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Gratitude

26 Nov

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Possibly one of my top ten favorite words and something I try to keep in mind when confronted with things I’d prefer not to think about because things could always be worse:

G R A T I T U D E

Perspective is so important and today, like every day, I am so grateful for

  1. My children
  2. My husband
  3. My parents
  4. My brother
  5. My extended family
  6. My friends
  7. Good health
  8. James Taylor
  9. Licorice
  10. Music
  11. Warm chocolate chip cookies
  12. When Harry Met Sally
  13. Medicine and science
  14. Taxi
  15. The NYT crossword puzzle
  16. Laughter
  17. Words
  18. Not turkey — I could skip that
  19. Meatballs
  20. My pizza oven
  21. My grandparents. They were the best.
  22. A well told story
  23. Games of all kinds
  24. Good coffee
  25. The University of Michigan
  26. Shehecheyanu
  27. The gym (not while I’m there, only when I’m leaving)
  28. Frizz Ease
  29. Blow outs
  30. Public School
  31. Kindness
  32. Sunshine
  33. Pickles
  34. Bloody Marys
  35. The ocean
  36. My Kindle
  37. WordPress
  38. My GPS even though she sometimes sucks
  39. The freedoms granted to me in the Bill of Rights
  40. Love

Thank you so very much for reading and for your encouragement. I am grateful for you all.

Shehecheyanu.

Friendships That Are Gifts

19 Oct

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Every now and then you are lucky enough to come across someone who will be your true friend. Someone who will understand the same jokes. Someone who you can laugh with until your stomach hurts and tears roll down your cheeks. Someone who will get you. Nearly 13 years ago, I was lucky enough to come across my beautiful friend, Beth.

Not long after that, when she was only 37, she called me to her home on a warm spring night. We sat on the porch and sipped iced tea and she told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the first step in a heartbreaking chapter of our friendship.

Beth, loved by innumerable people besides me, was strongly supported by our local community and her larger network of family and friends. I had never known a friend with cancer and I had no idea what to do for her first. I began by pouring my heart into cooking. Every Wednesday night, for as long as she was undergoing treatment (which, incidentally, was many months) I made dinner for Beth and her family. Throughout this time, I noticed her lose her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes. I listened to her talk of sores in her mouth as she sucked ice pops, and lament that she was forgetting things from all the chemotherapy. I saw her family rally around her. And I saw her rally around her family. And most important, I watched her fight each day, talk relentlessly about the future, and continue to live her life positively. She was simply incredible.

On her final week of treatment, and the last time I delivered dinner to her family, I brought her a bottle of wine. I worried that such an open display of revelry might superstitiously invite bad luck, but 5 years after Beth’s diagnosis, I was fortunate enough to bring her pink champagne to celebrate the important milestone she finally reached.

What once consumed Beth and her family (and a large part of my mind as well), has become merely a part of her past. She does not dwell on what happened to her. She looks forward. She is happy. She is loved. She continues to live her life positively. She is still simply incredible.

Several months ago, Beth asked me to join her on the Avon 2 day, 39 mile walk across New York City. Without even thinking about it, I said yes. First, I have a problem saying no, and second, I would do anything for Beth. And then I panicked. 39 miles is a major undertaking that required 12 weeks of training, 2 pairs of sneakers, 3 new apps, a minimum fundraising goal of $1800, a weekend away from my family, and countless blisters. What I received in return, however, cannot be itemized. Walking through the streets of the city in which I have grown up, in which my parents have grown up, in which my grandparents have grown up, was nothing short of momentous. I walked past the area where my great grandfather owned an antiques store on the Lower East Side, the theater where I saw my first James Taylor concert, the apartment building I lived in during law school, the library in which my husband and I met, the street where my mother and I picked out yarmulkes for my wedding, the hospital where I delivered my first baby, the spot we used to stroll him to for Sunday brunch, the courthouses in which I spent so much time litigating. I walked through my family history for the past four generations. I walked through my life.

And then I realized, maybe that’s the point. Maybe when you walk through your whole life, your whole life comes back to you. Washed amid a sea of pink, our team held hands and crossed the finish line. I took so many pictures throughout the two days but my favorite one, by far, was the one captured by my husband, solely because of the pure glee you can see in my friend Beth’s smile.

