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Grief

Grief, Guest Posts

Touch Trail Romper

June 3, 2024
romper

The bag of clothing sat where Oliver’s mother, Sarah, had set it on my worktable. I reached in and pulled out a white baby romper, its soft fabric sewn with tiny decorative pleats. I held it out in front of me and felt my knees go unsteady with sorrow.

In my imagination, Oliver came alive, wearing the romper as he toddled around, then, as he grew, wearing other clothes from the bag. His first pair of jeans at age five. The black shirt he wore in high school on days when he had a wrestling match. The timeline of his clothing ended there, at sixteen, when a single pill laced with fentanyl took him from the world.

I am a textile artist, specializing in memorial quilts made from the clothing of those who have died. After years of doing this work, I’ve developed, not distance, but equanimity. I see grief as a deep connector between human beings. My role is to listen, not internalize, these stories. I am only their temporary keeper and interpreter.

I came to this work as a textile designer, first for Nike Apparel, later as a freelancer. During that time, I was asked by a friend if I could make something out of a handful of her father’s neckties, her only keepsakes from him. I was not expecting how powerful and healing the resulting quilt would be for her. When I experienced my first profound loss a few years later and made my own memorial quilts out of my grandmother’s clothing, I felt firsthand the significance of the meeting point between grief, memory, and clothing.

But Oliver’s story infused into my bones. Was it because I have an only son who was born around the same time? Or because Oliver was a red head, like me? The fullness of Sarah’s grief was clear for me when she dropped the bag of her son’s clothes at my studio. Her palpable grief was in the air around her. When she hugged me, I felt it seep into my own body with that familiar grief-claustrophobia I’ve felt with my own losses, almost wanting to jump out of my skin and away from the truth, away from the finality of it.

There is something poignant about handling a garment worn by a person who has died. It’s like a touch trail or a talisman. A tracing of their energy. A connection to their spirit and history. I’m fascinated by the conversations I can have with people who are gone and whom I’ve never met. Establishing trust is paramount, especially with clients turning over keepsake material.

These quilts are not for the dead. They are one hundred percent for the survivors, shaped by the memories they choose to share with me. Oliver might have disagreed with his mom about which was his favorite shirt, but that is completely beside that point. What Sarah chooses to remember and how she remembers is the entire point. The quilt is her tableau.

The process by which I arrive at a quilt design from the grief stories people share is a bit of a mystery even to me. The tiniest observation can spark an idea. For Oliver’s quilt – the stories Sarah told me were so much about his boyish curiosity – I imagined a compass. Sarah loved the idea of a compass-like pattern with small squares and colors radiating out from the center. It was all I needed to create the quilt’s organizing principle.

Measure, count, cut, arrange…creating the quilt itself is like a dance. Ideas, feelings, fabrics, and colors swirl around. In piecing the story together, I must account for the fluidity and lack of chronology of memory. The quilt becomes an abstract vessel holding powerful hints and prompts, but never a literal scene.

Part of grief is the fear that we’ll forget the ones who are gone. Will we remember the sound of their voices? Or the particulars of their first days of school? With this quilt, Sarah will see the fabric from Oliver’s black shirt, even when it has ceased to “present” as a “shirt” within the quilt. She’ll be transported back to wrestling match day and remember Oliver’s face filled with pride as he competed, and more memories will cascade in.

That day when I picked up my scissors and cut into Oliver’s white romper, I didn’t hesitate. I rarely do, anymore, because after so many years, so many grief stories, so many quilts, I know it’s the first step in the transformation process. The idea of “white romper” will never go away but how it exists in the world is what will change.

The power of art lies in its ability to transform – viewer, maker, the living, and the dead. Memory quilts continue the kaleidoscope after our years walking the planet have ended. Oliver’s romper was so small it didn’t provide many fabric squares to use, but its significance was clearly mighty for Sarah, and her continuing work with grief is my inspiration. Hiding from it, we miss its gifts. Facing it, we are transformed. For that reason, I placed those bright white romper squares at the quilt’s very center. At the heart of Oliver’s story.

Lori Mason’s fine art memorial quilts, crafted from clothing of those who have passed away, are a healing gift, connecting grief, memory and transformational design. An award-winning, deeply empathic fine artist, Lori works with the bereaved to “piece together” a visual story of the one who has died. She has been a guest on Grief, Gratitude and Greatness podcast, the What’s Your Grief blog, and recently had a solo exhibition at The Dalles Art Center, with earlier inspiration appearing in the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum Craft Shows. She lives in Portland, Oregon. See more at her website and on Instagram.

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Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

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Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

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Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Grief, Guest Posts

Return of Saturn

April 21, 2024
Saturn

Since I’m a trained scientist I officially don’t believe in astrology, although as a queer woman in San Francisco I’ve had to learn my chart for first dates.  In sophomore year the TA for “rocks for jocks” took us to the planetarium so he could break down the absurdity of the idea that your birthdate and the alignment of the stars would in any way shape your fate.  I still remember the hearing him hiss, “and because these ‘calculations’ were done so long ago, the stars aren’t even in the right place anymore,” as we patiently waited for the heavens to move above us before realizing that the projector was broken, leaving us forever on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini.

