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Grief

Grief, Guest Posts

Canada Geese

September 12, 2023
Geese on Pond

I live in a leafy northern suburb of New York City, and I am blessed with trees and ponds, deer, chipmunks, and songbirds galore. There’s a big pond about a mile from my house. When my gym shut down in March of 2020, I resorted to walking as recreation, and I chose the pond as my almost-daily walk’s destination. Since I live in a warren of cul-de-sacs, there is no block to walk around, as in “take a walk around the block; you’ll feel better,” one of my late mother’s favorite bits of advice. So, at some point I have to simply stop, turn around, and head home.

The pond has become my turn around point.

It’s a big pond, maybe two or three acres big (I am terrible at estimating such things) and sits on town land, about ten feet back from the road. In good weather I sometimes stop for a bit and look around, feel the breeze in my hair, listen to the cardinals scolding, the woodpeckers and titmice chirping, the tree frogs chattering. There’s a bird that sounds like a rusty swing: seeee-saw, it whistles. I like to watch the surface of the water, looking for the wide mouth bass reputed to hide out in the shallows. Last summer a big bull frog would protest if I tossed a stone in the water, bellowing like a moose.

All through the first Covid year, I turned around at the pond, then the next. Now here I am again, two years later, spring 2022. I toss a pebble, and there is silence; the bullfrogs haven’t emerged yet from their muddy hibernation.

Yesterday, two Canada Geese greeted me at the near side of the pond. The pair waddled toward me a little, then stood silently, watching me pass by – I was aiming for the far end of the pond that day. I found myself wondering if they are the same pair who nested here last summer.  Two Aprils ago I wrote in my journal,

Little pond looks still

then tall brown grasses rustle—

a goose making a nest.

All through that first COVID spring, summer and fall I watched them. First just the pair, with their sleek brown-feathered bodies and black velvet neck and head, the wide white stripe near their eyes. There were several days when I saw only one goose, and I hoped that meant the female was on the nest, back on the far side of the pond, where a stand of tall, dried marsh grasses and cattails stood. And then came the day when I saw the adults leading three fuzzy goslings for a swim. By late summer five look-alike geese lolled at the near side of the pond, munching on grass or snoozing in the dappled shade from a nearby oak. For a couple of weeks midsummer, they were joined by an egret, who kept to him- or herself at the opposite end of the pond, a white statue posing motionless on a fallen tree trunk, which I bet made a great spot for locating fish. In early October, I counted seven geese. I suspected that my goose family had been joined by two northern relatives stopping by on their way south for the winter.

And then all seven were gone—off to the Carolinas, I supposed.

And then my younger sister Grace died, just as suddenly, struck by a burst aneurism while eating dinner. A seemingly healthy, happy woman., she was gone in less than five minutes. The quiet pond over the next few months echoed my feeling of emptiness. For most of the winter it wasn’t even cold enough to freeze over. When it did, we had a few days of kids ice skating. But various logs and tall grass stalks interrupted the icy surface every here and there, making skating difficult. The kids gave up before the ice did.

***

As the days move through the seasons, warming up, then growing cold then warming once again, the pond has become somehow a reminder of Grace. It seems to not change at all for weeks at a time, then suddenly after an absence of a few days, everything seems different. It has frozen over; it has thawed. The geese arrive; a heron visits for a day or two. The leaves on the trees turn red and gold. And Grace is not here to see any of it.

And now, it’s spring again. I wonder if the geese at the pond this spring recognize me. But, of course, all Canada Geese look alike; it could be any two random birds there. I am struck that we humans are interchangeable like that.

I feel bad about my sister’s life being cut short. I already miss her, with her sincerity, her astute observations on people; her love of laughter. Her coaching clients will miss her wisdom. Her grandson will miss his Grandma Grace and her annual visit from California at Thanksgiving. Her daughter, given up for adoption when Grace was just a teenager and lost to us for so long, will miss her new-found birth mother. When the eligibility age for COVID shots was lowered last year, I thought for a moment, oh good, Grace qualifies now. And then I realized that she won’t get to see the end of this pandemic. Sometimes I wonder if any of us will.

Grace died in October of 2020, and already she’s starting to blur. I sometimes get little snatches of memory –me back in high school, yelling at her because she’d been into my lipstick and mascara (we shared a room and she was four years younger) – or the time we entered a contest to win tickets to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium by drawing the biggest Beatle Picture – pasting together reams and reams of newspapers and drawing a copy of the Beatles album cover with Magic Markers. I climbed out on the roof of our house to take a picture of her standing next to it spread out on the grass. (We didn’t win.)  Or the way she looked sitting on my couch back in Buffalo, where I was in grad school. She was so young, seven months along, playing with the kittens someone had left on our doorstep in a big cardboard box. But now there’s no one to share those memories with.

Grace’s clients will find a new life coach. Her daughter will carry on as one of the elders now, someone with her own recipe for banana bread and her own methods to remove stains from carpets. Grace will fade to a distant, if cherished, memory. And I wonder, is there anything I have done in my life that will have made any sort of difference in this world? I’ll die or move on to an assisted living facility and a youngish couple will move into my house. They’ll change out the paint color in the living room and redo the kitchen. They’ll take their children for walks to the pond and try to catch the long-mythologized wide mouth bass. And it will be as if I never lived here. I’m just another Canada Goose, indistinguishable by my plumage, making a few last circuits of the pond before it ices over.

The days are getting longer. The forsythia have bloomed and cherry trees are showing off their pink and white blossoms. Still no sign of nest-making at my pond. The sun rises higher in the sky, and the water is still. I guess the geese have found a new home somewhere else. The rusty-swing, seee-saw-calling bird sings out from its hiding place, seee-saw, seee-saw. I turn and walk home.

Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle (2014, Bridgeross) is a mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos and emails about caring for her schizophrenic brother. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Cordella, Adanna, Goatsmilk, Share Journal, and Landing Zone Magazine, in addition to The Manifest Station. Her website is www.katherineflannerydering.com.

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts

A Universal Language

July 3, 2022
language

Budoia, Italy 1983

I didn’t know their names, and barely spoke their language, but for months, each time the woman and her husband saw me, they would smile and call out, “buon giorno!”

It had been a week since I’d seen them, when I noticed the woman, dressed in black, standing alone in her yard. Her expression screamed heartache, so I went to her, mumbling “scusami.”

For the next hour we sat, her hands holding mine, her words pouring out as rapidly as her tears. On occasion I would nod, not understanding her words, but fully immersed in her grief.

Tom Gumbert and wife Andrea, live near an Adena Burial Mound in SW Ohio. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Tom was stationed in Italy in the early 80’s. He feels fortunate to have had stories published alongside those of his literary heroes.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, Self Love

Hair Is More Than Serious Business: It’s Identity

June 26, 2022
hair

Long ago a friend handed me a book called Five Sisters: memoirs by five 19th-century Russian anarchists whose fierce idealism, at the cost of tremendous personal sacrifice and a certain cold-blooded willingness to commit murder, helped bring about the assassination of Tsar Alexander I in 1881. It was full of photos of these young women, dark-eyed and intense, with masses of dark hair. “They remind me of you,” my friend said. I was young, but no revolutionary—I couldn’t even watch violent movies. Still their single-minded, fearless gaze, conveying pure refusal, struck a chord. Even more: all that hair.

