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Guest Posts, Relationships

Crossing the Threshold

March 29, 2024
prayer
The bridegroom carries his new wife over the threshold to start a life together and we all sigh at the romance! But I have crossed more than one threshold in my life. In some cases, like the birth of my son, they were new beginnings filled with joy.  Others, like the death of my husband, left me in despair.  At times these thresholds were decision points, but others were crossed before I even understood what I had done. That was the case with my retirement and a move across two states.

My husband died in 2010 and for the next six years I immersed myself in my job as a school superintendent.  I spent two Christmases at my son’s house and loved being with my grandsons.  Retirement and a move to their town started looking very attractive.

Signs that this transition might be a challenge popped up one Thanksgiving a few years before I moved, when we all gathered at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.  I joined my son for breakfast at their hotel the day they were leaving.  I brought up Christmas and assumed I would be joining them again.  He studied the menu and then scrolled through his phone, not looking at me.  Still scrolling he casually announced, “We don’t want you to come on Christmas this year. Why don’t you come after Christmas.” I sat there, mute for a few minutes, then I got up and left the hotel in tears. The atmosphere was tense when we said our goodbyes at my sister’s house several hours later.  Never one for outright conflict, I tucked this memory deep in my brain’s filing cabinet.

***

A recent blog on retirement statistics announced: “On average, 10,000 baby boomers reach the average retirement age every day.”  In 2016 I was one of the 10,000, retired, widowed, and living in a new town, where my son and his family also lived. I have often wondered if this move was a good idea.  I justified it to myself as a favor to my only child. When I get older and need assistance in daily life, I won’t be a day’s drive away.  It may be more honest to say I was lonely without my job and without a family.

Navigating this new life has been a challenge. The big stuff happened, as it usually does, in relationships.

My son was in high school the last time we lived in such close proximity. Two- or three-day visits and sporadic phone calls have been the norm since those days. That fact did nothing to quell my expectations that we would spend the rest of my days in a loving, close relationship.

One evening a few weeks before I moved, my son and his family had dinner with me at a local restaurant a block from their house. The place is a beloved Greek eatery with a deck, umbrellas, and picnic tables. I chose a spot facing my daughter-in-law who looked as lovely as she always does.  I thought: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…a family dinner in a favorite spot…”  My mind took off, imagining Sunday dinners at my house……my son stopping by after work for a drink…babysitting my grandsons. Heaven!

My son got up to greet friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and my daughter-in-law focused on helping the boys decide what they wanted to eat.  Her long blond hair draped over her shoulders, onto her fashionable black maxi length dress. She began to tell me about the news from her large extended family in the Delta of Mississippi, not far from Oxford. Several sorority friends from college stopped by to say hello and they all talked over each other excitedly.

“Don’t you look the cutest”.  “I love your hair that way”. “How’s your grandmother, she’s so funny!!”   Her infectious laugh drew smiles from nearby tables, and she was the center of attention at ours.

My son, who had been quiet during our meal, gathered up the boys after dinner and they started home.  My daughter-in-law and I lingered to drink our wine and chat. The buzz around us got louder as the deck filled up with diners.

“…..worried about you moving here….. doesn’t know what to expect”.  Those words found their way through the noise.

“ Who?”

“R—”

“Why?” My stomach tightened.

“What’s he think I’m gonna do?  I’m not gonna butt into your lives!”

We stopped to pour more wine…She continued to tell me what she apparently thought I needed to hear.

“We’ve got our own traditions and routines, Ruth.  And you need to make your own.”  I thought, “you are one tough cookie” and I grudgingly tipped my imaginary hat.   I said, “I am glad you are being honest. Part of the tension last year around Christmas happened because R___ was given the job of telling me I wasn’t welcome on Christmas Day. It might be better if you and I talked.” I mimicked the blunt way he had blurted out the news.

“Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Heightened emotion and the wine tinted her porcelain cheeks. I ruefully noted to myself “She would be quite a formidable opponent if I chose the competition path.”

As we walked back to their house, she unexpectedly remarked,” I feel so much better”.  I realized it had not been easy for her to tackle the boundary issue with her mother-in-law. I had plopped myself into their pond and the ripples seemed threatening.

I had bought a house, moved my furniture, and there was no going back now.  Somehow, I needed to build a new life and accept that it would not look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

A prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, eventually became the famous serenity prayer, a staple of all the 12-step programs.  It became mine.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This became my daily and sometimes moment-by-moment prayer over the next seven years.

My son was chairman of the school board during the COVID mask controversies.  He rebuffed any advice I had as a former school superintendent. Serenity prayer.

The mythical Sunday dinners that took enormous effort by an inadequate cook (me) lasted 45 minutes because everyone was busy.  I gave away the dining room table and created a study nook for myself.  I took them out to eat when it was convenient for everyone.  Serenity prayer.

My grandsons, 7 and 9 when I moved, enjoyed coming to my upstairs floor full of their video games, board games, and order out menus.  It dawned on their parents that this was a safe place for the kids to be and it afforded them some free time.  Serenity prayer.

I deliberately found volunteer activities that used my skills and enthusiasm, involved myself in community organization that focused on building  better government, and made many friends along the way.  I took control over what I could do and let go of what I could not make happen.  Serenity prayer.

I ask my son to lunch one or two times a month and he has started suggesting it himself sometimes.  That is the only time I am with him by myself, and it has taken seven years for those conversations to become more personal.  He is married to a strong woman, has a law practice, is maneuvering the teenage years of two boys, and I am not his top priority.  Serenity prayer.

And then one day, during a family trip to Ireland, my daughter-in-law sought me out to talk about a personal issue that was troubling her. Somewhere in the time we spent together that day, I heard: “I love you” and “I trust you”. Serenity prayer.

Ruth O’Dell is an emerging writer with a previous publication in Atticus Review. Ruth is a retired educator living, loving, and writing in Oxford, Mississippi.

***

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, Relationships

The Book Exchange

March 26, 2024
book

“He stole my book,” I moaned to my friends and co-workers, my bodega guy, my bodega cat. Anyone who would listen. “He stole my book. I love that book.”

They responded patiently.

“I’ll buy you a new one.”

“He probably lost it.”

“Don’t you have one of his too?”

All valid statements. But I wasn’t ready to let it go.

After work one night I sat at the kitchen counter, hunched over my phone, willing a text to come from this book thief I went on six dates with. Six. Then, without so much as an abracadabra, he disappeared like a white rabbit in a magic trick.

My roommate at the time told me to forget him.

“He’s a butterfly,” she said. “He flits from one thing to the next.”

I nodded. I knew she was right, but I was still stuck in that place where every word, every text, every kiss seems to hold the great unknowable answer to what went wrong. If I could just remember exactly what he said on that last Sunday date when we aimlessly traipsed around Greenpoint, surely I would be able to figure this out, I thought. But a close reading didn’t help. There was no subtext. No hidden meaning.  His disappearing act said it all.

On the subway soon after it ended, I winced as the train stopped at Delancey Street. A few days earlier I almost crashed into him as I rushed out of this station. I was running late for what would become our final date. He was standing on the corner, leather jacket unzipped, bass guitar strapped to his back, and that look. That look that I swear he must practice in the mirror—a mixture of sheepishness and amusement and something else that I could only describe to my friends as fearlessness.

“It’s weird,” I said to my friend on the phone after date number three. “When you start to see someone there’s a level of fear isn’t there? That you’re not going to fall or the other person isn’t going to fall with you. He doesn’t seem to have that fear.”

