This House of Love


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Nine Years Later

When I was pregnant with Charlotte someone in the Starbucks line imparted a piece of wisdom to me. This is a frequent occurrence during pregnancy – advice, words of wisdom, warnings, congratulations – strangers offer them all.  Few are gems, but for some reason this woman’s words still echo through my mind to this day, four years later. Perhaps it was the fact that she was toting two little ones, her hair was askew, and her smile was both defeated and effervescent at the same time. It’s possible that I recognized a future soul sister in her. It could be that I was hungry for guidance and support. Whatever the reason, I listened. And even though I often forget what I’m saying mid-sentence, or even more frequently return from the grocery store with half the things I need and double the things I want, this phrase embedded itself in my brain. Presumably forever.

“The days are long, but the years are short,” she had said kindly yet frankly. I committed the line to memory as we continued to banter light-heartedly. As I mentioned, I will have had hundreds of run-ins with people by the end of both of my pregnancies. But, this one. This one clearly felt different.

Eventually, as those first months of sleep deprivation and hormonal rollercoaster rides melted away, and I dug myself out of the trench that is the transition from pregnancy to postpartum, life went on. At both a snail’s pace and break neck speed. My days often felt undeniably (and oddly) long AND short; I spent them mourning the loss of the family I grew up with, no matter how dysfunctional it may have been, while trying to balance the creation of a new one. I was happy and sad. And then I was pregnant again. Charlotte soon turned two. Adam arrived. My daughter started school. She was quickly out of diapers, and he was sitting up. The next thing I know my kids are three and a half and eight months, and my heart has octupled in size.

And within the proverbial blink of an eye, the tragic calendar count I have been conducting amidst all of life’s curveballs gets much closer to a decade than to any other convenient measure of time. Nine years to be exact. Nine years since Mom was killed. If you had asked me to write about my life that day in Starbucks four years ago, my reflection would have been much different. I was so fractured then. Despite having found love, buying a home, working steadily, and being pregnant, I was slogged down by sadness. I was in the deepest pit of grief still, attempting to crawl my way out. My stance was that the woman who had given me life, only to have hers selfishly taken away, was missing out on all these events that she had begun dreaming of the moment I was born. It felt so wrong to rejoice without her. So, as my life continued on an uptrend, as did the difficulty of moving on.

But now, as we approach this ninth “anniversary” of Mom’s death, it is clear to me that this extra time passed has helped to heal a good deal of my wounds, and that my frame of mind is evolving. It is true that some days I still spend a little sadder than others. I catch myself standing at the edge of the gaping hole that grief always leaves behind in its wake, teetering between the me that is present in all my current love and slipping back into the me that is rooted in my painful past. But what also remains true, and what I often remind myself of, is that I have lived nine whole years since Mom died. Within those nine years I met the love of my life. A stubborn, handsome, funny, incredibly loving, supportive, relentless, nutty man whom Mom would have loved. We moved a bunch of times, sold a home, bought one. We planned our dream wedding. We honeymooned. We made babies that we adore more than life itself. We live our lives every day, not loving every moment, but valuing each one. We have done all these things, and despite the sadness I felt amidst many of them, I often look back with so much fondness. These are the highlights of my life. They would have been the highlights of my mother’s as well. She would never want my happiest recollections to be so tainted.

Thus, if my grief, heartbreak and *parenthood* have taught me anything, it’s that every moment matters. So, as I begin this tenth year without my mom, I choose to reflect on that wise saying a nice lady in Starbucks once shared with me. “The days are long, but the years are short.” Why should I waste these precious minutes scarred and jaded, when they will so rapidly weave together to create the fabric of my whole lifetime? This annual commemoration  (also conveniently always “celebrated” around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I vow to try my best to be content in every beautiful, poop, tear, and laughter-filled moment I’m gifted with. Because before I know it, the days of my live will morph into years. And I’m planning on filling mine with more than enough happiness for both Mom and me.

 

 


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Where Does Hatred Come From?