In 1958, my mother had made me cut my hair. I was twelve, about to enter seventh grade and, said my mother, to be grown up. I had gotten my period and begun wearing a bra, and she was following the rules of her time, place, and class, which decreed that becoming a woman meant cutting your little-girl long hair short.

I resisted—I liked my shoulder-length hair, straight but with a slight wave, and very thick—but she was determined that I be properly inducted into womanhood. She dragged me to what was then called the beauty parlor, where a peroxided stylist gave me what was known as a bubble cut, and I joined the ladies of the hair roller brigade under the dryer.

I was so miserable, hating my new bubble head, that behind my back my mother asked my friends to tell me it looked great. (They did in front of her but ratted her out later.) The worst of it was that I couldn’t grow my hair back and have what I had before, since after that cut it stopped being straight and became bushy and unmanageable. I had been inducted not only into womanhood but into a long struggle with pincurls, rollers, and hair spray, and later straighteners and French braids, none of which could tame it. I didn’t know that this change in texture was due to normal hormonal changes of puberty and would have manifested eventually anyway, so it felt doubly unfair.

In college, I learned from Glamour magazine that now, in the liberated sixties, a “girl” no longer had to cut her beautiful long hair when she joined the workforce, as long as she kept it perfectly polished and groomed. My hair was long again but it was too late. Hairdressers didn’t know what to do with it. Over the years I went from long to short to long again, always trying to make it behave against its nature. I fought my hair for decades.

In cutting it off, my mother was obeying the precepts of a faith practiced by women of a striving immigrant middle class. She revered Eugenia Sheppard, an enormously influential fashion columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, and her temple was Loehmann’s, a famous discount store where the labels were ripped out but discerning shoppers recognized quality brands by the linings. Her scripture was the laws dictating how a woman should be and dress and look in the 1950s and early sixties.

My parents, children of Russian Jewish immigrants, had made it out of Brooklyn into a spanking-new Long Island suburb, and like many others at the time, my mother wanted more than anything to be American. “Immigrants emulated what they considered to be upper class,” social historian Carole Turbin told me. My mother’s rules “related to class and assimilation, wanting to be a lady and be respectable.” A lady dressed formally (a dress, nylons, and in the summer, white gloves) when she went into the city; never left the house without makeup on; wore a girdle so her backside didn’t jiggle; and kept her hair cut and controlled. During a family road trip around 1960, we were stuck in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a few hours, wandering around downtown while my father took the car to be fixed. My mother fretted the whole time because she and I were wearing shorts, which according to her creed were inappropriate for a city street. How you dressed was who you were—not that you chose your clothes to express who you were, but that by following the rules you defined yourself as existing within specific boundaries. Parading through a city in shorts put us outside those limits.

She pressured me relentlessly to match her notion of how I should be. We fought over clothes she wanted me to wear: a lemon-yellow spring coat; a silk party dress whose bodice she had altered to be so tight that sitting down was uncomfortable. When I tried to refuse that coat she got really angry, and I think now that she was frightened by what might become of me if I didn’t fit the template. Like the Russian anarchists, I was rejecting rigid social constraints. But unlike them I had no philosophy pointing me toward an alternative vision.

My mother had sewn me beautiful dresses when I was little, and probably to imitate her, as little girls do, I started sewing on her basement machine, beginning with simple gathered skirts and progressing to complicated outfits. Like her too, I knitted. In college I knitted an entire dress while reading Jacobean drama from a textbook large enough to lie open on my lap. After college I got married, as so many girls did, largely because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Living in Chicago the next winter, I went to Marshall Field every Saturday to join the yarn department knitting circle whose instructor helped me knit a tweed suit with cardigan jacket and pleated miniskirt. I still wear that jacket but every time I put it on I think of those afternoons when I could have been doing something else, and feel a vague discomfort.

But only recently did I seriously ask myself why I did all that sewing and knitting.  For I had no vocation for making clothing. I didn’t even particularly enjoy it. What I did have a vocation for—though nobody noticed, including me—was writing. My very first published work, around age 13, was a letter to American Girl magazine responding to a story they had printed. I had studied the published letters and deliberately imitated their gushy tone and quirky comment at the end. It worked, although now I ask myself why I didn’t just write in my own voice. Probably it never occurred to me that any voice I might have was worth listening to. But I date the origin of my writing career before that, to the moment I “flew up” (as the transition was called) from the Brownies to the Girl Scouts and decided that the writing badge was the only one I wanted. While I was too impatient (and still am) to be really skillful working with my hands, I have no trouble rewriting a sentence fifty times to make it perfect. So why did I spend all those hours at a sewing machine instead of a typewriter?

I want to say, because she cut my hair. Because in my mind hair, clothes, and the Russian anarchists are mixed up together. They’re all about identity.

*****

“If you are a Black woman, hair is serious business. Your hair is considered by many the definitive statement about who you are, who you think you are, and who you want to be,” writes novelist Marita Golden. And in different ways, hair was and is about identity for women of all skin colors. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837­–98) was renowned for her extraordinary beauty and above all for the thick chestnut hair that fell below her knees. “If I were to have my hair cut short in order to get rid of an unnecessary weight,” she confided to Constantin Christomanos, who tutored her in Greek during the two or three hours required each day for her hairdresser to construct her heavy crown of braids, “the people would fall upon me like wolves”—as though her hair were what made her their empress.

A teenager I know created an Instagram self-portrait that began with a photo of her magnificent Afro puff. “I love my hair,” she explained. “That’s who I am.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes, “As a child I already knew that I possessed long hair that was trapped inside a short cut. I also figured out, as I got older, that I was a freethinker trapped within Orthodox Judaism, a feminist trapped in paternalism, a novelist trapped in the rules of my own rigorous academic discipline. My hair’s struggles have been my struggles.” Some women liberate themselves by cutting long hair short. Google “cutting my hair freed me” and you find many testimonials to this effect. But I say, with poet Honor Moore, “My power resides in the length and thickness of my hair, and I will never give it up.”

Many cultures see hair as a conduit of energy with magical and spiritual potency: thus Samson’s oath to God not to cut his hair gave him extrahuman power until Delilah tricked him and had it cut off. Marita Golden notes that for Black women, hair “is an expression of our souls.” Kelissa McDonald, a Rastafarian, told Allure, “For me, locs are almost an extension of my crown chakra energy. They act as antennas, you know? My hair helps me to discern the intentions of people, actually.” Melissa Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe, explained that her hair was waist-length because indigenous people “are the roots of this land, so these are our receptors that are connecting us with the land. It’s an old saying: The longer your hair, the closer connection you have to the earth.” No wonder twelve-year-old me didn’t want a haircut.

Empress Elisabeth also complained to Christomanos, “I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards.” I know exactly what she meant. I’ve always had the notion that my hair is so thick and unruly because I think so much. But unlike Elisabeth, I got headaches because my thinking energy stayed stuck inside my head. In any case, cutting the hair interrupts that life force, as happened to Samson—and, I would say, to me in that beauty parlor, just as the sexual and psychic energy of womanhood was waking up.

In her pioneering feminist book The Female Eunuch, whose central claim is that women have been effectively castrated, Germaine Greer defines castration as “the suppression and deflection of Energy.” In exactly this way cutting my hair severed my connection with my own identity and deflected the energy that could have been focused on writing into those hours at the sewing machine. My mother tried in myriad ways to force me into the mold of the perfect fifties female, but this one is the wound that left a scar. Unable even to imagine what I might choose to do, I fell back on what the culture and my mother were telling me I ought to be doing. While writing this essay I read and heard numerous stories of traumatic haircuts inflicted by mothers on daughters, motivated largely by wanting the daughter to fit into the cultural constraints required of females—the girdle we all wore.

