At Sea – Grief Reconsidered.

Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.

~John Updike

This is not a truism we consider daily.  Typically, it is reserved for the day we are handed bad tidings – the cancer diagnosis that forces us to stare down our own mortality, or when the dreaded or unexpected news arrives that someone we love is dead or dying. From that day on, everything is different; we are different, mourning for what was lost, for who we were the day before, and for what we can no longer have.

There was and is no easy remedy, no standard step-by-step process for any of us. There is no beaten path to follow from beginning to end in the art of living. The famous “stages” of grief  – Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance – are not “stops on some linear timeline.” Such places are more reminiscent of landmarks we might visit during our first or subsequent visits to another country, places we will never forget. Some we land upon by accident – the onslaught of memories that accompany the first time you see someone else drive the same make and model Chevy your husband once drove or the faint scent of his cologne on the collar of a stranger standing too close to you on the light rail. There is no way to predict when grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses or to the bathroom at work where no one will see you cry. Other trips we plan meticulously – the first anniversary of his death, the scholarship in his name, the star named after him. Others are unavoidable – Father’s Day, his birthday, the empty seat at the Christmas table, re-runs of Cheers, reminders of things that humored you or humbled you or made you laugh until you ached. And all these things, you weave into your new life. It is what you must do – at your own pace.

In my new life, the man I love is reeling from the recent passing of his dad and the stunning loss, just days later, of one of his dearest friends. Coming in such close succession, these harrowing losses remind those of us still here of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death. My daughter tells me she would like to be more supportive of him, more ‘there,’ more empathic for him and for his grieving mother who just days ago fell and has been hospitalized ever since, but my girl is not up to the task – not fully, not yet. She feels selfish as she explains her inability to step again into that space in which the recently bereaved struggle – an often desolate hole where they may wail or deny or blame or feel guilty; where they may rage at those they love the most, or where, choking on the sharp stone of grief, they might say nothing at all. It is a desperate place, where they may find they are no match for the grief, every minute a searing realization that the one person they want to talk to is out of reach. Forever.

A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.

— Joan Didion

So where in the whole world do we turn? Inward. Forward. Backwards. Forward. At our own pace.

For almost four years, my daughter tells me, her day begins not with a profound sadness but with an almost involuntary affirmation of her adjusted reality “Dad is dead. Dad is dead.”  Shredding to bits my supposition that she has found a more conventional way back, it occurs to me, in a moment of devastating clarity, that she is not the child she once was; she is a young woman who has found a new way through the ever-shifting contours of grief, no longer stuck between what was and what might have been. Worried that I am worried about her, she is quick to point out that she is not sad, this is not self-pity; it is a shift in perspective that enables her to move on in a world that never stops moving.

Immediately following news of his death, I fooled myself into believing the clocks had stopped. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn’t know what to say to myself. I concentrated on the word, “widow,” a word that a day before had not applied to me. Unmoored by loss, I recall a surreal and sunny November afternoon in the Arizona desert. My bare feet in the grass, I found myself remembering -verbatim – a passage from a short story I’d first read in my high school English class, about the anguish of Irish youngsters about to board an emigrant ship to America, not knowing how to say goodbye to the family they would never see again:

They  stood in silence fully five minutes.   Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow.   But they stood silent and sombre, like nature about them, hugging their woe.

~ from “Going into Exile” by Liam O’Flaherty.

In that moment, loss was no longer literary or abstract. It was palpable, transforming the space in which I stood into a place I no longer recognized. The trees he had planted made no sense, casting long shadows on blades of grass that would no longer flatten under his footsteps.  The mailman was delivering letters that bore his name. What should I do with them? Were the hummingbirds flitting about the honeysuckle waiting for him to feed them?  Disoriented and uncertain, I was lost in my own home, no longer confident about what might happen at three o’clock or seven o’clock. Before, I had no doubt.  Letting go of him meant letting go of the certainty of my life.

