooden plank. I am thoughtfully gazing across the horizon when I see a one-of-a-kind vehicle pull up. My mom’s minivan is the most recognizable family car in all of northern California, maybe the world.

When we meet-up at lunchtime, I pretend to be miffed. I dig into my arsenal of inherited acting skills and express a convincing feeling of betrayal.

Deep down I feel grateful, and relieved.

She sees right through it, but indulges me in an explanation, just the same.

Her mid-week appearance is a compromise. When my mom broke the news of my epic-solo-heroe’s-journey to my sixth grade teachers, protests ensued. Apparently, my commitment to self-sufficiency is equaled in intensity only by my teachers’ obsession with my mom. The success of the week, their school-year satisfaction, possibly the outcome of their entire careers, hinges on my mom’s presence in Marin Headlands, this week.

I can’t blame them. She lives up to the hype.

My mom is vibrant and fun and loving. She laughs openly and loves deeply and makes everyone around her feel special. Even at a young age, I see the way people light up around her. My classmates tease me because the male chaperones have schoolboy-crush googly eyes, whenever she’s around. She is the most loved human around the campfire, on the trail and especially in the dining hall. The teachers love her, the kids love her, even the on-site instructors favorite her obviously and immediately, every time.

And so it was, on that trip, just like the others.

What was supposed to be my first one alone, became our last field trip together.

A year later, as a gawfky, self-determined seventh grader, I spend a week in Ashland Oregon, by myself. During bus rides, and down time, and especially dinner, I feel sadness and emptiness, and longing for the past. I stare hopelessly with envy at a stranger who would some day be my best friend of fifteen years. A girl who had the courage to bring her mom.

My mom and I revive our spirited mother-daughter traveling antics during the summers between my years in high school. We spend multiple five day trips park hopping in Anaheim, CA, luxuriating at the Disneyland hotel. We conquer every attraction on the map, become experts in line movement and crowd management, and eat more main street ice cream sundaes than most people consume in a lifetime.

Even many years and travel miles later, our days together in Disneyland are some of my best.

My mom moved me in to my first dorm room and my first adult apartment. When I got sick my first quarter of college, she spent three days in a Westwood hotel. My first year as director of Mentorship, she left Sacramento before sunrise to share the most memorable sunset of my life.

During law school, and twice as much while I was studying for the bar exam, my mom talked me off the ledge, and out of a personal crisis, multiple times per week. For countless hours, she waited patiently on the other end of a phone call, when the only thing coming through the microphone, were tears.

My mom is my best friend, and my inspiration. She is a daily reminder that the value of life is measured in laughter, and hugs and kindness towards other people. She is as silly and fun and spontaneous as she was two decades ago, serving as the greatest field-trip chaperone, that ever lived.

Two months ago, after a 14 hour work day, I landed in the emergency room on a Wednesday night. I felt pain, and fear, and panic and dread. My mom remained calm and comforting as I spiraled into the emotional space of the neediest kid at the back of the school bus.

When the doctor, with whom I undoubtedly share a birth year, comes in to check on me, confusion is evident across his face. I watch him piece together the why behind the wrinkles in the creases of my eyelids, and the adult chaperone in my room.

To ease the mounting tension, I point out the obvious.

“I brought my mom.”

He nervously shrugs his shoulders and sympathetically narrows his eyes.

When it’s all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My mom is my sanity, more than my rock.

At thirty, I need her as much, or more, than I did at thirteen, or twenty, or eight, or five.

I bring her with me when I can, and call her when I can’t. When separated by long distances, we exchange doggie paper cards, and heart shaped emojis. When I can’t see her, or reach her, I close my eyes and feel how she would hug me. Soothe me. Parent me, in person.

I can sense her arms around me, and hear what she has to say.

Things People Say

“Be sure to read the rules about alcohol consumption on the back.”

The sophomore working the sales booth hands me my first high school dance ticket.

“Oh yeah, you know me,” I quip back, assuming we’re in on the same joke about what an exceptionally well-behaved teenager I am.

“I know your brother.”

