The Summer Day
I can’t tell you how good it used to feel to touch back down in Albany after long stretches on the other side of the world. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case I’d been away from my home country for about eight months — though due to my crazy travel schedule, I hadn’t seen my mom for nine months or been back to my hometown for ten.
Flying from Israel straight into Albany International Airport and watching the sunset while riding shotgun with my mom was the exact homecoming party I craved.
I’ve wondered how I’d start writing about this chapter; this time when I came home for my annual stateside summer stretch and was startled to realize something was not right with my mom. It was just little hints at first, concerning conversations and eyebrow-raising moments and complaints of vertigo. But we’d later see they were the first steps down a confusing, anxiety-riddled path — a path that eventually led to the shocking diagnosis of aggressive terminal brain cancer, not six weeks after I snapped these selfies of us in the car.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about freezing a moment in time — perhaps one of the last “normal” moments I’d feel before our lives changed so drastically. Time was moving a million miles a minute, as usual — I was juggling projects, I was behind on work, I was living out of a suitcase, I was forever trading sleep for checking off a never-ending to-do list. The fact that my mom seemed to be in a funk or a little out of it was one of seemingly a billion pieces of information blowing through my brain at the time; something I absentmindedly thought my mere presence nearby for the summer would perhaps snap her out of. How innocent we were to how fragile it all was. But this post isn’t about that.
This post is at the pride I felt, watching my mom accept an award at the New York State Museum from the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society for her work founding CapitalWomen, a progressive political action committee making waves in Upstate New York.
She was disconnected, unfocused as we entered the event — a place she’d normally be in her element. “Your mother isn’t herself lately,” her partner of seven years muttered to me, as he had a few times since my plane had landed. I bit my lip.
We were there to watch her accept accept the Activating Democracy award. My heart burst with wonder — while I’d gone back to Thailand to lick my wounds after the election, my mom had ground down and rolled up her sleeves and poured her heart and soul and sweat and tears into what she believed would make our community the best it could be.
I’d been home all of two days, and she’d already roped me into heading back to my old alma mater to register high school seniors to vote. She pulled it together and got onstage, bringing down the house with eloquent, moving speech about the patriotism of dissent and the importance of being an engaged member of the community. I was in awe then; I’m in even more awe now, thinking how she did all that with a baseball sized tumor pressing on her brain.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about trying to cram in every spare moment I could with my friends and family and friends who feel like family in Albany, despite the fact that I was run ragged and fighting off what I’d figure out later in Savannah was strep throat. Oops. All I knew was that I hadn’t been home in nearly a year and I barely had any time scheduled there that summer — in fact, once I left for my yoga teacher training, I wasn’t due back until the fall for Thanksgiving.
Never in a million years could I have guessed that I’d soon be calling Albany home again, as I moved shellshocked back into my childhood home, and that these very friends who I was desperately trying to cram in a quick dinner with in the midst of my oh-so-hectic jetsetting schedule would become my lifelines as I stepped into the hardest role I’ve ever taken on. I couldn’t have guessed any of that, then.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about how bursting that summer had felt, with projects and possibilities. I had just five nights in Albany before jetting off for a video shoot with Travel + Leisure in Savannah. I’d hesitated, ever so briefly, before signing the contract — it was smack in the middle of my only time at home all summer. But the money was great, the brand was prestigious and let’s face it — I never said no to an opportunity. So off I went.
Little did I know that I’d soon be spending sleepless nights wracking my brain questioning every decision I’d ever made that had taken me away from quality time at home. Had that one really been worth it? What about that one? Have I really dug into this other one, yet? But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about another incredible opportunity I embraced — to take a quick detour to Philadelphia en route back to Albany. How could I not, when Olivia invited us to an event for her boss Governor Tom Wolf and former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, taking a pause from her book tour to cheer on progressive candidates.
But first, dumplings. I’ve been lucky to visit Philadelphia several times, and so rather than play tourist, outside the event I vowed to spend my two nights in Philadelphia catching up on work and sleep. I did make one noteworthy exception — tracking down Humpty’s Dumplings in Queen Village, a delicacy I first discovered at a food truck at my second Bonnaroo — the one I took my mom to.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about the rush I felt when Olivia later informed me I had the honor — and anxiety — of being the campaign’s volunteer photographer for the event. Getting an excuse to get up close and personal with one of my heros? Twist my arm!
Event photography is a beast of its own, and while I did spend that summer interning for a wedding photographer in the Cayman Islands, I’d hardly say I felt qualified. While the staff buzzed around making final preparations for the event, I did something I felt fairly confident I could do: capture a beautiful party set up.
