Four Years of Evolution

Four years ago, my sister and I numbly went through the motions of opening several months worth of Mom’s mail on Mother’s Day, just days after she completed her life.

Four years ago I was in shock, bewildered and bereft.

Four years ago seems like a lifetime ago, and the woman who cried her way through the Summer, Fall and Winter, and then wrote her way through the Spring and ultimately “meditated” herself back to life is the same woman who calmly sits at her keyboard preparing to end this blog that was once so vital to her emotional survival.

Four years of evolution.

What has changed? Mostly, my perspective, but more specifically, almost everything.

Four years ago I lived in Manhattan with my love, Gary Smoot. I was still new to Vedic Meditation. I was performing musical theatre; a lifelong passion. Even though I understood that parents can leave you too soon after my dad died in ’09, I still was not totally prepared for the graphic realism of caring for my mom during the final month of her life.

Four years later I no longer live in Manhattan, but rather Los Angeles, a move inspired by the illness and eventual death of my love, Gary Smoot (yes, three years almost to the day after my mom completed her life). I am not only an experienced Vedic Meditator, but I am now credentialed to teach Vedic Meditation after spending several months in India with my teacher, Thom Knoles. Now I have two passions, theatre arts and teaching meditation. Even though caring for Gary for the final months of his life has been my greatest challenge to date, I had the emotional tools to lovingly and cheerfully advocate for him while also taking care of myself. This significant achievement I credit to my meditation practice.

So there you have it. Four years of change, but how have I evolved? My perspective through it all continues to root itself in the knowledge that I haven’t “lost” Mom and Gary, but rather I have gained invaluable life experience that they are still very much a part of. I don’t wither when Mother’s Day approaches, I celebrate, because Mom continues to be a presence in my life whether it’s her voice in my head, or the looks and gestures of my family, even in my own reflection, there she is. My love for Gary continues to grow as I recognize the countless gifts he’s given me, whether it’s a conscious activation of my child-like wonder in his honor, or trying something new that I think he would enjoy. Gary is with me always as I promised him he would be. And as I prepare to open myself up to new romantic love and new adventures with a special someone, I know that Gary is my advocate as much as I am his. Anyone who falls in love with me gets the special bonus of falling in love with Gary, too. That’s the deal.

If you haven’t had four years to process the death of your mom, I’m so sorry that you’re still in that tender place. I remember it well and I think I know how you feel. I encourage you to be very sweet and understanding with yourself at this time.

While I can no longer sustain a blog dedicated solely to feelings about my mom, I have a new blog that I’m very proud of. You are welcome to visit and subscribe to Pilot Light Blue, the blog portion of my studio where I’ll be exploring the idea of “accessing joy even during challenging times.”

My experience with grief has been my greatest teacher and I’d love to share my explorations and discoveries with you.

All my love to you this Mother’s Day and every day.


Buffy Slays Grief

On the twenty-year anniversary of Joss Whedon’s phenomenal series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s all over Twitter in #buffyslays20, the various ways in which Buffy saved many of our lives. Either by encouraging young girls and women to be kick-ass, or by featuring a lovable and powerful gay character, or it’s deep exploration of grief, there are countless ways the series empowered the viewer. 

In my book, I’m Sorry About Your Mom, due out this May, I devote a chapter to Buffy and the gang; it was my go-to comfort during the most challenging time of my life grieving the death of my mom who incidentally ***Spoiler Alert*** had a brain tumor just like Joyce (Buffy’s mom who dies of an aneurism in season five). I wrote this chapter in response to scientists linking binge-watching TV to depression. 

Here is an excerpt:

A couple of weeks after Mom died I was still at my sister’s house taking care of important matters. My sister and brother-in-law had to leave the country for work so it was just me and my awesome niece, Harley. We had work to do. I had boxes and boxes of Mom’s papers to shred and I thought it would be more fun if we watched a TV show while we did it. I don’t know which one of us suggested it but it was decided that we would watch Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series from the beginning.

