The end of 2016 was rapidly approaching and as typically happens, I was looking back over the past year and ruminating. However, my deliberations were not the usual “what shall I release and what shall I envision” type. They were mostly feverish reruns of the past, due to a rather nasty bout of the flu that gripped me from the day after Christmas and threatened to continue into 2017.
A whole week off of work with nothing but fun activities planned – dinners with friends, lunch out with a girlfriend, parties, open houses – it was all looking so promising on Christmas Day when I finally finished all I had to do for the holiday season.
Then all of it shot to hell the very next afternoon. I woke up feeling fine but as the day went on, got the unmistakable scratchy throat, headache and flu symptoms making themselves known. And that was the end of the celebration.
If there is any consolation, I guess having a full week to recover was a gift. And not planning to travel anywhere ended up being a good thing. I could never have made it on a trip. The worst part of all was my husband also became equally sick at the very same moment. That has never happened in our years of marriage. One of us has always been standing. But not this time. We were both at the mercy of whatever was happening in our bodies. Shuffling back and forth zombie-like from commode to couch. Neither one of us strong enough to care for the other.
Did I immediately go to a place of realizing that all sickness is illusion and that ultimately there is only God going on? And did I eagerly look for the gift in it?
All I wanted was for my mommy to be there, rub my back and bring me flat ginger ale like she used to do when I was a kid. But mom died nearly a decade ago. So it was just me – and my hazy, wacked out memories, earworm snippets of my least favorite music endlessly echoing through the canyons of my mind, random reflections, and crazy mixed up thoughts all jumbled together, that accompanied me through that hellish week.
I slept through most of it. Well in two-hour segments at least. And whenever I woke up, my mind was buzzing as I found myself feverishly editing my latest book in my mind, going over past, unresolved issues, off in a La-la land that felt more like a weird carnival-like house of mirrors than a pleasant dreamland. And each time, I awoke to the ongoing headache, coughing fits and for the first few days, intense nausea. It was truly a delightful week.
In the midst of it all, however, I did receive a gift – a huge, unexpected gift of a major aha and wake-up call that came with the death of Carrie Fisher. A woman I have admired for many years for her talent, wit, and spunk, as well as her kick-ass ability to walk through the fire, drag herself back from the edge, send a few postcards, then get up again and keep on going, very similar to the iconic character she portrayed in Star Wars.
Two days later, her equally famous mother, Debbie Reynolds passed away and because I was flat out on the couch, I did something I most certainly would not have taken the time to do otherwise. I watched a 40-minute interview with the pair of them on Oprah, recorded in 2011. During that interview, something struck me right out of left field.
I had something majorly in common with Carrie Fisher.
No, I don’t have two best-selling books out. Yet. And while I have a pretty good sense of humor, I don’t think it is in the same league as her biting wisecracks. I did my share of dabbling with the drug culture – hey I grew up in the 60s – but it was more of a tiptoe around the fringes rather than a deep dive like Carrie did. Nor have I had a bout with a diagnosed mental illness. The key word there being “diagnosed”, who’s to say what sane is, in this crazy world – but that is another story. And no, I have never starred in a blockbuster movie, grown up with famous parents or had my father leave my mother for Liz Taylor.
So on the surface, it would seem we had little or nothing in common. Except one thing. One really, really big thing.
We both grew up in the shadow of a beautiful, talented, glamorous mother. For Carrie, it
was a very public growing up. Her mother was a well-known, well-loved actress and singer. Beautiful beyond measure. I heard Oprah ask Carrie what it was like to grow up with a gorgeous mother. And her answer?
I felt like a thumb.
Wow, I shot up and took notice when I heard that sentence. I could relate exactly to what that felt like! The thumb is a very useful, functional part of the body. Helpful for peeling oranges, deftly squeezing the toothpaste out of the tube and taking the lid off of the peanut butter jar. It is not the ugliest part of the body, but it is nowhere near the glamorous parts. And I understood. I understood Carrie and her words.
My mother was a strikingly beautiful woman, who interestingly in her youth, was always being compared to Debbie Reynolds in her looks. Not only that, but she was glamorous. She was a platinum blonde and owned a dozen wigs. She loved putting on make-up, wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry. And truly, she could literally stop conversation when she walked into a room.
I, on the other hand, could not.
Don’t get me wrong, I adored my mother. Everyone did! And I understood why. She was larger than life, her smile lit up a room, her distinctive laughter was a precious sound that could get any party started. She was beautiful inside and out. She loved to host large gatherings, had a dramatic flair for fashion, hospitality, design and decorating, always made things special. And I miss her to this day.