***

My mother’s girdle mostly lived in a drawer because it was so uncomfortable she rarely wore it. But she never stopped trying to justify flouting the girdle rule, and her rationalizations never quite satisfied her. Probably this was why she never made me wear one. But for years I wore a mental girdle. The Russian anarchists went beyond refusing the limits that bound women in their time; they tried to destroy the stifling social order that oppressed everyone, in order to create a new society. I think I also perceived in them, dimly, a determination to achieve an authentic identity. And today I understand as well that refusal isn’t enough: one must go beyond that. For me it took years. When I saw their photos and felt that kinship, I was still at the beginning of an evolution. I had managed to flout my mother’s expectations, getting divorced, living alone, and working freelance. The moment I left my husband, I started to write. It didn’t end the headaches, but it got some of that stuck energy out of my head. I discovered that writing is when I feel most essentially myself. But it took my hair a while to catch up.

***

Unruly, wild hair disturbs people, especially on a woman’s head; thus Medusa was a monster who had to be slain by a hero. So the only thing most hairdressers I handed my hair over to could find to do with it was cut it off, so short that it couldn’t curl much—until I found Rose, a hairdresser unafraid of curls. I was still in thrall to the idea that my hair could only be managed if kept fairly short, but it now curled as it pleased all over my head.

In spring 2019, I let it get longer than usual because I was too busy to go for a cut. But it looked ok. Time passed and it still looked fine, so I let it slide a few weeks more. Then I asked Rose about keeping it long. “What you want is a curly shag,” she said, and gave me one. It looked fantastic. Just as important, it felt fantastic. I went home and let it grow some more.

Several inches later it dawned on me that I had my original hair back—my heavy, unruly mop—and that I loved it. I loved the feel of it—not just its weight, but the visceral sense that weight gave me that I was completely me again. Representative Ayana Pressley perfectly describes that experience in her video revealing that she has alopecia. About five years before, she says, “I got these Senegalese twists, and I feel like I met myself fully for the first time. I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh, there I am!'” For me it was mystical: I felt solider, stronger, braver, that I had attained a deeper level of being me. And it still looked really good. I saw that my tough curly hair only worked when it could be itself, and I had freed it to do that. It was a revelation to discover how happy I was to have it back, even though it took quarts of shampoo to get clean and half a day to dry. Rose’s cut was so excellent that my hair usually looked good no matter what I did with it. And if it didn’t, I didn’t care.

That, at least, was my theoretical position. Then the coronavirus put it to the test. The lockdown hit just before I was due for a cut. The hair salons closed. So for a while I had more hair than I ever bargained for. I retrieved hairstyles from my past: pony tail! French braids! Twists! What’s now called a “messy bun”—the only kind I could ever make, lucky for me it’s now an actual style. I unearthed my hoard of old barrettes and went to buy more, only to discover that they’ve mostly given way to clips. Ok, I got clips. And I found antique barrettes on eBay.

Then my partner and I needed masks, but masks were still hard to find. I never sew anymore, except for occasional utilitarian repairs, but I still have fabric scraps left over from garments I made long ago—not to mention my mother’s sewing cabinet, a neat little piece of furniture dating back at least to the 1940s that still contains some of her sewing leftovers. So I rifled through everything and came up with enough fabric and old bits of ribbon and ancient packets of seam binding to make two masks. True to form, I was impatient, so they looked rather slapdash, but they did the job. I took a certain satisfaction in retrieving those old skills, plus the whole process resurrected a weird feeling of connection to my mother—the past returning into the present, but on my terms.

When the salons reopened, I returned to Rose with still more hair and told her how much I loved it. So we kept it long, and I went home and watched it grow more, until its weight pulled barrettes out of place and and gave me a headache. Eventually we settled on shoulder length, manageable though not particularly neat. I no longer mind it sticking out wildly, though. The imperative to look “good” has slipped still further away, and I’m left with just the satisfaction of having my hair back—and owning myself.

Stephanie Golden is a book author and collaborator, book doctor, and journalist in Brooklyn, NY. Her books include “The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness” (University of California Press, a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award) and “Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice” (Harmony Books). She also wrote 7 books in collaboration with experts, mostly on fitness and health. Recently she’s been writing essays.

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Have you ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Gratitude, Grief, Guest Posts

I Say Goodbye and You Say Hello

June 19, 2022
flowers on table time

“When it comes time for you to leave, try to just slip away without him noticing. Do not make a big deal out of saying goodbye which could confuse him, especially in the beginning.”

That was the advice the nurse manager gave to my family when we moved my dad into a memory unit once his Alzheimer’s became too much for my mom to manage at home. The thought of leaving without saying goodbye made my heart break, but I wanted to do the right thing for my dad so I would visit and then wordlessly walk away, wondering how soon or if he ever noticed I was no longer holding his hand and walking the hallways alongside him. Soon I missed the bear hugs that were always a part of our farewell ritual, so I would begin our visits with them instead. “Dad, I’m going to leave in a little while,” I would say, hugging him when I first arrived. “This is me saying goodbye now in case I don’t have the chance to later.”

One time, about six months into my dad’s stay, I tried to slip away, but he kept following me. I could not make myself leave while he was standing there watching me. A member of staff noticed and tried to redirect my dad, but my dad, who by now rarely spoke out loud, stood his ground and said to her, “leave me alone, I just want to say goodbye to my daughter”. That was all the permission I needed to rush into his arms for that familiar hug, look into his eyes and say “goodbye for now, dad,” which I did at the end of every visit after that.

I said my final goodbye to him as he was taking his last breaths, grateful to be able to be with him in spite of the pandemic. Or at least I thought I said my final goodbye. Minutes after my dad passed away I had to call the funeral director. Saying out loud, for the first time that my dad died felt like I was saying goodbye all over again.

The conversation with the funeral director was just the beginning. The next morning I had to call the rabbi and the cemetery to make burial arrangements. There were uncles, aunts and cousins to be notified. Each call, each time I had to repeat the words ‘my dad died’, was like re-opening a goodbye wound that was barely beginning to heal. I began to wonder if it ever would.

Once I came home from the funeral I had to tie up my dad’s affairs, calling his bank, insurance, credit card and several other companies to tell them my dad died. Over and over again I found myself saying goodbye to my father for what I thought was the last time and each time was as painful as those early days in the assisted-living memory unit and the day he died.

For the first few weeks after my dad passed, I experienced pop-up grief that would come as I was driving to the grocery store or gassing up my car or making dinner. A flash memory of my dad – teaching me to check the oil in my first car or standing by the stove chopping onions for his famous home fries – would hit me and instantly tears would flow. And with each time, I felt another painful goodbye. Desperate for help, I finally asked my dad to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay and that I would be okay, and maybe my pop-up grief and ‘goodbye’ pain would stop.

In early January a friend sent me a calendar she made to celebrate the new year. As soon as it arrived I looked through and noticed she added a little saying to one day of each month.  On January 1st she put ‘Happier New Year’. On February 23rd, ‘It’s a glorious day’. I skipped to June to see the message for my birth month, and saw ‘Someone is missing you’ on the 17th, which happens to be my dad’s birthday. And there he was, popping up to say…hello.