“Maybe he’s just braver with his emotions?” she offered.

“Maybe,” I replied, but I caught my voice trailing off the way it does when I want something to be true, but know it’s not.

Still, I held out hope. We went to dinner and the movies, his neighborhood and mine, a cute park date mixed in, several craft beers, and an impromptu bar crawl. And finally, The Book Exchange. After drinks in Bushwick, we were back at this place. I gravitated toward his bookshelf as I always do. I work in publishing. We sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, perusing his collection. My eyes landed on a few Ishirugo books.

“One of his is my favorite,” I said.

And that’s how it happened. He gave me When We Were Orphans, and the next time we met, I gave him Never Let Me Go. The irony is not lost on me.

Soon after that, the texts started trickling out. The staring contest with my phone began. He was fading. I grasped a bit at the empty space he left until I didn’t anymore and left his last noncommittal message unanswered.

What he didn’t know—when he was ignoring my texts for days, when he was lending me a book and taking one of mine, when he was pulling me in only to push me back—is that I’ve had only one serious relationship. That all that’s been in between is a smattering of dating. He didn’t know he had been the first person in years I actually liked. He didn’t consider what was between the lines. It wasn’t bravery in his eyes; it was indifference. And only six dates or not, it still stung.

Weeks after I let that last text hang, deleted the message thread, and un-followed him on Instagram, I heard through the grapevine of our mutual friends that my story followed a very particular pattern. A friend’s friend had been down this very road: a handful of dates. He seemed to like her a lot. He totally flaked.

My mind flashed to the bookcase in his living room. I remembered the collection appeared to be growing. Books were stacked haphazardly on top of others and shoved in tight like misplaced puzzle pieces. Many of them were yellowed, with faded spines and dog-eared pages. They looked awfully well-loved.

I hope, at least, he reads them.

Jess Harriton is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared on HelloGiggles.com and in Concrete Literary Magazine. 
****

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!

***

Guest Posts

Immigrants in America: Notes from the Irish Shadows

March 17, 2024
Irish

This story may not be for the faint of heart. Current times might call for a trigger warning; this story involves substance use, mental illness, suicide and death. In balance with these dark truths comes a tale of love, perseverance, and the essence and strength of family ties.

As family stories go, sometimes its difficult to know where to start. Perhaps I should begin with what I know best, me. I am the youngest of four daughters, born into a metro Detroit, working-class family, with parents that were typical of the times. Three of us girls were “tow haired” blondes, with one brunette thrown in to keep things interesting. Dad was in a union blue-collar job. Mom was home raising us kids. Mom liked to get her teased up hair “frosted” as was popular in the 70’s and couldn’t have weighed more than 115 pounds on her 5’ frame. In the chaos of rearing four girls, each about a year apart from one another, she managed to simultaneously sew us God awful 1970’s patterned clothing (with the likes of plaid designs, bucket hats, and an especially distinctive pair of bell-bottomed pants made from a 7-Up pattern material) bowled weekly with the ladies, and had a meat and potatoes dinner on the table every night at 5 for Dad.

All four of us sisters shared a small bedroom when we were pretty young, and eventually had two to a room after a modest addition to our house.  I didn’t realize it at the time, because it didn’t necessarily feel like we had much growing up, but we kids were blessed with something better than gold. We had stability, learned a sense of right and wrong, and knew that no matter what, we always had each other. It was a recipe for a family foundation of granite. I never truly understood how rare and valuable this gift was until I was a bit older. Though on the surface our childhood might appear idyllic, there were troubled currents just below the surface.

My Dad was a contrast of character strengths and weaknesses. He was a handsome, short-statured man, with a face framed by dark, curly, short hair and emerald colored eyes that twinkled after a few beers. As a kid, I remember my Dad’s two sisters, rather vaguely to me at the time, advising us girls to forgive my Dad for his flaws, alluding to a deeper, hidden past we didn’t understand. On the one hand, my Dad was hard working, instilling in us girls a oxen-like work ethic. We learned not to ask for things. As teenagers we had babysitting and other jobs to obtain most things beyond our basic necessities. However, Dad was generous at Christmas, helping to make our holidays special growing up. He passed on a moral code that included consideration for those less fortunate in life. I recall him helping an elderly lady, unknown to us, home from church after she fell outside on the church steps. Once, as a small kid, I was making an ignorant comment about a kid that was probably mentally challenged, and my Dad, in a patient tone, taught me never to be unkind to people that were born with afflictions outside of their control.

These childhood lessons, now hard-wired in my brain, have made me a better human. There was a somber side of my childhood as well. My Dad had a temper that often got the better of him and us. He would get angry if he heard us giggling or talking when we were supposed to be sleeping as small children. He would explode, possibly throwing a shoe at us to make his point. I recall if something got broken in the house being rounded up together, as if in a criminal line up, to suffer the consequences. The guilty party was spanked; therefore, confessions were never forthcoming. The only sounds were fear-filled tears, of course followed by threats of “I’ll give you something to cry about!”. One of the most shameful elements of my childhood was my problem with bed wetting. Control of this problem was ever elusive to me when I was young, yet I suffered the disgrace of my Dad’s temper in the morning non the less. Fear, like most things, can be a double-edge sword; fertilizing your growth or shrinking your spirit like Roundup on a weed. Now, as I reflect on my aunts’ revelations that my Dad had some demons in his past, it turns out in fact, there were some neon lights illuminating his struggles, as both a human and parent.

Now you may be wondering where does the immigrant story fall into place here. My Dad’s parents were both Irish immigrants, whom sadly, I never had the privilege to know. Our Irish roots instilled pride and was the steel of our family bond. As a kid, I remember my Dad advising me that the only ones you can truly count on are family. Grandpa Frank, tall and thin, was from Tralee in County Kerry, eventually landing in Detroit after serving in World War I. My Grandmother Delia, diminutive in frame, with large, kind eyes, came from County Sligo, meeting and marrying my grandfather in Detroit. I recall hearing tongue in cheek stories as a kid, that our Irish relatives settling in Detroit in the 1920’s were kind enough to facilitate the flow of spirits during the dry times of prohibition, hiding the booze in a wagon by having the kids sit atop of it in transport. Additionally, my Grandpa fit the Irish immigrant stereotype, by serving as a Detroit cop for a time. He eventually opened his own pub in Corktown, fittingly titled Shamrock Bar. Family lore would indicate this is when things began to sour for this newly established American family.

Dad was the youngest of 6 children, all born in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was a family of small framed, fighting Irish. My two porcelain-skinned aunts were beautiful, one raven haired, and the other with an auburn tint. The boys were handsome as well, with muscular frames, with dark hair and eyes the color of the sea. My oldest two uncles served in WWII. Notably, both were captured by Germans and held in prisoner of war camps. We didn’t hear much about their experiences though. The stoicism of this generation did not embrace private or public sharing of the troubles they endured. Men during that time, and most definitely those in our family, preferred certain things be left unsaid.

These two oldest boys proved to have opposite outcomes upon return from the war. My oldest uncle went on to college to become an engineer, get married and raise a family. He was outgoing and friendly, with a true Irish “gift of the gab”. At family parties, with all of us cousins ranging from little to big, he would throw change into the grass and we would dive in to see who could find the most money. Maybe this sounds odd, but us kids loved it! A quarter back then could buy a bagful of candy at the corner store. My sisters and I also had fond memories of him paying us to take a bite of his homemade pickles (which we hated and I don’t think I ever did- cash or no cash).

