Monthly Archives: July 2016

Dear Hillary

819px-hillary_clinton_official_secretary_of_state_portrait_cropDear Hillary,

When I was 10 years old, on a chilly day in January, my mother sat us down at the kitchen table and made us write letters to our elected officials. Although I was too young to really understand what I was doing, one of those letters was to your husband, then president Bill Clinton. I haven’t written another one since then, but feel that now is the time.

You have to understand something about my mother: She loved this country. She was a Democrat, but proudly displayed the American flag on national holidays and put up a green light outside for veterans. When I challenged this country in my writings, she would write comments and say this country meant more to her and should mean more to me, to us and the future generation.

I was the rebellious one, taller than almost all the boys; the headstrong granddaughter of Turkish Jews blessed with my grandmother’s name, her bubbliness, savvy and sneaky sense of humor. The matriarch of our family who could have easily been a CEO if the times permitted, she could never have imagined America as it is today.

All my life, I heard things from outside my family structure; things that I can never shake out of my head, no matter how I try.

“Don’t be so bossy.”

“Sit still and be quiet!”

“Boys will never like a girl with so many opinions.”

“You don’t have to be so loud!”

As I got older, they morphed into other words, like “weird” and “strange.” And then there were my ex’s favorites: “You’re out of touch with reality” and “You f**ing b*tch.”

(As I am addressing what will hopefully be my future commander-in-chief, I hope you’ll forgive the language above.)

I’m sure you’ve heard all of these and worse. I’m sure my mother heard them too. We get them as strong women trying to break the mold. My mother, who was told “nice girls don’t go to college” in the early ’60s, worked part-time in packing at an ant farm factory to pay tuition at UCLA while her mother worried about her finding a husband. Fortunately for her, she found my father, a uniquely compassionate and feminist man.

My mom wanted to be a doctor, but “girls don’t become doctors.” Her brother did, and my mom worked in his office. She was wife to a theater artist and eventual entertainment tech executive, helping him type his MBA papers while enormously pregnant with my older sister. He encouraged her to finish her bachelor’s degree and her master’s, but at the end of the day my mother was the support for her ailing parents, two daughters and one niece, who had lost both her parents before she turned 30. She was the backbone of our family.

Growing up, while the world told me to stop being stubborn, she loved my resilience in disappointment. When I never gave up while others told me to quit, she was inspired. I made her laugh so much she nicknamed me, “the human Xanax.” Sure, as mothers and daughters go, we fought quite a bit. Although she was an active second wave feminist before I was born, we often disagreed about the ideas of men versus women. But at the end of the day, she was my strong, dutiful mother, with a dash of silly whenever she put on her light-up Mickey Mouse ears while working in her home office.

Meanwhile, I got my degree and married a man who was strongly and abusively conservative. I was too scared to speak up with my liberal leanings in fear of his rage. When the day came where I realized that he was too mentally unstable for the future, I fought my way out. My mother was there that terrifying night I left, calling me practically every five seconds to advise me, with my aunt giving me resources I needed to get out safely and legally protected and my friend offering me a safe house. In your own words, it took a village to get me out. I was broken, but determined to put myself back together.

Free of the constraints of marital censorship, the fight of feminism was mine to take on as a part of the younger generation, to shape how I wanted my future: Living independently and on my own terms, eventually working freelance in communications and obtaining national-level clients. Hoping for a full-time job to help pay off my student loans, but even when I didn’t get there, to keep applying. Keep moving. Be strong. Not necessarily with a man, but seeking one who longs to be my partner in family and the fight for equality. We as women can be the backbones, but we can be also the hands that hold tight to our dreams and work for them every day. The fight morphs and changes from generation to generation. And for many of those days, there was my mother, not always understanding but respecting.

I’m writing this letter to you because in April I cried at her hospital bedside because her face was so jaundiced and she was struggling to breathe. Her fingernails were the lightest shade of pink and she was running them through my hair. She told me she was proud of me and glad she got to know me as an adult. Less than two days later, I was wailing at the bedside, sitting on the hard floor holding that same hand, cold as ice while whimpering like a child, “I want my mommy.”

For two years, we fought the battle of breast cancer with her, sacrificing almost everything for her care. She died of a lung complication that took numerous doctors, plenty of “I don’t knows,” and eventually her life. It has been three months since then and there are still bills coming in that scare my father, her partner of almost 50 years, wondering how he’ll survive without his love. I think of your fight for health care and how my mother wanted to see it come full circle. How she cared about women’s health, teaching us at a young age that our bodies were not a place of shame but of pride. That being a woman was, in so many ways, an incredible thing.

