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Grief

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.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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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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Grief, Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Relentlessly Human

May 29, 2021
human

By Alli Blair Snyder

“What do you eat for breakfast on the morning of your son’s death?”

Sarcasm flirted with the tip of my tongue as I was carefully wheeled into a steel elevator. My nostrils flared in protest, but I knew it was better if I kept my mouth shut. Sobs kept erupting when I opened it. We spun and the metal doors slid inward, revealing a gaunt and grey-faced gargoyle. Except the gargoyle was a hospital patient, and she was glaring back at me. “Sallow.” I tasted the word in my mouth for its accuracy. That’s how I looked. My husband and his mother stood like statues behind me. Who would we become from here?

My skin hung from my bones in a lifeless sag. My arms in my lap bore the track marks of non-existent veins and the many painful attempts to dig around for them; blood seeped in red blossoms through the white bandages. My boney hands clutched a worn journal in my lap. I assessed my outfit in the elevator door reflection; I was wearing a baggy blue sweater my dad got from the Walmart up the road and a pair of Eric’s sweatpants. I don’t even remember if I put them on, or if someone else did. My body had been prodded, exposed, and moved around like a science project for the past week. I looked up at the sign on the wall of the elevator exclaiming, “Joy to the World!” My glare hardened to stone.

I ran my hand along the back of my neck and pushed away the errant nips of hair leftover from the haircut; I realized I hadn’t showered since before then. After we finally got out of the first hospital Monday night, Eric took me for ice cream and haircuts to calm down after the scary weekend we had. I didn’t even care how it looked. I just slapped a sparkly headband back on and we went home to cuddle, relieved. We didn’t realize we were in the eye of the storm.

Assessing my reflection during the elevator ride, what crossed my mind is how a woman puts on mascara on the morning of her husband’s funeral. I’ve always wondered how someone could have the strength to lift their arm to carefully swipe a wand over their eyelashes and pull on something as trivial as stockings before they bury the love of their life. I saw myself wearing that same sparkly headband from my haircut and a sheer pink Chapstick, despite my hollow appearance otherwise. Remember the alien from ET when they try to make him look like a human? I kind of looked like that. Half human playing dress-up.

But I guess I do understand now, how you can still get dressed on the day your life has imploded. We look for normalcy, even in the middle of tragedy. On the worst days of our lives, the gears keep turning. We hold on to the small things, the ordinary things, the things that feel like home. Mascara, stockings, headbands, Chapstick. Things that remind us that somewhere, normal and peaceful days existed. And that maybe they would exist again. Right before they wheeled me into the elevator, Eric and I decided against a funeral but agreed on cremation; then we handed the little bundle back to the nurse. They said he was perfect, over and over again. At the first hospital, when I was in so much pain, I couldn’t see straight, and at this one. And now we’ll never see him again. That’s the disaster I found myself in during that elevator ride. I grabbed at normalcy in my sparkly headband, pink Chapstick, and wondering what I should have for breakfast.

I imagine she wasn’t trying to be flippant with her question about what we should eat, my mother-in-law. She’s all business, all the time. Practical as salt, as she would tell you a hundred times over opening Christmas presents. Always toothpaste or a calendar. I guessed it was morning, so she was asking what we should have for breakfast. That made sense. I am normally grateful for her no-nonsense efficient energy, but I didn’t respond to her, sarcastic or otherwise. There was something lurking at the edge of my brain that I was trying desperately to shove away, so I just watched myself in my reflection thinking about how we got here.

I arrived at this hospital on a Tuesday by rickety ambulance, with a catheter taped to my leg and fear running a marathon in my heart. The ambulance worker kept telling me I was going to have to name him Todd if he delivered him mid-drive; my awkward laugh turned into hysterics and he had to stab me with another needle. We didn’t have a name for him yet. We talked about naming him at the first hospital, but they said he was perfect, they said I was fine, they sent us home for ice cream and haircuts. When the ambulance arrived, I was wheeled straight to a room and hooked up to every machine available to stop my uterus from doing her job entirely too early. My parents and my sister came to decorate my room with a little Christmas tree and twinkling colored lights. I said they didn’t have to, but they said it made things feel homier. Normal. Human. By what the doctors said to us last night, I calculated that this day on the elevator was a Sunday. Last night when I pushed him from me, Eric shouted excitedly, “December 20! That’s a great birthday!” The doctor mercilessly pushing on my stomach to pull out my placenta quickly responded, “Actually, 11:59pm. December 19.” Our wedding day was just over a month ago. It seemed like another decade.

Eric and his mother continued to respect my outward silence during our metal enclosed descent. We hit the first level with a jolt, and the gargoyle disappeared to reveal a whirlwind of brightness and busy. Nurses, visitors, hospital workers all whisked around a blue circular atrium; voices and footsteps were echoing at me from all sides. Every person seemed totally unaware that the world just ended. I guessed it was just my world, then. I looked back over my shoulder at Eric’s face as he pushed me forward. He looked like I felt. Dead inside. Not even human. I tilted my face upward to the beams of light cutting through the glass above. I noticed dust floating through the air catching the sun. It looked beautiful for a moment. But I flicked the thought away; nothing was beautiful to me anymore. It was just dirt.

I felt hands on my arms, and I dropped my face back down to ground level. “Hi babe, are you hungry?” It was my mom. My dad stood behind her with trays of food.

She crouched in front of me smiling; I ached for her smile to be real. But it wasn’t. She was looking for normalcy too. People try to feed you when your world ends. It makes sense, even broken half-humans need to eat. I pictured her making pancakes for me when I was little, to remind me and my siblings that everything would be okay. “Nothing can be bad when you’re having pancakes,” she would say. I knew she was being strong for us, and I knew she was being strong for me in this moment too. I thought that its probably just what moms do.

“I’m not a mom anymore.”

There it was. The thing I was keeping at bay, the thing my mind was dancing around with all of these other thoughts. Human brains are funny, that way. They do what is needed to keep us safe, but they can’t always protect us. The thought fluttered across the front of my brain when I wasn’t paying attention like an errant, unassuming butterfly before I could stop it. And it morphed into a bomb.

My chest exploded and my breathing became heaves. I looked down and my hands began to clutch at my stomach, pulling at my sweater. I was empty. He was gone. The bloodied bandages on my hands and forearms caught my eye and I grabbed them with opposite hands to rip them off. I relished in the sudden sting on my skin as hot, salty tears filled my vision. A wild animal was letting out a guttural scream, and as I looked around, I realized the noise was coming from me. I thrashed in my chair and tried to push myself up with the handles to run a thousand miles away from this hospital where my baby died, and my world ended. I whipped my head frantically looking for Eric so he could come with me. I wasn’t going anywhere without Finn’s dad.

My face became suddenly engulfed with pink pillowy cotton and I got a nose-full of coconut-lime. I was eye level with the freckles on my mom’s chest. She always smells like this; I bought the same lotion in Key West. It smelled like home. I felt her compress my arms to my sides firmly. I stopped struggling and sobbed into her as my tears soaked through her top. I heard concerned murmurs over my head and Eric’s hardened response to whoever rushed over during the scene I made; always protective of his wounded-animal half-human of a wife. My mom interrupted them and calmly asked, “Could you please point us in the direction of the chapel? My daughter just lost her child.”

As I sat in the chapel eating in silence, I had my answer. On the morning of your son’s death, you apparently eat blueberry yogurt. The colors from the stained-glass windows threw pictures all over the quiet room. I felt like I was moving in slow motion, and I could feel my mom watching me and waiting. She had one hand on my wheelchair and one hand holding my journal for me. Barely swallowing down the yogurt around the knot in my throat, I looked up at her. She smiled, again, the same pained one. I finally spoke without a wave of sobs. “Mom, I don’t know how I will ever be happy again. I can’t picture myself smiling or laughing. I can’t picture Eric happy again either. I don’t understand it. I don’t feel normal. I’m not me anymore. He died, and I think I died too.”