Alternatively, the immigrant’s second son did not fare so well in life. I recall asking my Dad about this brother, who died before I was born, and I was quickly admonished that “we don’t talk about that” with the pain evident in his voice.  History and truth can become blurry, especially when hidden under a veil of shame and sadness. This was especially the case with our family history of mental illness, substance abuse and trauma. I learned at a young age; these were among the things left unspoken and thereby maybe could become less real.

Family stories point a crooked finger at my grandfather. The story goes that he only had time and attention for his eldest son, shunning my Dad and his other brothers and sisters. Grandpa Frank became a “mean drunk” after opening his pub in Detroit. In our family, at least for my Dad, suppression was the preferred weapon of choice to combat these ugly childhood memories. My aunt, the most likely to shine a light on family secrets, gave us some clues about their childhood miseries. Some stories include one of my Grandpa kicking my Grandmother and their children out on the street after a fight, leaving them to sleep in a park. Another time my grandfather brought home a woman from the bar and had sex with her, while my aunt hid terrified under the bed, unable to get away. My Dad, exhibiting his grit as a small child, stood up to his scary, probably larger than life Father, saying “Don’t you hurt my Mom!” during one of their fights. My aunt provided a glimpse into the unsettling childhood they experienced.

However, there were good times too. Dad, after a couple of tongue-lubricating beers, would share some of his fond memories growing up. Grandma ran a boarding house for Irish immigrants that were newly settling in Detroit. He relayed his love of the residents’ Irish accents and their telling of colorful tales. My grandmother’s youngest sister was the last of her siblings to move to the U.S. from Ireland. My Dad would spend summers with her and her husband at a lake with his cousins. My aunt was a message runner for the IRA in Ireland before moving to the U.S. She was strong woman not willing to take guff from anyone. My sisters and I learned to play euchre from her and my Dad when I was 7 or 8 years old. Let me say you quickly understood not to make the same mistake twice, not an easy lesson for a young, not so sure of herself girl, like me at the time. Her Irish husband, a born leader, was one of the founders of the autoworker’s union in Detroit and an elected congressman for a time.  I suspect he was a great role model for my Dad as a child. My hunch is that my Dad’s childhood experiences with these relatives resurrected him from the ashes of his immediate family.

Now back to my grandparents. I know it is an easy leap to villainize my grandfather. After all, he did some terrible things. As I did not have to live directly with their consequences, I am likely more generous of spirit than Dad and his siblings would have been in this story’s telling and ending. I also have the luxury to view this family history through today’s lens, acknowledging the role of PTSD resulting from the multiple traumas endured in these lives. These truths lead me to pause when I consider the broad family portrait that I attempt to paint now. I wonder what led my grandfather to move to the U.S.; how much poverty and hardships had he endured as a young person? Of course, he also served in WWI, and I don’t know what emotional wounds he sustained there, as PTSD was not even a consideration back then. I wonder if not having other tools, he used alcohol to sooth long buried emotional scars. Maybe any truth is blurrier than the surface implies.

The biggest causality in this story is my Dads older brother, the second born son. He clearly suffered childhood trauma, likely combined with undiagnosed depression or other mental illness. In addition, he went on to experience wartime atrocities that I can only begin to imagine, being held captive in Nazi Germany. Sadly, I heard he received medals for “being good at killing people” during the war, which could not possibly lend itself to decent mental health. I am sure given little to no alternatives, alcohol was the salve with which he treated his nightmares. He would terrify his family shooting off guns in my Grandma’s house, and go off to bars to get into fights.

My Mom tells me they would “have him locked up but sometimes he would escape” from a mental hospital (I would guess the word hospital wrongly implies there was healing going on there). Eventually he took his own life by hanging himself in a Detroit park on the 4th of July. How sad and ironic a tribute to our nation, for someone fighting our wars, to die on Independence Day on home soil. I recall in nursing school, many years ago, my psychiatric nurse instructor said “sometimes there are situations worse than suicide” and I did not appreciate what she meant at the time.

When I reflect on my unknown uncle, I think I may have more insight on her statement now. I feel empathy for this man I never knew, and just as much for my Grandmother, as she had to watch her son self-implode. Indeed, my Grandma entrusted all of her sons to our nation’s military. Her third son served in the Korean War, and my Dad, while serving in the Army, although not during wartime, survived his forearm being crushed during Army bomb testing. Shades of the movie Saving Private Ryan hold a kernel of truth for my paternal family and especially Grandma Delia. Despite, or perhaps because of, the turbulent times they endured, my Dad and his family taught me a sense of family unity, much like the Irish Claddagh, tightly knit and bound together with friendship, loyalty and love. My Irish roots, as seemingly impossible as a rose in the desert, survived and thrived, despite the harshest of conditions.

I mourn the life of my Uncle. His mental health and ultimately life, though unacknowledged at the time, was but one small part of the currency paid to win the war. In the end, I now understand the lesson my aunts tried to teach me as a child. I not only forgive my Dad for his shortcomings; I am grateful for all he and his family sacrificed for me. I marvel at his ability to have provided a solid foundation for my Mom, myself and my sisters, despite the adversity he faced. Our Irish family is but a part of the broader immigration story of the U.S. This family, along with others that have come before and after, provide the backbone for our nation and a richness of culture that is distinctively American. Thank you, Uncle Bud, this story is dedicated to you. I hope you have the peace and love in your next life that eluded you in this one.

J. Ranger, although wizened to the ways of the world, is a novice in the writing community. She is clearing her throat and using her voice for the first time in a long while. Her brief memoir and snapshot of how her family came to be in the United States, shines a light on the struggles of family to overcome its past, and some debts our nation forgot it owed.

cancer, Guest Posts

The Worst Part of Cancer

March 13, 2024
cancer

“I meant to tell you.  The same day you told me about your diagnosis, my husband happened to be listening to a podcast about cancer patients’ reflections on the worst part of their experiences.”

“Oh” I reply to my neighbor across the space between our respective porches.  We live in a historic district.  She’s standing on the wrap-around porch of her Victorian, while I’m sitting on the side-porch of my Colonial.  The space between a mere 12’ feet or so.  I imagine this is how neighbors socialized a hundred years ago, and we still do today.

“Yeah, he said universally everyone reported that the worst part of their cancer was the time between the biopsy and receiving the results.”

“Huh,” I respond, “that really wasn’t bad for me.  I wasn’t all that worried about it.”

As an avid yogi, I spend a lot of time focused on being present.  Post-biopsy I was primarily pissed off that my boob hurt from all the needle pricks and the hematoma that developed as a result.  I spent a weekend replacing ice packs in a tight compression bra and trying to figure out how to sleep without putting pressure on my left breast.

The purple glue covering several inches of my skin was strange.  Necessary to keep the three incisions shut, but made it appear like my breast had been in some sort of fist fight and ended up with a black eye.  The wide band of the compression bra hit in a different spot than my normal bras and initially annoyed the hell out of me.  Undoing the Velcro strap to switch ice packs was no big deal, but it took a bit of Cirque du Soleil navigation to grab the strap that had fallen over my shoulder and wrangle it back up and affixed to the front.  I thought I couldn’t wait for the required 24 hours to pass so I could remove it.  Once off, I missed its support.  Minor movements and jiggles called out to me with twitches of pain.

My poor cats, always concerned if I’m sick, piled on top of me that first night, making it difficult to sleep.  I eventually ended up outside on the porch swing around 5am.  The May air was cool, a light breeze rustled through the leaves of our soaring 100+ year old oak trees.  The porch swing gently swayed, I covered myself with a soft couch blanket, and finally I slept.