I turn away quickly, before the tears I can feel forming in the pit of my stomach, reach my eyeballs, and come pouring out.

I make it to the parking lot, and the shelter of my mom’s minivan, just in time.

“What happened to you?” My mom wants to know, as soon as I close the door.

“Just something somebody said.”

I reluctantly share the story. Immediately, she joins me. Fear, sadness, anger, shame.

It was the first of many experiences stirring a similar emotional reaction. It was my first recognition of my vulnerability to other people’s perceptions and opinions. It was my first realization that my private family crisis was a topic of public conversation. For the first time, home felt like a claustrophobic, unforgiving, small town.

At the local grocery store, women in our community dodge my mom. They duck into aisles and avoid eye contact. Maybe they want to give her privacy, or they don’t know what to say. Maybe they don’t want to look into her desperate, tired eyes without comfort, or a solution, to provide. Maybe they judge her. Or shun her. Whatever the intention, or motivation, the feeling is the same. It feels like judgement and isolation. Like failure as a mother. Like a vacuum of support when she needs it the most.

Friends and acquaintances, even our extended family, have ideas about where we all went wrong. We mostly come to know about them, second or third hand. Rumors and gossip swirl around us. Every time I leave my house ,I fear an unexpected encounter with someone I know. A surprise attack of exposure before I can get my armor on, my story straight, my smile right.

It is a painful period that leaves me increasingly guarded, and self-aware.

I learn to keep everything close to my chest. To spin a pretty good story about my normal, suburban life. When my best friend reads my college application essay about my high school home-life, she can’t believe her eyes. In my house, I feel frightened and restless. At school, I appear confident and collected. On my hardest days, I am funny and sarcastic. In moments of self-doubt and sadness, I showcase my easy-going personality and carefree laugh.

I keep a strong commitment to stay on my best behavior. My family needs me to be the perfect kid, everyone expects.

I make sure people only have good things to say, about me.

Many years later, I still hear tid-bits about myself and my peers in the hot spots of my home town. The entire world is connected by Facebook, but all of us who grew up here are linked by coffee driven conversations between our moms.

My reputation, and its reflection on my parents, is relevant to my decision-making, even now.

Thoughts of my fifteen-year-old self crept into every moment I considered quitting my job.

The night I pull the trigger on my resignation, I bump into a friend at a yoga class. A woman from my high school graduating class. She hugs me and asks how work is going. “Is it still overwhelming?”

I pause to create space, to stuff down the truth.

I dig into my teenage toolkit. I say something vague and non-committal, then do my best to change the subject, right away.

“Phew, that was a close one.”

Later, alone in my apartment, I relive the conversation with the integrity I should have brought to it the first time. The courage to answer honestly, without expectation of how she will respond. To set aside old hurt. To stand in my decision. To know it’s right.

The first person I tell is a friend who works the front desk at my yoga studio. She is sweet and open. I remember she told me she left a lucrative career in fashion to enhance her quality of life. I blurt out my news while frantically signing in for a noon class, standing in a khaki suit, wrinkled from my court appearance, earlier that morning.

She lights up with surprise and excitement. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Yes, I can do this.”

At first, I limit the scope of the announcement to the four walls of Zuda yoga. In every exchange, I am met with an abundance of affirmation. Soon, people initiate the conversation with me. “Hey, I heard that…” “Is it true you’re…?”

I marvel at their sincerity, support and positivity.

Fueled by the energy of my yoga community, I take it to the streets. My anxiety peaks while nervously reviewing the menu at a trendy midtown lunch spot, seated at an intimate two-person table, face-to-face with my family law mentor.

“This is worse than telling my dad.”

We’ve shared a few good-vibes text messages, but I remain skeptical, braced for the storm. Over the last six months, this man has dedicated countless hours to teaching me how to be a lawyer, run a law firm, interview clients and enhance my professional network. Hours he could have spent billing clients, or hanging out with his wife. He put his full faith in my ability, handed me the keys to a kingdom, and asked simply that I do my best to not screw it up.