She took a deep breath, and told me, “Alli you will feel normal again someday. And by that, I mean you will feel human. You might be different after this. It will take a long time, moment by moment. You will feel joy and you will feel grief. Sometimes at the same time. You will smile. You will laugh. Eric will too. It’s okay to lose a piece of yourself in this, but it will show you who you are. Al, I promise, you will rise again. And when the next hard thing happens, you will rise from that too.”

I asked her immediately, “But how?” She said, “With us. And with hope.”

Eric said we should name him Finnick, our favorite character in the Hunger Games. I almost said, “No, not that name,” but it caught in my throat. I wanted that name so badly. I had dreamed about that name. I loved it. Eric loved it too, I could see it in the golden flecks of his green eyes when he explained that it comes from the name Phoenix. A rising from the ashes. He said that from this traumatic experience (my body going into labor four months early) Finn was going to rise from it, and everything would be okay.

Finn. I wanted to yell it after little toddler scuddles and scream it across a soccer field and write it on birthday cards and text it to him furiously when he was home late. “FINNICK MICHAEL SNYDER, where the hell are you??” I wanted to use it in all the small, ordinary, human ways. I wanted to say it out loud for a lifetime, his lifetime, and my heart was ripped open at the thought that I wouldn’t. But this little human was meant to be named Finn; for the short time that he was here, and forever after that. Instead of whispering it to him as I put him to sleep, I now have it tattooed on my arm where his head would have rested. Five days before Christmas, five feet from me, he lived for five minutes – and then he was gone.

The sun kept rising in the sky and the world kept spinning. It is clear to me now that a rising was to come. We thought it would be Finn’s. But, and I wouldn’t realize this for a long time (just like my mom said) – it would be mine.  My rising. Our rising. My husband’s, and our family’s. Everything my mom said in that little chapel – it turned into a bit of a prophecy. Even down to her ending it with hope. A few months ago, I found out I was pregnant again. We waited nearly five years to try to get pregnant after losing Finn. Without knowing what my mom said that day, Eric suggested that we name this baby Hope. It was perfect, just like they told me Finn was. And then we lost her too.

A miscarriage. A week later, Eric lost his job in the middle of a global pandemic. Another disaster. Different and also the same. I thought it was going to break me, but then I remembered. Here’s the thing about what it takes to rise from ashes – the roadmap of how you did it gets etched into your bones. We remember, not just our own capability of rising, but the rising of all who have come before us. And those who came before them. As humans, we are hardwired to get back up again. It’s in our blood. Even if it takes a long time, we find a way. To be human on this earth is to experience loss. To fully live is to relentlessly rise from the ashes.

As I write this, the morning sun is beaming through my windows. Tomorrow is Finn’s fifth birthday. It’s been a few months since we buried baby Hope. Our two rescue dogs are snoring lazily on the couch, and Eric flies by me to grab coffee before heading back to his work-from-home office upstairs for his new job. He kisses my head and flashes me a smile. My bangs are pulled back with a headband, and my favorite pink lip balm is swiped on my lips. On our Christmas tree hangs two little red stockings; one with an F and one with an H. The colors of the twinkling lights are bright. I notice little dust particles floating through the air and catching the light, and I think to myself how beautiful it looks, even if it is just dirt.

My joy feels different now; it sits in my heart next to my grief, like my mom said it would. Normal and peaceful days do exist again. Everything is settled in a way that sometimes makes me anxious, as if I’m waiting for the next disaster to come. But I remember that when it does, because inevitably it will, we will rise again. We will grab onto each other, and the little ways we find normalcy and pieces of home. We will pull out the map etched into our bones of how we did it before. We will rise a little bit every day, with our friends and families around us, and with hope in our hearts. We will string together ordinary things to remember we are human.

On the day Finn died, I wondered inside of a metal elevator who we would become. It feels like my answer is – fully human. Painfully broken-open and healed again. And again. Forever in healing. Existing in both joy and grief at the same time. Holding on to each other and the people who love us. Rising from the ashes like a phoenix and finding hope in all that we do. On the window in my hospital room, Eric wrote For Finn in marker, to remind me to keep going. That I could get through anything, even someone digging around in my arm with a needle, for our baby. Now we both have this tattooed to remind us the same thing. For Christmas this year, we are adding a new one to remember that we can rise from anything for the hope of our future. For Finn, with Hope.

This time of year can be painfully bittersweet; maybe this year even more than most. The twinkling holiday lights throw shadows around the places our loved ones would be; they can remind us, too, of the things we do have. Life has a way of being relentlessly beautiful, even when it’s hard to see it sometimes. It has a way of always coming back around, too. We rise, and we fall, and we rise again. As I look around my calm and ordinary home, I notice the shadows of my babies not here. I know I’m still a mom, and its painful and beautiful to acknowledge it. But the light lands on all the things I have in front of me, and what is to come. Joy and grief, together. Hope for the future. I glance above me, and my eye catches a piece of paper tacked above my desk. It’s a ripped-out page from my old journal, the one that I kept vigorously when I was pregnant with Finn. I wrote it the week before he died. It says, “You see, nothing lasts baby. Not the good, nor the bad. The world keeps spinning no matter what. The sun always rises, even on the darkest of nights. Just grab onto hope.”

I smile to myself, and the moment I read it, Eric yells down from upstairs, “Hey babe! What should we have for breakfast?”

Alli Blair Snyder is a storyteller. When she isn’t writing about her grief or buried in a book, she is snuggled up with her rescue dogs and husband in their little Pennsylvania town. She is a writing professor and Ph.D. candidate in Leadership theory, focusing on shame and resilience. She is also a Medicine Woman and Mental Health Coach who fiercely advocates for becoming the expert of your own life. Find her on Instagram @allisonislivingbravely or on her website www.alliblairsnyder.com.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 27, 2021
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 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.

Grief, Guest Posts

Time, Touch, and a Whale’s Grief

January 19, 2021
Tahlequah

By Lori Tucker-Sullivan

For weeks in 2018, much of the world was focused on a killer whale, an orca, swimming off the coast of Washington State, with her dead calf across her forehead. It is typical, say those who study whales, for the mother of a dead calf to carry the carcass for a day or two, then drop it to the bottom of the ocean and swim off. But this mother whale wasn’t doing that, and no one understood why. Was it a reaction to the changes in the whales’ habitat, caused in part by water pollution? Did it have to do with a lack of food as a result of overfishing? Or was it a mother’s grief and inability to let go?

There were times when the whale, named Tahlequah, lost her daughter from her forehead, and went diving after her. Down into the ink-black waters of the ocean she dove, nudging her calf back up to the sunlight and air above.

* *  *

My grandmother, Blanche Huskey, was born in a small town in East Tennessee called Tellico. Cherokee settled in the area and named it for the red-hued grass, or tahlequah, that grew in the fields. Tellico is the Anglicized version of the Cherokee name for the town. When I saw that the orca was named Tahlequah by the Lummi Nation tribe that monitors the whale pod, I immediately thought of my mother and grandmother. Descended from both Scottish immigrants and Cherokee, these earlier generations of my family settled into the rust-colored hills of East Tennessee until my parents came north searching: my father for good paying work, my mother for freedom from servitude to her mother’s disability. They migrated, as children do.