Amid all this physical discomfort, some part of me thought, “This better be something. I can’t imagine going through all of that out of an abundance of caution”.  I always envisioned a biopsy as a quick needle to an area, suck out some tissue, then off you go.  Little did I know what an MRI-guided core needle breast biopsy entailed: an undetermined amount of time in an MRI machine in what the medical staff referred to as “Superman Pose”.  Face down, arms out in front, left breast in a cage.  Instructed to stay “completely still”, I went in and out of the MRI machine more times than I could count.  The construct of time ceased to exist.

When the resident went over the possible complications with me prior to obtaining my consent, he mentioned “insufficient sample”.  That should have jumped out at me.  I should have realized that meant it wasn’t easy to pinpoint the spot to biopsy.  Hell, the fact that an MRI with contrast was even necessary to find the spot should have alerted me that this wasn’t an easy task. But I was a cheerful patient, simply going along with the medical process.  Trusting that the experts around me were doing the things that were necessary.

The table initially rolled me slowly in for images.  Whirling noises and loud banging, like rocks tumbling through a barrel, bounced around my head.

I told myself to focus on my breathing.  The nurse who had scheduled the biopsy asked me if I was claustrophobic or would need anything to help me calm down.  I told her yes, that I was a bit claustrophobic, but I was confident I could yoga breathe my way through it.

I’m a good yogi after all.  I won’t be here long. I made it through the abbreviated MRI breast screening just fine.  That only took 10 minutes.  I can do 10 minutes. Just stay calm and breathe.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Am I moving too much with my breath?  They told me not to move.

How do you breathe without moving your chest?

Okay, maybe don’t breathe so deeply.

Shallow breaths.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Smaller breaths came more quickly; I felt slightly light-headed.

Am I going to hyperventilate?

How much will I move if I pass out?

I tried to make myself breathe more slowly, while also not fixating on my breath.

Focus on something else.

I envisioned the sunflower mural I spent years staring at during yoga classes.

“Okay, we’re going to roll you out to inject the contrast dye now.”

The table slowly starts moving back out.

Still face down, I’m disoriented on where I am in space, and how long until the table would reach a stopping point.  Once stopped the dye was injected into the IV in my right arm.  I was warned some people get a metallic taste in their mouth, but I didn’t notice anything.

The table slowly rolled in again for contrast images.  All is dark.  I think I have my eyes closed, but I don’t really know.  It doesn’t matter.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

I listen to the rock sounds.  I don’t know how much time has passed.

The table starts to slowly roll back out again, and I feel dripping on my arm.

Has the IV blown?

Is that blood?

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

A nurse arrives.  I ask about the dripping, moving my mouth and head as little as possible.

“Oh yes, looks like that’s a bit of saline.  Nothing to worry about.  I’ll clean that up.”  She wipes the fluid off my arm.  My fingers are tingling from numbness.  I wiggle my fingers slightly to regain sensation, while doing everything in my power not to move my arms or anything else.

The nurse’s hand covers mine.  “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.  We really need you not to move.  I’ll rub it.”

She gently rubs my left hand.  It feels nice.  My right hand is also numb.  She doesn’t touch that one.

But her other hand is laying softly on my lower back.  I appreciate the pressure.  A bit of comfort from an unknown stranger.  I was put in the MRI machine so quickly that I wasn’t sure who was in the room, or whose faces I knew.

The doctor, a faceless voice to the left of me: “Time for some lidocaine.  You may feel a pinch.”

A needle is inserted into my left breast twice with lidocaine shots.  A few moments later, another instrument (a needle I presume?) is inserted into the breast.

I think they’ll take the sample now.

“Okay, we need to roll you back in to confirm we have right spot.”

I’m momentarily shocked. I didn’t realize more images would be needed.

The table starts slowly rolling back in.

More time in the machine.  In the darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Rock sounds.

Banging.

I can’t feel the instrument in my breast.  I wonder how it stays in place without anyone holding it.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The table starts to roll out again.  There’s discussion from the faceless voices; the placement isn’t right.  The doctor removes the instrument to try again.

Now I can feel pressure on my chest wall, and the movement of whatever has been inserted into my left breast.  I speak up to say “I can feel that” while still trying not to move.

They stop and administer more lidocaine shots.  More movement of the instrument in my breast, but now I only feel a bit of pressure.

The table starts again, slowly rolling back into the machine.

Inhale.

Rock noises.

Exhale.

Darkness.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Tingling is slowly weaving its way through my body.

The rolling of the table starts again.  The faceless voices are again discussing the instrument’s positioning.

It’s still not right.

I think more lidocaine shots are administered, but I’m so focused on breathing and the numbness and pins and needles that I don’t know.  I’m trying to be a good patient and stay calm and still.  That’s my only job.

Everything tingles.  Everything hurts.  I don’t really have a sense of where my body is.

The instrument is placed for a third time.  The table moves back into the machine again to confirm placement.

More banging noises and darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wish my yoga instructor friend with the fantastic calming voice was here to talk to me.

Exhale.

I wish someone I knew was here to talk to me.

Inhale.

I wish the faceless voices would talk to me.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wonder how many more times we’re going to do this.

Exhale.

We need to stop doing this.

There’s excitement when the table rolls out next.

Faceless voice: “We’re in the right spot!  Okay, we’re going to take the sample now.”

A machine starts up with a whirl.  It sounds like the drill at a dentist, as if I were getting a filling.  I’m presuming it’s sucking the tissue out that’s necessary for the biopsy.  Thankfully my breast is numb from the lidocaine, and I don’t feel any of this.  I hear the supervising doctor instruct the resident to take a bit more.

Once the machine is turned off, everything moves quickly.  Several people are suddenly pulling me up from my prone, Superman pose, and instructing me to put my hands on bars.  It reminds me of the pommel horse you see during men’s gymnastics. It’s jarring after an hour of complete stillness, the light blinding.  I can’t feel the handlebars, all is numb.

A nurse has her hand on my left breast, applying pressure to the biopsy site.  The gown top is open.  I don’t know who is in the room to see my bare chest and I don’t care. The hands around my torso stabilize me and guide me as I’m flipped onto a different gurney.  Once on my back, they start wheeling me quickly out of the MRI room.

The first nurse is jogging alongside, still applying pressure to my breast.

Tears stream down my face.

Yoga breath.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Lights and ceiling tiles flash past my eyes.  The sounds of wheels moving beneath the table.

Wet tears on my cheeks.

I pay no attention to where we are going. I don’t look at any of the faces surrounding me.  They are still just voices.

A voice asks me if I need anything.  I request a tissue to wipe the tears.

—–

I was shaken when I left the doctor’s office that day.  Later I learned from MyChart that the procedure took 1 hour and 5 minutes. So no, the days following I gave little thought to the biopsy results.  I was too busy processing the experience to think forward to what the pathology would show.

My neighbor gets a quizzical look on her face when I state that waiting for results wasn’t that bad, “Well, that’s because you assumed you had it.”

This isn’t entirely true.

“Yes, I knew it was a possibility,” I reply, “But I’d also agreed to additional screenings.  I figured biopsies of suspicious areas meant they were being thorough, so I didn’t see a reason to freak out.”

Another quizzical look.  This doesn’t align with the podcast.

“You also aren’t through all of this yet.  Maybe looking back you’ll decide that waiting for the results was the worst part.”

I appreciated that my neighbor was chatting with me like a normal person.  Very few people know the gracious thing to say to someone who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

I’m guessing she felt she’d learned something that provided some insight – some bit of understanding that would lead to a moment of connection.  Maybe she envisioned me sighing and responding with some version of “Yes!  You get it!  That’s exactly how I feel!”