In astrology, Saturn takes 27-29 years to complete one full orbit around the sun and return to the same zodiac sign it was in when you were born. It’s a rite of passage, a time when you’re changing into an adult and a whole new phase of your life, and– it’s generally agreed– a time when much of your life is going to go completely tits-up.  The idea was inconceivable to me.  After all, going into 2013 I had things on lock.  I had chosen a two-year graduate degree which and got me home in 2012 in time to get a great new job, keep an eye on my aging parents, and enjoy a nice Christmas with my family. My parents had split up when I was little but the three of us still spent every Christmas together, always with the same traditions.  I came home for every vacation, every holiday.  Maybe we were a little codependent, but not in a bad way, you know? I mean, sure, I realized I was bisexual when I got overwhelming crushes on three (straight) women in grad school but was too chicken to figure out what I was going to do about that, and yes, my dad wasn’t in the best health, and fine, there was a conflict brewing with my mom that I was trying to keep the lid on.  Surely all that would sort itself out if I stuck to the plan and stayed on my path, like Earth orbiting the sun. I had become very used to setting goals and meeting them, and armed with my new five-year plan for ages 30-35 I knew I was going to tick off those life milestones the way I had ticked off all the accomplishments on my to-do list so far.

My Saturn return, according to the internet, began in January 2013.  Every time I read or heard about it I was a little annoyed.  As if some distant planet was going to affect my life.  As if I wasn’t in control. And this is how 2013 went: in March one of my uncles died in his sleep, and mom and I had the first of many fights that year that led to our being estranged.  Over the summer I was dumped– twice– and realized my shiny new career wasn’t quite working out when I noticed most of the cool jobs were going to men and I fell asleep, exhausted, in my car when it was parked outside the office.  And then, in October, my dad died.  Three days before I got the call, I had the strangest dream.  I don’t usually remember my dreams, but in this one we were walking around his house, the house I grew up in, on a normal, sunny day.  He was showing me how he had fixed the place up: the worn linoleum, the crack in the wall.  Dad stood in front of me and said “This is your home, I want you to be comfortable,” which I distinctly remember thinking was a weird thing for him to say.

One thing we don’t talk much about are the small things that get ruined for you when someone you love dies.  For me, it’s spinach dip.  I had a baguette and a container of spinach dip in my hands as I was walking into a birthday party when I felt my cell phone buzz.  My roommate had left two voicemails and three texts telling me to call her, so I stopped outside the party to call her back.  And what she said was 1) she was very, very high, 2) a sheriff’s deputy came to the house to look for me, 3) I needed to call the Sacramento Coroner’s Office, because 4) “Uh, uh, your dad’s dead.”  I called my best friends that night and they got me home, blaring Beyonce so loud I couldn’t think of anything else.  My roommate, who was still pretty high, gave me cold pizza and sat with me all night watching cartoons until it was time to get up and make the worst phone call I’ve ever had to make.  I didn’t even need to say it.  My aunt knew as soon as she asked “How is Dan doing?” and I said, crying, “Well, that’s why I’m calling.”  I haven’t touched spinach dip since.

Every death means that some things are left unfinished, some conversations are left unsaid.  I never got a chance to tell him that I was queer.  At least I can be thankful that the last thing I ever said to my dad was “I love you,” even if his response was “Okay, kid.”  It meant the same thing. We scattered his ashes at the confluence of two rivers, and in his favorite rose garden. A few nights later it was Halloween, and I walked under a full moon feeling like the line between my world and wherever my dad had gone was very, very thin.  I also felt, deep in my bones, a sense of the whole night sky realigning around the hole that had been torn in the center of my life.

Life kept moving, like a river cutting through a city.  I’m not the same person I was before my Saturn return. The following year I sold Dad’s house to pay off my student loans and realized I wasn’t just an adult–I was the only adult in my life.  When I left my job and went on a three-week road trip alone without having another job lined up, no one really asked questions.  I came out as bi and wished I could tell my dad that in comparison to my ex-boyfriends (one of whom dad called ‘that guy’ for two solid years) all the women I dated paid their bills on time. I think he would have been cool with the gay thing, especially if I ended up with a doctor, but I’ll never know for sure. Since Dad died, I’ve spent Christmas in a variety of ways: with friends, family, alone with my dog.  A few times I got a last-minute plane ticket and just went somewhere– anywhere– else.