Beth’s whole life has returned to her. She is complete. At the end of the walk, I kissed her and said “your friendship is a gift.” Because it is. I should know. I have been treasuring it now for almost 13 years.

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More pictures from the walk:

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Farewells and Rites of Passage

11 Oct

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It is the eve of the bar mitzvah of the son of one of my oldest, dearest friends. We still talk about our first day of kindergarten together even though we knew each other years before we started elementary school. It is therefore that much more poignant that I learned tonight that our kindergarten teacher just passed away.

Life strikes chords and balances at the most poetic moments sometimes.

On our very first day of school, we were met by a grandmotherly lady who ushered us past wooden trees bearing our names, and new vocabulary we were to learn. She would go on to teach us about the bicentennial, most likely from first-hand experience. It was going to be a great year.

In the strange way that our memory decides to archive information, mine categorized the most pieces of my elementary education from my first year: the three balance beams that formed a small set of risers around the piano our teacher played every morning; the soundtrack of our classroom created by the steady hum of scissors working their way down construction paper; the line we were required to form in height order so we could proceed down the halls in an orderly fashion (I was first); the smell and taste of Stone Soup, a book we studied and brought to life with a recipe; and the kindness and love our teacher managed to show each child day in and day out.

I still recall, with anxiety and relief, my birthday party that almost wasn’t. My mother was so late that the teacher made us all put our heads down on the desk and remain silent.

“If your mother doesn’t come in the next ten minutes, we are canceling the party.”

In my tiny neurotic mind, I envisioned car accidents, crime scenes, literal nightmares. I have not changed much. It never occurred to me that late might mean a traffic jam, a delayed schedule, a mere slip of the mind. It was always a catastrophe. At long last, I spotted my mother through the narrow, rectangular window in the door — keys in her mouth, knocking with some body part because her hands were occupied. She entered bearing boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and her ukulele (she was a real pro at “Puff the Magic Dragon”). I probably could have used a stiff drink, but I didn’t know about that either.

Kindergarten was also the year that everyone was getting their snacks stolen. It didn’t mean much to me until someone swiped my Funyuns. Enough was enough. Through early deductive logic and sleuthing skills I would continue to hone, I figured out who the thief was with a pretty crafty sting I engineered. That girl fell right into my trap. I confided in our teacher, not knowing whether this kind octogenarian would believe me but she must have had similar suspicions because my Funyuns mysteriously reappeared in my lunch box in time for snack.

Kindergarten was everything it should be, with great thanks to this teacher and her beautiful approach to teaching, to children, and to life.

On that first day of school, my friend and I sat next to each other on one of those balance beams, coincidentally wearing the exact same green polyester Snoopy pantsuit. I mean, what are the odds? Even in the 1970s. That fashion faux pas, however, was just another cornerstone on which a lifelong friendship was formed. This friend went on to light a candle on my own bat mitzvah cake, backpack through Greece with me, stand on the bimah as a bridesmaid at my wedding, attend the brit milahs of my sons, and celebrate with us only a year and a half ago at my own son’s bar mitzvah. She has loved me through some of my bitchiest days as a teenager to the woman I am today. Old friends are gifts that never lose their splendor.

It is six years after my youngest children entered kindergarten. I look at them and their friends sometimes and wonder if they will be as lucky as I have been. I hope so. There is nothing like someone who has traveled down life’s path alongside you– it is the comfort food of friendship, the roomy old sweater you wear on a rainy day, the favorite film you’ve watched over and over and over.

Tomorrow, with my husband and sons, I will celebrate my friend and her family. I will watch as the circles turn, as generations evolve, as tradition endures. I hope she’s not going to be wearing that green polyester Snoopy pantsuit. That would not look good at all.

Thank you, Mrs. Arkus, for the beginning. I hope your ending was just as lovely.

My Mother, The Bell Ringer in Pink

3 Oct

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She said she would be there with bells on and she was.

When I was a high school senior, my beloved mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were unfortunately familiar with this because my mother’s mother and my mother’s mother’s sisters all had it too. A genuine hit in the gene lottery. I don’t recall my mother talking to me about this before she entered the hospital for her first mastectomy. All I remember is that for several weeks before I knew anything, I knew something was very wrong. She denied it, but I knew.

