I believe in giving up “toast”.
I love toast. Two hearty slices of whole-grain bread with real butter and strawberry preserves enjoyed with a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar is my perfect breakfast.
On Friday, September 1, 2006, a few months before my 45th birthday, I ate breakfast, alone, before my family woke up. I was very lonely that morning and felt overwhelmed by life. I missed my mother. I wished desperately that she could be sitting across the table from me: listening to me, laughing with me, comforting me, loving me.
My mother died in 1966 of breast cancer. She was 28 years old. I was 4. She disappeared from my everyday life months before she passed away. Occasionally, my father would bring me to visit her at Baylor Hospital. I had to wait in the lobby for her to come down the elevator, in a wheelchair, to see me. The visits were brief, tantalizing and confusing.
My grandmother, Lala, lived with us during that time. Every morning she fixed my breakfast, usually cold cereal or a soft-boiled egg. Lala always served herself toast with butter and jam and a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar.
One winter morning, I woke up, wandered down the hall to the kitchen and found Daddy and Lala sitting at the table, still dressed in the clothes they had worn the night before when they tucked me into bed. I sat on Daddy’s lap. Lala walked to the stove, put on the tea kettle and fixed my breakfast. She served me toast with butter and jam, hot tea with milk and sugar.
No one spoke to me of my mother’s death the previous day. It was assumed that I was too young to understand. I asked if we could visit Mama today. Daddy looked away. Lala told me that my Mama had gone to heaven to live with the angels.
These memories tiptoed into my mind very gently. I felt the open-hearted confusion of a 4-year old girl, the heart-wrenching grief of a 29-year old husband and the razor-sharp pain of a grandmother witnessing the irreparable shattering of a tender, young family.
As those memories rose and fell away, I heard my own children awakening upstairs. I savored my breakfast. I realized that anytime I felt confused, frustrated, angry, sad…hungry, I could always count on the comfort of toast and tea. I began to feel these uncomfortable emotions — confusion, frustration, anger, sadness….hunger, directly and honestly. It wasn’t so hard to be present for these intense feelings. In fact, after 40 years of carrying them around, it was a relief.
Sometimes, when we need to change — or when we resist change — small gestures are the most important. I asked too much of a simple piece of toast. I asked toast to provide me with all the comfort, companionship, devotion and love that a mother could provide. Dumbo had his feather. I had toast.
I believe that every single person has his or her “toast”.
We all have habits that we believe nourish and protect us. We all have something that helps us maintain the illusion that the broken pieces of our lives might possibly be repaired, restored, healed….made whole.
That day, I let go of toast and moved on. I let go of a habit. I intentionally let myself become disillusioned in order to participate more fully in the life I am blessed to have right now. I forgave my mother for dying, my father for his tortured grief and my grandmother for all that she did not say so many years ago.
By giving up toast, by giving up something I loved, I made space to witness my direct responses to the natural, sometimes surprising but always inevitable changes in life, big and small. This single “letting go” prepares me for the many “letting go” opportunities that arrive in a mother’s life every day. I feel a deeper connection to my own mother and the enormous and courageous “letting go” she had to do at such a young age. I feel I’ve come full circle. The family that was torn apart is healed.
Someone once asked me if it is hard not having my parents around to see their three grandsons. “Yes,” I replied. “It is hard. But, if they were here and alive, my life would be very different. I might not have met my husband. And my three sons? They might not have been born.” I am grateful for everything in my life as it is right now.
Do I miss toast? Occasionally, but when I feel the desire for that once nourishing ritual, I pause and notice what is lies beneath the longing: an flash of anger, a splinter of grief or a shadow of sadness. The moment passes and I feel at home in my body, at ease in my life.
Now….about that tea with milk and sugar….
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