But I can’t tell you how many times someone would meet my mother, then turn to me and blurt out – “What happened to you?” Even if they didn’t speak it out loud, I knew what they were thinking. The question was written all over their face. And the sad part was I wondered the same thing. I didn’t look anything like my mother. I didn’t get the beautiful eyes, the perfect cheekbones, the classic nose, none of it – but later in life, I had to admit I was the spitting image of my dad. Now, he was a right handsome fellow. But if I had my druthers, I would have gone with beauty over handsome any day.
Her light never dimmed, even later in life with the decline of her body’s health. She continued to glow despite the ravages of aging, weight gain, alcohol use, chemotherapy – even through all of that, those sparkling eyes still retained their almost other-worldly beauty.
So when Carrie Fisher said she felt like a thumb, I got it. It seems Carrie and I may have struggled with some similar demons. It is a difficult thing to be the daughter of a beauty queen and not be one yourself. One of the casualties from that is that you can’t help but take on the belief that you don’t measure up in some way, that somehow you are defective, a disappointment and maybe even an embarrassment. My mother would have vehemently denied that, as all loving mothers should – but somewhere in our history, I am sure that there was a moment where that thought – bidden or not – had to have emerged.
There is a happy ending to all of this however. As a young woman, Carrie’s beauty began to shine through. And so did mine. I acquired my own style – it was much more of an earth mother look. Glamorous beauty queen just never cut it with me. I stopped wearing make-up in my early 20s, I let my brown hair grow down to my butt. Although I never attempted the donuts on the side look, I probably could have rocked the Princess Leia hairdo in those days. Glasses gave way to contacts and I finally succumbed to the blond streaking craze. I felt okay about my looks although in my mind, they never did measure up to my mother’s style and grace.
But there was something else that was said in that interview that also unexpectedly moved me in a different way. Debbie Reynolds said at one point with great pride, that she had now become known as Princess Leia’s mother and she was delighted to have the tables turned.
I was suddenly transported back to my very first ministry and I recall watching my parents beaming in delight, as they became known as Jane’s mom and dad. Then I remembered being in a women’s sharing circle ceremony with my mom, and having her introduce herself as “Jane’s mom.” I thought at the time in a somewhat disdainful manner, that it was not the least bit descriptive of who she was, but I held my tongue. When I heard Debbie Reynolds’ words in the interview, I was suddenly glad I had kept quiet that day, as I realized that at some point in her life, my mother left behind glamor for relationship. And did so happily.
During my grandmother’s funeral, I later found out that women who had been my mother’s childhood friends but had not had occasion to see her in decades, seemed to delight, one after the other, in walking up to her and callously sharing how shocked they were to see how much weight she had gained over the years. With no regard, it seems for the deep grief she was experiencing with the passing of her mother.
I remembered upon hearing this news of feeling outraged and being stunned by the level of such cruel behavior. And I realized then that years of being seen as a glamor queen carried a steep price, namely serving as a target for others’ projected self-loathing and insecurities. I think that a lifetime of trying to live up to an image was a great burden on my mother, one that I was thankfully spared. And I never got that, not until the day I watched the interview.
An acupuncturist named Sarah Fields wisely noted that, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.” And as I considered this, I was overcome with deep compassion for all of us, who feel like we don’t measure up, or have had our own light somehow eclipsed by another’s. I felt sadness for anyone who has had hurtful comments heaped upon them at an early age and I realized the painful consequences to our individual and collective psyches. We have all experienced it to one degree or another.
So Carrie, thumb to thumb, even though we have never met, I think of you as a soul sister, I feel your struggle and can understand just a little bit of what your life was like. And I want to thank you for your courage and your authenticity in standing up and speaking out about the challenges that came from growing up in a household overshadowed by your mother.
I know that your role as Princess Leia defined you in such a way that you carried it around like an albatross around your neck for the rest of your career. But I hope you see that by playing the inspiring, archetypal role of the warrior woman, you helped pave the way of the rising up for others like me, who had yet to discover our gifts and shine our light. What I learned from you was that it’s okay for a woman to have beauty, brains and balls. I grew into a warrior woman myself, coming into my own, later in life, getting a black belt in karate, going back to school in my 40s, changing careers, becoming a speaker and a writer.
You were a beacon of light for me as a young woman and even more so quite unexpectedly, in a week of fever-induced madness. And I thank you for it. I can only imagine that the chorus of “may the force be with you” that is wending its way heavenward right now, must be eliciting at the very least, a spiritual eye roll from you or maybe even a plea for divine intervention to make it stop.
So I will spare you the greeting, break with tradition and instead give you the Vulcan “live long and prosper.” God speed, Carrie, enjoy the sweetness of life beyond the veil, may the years of pain be washed away leaving only the love and the peace that eluded you so much in life.
Enjoy the time in the afterlife with your mom. Oh – and if you spot a woman who looks an awful lot like her, with eyes as deep as the moon, please give her a “thumbs up” and a hug for me, and above all, let her know how much I love her and miss her.