I was hooked ! Harley, an eccentric student at a prominent art college at the time and one of the most seriously fun people I know, had already watched all seven seasons but was more than happy to experience me watching them for the first time. We’d watch five or six episodes in a row while shredding documents. I started dreaming of Buffy and vampires and Sunnydale and liked it! Talk about escapes; what could be more important than saving the world from being destroyed by the demons of the Hell Mouth?

After binge-watching two seasons of Buffy with Harley, it was time to return to my real life in New York. I vowed to keep watching and keep her posted about where I was in the storyline. She warned me that Season 5 was very sad and might hit a little too close to home but I was on a mission to see Buffy, Xander, Willow, and my new fictional crushes, Giles and Spike, defeat all of the dark and sinister forces in this world and the underworld!

For a couple of months every night my boyfriend and I would have dinner first and then Buffy. This was really abnormal behavior for Gary and me who rarely spent evenings watching TV, but I needed it. I don’t say that lightly.

I needed it.

I was selling a house long distance while writing obituaries and calling hospitals and banks. I was back to work in my career which is by nature very emotional and vulnerable stuff. I had an album release concert coming up and a workshop for a new musical. I was missing my mom every second of the day and needed her advice and wisdom. I was in escrow and in rehearsal. I was almost out of money because I’d paid for hospital bills and Mom’s funeral out of my own pocket because the bank was taking its time releasing her funds. I was talking to lawyers and real-estate agents, Home Owners’ Associations and title companies. My head was spinning and my heart was broken. I needed to see Buffy kick the crap out of those vampires. I needed Willow’s adorable smile and Xander’s goofy jokes. I needed Giles’ wisdom and comfort and I needed Spike for the same reasons that any girl needs a boy named Spike in her life.

I’ll admit I was Buffy-obsessed. I couldn’t wait until after dinner so I could cuddle on the couch with Gary and witness some awesome vampire slayage. I was emotionally raw and sometimes numb. In my mind, I was Buffy and her friends were my friends and her problems were my problems and her boyfriend was my boyfriend (and I don’t mean Angel, I definitely mean Spike).

After a couple of months, all seven seasons were devoured by yours truly. Buffy was over and I was kind of glad. I didn’t want the commitment anymore. Just like saving the world over and over again became a burden for Buffy, watching Buffy became a burden for me. I was healing and moving forward with my grief. I didn’t need the escape anymore. I needed to live my life.

Don’t get me wrong—I loved that whole series. I did feel a sense of loss and emptiness when it was over. I was putting down my crutch and I wasn’t going to see my “friends” anymore. I was ready to move on and live in my reality.

So, yes, wonderful scientists in Texas who have our best interests at heart, I’ll acknowledge that binge-watching TV is most definitely a sign of depression or, in this case, depression, escapism, and “denial,” but I don’t think that all binge-watching is bad. I think it might be really bad if I were still doing it all these months later, but for a couple of months after a traumatic experience?  Seems like a reasonable amount of time for television escapism.

Besides the escapism, one excellent thing came out of my obsessing over Buffy. I started going to a cardio kickboxing class where I pretend that the punching bags are vampires… just in time for my “Angry” phase.

[End of excerpt.]

So there you have it. Buffy saved my life like she did for so many others. Happy 20th Anniversary. If you are interested in reading my book, I’m Sorry About Your Mom, please follow me here on WordPress or find me on twitter at @jameyhood.


Ashes in Wales

Spreading your loved one’s ashes can be a dreaded “grim task” as my dear friend, Aaron Gandy, writes in his account of taking some of his mother’s cremains to Wales. Despite this fact, he shares a beautiful and stirring story of how a persistent beach wind set both his mother and himself free. 

Please enjoy the following excerpts from the account he wrote for his family as he flew back over the ocean from Wales to his home in New York.