“So.” He breaks the silence. “What’s going on with you?”

I breathe in an “oh shit” and bravely begin to explain myself.

With wisdom, compassion, and his trademark humor, he offers his unconditional support. He does little to question my maturity, or sanity. He does just enough to assure me that our relationship will endure, and the kingdom will survive.

When lunch is over, I’m ready to tell everyone I know.

My co-workers, my clients, my former classmates. People who never pictured me as a lawyer, and others who only know me as one.

One, bold, moment, at a time, I reveal my truth.

Where I expect skepticism and judgement, I experience validation and love. Where I fear rejection and dismissal, I feel embraced, and lifted up. Where I struggle to be witnessed, I feel seen and heard.

The emotional residue is so potent, my fifteen year old self feels it. She learns that people can’t offer support if you don’t tell them why, or how, you need it. She sees that people only know your story, if you choose to tell it. She discovers that when you engage in an act of personal bravery, you give people the opportunity to accept you, just the way you are.

It becomes clear that if you know what to listen for, there are beautiful expressions of love, in things people say.

Do the Right Thing

In my last quarter of college, I signed up for a four hour political film seminar on Monday nights. By the second meeting, I was deep in regret about my senior year enrollment strategy. Every week, I’d slink into the back row of a dark, windowless classroom in Kinsey hall, a building that didn’t even exist by the time I got to law school, three years later.

At the midway point, my professor screened Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A year and a half earlier, I’d made my way through every Spike Lee joint, ever released. My mid-college discovery of “Critical Media Studies” led to a brief fascination with progressive film-making, and a related interest in becoming Spike’s young-white-lady contemporary. I studied his art on the weekends like my lifetime success depended on my mastery of the genre.

Mostly beyond my aspiring documentarian phase, I assumed my weekly position, flipped open my laptop, and set out to mindlessly pass the next two hours.

Between perusing articles on the New York Times home page and wondering why I didn’t eat more for dinner, my mind pulled me into a familiar anxiety.

“What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

I went to college, to study political science, to get to law school, to be an attorney. Back then, it was simple: I would effortlessly ace each of my college classes and make brilliant connections with influential professors and accomplished attorney alums. I would land the perfect internship, be a shining star of my academic department and the crown jewel of my national champion mock trial team. My post-college destiny would unfold as easily and obviously as everything else had for me, at every stage in my life.

But from the back row of the last class I needed to graduate, the future remained unclear.

I fell off the pre-law wagon during zero week of my first quarter. I was auditing information sessions for the fanciest  clubs and organizations on campus. Even on his best behavior, the President of Mock trial was transparently a douchebag. Although it would be years before I had the language to name it, the “energy” in the room that night was tense and competitive. I looked around a space filled with buttoned-down white kids, saw a reflection of the high school community I just escaped from, and wanted to run as fast and as far as I could to get away from it.

A year later I became a mentor for a 10 year old girl named Cindy. I took more education classes and did less of my political science reading. I dove head first into UCLA UniCamp Mentorship and discovered a community of young people that changed my life. I bathed in service, and teamwork, and social justice. Every Teach for America Rep on campus stalked my every move. I felt the joy of co-creating with selfless, dynamic leaders.

Every day I woke up more and more inspired to change the world.

And one morning, on a Malibu beach, a year before I graduated, I forgot I ever wanted to be an attorney. For good.

The more I knew what I loved, the harder it was to decide what “to do.” I was haunted by perceived expectations and limited by an idea I had about myself, my family, my teachers, my friends. I battled an identity of “over-achiever” and a set of characteristics and professional ambitions I believed to be associated with it.

In my life, I’d never done just anything.

I had to do the right thing.

And eventually, I did.

I graduated from a prestigious professional school. I earned a fancy degree. I had a work wardrobe sponsored by J.Crew and a job description that elicited wide eyes and approving nods, gestures I interpreted as approval, affirmation and “I’m impressed.” My dad bragged to his colleagues and my mom proudly posted pictures to Facebook from the night I was sworn in.

It was everything I envisioned before college, and everything I resisted by the end of it.