My mother checked herself out of the hospital, against her doctors’ advice, a day or two early so that she could see me off to the prom. This woman, with drains still attached, in serious pain, yet with a smile on her face, threw me and my friends and their families a small party. This is what keeps her going. This woman loves her family.

And we love her back.

That summer before college she lost all her hair. She lost her eyelashes, eyebrows and even arm hair. She lost her dignity. She sat with me in either a turban or a terrible wig and we played board games with my friend, Andrew. This was in between aggressive chemotherapy treatments where she would lay in bed and close the door to her room for several days until she felt well enough to emerge. We did not even cook dinners those days because the smell of the food would seep under her door and make its way to her nose and nauseate her. Every night when I thought my family was asleep, I would sneak outside and sit on my front step and cry.

At the end of August, my parents took me to Ann Arbor and helped me move into the dorm. I wanted to let everyone know that my mother was wearing a wig. That that horrible hair did not belong to her. That she had the most gorgeous hair I had ever seen, hopefully underneath her scalp, just waiting to grow back and make her whole again.

The second time she was diagnosed I was a newly married, young lawyer. It was exactly 9 years and 10 months after her first mastectomy. My mother was frightened and devastated and, again, a warrior. She had a second mastectomy and thankfully, due to a very early diagnosis, no treatment.

The third time was in 2007 and that was a horror show because she had no breasts left to remove. It was a mere six months after her beautiful sister, my incredible aunt, died. I think my mother’s heart literally broke from the loss because that was the neighborhood in which her cancer returned. My mother underwent major surgery and a severely complicated post-operative extended recovery period, and never once looked back. In the recovery room, she was awoken and told of the lengths they had to take in the operating room. Sedated, she responded, “I don’t care what I look like. I just want to live.”

And she did and she does.

We often “forget” that my mother had breast cancer because she has never dwelt on it. She never let it define her or become her life. It only became part of our conversations when she was living it or, more typically, when she was celebrating her survival.

And that she does as well. And often.

Early this week, my mother was contacted by a producer from The Today Show, inviting her to attend their kick off of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She asked her friend, Lydia, another survivor, and some other friends and family to join her. She made signs. She brought 6 pink sweaters for me to choose from because we had to dress in pink. My mother does everything big. And thank G-d, because she does life big too.

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At 6 am we were funneled into a VIP line full of survivors and their families. Many of the women were bald. All of them were smiling. My mother, with her beautiful, long, blonde hair, gratefully accepted a “GOD IS BIG ENOUGH” pink bracelet from the hairless woman in front of her. I started to feel badly about my mom’s hair, which she has grown out so she can donate it to Locks of Love, and how it might make these women feel. Then I thought, not only has she earned it, but she is an inspiration to these women who are currently fighting so hard for their lives. My pretty mama and her Rapunzel-like hair were a gift to these women who must see her and hope that they could one day be just like her: a mother; a sister; a daughter; a friend; a grandmother; an aunt; a survivor.

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My mother told the producer that she would attend this event “with bells on” and she literally did. She bought breast cancer awareness ribbons and bells and made all of us necklaces to wear.

She rang the loudest.

And she always does.

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Thank You For Being a Friend

7 May

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Some time ago, my mother asked me if I would like to watch a taping of “The Chew” and have lunch with Carla Hall at Otto. I didn’t pay much attention to the details or that it was through the “Adult Education” program of our home town. The day for this extravaganza finally approached and my mother was unable to attend. I called on my friend, Amy, to spend the day with me, and let me tell you, she was the perfect substitute.

This friend of mine has been my best friend for nearly 40 years. We literally grew up together. She is the one person (aside from my brother) that I get “the giggles” with. Any situation, at any moment, can send us into fits of laughter and render us unable to make eye contact the rest of the day for fear we will embarrass ourselves due to massive immaturity and poor behavior. Thank Gd for her. For real.

Amy was late, as usual. I got on the bus and lo and behold, it was Cocoon. I looked around, thinking I must be in the wrong place because clearly, they emptied out the local retirement home for the day and I was on a slow bus to nowhere with the Golden Girls’ mothers. I looked out among the sea of short-white-haired women in bifocals and thought “I can’t wait until Amy gets here. This is going to be the best day ever!”