But I don’t need a podcast to tell me which part of cancer is the worst.

Marie Hall lives in the Midwest. This is her first published piece. We are thrilled she chose us to share her story. 

Guest Posts, motherhood

Unicorn: on Loss, Jealousy, and Value

March 9, 2024
unicorn

I had a sickening revelation.

It came after my friend Delphine texted me, saying she was going to join the 5 club. I have five children, and I immediately knew she meant that she was pregnant with her fifth child. “Congratulations!!” I wrote, along with heart and celebration emojis. “I’m so happy for you!” And I was, and I am.

But over the next few days, I began feeling melancholy and something else (wistfulness? sorrow?) about my friend’s pregnancy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was feeling. Was it because after five healthy full-term pregnancies and children, I have had three miscarriages in the last two years?

With the first miscarriage, it was already happening before I knew I was pregnant. I wondered about the lateness and the heaviness of my bleeding, along with cramping, and took a pregnancy test. A faint line appeared, and the following day, another test showed an even fainter line.

With the second miscarriage, I was somewhere between 10 and 12 weeks. The miscarriage was messy. I had never seen so much blood coming out of a person, and my children banged on the door of our one bathroom while I sat on the toilet, wiping and wiping again, flushing and flushing again. I soaked through pad after pad. My husband took the younger kids to a birthday party while I spent two hours at the ob/gyn’s office and then another eight at the ER, where they wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing too much iron and blood. I lay on a table in the sonogram room, blood dripping onto the floor, weeping. Eventually, I was declared fine enough to go home. This miscarriage was more physically traumatizing than it was emotionally traumatizing, though I absolutely grieved the loss and still do.

The third lost pregnancy ended somewhere between 8 and 10 weeks, a 10-week ultrasound revealing the lack of a heartbeat. But my uterus did not expel the dead body inside me. I opted for a D&C and then wept for days. That was December 2021. I still sometimes burst into tears at inopportune times: during church when Ariel stood at the doorway, smiling at her infant baby girl Eleanor; when women in the Wednesday moms’ group began sharing their stories of pregnancy loss and secondary infertility.

My three pregnancy losses still crush me. For years, since my teens, I had dreamed of a family with six children, and I thought that that would be the life I would have. I don’t know if the idea of six children is something God-inspired that I feel a desire to fulfill, or if I created the vision of a family of eight on my own, and it became a dream that I’ve gripped onto all this time.

Hear this: I was, and am, profoundly grateful for the children that I have, but I still grieve the loss of three would-be babies, and the chance to raise a sixth precious child. When I cried to my friend Mara about how guilty I felt being so sad after my second miscarriage when I already have five healthy, beautiful children she said; “No! It’s completely fine to still be sad. You can be happy and sad at the same time. Two things can be true at the same time.”

Mara’s words were a revelation to me, so I continued to allow myself to feel heartbroken about that loss, and later, about my third loss.

But this time, after Delphine announced her fifth pregnancy, I wasn’t sure that I was just feeling sadness over my own losses. That was definitely part of it, yes, and I do not think it’s unreasonable or impossible to feel sadness for yourself and your own losses, even while rejoicing with a friend’s exciting news.

But there was more to my feelings than resurfaced grief.

What was it? I began asking myself questions and came to a horrifying conclusion. I had felt something similar to this when my friend Jill, who has birthed four bio children, adopted the child they had been fostering since infanthood. Delphine is very thin with gentle curves in the right places. She has thick, chocolate hair that falls in waves. Jill is also incredibly skinny with a thigh gap to die for, even in her early forties after four pregnancies. Jill is a gorgeous blond. And both Delphine and Jill are nice people too: kind, generous, friendly. But Delphine’s and Jill’s outward beauty and their body sizes are my focus.

Here is what my horrifying epiphany was:

I am jealous of these other women for having as many children as me and being more beautiful. I have never felt beautiful, and I am not what the world claims is beautiful. I’m average, maybe a Plain Jane. I’m not accomplished as far as career success, trophies, exploits – things that would gain me nods of approval from others. I never cared much about a career; I’ve wanted to write since childhood, and I was a public school teacher for a few years (which I was not very good at). What I did care about was being a mother. And that, I did. That I did (and do) very well.

My body is fertile, and I felt a self-satisfaction, pride, and achievement in carrying five pregnancies, vaginally birthing five babies, and raising them. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, being a stay-at-home mom, and I’m good at it. Here in New York City, having five children makes me an anomaly. I’ve had my fair share of obnoxious comments from commuters and people on the sidewalk (“Are all those kids yours?”, “You should have each of your kids plant a tree [to offset their existence]”), and judgmental looks.

But I also frequently hear, “I don’t know how you do it!” along with a sigh of approval. And once, a woman smiled from ear to ear, and said, “Five kids? You’re a unicorn!”

Let me make clear that I did not have children in order to one-up anyone else; I conceived each child with my husband out of love and for the love of new life itself. I value human life, and I don’t treat my children’s lives as checkmarks of “things I’ve accomplished.” But on the other hand, carrying, birthing, and keeping alive, five human beings into teenagehood and childhood does require hard work and a tremendous amount of involvement. I have done that, and I do take pride in it.

I would never diminish the work or value of motherhood and mothering. Mothers and mother figures are cornerstones of society. Mothers arguably have the hardest job in the world. Being a mother or mother figure is a worthwhile and worthy venture, a prized treasure, an invaluable position. It is both exhausting and soul-filling.

Somewhere in my head, I know that having children is not a measure of accomplishment. If it was, then women with infertility are worth less; women who choose not to have children are worth less. And that is obvious malarkey.

But also somewhere in my head, I must doubt my worth so much that I wonder if having children is my only value. Since I am not skinny and beautiful and since I do not have a paying career, I am laying all my worth on my children. Until my discovery, I didn’t realize that I was often subconsciously thinking, “She is way more beautiful than I am, but at least I have five kids, so I’m still worth something.”

I was, and am, disgusted by the fact that I feel this way. It is not fair to my children. It is not fair to me. It is not fair to any woman anywhere.

At the same time, I am curious about what brought me to this point. What went wrong in me or around me, that I dislike myself so much, that I feel like having children is all I’m good at? Why do I dislike my body so much, that I think I am not worth as much as Delphine or Jill?

Like the three would-be babies bled out of me or were scraped out of me and disposed of, may the flawed and damaging thought about my lack of worth also bleed away and be disposed of. It needs to go. Like I am grieving my pregnancy losses, may I also someday grieve the fact that I ever wondered about my own worth, that I ever wasted brain space on feeling like I’m worth less than the beautiful people. May I smile at myself in the mirror, from ear and ear, and like the lady on the sidewalk, say to myself, “You are a unicorn.”

Hope Kidd is working on her MFA in creative writing at the City College of New York. She lives in Harlem with her husband, five children, and an assortment of pets. Hope enjoys writing about motherhood, mental health, and body image; and she is currently working on a memoir about my childhood in Zimbabwe. She has been published in MUTHA magazine, and in the print anthology “Fish Gather to Listen” (Horns and Rattles Press).