Initially, I framed my departure from the legal profession as wrong, and risky and rebellious. People like me don’t give up power and prestige and earning potential. People like me ascend to greatness, climb the corporate ladder and relentlessly pursue their next remarkable achievement. People like me are lawyers, for their entire careers.

Leaving my job felt nauseating and terrifying. In my last two weeks as an attorney, I woke up every other night with an accelerated heartbeat and racing mind. 29 years of avoiding the uncertain and the unconventional, left me without experience, or a frame of reference, for this tremendous leap of faith.

But two weeks into my new life, I sleep through every night. I wake up motivated, excited and open. I feel loving and connected. I climb all four flights of stairs to my apartment with renewed lightness. My whole body feels different. I smile and laugh and dance. I sing at the top of my lungs, in my car, on the way to work. In moments of financial anxiety, or ego-driven discomfort, I breathe in gratitude for the miracle of my life:

The support of my mom and every, single one of my friends. The blessing of my professional mentors, and the encouragement of my community. The freedom to be who I am, and to live my fullest life.

The courage to transcend the idea of doing right.

To re-discover how it feels to be happy.

Ninety Years

It’s eighty degrees with unseasonably low humidity. The post-bar exam fog in my brain is lifting, and my dad is meeting unexpected resistance as he carves into the hard, dry, Western Pennsylvania ground.

It’s late July and my dad and I are standing in the short summer shadows of hundred-year-old tombstones on Mars Hill, in Butler County. The worn engravings bear dates of birth and death that seem impossibly far apart for the era they mark. Row by row, we examine the graves of people who lived into their late seventies and eighties, 200 years ago. Later that day we meet a 94 year old World War II veteran who describes his plane crash, barefoot jungle trek and prison camp stay like he survived them yesterday. At nightfall, we’re on the covered porch overlooking 52 acres of rolling hills stretching into an infinite horizon of stars. Our eighty-year old hosts are reminiscing with my dad about their cross-country road trips before seat-belts and air-conditioning.

We made the pilgrimage to my dad’s home town to scatter my grandpa’s ashes. He died a month and a half earlier, at 92. Everything about our trip felt nostalgic. Like we’d taken a time machine into my dad’s childhood: old colonial buildings, two lane roads and the folksy lifestyle of everyone we met.

On the plane ride home, I think about the length of life and the passage of time. How our relationship to each one is shaped by our perception of the other. We design plans, make choices and move through each day with a long-view of ourselves and our place on the planet. We bank on ninety years.

Eleven months later I slump into my big, rickety, leather desk chair at 5:23p.m.  The office is quiet. My brain is dizzy and clouded from the stress and anxiety of trial preparation. For the first time in two weeks, I feel my muscles start to relax.

“I”m ready.”

I swivel to the left and reach for my keyboard. The phone rings.

It’s my client. The one with the story that’s kept me up three nights a week since we met in February. The one who I think about on my yoga mat and talk to in my dreams. Her trial is set for the next morning. Before any polite exchanges, she blurts it out: The key witness in our case is dead. She died this morning. A twelve page trial brief, a two hundred and seventy five dollar subpoena and an entire litigation strategy crafted around the testimony of a witness, a person, who no longer exists.

My mind starts spinning again. I frantically look around for the hidden camera, or the production crew from dateline NBC.

Nope. Nothing.

This is my real life.

Being a lawyer gives me a false sense of control over circumstances and outcomes. It’s an entire profession built around the illusion that a compulsive work ethic and relentless attention to detail avoids uncertainty and interference from the unexpected. Countless hours and full energy committed to bending reality and manipulating facts to conform to our preferences and perspective. If we need ninety years, we believe we can guarantee it.

The shocking overnight trial development jolts me into the reality of chance, and the power of change, moment to moment. It reminds me of a lesson I keep learning, but fail to accept. A week earlier, my professional mentor shared that a family member went to sleep one night recently, and didn’t wake up. He was thirty-eight. Two years before that, I casually hopped on Facebook one night to discover my dear friend had a tumor in her pancreas. 13 months later, she was gone. One summer night my brother took a fast turn on a motorcycle and lost the use of his right arm, forever. Two days after my twenty-ninth birthday, 20 parents of first graders sent their kids to school one morning, and never saw them again.