Devra Lee Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice and hospital volunteer, in awe of and fascinated by death, life and all the experiences in between. Her essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Black Holes

June 12, 2022
light

My son and I stand on the driveway bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us. It is the Blood Moon Eclipse. Astronomers tell us an event precisely like this has not been seen in 580 years. He set an alarm for 3:30am to watch it happen and opened the door of my bedroom to pull me from the edges of fuzzy sleep and stand here alongside him. Our feet are cold on the concrete, and we stand side by side. We are alone with no one else awake at this hour to watch. The edge of the moon is bright like a crescent, the rest of it shaded a deep red. I stare at the shadowed shape beyond nearly empty November branches. I let the silence settle around us, and “Wow!” is all he can say, eyes wide. “Mom, just look.”

My son is twelve and obsessed with all things science. He reads biographies of famous scientists, watches YouTube explanations of scientific concepts, and has his own laminated copy of the periodic table. Among this fascination for science lies an overwhelming attraction to the cosmos. The swirling galaxies of stars and planets, the little we know and the long list of things we don’t yet understand. I wake with him at 3:30 to see the eclipse because I have learned through his eyes to see the phenomena as he sees them, vast and mysterious and endlessly interesting.

I have a photo of my own father when he was my son’s age. Freckles scattered across his nose like stars, a chip on his tooth as he smiled, eyes shining through the veil of the glossy, sepia-toned paper and across the stretch of decades between this moment and that one. Like a scientist, I look for clues connecting his DNA with my son’s. Their eyes, their hair, their searching spirits stretching backwards and forwards and through the blurry hands of time. I wonder if the two of them can somehow find each other across the swirling cosmos.

We talk about the universe, the stars, the moon, and the space in between. At the dinner table, driving down the road, packing lunches, as we place piles of folded laundry where they belong. My son asks me what I think about these unknowns, explaining to me what he believes and the connections he makes between all of his reading and watching. Last year, his favorite topic was black holes. By the end of the summer, he knew more about them than I’d ever cared to know and would prattle endlessly at me explaining as I half-listened, getting lost in his wordy explanations and listings of facts. “Did you know, Mom, that black holes can be millions of times heavier than the sun? Black holes are born when a star dies and explodes on itself, and then the hole just grows bigger and bigger.”

I watch him grow bigger, too. His shoulders broaden and he grows taller everyday. I watch the baby cheeks fall off his face and the jaw become more defined. I watch him reading his science books in the living room with his long, bony legs folded up beside him on the couch. I watch him as he begins to understand sarcasm and laugh at the same jokes that I do and as he begins to spend more time alone. I watch the space between us change shape and become larger as he grows.

I chop vegetables at the kitchen counter while my son explains again the process of exploding stars creating black holes. I make piles of red peppers, onions, and tomatoes, organizing them in separate stacks, while he tells me about what cannot be categorized or fully understood. “Black holes are invisible,” he explains. “But scientists know they exist because they can bend light, and then in space, people can see the light around them.” He leaves me thinking about exploding light and expansive voids, and my imagination finds itself squarely back in 1986. My father, with his unexpected accident like an explosion on the constellation map of my life. His end wasn’t the slow fade of a long life well lived, but instead a human star eclipsed in a moment of cosmic surprise. Not a gradual end but an explosion of light like a firework, a flame folding in on itself over and over until you cannot see it anymore. A gravitational pull, my father’s short life has bent the light around it for decades so that I know it’s there even as it isn’t.

When I held my son for the first time, the veil was especially thin, though I wasn’t ready for it. A moment that felt heavier than the sun. Studying his face, which was entirely new to me but somehow also entirely known, the light bent around us. We fell into some place, the two of us, squarely in this hole that I have been swimming in and out of ever since, the place where I stand as a binding thread between a boy and the grandfather he never met. As my son grows through ages and phases, I swim with the current of what could have been, wondering what they’d think of each other, what they’d say if they were to meet.

Months ago, I took a quick snapshot of my son on the morning of his elementary school graduation. He wasn’t ready for the camera, so I didn’t get a posed smile but instead a glance somewhere beyond where I’m standing. He looks solid and true and squarely in the middle of that space between boyhood and manhood, galaxies before him and unknown paths ahead. My older cousin saw the photo and sent me a message. Wow. The first thing I thought about when looking at this photo is your father. I see traces of your dad in him here. I see him here. I just wanted to tell you that.

I swallowed the knot in my throat and did the exercise I have done a million times before, put their photos back-to-back in my phone camera roll and flip repeatedly between them. Dissecting the faces. Eyes, nose, hair, mouth. Nothing is precisely the same, yet there is something there, the star folding in on itself. He asks me, “Did you know black holes don’t even have a surface, but the gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing can escape it, not even light? It’s like they are just emptiness, but they are powerful.” And when he sees my concentration on something else or my thoughts far away, he’ll add, “Mom? Are you listening?”

I’m listening. My father is not here to see us standing on the driveway with our sleepy eyes and bed hair, huddled in blankets, staring at the shadowy moon. But then again, he is. The light bends in a way I can see with my heart if not my eyes. I have so few things of his, but I do have his old copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a work I cannot read cover to cover because it is as overwhelming to me as the cosmos. It tells me death is as sure for that which is born, as birth is for that which is dead. Exploding stars don’t return to nothingness.

There is so much I will never understand, both about the cosmos and the small and particular life I was given. As we stand on the driveway, bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us, I marvel at the moon and the sun, the golden November leaves hanging on the branches, stars, fire, memory and time, the oldest trees, rolling mountains, the deep ocean, the infinite space in front of us, how small we are but these lives are all we know. Maybe my father is there somewhere, watching us across the stretch of space and time, or maybe instead he is right here in the space between us where the light bends. I feel my cold toes and folded arms, the weight of silence as we stare. I watch my son’s bony frame angled to the sky, his hair resting on his forehead, his searching eyes, the pull of empty space holding the whole universe together.

*this piece appeared previously in Braided Way Magazine

Katie Mitchell is an English teacher who lives in suburban Atlanta with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Appalachian Review, HerStry, Braided Way Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. She is endlessly curious about the ways the natural world mirrors our internal landscape.  A seventh generation southerner, she is currently at work on a memoir about grief for both people and places that are long gone. You can find her occasionally on Twitter or Instagram @mamathereader.

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Grief, Guest Posts, moving on

Jimmy Five

May 15, 2022
jimmy

Every morning, I opened my bedroom door to find him just sitting there.

“We have to talk,” he seemed to say.

Spine erect, forearms straight under his shoulders, he appeared to want a serious heart to heart.

“Oh,” I’d say, “Good morning,” as I’d side step around him, and disappear into the bathroom.  On the toilet, I’d wonder why, of all the places there are to sit in this apartment, he’d sit there. And how long had he been sitting there, anyway? A few minutes? All night?

***

“We have to talk,” Jimmy would say on a nightly basis–his attempt to give me an order from behind the half living room wall where he was sitting in the dark. I had just gotten home from my late night’s teaching. How long had he been sitting there? A few minutes? All night?

“I’m tired, I’m going to bed,” I’d say. Sometimes I’d wake in the early morning hours to find him sitting on the chair by our bed, staring at me.  When we’d met 25 years earlier, he’d made me feel safe. Valued. Adored. I’d grown up in a family where I was none of those. Jimmy’s transformation from safe zone to potential threat jarred me.