My daughter tells me she cannot feel at home in our home because its rooms have become open wounds. Her father was her first word, but she will not watch old family movies, where she could see again how he helped her say ‘daddy’ the first time, or clap her hands or take her first steps.  Nor will she go to the grocery store where he used to take her on last minute errands for me or to the Dairy Queen, where he bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. With practice, she has perfected the routines and rituals by which other people now define her, by which she now defines herself. An all-around “good kid,” she is the part-time retail worker who looks like Audrey Hepburn. Kind and interested, she is the full-time college student who never misses class and maintains a solid GPA. Circumspect and tentative, she is the one who will take the extra step to be safe. No alcohol, no drugs, no texting while driving, no speeding, no spending foolishly – no father. 

She has woven his loss into her life, learning to drive without him, striding across the stage to receive a high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears.  She is almost finished with her first two years of college, along the way earning her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that would have encouraged her to keep on being great at being herself. It is beyond her grasp that so much – and so little – time has passed and that one day it will be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since he last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store, to keep her warm.

Worried that she has worried me, she emphasizes that it is not a sadness that envelops her these days. In fact, she sometimes faces the reality of her changed life with a humor that others may find irreverent. She is no longer undone by grief. The daily reminder of her father’s death, that the saddest thing that could ever have happened has already happened reminds her that whatever happens today could not be worse. No rush hour traffic or broken air conditioner or math final or pissed off customer could be any worse. Steeled thus, the sadness locked deep within her, she goes about her days, working, studying, laughing, loving, finding joy and hope, pausing in the doorway to check on two baby birds in a nest tucked under the eaves. Signs of life – they are everywhere.

She has sought help from people in the business of helping people sort out their grief. Not entirely convinced of its usefulness yet, she balks when they tell her that to fully heal, perhaps she needs to process it more or cry more or allow herself to be really sad or go wherever there is. She does not want to dive into that dark, desolate rabbit hole. While her coping strategy may seem perverse, it is practical, a kind of acceptance. The little girl who made memories with the father who loved her is gone. In some strange ways, she tells me, it is as though she has become her father’s death. As much as his life was part of hers, so is his death.

So what do I say to those in my life who at this moment and the next and for who knows how long, will move within a landscape of private grief, perhaps seeing right in front of them only what’s missing – their altered world? What I want to tell them is that these early days are the worst, that they will learn to live within their changed world, themselves changed, but what I cannot tell them is how. There are no rules for grieving or mourning and no right way to get through it. There is your way, and there you are. 

There are certain losses you do not get past, but you incorporate them into who you are. It’s always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving.

~Joan Didion











The Man I Love Has Cancer.

The man I love has cancer. And, after months of deliberation, of decisions made and decisions overturned, he has begun treatment. Radiation treatment. Every single day. For forty more days.  With my own cancer treatment in the rear-view mirror, I thought I would just know how to help him, how and when to find the best and kindest words to lift him up, to quell the fear, to be “there” for him. Then I remind myself that the treatment of cancer is a private act with stretches of time spent in a surreal and solitary confinement. Along the way, I know I can point out some of the landmarks – detection, diagnosis, treatment, surgery, shame, depression, fatigue, fear of recurrence – but I know of no short-cuts. I know he is a stranger in a strange land.

Even if I were allowed to hold Scott’s hand during radiation therapy, while he lies perfectly still on a treatment table at the Arizona Prostate Cancer Center, he is still alone. Supine, his mind is ablaze with random thoughts ranging from the pedestrian to the philosophical. What if he sneezes? What if he dies before he sees his daughter grow up? Why in the hell did he get cancer in the first place because Goddammit he feels just fine?  What if this was a mistake?

He will try to ignore the strategically placed signs above him – “Tell Cancer it has Two Months to Live.” “Hang in There.” You never know how strong you can be until you have to be.” “Together We Can Beat This.”  Skeptical and uninspired, the man I love is an unwilling conscript in this battle.