My friends and family suffer loss, battle cancer, and endure the unimaginable. Nobody ever sees it coming. Nobody could stop it, even if they did.

Lately, my life is dominated by recurring mantras of “if I just.” If I just finish this project. If I just make this deadline.  If I just survive this week, or month, or year. Each mantra presumes a sequence of events. Each sequence marks a period of time I don’t even consider not having.

Each period shapes a piece of my ninety years.

When something awful happens, I always have the same reaction.  Immediately, I commit to moving from “if I just” to “be different now.” Be happy. Be loving. Be present. Do what I want. Twenty four hours of purpose and intention.

Then my life interferes again.

Two days ago, I’m sitting with a friend from high school at a long, metal table, at a coffee shop, in our home town. Together, we’re reflecting on the life we didn’t envision at (almost) thirty. I ask him how he has the courage to live life on his own terms. He tells me, it’s simple: Figure out what you want to do and go do it.

I’ll add: Because even if you make it ninety years, nobody has that many to begin with.

That was a tough goodbye

A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years,  two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated.  Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.

My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned  covers of tracks from  Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”

I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.

For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.

I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.

Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.

I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.

Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.

A week passed, and nothing.

I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic.  I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.

Blanky was gone.

I was heartbroken.

It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.

Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.

The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…

Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.

On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.

In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.

On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.

It sure was.

Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go.  I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”

I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.

That was a tough goodbye.

“It’s Good to Be Remembered”

The summer before seventh grade I fell in love with a boy named George.

George was tall and red-headed with a prematurely deep, sultry voice. Sitting next to him in the stands of Arden All-Star Little League games stirred my first feelings of sexy. Grown-up attraction. A surge of intense excitement and energy ignited by his inadvertent (deliberate) brush of my hand, or ankle, or outer thigh. Each time he looked at me, he looked down first. He opened into a smile just as he met my gaze. It was so perfect it almost felt practiced. But I could feel it was pure. Genuine.  The guy just knew how to talk to a(n almost) woman. How to be suave and gentle with just enough edge to make my 13 year old mind, and heart, race.

Baseball season ended. My summer romance faded into cool nights, early sunsets and the angst-ridden start of junior high.

But George left a powerful impression.

For more months than I care to admit, I clung to his memory. I thought about him, talked about him and described the emotions of attachment in my pre-blog era, handwritten journal.

My best friend lived in his neighborhood, and every time we picked him up, I begged my mom to drive by his house.

It was the 90s version of perusing Facebook and following him on Twitter.

My mom would pretend to protest, but reliably obliged. She knew her resistance was neither believable, nor defensible. She knew all along, I’d learned from the best.

When I was a kid, my mom had a crush on the lead anchor of the 5 o’clock news. He was a legend in my hometown. Distinguished and sophisticated, with a full head of perfectly-gelled, silver hair.

He came into our family room, every night, at the same time. He was confident and authentic, with a strong, trustworthy gaze.

My mom never missed a broadcast. Or a public appearance.

Armed with a camera and a big cup of coffee, she hit the mall to watch him host the local version of the Jerry Lewis telethon. She tracked him down promoting charity, grabbing a latte, and anywhere else she could find him in the community.

She always returned, swooning. She’d recount the racy details of brushing up against him in Boulevard coffee like a giddy thirteen year old falling in love on a Summer night.

Even now, she admits having “a hundred pictures” of big crowds of strangers featuring his tiny, blurry, dot-of-a-head in the background.

Stan Atkinson was more than my mom’s favorite celebrity. He was her dream-man. Her ideal spouse. My dad worked long hours at a demanding job. Stan was like a substitute life partner, keeping her company and retelling the days’ events while she cooked dinner and cared for her kids. He was predictably gentle and calm. Ever-present in the evening with his inviting smile and reassuring warmth.