* *  *

Last year, I returned my daughter to Chicago for her senior year of college. She had spent four months studying in Italy, and then remained in Chicago for the summer, coming home to Detroit to visit for a week before classes began. She managed school, a job, travel, internships and relationships with ease, despite loss and emotional challenges. She was already looking for a post-school job, one that would probably take her away from home.

An environmental science major, she worries about the damage being done to our planet. We talked about the plight of Tahlequah and she explained that it is but one more indication of significant trouble—a harbinger sounded by a mother in pain. We discuss the understandable reasons for Tahlequah’s behavior: overfishing and ecosystem impact on the Chinook salmon, disruption caused by increased shipping traffic, pollution in the seas. Together, my daughter and I have marched for change, our fingers and voices woven together, our pink hats matching, holding each other as we shouted. Back in Chicago, she marches for environmental causes, for dominion over her body, in support of BLM.

She is my youngest. Her older brother makes his way closer to home. Unknown to them both is the sibling they never met. The middle child. The child lost to miscarriage at fourteen weeks, just as we would have announced their impending arrival to friends and family. The pregnancy was a surprise. It happened when our son was just ten months old. It was a hectic time of home renovations, completing advanced degrees, working high-pressure jobs, and caring for a toddler. Where, in all of that, was there focus enough to remember a daily pill that would prevent us from getting pregnant again too soon?

My husband came from a family of stairsteps—three children so close in age they all came within two years, then two more close behind. He didn’t want that for us. We discussed abortion but couldn’t do it. We had room and resources, after all. We sat on the sofa while our toddler son stacked plastic blocks and decided we’d figure it out. Three weeks later I began to bleed. Two days after that, we were in the doctor’s office, hearing no heartbeat, making plans for a D&C. After the surgery, we spoke of the preganancy one time when, near the holidays, I became despondent, overcome by guilt and grief that had previously felt the size of a pumpkin seed. “I feel sometimes that the baby is still here, somewhere, but I can’t figure out where,” I explained. “There were times when I didn’t want it. How could that be?”

Kevin struggled to understand. “It was for the best,” he said. “It was no one’s fault. We need to let it go.” We waited three more years to get pregnant again.

* *  *

Surprisingly, after losing the calf that had taken seventeen months of gestation, Tahlequah was able to keep up with the rest of her pod as they swam northword from San Juan Island to Vancouver. Holding the calf on her forehead meant Tahlequah had to swim for long periods above water, then dip below, drop the calf, take a breath and find her again, bring her to the surface and begin the cycle anew. As exhausting and heartbreaking as labor itself. Swimming sixty or seventy miles each day, the orca maintained commitments to her larger family, all while bringing along the daughter she couldn’t leave behind.

* *  *

My grandmother Blanche was sent away from Tellico to the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville after being blinded as a six-year-old by her older brother, Charlie. A branch slipped from his hands while the two were hanging a tree swing. The branch blinded my grandmother in one eye; infection caused the other eye to lose vision as well. Her eyes were surgically removed and she went off to learn a new life. At the boarding school, where she lived ten months of each year, she flourished, memorizing Shakespeare, learning Latin and trigonometry. She played piano, wrote letters on a typewriter, and took dictation as a stenographer.

She returned to Tellico at age twenty after graduating from the school in a class with nine others. Back home, she helped her mother run a boarding house where she met my grandfather Carlton, a traveling salesman. The two married and lived nearby so Charlie, who never married, could check in when my grandfather was away, which was frequent. Within six years of marriage, my blind grandmother had four children—stairsteps of her own.

Sometimes the family packed up my grandfather’s 1928 Buick and spend a few weeks with his family in Newport, along the North Carolina border. With my grandfather away, I’ve often wondered what it was like for my grandmother to be in strange surroundings with in-laws she barely knew. She was never a trusting person, the school having told her many times that her disability allowed others to take advantage.

My mother and her sister were pressed into service to their mother at a very young age and were never able to be around her without that sense of duty, as though their roles had flipped, the daughters always caring for the mother. As a child, I was never close to my grandmother. I understand more about my grandmother’s childhood now, how difficult it must have been for her to leave her family and live apart from them; how she must have felt a stranger in her own family. I now regard her much differently. But it confused my childhood self and caused me to become defensive because of her treatment of my mother. I wished for her to stand up to my grandmother’s constant, impossible demands. I wished she hadn’t remained silent.

* *  *

After my daughter’s college graduation, I helped her move into a new apartment. I am in awe of her confidence, knowing there were recent times when she was overcome by grief and loss. I remember nights, barely asleep myself, when she would climb into my bed to cry herself to sleep, her hand reaching out to find my shoulder, my hand wiping her tears. “This isn’t fair,” she once said, mostly into her pillow. “You are right,” I responded, stroking her hair.

At thirteen, she lost her father. At fourteen, her best friend committed suicide. On the verge of adulthood, at that precious time when each step forward should bring excitement and promise, my daughter was stopped in her tracks. Together, we huddled under blankets as though adrift in an ocean that neither of us quite understood. I held her close during that time, trying to find the right balance of comfort and security and release. She is armed for life’s realities now, with a deeper understanding of its fragility. I know she loves deeply.

It has now been ten years since my daughter lost her father. My husband Kevin died in my arms when a tumor on his spine suddenly ruptured, pressed against his trachea, and, within minutes, caused him to suffocate. Through an interminable two years of cancer diagnoses and treatments, of long hopeful days followed by longer hopeless nights, death, when it came, was frightening and swift. I knew as I held him that no matter how tightly I clung, no matter how long, nothing in that moment would change and yet everything in my life would be different. As paramedics pulled me away, I understood fully that breaking that bond would create an immeasurable chasm: a terrible demarcation of before and after that I could not abide.

Two years after Kevin’s death, I lost my mother. By then, she was in a nursing home, needing the type of care she had often offered her mother. At Kevin’s funeral, she was already confused. “Isn’t this terrible?” she kept repeating. Near the end, I sat with her, helping her eat. She had suffered several bouts of pneumonia and was weak. I think of her and the role she played as advice-giver to me and Kevin when we first started out. I can’t understand how it is that I am now the advisor, encouraging my daughter to fight for her beliefs, to hold fast to her memories. Accepting that role means accepting this passage of time, this loss of my own role models, of those upon whom I relied to help with decisions.

* *  *

After seventeen days, Tahlequah gave up her baby to the depths of the Pacific. When finally she swam off alone to join her pod, my eyes welled with tears. A combination of happiness that she had survived, but also a deep sorrow for understanding what it is like to give someone up for one last time, to admit that they will take no further breaths, and that you must leave them in this spot, whether earthen ground or ocean water, forever. Knowing of  her only through her acts of mourning, I continued to hold her in my heart. I found strength from her strength. Over the past two years, I’ve visited the website that tracks the pod to check in on her. I imagine that grief-filled memories, like ocean waves, still lap at her skin from time to time.

* *  *

In 1931, Blanche and her family spent the winter in Newport with her in-laws, but while my grandfather was on the road, all four of the children—Vivian, my mom Lillian, Carlton Jr, and Marshall—became ill with measles. The doctor was summoned, though nothing could be done. One-by-one, the older children shook off the virus. But Marshall was just an infant and his small body could not fight. And so, early in the morning of February 3rd, as my grandmother held him in her arms, Marshall passed away.

Blanche, however, would not let Marshall go. Perhaps at first she didn’t realize her baby was dead. Within a few hours, her mother-in-law understood and tried to take the child. My grandmother held fast and fought. Without her eyesight, all she had was touch; once this child was removed from her arms, she would never know him again. She would lose her only connection and she couldn’t let that happen. Irrational, perhaps, but any mother would understand. It wasn’t until my grandfather returned some four hours later that my grandmother would be coaxed into letting Marshall go. Even then, she insisted on being the one to wash his body.