Healthy, handsome, fit, Scott wasn’t supposed to get cancer. It was supposed to happen to someone else, someone with a family history, someone who didn’t go for routine physicals, someone who didn’t feel good – someone ‘destined’ for it. Not him. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me either. I remember once upon a time when I thought breast cancer was the thing that was supposed to happen to other people, to celebrities who grace the pages of magazines, to women who didn’t show up for their mammograms, to women with a family history. It was not supposed to happen to me.

Denial works for us, doesn’t it? It’s why we travel on airplanes. We know they might crash – but never when we are on board.

The first night we met, he told me about the cancer. Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off boxes our middle-aged online personas had created on a dating site. A musician, he told me he loved Bob Dylan and golf and taking to the road on his Harley Davidson. Regaling me with the stuff of good first impressions, he glossed over a comment about illness and aging. A dog with a bone, I pressed for details, and in a “you go first” moment, I laid my cancer card on the table. Buoyed by this, he shared that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer four months previously. He was still considering his options and assessing the damage of various treatments for prostate cancer. I had just met him, and already I knew he was bruised and alone and drowning in fear of what was in store for him. He was in the waiting place.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

~ Dr. Seuss

Just as I had known nothing about breast cancer until it happened to me, I knew nothing about prostate cancer or the details of its treatment. As evolved as we are, we still refuse to entertain certain diseases, disorders, addictions and ailments in polite conversation.  Unlike the common cold, its symptoms unapologetically made public with persistent sniffles, sneezes, loudly blown noses, and a tell-tale trail of balled-up Kleenex in its wake, the symptoms of prostate cancer can often go unnoticed, revealed only after a physician suggests a routine screening to men over 40. Such was the case with Scott, when his first digital rectal exam and PSA test indicated they should keep an eye on his prostate. There was no sense of urgency, however, and I imagine he told himself that most prostate cancers found by screening are small and insignificant. Slow-growing, they may never cause any problems. In his research, I’m sure he also found that for some men, false positive PSA results lead to painful biopsies which show that there is no cancer at all. Others will endure biopsies that find cancer, but the cancer might not grow quickly enough to be life threatening. Sometimes these cancers are unnecessarily treated with radiation or surgery accompanied by a host of side effects that nobody wants to talk about – infection, incontinence, impotence – leaving men like Scott to ponder silently their mortality and their sexuality as they contemplate their next move.

His induction into cancer country followed a brutal biopsy in October 2015. There’s no delicate way to describe the procedure during which an ultrasound probe is inserted in the rectum to help guide the long thin needles that will collect tissue samples from the prostate.  To help reduce pain, numbing gel is applied to the rectum, and an injection of Lidocaine is inserted directly into the prostate. But it’s just not enough. As his story unfolds, unvarnished and uncensored, I can’t help but drift back in time to a darkened hospital room, my physician telling me to take a deep breath, “Lidocaine going in. Little pinch.” and then a staple-gun click as the spring-loaded needle opened to take the tissue sample from my cancerous breast – four times.  In my mind’s eye, I see the kind radiologist who looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you’re here,” right before he shot three painful injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of the right breast that would be removed the next day. I wince, even now, writing about it. But what I remember most and more than the sting of those injections is the genuine kindness of that radiologist right before he administered them, and that nothing is stronger than the human heart.

Howl on.

One needle at a time, Scott tells me the urologist took 12 sliver-like pieces of tissue from his prostate. After the first one, the doctor cajoled, “That wasn’t too bad, was it?” Hyperventilating, Scott said it hurt like hell, aghast at the prospect of eleven more – eleven more – but he bore down, and he endured it, swearing to himself that he would never do it again. In the days that followed, he grew accustomed to painful urination, blood and bits of tissue in hie urine, to the indignity of it all. Then he learned that several of the specimens were pre-cancerous and that his urologist had scheduled him for another biopsy. This time would be in the hospital and under general anesthesia. This time, they would collect 36 samples. This time, they would find cancer. He was now in “the kingdom of the sick,” along with over 3,085,209 men living with prostate cancer in the United States. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates 161,360 men will join him.