I told him I wanted a divorce, after two decades of trying everything I could not to. After I’d finally put the word “divorce” out there, I began to feel hunted. Not where the hunter slays the prey, but where the aim is to capture, cage, and never, ever release. A few years later, when we were able to resume a semblance of our prior friendship, he would tell me that indeed he felt I was his possession. That he knew it was wrong, but men are animals after all.

***

By the time I’d finished in the bathroom, Five–named after Tank Five, the sewage tank at the Hunts Point treatment plant Jimmy had rescued him from—was poking around my bedroom, sniffing at specks of something on the floor. Until he sensed me returning, and scampered off.

***

“Jimmy, you read my journals!”

“I was looking for answers,” he claimed.

“You had no right!”

He suspected I was fantasizing about another man, like a woman who still hoped. His suspicions were correct, but he had no right to my fantasies.

I crouched on the floor, gathering the laundry–still our laundry–when I saw my journals had been moved and one was laying open.

I continued thrusting my hand into pockets, looking for loose change, receipts, lighters. I pulled out my underwear instead. From his shirt pocket, his sweatpants pocket. Was he hoping to hold onto a sexual connection by clinging to my intimate clothing? Our bodies had belonged to each other when the relationship was committed. His addictions severed that connection. Was this his way to try to tape it back together?

“I picked up your panties by accident,” he lied, his gaze veering out the window.

“They’re not panties,” I said, his desperation weighing on us both. “They’re underwear. I don’t leave my underwear lying around.”

He twitched his right shoulder and walked out.

***

I had put off telling Jimmy I needed a divorce for more than a decade by scrubbing the kitchen counters. Sweeping the floor. Putting random items back where they belonged, while simultaneously developing sonar to place Jimmy’s stealth-like disappearances into a bedroom or out onto the terrace. We were a family with two young boys we both adored. A family is all I’d ever wanted. When he’d disappear, I thought he was privately taking a few hits on a joint. Swallowing a pain pill. But I was there with him mentally draining the fuel from the lighter, preventing the bottle from opening. Willing him back to being with us.  When he did reappear, I kept my back to him. He’d wrap his arms around me from behind. Kiss my neck. I’d stiffen, though the kisses were sweet.

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

“I’m not done.” I pulled out of his embrace.

I wouldn’t stop until he stopped.

“Take a break,” he repeated, grabbing hold of my forearms. “Finish later.”

“No,” I said, jerking out of his grasp. “I’m not done.”

“You don’t know how to relax.” He left the room.

***

One morning, Five sat in his usual spot. Just staring. But as I passed him to go to the kitchen to make coffee, he swatted at my leg. He swatted again. Ran after me. Swatted again.

“Ok. I’ll pet you, I’ll pet you,” I said, leaning over.

It was our first petting session since he’d arrived in my home. Tentatively, I managed a few strokes on the top of his head, then wiggled a few fingers under his chin. He nuzzled into my hand. I made a fist as he dragged his mouth across my knuckles. His tail straightened and switched back and forth. Then he parted his pink lips to drag his long thin teeth across my thumb as though they itched and my thumb provided welcome scratching. When he took a gentle nibble of my knuckle, I pulled my hand away, afraid another nibble might turn into a bite.

He jumped onto his hind legs and wrapped his forepaws around my shins, batting at them, then hugging them, then batting at them again. A frenzied dance. Thankful for my pajama bottoms, I backed away and he ran off.

***

I had lobbied hard for a dog when our two boys were little. Our building didn’t allow dogs, but Jimmy was the co-op board president. “At least put a vote on the agenda,” I pleaded.

“Let’s just get a cat,” he always said. “They’re less work.”

The bottom line was, he wasn’t a dog guy. He was a cat guy. Unfortunately, I was a dog gal. We ended up with hamsters and guinea pigs, and a snake once. Even the boys agreed they were poor substitutes.

***

Jimmy asked me to police him when we first got together.

“Everything I’ve loved, I’ve lost because of my drinking,” he’d said after one of our first fights. “I’ll stop.”

And he did. Stop drinking.

I knew he continued smoking pot. I drank wine on the weekends, so who was I to tell him to stop pot, too? I didn’t realize how much he smoked. When I asked why I found lighters everywhere, he said, “For safety.” And the Visine bottles? “I’m a welder.”

I didn’t know about the pain pills. I knew he sweat a lot.

I saw the empty orange pill bottles with the labels scratched off, but didn’t connect the dots.  I thought he needed them and took them when he was in pain. Who was I to decide how much pain he was in? A bad back, a bad knee, and even bad teeth had parlayed into prescriptions from no less than five doctors:  his back doctor, his knee doctor, his primary care physician, his pain management doctor, and often the dentist. Opioid abuse had yet to make headlines with lawsuits and staggering statistics. I never saw all the bottles at once, only after they were empty. I’d taken codeine after surgery for impacted wisdom teeth and immediately felt nauseous. I completely missed, in the beginning anyway, that pain pills could be recreational.

***

For years, he left our apartment before 6 a.m. to get to a job that was a 15-minute drive away, and he didn’t need to clock in until 7 a.m. I finally realized he left early so he didn’t have to help with any part of waking two kids, feeding them, getting them dressed, their lunches made, their school bags packed, and off to their destinations.

When my son’s schedules changed so I had to get all of us out the door by 7 a.m., I demanded Jimmy help.

“Well, you know, Corinne, it’s a very busy time for me,” he responded immediately.

I stared at him. “Jimmy, you drink coffee, watch the news, then get in the car and drive to work.”

Even he saw the gaping hole in his argument. He took over making the lunches and packing the school bags. His lunches were much better than mine and he always drew a picture on the boys’ napkins of something each was into: surfing, soccer, holidays, then signed them, Love Mommy and Daddy, until one son reached his teens and finally asked him to stop. Not drawing on the napkins, just signing them Love Mommy and Daddy.

He had always been the parent in stressful times, too. He was the one who slept with them when they were sick and rubbed their foreheads, who held them while the doctor removed a cast or stitched a wound. I was the first to be sent away because I’d start crying, too, making things worse.

But day to day life, he preferred to slink away.

I’m not sure he ever realized how much it hurt me that he wasn’t instinctively by my side helping, how much it took away from my desire for him. I loved him as my best friend, but the childishness of running from responsibilities, viewing them as drudgery, rather than labors of love, killed desire.

It was simply not sexy.

***

Neither is nodding out, which as the boys grew older and needed less direct parenting, he did more frequently, and I was confronted with the reality that he did not take pills solely for pain. Watching Jimmy’s bloodshot eyes flap closed over his plate of chicken and pilaf one evening, I thought, Well, it’s not like he’s driving a car. The second I realized I was trying to put a positive spin on where and when one nods out, I knew the only option left was divorce.

***

You fuckin’ addict, I’d think, when he nod out tying his shoes, though I’d woken up that morning full of resolve to try something else to address this disease. It didn’t matter that I knew that was not how it works.

He stopped seeing himself, and I stopped recognizing us. He was exhausting and exhausted. Anger and sadness were the only emotions I had left. I did not want my boys to think this is who their mother is.

***

One evening we went to bed and both of us were on our backs staring at cracks in the ceiling plaster. I knew we both knew. It was over.

“Love me, Corinne,” I heard Jimmy say. “Please, just love me,” his voice weak and tender. I turned away from him, my silence devastating us both.