Marshall was buried in an unmarked grave in a plot along a two-track road beside a barn. The family couldn’t afford to transport him to Tellico, so he remained in Newport, much to my grandmother’s great pain. To her, it must have seemed she had to keep letting him go, again and again. She would have held him for seventeen days and more if possible, I’m sure.

* *  *

Months after his passing, Kevin’s ashes were spread at the graves of his father, my father, an uncle, along his favorite running path, and among the wildflowers in a memorial garden. A bench with his name inscribed sits adjacent to a stone labyrinth near a river in a park that was a favorite family picnic spot. There is no one place where he has been interred. In each of these separate places, I feel his presence.

When my mother was healthy and active, we once visited her brother Marshall’s grave in Newport—nothing more than a tiny indentation in a field of raspberry brambles. A small, crooked stone the size of a brick marks its place. He is buried next to his father, my grandfather, who contracted Typhoid two years after Marshall died of measles. My mother, by then the only sibling remaining, needed to find this small spot of ground to prove that her father and brother weren’t forgotten. I held her arthritic hand as we hiked the path behind a deserted barn. We took this trip, the two of us, mother and daughter, tracking down family history and gravesites.

* *  *

In the years since Kevin’s death, I have found comfort in books that deal with grief. Many have helped me to feel that my experience is more universal than I sometimes believe. Losing myself in these stories has made me realize that time does not fade memories. Descriptions of illness or treatment shake me back to that place at the University of Michigan where Kevin spent so much time. I hear the sounds, smell the odors, re-live the emotions. I will always be able to conjure those memories of warm sunny moments spent in the hospital courtyard, or the feeling of his hand holding mine as we lay in bed bracing for what was to come after hearing the words “stage four.” It’s all still there, ten years later, this painful muscle memory. I can reach out and touch it as though there’s no distance at all.

Books on grief sit in piles on my bookshelf, pages marked by notecards and colored slips of paper. I’ve underlined many passages in my reading, understanding that commiting memories to the page creates a sense of permanence, both for the writer and the reader. I refer many times to this passage from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir, The Long Goodbye about her mother’s death from breast cancer and her time of grieving:

“I went to the pond for her. Diving in, I felt for a moment that I was my mother. But I was aware that she was dead; I could feel it in the shadows in the green leaves. This is where the dead live, I thought, in the holes in the leaves where the insects are biting through.”

O’Rourke admits, “After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.” I too, have felt that resistance to understanding the loss of my husband and my parents, the growing and moving away of my children, and the child I never held. Like my mother, I too have felt the need for confirmation that they were here, our connections real. Where do the people we cherish go once we put down our memories, or our burdens, or our love? Once we drop that all into the sea?

We want to touch again the life we’ve known and the people we’ve loved, whether those relationships have ended or just changed with time. I have moved on in life, the yearning is not so  strong as it once was. I have a new home, new relationships, new outlooks. And yet, I don’t want my memories, regardless of how painful they may be, to crumble on the ocean floor, abandoned. I don’t want to lose the feel of that touch my grandmother knew not to relinquish.

* *  *

Word has just come that Tahlequah is pregnant again. Drone photos show her wide belly moving through the waters of the Pacific with her pod. Researchers are cautiously optimistic there will be babies given that multiple orcas are pregnant. But sustaining the pregnancy will require plenty of food, which is, two years later, an even more fragile situation. I imagine Tahlequah, slowed by her new girth, feeling this life inside, unfurling old memories. I call my daughter, now part of an environmental start-up and celebrating with her boyfriend the first anniversary of their first date. We talk briefly about Tahlequah and what a new baby orca might mean for a world turned upside down and desperately in need of good news. Despite our times, my daughter tells me she is happy.

As we both move on, me through life and Tahlequah through bright cerulean ocean waters, I send my thoughts to her across the universe—the universe of my mother and grandmother, of my husband and all three of my children; the universe that holds our fears, our grand efforts and our mistakes; the universe that pushes us forward and that cradles the remains of those we’ve lost and have had to leave behind. The universe of possibility and second chances. I send her my thanks, for helping us understand that, in life, and loss, seventeen days is nothing, but holding on is everything.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a published writer whose essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, The Sun, The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, Red State Blues, The Cancer Poetry Project, and others. Her essay, “Detroit, 2015,” which was published in Midwestern Gothic, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and selected as a Notable Essay of 2015 in “Best American Essays 2016.” Her book, I Can’t Remember if I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy, forthcoming from BMG Books in 2021, profiles the widows of rock stars that died young and how they helped her through grief. Lori holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University, and currently teaches writing at Wayne State University in Detroit.

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

pay attenton
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

I have a delicate, black on black on black, layered, lace and lace-y, tulle and silk and satin cocktail dress. There is an overlay of trimmed triangular lacing. It flares just a bit, from my lower rib cage to the middle of my thigh where it rests. The torso is a blocked bodice, feminine, sensual, quiet. Above the bodice is sheer black fabric hinting at a strapless effect and its exquisitely frayed neckline is demure, sweet and scooping at the nape, a proper width from shoulder to shoulder ends just at the outsides of either end of my collar bone; seductive silent shoulders.

Usually, I wear this dress with a four-inch dark brown stiletto slip into, with a satin pine green and burgundy tapestry slipper, open-toed, it ties up ultimately with a phat fat burgundy bow at its arch. Gorgeous. Fun. Unexpected.

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

Items of nostalgia stay hung in my closet and folded away in my drawers. The shelf life of my belongings has much more to do with my soul than fashion. In the bottom of my dresser’s fourth drawer, hides a full-length silk night gown, skinny shoulder straps, cut on the bias (like my third wedding dress) an ivory colored nightie with water-colored pink pansies large and splashed also on the bias at random; it’s stained. I wore this night slip to the hospital before delivering my last-born son, Lucky. I’d had plenty of opportunities laboring and delivering in a paper and cotton snap-up-the-back sack and shrugged off the nurse’s suggestion to change into one as wouldn’t I be blood staining my beautiful nightie? That’s my baby’s blood, that’s my blood, we’re doing a miraculous thing here, I thought, I’m good. The nightgown stayed.

Sometimes, I’ll give someone the shirt off my back. I love your shirt, she’ll say, my friend. And before she has taken her next breath I’ve taken it off and handed it to her (I’m wearing a leotard or something underneath), and she looks at me like I’m silly, and sweet and but of course you’re joking but no I’m really not joking because if you can feel the soul I attach to my t-shirt, and that feels special for you, then please, I am, sweet friend, all in. I send attention. She smiles astonished. Let’s.

The last time I wore the delicate, bodice hugging, demure yet inviting black dress was four years ago, almost to the day: August 29, 2016; the day my brother eulogized his youngest daughter, in his backyard. We all stood around his small pool, in South Florida, numb, cracked, broken. We listened to my sister play a movement of Bach on her flute, drifting and breathy and hollow and full, on breezes, the palm fronds receiving her; nodding alongside the notes and sorrows. The sun was hot. My cousins flew in. I bought floral arrangements: tropical jewels potted and dotted the ledges surrounding the circle of mourners. Tropicals, like my brother’s daughter, Gabrielle Esther:  wild, intense, whimsical, dream catching. Grandparents had been assisted to their chairs in the front. Sisters of the deceased, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends bowed their heads, struggled for words, wept.

I wore my black dress. I wore it to feel loved.