Guest Posts, medical

Social History

March 4, 2024
history

“Why didn’t you tell anyone that you’re a doctor?” I’d known this emergency room doctor since I was an intern in 1995, fresh out of medical school. He looked the same as I remembered, as if no time had passed at all — hunched over on his stool, weary, but wearing the same half-smile. Even though I didn’t work at the hospital anymore, he seemed embarrassed that I didn’t get the “professional courtesy” of being rescued from the waiting room instead of sitting there all night long. Perhaps he was also ashamed of how much the ER had changed. Since the pandemic, the once reasonably tidy linoleum floored room with the modular furniture had become frantic and overwrought. Where there were once enough places for everyone to sit, and an average wait of two hours, now lines of people in wheelchairs were pushed up against stained couches where the limbs of unfortunate (and some less than sober) souls hung off the edges and brushed against one another’s knees for a whole night or beyond.  The sliding doors opened and closed all night with a whoosh and a gust of chilly December air.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It seemed busy. I didn’t want to make a fuss.” I was still digesting the several ER “regulars” who sat across from me hunched under blankets with their partners eating salty snacks from the vending machine.They had clearly been prepared to stay the night in the waiting room. And I felt badly for the young guy endlessly pacing the narrow path between the couches while holding up his enormous, soiled, brown pants up. But it was true the whole left side of my head was pounding and tender to the touch. My hip was achy, and my forearm had a patch forming small bubbles of blood. I gathered I’d grazed it on the wooden bath mat that was next to me when I woke up after passing out on the tiled bathroom floor near eleven the night before. It was six am by the time I saw the doctor.

“I’m going to tell the boss. We need to take care of our own. So what happened to you?”

“I fell in the bathroom. Hit my head. I don’t know what happened. I think I just need a CAT scan since I had a brain bleed ten years ago, in 2012. I’m not sure if you remember that.” He shook his head, a softening of his eyes noting that he did. The news of that event, when I was still on staff at the hospital, had spread quickly. I’d had the proverbial “worst headache of my life” while running on a treadmill; a symptom we learned in medical school could signify a subarachnoid hemorrhage — blood in a space where it shouldn’t be, where cerebrospinal fluid exists. I’d been lucky it wasn’t from a pulsating artery, like most of those bleeds are, so I didn’t need surgery. It healed on its own without any lasting effects.

“I’m sure you’re fine,” he said, barely checking me out despite my swollen head, bleeding arm, and the bruised hip I made sure he saw by pulling down my gray pajama pants while he did his quick once over of my body. He was most interested in performing a neurological exam, having me walk on my toes and heels and doing an index finger-to-nose maneuver to be sure I hadn’t had a stroke. “You’re not even 60. That’s when we worry about subdural bleeds.” This was the kind of bleeding that occurred after falls, where blood gathers under the skull and can dangerously compress the brain.

My mind went back to actor Bob Saget’s death just months before, alone in a hotel room, reportedly from a fall like mine. So he was 65 to my 56, but still. As fortunate as I’d been told I was that I didn’t have an arterial bleed ten years ago, I’d never found out why I bled in the first place. But this doctor, though kind, wasn’t worried about a bleed or even curious about why I fell. Although I didn’t say so at the time, it bothered me.

Once I got home, I looked up my record in the patient portal and there they were: fake answers to the questions in the “social history” part of my “history and physical” assessment. The medical interview is the cornerstone of any physician-patient interaction and involves several well-prescribed sections: the chief complaint, the history of present illness – the details that led to the visit, the past medical history, medications, allergies, family history, review of systems, and social history. This last one provides an opportunity to create a broader context for a patient’s concerns and may include birthplace, occupation, education, functional status, sleep habits, and religion, all of which may be crucial to understanding health concerns and how to approach them. But social histories are also meant to encompass behaviors that are critical to understanding a patient’s current health status — like smoking, drinking, sexual history, and  illicit drug use.

***

In 1990 when I was twenty-three and doing premedical studies, I worked as a secretary for an ObGyn on the upper east side of Manhattan at a practice connected to Cornell University. Our patients dressed in heels and full makeup to see the all-male doctors, and the doctors came into the hospital to deliver babies even if they weren’t on call because their patients were celebrities.

One particular patient was beyond well-known; her family was infamous. I’ll call her Susan since that was the pseudonym we chose for her obstetrical admission to the hospital. Before I did my usual patient intake, the office manager Ms. Solo — older and more stern than one might expect at what I’m now thinking was her age of fifty or so, in her shapeless, below the knee black frock and comfortable shoes, took me aside and told me what not to ask Susan: her family history, her use of substances, and her abortion history. “Just fill in the demographics, okay?” she said, glaring at me. Ms. Solo had worked with the practice for decades already, a proud product of that medical era where hierarchy and the unwritten rules for very important patients lived large. She was protecting her doctors and patients from uneducated newbies like me who didn’t understand the ways things worked.

And so, as instructed, I left the “social history” blank. Realizing that what I was expected to do was protect the patient from embarrassment in the moment, or exposure should her record be leaked, it still seemed strange— if not unethical—to omit certain details of her life and history. What if she were to admit she was smoking or drinking during her pregnancy? Might this not create an opening for a conversation about the potential impact of her behavior on her health and that of her baby? Even more, weren’t we supposed to engage in personal and private discussions in doctors’ offices and in the process create connected bonds that build trust? But no. I learned then that certain people are not expected to be open or vulnerable, or perhaps even allowed to solicit support. We didn’t even give high-profile patients that choice. Instead, we just avoided certain critical questions deemed too sensitive. Around the time, Ms.Solo had scolded me for not wearing skirts and panty hose: “The doctors like to see legs,” she’d said in such a matter of fact way that it made me feel as though I should have known this without being told.

I left that job soon after.

***

In 2012, during the nine days I was in the hospital for the subarachnoid hemorrhage, I was cared for by an emergency room doctor, an intensive care team, neurosurgeons, internists, nurses, chaplains, and many others. But from the ER to the ICU, despite the fact that I was a doctor, no one asked what I thought might have led to the weakening of what was most likely a tear in a vein in my brain. And I didn’t tell them what I thought either. I was no longer a doctor in training; I knew the code well by then. I wasn’t to reveal things that doctors—and famous people—should be more ashamed of than everyone else. This is, of course, not to imply that other people are always honest with their doctors, nor that they don’t feel shame. But this level of structurally sanctioned dishonesty was something else. Perhaps, unlike the situation with celebrities where we were protecting them, with doctors no one seemed to want to know these truths. Maybe others in healthcare were worried a peer would be stamped as unfit to practice, or perhaps people would be forced to reflect on their own unhealthy behaviors. Maybe it was acceptable to avoid finding certain things out since the demands of the job made them understandable and doctors were given a pass. Or perhaps we doctors were still held high on that same pedestal, and it pained others to admit there is no escaping the frailty implicit in being human. Whatever the reason, it was easy to keep my secrets safe when not a single person on my medical team dared ask if I even had any. When I returned home and accessed my records all those years ago, it was the first time I realized that the taking of my own “social history” had not only been avoided; it had been fabricated.

***

The fact is, in November 2012, I was pretty healthy. I was in a relationship with a wonderful man who would become my second husband. But in the years leading up to that day, I was anything but stable. In the wake of the 2009 collapse of my marriage, up until I met my boyfriend in 2011, I’d been drowning in grief and in a constant search for ways to get away from it. My three very young children were each devastated in their own ways from the severing of our family bonds, and with it their sense of stability in the world. Those years, I walked around with a hole blown into my gut, centerless and frail, feeling like a failure or a monster for making this happen. The pain was so profound that I briefly became another person who lacked any concern at all for her own well-being. The only time I felt all right was when I didn’t feel at all, which is to say when I was under the influence of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and engaging in risky love affairs. I was just getting it together when my worn out brain blew a gasket while I was running hard on the treadmill. I’ve little doubt that my two years of self-destructive behaviors at least contributed to the circumstances that led to a brain bleed. But I easily hid this fact behind the cloak of my profession. Even if I’d been asked, and been honest, I’m pretty sure they’d have downplayed my actions and curtailed the uncomfortable conversation. “We all party sometimes, right? I’m sure it was just a fluke.” Because doctors do party, yes, and sometimes to excess. I learned this after my divorce when I joined in. Or they might say, “You just popped a blood vessel,” as one physician friend said later, again without knowing any details of my life: “could happen to anyone.”