A decade later, hardly any of the things in my old five-year plan have come to pass.  I have fallen in and out of love a few times, become a godparent, dressed in drag, wrote a few drafts of a novel, climbed a mountain.  An astrologer told me my first big queer love and breakup lined up with my ‘nodal return,’ which I did not like hearing at all. I would love to conclude with a nice tidy ending, like Eat, Pray, Love where the main character falls in love with a hot Brazilian man. Did you know that really happened?  Did you know that in real life she was so anxious about marrying the hot Brazilian man that she wrote a book about the institution of marriage and a decade later left him for her terminally ill lesbian best friend?  Maybe Elizabeth was also in her nodal return.  Although in my heart of hearts I would love a 75-year plan, like Dignan in Bottle Rocket, I don’t because man plans and God laughs, right?  Now I focus on staying curious, having fun, and I try to say the important stuff out loud, especially when I love someone.  My next Saturn return is supposed to come at 60, so I have several decades to find out what the planets have in store for me.  And although I don’t really want to believe that planets millions of miles away are affecting my destiny, sometimes, on a clear night, I walk outside, look up at the stars, and wonder how the sky will look different to me then.

T.A. Edwards lives and work in San Francisco, where she is working on herfirst novel. T.A. can be followed on Insta at @taedwardswritesstuff.

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We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Grief, Guest Posts, parents

Death and Jeggings

February 21, 2024
sweaters dad

I stared at the rack of enamel buttoned cardigans, hands numb, relaxed chinos everywhere. Nothing made sense. I looked around confused. Where was I? Was this…? Yes.  Right. I was so lost, I walked into a Talbot’s.

I had just left my father at a Memory Care Center and I felt pretty crummy. Not crummier than the place I’d had to leave him at two months prior, but crummy none the less. We’d sat in the common room, people in wheelchairs were being spoon fed in rotation by a caregiver. A woman named Kathy sat at our table. She had big fish eyes and a yellow sweater and a flapsack over her walker in a homemade fabric that had Elvis all over it. Another attendant, a woman in her twenties with a faded tattoo over her eyebrow sat with us.  Whatever was over the eyebrow was in the process of removal.  Around her wrist, a delicate black rosary dripped on to her hand that my eyes kept returning to. Any illustration of faith was comforting in this liminal rec room off the 405.   My dad didn’t say much. I tried not to micro manage but really got into it with Kathy about Elvis hoping the vibe could feel fun.  I rambled about “King Creole,” my favorite Elvis movie.  Going as far as to belt out “crawwwwwwwwfish.” Kathy frowned. I stopped.  I overtry in these situations. Memory Care Center cheerleader. It’s awful. But it is better than the silence.

My dad ate slowly, elongating the time I had to stress out about leaving him there. The truth is, I don’t want to leave him anywhere. Ever. But a lot of him has left us at this point and we don’t have a choice. He gets angry, red faced, violent words he never used in my childhood spew. Last week on the front porch he told my brother and I that he’d cut our fingers off and feed em to us like in Viet Nam. We looked at each other and stifled a laugh; that is where we are. Lewy Body Dementia with a lifelong PTSD chaser. Memory Care people call it LBD. Which used to mean Little Black Dress to me. Halter, strapless, now extra protein in the brain that results in hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.

He’d been my favorite person to talk to on any given Sunday. The man who made me laugh with wordplay and feel safe with his emotional IQ. But now, he needed full-time attention, twenty four hour tenderness from a professional equipped to not think about the finger eating comment for the next week/lifetime. He got kicked out of the first memory care home we’d placed him in after he lobbed a punch at his 94 year old roommate which I could only imagine looked like slow motion fighting.  We were now here. Praying he wouldn’t have “behaviors.” Praying he was drugged properly. That is the objective now: drug him into a hazy soup of non aggressive jibber jabber. Soup in a fleece lined corduroy coat. No wonder I was looking for spirit in the hands of strangers.

Half of his plate eaten, he shook his head no as I spooned another bit of rice. We got up, took another walk around the empty grounds. When I left I told him I’d see him next week.  He looked at me confused.  On the way out I grabbed Lisa, the activities director and tried not to cry and told her he likes coloring and crafts. Can he have coloring and crafts?  A few people were sitting at a table where she had unpacked some yarn. No one knows what to do with this yarn and I’m sure Lisa has a plan but I feel like a criminal leaving him there.

I promised myself I would move him in and go home. But away from the dribbly food, I had an appetite and remembered there was at Wahoo’s in Crystal Court. In high school, we would pile into a Toyota Forerunner and go to the original one on Placentia in Costa Mesa for lunch. Surf stickers and ahi rice felt like home. These were things I knew.  This is mahi mahi, this is a guy grinding in Vans.  Here is my father, buttoning a flannel as he leaves to run the scoreboard at the high school football game. Waving at me from the box while I grit my teeth through a cheer dance. Never sure why I was doing it, probably because of his wave. Here, here is a Volcom poster from the Pink Is Punk Party you went to senior year. Here. Here is salsa. Here is a fountain soda. Here, hear is a Prussian march cranked up in Dad’s Volvo. He got the collection at the car wash. “Best music and best birthday cards are from the car wash,” he said with whimsical authority.  An attorney in child protective services, I’d imagined the brassy insanity strengthened him to go prosecute bad guys. Years later he told me a story about threatening a father on the phone and knowing it was time to change departments. That it was the saddest he had ever been to me.  I eat my salad, but I don’t want to go home.