***

Jimmy replaced me with a shelter cat as soon as we split up. A few years later, our older son Seamus could no longer witness the abuse of the restaurant cat locked in the basement where he was a waiter. Jimmy drove his black van to the restaurant and waited for Seamus to emerge on his break with a cardboard box that emitted barely audible meows. When a woman friend of Jimmy’s needed a home for her mother’s cat after her mother had had to move into assisted living, Jimmy volunteered to take that cat, too. Five, his fourth cat, he’d literally rescued from drowning in shit.

***

At the same time he was collecting cats, he went back to drinking. He began a cycle of detox and rehab, although he only actually completed one rehab session. In between, he’d work, ride his bike, try to connect with old friends, even go out for dinner and a movie with me and our boys, but he’d always end up back at the beginning.

“What happened to me?” he’d ask on our drive to detox. Again. “Why do I do this? Was I molested? Did I block it out?”

“I don’t know, Jimmy. I can’t know. Only you can figure it out.”

“I’m terrified,” he’d say. He knew he was killing himself.

But figuring it out meant opening himself up after having spent years completely locking himself down. His inability to be vulnerable kept him stuck. Jimmy did things perfectly or he didn’t do them at all. His world grew smaller and smaller. Not feeling pain made joy a flatliner, as well.

***

Finally, after decades of taking Percocet, Oxycontin, Tramadol, and Hydrocodone, he came home from his final stay in detox, laid down on the couch, and opened another bottle of Hennessy.

He was dead within 24 hours. Maybe 48.

Day of death is marked as the day the body is found, not the actual time of death. We were married for 21 years, together for 23, enmeshed for seven more, and I don’t know exactly when he died. I do know he was alone, surrounded by his cats. Most likely, Five was close by.

I wasn’t.

I didn’t hold his hand. I didn’t rub his forehead. I didn’t whisper “I love you” over and over.

My consciousness became cloudy. Thoughts about work, or which son needed what, or what I needed to pick up from the grocery store were interlaced with, You killed him. You left him and he died. If you hadn’t left, your boys would still have a father. You’d still have the person who guided you, even if he couldn’t guide himself.

My dreams fueled my guilt. In one, he stood against a wall, his face and body screaming a silent anger. I thought it was at me, but maybe it was at death itself. Then his forehead started to cave in and I forced myself awake before I watched his entire body get consumed by invisible flames.

We’d had him cremated.

The man who entered my life as a protector, a guide, an emotional balance, and a source of so much laughter, had been eaten from the inside out by his addictions and was now in a jar. I’d told that jar how sorry I was. That I couldn’t help him. That he had died alone. Contrary to the saying, We are NOT born alone. Every mother knows that. No one should die alone, either. Not being there when he died, haunted me.

***

Five didn’t want to leave Jimmy’s apartment and I didn’t want to bring him to mine, but no one else wanted him or his rescued siblings. Shelters had long waiting lists and no guarantee to not put them down if they were not adopted swiftly. While the other cats adjusted easily to their new home, Five hid silently for weeks under my son’s bed. Then he started lurking outside my bedroom door.

***

When I discovered Five in my room in the middle of the night, sitting next to my bed, spine erect, forepaws straight underneath, looking calmly up at me after I had awoken from yet another disturbing dream, I began to grow suspicious. Five made me feel like I was living with Jimmy. In looks and actions. Impossible and weird, I know. This cat was hunting me, spying on me and it felt very familiar. Did he want to know if someone new was in my bed? Would he pounce if there was?

One morning, Five wasn’t in his usual spot. I thought he had moved on from demanding “We have to talk,” but then I saw him on the living room bench, his rear quarters hovering above the ground, his tail straight and elevated, unable to sit, unable to stand.

As sick as he was, he put up a tremendous fight as we tried to take him to the vet. Our younger son Liam had to wear Jimmy’s welding gloves to get him into the cat carrier. The vet injected a sedative through the carrier wall and tests revealed that Five had a thickened bladder wall, a chronic condition. He would need life-long pain medication and muscle relaxers. He was prescribed Buprenorphine for pain.

***

Buprenorphine was the last opiate Jimmy had been prescribed. He’d Googled Is Buprenorphine addictive? right before he died. Buprenorphine was supposed to be like Methadone–pain medication you take when trying to wean off of pain medication.

***

The woman who had become Jimmy’s close friend, although he had wanted more, came to my apartment for the first time on the anniversary of his death. We both needed to mourn the man we loved. Five cautiously entered the room. As soon as she saw him, she said, “Oh my god, he looks just like Jimmy.”

***

One morning, Five didn’t greet me when I opened the door. I panicked until I found him lying underneath a living room chair. I stroked his fur, and he looked at me calmly, but meowed nothing. When I returned home from work, he was laying on my bed with his head on my pillow, a place he’d never laid before. I laid down next to him and rubbed his forehead and stroked his chin. After dinner, he had moved to the carpet in my son’s room. At 3 a.m., my son alerted me that Five had been sick on the floor. By the time we got him to the vet, his kidneys were failing.

It was time.

Sedatives allowed him to rest with some comfort. The vet had placed his head on a pillow and wrapped him in a thick towel.  There’d been a sweat stained pillow under Jimmy’s head when Seamus had found him dead on the couch. Seamus wanted to spare us and told Liam and me not to come. He waited with Jimmy’s body alone until the police arrived. I understood and appreciated his protectiveness. Being spared though, that leaves a different kind of hole.

***

Liam and I held Five’s paw/hand and stroked his fur/hair and murmured loving words as Five left this world as every living thing should. And I thanked Jimmy for coming back as Five and allowing me to be there. This time.

***

I know this was Jimmy’s gift to me. Only he knew how much I needed it.

Corinne O’Shaughnessy is a retired New York City public school literacy teacher. Her essays have appeared in HerStry.com, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, reideasjournal.com, and DorothyParkersAshes.com. Her short fiction has been published in SurvivorLit.org and BookofMatchesLit.com. She also recently read “Five” at The Haunted gathering of Read650.org.

She currently resides in Mexico where she is trying to learn Spanish and become a better dancer. She is also the proud mama of two grown sons.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

I missed how my massage therapist always began with cradling my head in his hands. How, when he placed his palms over my ears, my skull filled with the ocean of my whirring aliveness, smoothing some jagged places in my psyche into round pebbles.

During the year of lockdown, I missed getting massages. I feel a little embarrassed or even entitled saying this since I’m grateful that during quarantine I was with my girlfriend: I had someone to talk to and touch. But I deeply missed the specific kind of touch I received during a massage, and being removed from it for a year underlined something to me: therapeutic touch is unlike any other kind—it holds within it the capacity for deep connection to the self, since we are composed of all the experiences our bodies hold, everything both joyous and jagged, every embrace and every injury, papercut-small and fissure-deep. Our bodies remember everything, including what our conscious mind has let slip away.

There is a specific experience I carry in my body: I went almost ten years with much touch of any kind, except the perfunctory; I hold this story in between my ears, and in my lower back, along my arms, and sometimes in a tight spot in my jaw: when my mother died, I was fourteen, and my father had a breakdown that no one talked about. Up until that point, even though my mother was slowly dying of cancer, I had a fairly nice life: my parents loved each other, we lived in a nice, somewhat affluent suburb, my interests were nurtured, and I always felt safe in my home.

