Morning Breath

Yaya’s little barnacle

You know when you miss someone so much it makes your heart hurt?

I felt that way the other morning. For a brief moment, it was as if I had an anvil-weighted vice grip in my chest.

I miss the hugs, the laughter, the morning cuddles, and the comforting reassurance that only being breath-distance apart can bring…. 

It’s very familiar to me, this theme of lack.  I’ve been telling myself stories since I was a tiny child: craving someone who wasn’t there…. tightening the vice grip on my heart with each negative thought about why they weren’t with me and what that could mean.

Growing up, I could not stand being away from my grandmother.  From grade school on I would wake up missing her, wishing I could still go crawl into bed with her and spoon like I used to do every morning when I lived with her the first five years of my life.

Before we moved out of her house, I would wake up, and run to the side of her bed in my feety-pajamas first thing in the morning, which for me—usually meant 4 AM.  As soon as I made it to the side of her mattress, I would stare at her to make sure she was still breathing.  I’d hold my own breath until she moved or snored.  Sometimes I would grow impatient and hurry things along by poking my tiny finger up her nose, which worked like magic!  …Yaya would make a snorty noise and then immediately scoot over to make room for me.  Wordlessly, she always acted inviting and happy to see me, no matter what the hour or how tired she was.

Her thick arms felt like a very safe place for a skinny kid like me.  I hopped right in and put my PJ-clad butt in reverse, scooting backward until I landed softly into our official spoon position.  Her “spot” was always warm, and I felt enveloped with love as she pulled me close that I became like her own personal barnacle.   Often the fine thin hair on top of my head would waft up and down with her breath, causing it to tickle her inner nose, and she would have to pat my hair down to keep it in place. 

Hi Yaya. Are you up yet? Are you up yet? Are you up yet?

If I couldn’t sleep, I would turn around and nuzzle into her neck, so I could get a whiff of her “Yaya smell.”  It was a mixture of sleep, leftover Cabochard perfume, Aqua Net and morning breath. Even though I knew her scent was not as good as say, donuts, white Chicklets — or a fresh squirt of fancy-lady perfume– it was the only place I wanted my nose to be.  Sometimes as I lay there, I would just stare at her in the dark until my eyes adjusted enough to see the outline of her biggish nose and when it got very light I would start mapping out her freckles.

“Stop counting my spots, you silly girl!” she would whisper so as not to wake Gramps.

“I love your polka dots,” I would say back.  To me, she was the most beautiful sight in the world.   Nobody’s face could make me happier.

These were the moments when I fell in love with “real.”

“Stop counting my spots, you silly girl!”

I would panic if she fell back asleep before me though.  That’s when I left gratitude, belonging and love, and ventured into worry.

What if…

What if she stops breathing….

What if those funny noises aren’t snores, but they are dying noises?

What would happen to me if I didn’t have her….

I miss her!


At this point, I would pull out my repertoire of stealth Yaya-awakening tricks, such as “the super-loud-fake-cough”, the “wiggle-the-bed-hula”, the “you-had-a-bug-on-you-so-I-thought-I-should-flick-it-off-of-your-cheek-maneuver” and of course—the original “I-wanted-to-see-if-my-finger-still-fits-in-your-nose” trick.  She patiently endured all of my prodding and just gave me a wink and a pat, and all was restored in my universe.

Um…I’m pretty sure Yaya wants me to wake her up with my popper machine…

Well into adulthood, whenever I would go visit Yaya, I would make a beeline to her room first thing in the morning, hop onto the bed and cuddle up with her, just like old times.  My very last memory of her alive, in fact, is of me on the bed with her, with my son Alex in my lap.  It was 2002, he was 1 month shy of his first birthday, and I was teaching him to count her freckles.  His pudgy little hand touched her face so gently…

“Stop counting my spots, you silly kids” she whispered for the last time, and although she was very weak, she managed that same confident, loving smile. The one that told me that all was okay.

“We love your polka dots!”  I responded smile-crying, sounding far more desperate than I’d intended.

Alex: I was thinking about hitch-hiking over to Toys R Us later. Wanna come?