And tonight, how I long for her to see you at this moment of your life, when “girls don’t become doctors” becomes “girls can become President of the United States.” It’s because she loved this country with her whole heart. And tonight, for the first time in a long time, I can say the same.

There are people out there who don’t trust you; many of them are women. It’s easy to throw labels around, toss words like they’re playthings: Corrupt. Criminal. Crooked. For almost 24 years, since you have come into the national spotlight as First Lady, you have heard them all yet remain stronger than Wonder Woman. You aren’t perfect, but as my mother used to say, you remembered who you are and kept moving. That is an incredible feat.

But the bigger task is at hand. The future of this country needs you: Allowing us to obtain quality educations without spending years in debt. Helping Planned Parenthood stay open and strong alongside access to birth control across the board. Making sure there are not only jobs for us, but equal pay for equal work. Letting us live without the fear of someone grabbing a gun and killing us. Allowing our parents to be comfortable in retirement, not scared of insane prescription and medical costs. Making sure that America is safe for all of us, no matter the color of skins we wear, those who we love and the places we pray. Yet still being someone who will be able to reach across the aisle, avoiding the dogged partisan politics of the past.

We, as the younger generation, need you to do this for us. We know what’s at stake in this election as you do. You have served as both Secretary of State and in Congress. You are beyond being a woman in this race; you are utterly qualified, and I put my faith in you.

One of my favorite stories is that, when you were a girl, you wanted to be an astronaut and you were told, “NASA doesn’t hire girls.” Well, guess what? I want to hire a woman for my president, and I have to believe that the rest of this country will too, for the sake of democracy. I hope you take that torch all the way to the White House for the memory of my mother, Jacqueline Amira Slutske, whose smile I saw reflected in yours Wednesday night after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. So let’s get out there and show them what we’ve got.

Sincerely,

Reina V. Slutske

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I Believe: A Mourner’s Manifesto

Everyday I’m counting. Today it’s 71 days. When my mom first died, I started counting minutes. Then hours. Time stood still, and now it’s slithering slowly across the floor, hissing like a constant reminder of what has happened.

Yet it is invisible. No one else hears it but the ones who have been hit the hardest. Sometimes it’s quiet and there is laughter that echoes through the house. Sometimes it’s loud and there’s nothing we can do to fight it but cry and scream loudly about how we wished it would go away.

I don’t believe this has happened. The hallways are empty, and I expect to hear her voice coming across the floors. It never comes. It will never come again. My father swears he sees shadows through the house. But I’m not sure if it’s her. I’m not sure of much of anything anymore.

I’m trying to transition to counting weeks — ten weeks. I’m just beginning to transition into counting months. It’s almost like with every step it should be less difficult, but it’s not. There were over 33 years with her. Now there’s only 71 days without. My father’s lost. My sister and cousin are both lost. I’m lost, and no matter how strong they tell me I am, it’s not something I can navigate my way out of.

The crowds of people who shuffled through the rooms here are gone. The deli trays that were delivered have disappeared, the flowers have wilted and the consolation cards from people ranging from beloved family members to my ex-husband are stocked away in a box somewhere. There is a fear that creeps in with the silence, and you try to shoo it away. But the future is uncertain, and while it is there is no way to kick the fear out of your realm.

Some days I’m completely normal. I can tell the stories about how creepy it was for the mortician to keep smiling and winking at me during our consultation the day after, not to mention my inner monologue (“Knock it off, buddy. I’m not that pretty today and I don’t have the credit cards”). I can talk about how he showed me the bonnet that he wanted my mother to wear, and I started making jokes, becoming hysterical (“She’s Sephardic, not straight out of shtetl”). My friends and I drank wine, played trivia or hopped around flea markets laughing over the weeks. These were great days.

But in this time there are even exchanges. For every good day there is a day where my body feels like it’s been kicked and dragged on the ground, soreness popping up in different places due to stress. There is an endless list of things to do, hard tasks that must be completed but still make you feel like vomiting. There are enough tears to raise the oceans. And as you try to collect the pieces, the heat rises and the vultures begin to circle. They don’t care about the pain, and can never hear the desperation.

They hold pieces of paper with long columns of numbers about the big decisions you have to make RIGHT NOW in the midst of crisis. Or they hold up the words you write as indictments, yelling you down as you look over your mother’s autopsy reports, the tears flowing from your eyes as they abruptly hang up on you because you’re too emotional.

They don’t believe either. And if they do, they believe you should be over it by now. It’s just a death, after all.

I made promises to myself during this time of mourning that I would take care of myself. I broke almost all of them. I promised myself I would observe shloshim, or the Jewish customary 30 days of mourning. It meant refusing to shave my legs and go on massive job interviews, yet doing so anyway because you felt like there was nothing else to do, and the thought of not moving made you want to scream. It meant not celebrating birthdays, yet putting on a brunch for my father’s.