A quick disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on this subject. I have no impressive degree from an Ivy League school. However, I grew up in a household in which one of three of its members was filled with a hatred so compelling it sparked violence. Thus, Id like you to consider my theory on the subject as a result of a twenty-two year case study.  So, why did my brother come out the way he did?

I am a firm believer that no one is born with the desire to hurt others. We, as humans, naturally need each other to survive. Some of us may be more genetically inclined to be aggressive, but our relationship with others is purely social. So, why is it that some can ruthlessly murder others while others dedicate their lives to improving society? I believe the difference is simple: attachment.

I have been told Jesse seemed “different” as early as the age of three. This was the age my father left our family. This was the same year I was born. The same year my mother was forced to become a single mother. All of these factors would change someone. I have a child who is now three. I feel the incredibly strong attachment we have to each other – if I left her now, I am sure it would effect her infinitely. It would cause a little piece of her to disappear – her confidence, stability, and feeling of security in the world would lessen.

But would it cause her to hate others indefinitely? To lash out and desire to hurt people? I don’t believe so. But, imagine the pain she would feel if she was faced with several other experiences similar to this. Times when other people abandoned her or let her down. The more isolation she feels, the less empathy she would possess. This was my brother’s case.

He was short, he was teased, he was never really accepted by his classmates. He was ostracized for characteristics that were out of his control. He had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome as a young child, his tics making him seem even less “normal” than he already was. His behavior became more deviant as time went on, as his laundry list of diagnoses increased. He began to get into fights at school. He was angry and volatile. His school did nothing; this was not in the hyper-sensitive days of late. Back then it was “kids will be kids,” and “Do you think he’s cut out for school? Maybe he should get his CHSPE.”

So, in short, as he entered young adulthood and attempted to find connections, everyone but my mother told him he wasn’t worth the trouble. Mom believed in him infinitely. She knew he was capable of so much more than what people had begun to expect of him. The pressure to meet my mother’s standards despite everyone else’s grew too much for him, and he attempted suicide. Twice. As a middle schooler, I watched the trials that both my mom and brother were going through. I watched society tell her what she was doing wrong. I watched society tell him how much less value he held because he was different, and how he ought to behave to fit in.  It was nearly unbearable for me to witness; I cannot even begin to conceive how hard it was for both of them.

And after twenty-five years of being told he was different, feeling little connection to those around him, and being attached to nothing but his desire to make people feel as little as he had all his life, Jesse killed my mom. But, quite often people like Jesse hurt strangers. They pack their cars with guns and their minds with plans, and execute others while they’re at school, sitting in movie theaters, or celebrating their freedom. Because people like Jesse, who have never really attached to anyone soundly, often feel the need to show others just how awful this isolation can feel. That’s where the hatred comes from.

So, what can we do to change this? The solution does not lie in any one person’s control. It is not solely our government’s job to outlaw guns. It is not only about how a parent has failed their deviant child. It’s less about guns and parenting, and more about love. Whether you’re Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Islamic, Atheist or Greek Orthodox, our duty as humans is to help others. To open our hearts to others and aide those in pain and in need. Allowing people to feel part of the human race or tribe, rather than an anomaly or a member of a smaller, less important faction, that is what will end the hatred.

As the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing, “Red black or white, This is my fight, Come on courage, Let’s be heard, Turn feelings, Into words.” Let’s start a dialogue that allows the pained to be heard and the isolated to feel accepted. Then, and only then, will we see the hatred begin to melt away. And until we can open our hearts, stay safe, everyone.

 


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“And Justice for All”

*As seen in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America*

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let  faith
be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.”