For over a year, he weighed his options. He considered active surveillance which would necessitate annual biopsies such as those he had experienced prior to diagnosis. Such watchful waiting, he feared, might give the cancer a chance to grow and spread therefore limiting his treatment options later. He thought about surgery. He thought about radiation. He thought about what his urologist would do if he were in his shoes and asked him outright. He asked me what I thought. I didn’t know what to tell him other than whatever decision he would make, it would bring with it a shadow of a doubt, and he would  have to make room for that – forever.

Finally, he opted for Calypso radiation treatment. Also known as GPS for the body, it keeps radiation focused on the tumors, not the healthy surrounding tissue, thereby reducing the likelihood of side-effects.   The process begins with a procedure not unlike the dreaded biopsy, another stop on what he calls the “doctors-up-my-ass” trajectory. Lying in a fetal position, his knees to his chest, he squeezes my hand while the urologist numbs the area around the prostate, inserts the probe in his rectum, and then places three tiny electromagnetic beacons through a long, thin needle. The doctor tells him he’s doing great and that I am too. The nurse smiles, as though to affirm that this is an entirely normal scenario.  Somehow – surreally –  the urologist and I are chatting about about Ireland, his daughter’s favorite country, while Scott is squeezing my hand so tightly, I can’t feel my fingers.  It is a brief procedure and painful, but the Valium has taken just enough of the edge off. The nurse explains there might be some bleeding over the next day or two and not to be alarmed by blood in his stool or urine or the fact that his semen may appear rusty for up to 12 weeks. She tells him to avoid working out or lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds for at least three days. And off we go.

“No turning back now, baby,” he tells me as he prepares for 44 days of radiation treatment.

So he shows up – albeit reluctantly – every day at lunch-time for a dose of radiation. I’ll send him a text around 11 o’clock reminding him drink up – the goal is to drink just enough water to ensure his bladder is as full as it was the day before. This helps reduce the risk of movement and therefore the risk of other organs receiving any radiation.  In my mind’s eye, I can see him at the sink, filling his water cup with 34 ounces of water, carefully positioning the cup to conceal its Cancer Center logo from his co-workers.  I force myself to drink 34 ounces of water too, somehow believing if I also have a full bladder, I am closer to empathizing.

Obedient, silent, and perfectly still, his skin marked with three little tattoos that help ensure his body is correctly aligned in the machine, his musical ear attunes to the high pitched frequency of radiation being delivered to those three tiny electromagnetic beacons implanted in his prostate. Each of them no bigger than a grain of rice, they communicate with the Calypso system using radio-frequency waves, letting the doctor know where the tumor is at all times during the session. It is the stuff of black and white sci-fi shows he watched as a child.

Outside, I wait, crafting make-believe stories in my head about the men who are also waiting.  Once, I waited in the wrong waiting room with a trio of older men already dressed in their scrubs, and passing the time criticizing the host of a HGTV show for cheating on his wife. I liked being in their company. It brought to mind the time I taught a Freshman Composition course to a group of men at Boeing who, in spite of their tenure in the company, were required to earn a degree – reminiscent of Happy Hour in a dive bar, except for the questions, “Hey darlin’, what’s a dangling participle?”

Jovial, avuncular guys, they shoot the breeze about the weather and the Masters tournament and the cute wife of the HGTV show host. I know they know I’m in the wrong waiting room, but they don’t say anything. I know they are waiting for me to leave to they can wonder aloud about me. I must be with the new guy. As the nurse bustles in to escort me to the other waiting room, I notice there is already a cubby with Scott’s name on it and inside it, a pair of navy scrub bottoms for him to wear during radiation. Initiated, he’s the newest member of the club.  Already, he knows when it’s his turn on the treatment table. Already, he knows that it is Jim’s turn before his, and then it’s Bobby’s turn. Already, it is a routine, taking me  back to all the times I placed my clothes in a plastic “Patient Belongings Bag” and stowed them in a tiny locker outside a mammography room – to a strange time, when I was part of a strange sisterhood, where an instantaneous intimacy allowed us to talk about being poked and staged and prayed for.  I did not want to be immersed in that culture and railed against it, but it enveloped me nonetheless – as it will Scott. I tell him we are at once apart from and a part of it – from the inconsequential chatter with cheery assistants who call to confirm appointments, to confidences we feel compelled to share with those who wait with us in waiting rooms. The milk of human kindness flows in such places. 