I, in fact, want to wander around Crystal Court. So I do. Every person I look at I want to touch. I want to tell them we are all going to disappear one day, as if they don’t know. That our honeycomb brains are going to crumble into fractured poorly edited movies playing in a loop while we sit at tables with strangers, lash out at invisible enemies, and shit in our pants. So buy something pretty while the show still makes sense and the undercarriage is rosy.  I want to tell them I love them and their dumb sunglasses on their heads, and their self important conversations, I want to tell them I love all of it. I look at them lost. Sensitive as a sunburn, searching for something familiar, like my father. I could go home.  Instead, I walked into Talbot’s. No LBDs of either variety here.

I had never stepped inside this store but there was a fair aisle sweater in the window that evoked pumpkin patches and PTA meetings and I liked it. I wandered around and felt shoppers and salespeople look at me, in a backless pencil skirted dress. Everyone in here might be pro-life but I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know why. I just didn’t want to stop being in an in between place between my dad and my own life. I picked up a striped sweater that looked preserved from Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club wardrobe rack. A woman escorted me into a dressing room. I was tired from the night before but there’s something so soothing to me about a dressing room transformation. Different woman, different pain. Start with different top. Who am I now? Does me dress like the Mickey Mouse Club? Does me have no dad anymore?

The mirror said no sweater. As for dad, you had a feral thug who would be horrified that he was no longer splashed in Aramis cologne making the whole room laugh. At the first home, the ratio of women to men was extreme and he referred to it as “beaver island.” I appreciated the edgier material,  but it wasn’t really him. The way the sweater wasn’t really me. What was I doing in this store?

I left and walked around, but for some reason, I made a freaking second trip into Talbot’s because the fall fantasy in the window called to me, again.  This time I went for it, plus a weird MLFY cowl neck situation and why not, jeggings. A different woman intercepted me. Grayish shoulder length hair, not much make up, understated Talbot-y outfit. She put me in the dressing room and when I came out she stood there and gasped, “no one has ever made that sweater look sexy!” Looks like you just sold yourself a sweater, lady. Oh nooooo…I demured. She shook her head. I asked if she’d give her opinion on the other color. Absolutely, she nodded. I didn’t know this, but what I needed in that moment after leaving my dad, was laser sharp loving attention. Even if it was for mom knits. I showed her the other color, something in her face was so earnest, so heartfelt, I didn’t even care about figuring out the accuracy, her love had me by the shorthairs. It didn’t feel like selling love. It felt like kindness. Like pleasure. I tried on the fair aisle from the window. She shook her head, “it is also absolutely adorable!” We grinned, two basic lunatics in a Talbots. I was getting FREAKING SWEATERS. She looked around, made sure the coast was clear, and said, “I have a forty percent off coupon at the front. You were supposed to get it mailed, but I have one you can use.” I gasped. GET THE F OUT. Okay. We were getting jeggings and sweaters and looking towards a cozy future that hasn’t happened where I will be in knits and cuddled or meeting for a spicey cider thing not being up at 4 am making lists of VA hospitals with psych wards! I had crossed the rubicon into Talbot’s! Transformation complete!

She said, “wait, I have a Christmas one too!”

“What is your name?”

“Karen!” For real. Wow.

“Oh god, Karen,” I screamed at my new best friend, Karen from Talbots-“Bring me the Christmas one!!!!!!” This time last year I was wasting energy on cashmere to go out with a  producer in Venice. But what my soul needed now, was the realest. What I needed was forty percent off coupons with Karen.

By the time I got up to the register (I passed on the Christmas one,  only in petite it read real Susie Chapstick), I felt so easy with her that I had to say it:

“Karen, I was having a really rough day and this was just so lovely.  Thank you.” She told me if I needed to return anything she’s always here. I think I could be here next week. This could be my thing. Dad. Then Talbots. In a month I’ll look like Nancy Reagan and the Orange County metamorphosis will be complete.

“Today was hard,” I continued, embarrassed but unable to stop. Recently someone (yes, a therapist) had told me my ‘work’ was to feel more and love myself for all those feelings (ugh). So here I was, tenderness and gratitude flying. I was on the autobahn of feelings, going a million miles an hour. It felt out of control, like I could crash, but I was going to do what I was told. Feel them, love myself for it, strangers in a mall be damned.  “I dropped my dad off at a new memory care center so, thank you for this.” Just saying it choked me up. And before I uttered another word, Karen stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye and said, “It is the hardest. I had to drop my mother off two years ago. She was so violent she threw a chair through a plate glass window at the other home and then she got kicked out.”

“My dad got kicked out!”

“We had to put her in a psych ward until we could a find a place in Cerritos. It was terrible. She had dementia. Brought on by alcoholism.” She said it with the same authenticity that had me buying a cowl neck. I felt compelled to share my personal theory.  “I think agent orange!” I practically shouted.

We both nodded together.

“It is so hard,” she said. “I am so so so sorry.”