Then, my life snapped off from everything familiar, as if a neat and manicured path unexpectedly diverged into wilderness that I had to navigate alone. Then, my father couldn’t take care of me, of my sister. Then, I had to go to my first year of high school and my home became a place that simply housed the relics of a civilization that had crumbled around me. Everything seemed wrong, even the colors of my bedroom walls. Suddenly, everything felt too yellow.

For many years, I wanted affection so much that my skin ached. I started getting migraines. Every morning, when I was sixteen years old, I dry heaved into the toilet not due to any eating disorder, but because the fact of my physical existence in a world where I knew there was no one to hold or take care of me made me feel literally sick. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Even when I felt “better” later in life, I still carried this time in my body the way a tree holds a year of blight in a dark hollow ring.

I stumbled into getting massages after a bad break up in my mid-thirties. The first massage therapist I saw, Stephen, was part of my queer community, and while other massage therapists had dug elbows into places that felt too tender, Stephen asked for what I needed before I got on the table. When I said I had PTSD and needed him to be gentle, he gave me the first massage that didn’t hurt, that I didn’t grit myself against, crying uncle. He seemed to understand: taking my first layer of protection off, all my clothes, except my bottom underwear, was an act of trust. “I’m going to listen to your breathing,” he said. “I’m going to make sure you’re ok.” As he wrapped the sheets and blankets around me near the end of that first massage, I felt deeply warm, and I let my head fall into his hands. I began going to see him every month for four years, and I found myself transformed: talk therapy had helped me, but massage soothed places words couldn’t touch. My body felt like someone had extracted an invisible burden from my body. I kept looking back into the train car as the subway doors closed, convinced I had left something heavy behind.

When I tell someone that I typically get a massage every month, they often looked confused or even judgmental. I don’t make much money, and massage has been branded a luxury, one doled out in spas only the wealthy can afford, and this is often the case. Even though I’ve been lucky because the massage therapists I’ve seen have worked out of their homes and operated on a sliding scale, a situation that benefits us both, I have paid around $75-100 a session.

But Massage is, as every book on it states, the oldest form of healing, and has gone by many names over the span of recorded history: rubbings, friction and unction, anatripsis, which translates to “intensive rubbing” in Greek. Only the recent century has demoted massage to empty pampering at best and sketchy sex work at worst. American and British Nurses in the late 1800s through the 1930s trained in and practiced massage. During WWI, nurses treated soldiers with massage for injuries and “nervous disorders” caused by the traumas of war. Medical professionals viewed massage as a “basic comfort” practice, and even famed nurse Florence Nightingale massaged patients and trained other nurses in what was deemed a valuable medical practice.

But by the mid-1930s when pharmaceutical solutions such as aspirin and morphine presented themselves, and it was less expensive to give someone a pill than it was to train a nurse in massage. Pushed from traditional medicine, massage parlors proliferated, and “happy endings” cast a lascivious light on the practice. Massage became either a form of sex work or a “complementary” healing modality.

I believe massage could be a more widely used practice, one that could benefit many, especially those who have gone through trauma, and while the pandemic continues to impact disenfranchised groups more than others, every single one of us will be continuing to deal with the stress of a pandemic, and we will likely continue to have periods of isolation, and with it, many will have to cope with a lack of touch.

In the year of no massages, I found myself taking more pills than I have in a long time: I washed countless blue over the counter anti-inflammatory pills down, hoping they wouldn’t eat away at my stomach lining. I diminished my supply of prescription muscle relaxants, the ones I save for when I feel as if I’m about to become immobilized, which happened far more frequently. When I feel a relaxant begin to bloom in my body, my muscles release as they do in massage. But I never feel better the way I do after a massage. I never wake up the next morning feeling like I’ve been rocked to sleep, like the hurt animal part of me has been sung to, like the music of my pulse has shifted.

There is something a pill isn’t offering me that a massage does: a human connection.

After my first massage therapist moved away, I worried I wouldn’t find someone I would connect with in the same way I had with Stephen. After I saw a few practitioners I didn’t quite click with, I found Josh on a queer community listserv. Like Stephen, Josh exuded a deep patience when he worked on me, and he listened carefully with his hands. I began to notice the distinct difference between being worked on by someone I saw just once and someone I bonded with over time. I’ve been seeing Josh for years now, too. Once when we sat together chatting after he had worked on me, I asked him if a client’s breathing and his would sync up during a massage. I’d been reading about circumstances that cause humans to fall into a kind of sync together; if people sing together, their hearts beat together, too. He thought a moment, and said, no, not exactly, but if a massage was going well, usually the person being massaged would breathe in a kind of unconscious call and response with him.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, science journalist Jo Marchant explores the potency of human connection through examining what we think of as the placebo effect. She cites a study from Dr.Ted J. Kaptchuk, who performed “fake acupuncture”—acupuncture that didn’t follow the traditional meridians used in the treatment—to two groups of patients (one control group was given no treatment at all), the first group were given treatment by a “cold but polite” practitioner, and in the second group, the patients were treated by a warm practitioner who sat with them, and talked with them for 45 minutes before being given placebo acupuncture. Neither group received any other treatment for the primary complaint which was IBS. 44% of the patients treated with the placebo style acupuncture felt better, but Marchant reports that the patient’s experience of wellness shot up to 62% when offered care from a warm practitioner which was “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug treated for IBS.” She notes that “If an empathic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under distress, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.”

In another study, done at Berkley, where researchers discovered that social messages could be communicated through touch with near lighting-fast speed. This of course makes sense since touch is our oldest form of communication, older than stories passed between us through language, much older than paper, or even marks carved into stones or animal bones, perhaps older than singing. Some anthropologists wonder if touch, specifically the kind of touch that releases oxytocin, the chemical released through bonding like breastfeeding, set our evolution in motion, making us a species capable of doing all the above.

Once Josh pressed a spot on my lower back and I tensed because sometimes when something hurts, I find myself unable to speak—I just freeze. But immediately I felt his hands respond, with a soothing message I can’t quite translate into language. It was this exchange, the feeling of being listened and responded to with such care, that felt so profound, perhaps even more so since it happened without either of us saying a word.

For a while I kept mixing up the word message and massage, constantly misreading the word “message” as “massage” or typo-ing message when I meant massage. I realized that massage has offered me a way to receive a wordless message my body has needed, on repeat, one that echoes in my skin and bones and muscles, in my breath and blood, one that tells me: even if my father couldn’t give me the comfort I needed when my mother died, other people will be there for me, and my community would be there for me.

There’s no doubt that I tend to choose male-presenting therapists since the hurt animal part of me grieved the loss my father as he lived, a ghost of himself; I mourned the father who was a gentle plaid mountain I climbed, who read me all the chronicles of Narnia, who made me and my sister heart-shaped pizzas. The death of my mother was one trauma–the loss of my father while he continued to sit on the couch staring at the wall was another. I struggled to hold the latter, the ambiguous grief of it, even more than the death of my mother; there was only a funeral to acknowledge one of these losses.

Through seeking this particular form of healing, I have gotten better at holding my history in my body. I’ve gotten better at holding the past in one place in my body while I moved forward; changing how I held my body, loosening its tensions and habits, made me a person who could hold the past while keeping my feet in the present. I got better at forgiving my father, even though neither of us ever brought up the past in conversation. My father got better too: he happily re-married, sold his business, and retired to a life of collecting ship replicas in a house a short drive from the beach.