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

Susan Sontag

But in this other place, Scott still doesn’t believe it’s happening to him, which explains why some people closest to him don’t even know about it.  Cancer pushes a lot of buttons, you see. It changes us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality. It can transform us into great pretenders, and so we distance ourselves  from those who love us most – out of fear and self-preservation, or indignation and anger about the fact that our number simply came up, or maybe out of denial and shame and all the other words that belong in the recommended self-help books that we cannot bring ourselves to read. Sometimes we don’t know what to do or say, and we might even turn our backs on the people we used to be. And then in a rare moment of clarity, we realize that’s no way to live, that something good is coming, and that love never fails.

There’s somethin’ good comin’
For you and me
Somethin’ good comin’
There has to be

~ Tom Petty



putting down roots


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Remembering summers past . . .

Lawn-mowers and leaf-blowers strike up their tune much earlier when summer arrives in the desert southwest. By the time I left for work on Monday, I noticed, with the same kind of resignation triple-digit temperatures bring every year, that the flower beds were empty, the freshly mown grass less green, and, where just weeks before long branches hung low and heavy with hot pink blooms, were almost-bare limbs exposed to the sky above our house.

I remember the uncharacteristically hot Spring day when our little family drove to a the Moon Valley nursery in search of a tree just like those which provided some shade during our weekend strolls through the Biltmore Fashion Park. At the time, this open-air mall boasted a row of what I finally learned were Hong Kong Orchids; my then three-year old loved to stand on the tips of her toes and stretch each of her piano-player fingers high into the sky, hoping to pluck one of the enticing pink blossoms that hung there, blooms I believe as worthy as lilies of Georgia O’Keefe’s attention.

So enchanted was Sophie, that she wanted such a tree for our yard. I had the perfect spot, right in front of her bedroom window, where there should be something magnificent to wake up to every morning. And, from a more practical perspective, it would fill the space previously occupied for over seven decades by a grapefruit tree that had finally given up the ghost.

Sophie was still at that tender age when she needed to and wanted to hold my hand everywhere we went – on a mission to find a stray cat in the oleanders that bordered our back yard, or a hummingbird drinking from a Mexican honeysuckle, or the pink tree that was proving to be more elusive than I had anticipated. The nursery was all out of mature orchid trees, and the saplings were wholly unimpressive. It was anti-climactic at best when at last we found, attached to a single green stalk, all of three feet tall and the width of my little finger, a price tag identifying it as the coveted Hong Kong orchid – nary a bloom just a couple of leaves drooping sadly from the top. The young man who sold it to me was very charming and assured me it would provide “all kinds of shade” for us in no time. Skeptical, we bought it anyway, and off we went.

More to appease a tired little girl and her mother, than to show off any horticultural prowess, my husband planted and staked this skinny little excuse for a tree in the vacant spot. We began tending it, and like the watched kettle, it was unresponsive to our vigilance. Then, almost magically, not unlike Sophie herself, it grew up – beautiful, independent, fragile, and alert, with a resilience that sometimes takes my breath away.

Bending and swaying just when it should, at all the right times over the past decade, her pink tree has survived scorching, record-breaking temperatures, frost, intense monsoons, and even a “haboob” that hit Phoenix when we had abandoned the heat for California’s central coast. Unfazed, it was waiting for us when we returned as if to remind us that we live and move in its shadow.

It has annually inspired a shock of petunias in the flower beds, geraniums, fragrant pink stock, freesias, and snapdragons. It even played a role in the color I chose for my front door – I had entirely too much fun mixing colors, one of which was “black raspberry” to create a complement to Sophie’s pink tree.