Soon the room was buzzing with energy and community spirit. You could have heard a pin drop as Cecile Richard’s took the stage. What a passion she has for protecting women’s health and rights, and what boundless energy she has to fight for it!
I was literally glowing with inspiration. She was joined onstage afterwards by a group of Pennsylvania’s recently elected state congresswomen, an inspiring sight that would make all those #futureisfemale hashtag users proud.
I shook the governor’s hand, and had a few moments to chat to Cecile about travel, and burst with pride that my baby sis and her team had brought all this to life. At the end, Olivia surprised me with a signed copy of Cecile’s book, a tome that’s sure to earn a treasured spot on my bookshelf forever.
What an incredible privilege it was to be a part of that night. I couldn’t think how much I wished my mom, who’s “vertigo” was now too intense for travel, was there.
But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about getting back to what I thought was my last little bit of time in Albany, for at least four or five more months. I knew I couldn’t leave without one movie date with my mom at The Spectrum, our favorite local theater. I loved the movie we chose, Tully, and couldn’t wait to gush over it with my mom on the drive home.
She was no longer driving at that point, and she seemed detached in the passenger seat on the way home. It was so unlike her, and looking back I’m embarrassed to even write things like, “she was no longer driving at that point,” and admit that it took us weeks, still, to walk into an ER. But this post isn’t about that.
This post is about how good it felt to go back to my favorite barre studio and fit in a few classes after weeks of travel in which I’d barely worked out. Little did I know how much fitness would become a lifeline for me, soon.
This post is about summer barbecues in the back yard with all the friends who might as well be family. Little did I know how these people would become part of the support team that’s carried us through.
This post is about coming home and cleaning out my little closet, and the rush I got from doing so. Little did I know I’d soon be back, trying to work my way through organizing an entire house, an entire life.
But this post isn’t about all that.
This post is about that last weekend at home, the last weekend I’d ever have in Albany where I was just the daughter and my mom was just my mom. And it was a wonderful weekend indeed.
It was the couple’s wedding shower for our friends Ashlee and J, who’s engagement party and engagement shoot I’ve blogged about, and who’s bachelorette party and wedding will be coming soon — perhaps the most closely documented wedding extravaganza to ever appear on Alex in Wanderland!
And then it was my mom’s sixty-third birthday. I had to go down to New York City a few days before the actual date due to the start time of my yoga teacher training, and we’d talked about going down together so she could see the apartment I’d rented and spend the night doing cute mother daughter stuff with us and my sister.
When the day came she tearfully told me she just couldn’t manage getting on the train, let alone driving down as we’d originally planned. And so we had brunch and I got on the train and left, and I’ll probably be dealing with some lingering guilt from that for the rest of my life.
And I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that this post is, indeed, about that.
But this post is also about the very last pre-diagnosis trip we’d take to Martha’s Vineyard. Ignorance was no longer bliss, and the reality that something other than vertigo may be in play was becoming crippling, but there was still this vaguely forward motion to life, this idea that we just had to settle on the right decisions or make the right phone call or unlock a certain mystery and everything would be okay.
I bounced between two worlds: in one moment I’d reached a staggering peak of stress and anxiety that I hadn’t previously known existed, in the other, I’d try to brush all that aside so we could go to the beach or a spin class or I could go research a lunch spot for my upcoming Wander Women retreat or I could enjoy some family time with my cousin and her husband rather than just bounce troubled theories off them.
This part of the story ended, and another story began, when my mom finally was brought to an emergency room one summer afternoon on Martha’s Vineyard. And now I look at these photos and I wonder, will this island, this place that has always been my most precious, most joyful place — will it ever feel that way again?
And this post is very much about all of that.
Isn’t everything, when the sun around which your universe orbits starts to flicker? I guess it’s a sad post. I guess many will be, now that we’ve reached this point in my story. I guess this is kind of how grief works — it takes all these memories, from the precious to the banal, and makes you examine them through a new light. It takes moments that were happy and can make them quite sad, and takes moments that were really kind of nothing and make them feel dear just for existing, because they happened before you realized how finite time could be.
I don’t know how this is all going to play out here, on Alex in Wanderland. If I had to guess, I’d say there will probably be a mix of joyful travel posts, because that is still what brings me joy, interspersed with bits of my new life at home, and occasionally reflections on this journey that I know so many go through, when their lives and turned upside down by cancer or they take on a care-taking role.
I guess this is the first post about the summer that would change my life.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I have no words. All I have is “<3". Beautifully written, Alex.