The morning cuddle ritual has continued with my own young family, and they are often the most meaningful moments of my day.  Nothing feels better than that brief but significant bit of connectedness. Since I’m still an early bird, I’m usually the one who gets up first, and I go into my son’s room and plop onto his queen-sized bed.  My son got my grandmother’s peaceful nature, and he’s always happy to see me, no matter the hour.  The dogs, who seem to think we are in a perpetual parade and I’m the designated Grand Poo Bah, so they follow me everywhere. They jump up next, and then my daughter makes a guest appearance.  It becomes a two minute love-sponsored puppy pile. (Well, at least until one kid kicks the other one to get more “mama.”  Then it’s pretty much over.)

“Reporting for Puppy Pile”

Thus, I have managed to get my daily cuddle-fix via some darling, lovable surrogates.  However, it was not until recent events that I learned any better coping skills for those times when I miss my loved ones or time with them is cut short.   While it is true that I am no longer sticking my finger up people’s noses to make sure they are still alive (okay, maybe a couple of times I did this with my kids when they were  newborns …but I tried steamy mirror trick.  It doesn’t work!)  I can still find myself relying on my old tendencies to fervently seek reassurance until I know that “everything is okay” which can sometimes jettison myself right back into thoughts of lack and panic.

Case in point:  my son was away at a sleep-away science camp the other day, when I was having that “missing someone so much it makes your heart hurt” moment.  While I truly appreciated that he was getting some enriching time to learn, be with friends and become more independent, and my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our alone-time with our adorable (and SO well behaved when her brother is gone) daughter… I got that tug of “lack” as I passed by his room and saw his untouched bed.  My first instinct was to find an excuse to call the camp to make sure he was okay.  Of course, I knew that would embarrass him (and, er …me) so instead I did the only sane-adjecent thing I could think of.  I  scoured the camp website for photos of him.  Alas, there he was.  Wearing the same shirt as the day before…but alive, and without any evidence of Gangrene, Typhoid or Elephantitis.  He was not smiling in the first couple of shots (!!) but before I could dial 911, I scrolled over enough to see that he was having fun in another photo.  Peace was restored.  …Sort of.

I was still missing him.  Having a long history of sentimental mellow-drama, I was well on my way to go smell his pillow and cry mascara stains onto it when I stopped myself just two short blinks away from raccoon eyes.

…and this is what I remembered:

There is real pain. (I truly did feel a pang of pain in my heart for a moment when I passed by his room.)

But most real pain (the emotional kind) does not last that long. (It typically comes in short waves)

It is the stories we tell (and retell) ourselves ABOUT that pain that usually lasts the longest and causes us untold amounts of unnecessary pain. (What was I making his absence mean?)

Why do I say “unnecessary” pain?  Because it is healthy to go ahead and process real pain (it’s actually a good thing) but it is NOT necessary or healthy to fondle, distort, belabor our stories ABOUT that pain.

In other words… acknowledging that I truly did get a pang of pain over my son being gone when I wanted to be with him = healthy.  It was a true feeling.  I wanted to hug him and he was not physically there to hold, and that made me feel sad. Sadness is not something to reject, but rather, to accept as being part of the human experience.   It is something to feel, validate and let go of when done feeling it.  In fact, if I resist feeling it and try to repress it, the feelings they have the potential to store themselves in my body, grow, fester and manifest themselves in negative ways.

Feeling the pain is not the problem, it’s when we make that pain mean something else that we get into trouble.  When we super-charge it with energy from past wounds, unresolved feelings or fears,  we morph it into another entity and feed it until it grows—like a toxic shape shifter that can bring us down.  That = not so healthy.

When I caught myself, I was on the precipice of turning the story into a heart-wrenching, tearful soliloquy about how terrible my day is going to be because (quelle horreur!) I didn’t get my chance to wrap my son up like a burrito in his white comforter.  And I was even about to manufacture a story about (cue the sad music) how, by now, he might be lost in the woods crying out “Mama! Mama!  Mama, come save me!”(which he definitely was not.)  Through this process of worry-based imaginative storytelling, it is also very likely that I would attach all kinds of unresolved feelings about missing my grandmother in the morning, onto him.