There was a force field between us as she looked at me from across the counter. She had packed my items, but the moment was easy. It was honest and painful, but easy.

“My mom died last year,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. There was relief. I understood. This grieving, a water torture of sorts. Each shift in cognition, a drop on the forehead. The anxiety of anticipating which part will go next. Eroding my bearings, which led me to this mall. She told me about her hairdresser’s father who had LBD and wanted assisted suicide. I had been listening to my dad say he wanted to die for the past month.  But as long as he could blink there’d be no assisting, my selfishness a surprise.

I almost walked away without the bag. I forgot that I was shopping. The woman at the other register next gave me an ‘are you okay?’ look. I recalibrated. Karen handed it to me. Yes. No. I didn’t know. But I was less lost than when I walked in.

Amy Turner has written for NBC, CBS, Freeform and the CW. It was this or ayahuasca.
Guest Posts, Grief

The Mourning Essay

November 13, 2023
Josh cemetery

Ghosts are supposed to be translucent, ephemeral. Mine are opaque, and permanent. Like the humidity on the Gulf Coast, ever present and palpable. If I could take a knife and cut a path through it, I would; I have tried. I’ve surgically removed myself, carving out limbs at a time until now, almost a decade removed, again, from living in Biloxi, I feel that mostly I am whole and present in the DC suburbs in which I live. It takes a long time, piecing oneself back together. After the traumatic death of a brother. After the rape and sexual assault from a friend. After heartbreak and disappointment and the wiping away of future plans. When I think of Mississippi, I think of pain and heartache. I think also of ignorance and backwardness and tremendous poverty. Of the final home of the first and last president of the confederacy. This monument to racism that stands and collects money, celebrating a history that is mistold, still. That flies not just one but hundreds of confederate flags, every day in 2022, and I am filled with dread. And yet for the sake of my children, and perhaps also for myself, this summer once again I find myself planning a trip back to the place where everything truly terrible in my life has happened. Because if I truly want to heal, I need to remember where I came from and how far I’ve come, and I want my kids to know more of the world than the haven their father and I have tried to create for them in suburbia. Because there is also beauty there, in Biloxi. Time moves slower and life is simpler. The Gulf beckons and pulls and reminds me of the possibilities in that murky water where the river meets the sound and the dolphins and stingrays play. And a day on the water in any kind of boat can heal almost anything. And so we go, every summer, and the ghosts and the mist envelope me and mine again.

But first, a memory.

The cool, dry air on my skin, driving my white mustang convertible, top down, through the hills and valleys of Northern California, the vineyards rolling past in waves of color, the smell of manure and compost and dreams permeating the air around me. The warmth of the sun and the endless possibilities in the open clean air of a California morning. That morning, so long ago, when California-me still believed it was possible to shake off my hometown.  It was 7:30 AM on January 12, 2006, and I was on my way to work at Napa High School when my friend Shelly Barq called from Biloxi. She was thousands of miles away and three hours ahead of me in time.  This morning in Napa, like every morning, the sky above was a brilliant blue punctuated with hot air balloons. The beauty of this adopted home astounded me daily. I loved that I needed a sweater in the mornings and could wear shorts in the afternoon. I loved the hills and valleys, the river and the endless cerulean sky. The gourmet coffee shops and grocery stores and boutiques I couldn’t afford.  In every possible way Napa was the opposite of where I had grown up in hurricane country. There was never even a cloud in the sky, not one.

“Is your brother ok?” Shelly asked.

I had no idea what she was talking about. My morning had consisted of an argument with my fiance, Jeff, and then a hasty exit to my car. He would be driving to Santa Rosa this morning to work at his mother’s office (supposedly) and then staying late afterward to play with his band—that part, at least, I could believe. That is all he did, really, pretend to be a rock star and smoke pot. The rockstar bit is part of what attracted me to him in the first place. There is nothing more romantic than sitting under the stars with someone who is playing the guitar and crooning a love song while staring into your eyes.

“Call your mom,” Shelly said, and I hung up with her and called home expecting my mother to tell me that my youngest brother Josh had perhaps broken his leg in a car accident.

“Pull over and park the car,” Mom said.

It was 9:30 AM her time, and 7:30 in Napa. Impatient and because I was almost to school, I told her I was parked even as I continued to drive.

“Your brother has been killed,” she said. “He passed away.” Stunned, I coasted into my parking space. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

A memory.

Running laps at the park by our house. The oppressive heat and stings of mosquito bites. A desire to show off. Josh wanted to get into better shape for baseball, and he asked me to train him to run faster. I ran behind him and in front of him. I sang motivational songs, He was out of breath after 50 yards. His dark brown hair and little belly, the way he trudged rather than jogged. His body had never been the same after his surgery. When he was 10 he’d been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, and after a round of chemotherapy he’d had surgery to remove the tumor in his leg, and a surgeon had spliced the bones there together with another bone from his pelvis. He was a survivor; he was a fighter. That day at the running track though, he gave up after 2 laps, and I teased him endlessly.