But just as in 2012, it didn’t just “happen” to me, in 2022 when I woke up on the bathroom floor with a head injury. Ten years later, this event also didn’t occur without context, despite what my medical record says.

I’d been drinking too much again. I was stressed by work, recovering from the personal and professional challenges brought on by the pandemic. I’d been self-medicating, despite my history of avoiding feelings with substances and dopamine rushes; despite my already low-ish blood pressure, which put me at risk of dehydration and fainting—at risk of exactly what happened when I got up too quickly from bed after the several big glasses of red wine that had allowed me to once again fade away from my life. Maybe I wasn’t 60 yet, but I still believe I could have died had I hit my head on the toilet or the bathtub; this because I still hadn’t managed to find a better way than escape to deal with hard emotions.

Because of my profession, I—like Susan due to her famous family—was spared, or rather denied, a potentially truthful moment between healthcare provider and patient that might have made a difference. But what if I had told my friend, the emergency room doctor, that I thought I had a problem, and asked for his advice? Maybe he would have minimized the drinking as I’d expect, but maybe he also has his own story, a secret he keeps hidden because he’s learned the same rules I have. Maybe we could have shared a vulnerable moment whose emergence could signify the beginning of something new. I didn’t have that chance that night, and—although I doubt he looked at it that way—neither did he.

So maybe it’s up to me, to all of us in medicine, to finally bring this issue out into the light—to own up to the shame we’ve taken on that stops us from admitting that we too are human and sometimes deal with suffering in much the same ways that those sitting with me in the emergency room did.

Perhaps I didn’t tell anyone I was a doctor that night because I was hoping to be treated just like everyone else.

Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has published personal and narrative medicine pieces .
***
Guest Posts, Kindness, Self Care

Lemon Joy Tart

February 29, 2024
lemon

Zesty Lemon Joy Tart from Scratch

First, prepare your crust…

Day-to-Day Happiness, sifted through dry Autumn leaves – 1-1/4 cups
Baby giggles for sweetness – 1/2 cup
Seaside mornings, finely ground – 1 teaspoon
Cold toboggan crashes, cut into small cubes – 1/2 cup
Wedding Tears, collected in an Easter eggshell – 2 halves
Extract of a lover’s first touch – 1/2 teaspoon (optional)

Sift dry ingredients into a children’s punch bowl. With cupped fingers, create a hollow. Gently. Kiss your pastry cutter, then mix all ingredients. The mixture should feel silky and dry, like the back of a grandmother’s hand.

Form the dough into a ball, then flatten to a thick disc. Wrap in an heirloom dishtowel and refrigerate. Go outside. Play with your dog—kid—lover—spouse—parent—cat, make grass angels while counting clouds. Do this for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 375F/190C and place rack in the center.

Roll out the dough. Place gently into a heart-shaped tart pan.

Press parchment paper against the crust, then fill with shiny pebbles collected at low tide, remembering to wash them first. Bake for twenty minutes. Transfer hot tart pan to a wire rack and remove pebbles and paper.

Then, prepare the Lemon Joy filling…  

Happy tears shed for someone you love – 3 full measures
Dancing like a wild thing – 3/4 cup
Lemon peel from your Amalfi trip, grated fine – 1 tablespoon
Waking to a cold dog nose – 1/2 cup
Dawn Solitude – 2 tablespoons (optional)
Long-sought reunions, cut into small pieces 1/2 cup

Cook on moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and warms to a sultry love song, about 170°F/75°C.

Fill the tart shell with joy curd. Refrigerate four hours. Serve with love and whipped cream if you like. The tart is rich, so share.

Keep this recipe at the front of your box. Even if not prepared, Lemon Joy Tart is a hedge against the sadder dishes life will inevitably prepare for you. Hold the recipe card to your heart, remember, and know that you will survive.

Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in over one hundred reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. “The Wrong Name” is Marco’s latest collection of short fiction. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch. Author website: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/
Guest Posts, Letting Go, Nature

Waterfalls

February 26, 2024
nature

Across the river, I catch a glimpse of High Falls peeking through the trees, all one-hundred-and-fifty magnificent feet of her. White water cascades down her granite face before crashing into the pool at her feet. The water settles as it makes its way downstream to meet up with her more famous sister, Triple Falls—the most popular waterfall hike near Asheville and where the movies The Hunger Games and The Last of the Mohicans were filmed.

As my ten-year-old golden retriever, Hope, and I rest on a rock at the river’s edge, the summer sun warms my face. Hope pants softly as she watches hikers hopping boulder to boulder beneath the towering falls. We’re midway through our Saturday hike on an August morning that feels more like fall. The weather is sunny and seventy degrees with a welcoming breeze. This is one of my favorite places to hike with Hope. Popular enough I don’t have to worry about hiking alone and still doable for my aging girl. The sound of running water permeates the trail. It’s a soothing soundtrack for this solo outing with my dog. A chance to escape life and get lost in nature for a few hours. To ground myself. To remember why I left suburban, stucco Southern California and moved here, to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

* * *

I’ve always felt drawn to the mountains, often quipping they’re my happy place. I feel different when I’m surrounded by nature. Calmer. Like I belong. A feeling that often escapes me in life and around people. When my kids were young, family vacations meant trips to National Parks where we’d submerge our suburban selves into nature. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Zion, and Bryce Canyon are among my favorites. Those vacations were like a cleansing for my soul. A much-needed break for a busy working mom who struggled to balance her career and motherhood. A chance to spend time with my kids and husband doing something we all enjoyed, together.

When we visited Glacier National Park in Montana, my son was ten years old and he had us in stitches the entire trip. On every trail—except the last day or two when he’d had his fill of hiking—he belted out, Alamo! I can still picture his young face with eyes wide, brows raised, and lips pursed as the word escaped his mouth and echoed across the trail. What was that? Why did he keep saying it? Whatever it was, he was having a good time. Maybe he was simply expressing joy. Happy to be on vacation, in the mountains, or at least out of school.

Twenty-one years later I can still hear his child-like voice in my head, belting out, Alamo! It makes me chuckle. I asked my husband if he remembered the trip and if he knew what our son was saying, “I think he was saying a la mode,” he replied.

“Like pie with ice cream?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

I decided to text my son and ask him, “When we were hiking at Glacier and you kept yelling out Alamo, were you saying Alamo or A la mode (like ice cream on pie) or something else?”

“Alamo like the battle in Texas,” he replied.

“Do you remember why you were saying it?”

“No idea why I did it at the time. I think I just thought it was fun to say.”

Still curious, I decided to do some research. At ten years old, he would have just completed fourth grade. It turns out fourth graders study The Alamo. Mystery solved!

My silly fourth grader is now thirty-one. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, in an old house, surrounded by pine trees. He, too, prefers the peace, quiet, and elbow room to the crowded, hustle and bustle of Southern California.

