I recently read Maggie Smith's memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, and fell in love with it and, like most things, these days, promptly set it aside and forgot all about it until this week. When slogging through the 100 percent humidity and 100 plus temps, I heard an interview with Maggie Smith discussing her book and the poem that made her famous, Good Bones.
I had never heard her poem, and even when I read it in the book, I somehow missed it. I was too angry at her husband for being such a jerk about her poem. But, as she began to recite the words, I was surprised to find myself so moved that I stopped moving. Water was not only pouring from every pore in my body, it was also leaking out of my eyes.
Maggie's poem spoke to me in the language of the universe that I only just discovered. Before my mother's death, I didn't understand that two opposing things could be true at the same time. It didn't seem possible. The concept was as foreign to me as trying to speak Arabic. I was reminded again this week that life can be such a contradiction. It can be messy, ugly and hard and beautiful, and true all at the same time. When My mom was dying in hospice, I prayed for her to transition, and at the same time, with the same fervor and hope, I prayed for her to stay. I wanted things to end and never end. How could those two opposing truths be true? How could I hold them in my heart at the same time?
My cousin transitioned yesterday. It was a shock; it was fast and sudden and also slow and agonizing. I texted my heartbroken aunt, who sat there watching her baby working to leave this world. We spoke of the contradiction that death is. We talked about wanting a peaceful end and not being able to fathom the end. We spoke in the language of heartbreak and love. We talked about not knowing how to go on and knowing we must.
The language of life is suffering. The language of life is beauty. How do we become fluent in both? How do we weave suffering and beauty together to create a universal language? Maggie's poem does it seamlessly.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I've shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I'll keep it from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird, there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short, and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor
walking you through a real shithole chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
One of my great loves is renovation, decorating, and making things beautiful. I am obsessed with transformation in all areas, to a point.
I had no interest in death transforming my life. Death left me nothing, but my mother left me with a blueprint. The good bones of her life were imprinted in my soul. It's taken me some time to uncover them. Sifting through the debris of grief, I am beginning to excavate. I am starting to answer the universe's call.
You could make this beautiful, right?
The answer is I can try.
At first, I tried simply getting out of bed.
The universe will continue to ask over and over and over, just like that chirping realtor.
You can make this place beautiful, right?
We then must decide if we can speak the language of suffering and beauty. Can we try at best to make the world 51 percent more beautiful?
Recently I was asked to speak at Cleveland Clinic's Survivor Day and introduce the Sugar Bloom Foundation. I had no language for how to talk to cancer survivors when my story was one of loss and heartbreak. I was worried I wouldn't be uplifting or inspiring. I was afraid I would cry and make a scene. I was worried that the truth about cancer would be too much to hear.
I decided to tell the truth. That cancer is 100 percent terrible, and that is a conservative estimate, and it can also be 100 percent beautiful. Deep in my soul was the blueprint to tell this truth and to seek to make this life beautiful.
So, can we make this place beautiful?
The answer is simply,I don't know, but we can keep trying at least 51 percent of the time.
The speech for Survivor Day is below.
The best way to tell you what a Sugar Bloom is is to tell you our story. In 2016 my mom, who the grandkids called Sugar, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, and at the time, we lived far apart; when she started chemo, I didn't know what to do, so I wrote her letters. That year of treatment was hard. I don't need to tell you how hard I'm standing in front of cancer survivors. You all define courage, bravery, and resilience.
Though that year of treatment was hard, my mom believed it was also magical, and she said one of the blessings to come out of that year was the love letters we shared. Buoyed by love and hope, we left treatment and cancer behind until 2019, when it returned.
We made some changes, and my mom moved to Florida; I no longer wrote letters; I glued myself to her side. I was there for every treatment, every doctor visit, every clinical trial. I became, as one doctor called me, a hyper-vigilant hippie. I was obsessed with curing my mom by any means necessary.
During those years, I sometimes wrote about our journey together on a blog as a way of processing our experiences. When I couldn't find the words to speak to my mom, I found a way by writing the pain and the love of our story together. My mom transitioned from this world on January 23, 2022, and the loss of her physical presence here on earth broke my heart. It was the greatest honor of my life to walk her home.
Exactly a month after her passing, I woke up on February 23 and realized my mom was not coming back. The realization took my breath away. I didn't think I could bear it.
However, the one thing I know for sure after walking alongside a cancer patient for years is that the human body and mind can bear almost anything.
As I sat with the pain of her loss and felt the anxiety build and my breath shorten, I realized I knew this feeling. It was not unfamiliar; in fact, I often felt this feeling when sitting next to my mother. This was the feeling I experienced in oncology waiting rooms waiting on results, praying for good news with clenched fists and stiff necks.
I knew I couldn't live like this and that my mom wouldn't want me to feel like this. As a Pilates instructor, I teach breathing, and when breathing becomes restricted, we tell our clients to change something, move positions, slow down, and shift perspective.
That morning, when I couldn't breathe, I decided to change my perspective. Instead of focusing on my own inability to breathe, I thought about the people who may be sitting in waiting rooms right now. I realized at that moment there were multitudes of people feeling this same suffering and pain I was experiencing, and I wondered what I could do to ease our collective pain.
I thought about what I would have wanted for my mom when we were in that situation. The answer was to be seen, reassured, and loved. Suffering is, unfortunately, universal, but it also has a universal cure that is to be seen. When we acknowledge another's suffering, we begin to heal. I believe the antidote to suffering is saying to someone I see you; I am with you; I love you.
On February 23, 2022. I wrote to my mom's oncologist and asked if I could bring in an orchid and a note for someone undergoing treatment. Later that day, I dropped off the orchid and letter, and I've been doing it on the 23rd of the month ever since. On the one-year anniversary of my mom's passing, we were able to give 80 Sugar Blooms, and today are thrilled to give 75. My mom was an active gardener and beekeeper, and I like to think of the blooms as my mom's garden of love.
Sugar Blooms are a tribute to what I have lost and what others are losing, and at the same time, they are messengers of joy, celebration, life, community, and connection. Orchids are symbols of resilience, grace, and thought to bring good luck. They are the embodiment of every cancer thriver I have ever met.
With each bloom given, we acknowledge that life is hard and it is beautiful. I recently heard a rabbi say that when you go through hell, don't leave empty-handed. Losing my mother felt like hell; some days, a cancer diagnosis feels like hell; actually, just living can feel like hell. I thought about what that rabbi said and realized I came out of hell with a sense of community and purpose.
We are creating a community of beauty and love through the Sugar Bloom Movement.
Thank you for allowing me to share our story. I hope you will enjoy the Sugar Blooms and remember we see you, we are with you, and we love you.