~Maya Angelou

      The sound of the helicopters reverberated against the mountains, filling the
canyon with a deafening noise. It was almost one in the morning, but the normally quiet
streets were bustling. I was standing outside my house, tears streaming down my face. I had been crying for hours, but it felt like a minute; I had no concept of time. Earlier that night, I had returned home from work to find my mother lifeless. She had been killed during a heated argument with a family member and her killer had fled, leaving me to find the grisly scene.
In those excruciating hours, friends and family arrived and filled our suburban
street. I cannot recall everyone who showed up; their faces meld together in my mind like
a collage of love. All I know is that I eventually made my way to a neighbor’s home; the
owners were longtime friends of my mother’s, and they had graciously opened their
doors to the circus outside.
I sat on their couch, being comforted and awkwardly hugged by people coming in
and out. They said all the right things, but their words sounded empty and my heart ached
too much to believe them. Eventually, a man I had never seen before entered the room
and sat down with the crowd that had gathered.
“Hi Amy. My name is Detective Michael Valento,” he began. “I’m here to bring
you and your mother justice.”
Justice. It sounded like such a familiar concept, one I had been brought up to
believe was around every corner in America. Our country was built on justice and
fairness… but nothing about that night seemed just or fair to me. Despite fully knowing
its meaning, in that moment I couldn’t fathom ever feeling that justice had been served.
My mother could not be brought back to life.
“Th-thank you,” I replied. I didn’t know what else to say.
A few months later, Detective Valento was a regular part of my life. Our phone
calls became an almost weekly occurrence. Each time we spoke Mike vowed that he
would do everything in his power to ensure my mother’s killer would be sent to prison as
expeditiously and as permanently as possible. I believed him at the time, but as the
months wore on, and the number of hearings grew, I lost hope.
Despite my emotional struggle, I grew to know and care for Mike. He was a kind,
gentle man with a heart of gold. His intentions were of the purest, and he symbolized the
hope I once had. He was a wonderful advocate. He continued to call me often, checking
in to see if I was okay, asking how my wedding plans were going, updating me on
everything that was happening.
Alas, the months turned into years, and very little happened. Justice and the
American way were not prevailing. My hope morphed into anger. I was angry my
mother’s killer hadn’t been accorded his punishment. I was angry my mother was gone. I
was angry that a system I had been reared to respect was so clearly failing. My mother’s
murderer was playing the system, and he was getting away with it. Or so I thought.
One particularly hard day, nearly four years after my mother’s death, I came close
to losing it. I had been in court all day and I was mentally, as well as physically, drained.
Mike had been in court with my fiancé and me, sitting by our sides the entire time. I
turned to him and pleaded, “When will this end? Why is he being protected? Why hasn’t
he been convicted? Life needs to go on.”
Mike thought carefully for a moment. He looked at me kindly and said, “I know it
doesn’t seem like it, but this is all for you and for your mother. You have to understand
that our legal system, although at times seemingly imperfect, is protecting you. If we
didn’t cover all of our bases right now he could appeal and possibly be free one day. So,
for now, we must be patient. I know it’s hard, but in America good things come to those
who wait.” Again, my heart was so heavy I couldn’t quite grasp his words, but this time I
accepted the situation. I waited patiently for another year.
Five years and two days after my mother’s murder, a judgment was delivered. My
brother was given a sentence of fifteen years to life. I was as relieved as I could be.
Justice had finally been served and I could begin to repair my own life, which had been
shattered that horrific night. I remember as we fled the courtroom for one final time,
Mike had leaned in for an embrace.
After our hug he pulled back and said, “See. I told you all would be right in the
end.”
At that moment my heart filled with warmth that it had not felt for a while,
warmth ignited by someone who had been a complete stranger a few years ago. This
man, despite knowing nothing of the content of my character, dedicated a large portion of
his life to fight so I could regain control of mine. Mike’s actions showed me the
camaraderie and strength America instills in its citizens. His upstanding dedication to his
country and position of service helped change my life for the better.
Detective Mike Valento of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
exemplifies everything that is right in our country and with our police force. And
although there is no reason left to carry on a relationship with him, my adoration, respect,
and gratitude for him will never diminish. For, it’s men and women like Mike who gave
me my strength, hope, and life back, and I can never be thankful enough.