“Barry is a port town, and on the other side of the port is a finger of land called Barry Island, on which sits a faded Victorian-era seaside amusement park.  Barry and Barry Island have fallen on hard times (maybe they never had soft times), but in its heyday, working-class families from Cardiff would train down to Barry Island on the same train I took, and enjoy the sun and surf.   There’s cotton candy, arcades, fish & chips stands, kiddie rides, just like Coney Island.  On the far side of the beach is a point of land sticking out into the sea, effectively bookending the beach.  I climbed to the top, and beyond that saw a very wide tidal basin, through which the sea would go and come with the tides.  This was the mouth to Old Barry Harbor, once a hive of boats, but all that’s sitting there now are abandoned trawlers, rusting away.  When the tide goes out, a large flat sandy beach is revealed at the mouth of the harbor, which is popular with ball players, dog walkers and Frisbee enthusiasts.  I had discovered it on a low-tide day, and it was bursting with people.  Beyond is yet another point of land, more remote and set apart.  Although it had a green top, it was surrounded on the ocean side with great rocky outcroppings.  Hardly anyone went that far from the attractions.  There’s a trail to the very top, and up there sits a bench, facing the majestic sea.  The wind on top is constant and salty, but sweet smelling, too.  You can see for miles in every direction. I hadn’t planned where I’d spread the ashes, but once I sat on that bench, I knew this was the place.  I had barely removed the lid from the bottle when the wind seized the ashes at the top, and carried them straight to sea.  It took my breath away.  I barely had to tip the bottle at all.  The wind scooped them all out, as if it were eager to have them.  Or as if she were eager to fly.”

“I was struck by the wind’s determined behavior.  It was just as if the wind knew the contents of that bottle were its to take.  I suppose I imagined putting her ashes in the sea, but this was far better. The bottle was empty in a flash.”  

“I descended to the mudflat, and as I walked back across it, a mini windstorm arose, just ankle high.  It came from the direction of the bench, pressing at my back, urging me along.  Airborne rivulets of sand wisped around me, almost frenzied in their excitement to go.  I could hear a quiet, high-pitched tone from the sand, as if the wind and the sand, together, had found a key to sing in.  It was pushing me forward, like a hand on my back.  It was unexpected, and magical, and utterly remarkable. The wind took me across the wide sandy flat, singing the whole way, aiming straight for the other shore.  When I climbed up the opposite bank, it ceased, content that I’d made it, I suppose.”

“Sometime around Christmas I resolved to return to Wales and release the remainder of my third of the ashes.  That opportunity came this summer, almost a year to the day of my first visit to Wales.  I can think of no more fitting place for them, and I didn’t dread the journey this time (quite the opposite). I’m just now returning from UK where I spent 4 days in Wales visiting Cardiff, Swansea, Tenby, the Pembroke Coast, and finally Aberystwith.  Although I didn’t conceal the ashes this time (turns out you can legally fly with cremains), I trekked again to that same bench on the rocky point.  The wind was calmer this time, and I suppose I was, too.  That’s OK.  It felt good to scatter the remainder of my ashes on that same spot.  I sorta missed that strong, singing wind, but it’ll be back, no doubt. Now, as I type on the plane to NY, it’s nice to imagine I have a tailwind pushing me home again, toward whatever’s next.  I’m almost certain there’s some ash in it, too.”

I’m so grateful to Aaron for sharing this story with me and for allowing me to share it with you. Hearing the stories of others has helped me cope with the death of my mom on more days than I can count. My hope is that we can use our stories to help heal each other and remove the isolation that so often accompanies our grief and replace it with loving community.


Ghost Light

Have you ever had the opportunity to be the last person in a theatre? I don’t mean the last one in the audience. I mean, it’s your job to turn out all the lights and lock all the doors. 

It’s magical. It’s magical and…terrifying. 

I was recently trying to describe the last month of my mother’s illness to a friend and this analogy came pouring out of me as if it had been patiently resting in my head yet poised to illuminate when the right time arose. 

The tumor in my mom’s brain systematically shut down her body and functions much like the way one would shut down a theatre at the end of a night.

From the stage manager’s booth you shut off all of the stage lights; the special instruments that light the stage and the players who were dazzling the audience with a one of a kind never to be repeated performance only hours ago. 

Next, the house lights get turned off. Suddenly, the space that was warm and inviting is now lit by the clunky inelegant overhead instruments; fluorescent lights that hang above the grid and give the space a sort of stark industrial look. 

The room is altered now and hardly resembles a performance space anymore, but it’s still your theatre.

Here’s the magical/terrifying part. 