And as I remembered this week while reading through old scrapbooks, her Hong Kong orchid was also the inspiration behind my darling girl’s first foray into poetry for which she earned a blue ribbon and honorable mention in her grade school’s annual poetry contest.
Through all the beginnings and endings, the reminders of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death, the pink tree abides.




When Mother’s Day Falls in Ireland – A Stratagem


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I have worked in education long enough that it is not uncommon for me to encounter former students, some of whom are now married with careers and children of their own. It is always surreal to meet these adults who, just a twinkling ago, were writing in composition books about who they would become when they were all grown up. Likewise, they are incredulous to discover that I am now the mother of a daughter who is older than they were when they were my students. And equally perturbed by this scenario and all its implications, is my daughter. A delicious juxtaposition, really – my former students confronting the truth that there really was more to me than being their teacher while my daughter faces the realty that once upon a time I was not her mother, when other people’s children took up most of my time and who thought I was hip with great taste in clothes, music, and hair.

And, long before that, there was another time when I was as young as she, sitting in my childhood kitchen, my mother at the ironing board telling me, “Daughter dear, the world is your oyster.”  And perhaps to charm me out of my ennui, she would add, “sure, don’t you have the heart of a lion?”

Non-plussed, I dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. But ma was all of these . . .

She is far away this weekend, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in my Phoenix kitchen, stretched taut on milestone moments like Mother’s Day. A phone call or a visit on Facebook will help close the distance between us, me falling easily into the comforting colloquialisms of home, but it will not be the same.

The sea is wide, but it takes only a second to transport me back to our house on the Dublin road. My brother’s not home from school yet, and there’s ma, leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind me to consider the lilies, to “mark her words” that there will be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. Implicit in her explicit admonishment not to wish my life away, was the fact that she was not wishing my life away.

Mostly, she struck an artful balance between shielding me from the world while empowering me to find the voice to explore its realities. But not all the time, especially not when I was in the throes of adolescent boredom, my eyes rolling to the heavens in response to the kind of home-spun wisdom I never thought I would miss.

“Don’t you know not to be wasting your money on a card? And the price of them . . . ” she’ll say, even though I know she loves to hear the tell-tale flap of an envelope falling through the letter box.  And even though a cousin reminded me a week ago on Facebook with a smiley face and a wink, that I had a week to buy a card, and even though I marked it on my phone calendar, I ran out of time.

The inconvenient truth is that reminders of the American Mother’s Day won’t pop up in emails from Teleflora or showy Hallmark displays in the grocery store or at the carwash until after the Irish Mother’s Day has passed.  In Ireland, Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent thereby falling on a different date every year. In America, Mother’s Day arrives each year on the second Sunday in May – after St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter, Administrative Professional’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Nurse’s Day. I once had a strategy to cope with this annual conundrum – outsmarting the calendar with the clever purchase of two Mother’s Day cards in May – one as a sort of consolation prize for possibly having forgotten the Irish Mother’s Day, the other for the subsequent March. It is a brilliant plan, except it rarely works, because I will put the card away for safe-keeping, in other words I will lose it amongst bills and all the other papers I need for the Tax Filing Deadline Day in April which, naturally, is sandwiched between the two Mother’s Days (but after my birthday which sometimes coincides with Easter)- along with all the aforementioned holidays that someone has kindly listed on the Greeting Card Universe website.

Having also missed the deadline for same-day delivery of flowers, I will instead take my mother back with me to an enduring childhood memory. Scrubbed clean and uncomfortable in our Sunday best and with all the other children, we are proceeding in a crooked line up the aisle of Antrim’s All Saints Parish Church, to collect from a beaming Reverend Thornton a single fresh flower to give to our watchful, waiting mother.

Happy Mother’s Day, ma.

And thank you. It all makes sense now. Just when you thought you didn’t need to watch over me anymore, you are right back where you started in 1963 – wishing only the best for your baby girl.