Thanks, Riley <3
Oh Alex, my heart breaks for you reading this; as usual, your eloquence astounds me. Even if we don’t always comment, you have many thousands of readers behind you sending you strength and I hope that unspoken support is at least of some comfort to you.
Thank you Kat, it is xo
Gosh, honey, your words just blow my mind! You are so eloquent for one so young. I am surrounded all of y’all with love, peace and prayers.
Thanks Ramona, I feel it <3
I’m crying. This is beautiful. <3
Thank you, Emily.
Alex, this is beautiful and so heartbreaking. Sending hugs, love, and prayers to you and your sweet family.
We appreciate it <3
Love you, girl x
Alex, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and have never commented, but what you wrote really resonated with me. My father was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and you so perfectly captured how something like this cleaves your life in half, separating it into a “before” and “after.” Like you, now I look back on the days just before this all happened, when I had no idea that my whole world would be reshaped.
My heart and thoughts are with you, and with anyone going through this.
This comment so resonates with me, Megan. I’m so sorry you’ve been through something so similar.
Oh Alex! Your mother is an extraordinary writer but even she would be dazzled by this piece. The words are gorgeous, but the emotion!!!! Oh Alex!!!
Thank you, Margy. I hope I am doing her proud.
<3 back at you
Beautifully written as always <3
Love you girl
I’ve been following your story for years, heart breaking at every word. And all I can say is, “dang it” which are two insignificant words. But your writing is beautiful, and my heart bursts open with every word.
Thank you so much Kaitie — for this and for all your kindness lately xo
You are the most incredible writer, daughter of an incredible writer, woman of integrity and passion, daughter of a woman of intergrity and passion. And you know this is a book, right?
Thanks Diane, I so appreciate your cheerleading!
This was so beautifully and eloquently written, Alex <3
Thanks Ashley, much appreciated <3
I’ve been following your blog Alex for a number of years, although I have admit that there are big gaps which I have missed. So I thought I would stop by today and see what exciting things you were up to. I have to say reading this, beautifully written post, which I was expecting to be something totally different, has stopped me in my tracks.
We’ve never met, and probably never will, but from a perfect stranger, my heart, thoughts and hugs go out to you and your family.
Thank you Scott — thank you for following along for so many years, for coming back to check in, for your kindness, for all of it x
Thank you Alex for your honesty in these posts. I have been following you for years now and have loved reading your adventures (I commented on a post quite a long time ago as reading this blog gave me back my confidence and inspiration to start solo travel again).
Reading your recent posts have hit home a lot. My dad passed away about two years ago now but he was sick (also cancer for a long time). I completely understand your feelings of guilt at times over not being there when I felt I should have been, even despite knowing how proud my dad was of my life and my travels. Your words of reexamining banal moments in a new light struck home. The last time I saw my dad we were celebrating my new job with a takeout and I assumed I’d see him again later that week. How odd it seems now to look at it all again knowing what was coming.
Sorry if this is rambling but it means a lot to read these posts. I of course dearly wish that this was not something that had arisen in yours and your families life, but it means a lot that you share your thoughts like this and to see that I’m not alone at times. And to see all the positive moments and thoughts that you include too is really wonderful.
I am sorry that I do not comment often but just wanted to say how much I appreciate your posts, your openness and your writing. As soon as an update email comes through I click on it so fast lol!
All the best xx
Kat, this so resonates with me. I agree this can be an incredibly isolating experience and while it’s not something you’d ever wish upon anyone, there is comfort in being reminded that we are not alone. Thank you for sharing.
CRYING. But in a good way. I sucked in a sharp breath when I reached the end of Mary Oliver’s poem. I love Mary Oliver’s writing (who doesn’t). This catapulted me into a different stratosphere of feelings. But that’s not what this is about. 😉
Isn’t she just incredible? I have found so much comfort in her writing, lately.
Thank you for sharing your life and pieces of your loved ones with us Alex. I’m so sorry for the pain and loss. This was a beautiful post.
Thank you Sandra, I appreciate that. Just sharing where and when I feel I can <3
This is an absolutely beautiful post chalk-full of deep and poignant words that perfectly capture the mixed emotions memories like this bring. It’s so hard to separate the joy from the pain, particularly when you have lingering guilt. All the what ifs really weigh on you and it’s hard not to get crushed beneath them. I greatly admire your resilience and strength, and especially your openness in sharing such a personal experience. Nothing but love and well wishes for you and your family <3
Thank you Marni. I really truly appreciate having this space to share these feelings when I am able, and ready.