I first checked in with an old woman I kept referring to as Bette Davis, I don’t know why. Bette Davis was very concerned because Amy’s name was not on the list and the list was already given to the folks at ABC. I asked whether we could persuade them to allow her entry but she was not so sure. She insisted we hop off the bus and head to the main office to let the ABC people know ahead of time so they could make sure that Amy was not operating an Al Qaeda cell. I shouldn’t have judged Bette Davis so fast. She turned out to be pretty spry.

Bette and I reboarded the bus and I anxiously awaited Amy’s expression when she saw we were taking a field trip with the Fixodent crew. I stepped over some canes and sat down. Finally, she got on the bus and our eyes met and it was just the moment I knew it would be: giddiness. We took seats in the way back of the bus and did the silent laugh (the best kind), until we collected our maturity and resigned ourselves to a day of fun with the widows of the Bartles and Jaymes dudes.

We arrived at ABC, and a woman with a Jane Fonda-esque hairdo (albeit very strangely bleached in some sort of Ombre fashion gone terribly wrong — maybe she did it at home?), rose right before the bus could fully stop. “Ombre” knew just what she was doing. She pushed aside several old ladies, making sure she was the first one off that bus, but for what? We had Ombre’s number.

We waited for an hour or so in a holding room where granola bars and water were offered. Ombre shoved in front of that line too. Finally, a guy who looked exactly like Shaggy from Scooby Doo (inasmuch as a human being can resemble a cartoon character), started to funnel us into the studio. Ombre cut this line too. She was really starting to get on our nerves.

We taped our applause, we taped our laughter, we taped our surprised expressions. The warm-up comedian asked who was single. Ombre raised her hand. Amy and I exchanged knowing glances. Things were taking a little long to get started and it occurred to me that I made a critical error in not rationing those free granola bars. Maybe there was a loose Tic Tac in my jacket pocket from 2008. No such luck. The Golden Girls theme song played on a loop in my head while I watched the hosts and the guest diners eat all the food they discussed in detail. This was my Guantanamo Bay and I did not like it at all. Rick Springfield was the special guest star. Or was that simply a hunger-induced hallucination?

After a few hours, the taping of the show was finally over and we were ravenous. Amy looked for an Advil to chew on after offering to split her last LifeSaver, as she wondered whether we would have to walk long to find the bus. Who was she kidding? This crowd wasn’t even going to make it  across the street! The bus picked us up right in front of the studio and we headed south to 8th Street.

Knowing we might be hungry, Bette Davis came prepared. She had the foresight to bring 2 boxes of matzoh (matzoh!), which she offered to everyone seated, as she weaved her way down the bus aisle. I refused but Amy ate that matzoh like someone just sprung her from POW camp. Otto came into view like a mirage. We entered the restaurant (Ombre pushed again!) and the old ladies stuffed their purses with anything that was free, which amounted to business cards for all of Mario Batali’s restaurants.

Lunch was delicious. I sat next to Carla Hall (who I loved! Hootie Hoo!) but don’t recall talking to her until I reentered society with my 3rd piece of pizza. Carla offered to autograph books that could be purchased and Ombre made a stink about how she thought the book was supposed to be given to us for free. You’re wrong, Ombre, get over it.

We boarded the bus to head back home. After all, it was almost 5, time for these ladies to hit the hay. Amy and I reconvened in the back of the bus. I looked around at these women and eavesdropped on some of their conversations. Several of them discussed the invention of the television and its emergence in popular culture and more specifically, the homes of the people they knew. They laughed and joked with each other. They discussed old memories they shared. Even Bette Davis, who worked the bus mic with more feedback than clarity (or was that one of these women’s hearing aid batteries going off?), spoke eloquently about the old days and her job at Good Housekeeping.

And then it dawned on me: these ladies were pretty amazing. Here they were, living their life and enjoying it to boot. They weren’t sitting around in a recliner, nursing a prune juice and crocheting booties for their great great grandchild. They were on an adventure, having a beautiful day with their friends. Even Ombre wasn’t so bad. Maybe. So what if they knew Abraham Lincoln personally. These women were storytellers. They were vital, they were important, they were lovely.

I looked at Amy, who napped most of the way home, and I thought, this is going to be us one day. We should only be so lucky.