~A.B. Chesler

An Open Letter to my Deceased Mother

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Dear Mom,

Our New Year is a time for reflection, which naturally leads me to think of you. But this specific holiday always proves to be doubly difficult; all special occasions are a little less joyous without you, but this exact day marks the seventh “anniversary” of your death.

I’m in utter disbelief that it’s been seven years since we’ve last spoken, hugged, or laughed with each other. When I was little, I couldn’t have imagined experiencing any of life’s surprises without you. Seven years ago, my biggest concern was whether I wanted to walk at my college graduation or not. Then you were killed and the moments I had mapped out in my head dissolved in an instant. My feet, once firmly planted on the ground, were quickly swept out from under me.

The last seven years have passed through my fingers like grains of sand. I met the love my life, and you weren’t there to give me your blessing. I got married, but you weren’t there to walk me down the aisle. I was pregnant, and you weren’t there to assuage my fears. I gave birth, but you weren’t there to cheer me on in the delivery room. I have yet to see you hold my daughter, be proud of me for a recent job well done, or even harp on me for having so many cats. Life has seemed rather lackluster because my personal cheering section is missing its loudest fan.

This seems to be the hardest part of losing a parent. I once lived my life wanting to make you proud and happy. I wanted to show you the fruits of your labor, to prove to you that you had accomplished greatness via my undertakings, too. But with you gone, I often find myself feeling lost, as I imagine many people who have experienced loss do.

But I know you, and the last thing you would want me to do is ruminate on the proverbial glass being half empty. Instead, you would be spouting wisdom and words of advice that could soothe any soul. You were a teacher through and through; I learned so much from you in the twenty-two short years I was given with you. But, this Rosh Hashanah I take time to reflect upon the much richer, more valuable lessons that I gained from your absence:

I’ve learned that everything is an opportunity for growth. I’ve learned that life is far too short to live it with anything but love in your heart. I’ve learned that worrying about life will do two things: 1) give me wrinkles, and 2) preoccupy me when I should be enjoying this crazy ride. But most importantly, even though I may feel an absence so painful my heart literally quivers, I’ve learned that you will never truly be gone. Every time I think of you, I am enabling you to live on. Each time I tell my daughter a story about you or share with her how much I love you, you’re persisting.

I wish I could give you a big hug and tell you, “I love you,” but instead I’ll share with Charlotte all the ways you have changed my life. Hence, you will change her life and every generation to come. I will continue to share this with her on a daily basis. And then I’ll never really have to say “Goodbye.” In its place I’ll be sending you a big, fat “Thank you.”

Love forever & always with all of my heart,

Amy Chesler

(your daughter)

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Trash Bags from Heaven

Not a single day goes by that I don’t miss my mom. I wish that she had had the chance to meet my daughter. But that’s impossible, because she died five and a half years before she was born. Those five and a half years were full of both despair and happiness, but all of it was tainted by Mom’s absence.

Some days, a piece of me is still sad. Even though I am overflowing with joy, I often turn to my husband and say that I wish Mom was able to share in her granddaughter’s growth. My heart is forever cracked. I can’t help it. I miss having my best friend present.

Other days, like today, that sad, little piece of me is surprised with a visit. Not by apparitions, but by trash bags. Let me explain: my lovingly neurotic Jewish mother shopped at Costco for everything. Our house was always stocked full of copious amounts of well… anything you could imagine.  Jelly beans, zip ties, you name it, we had it. And so, the 800-count box of trash bags my mom purchased not long before her death still persists. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I kept them for these six plus years even though they didn’t fit any of my trash cans. And finally, when we purchased our diaper pail that is compatible with any bag of our choosing, I was thrilled to discover their purpose.

Now, as I change my daughter’s diaper pail bag, I can’t help but smile (despite the awful stench) because my mother’s thoughtfulness and ever preparedness persists, too. In turn, I am reminded that her unending love will also continue through eternity. Thus, I know she is still present, and each day I love her even more.

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