On Wednesday night I made a rare appearance at a happy hour to support a fundraiser for the agency where I work. With sore feet, clad in a disheveled, khaki, skirt-suit, I reluctantly made my way up three wooden steps to the front entrance of a trendy bar. There, standing in the doorway, as handsome as I remembered him, was my mom’s most memorable crush.

At first, I froze. Instantly aware of my haggard appearance,  I felt less-than-prepared to face such an epic encounter.

I took a mind-clearing breath, and knew what I had to do.

In the minutes that followed, I lost my nerve. But as I watched him graciously begin his exit, my courage resurfaced.

True to the stealth and skill of my ancestry, I stepped out on the patio to trap him as he was leaving. As soon as he emerged, I delivered my introduction.

I told him that I was a huge fan. That I grew up with him. That he was a fixture of my childhood memory, and my childhood life. That my mom adored him more than any other person she never knew in real life. I thanked him for who he is, and who he was, to both of us.

He grabbed my hands with the same, unforgettable sincerity that charmed my mom every evening of my childhood. He looked at me with honesty and love, squeezed his fingers into my palms and told me, “It’s good to be remembered.”

He hugged me like an old friend. We posed for a picture and when I turned to let him go, he pulled me in. He kissed my cheek, and said simply,

“that’s for mom.”

A familiar surge of excitement came over me. Less sensual than its early adolescence predecessor, but equally intense. The feeling of an unforgettable moment. The experience of creating a memory I’ll never forget. The perfect interaction with the perfect man.

In the quiet of my apartment, the high slowly wearing off, I reflected on the importance,  and impact, of a good impression. That in some cases we have years and years to leave our mark on people, and others, we have only minutes.

For most of my life, I’ve devoted my social energy to managing the way other people perceived me. My highest value was to be regarded as brilliant, powerful and accomplished. At the end of my first year in law school, at the peak of my obsession with prestige and achievement, I sat next to my dad at a memorial service for a man who’d passed away in his late eighties, after a long battle with a rare and debilitating disease. I knew from our family relationship that he was a successful professional who’d amassed a considerable amount of personal wealth. But in the many  and varied stories shared by his family and friends, not a single mention of what he’d done. Tearful descriptions of his laughter and embrace. Detailed accounts of the way he mentored people, rescued people, lifted them up.

I left the service committed to evaluating the legacy I was already creating. Transformed by the realization that who I am is defined  by how I am, I was moved to shift the emphasis of my everyday interactions. To change focus from trying to control the way people see me, to bringing awareness to the way I am treating them. To live in the truth that memories are shaped in moments of connection, not ideas, images and projections.  And that it’s good to remembered, well.

Over Dinner

I ordered Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes and sat cross-legged on a cold metal chair. You chose a table on the ground floor of Novel Cafe. You’d only lived in Westwood a couple of weeks, otherwise you might have known to sit upstairs. When I arrived, the plate in front of you was dotted with remnants of baby spinach. I noted it as peculiar. I had a long and sordid history of male friendships, but couldn’t recall any of the men in my life ordering salad at a restaurant. Ever. Later, I would know you as a frequent consumer of cold lettuce and raw veggies. Usually from a square plastic box with a colorful Trader Joe’s label. One time from a folded cardboard container. A Whole Foods Salad Bar Caesar I’d assembled myself. I remember the care and consideration I’d used in selecting the ingredients. High quality. Right proportions. It was important to me that it tasted perfect, to you.

That first night was more “second interview” than “first date.” I was still skeptical about whether we’d end up really being friends. Were you funny enough? Interesting? Politically Engaged? Did you have a closet full of jersey cotton t-shirts with ironic phrases across the chest?

I asked my best “get to know you” questions and channeled my inner high school counselor. I probably chewed with my mouth open when I got excited and had a mess of dried maple syrup smeared across my chin.

It was the last time I felt any uneasiness between us. My last memory of us as anything other than best friends.

Our inaugural hangout was a foreshadowing of the months to come.

Week after week of Friday and Saturday nights spent laughing and talking through a light, organic meal and shared dessert.