Bullies and Bullshit

5 May

I hate bullies. I really do. I’m not a fan of liars or phonies either but that’s a different post.

It seems that no matter how old you may become, how many hurdles you’ve cleared, how many miles you’ve put on this body of yours, you don’t outgrow susceptibility.

At the age of 8, my parents let me know they were fulfilling my dream of going to sleepaway camp. My dream was actually to see Saturday Night Fever as I had no idea what sleepaway camp was. Regardless, I was leaving the end of June, for 8 weeks with strangers, for the same camp my mother attended for 14 years in upstate NY. My parents took me to see Saturday Night Fever (a consolation prize), and then to the candy store where they let me buy enough Nerds and Pixie Stix and Delpha Rolls licorice (my favorite) to fill a lunch bag. The following morning, they put me on the bus, kissed me on the cheek, and waved goodbye until the bus rolled out of sight. I looked around me, crying. I knew no one. I wasn’t even sure where we were headed. At some point, I started sharing the candy with anyone seated near me. By the time we pulled into camp, I had 3 new best friends.

These girls became my life for those 8 weeks. We formed tickle trains, we gambled for stationery, we shared secrets. We did everything together, walking around arm in arm during the day, telling each other ghost stories at night. I loved sleepaway camp for the next three years. The fourth year was another story.

For some reason, I was separated from these girls, who were now on the other side of the bunk. One day during the first week or so of camp, these BFFs bullied someone in my bunk. I don’t recall the specifics of the incident but I know this much: I defended the girl being bullied. They were cruel to her and I told them to stop. And that was the end of my best friendship. No more gambling, no more tickle trains, no more secrets. For the remainder of the summer, I was prey.

These bitches stole and destroyed letters I wrote to my parents, told me they hoped I “would drown” when I was on my way to waterskiing, and reduced me to tears on a daily basis. Seems like solid revenge against a girl who stuck up for someone who was simply defenseless. The counselors were aware of the situation and seemingly impotent. These 11 year old girls held all the power in their small, menacing hands.

One day in particular, while washing my hair inside the bunk’s stall shower, I bent down to get my soap. I opened the soap dish to find a human shit inside it. Being only 11, I recall thinking “that is really weird.” It was not until more than a decade later that it struck me that that shit landed in my soap dish intentionally. That that was how depraved and disgusting these girls were. That that was how much they hated me for sticking up for another girl they were in the midst of shredding.

I switched camps the following year and did not keep in touch with the palm reader’s daughter, the asshole from Staten Island, or the foul-mouthed, smoking daughter of the woman who worked the canteen (who I later learned gave a baby a hickie, and who died in prison from cancer before the age of 30). One of them did send me a “hi, remember me?” message through Facebook several years ago. I would have enjoyed taking her apart and making her feel some guilt for that summer (Yes, I do remember you! Are you still a vicious beast?), but I simply deleted it. Goodbye, good riddance, fuck you.

Sometimes when I tell people this story, they seem surprised. “You? You were bullied?! You don’t seem like someone who would be bullied.” What does that even mean? That you think I’m tough? That you think I’m incapable of being victimized? Probably not as much anymore. I’m not sorry for that young girl, naively staring at a soap dish full of human excrement and not even realizing it was dropped there as a present just for her. She stuck it out that summer and learned at an early age how to behave, and how not to behave. And how to spot a bully in girl’s clothing.

To this day, I have no tolerance for nonsense or bullies. When I detect even in the slightest that someone might lean that way, someone might make someone feel small, or less, or insignificant (just because they can’t get over their own issues), I disengage. There’s only so close I will allow myself to become with that person, fair or not, because someone already shit in my soap dish once.

Women are funny. They’re strong and smart and horrible and bitchy and disingenuous and loving and important. The key is to find the right ones to surround yourself with. Quality over quantity. Any day. And I am truly lucky to be surrounded with the incredible and beautiful women in my life. Because they are, genuinely, gifts.

Ann Arbor’s Smartest

20 Apr

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I was always attracted to intelligent, semitic-looking guys. They didn’t have to be particularly handsome; just super smart. (And if any old boyfriends happen to be reading this–you’re gorgeous; I am definitely not talking about you.) Nothing turned me on more than a cerebral, dark-featured guy with a pair of eyeglasses. Thankfully, the University of Michigan admitted tons of them.