Most often in my experience the switch for the work lights is backstage. Mind you, you’ve already turned off the grid and the house lights and all of the lights in the dressing rooms and backstage. Once you hit this switch, you will be in total darkness in a windowless room. 

Work lights out. Darkness. 

What happens in the darkness I can only describe as an electrifying wash of energy that is so powerful that I’m not ashamed to share that I have hightailed it out of a darkened theatre many times like a cat who’s been spooked. 

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to know that theatres are in fact haunted. 

It’s not necessarily supernatural. It’s energy. 

Even though all of the lights were turned out in my mom so to speak, I could feel her energy. Stronger than ever. She was still Nancy, but more Nancy than I had ever experienced previously. Somehow with the lights out, I was getting to know a sort of unbounded version of my mom.

Magical and terrifying. 

In the theatre world, there is a tradition which involves an instrument called a “ghost light.”

A ghost light is brought out to the stage at the end of the night, usually from the wings. She stands center stage, a long staff with a caged bulb perched on top, and is meant to shine through the night until the next performance. 

There are lots of stories about why it is called a ghost light and what it’s purpose is. Some say to keep mischievous ghosts away while the players are absent. 

Other more practical reasons involve making sure the last one out and the first one in can see enough not to fall into the orchestra pit. 

If I were smart, I’d have turned the ghost light on before turning the work lights off. But then, I’d never know what that wild unbounded energy feels like and may not have recognized it with my mom. The lights were out, but believe me, she was still there. 

Happy Mother’s Day

I received my very first Mother’s Day card today even though I am not in fact a mom!

A very thoughtful sweetie I work with knows how much I love and miss my mom and so presented me with a Mother’s Day inspired note with the most perfect words! 

Well, that lovely colleague of mine gave me an idea. By all means, if you have a mom that is living, call her or send her a card if you like her, but I want to give YOU a Mother’s Day card this year! Here it goes:

Happy Mother’s Day, friend!

Our moms gave us life and therefore; I’m super glad you’re here. Whether you’re a mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother, I bet you either know a great mom or are a great mom.

Good for you! Good for all of us!

Love and kisses to you and all the great moms who are here, there and everywhere.

Xoxo, j

A Most Pleasant and Tender Heartache

The accompaniment for “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” swells under the capable hands of the pianist. We’ve been reading and singing through the entire score and are very near the end and although I’m seated with a binder in a rehearsal room in Manhattan with the cast and crew of the China tour of My Fair Lady, I’m transported to my childhood where my parents still live, love and have a marvelous collection of musical theatre LPs.

This unexpected time travel grabs my heart and as my face grows hot, tears spring into my eyes, but I’m not sad. It’s a pleasant and tender heartache, and it’s perfectly “loverly.

Steven and Nancy met and fell in love in drama class at Tempe High School in the 1960’s. Musical theatre courses through my veins and pumps my heart with show tunes. Our household was filled with musical theatre references, impromptu performances and vinyl; all the musicals I could ever want to discover just waiting in their dusty sleeves to be chosen.

Often, my choice was My Fair Lady. My index finger would find the lavender sleeve and carefully pluck it out from between The Music Man and Oliver. Even in the 1980’s, this record felt old, so I carefully slid the black vinyl out from its dust jacket and gingerly placed the record on the turn table. Now, here’s where the real choosing came in; do I place the needle at the very beginning or do I go directly to “Loverly?” Tough choices for a ten year old.

I couldn’t listen to the album without thinking of my dad who in high school had played the cockney rascal, Alfie Doolittle. My mom would tell stories of how he brought the house down with “Get Me to the Church On Time,” and I’d listen in wonder at what it might feel like to be the performer delighting an audience.

I’d watched the movie version of My Fair Lady with my mom at least half a dozen times and couldn’t help noticing her vague resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. We’d laugh and cry at all the right parts and I felt such communion with her. My church became musical theatre; my place of worship wherever show tunes were being sung.

After twenty years in show business, I’m finally listening to My Fair Lady not on vinyl, but live and in person and from within it. I get to help tell this story that I fell in love with all those years ago. I get to be one of the performers.