Our relationship happened, and deepened, over dinner.

Sometimes the purpose and nature of our dates was unclear to one or both of us.

Like when you picked me up wearing sweat pants and I pranced down my concrete staircase wearing makeup and high-heeled leather boots.

Or the time I was forced to go out in your oversized zip-up sweatshirt because I’d showed up in the middle of the day in a tie-dyed  t-shirt. We planned to sit and “catch up for an hour.” It was early in our relationship. Soon after we realized that between the two of us, that phrase didn’t exist.

I knew I was doomed during our first homemade “dinner in.”

You masterfully crafted gourmet quesadillas from your two-burner makeshift kitchen while we sang and swayed to Ray Lamontagne. That night we played mini golf after threatening to find somewhere to “laser tag” in Los Angeles. On my short drive home, I thought about the ease of our relationship. It’s comfort and stability. How I was  going to avoid the inevitable disaster at the intersection of platonic soulmates and unrequited love. A  year and a half later, I could feel my patience unravel over a plate of sauteed brussel sprouts. You offered them to me tenderly, coaxing me out of my ball of exhaustion, curled up on your soft, beige couch.

I always thought we were best during those stripped-down stay-at-homes, but we had our share of beautiful nights out, too.

You salvaged the celebration of my 27th birthday with an elegant plate of fish and a fake story to the wait-staff about how we were engaged. Overlooking the ocean in Malibu, we wrote a screenplay about best friend lawyers who made a classic romantic comedy marriage contract as unlucky-in-love law students. We called it “At Arms Length” and staged the movie poster while holding hands, barefoot under the icy, mid-December tide.

We drank a bottle of wine to celebrate surviving our second year. You made our reservation under your celebrity pseudonym, John. We toasted to finding, and saving each other. As we left for more drinks at ” The W” I warned you about my irrepressible desire to make-out after more than one glass of wine. I was being honest, but also testing your always clear (and thick) boundaries. The boundaries that kept our unique relationship intact.

We demonstrated entrepreneurial genius and made countless strangers into friends. We made up elaborate narratives for the events and relationships at adjacent tables. Even now, there is no one else in the world with whom I would agree to “split a brownie.”

During dinners amidst our small social network, we kept people guessing. They wondered if we were “doing it” on the side of our friendship or secretly involved in a full-fledged affair. Every person we knew together had a different version of our story, not one of them mirrored the truth.

When we ate with your siblings, I wondered what they were thinking. I wondered both what you told them and how they evaluated it on their own. I wondered if some day, at our wedding, they would talk about the early days of light-weight denial and the destiny we collectively knew about, but of which, we never spoke.

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about  a year ago. My seasonal memory is a powerful storyteller and the images and sensations of February trap my mind in the re-living. I re-play every episode, evaluating what I might have done to re-write the ending.  We talked about dating, and marriage. About telling our families, and our friends. When you kissed me on my living room couch, I was trying so hard not to screw it up, it’s the only thing I barely remember at all.

It happened so quickly, then ended just as fast. A month later, we felt like strangers, again.

I ran from you, and hid from my feelings. You watched me leave, and let me hide.

Ultimately, we would repair the damage the same way we created it.

After months of dinners without you, on a garden patio in a Venice bistro, a week before the bar exam, we finally felt like us, like before. You ordered shrimp and I chomped though a kale and potato flatbread, wondering when the “greens on everything” trend would finally disappear. We took the “is this a date?” online quiz, a hysterical flow chart that could have been written exclusively for our relationship, at all stages of its evolution. It was both fitting and awkward. We could laugh out loud in silent recognition of the unreleased tension, the still unaddressed feelings underneath.

As the youngest patrons of a chic Brentwood eatery, on my last night in Los Angeles, we said, “goodbye,” over dinner.

It was the last time I looked at you and wondered how you could possibly resist doing this with me forever. I wondered why you didn’t reach across the table and beg me to stay with you. Why we were planning how we would stay in touch instead of how we would spend the rest of our lives, together. How dinner could possibly be better, or more fun, with anyone else.