One day, in a class that focused solely on Chaucer, a boy who I never noticed, raised his hand and interpreted an Old English phrase with alarming ease. He was no looker but my goodness, he was bright. At some point, I won his attention and we went on a date.

After dinner, he walked me back to my sorority house. It was a chilly, clear night, even for hormonal 19 year olds.

“Lisa, I truly believe that I am the smartest person in the whole school.”

He leaned in for a kiss. I was intrigued. Not by him. But by his admission.

“Wait. Undergrad or the whole school?

“The whole school.”

He leaned in again. I backed away. I was not personally offended that he thought himself brighter than me. Frankly, I was happy merely to gain entrance to the University of Michigan, my #2 choice (#1 choice Northwestern can suck it). Rather, I was floored by his swagger.

“There’s 30,000 people here. You think you’re smarter than all 30,000 people? The Med School students? The Law School is in the top 5 in the country.”

“Yes, I have no doubt that I am the smartest person here. I am taking Russian just to read Dostoevsky in its natural print. Are you free tomorrow night?”

I wasn’t free. I was turned off. The fact that I later learned he had to routinely have a fraternity brother shave his neck didn’t help either.

We didn’t go out again although he did stalk me for three years, even once professing that he was in love with me. He couldn’t have been that smart because I told him many times that I was not interested. Senior year he refused to talk to me altogether and that was okay too.

After all, it was only one date and there were approximately 15,000 other less intelligent women to court.

After college I learned he only graduated cum laude. And hey, so did I.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

11 Apr

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Happy birthday to the woman whose laughter sends me.

Happy birthday to the woman who leaves me voicemails telling me she loves me; voicemails I save so I can hear her voice whenever I want.

Happy birthday to the woman who brought her ukelele to the hospital when I broke my femur at 5 years old, and who played “Puff the Magic Dragon” for the entire children’s floor. And happy birthday to the woman that slept beside me the whole time I was there.

Happy birthday to the woman who made me believe in myself.

Happy birthday to the woman bold enough to sit in the passenger seat when I learned to drive. And happy birthday to the woman bold enough to sit in the passenger seat decades later, knowing how I drive.

Happy birthday to the woman who has made every holiday special every year of my life, and who continues to do the same for my sons.

Happy birthday to the woman who, after major surgery, discharged herself from the hospital early so she could see me off to the prom.

Happy birthday to the woman whose glass is always half full, no matter how many circumstances may have threatened to empty it.

Happy birthday to the woman who never told me that my grandma was dying because she knew it would crush me, but instead took me to Florida once a month to visit her.

Happy birthday to the woman that puts up with me.

Happy birthday to the woman who raced behind me as I drove my son to the emergency room on a horrible day in January. And happy birthday to the woman who sat and held my hand as I wept.

Happy birthday to the woman who only wants the people she loves to be happy.

Happy birthday to the woman who recorded a video of my grandma begging Oprah Winfrey to set me up with a Jewish doctor. And happy birthday to the woman that sent it in and told all her friends when it aired.

Happy birthday to the woman that’s been diagnosed with so many things so many times it is impossible to keep track. And happy birthday to the woman who smiled up at me from every hospital bed she’s ever been in, only wanting to make sure that I was ok.

Happy birthday to the woman who found me a kitten when I was lonely, and who snuck it into my NYC apartment with a bed, kitty litter, and food, while I was at work.

Happy birthday to the woman that has always been kind to everyone.

Happy birthday to the woman who was there to witness my first love and happy birthday to the woman who was there to nurse my first broken heart.

Happy birthday to the woman who rescued my 3 year old son after he intentionally locked the babysitter in the basement, and then fled the house.

Happy birthday to the woman who cut my hair off when I was 5 because she heard it would grow back thick. And happy birthday to the woman who let me wear a hooded raincoat in the sunshine because that haircut was the worst.

Happy birthday to my first friend, my best friend, my most incredible friend.

Happy birthday to my role model, my good luck charm, my superhero.

Happy birthday to the most beautiful woman I have ever seen or known.

Thank you for all this and more. Thank you for every day you are around the corner and in my heart. Thank you.

Happy birthday, Mom!

I love you.