Not possible that he was killed, that he had “passed away.” Passing away implies some sort of gentle crossing, and there is nothing gentle about being crushed by an 18 wheel truck.  He and seven of his friends had been driving back from a party about an hour north from our hometown, and in the back country roads of Wiggins, Mississippi, in dense fog and after too many drinks, they had gotten lost. Chris Rutland, the driver, did a 3 point turn in the middle of the highway, and in the 3 AM fog, his truck had been struck by an 18-wheeler going probably 80 miles an hour. Josh and five of his friends had been killed instantly.

How could he be dead? Why him? Had I not also been to a million parties in remote locations and driven with a driver who’d also had too much to drink? I don’t think I’m alone in this, when we are young, we are stupid. Most of us are pretty lucky and survive those mistakes. Josh and his friends didn’t. But I had just seen Josh when I was there for Christmas break. We had last talked a few days before, when I called to see if he’d yet gotten over the cold he had while I was visiting. I was feeling sniffly and wondering if I should visit the doctor for some antibiotics, or if it was, in fact, just a cold. He had told me he was fine. He is fine. No other option was plausible. Because if my little brother was dead, what did that make me?

Memories.

He was 6 and I was 11, and I was the only one he trusted to pull his loose tooth. I was his protector, his “Gigi” when he couldn’t yet say Angie properly.  His little arms around me when he’d had a nightmare and needed someone to hold him while he fell back asleep. The smell of Dove soap and toothpaste and the slight fear that he might pick his nose and put the boogers under the covers.

While home that Christmas, I had brought Jeff with me to meet my family. It had been a disaster. Jeff Fitzgerald did not in any way mesh with my southern Mississippi past and present. He had threatened at one point to walk to the airport and leave early because he couldn’t stand the… what exactly? I’m not sure. Now I think what he couldn’t fathom was the intimacy. This is what scares me too, now, at 42, when I think about visiting my parents and Bryan, my remaining brother, in Biloxi. I’ve successfully cocooned myself in suburbia, a thousand miles away, and I don’t want to open my heart back up to that place where it can be hurt again by those who knew me before. There used to be a closeness between my brothers, parents and me. There was no escaping it if I wanted to. Even as a 22 year old adult visiting with Jeff that winter, the strict curfews and rules were still in place because, according to my dad, “when you are under my roof you are under my rules.” I don’t think Jeff had any of this growing up; certainly there didn’t seem to be any structure in his life, any comprehension of the importance of honesty and even sobriety. That I came from a place where people couldn’t buy wine at the grocery store or liquor (or wine) on Sundays seemed unfathomable to him. That for one week only, he wouldn’t be able to begin his mornings with his customary glass of wine or token joint was unbearable to him. I see that now. I didn’t then. I was still enthralled by the easy orgasms that came when he was next to me and the sweet embrace of the ever flowing wine and sunshine in California. One night in Biloxi for Christmas break, we had played Trivial Pursuit. Jeff was impressed with Joshua’s ability to get every single question on the sports cards correct. I think that was the only real interaction between them. Jeff preferred my brother Bryan, I think, because he was closer to us in age, but also because Bryan shared Jeff’s love for cannabis.

So that morning in Napa, when I called Jeff to tell him he needed to turn back around and meet me at our apartment, the first question he asked after I screamed that my brother was dead was, “Which one?” This question maddened me. Did it matter? Of course it mattered, but to me at the time it seemed more proof that this man child I’d been dumb enough to saddle myself to seemed to think that question was relevant.

“It’s Josh,” I said. “Come home.”

Another night over Christmas vacation I had been sitting downstairs when, from upstairs, had come a burst of music. “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you, I know you were right believing for so long, I’m all out of love, what am I without you? I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.” Air Supply. Really? This was the song my brother was playing to pump himself up to go out for the evening? It tickled me. Who was the person he imagined when he listened to that song? I hollered up at him with the torment that comes from a big sister’s love, and the song was immediately changed. He must have loved someone, had someone who thought she might be the one, someone with whom he shared intimacies and kisses and dreams. Her dreams, like mine, were shattered that day. But my dreams were already cracked.

While in Biloxi for winter break I went with a friend to try on wedding dresses. I was standing in DeeDees Dress shop on the little stage reserved for brides, surrounded by mirrors. The lights were shining on me like spotlights and I was glorious. The dress was beautiful, with just the right amounts of lace, charmeuse, satin and chiffon. It was off the shoulder and in it, I was the princess bride I’d always dreamed of. But looking in the mirror in that dress I realized I was more excited about the dress than the man I’d be walking down the aisle to marry. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t marry Jeff. But it took months before I was able to tell him that, compounded by the pain from Josh’s death and the desire to do anything but think of how I’d failed my family by continuing to exist when Josh was no longer here. It seemed I existed in the world so I could make my parents’ life better. I had to make it right, but how could I? There was no bringing him back. This was the first time I had ever encountered such a loss where there was truly nothing that could be done to fix it. There was just a hole, and nothing could fill it up. But I tried.