When the first few chords of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” filled the rehearsal hall I knew instantaneously that I was exactly where I was supposed to be doing exactly what I was meant to do and I have my parents to thank for that. How could I know in my ten year old heart that someday  I would be in New York rehearsing this glorious musical and touring it in China? I couldn’t have known, but I dreamed. And even though in my dream my parents were certainly still living, the fact that they showed up to my rehearsal in spirit is enough to make my tender aching heart sing.


The Value of Sharing Your Story

A year ago today I wrote my first blog entry for I’m Sorry About Your Mom called This Time Last Year. Pressing the “publish” button was terrifying. What will people think? How will they react? Will sharing my story about grief make them uncomfortable? I already felt depressed and unstable, so the risk of becoming a pariah with the taboo subject of grief bankrupting my social standing was another worry to keep me awake at night.

A calm other voice in my head, a higher version of myself if you will, gave me permission to dare.

What happened was beautiful. Besides the lovely outpouring of condolences from friends who did not know that my mom had died and the encouragement from them and some strangers, too, to please share more, there came the private messages; these were the heart of the result of publishing, the reason my higher self said, “share.”

Grief though universal can be isolating. Sharing my story helped others who were hurting reach out to me to share their experience with losing their moms in a more private setting. We had so much in common. We were on our separate journeys, but we were not in fact, alone.

The more open I’ve become about sharing my experience, not only in this forum, but in conversation as well, the more I’ve gotten to hear the stories and experiences of others. This in turn has helped me better understand my journey and how to exercise compassion for myself and others. It’s gorgeously reciprocal.

I want to thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share my stories. But more importantly, thank you for sharing yours!

Whether in private or in public, hearing your story gave me so much comfort and relief. 

If sharing my story has become an offering of comfort and relief, then I couldn’t be more proud. Here’s to another strong year of I’m Sorry About Your Mom!

Butterfly Kisses

Has a butterfly ever landed on you?

I couldn’t answer that question in the affirmative until a little less than two years ago. I was sitting in the gorgeous park near my home on a lovely Spring day. I had a giant packet of papers in my lap; the materials I had to go over as a result of my play being chosen as an official selection in the New York International Fringe Festival. With a yellow highlighter in hand I was soaking up sun while soaking up this dense, albeit helpful, information.

Ever a chewer on writing utensils, I brought the highlighter up to my mouth like a neon cigar just as a monarch butterfly decided that my hand needed pollinating. Imagine how close my hand was to my face at that moment. Imagine staring at this beautiful creature inches from your nose.

“Hello.” I whispered, but with the familiar intonation I had always reserved for Nancy, my mom, who had died almost a year before.

We just looked at each other in stillness. Not wanting to exaggerate a story that needs none, I’d say about ninety seconds went by before she took off in flight to do what butterflies do on perfect spring days.

And like I was meeting a Queen, the Dalai Lama, or some other holy figure, I kissed my own hand with such reverence that I could imagine the squirrels taking pause, the birds observing silence and the flowers bowing in their beds.


You Will Always Be Her Little Girl

“Hey, little girl, you look sad.”

You’re taller than her but somehow you’re looking up into her face.

Her wisdom and compassion create a sacred space around the two of you on this bustling main street glistening with fresh soft rain and reflecting twinkling lights.

For now, you and her only.

She is magic, you know.

“You look beautiful, but sad.”

The hood of her raincoat frames her face and you can’t help but notice how beautiful she is.

“I am a little sad, Mom, but I’m okay.”

She smiles and sends you a silent message with her eyes that says,

“You were meant to be better than okay. You’re my little girl and your happiness is all the world to me. Go find it!”

You receive the message loud and clear.

With a deep breath the sacred space is released and the world rushes in.

You head toward your castle and chugging along on an old steam train you howl like wolves and then howl with laughter in the pitch blackness.

Although you are freezing cold and more than a little damp, the ride is thrilling.

You couldn’t have known that this would be the last time you’d ever see the full bloom of her happiness.

You couldn’t know how deeply sad and alone she would become.

You couldn’t know that a few short years later that you would look into those eyes one last time and exchange the same silent message of love.

You might feel that you owe it to her to find your happiness.

Her voice in your head prompts you and you obey, because even though you are a woman,

You will always be her little girl.

“Go find it!”