This past July, I was standing alone in my kitchen when my stepmother called to tell me my father had died suddenly that morning. And so I found myself alone again as one of my parents died. I longed for my people—I longed for my girlfriend, who was waiting for me in rural upstate New York as I prepared to move from Brooklyn, I longed for my stepmother and the family I still had left alive; I longed for my friends, but I also longed for the person who had given me a source of comfort in other stressful times: my massage therapist, or put another way, despite the cheesiness the word has gathered over the past decades, my healer.  I longed for my healer to cradle my head in his hands as I learned how to live with my father’s sudden death, as I learned how to hold this new reality in my body.

The longing for my healer, and even calling him this word, felt strange, even embarrassing, but we have no real word in American English to contain this kind of therapeutic relationship: one that technically involves a service, and yet, much like therapy we seek out for our minds, is imbued something more, something deeper and elemental.

Today, we are only beginning to break the taboo of even talking about the essential human need for touch, and it seems we only have these conversations under extreme circumstances. As the pandemic continues, I hope we can talk more about the need for touch. I also hope we can also seek out therapeutic touch if we need it. I hope that, in time, perhaps massage can be seen as what it is: a healing practice with potential far beyond what we have imagined. I hope that if massage can be witnessed in this way, perhaps, it can be covered by all insurances, so it could become more accessible. And no matter what, I hope we can all feel less embarrassed to seek out a therapeutic space for touch when we need it.

Kat Savino holds an M.F.A. from Columbia, and wrote a brief personal essay about how massage helped her heal from trauma for Narratively; She has been researching this practice for many years and is currently working on a long hybrid memoir that fuses art history, psychology, and neuroscience to explore the need for touch, and the trauma of abandonment, and how healing is possible. Kat has also published essays in Ravishly, Apogee, Marie Claire, Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, The Los Angeles Review, and Prism International, where she placed third in their nonfiction contest.

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Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 6, 2022
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

***

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

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Grief, Guest Posts, Self Image

The Grief In My Belly

July 29, 2021
weight

by Elizabeth O’Nuanain

Fatness: Everyone will look at me. Everyone will judge me. Everyone will imagine I spend my days shoveling doughnuts and pizzas in my mouth, one after another, and another…

Fat sucks ass. Can I get an amen, people?

Fat programmed me to avert my eyes from full-length mirrors and large window-panes. Fat, I imagined (though not without evidence) made people look at me and think ‘lazy’; ‘unclean’, ‘dim-witted’, ‘gluttonous’, ‘weak-willed’ and as a cultural subject within patriarchy, ‘utterly un-fuckable’. Fat is still, after over forty years, a feminist issue.

Internalisation: Body-size and shape equate not only to body-worth, but overall human-worth.  From jobs, to education, to romance, fat girls and women will struggle far more than their thin counterparts. Unless I shaped up and embraced the aspartame, my body weight doomed me to a life of ignorance, poverty and loneliness. I learned this lesson at my mother’s knee before I could write my name.  My mother, now eighty-one, arthritic and losing her eyesight, spoke with me on the phone last week. She informed me she weighs one-hundred and ten pounds and wears a size three jeans.  What struck me was not that she shared that specific information so quickly, but that this is the routine of all our talks.  She is an excellent woman who watches her weight with steadfast commitment. I grew up immersed in this oversimplified notion of what fat means, how fat happens, and the place(s) that fat occupies in my culture.

I now weigh in somewhere between my very thinnest and my (more moderate) heaviest.  I am fifty-eight years old and have spent close to fifty of those years worrying over, or downright hating, my body.  This afternoon as I write this post, I feel only tenderness and appreciation for this body of mine.  It may go against the grain with all the lessons I internalised and all the practices (diets, obsessive weighing) I took part in, but here I am, living my quiet revolution in a world so full of callous regulations imposed within and without upon the bodies of women. In this new mindset, I have spent hours thinking, journaling and deconstructing my relationship with weight — particularly what has informed my thinking about weight and body shape over the past ten years as I notice the changes to my body corresponding to bereavement, emotional pain and the natural disaster of menopause.

Grief. How I lost my husband and swallowed my sister: When I met my husband, he stood over six foot, four inches tall. He was a good forty to fifty pounds overweight. When we buried him, his suit — the one he bought only a year before and that had so beautifully fit him, now completely engulfed him. The funeral director had to gather and pin the material at the back. In the months before he died, his thinness, the act of touching his body, running my hand across his shoulders and back, staggered me. So much of him had gone. I often retreated to another part of the house to weep alone. After he died, I became a walking, talking testament to emptiness. In the first two years I scarcely ate, every part of my body ached. I grew enviably thin. Insanely, I saw my aching, starving, empty body as perfect, and, importantly, lovable.

In the following years, I became little more than a body for draping clothes and garnering male attention. My capacity for joy, creativity, and human engagement scarcely functioned. My truncated grief found a place in my malnourished belly, where it hardened like a stone and rattled inside me. All the while I exchanged my slender body for (abusive) affirmation, seeking to fill that void in my belly. Then, out of the blue, my sister, Leslie, suddenly died from complications of the flu. After losing her, I put on weight and everything (it seemed) changed. In the magical thinking of bereavement, I imagined that my body had taken on the weight of her loss. I fixated on Leslie’s own emotional struggle with weight; her self-reproach, her isolation and her intense desire to be ‘thin enough’. Then I made that struggle my own.

Only, I did not really swallow my sister. My body did not mysteriously incorporate her weight. I did not become her, anymore than I became my emaciated husband six years earlier. Rather, I grieved, and I gained weight; these circumstances were not unrelated, nor were they the full picture. My body and I did not embark upon the grieving process with a clean slate — prior to her death my body was already experiencing depression, menopause, chronic back pain and recurring insomnia — all of which impact the body’s metabolism and contribute not only to weight gain, but even where the weight appears. Instead, I just reminded myself of my sister through my frustration and my self-deprecating inner dialogue. I merely succumbed, and reasonably so, to the cultural myths that shaped my conception of a worthy woman — a myth I complied with, even while common sense told me otherwise — throughout my life.

How grief also taught me self-acceptance. While grief played an active role in harming my body and enhanced the divide between my emotional and physical self, I discovered over time that allowing my sorrow to flow helped me to mend that divide. I cannot imagine anyone wants to feel loss; the relentless weight of an absence hanging across your shoulders like sandbags; the jaw perpetually clenched to hold the sobs at bay, the utter exhaustion mocked nightly by insomnia — it was horrible; it was also necessary. Allowing myself the space to experience my loss, I learned how what I think and what I feel are not activities separate from my body, but are instead of my body; interrelated and acting in concert at all times. Learning how intrinsic my body is to all else that I am, compels me to challenge my lifelong habit of seeing my body as an unruly, uncooperative force that threatened my happiness and self-image by its refusal to transform into some imaginary standard.

I have not made complete peace with my body; but I have ended our protracted war — it is more about treatment than cure. I still get frustrated if my jeans grow tighter, or my crow’s feet deepen. I have not defeated the effects of menopause on my mood, memory, and sleep cycle. Aging and corporality are inescapable facts for sentient beings like me. Sometimes the facts suck, but I prefer them to the alternative.

Elizabeth O’Nuanain is a (re)emerging blogger, poet and chicken keeper, living out her post-menopausal days in the wilds of West Cork, Ireland. She writes about grief, trauma, depression and recovery, and experiments with poetry. The Grief In My Belly was previously published in Elizabeth’s blog Shriekinglizzy.com and on Crow’s Feet.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

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Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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