I made mistakes. I became overly emotional. I did things I wouldn’t normally do, ignored people who normally would never be ignored. You want to stop feeling this way, feel like you’re not acting completely out of selfishness. There’s something inside of you that believes that you are better than the rest of the world when it comes to mourning, when in truth you’re not.

You hear the voices from those around you — buck up, get going, get moving. The quiet is setting in and all you can hear is the ticking of a clock, tick tock, you’re running out of time because the only thing that’s really certain in life is death and the pile of taxes and bills that have been left behind.

It’s time to grow up. Find a job, find your path, find everything right now. Move on, but keep your chin up. Now, when the world has taken away your normal and has given you a new reality, act like a human. But you’re still crawling across the floor like a child. You’re a ship without a captain, with no sense of direction and no sense of future.

You want to believe that this will end. All of it. But yet there is no end of the tunnel in sight.

There were calls never made, errands never run, things that I left open ended when I shouldn’t have, like my dating profiles. I wasn’t ready for it. Wasn’t ready for the life changes when I already had enough. And yet, as I believed even before my mother died, I believe that fate sometimes intervenes.

When he contacted me on my OK Cupid, I thought he was cute so I indulged it. After everything that happened, the emptiness of my life was consuming me. Two years of obsessions with medical tests and hospital visits were catching up with me. I was lonely and just really wanted to get laid. I had been through enough without having to deal with dating.

We started talking, and the conversations switched from minutes to hours and playing footsie under restaurant tables. We went out several times. I almost ran out on him for ghosting me for a short period; instead, there I was, standing my ground, confronting him. He apologized for his behavior, offering to take me to a nice dinner. We began talking again, with the sex put off to the side at his request.

“I really want to get to know you, the real you,” he said. “I want to see if we can hang out and be together normally, without sex in the way.”

It was a whirlwind. I danced with him across courtyards and ventured through art museums and bookstores with his hand in mine. We lamented about Maureen Dowd’s insanity and discussed Charlie Parker’s genius sitting on benches. I kissed him on subway cars and laid my head on his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair told me stories of late nights discussing Nietzsche. We would lie on his bed, but coupled with the standard fooling around were intimate details shared and a unique sensuality of the mind.

I love looking into his soft brown eyes that were shining behind his glasses and smiling at him with a giant goofy grin. If I was getting sad, he would call me sweetheart and kiss my forehead. I’d continue talking for a little while longer, but when it got to be too much, he would then cup my face, press his sweet lips against mine and tell me that I’m beautiful. No one I’ve dated has ever told me that. And when I look at him, I know he’s not lying to me.

He listened to me as I described what it was like to read my mother’s autopsy, heard me lament about the piles of temporary tattoos she left behind and how horrible I felt for my cousin. I cried and he cried with me, not even imagining the pain. I told him of the past two years and the present mourning. And yet he didn’t run like the others. He grasped my hands tighter instead.

“You’re a treasure,” he said to me one night standing under fluorescent lights in his kitchen, looking me in the eyes. “You know that, right?”

It’s something I was unable to believe, even though I know that he says what he believes and doesn’t hide. Yet in mourning, sometimes you feel like you’re suffocating under the same dirt that buried the person you love. That soil that you tossed in their grave lives inside of you and you’re fighting it every day to just breathe. The anxiety can be all consuming, and I’m confident he has felt some of it in dating me, rubbing against his own fights with the universe.

Yet in those moments where we were quiet together, with no one else around, I wasn’t a mourner. I was a shimmering diamond, just happy and twinkling in its natural state, at peace in a way that my heart hadn’t known in a long time.

“I don’t know where this is going,” I said to him one evening as we were driving from dinner into the setting sun. “But you’re the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”

He nodded in agreement and clasped my hand as we moved forward along a path towards G-d knows where. In mourning, you never know where you’re going to land, just that the days are laid out before you and they will be challenges. He can’t solve everything, but even if it is just for a little while, the comfort will be something that I hold on to forever.

I have to believe that things will get better, that I won’t be incapacitated from mourning for the rest of my existence. The belief that there will be joyful occasions and more happy days than sad ones has to be my driving force; otherwise I will feel the madness creeping in. Yet somewhere in these 71 days I’m discovering hope again.

In the darkest moments, I have to remember the sun in the sky, and that every day goes from sunrise to sunset just as it did before. That the phone calls and constant text messages aren’t just imagination, but love in words. Although they can’t completely repair the hole in my heart, they can help me patch it up, brick by brick. And right now, that’s all you can ask for. I believe that.