My brother spoke and invited our embrace. We paid attention. The day before, the tattooist carved Gabi’s tattoos into my arm and torso, into my brother’s, and his daughters and my daughters, all of us together, at the parlor she favored. We stung, our arms and torsos. By the pool, as the winds curled and held my brother’s grief, it began to lightly rain. In the back I stood eyes wet, watching slow drops plop onto my black-fairy dress. The timing was good, the service was closing, the family began to stand up from their chairs. The rain kept coming, just slowly, and sweetly, no one paid attention. The family started moving inside toward the food.

In that moment, my dress billows upward gaily next to my hips. In that moment, because I have kicked off the burgundy London heels, my arms are wings bent at my elbows, my elbows pitch northward toward the sky, my chin lifts and I am suspended, airborne, cartoon-like, briefly hovering over my brother’s saltwater pool. The raindrops slot my nostrils as I inhale, mixing with the salty tears releasing from my eyelashes. I search for the sun and greet the rain hoping.

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

My dress weighted by water, it suctioned up like a jelly and pressed me up to the surface, a mikvah cleanse, a soak.

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

You will always take my breath away, please, please, tell me more.

My nieces and nephews, wide eyed and joyful, one by one cannonball and fly, dressed in funeral nines, plunge swiftly and willfully, joining me in my perfect black dress, the salty wet.

Antonia Deignan is a lifelong storyteller. She danced professionally in Chicago and New York, owned her own dance studio, and was artistic director of a pre-professional youth dance company – T Move. She is writing a memoir about surviving childhood trauma and rising above. She hopes her experience will help and inspire others. Her work has been published in Manifest-Station and Storied Stuff. She is a mother of five grown children and two great danes.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Pilgrimage in the Land of the Rising Sun

December 27, 2020
temple

By Edith Darmon

As the steps keep going up and up, my breathing becomes faster and faster. There is no end in sight. My eyes get a glimpse of the top but as I reach it, each apex becomes illusive. It keeps going further again past my eyesight up higher and higher. I am only concentrating on going up another level to get closer to the crest. I am in Japan, on Shikoku island, the smallest of the four main islands of the archipelago. I am out of breath and a sharp pain accompanies each step while climbing up these tall stairs. Through the bamboo forest, I can now see the light from the open sky. A few more heavy lungfuls of air and finally I hoist myself onto the top where I am blinded by the beauty of Anrakuji temple. I slowly recover my breath and take in my surroundings. In the setting of the afternoon fog, the deep ocean with its different hues of blue is emerging with the underlined coastline. At the forefront, the soft vision of pink flowering trees is overlapping the green meadow. I stare, allowing my tears to flow freely.

A couple of years ago, when the love of my life, the man with whom I had been living for twenty-five years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, all equilibrium tilted towards a downward spiral. He died five months later and I lost my anchor. I was floating on a deflated balloon bound to crash. I hung haphazardly by a fragile thread. I let my instincts guide me instead of trusting my wounded brain. I went on walking treks as therapeutic healings. I walked in Spain, Canada,  India. When I heard of a walking trail in Japan in the form of a  pilgrimage, I was enticed with the idea but I never associated it with a clear need but rather with an instinctual behavior. I contacted a lifelong friend who also likes to walk as a way of life. The experience of embarking on such a journey held a significant amount of depth and unknown mystery.
Walking helps me calm my anxieties but also elevates my spirit to higher realms of reality. We are following Kukai’s steps. Kukai also holds the honorific name of Kobo-Daish – the enlightened one. He was the monk who brought an important sect of Buddhism from China to Japan around the year 800.

Over my five-week stay, each time I reached one of the 88 temples Kukai built around the island, I performed a suggested ceremonial from the Zen Buddhist tradition. This ritual was meant to restore peace within and helped erase conflicts at hand, or at least lessened their potency. I was eager to pray since I understood that the more I  loved, the more I grieved. The prayers would help me go deeper within my grief and learn to fathom the magnitude of my lost love. On this journey, I also hoped for guidance towards my life choices.

Upon arriving at the imposing arched doors of the temple, I bowed in front of the statue of Kukai whose role was to scare off demons inside and outside of us. To do that, Kukai took on the terrifying features of the angry devils he was fighting. He was our protector although his intimidating appearance and his ferocious gaze were unsettling. I wanted to trust him to help me fight my dragons during the long treks. I traveled with them perched on my shoulders, coloring my mood from dark to grey to golden yellow as fear or faith would alter my daily reality. I proceeded to the temple ground on a stone path through an orchard of pink blossoming cherry trees with statues of saints aligned along the edges. Each saint was small in size and wore a pink-colored hand-knit bib as a symbolic image of childhood and a reminder to protect children. While murmuring a prayer for their safety, the children in the world winked at me.

I stepped forward to locate the dragon spitting water. This was the time to cleanse my hands with respect from left to right while I prayed for the healing waters to flow freely in the world and in and out of me. My body was bursting with worries which have impeded the natural flow of my own waters. It was time now to honor and feed the earth by pouring a little water down. My personal harmony was contingent on the balance of the planet. I could not reach peace if the world around me was distressed. The process continued towards the stone steps and striking the largest gong on the compound. The sound rippled in waves and the echo could be heard far and wide. The deep, cavernous sound expanded my desire to opening up to new beginnings and a return to my joie de vivre.

My yearning was also strong in forgiving my beloved for leaving me unexpectedly, all alone on the path of life. I believed that finding acceptance and compassion for myself through prayers would ease my journey. The gong announced my presence. My dragons filled with anger and rage were acknowledged and temporarily appeased. I wanted to believe that I was now protected while my steps took me towards the main temple. In one of the combed sand barrel rings facing the entry, my three sticks of incense were lit as the prayers began.

Each day, my prayers took a different tone as suited for the moment. The flow of my invocations guided me towards what I wanted to ask, hoped, or wished for. Afterward, I peeked at the rich and ornate altar inside the central room before chanting the sutras three times as recommended. The melody was unknown to me, therefore I invented a rhythm from my imagination or borrowed it from other chants from other ceremonies I have participated in. I have been deeply touched by the Buddhist practice in India in the province of Ladakh, which borders Tibet. Sitting and chanting next to a monk in cool darkness in the sanctuary of a temple vault transported me to another realm of serenity.

When I was fortunate and other pilgrims were gathered at the same temple, chanting in unison their well-known prayer, I joined in gingerly and felt grateful to be among Japanese pilgrims during their spiritual practice.

One week into my stay, the recurring rite at every temple had become habitual. My ritual was nearly finished, but not until I visited the office where I waited for my turn to present my special gold and black book to one of the monks. The monk’s signature was an ornate black calligraphic design enriched with three red stamps acknowledging my passage in this temple. The book was purchased at the beginning of the pilgrimage and would slowly get filled up at every temple. The monk presented me with a sacred image to store in my sacred book. The symbolism of the image was unclear but its energy was treasured. In return as a token, I gave the monk three hundred yens.

Today was a very special day because I felt honored beyond words. I managed to reserve sleeping arrangements on the temple grounds for my traveling companion and me. This was a rare occurrence since temples did not allow lodging for pilgrims unless they came as a large organized group. But once in a while,  travelers had the privilege to sleep in the temple compound.

After recovering my backpack I had stashed behind a stone bench, my steps steered me around the corner, to look for a large building which should hold the sleeping quarters. Upon rounding the bend, another vista of the ocean greeted me with a striking wide expanse of crystal blue water. The warmth from the mesmerizing late afternoon light playing tricks with the sun embraced me closely. Another group of blossoming cherry trees was standing graciously in front of a building. Only then did I detect that the partially hidden building could easily be my temporary nest for the night. My traveling companion and I walked in; a monk was sitting chatting with visitors over tea. The monk was fully engaged and did not seem to discern our presence. We waited politely for a few minutes but no one seemed to notice the two western women still carrying their heavy loads on their backs while standing by the doorway. Therefore, I captured their attention. One of the women sitting next to the monk pointed out a room in front of us without looking. We were relieved. We took off our bags and our shoes. We slipped into the leather slippers provided and we let ourselves into what we believed was the waiting room.