Back in Napa, in my townhouse on Silverado drive, I tried to fill it with every glass of wine I could afford. Drowning in alcohol and hoping for oblivion. When I was Josh’s age I had driven drunk or ridden drunk more times than I could count. How could I have survived when he didn’t? Not only him, but his five best friends also perished in that wreck. Why had I always been so lucky? There seemed to be two ways only to solve this problem: drink myself into oblivion or move back to Mississippi and be there for my parents.

A memory.

Plunging into a murky pond where an alligator lived on a dare. Swimming to the other side faster than I’d ever swam before or since because I’m not scared, I’m just as cool as the guys, my brothers will see that I am someone to look up to. Dreams of alligators chasing me and them, and always grabbing Joshua just in time to save him, or waking up in a cold sweat and never knowing if I made it in time. He was my responsibility, Mom always said. You are the oldest. Summer heat and play outside with your brothers, and I don’t care that Josh is 5 years younger than you, he needs to come too and you are in charge of keeping him safe. But I couldn’t keep him safe this time. I was in California, and he died. I didn’t protect him. I wasn’t the daughter or sister I was supposed to be.

The funeral and touching his skin. It was loose and cold and buoyant, even, like the cold bread roll sitting on the table with all the casseroles left by people who bring food to people who can’t eat. Eating means living, and I felt dead. The night before the funeral, Bryan and I were in Josh’s room, sifting through his things, and I found a letter to him from my mom. You are my favorite, she had written to him. Of my children, you are the strongest and the best and the closest to my heart. Another blow. Not only is my brother dead, but my mom loved him more than me, and I now had physical proof.  Flying back to California and back to Jeff. His arms around me and feeling sickened at the idea of fucking him now. Every touch reminded me of Joshua’s corpse. And so the only thing that really was keeping us together, ended too.

And when the school year was over, I pieced what was left of myself together. A burden had landed on my soul, and it would be years before I would be able to pull myself out from under it. Back in Biloxi, I sank even further into a depression that existed because of the death of my brother, yes, but also because I was trying to recreate a home for myself in a place that I had once promised myself that I’d never return to. For as early as I can remember, I always knew that I needed to leave Mississippi. The pressure of humidity in the air was a weight on my soul.

A memory.

July, 2006. Telling a new someone that my brother had just died, and the realization in his eyes when he discerned that my brother was one of those kids he read about in the paper. Warm arms around me and a soft, “I’m sorry.” That summer was heat and salt and sand and losing myself in everything and everyone so there would never be time to think. Trying coke for the first time just to feel alive. To remind myself that I was still alive even if Josh wasn’t. The weight of guilt and sadness and humidity.  Jumping on the trampoline at 3 in the morning, sleeping in someone else’s bed and waking up to salty air and more heat and the open breeze on the Silver Dollar or anyone’s boat who’d let me ride out to the barrier islands with them. Anywhere to pretend for a minute that I wasn’t landlocked in Mississippi, again.

I got a job teaching at a local high school, and tried to forget the dreams I’d had for myself. Tried to forget everything, really. My grief at losing my brother.  After a series of dead end hook ups and brief relationships centered around men with access to boats, I bought my own sailboat. Nevermind that I didn’t actually know how to sail. I’d spent years on boats, but always ones with motors and someone else in the captain’s seat. Still, I was taking charge of my life. If I was going to be stuck in my hometown, I was going to explore the best parts of it. I needed space from the oppressive love of my parents, from not knowing who I was anymore, and I looked everywhere but within, hoping that in the air off the coast my confined soul might fly free for a while. Later that year I met the man who would become my husband. Like me, he had called BIloxi home, but he also knew he was destined to settle elsewhere,which is what we eventually did, several years later.

Maybe that is it. I got out of Mississippi. And Josh never can. He died there, and they buried him a mile from where we grew up. He will forever be 21, stuck in the pictures my parents have posted all over the house. His face bloated from freshman 15, never able to grow into the man he might have become.

A memory.

September, 2005, just three months before Josh died. A flight from Sacramento into Jackson, Mississippi. Biloxi destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All of the landmarks of my youth, wiped away in an instant. Watching events unfold from Napa was like listening to a friend tortured in the next room and not being able to do anything or even know what was happening. On CNN and every channel only New Orleans and levees and FEMA. I was at school the morning the storm hit, and Bryan had refused to evacuate. When you grow up around hurricanes, as long as you live on land above the flood zone and your walls are made of brick, you learn early that you don’t need to evacuate. And yet my parents who had never lived anywhere other than the Hurricane zone of the Gulf Coast, who had never in my lifetime left for a storm, had fled north. Josh was at college in north Mississippi, and so Bryan was the only one in my nuclear family in the danger zone. I was on the phone with him that morning and he was having a party with friends. Drinking and smoking and claiming his territory in his newly purchased home.