These creatively enhanced versions might make for a more dramatic story to tell my friends (and I might actually get something out of that) but they do not not benefit me in terms of processing the real feelings of discomfort, and then moving along.

How did I get out of this neurotic loop?


I remembered to remember the following:

Feeling “lack” is optional.  …..We have other choices.

We can choose to feel something that is more peaceful.  …Choosing another, more peaceful feeling is not the same thing as being in denial.  i.e.-I acknowledged the truth.  The truth was that I missed him.  Nothing more, nothing less.

We have the choice to feel full instead of empty.   …Full with love, opportunity, and excitement for the next time.  

We can choose to be grateful.  ….What a pleasure it is to love this much.  What a gift it is to know such depths of love and connection.

We can also appreciate the freedom that change brings.   ….I’m often wishing I had more free time to spend with my daughter….what can I do with my time right now that would make us both feel great?  Maybe she would like to be in charge of the morning puppy-pile for once, and to have it in her room instead?

We can question the idea of “lack” in general.  ….Is it really “lack” when I have the blessing of this uninterrupted free time with my daughter and my son has this opportunity to have fun and grow more independent?

We can exchange negativity for the feeling of freedom.    ….I can validate my pain, and still free myself from my own negative thoughts.  I can even choose more peaceful ones.

We can question our expectations.  ….Who ever said that we are entitled to have access to our loved ones every moment until the end of time?  The truth is, we do not!  We never have.  So why do we keep getting so surprised by separation when it happens?  Why do we hold onto the kind of entitlement that leaves us feeling so short-changed when the inevitable (separation) happens?

There are countless other ways to turn around a thought, and by doing so…we have the opportunity to create new neural pathways.  With enough practice & repetition, these new neural pathways can lead us away from our old negative ways of thinking and take us to a place of more peace.


I ended up feeling far better about my son’s absence, and even my grandmother’s, once I shifted into a place of gratitude, broadened my definitions and entertained other ways of thinking.  Utilizing these tools also allowed me realize that, despite a whole TV season’s worth of Oprah-worthy introspection, there were still some unresolved issues I was carrying around about missing my grandmother. (You think?)


As it turns out, my son came home from camp, more confident than I had ever seen him.  He still had all his limbs and body parts, so hugs were given, stories exchanged and eventually I had my puppy pile anyway.  His hair smelled like dirt….but I wouldn’t want my nose to be anywhere else in the world.

Yet another opportunity to fall in love with real.



Dotty-Lotta, I love you more than there are freckles in Ireland…

Yaya at one of her “Annual 29th” Birthday Parties,
Top of the Mark – San Francisco

7 thoughts on “Morning Breath

  1. Ok. I am totally in tears. I know that same touch, smile and welcome of the spoon spot which was mine before I turned it over to you. You do not have to grieve about her so much because you have so much of her goodness in you sans the lotta dottas. She was a gift. When you came into my life you were a gift too. Yaya taught us how to love. Now you ate paying it forward to your babies. I am proud of you as a woman and a mom and as a person. I love you sweet pea.

  2. Speechless! I am speechless! I too long for my Grand-gand. You touched my heart. I feel like watching a feel good movie reading your story of your ya-ya. Thumbs up Michelle! Your holding the best part of your yaya legacy, all the thing you gives to your family is her that still lives on? I hope my little Rosalys will remember me as lovingly as you remeber your grand mother.

  3. I love that you are finding ways to bring your favorite memories with your yaya into your life today. In this way you make her love immortal. It will always be with you. And now it will live on in your kids.

  4. Best reading (and teary-eyed sniffles ) yet… what a lovely, loving tribute to your Yaya, and the eternal power of love! I am grateful for your honest and courageous sharing (in that oh-so-Michelle, no-mincing-allowed, funny voice of yours), and so proud of, amazed at, and excited for this journey into “Real” that you are so obviously relishing!

  5. Loved reading this Michelle.
    SO fortunate to have had your Yaya. She was your role model and now A & A will look back and have the same memories and feelings about you , and so the baton passes!

    Lisa Keen
    Corporate Account Director
    10700 Valley View Avenue
    Cypress, CA 90630
    714.892.7354 x. 208

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