The large and empty tatami room welcomed us. We were dazzled by a large bay window overlooking the landscape we just left outside. My head was slowly clearing up. I survived the exhausting although invigorating hike to let myself be revitalized by the meaningful temple ritual that always brought hope into my reality. Since my husband`s passing, burdensome darks clouds often obstructed my vision. This place was so inspiring in its beauty and its serenity that if any notion of paradise was pertinent, then we had attained it. We waited patiently. We thought someone would come soon, would ask us to fill out forms and lead us to our cubicle away from our captivating viewso little did we realize that we were standing in the room allocated to us. I found out by peeking outside because I was not able to hold my curiosity any longer. The mere view of my western face got the reaction I was looking for. One of the women motioned for us to stay put, indicated that she will unroll our futons at seven o’clock, the bath, the ofuro will be ready at five followed by dinner an hour later. We were also invited to participate in a ceremony after dinner. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a cup of green tea from the thermos sitting on the table.

Later, as we walked down the hallway towards the bath-house, I  transformed into a new human wearing a blue indigo yukata covered with a dark blue heavy cotton jacket. The other pilgrims encountered on the stairs dressed in similar attire. The bath was composed of a large carved stone-heated pool surrounded by several individual hand showers with stools close to the ground where people were washing thoroughly before sliding delicately into the hot water. After cleansing and soaking my body at leisure in the healing waters, the moment had come to get some sustenance. I got dressed and followed some of the pilgrims through a side door towards the dining area.

Sitting regally among other fellow pilgrims in the grandeur of the temple dining room, it was time to savor a delectable feast of dishes displayed in front of me: tuna, snapper, and octopus sashimi fanned over grated daikon radishes, miso soup with wakame seaweed and morsels of baked tofu. I was fully present to delight in the cuisine from the attractive and mysterious culture of the land of the rising sun. There were perhaps twenty-five pilgrims in the room, all dressed in the same blue indigo yukata; everyone was lively. I smiled and observed quietly my surroundings since it was impossible to communicate.

After the meal was over, we were told to move towards a room at the back of the temple where instructions were given along with small brown paper bags. A friendly man came up gingerly and sat next to us explaining in hesitant English the different steps of the ceremony. It was said that this particular ceremony aimed to bid farewell to the deceased. My heart jumped to the point of badly hurting. When I entered into this pilgrimage I did not think it would affect and touch me so deeply. I thought I could separate my outer experience and let it float as a superficial layer while keeping my core protected and closed. In hearing the meaning of the ceremony, I realized that it would soon be three years since my husband passed. I knew his anniversary was approaching but I was attempting to behave as normally as possible and was hoping that the tornado would not hit as hard as it did in the past years. While my thoughts often converged towards him, and his name leapt frequently into my speech, I struggled between two lives careful not to impose on people around me by constantly talking about my beloved.

My eyes blur, my throat contracts, and I have difficulties breathing. I feel myself entering into a trance. I blindly follow my fellow pilgrims to the back of the temple where we penetrate the underbelly of a cavern filled with several Buddhas watching us. Everyone starts chanting sutras while my head rolls back and forth, following the rhythm and the sound. I am lost in a dreamlike state with intensely palpable sensations more vivid than images. A movement catches my attention, my eyes startle open to notice the pilgrims standing up and moving forward. I trail behind them, slowly advancing into a long, dark narrow passageway. We emerge into a curved room with a small stream along the side. As per instruction, I light the candle in the little wooden boat found in the brown paper bag. One by one, we delicately place the boats in the waterway.

My mind is busy now with strong visions crowding and fighting for attention. The boat of Charon, the ferryman of Hades takes the stage carrying the souls of the newly deceased through the River Styx. The fragile vessel is crowded. The frightened souls are led to the threshold where the world is divided between the living and the dead. Fear is vividly painted on their faces. I have often had this lingering vision after my husband left. I could clearly distinguish every feature in front of me inside my wide-open eyes. Once strong and detailed, these images had slowly fizzled away as months, then years went by. At this instant, however, the vision promptly flooded my consciousness again.

Another persistent and profound vision seizes my attention, one that followed me when awake since the first week after my sweetheart died: We are both sitting on the back of a small motorized boat, which is moving at a hurried pace. Suddenly, my husband falls out of the dinghy but I remain on board. I cannot stop the boat. I shout but no one reacts. It is as if I am alone but I know I am not alone. No one can hear me. I spin around, but my beloved has disappeared in the swift current of the fast-moving waters while the boat speeds on. The life force was pushing me forward while my husband plunged unexpectedly out of the boat, out of the living world, and into the mysterious realms of the deceased.

While in this cave still with tears running down my face, I push my little vessel off. I tentatively wave farewell to my departed, trying to put words to the unknown journey waiting for him. But I do not know anything about his voyage.

We slowly leave the water chamber and our group keeps walking towards a large round space where we burn our little sliver of wood, adding it to the dancing blue and yellow flames from a small pyre. I am filled with images connecting death to fire: Fire from hell that symbolizes the suffering but also the releasing. When my husband was dying, he kept telling me that he needed quiet. He did not want to be brought back to the daily reality of the chattering conversation or even peaceful music. He said he needed full concentration to let go of life because it was very hard and painful to leave the world of the living. My heart was wrenching to witness his strength as he released his soul.

I am blinded by the orange glow of the setting sun when I step outside, I am out of breath and unsteady. I hear my husband`s hearty laughter telling me to seize the day while the whiff of his morning brew fills my nostrils. I fully inhale the vision like a forceful breath helping me cope with the present.

Through the hidden side of the temple, I opened a sacred door into my soul today. I had not known why I came to Japan but at this instant, I get the hint that I am here to attempt to heal my bruised soul and to learn to remember the joy of waking up in the morning next to my beloved, drinking tea in bed, and welcoming the new day. This journey to the islands of the rising sun did not augur as a comfortable voyage but a necessary one.

The next day, I  leave Anrakuji appeased and filled with hope even though the struggle will most likely return. While walking slowly towards the next temple of the pilgrimage, I take the time to hear the birds sing and pause as I bend to smell a cluster of pure white jasmine. My eyes follow the lines of the sea on the blue horizon. I find a friend in the constant presence of the ocean. My friend is faithful and stays with me along my journey. The ocean feeds my soul with its power and its infinity by refueling my life force when I am weak and desperate. The sky will not always be blue and serene, but I hope to be more prepared for the next invasion of black clouds hindering my eyesight.

Edith Darmon was born in Algeria and immigrated to France as a teenager. As a young adult, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, North, Central and South America. Edith is a retired Spanish and French teacher. Following many years of world travel, she has settled in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where she now gardens, writes, and frequently travels to Colorado to visit her daughter and granddaughters.

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Remodeling, Loss and the Kitchen Sink

December 21, 2020
sink

By Devra Lee Fishman

I could tell I confused the Home Depot kitchen designer when I burst into tears.

“Most people are happy to hear they need a new sink when they change out their countertops,” he said.

“I do not want a new kitchen sink,” I said, as I dug around in my handbag for a tissue. “All I want is a new white countertop to replace the forest green one I installed when I remodeled fourteen years ago.”

I have always decorated to my taste with no worry about resale and at the time, I had a taste for forest green. I also had a dear friend being treated for breast cancer.