“Holy shit, my shed just flew by,” he said, and the phone lost service. I wasn’t able to reestablish service with him or anyone in my family for three days. All lines were down. But they were all ok, in the end. Until of course, they weren’t. So when Josh picked me up from the airport in Jackson, Mississippi, a week after the storm hit, as we drove down to the coast I marveled at how everything had changed. Landmarks I’d always known didn’t exist anymore.

“Shut up,” he said, “you can’t even see anything, it’s dark.” He was right, of course, but I wanted to make up for not being there when the storm hit. And the landscape had changed. Nothing would ever be the same. It had felt like a betrayal, watching from afar and then really only watching how the storm affected New Orleans. The media coverage skipped over Mississippi entirely, even though the eye of the storm had passed over the Mississipp Gulf Coast, not Louisiana. So I gathered tree limbs like crazy, sweeping and raking and busting my ass to help get my parents’ house and my grandmother’s house ready again for habitation, and I wheedeled my littlest brother, Josh, for not hustling enough to help. Working in my grandmother’s yard, he kept disappearing inside to do anything but manual labor, and I told him he needed to quit being lazy and get his hands dirty.“ He wasn’t the perfect person that my parents remember. He was just a boy. Sometimes lazy, sometimes stupid, sometimes selfish, just like anyone. He didn’t hustle enough. Or maybe I hustle too much. How can you be angry with a ghost? I guess I’m not angry with him but with my parents for loving that imperfect ghost more than me.

And here I am now, fifteen years later, fussing at my own son, Josh, for not hustling enough in the morning before school. For not picking up after himself. For not being the perfect version of a son I envisioned when I thought having him might somehow fill the hole that came to being when Josh died.

A memory.

A cemetery with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Flat, sandy, ground filled with other brothers and sons, mothers and daughters, the bones and ashes of other dreams that died with the bodies buried in the earth. Sitting there on the massive stone bench on the meticulously maintained ground on the 5 plots my parents bought so we “could all be buried together,” surrounded by the stone angels and trinkets and his picture there, in the tombstone, staring at me. A promise to remember. To live a life worth living. To make up for his death, somehow.

“So you became a mother not because you wanted to, but because you felt you had to,” my therapist said many years later. I guess that’s true, and maybe why I clash so much with my now eleven-year-old son. Part of me thought that by bringing another Josh into this world I could somehow fill the hole created by the loss of my brother Josh. What a terrible burden to put on a small child, and now, years after that realization, I understand part of the anger I have for my parents. I left Napa to try to heal them. I made another Josh. And I’m still not good enough. My dead brother will always be better than me, because in their minds, he exists as the most perfect version of himself. The man he might have been is so much better than the person he was. In their minds, he will always be potential. I will never be good enough because I’m still alive. And I project that failure onto my sweet son, Josh. He is never good enough either because no one is. And maybe that is ok.

So I’ll take my children to visit their grandparents, and I’ll smile, because as hard as losing a brother is, losing a child must be a million times harder. Together we will wade into the Gulf, feeling the soft sand beneath our feet and between our toes and the warm water all around us.  We’ll climb onto Poppy’s boat and sit next to my mother and smile, and maybe this time the water will cleanse me of the guilt and the ghosts and the sorrow.  I’ll close my eyes and think of that other Josh who died long ago, and remember him singing Air Supply, in the bathroom. And when my son asks Poppy to put on some ridiculous pop song, I’ll smile again and tell Poppy to turn it up.

Angie Taggart is a high school English teacher who is more often grading papers than writing her own. She has been published in The Vanguard. We are thrilled to publish her work and look forward to reading more from Angie. She can be found on Twitter at @angtagwrites.

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Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief

Canada Geese

September 12, 2023
Geese on Pond

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

The pond has become my turn around point.

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

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

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

Little pond looks still

then tall brown grasses rustle—

a goose making a nest.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

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

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

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Guest Posts, Grief

A Universal Language

July 3, 2022
language

Budoia, Italy 1983

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

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

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

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

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Have you ordered Thrust


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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief, Self Love

Hair Is More Than Serious Business: It’s Identity

June 26, 2022
hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Gratitude, Grief

I Say Goodbye and You Say Hello

June 19, 2022
flowers on table time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief, healing

Black Holes

June 12, 2022
light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*this piece appeared previously in Braided Way Magazine

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

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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

moving on, Grief, Guest Posts

Jimmy Five

May 15, 2022
jimmy

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

“We have to talk,” he seemed to say.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

“Jimmy, you read my journals!”

“I was looking for answers,” he claimed.

“You had no right!”

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

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

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

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

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

He twitched his right shoulder and walked out.

***

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

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

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

I wouldn’t stop until he stopped.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

And he did. Stop drinking.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was simply not sexy.

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He was dead within 24 hours. Maybe 48.

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

I wasn’t.

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

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

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

We’d had him cremated.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

It was time.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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If you liked today’s essay, check this out:

“Exquisite storytelling. . . . Written in the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert or Anne Lamott, Neshama’s stories (and a few miracles) are uplifting, witty, and wise.”—Publishers Weekly

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change