Leslie and I met on our first day of Syracuse University almost thirty years previous when we were matched as roommates. We clicked immediately, lived together all through college and over the years laughed our way through good and tough times. We were in each other’s wedding and when I didn’t get my dream job and I thought my world was at a dead end, Leslie helped me see the open road. Her bad news came at the same time I was going through a rough break up, yet Leslie consoled me. “Dev, in a lot of ways having a broken heart is worse than having cancer. At least I have treatment options to get me through this.”

When I started the remodel, Leslie had just moved back to upstate New York from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to spending more time with her now that we were both living on the same coast, but she was diagnosed shortly after she unpacked. Her cancer was advanced and advancing. As time went by and her world seemed to only revolve around doctors and treatments, I thought she might enjoy a distraction so I asked her to help design my new kitchen.

I visited every few weeks and brought my architect’s plans. Leslie had a great eye for form and function and there were many decisions to be made about cabinets, hardware, and colors. I valued her opinions and I knew how much she valued having something other than cancer to think about.

After the space planning was done, I sourced the fixtures and appliances locally. The only thing I could not find was the sink. I wanted a deep, double bowl under mount. I knew it had to exist somewhere so the next time I visited Leslie we went sink hunting. She knew of a high-end home goods store that was having a going out of business sale and the thought of snagging a bargain appealed to both of us.

It was mid-August and the temperature was burning into the nineties. Leslie wore a short black and white checked shirtdress, which hung on her like a drop cloth. Even though she was cooler without it, she put on a red baseball cap to cover her chemo-bald head.

We drove to the store that had a five-foot high neon yellow banner out front advertising its closing sale – everything was marked down. Inside it was Kansas after the tornado with faucets, lights and curtain rods strewn about the shelves. After pacing several aisles we finally spotted a sticker with a picture of my dream sink but did not see any nearby. While I searched for a cart, Leslie enlisted the help of a stock boy and together they found the sink on a high shelf, behind a tangled sculpture of showerheads. The stock boy lifted the sink into the cart, and Leslie and I wheeled it over to check out.  There were four cashiers, each with lines five people deep. Leslie and I chatted while we waited.

“The stock boy, Darryl, is very sweet but he smells like he had a lot of garlic for lunch,” she said. “He’s been working here for three years, putting himself through college and now that the store is closing, he’s nervous about how he’s going to pay for his tuition next year.” She only needed a few minutes to get a life story from a perfect stranger.

“Did you also find out if he has a girlfriend, where he lives and what his mother’s name is?”

“No, didn’t have enough time. He did ask if you were single. Are you interested in cradle robbing? Because he’s up for it.”

“Cradle robbing appeals. Garlic could be the deal breaker,” I cracked.

“Hey, we’re next”, Leslie said. “I’m going to see if I can get you a better deal on your sink.”

“How you going to do that?”

“I’m going to play the cancer card.”

I caught my breath and lowered my voice.  “Don’t you want to save that for something more important than a kitchen sink?” I pointed to the sign on the cash register that said ‘PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR A BIGGER DISCOUNT’. “I think they mean business,” I said, trying to talk her out of making a scene.

Leslie locked her eyes on mine. “Dev, I have cancer. I don’t save anything for later.”

I nodded my understanding but still tried to make myself as small as possible when Leslie stepped up to the cashier.

“Hi, my friend here is buying this sink and I’m wondering if you would give her another five percent off. After all, we had to climb all over to find it and wrestle it down from the top shelf,” Leslie said.

The clerk looked like she was barely old enough to work. Her voice was rehearsed, but warm. “We have a policy that we can’t give bigger discounts,” she said.

“Do you give bigger discounts for people with cancer,” Leslie asked as she lifted her hat. The entire store seemed to go silent as the nearby customers and cashiers froze waiting for the answer.

The girl took Leslie’s hand and whispered, teary eyed, “I wish I could, but my manager said no discounts to any one under any circumstances or I’ll get fired.”

I interrupted and asked, “We don’t want her to get fired, do we Leslie?” I quickly swiped my credit card and finished the transaction.

Leslie asked, “Can we at least get someone to help us carry this out to the car?” She was going for a victory, no matter how small.

Before the cashier could answer, the store manager and two other men who were in the line next to ours almost collided as they vied to take control of our cart.  The three of them walked us outside and lifted the sink into my car.  Each one of them gave Leslie a hug before going back inside.

Leslie died the following year and I think of her – and our sink buying adventure – every time I walk into my beautiful kitchen. But my forest green countertop was fading and there was a stain from when I did not clean up red wine fast enough. It was time for a new countertop.

The kitchen specialist explained. “When we remove the old countertop, the sink will get damaged.” The finality of the trade-off made me cry more. He pulled out a brochure and said, “We’re having a promotion on new sinks this week. Do you like any of these?”

I wanted to tell him that I bought my sink with my dear now dead friend and that shopping trip was our final crazy caper, but I just sniffled, nodded and pointed to the only double-bowl under mount on the page.

When I got home that day I called my mother for solace.

“Grief is a wicked shape shifter, honey. We never know what will trigger us. This is difficult because it reminds you that Leslie is gone,” she said.

She’s right. My kitchen holds the last memories I have of Leslie and the project we worked on together throughout her fight with cancer. I feel like I am saying goodbye to her all over again and will with each piece of the kitchen that has to be replaced. Just last month the motherboard of my original refrigerator crashed and the appliance was diagnosed beyond repair. I cried then, too.

**

I kept the sink. I had to. I planted it in my backyard and now use it as a container for irises, Leslie’s favorite flowers. I know Leslie would get a kick out of that. But the refrigerator…I had to let it go and I am trying not to resent the new one taking its place. I know Leslie would like that, too.

Devra Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice volunteer. She is currently working on a full-length memoir about the beautiful transformational friendship she shared with my college roommate who died from breast cancer way too soon. Devra’s 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.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Young Voices

Peripheral

December 9, 2020

By J Steinman

I do not remember her. She’s gone now, in the past, in memory? I barely have her. She was a peripheral friend. Emily was a gymnast and a popular girl; she was funny and beautiful and smart. She would not talk to me, not out of distaste but there were 2,657 other people around, I was not the first on her mind. But now that she is gone, she is on my mind. Untimely ripped, they say. I wonder if maybe something was slightly different that day, the wind on the water or the tides, that maybe she would still be alive. She wasn’t significant to me until she was gone. Until her blood swam in the Sound. I would see her in the parking lot at the grocery store, a flash of blonde hair with big banana curls, and I would almost say her name- “Emily”. Before the wave would come crashing down and I would remember and retch out the saltwater that filled me to the brim. The saltwater that became one with her body as she was floating in the waves. I wasn’t here but I can hear the scream, the horrible screams they made when they saw what they had done. The boat floated easily atop the blue water, what a beautiful day, blue skies. They had been tubing, four girls, best friends. Two in the water and two on the boat. Emily fell off the tube and Jane saw and signaled to slow down and turn around. Jess lay on the tube while they brought around the boat to pick up Emily. They came in hot; boats don’t have brakes you know. The only way to slow down is to put the engine in reverse. And it must’ve been so quick. No time to fix what was done already. I can hear them scream as they saw her, what they had done. I remember, I imagine. I remember the horror. Jess swims to get Emily’s body back onto the boat. You cannot unsee what you’ve been told. She came back in two pieces. It’s amazing how the funeral home made her look so peaceful, just asleep in that casket. No bruises, no distress on her face. I even saw some family members lean in to kiss her forehead. And I still see her every now and then, in images, on her birthday, when people still post about her. She was 16, she feels like a child to me now. Immortalized in death. The photos stop and we can’t see her now, or what would’ve happened next. How she grew up, where she would go to college, who she would marry. Untimely ripped, she was. Bright blue was her favorite color. 2 Things I never would have known about her, a name no more or less important than the 600 other students in my year. But now she is imprinted, 16 in my memory.

J Steinman is a young professional living in the greater NYC area who works by day and submits their writing at night. They identify as bisexual and queer (they/them). J graduated from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2020 with a B.S. in Biology and minors in English and Psychology. J took a Hybrid Forms class under the direction of the incredible author Lidia Yuknavitch. J then took a poetry workshop with the professor and poet Kathryn Cowles and prepared to delve into the literary world. J’s writing does not shy away from directness and pain, they seek to write what we don’t have words for.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Hogtied Heart

November 30, 2020

By Laura Zera

When I spun up a blues playlist this morning—T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters—I wondered why I’d let months go by since I’d last listened. I know better. If there’s ever a day where my feet aren’t planted or my heart is paining, which has been most days lately, the blues set me straight. Not by taking away the discomfort; by dropping me right into the middle of it.

The first time I heard blues played live I was 21 and too-soon worldly. But I was unprepared for how that particular genre of music could twist its way into soft tissue, seep into cells. I’d traveled from Vancouver, Canada to Phoenix to buy a secondhand Jeep CJ, a realistic hare-brained scheme back then. All it took was a brief meeting with a banker in his mid-20s (I think his name was Kai). “Yeah, I’m a student with a part-time job, but those jeeps are so rust-free. Can you throw in a bit extra to cover travel?”

With six-and-a-half thousand advanced for my mission, I rode Amtrak and stayed at the youth hostel. There I met Glen, an Australian goliath who had to step in for my singular 4×4 test drive when, inexperienced with manual transmissions, I couldn’t make it around the block, thanks to my shaking legs. The vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser because my price range turned up nary a Jeep. I switched my search to sports cars.

At the hostel, a German engineer with a beard (so weird for 1990) delighted in explaining Mazda’s rotary engine in extravagant detail and dissuaded me from buying an RX-7. Thorsten also left a note for me with the manager. I can still see myself reading it at the front desk, confused. “It says he’s fallen in love with me.” Her smirk told me that as camp counselor to the young and restless, she’d seen this trouble before.

My partiality was for Nick, a pensive Brit who later came up to Vancouver and explained he hadn’t been himself in Phoenix. In the last part of a spell in Mexico, he visited a river with two other English travelers. They wanted to swim at a waterfall, and, feeling apprehensive, he stayed further downstream. A day later, Mexican authorities called on him to identify their bodies. He got the hell out of there, and when I met him, he’d just called the boys’ parents.

I don’t remember any women from the hostel, which fits perfectly with my dear friend Jill’s one-time remark that I always noticed the men in the room. She was right, of course. It wasn’t until 2018, when I interviewed Jenny Valentish about her book Woman of Substances, that I connected this habit to earlier sexual assaults. Yes. I always notice the men in the room.

At the time, Jill, Welsh by origin, was working illegally as a caregiver to an old Iranian woman on a ranch near San Diego. She caught a Greyhound to Phoenix and together we road-tripped through America in the car I eventually bought: a hot little Datsun 280ZX. Aside from being conned out of fifty bucks in San Francisco by a hustler who promised tickets to a fictitious mega concert and then disappeared, the trip was a smash hit. I dropped Jill in Seattle because she couldn’t cross the border, for reasons different than the circumstances of today.

But back to the music. A group of us from the Phoenix hostel found ourselves at a tiny club called Char’s Has the Blues. I stood for eons in front of the stage, beer in hand, C-PTSD undiagnosed, and felt that music like it was pouring out of me, instead of into me.

I looked up Char’s online today, the first time in 30 years I’ve checked to see if it was still around. A month ago, it was put up for sale, a casualty of COVID.

Jill died from cancer in January.

A kid today with some miles to travel and living to do cannot in good conscience hang out, shopping for well-preserved Jeeps by day and finding their soul at night.

I was in Phoenix for all of five days.

Thank the Lord, we still have the blues.

Laura Zera’s essays have been published by the New York Times, the Washington Post, DAME, Full Grown People, Catapult, and others. She is a mental health advocate for The Stability Network, has completed a book titled Jump: A Memoir About Skating and Survival, and is working on a novel set in South Africa.

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

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Grief, Guest Posts

Sleep Training

November 18, 2020
dreams

By Lindsey Abernathy

“Mommy, you disappeared in the dark,” you say, as I turn off the bedroom light. Though you are three years old, we still have not mastered the fine art of independent sleeping. Each night I curl up next to you as you tell the mole on my stomach good night with a gentle pat, the glow of the lamp fuzzy and blond like your head.

I shiver at your words. This is how I lose my own mother, in my dreams.

You do not understand, yet, that I had a mother. She has been gone more than half your life, dead 26 months this March. If my grief was a child like you, son, it would be cutting second molars, maybe experiencing fear of strange places, possibly having difficulty pronouncing “l’s” or “th’s.” “My how time flies!” the parenting websites exclaim.

When you were littler, and Daddy put you to bed, you came looking for me sometimes, wailing “mommymommymommy,” a woeful pitch so pleading that it could wake the dead.

If only.

You don’t know this important thing about me, but some days it seems you are the only person who understands. You have known the inside of me more completely than anyone ever will.

The dreams ebb and flow, coming usually around the time I start my period. You don’t know what a period is, but it is the time of month when I beg you to give me privacy in the bathroom. You don’t understand privacy just yet. Sometimes you scooter in, full speed ahead. Sometimes you sit on my lap. You are so young that you say “poop,” when you see the dark stains.

They are always bad, the dreams.

Sometimes, I am a child, older than you but still little. Vacation has ended; we are sunburned and my scalp is an itchy layer of sunscreen and sand; it is time to go home. I search between the legs of aunts and uncles for my mother, but it seems she has left without me. I scream for her, but my cry is not strong like yours. My mother, she does not come back.

Sometimes she is the child. The teenager from that palm-sized, rounded-edge photo I keep on our bookshelf near your fall daycare picture, the one of you holding the white pumpkin. In these dreams, she is scared and lost. I take her in my arms and I tell her she will die, and we cry together.

I had not called my mother “mommy,” like you call me, for more than three decades, but I called her that as she died. We were all children at her death. She wore mesh underwear, the same kind the hospital gave me after you were born, and said “tee tee” when she needed to use the bathroom. I dropped her, that last day she was alive, there in the bathroom. I worried so much about dropping you in those early months, and here I had lost grip of my mother.

I got my first mammogram this year because I will do anything so that you do not dream like me. A mammogram is where nurses take pictures of breasts, to make sure they are not sick.

Afterwards I waited, shirtless, for the doctor but the doctor didn’t come. A nurse finally opened the door. “Doctor says everything looks normal,” she said. “For a 32-year-old breast.”

I took my 32-year-old breasts and left the clinic. A clogged milk duct, it turned out, I learned that night in the shower, though you have been weaned for more than a year.  You did not want to wean, still tried to catch my nipples in your mouth months after.

In bed, tonight, you grab for me, small hands frantic in the dark. “Mommy, where did you go?” I extend an arm to you and you nestle into me. I know that later my arm will go numb from the weight of your neck, that I’ll have to roll you gently onto a pillow.

“I’m still here, baby,” I say, and you sleep.

Lindsey Abernathy is a mother, daughter and writer from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Abernathy studied journalism at the University of Mississippi and has worked as a writer, editor, and sustainability activist in higher education. Her most recent work was published in the Bitter Southerner.

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