* * *

Like my son, my dog Hope was born and raised in suburbia, but as soon as we arrived in Western North Carolina shenature settled right in like she’d been a mountain dog her entire life. Perhaps like me, and my son, she realized where she was born was not where she belonged. I’m quite confident if she could talk she’d say, Thanks for bringing me home. The same words my soul speaks. And a sentiment that’s still difficult to explain when people ask why we moved here. I don’t understand it myself sometimes. How do you, how can you explain why you feel more at home in a place where you have no roots than in a place you lived your entire life?

Sitting here at the base of this roaring waterfall, with the pine and poplar trees soaring above me, their arms reaching high into the clear blue sky, I feel small. In a powerful, positive, humbling way. I felt that same smallness on those family vacations. Being surrounded by the immensity of nature provides perspective. Its beauty, grandeur, and steadiness are grounding, reassuring, and comforting.

As Hope sits next to me on our rock perch, the corners of her mouth are curled up in that quintessential golden retriever smile. The sun reflects off the water and onto her face, casting shadows that dance on her white muzzle, a feature that’s earned her the nickname Sugar Face. She, too, seems to enjoy this place. As I stroke the top of my old girl’s head, I contemplate the timeless beauty before us. I don’t know what it is about the enduring nature of nature that affects me so deeply. Perhaps there’s a sense of security in knowing it’s always there. Regardless of the ups and downs in life or the state of my psyche, nature is a constant. Always peaceful and beautiful. Always there to provide respite. And always ready to refuel my soul.

Perhaps that’s what drew me to these mountains five years ago. To a place where I don’t feel the weight of the world resting on my shoulders but that invites me to sit softly in her lap. With Mother Nature’s gracious arms wrapped around me, enveloping me, cradling me. Reminding me I don’t have to work so hard to make life happen.

I can let go, allow, and just be.

Debbie LaChusa called suburban Southern California home for fifty-six years before retiring and relocating to the mountains of Western North Carolina. She has written and self-published four books and is currently writing a memoir about the unexpected rewards and challenges of moving cross-country and leaving her family and hometown behind.
Family, Guest Posts

Two Dads and a Lump of Clay

February 25, 2024
clay

In the beginning, I couldn’t make anything. I sat at the wheel watching the spinning lump of clay, unsure of my next move. The creation of a thing requires two essential inputs: the raw material and the shaping of that material. When I first started to pot, both perplexed me. I know more now. Today, I want to challenge myself and make something special, something that will evoke the goodness of life.

I open the bag of clay and an odor redolent of summer rain on black soil envelops and comforts me. This ancient mixture of earth and water has been around since (at least) the third day of the world. The smell disperses into the air as I cut off a clammy chunk and knead it into a soft, three-pound ball with the objective of “throwing off the hump,” a technique of making two or more pots from a single lump of clay. This method of throwing reminds me of cell division and the miracle of creation. Of course, I am just a potter; I’m not creating life, but it gets me thinking: how do I—how am I formed?

#

I’ve had two fathers. I was three months old when I lost Eliahu, the father whose DNA I carry. My parents were separated by the time I was born, but I know Eliahu saw me a few times before deciding to open a bottle of Orange Crush, swallow several-hundred pills and break free from the turbulent orbit that had become his world.

My older sister Ruth and I could not ask our mother about Eliahu—neither his life nor his death. I told myself that I didn’t care to know, but Ruth did, and it was me that she turned to for solace when her questions went unanswered. Our mother’s reluctance to talk drove her to snooping. One day, when Ruth was fourteen, she found his suicide letter.

I was nine when my sister showed me that letter suffused with emotions I didn’t understand. Emptiness, despair, and self-loathing—his cup overflowed with pain, and he wanted only to empty it, to finish his suffering. It was titillating to be privy to such a secret, but the feeling dissipated, and I filed the information into deep storage, believing I had no right to pine after someone I couldn’t remember. Wanting to be an agreeable daughter, I accepted my mother’s silence and looked toward the future. When I was seventeen, I visited Israel for the first time and met Eliahu’s family. They poured their love and acceptance onto me, and I was stunned. As I was taken from house to house, each new relative stared at my dark thick hair, deep-set eyes, and shy smile, their hands covering gaping mouths. Hee kol kach doma lo! She looks so much like him, they all said.

#

I drop the ball of clay onto the pottery wheel, aiming for the middle. Getting and keeping the clay centered—still, smooth, free of tremors—is still my biggest challenge. The wheel turns at 250 revolutions per minute, humming and grinding. I brace my knees against the splash pan and anchor my arms, pressing at the base of the clay mound and pushing the bumpy surface inward until it submits to the resistance of my hands. Then, I cone the clay up into a torpedo and compress it down again. When I finish, the lump has transformed into a low dome. It looks centered, but I know from experience that this might be an illusion. Who knows what’s buried below the surface.

#

Around the time she became pregnant with me, my mother met the six-foot tall, outgoing poetry student who would become my stepfather. David was a fellow grad student at the university, and he and my mother hung out between classes, trying to out-wit each other with their literary puns and authorial affectations. Everyone, including Eliahu, assumed their friendship was platonic, but my mother and David were developing a stronger connection than anyone could have guessed. Two and a half years after Eliahu’s death, they married.

Whenever I think about David in those early years—a twenty-six-year-old Catholic choosing to leave behind his carefree artist’s life to marry a three-years-older traumatized Jewish widow with two children—I am astounded. No wonder my mother sometimes called him, “David the Saint.” But she was equally irresistible to him. Dazzling with her intelligence, humor, and sultry Elizabeth Taylor-like beauty, she drew him in. After their marriage, he adopted my sister and me, legally erasing our birth names and with them, Eliahu. My history-the story of my origins-was supplanted with a new narrative. The gregarious, partying poet with the stylish beard and classic Greek nose became my new father. My tall, elegant, and (mostly) stable stepfather.

My first memory of David is of a bedtime routine. I had a red frog made of Naugahyde. “Kiss Nauga!” I’d demand each night as he tucked me in. My perfect, handsome Daddy was my hero. But when I grew older and understood that we weren’t related, I pushed him aside, seeking instead the approval and love of my mother. If he made me mad, I comforted myself with the reminder that he wasn’t my real Daddy anyway.

#

I rest my palm on top of the spinning dome, thinking about the stories I’ve always had and the stories I’ve uncovered more recently. They are all I have to work with in the reconstruction of my beginning. I need to figure out how everything fits together.

The smooth, silky movement beneath my hand transports an image to my mind of a grand vessel constructed of two pieces, and I know what I will make: a chalice or kiddush cup. The dual-purpose goblet will consist of a bowl-like cup supported by a decorative stem.

I construct the cup first, pressing my fingers laterally into the dome just below the halfway point. Forming an hourglass shape, I begin throwing the top half. I push the thumb of one hand and middle finger of the other down through the center, opening the clay into a hollow form, then pull the walls toward me to enlarge the base. The promise of future sustenance compels me to pull wider; I want this part of the goblet big to contain all manner of goodness.

#

For decades, I knew little about Eliahu. My mother dispensed occasional morsels of information when I was growing up, hoping they would suffice: he was thirteen years older and a talented, though depressed opera singer; her modern attitudes on gender equality in marriage clashed with his traditional upbringing; and his family criticized him for moving from Israel to Canada. From his relatives I learned my hearing impairment was hereditary, which did not endear me to him. They might have told me more, but I wasn’t interested; I saw no point. I had no memory of him, and he didn’t fit into my life.

All this changed when, at age fifty-three, I heard his voice for the first time on a tape recording given to me by his niece. Hearing my father speak made him feel more real to me than he ever had before. It was then that I awoke, as if from a long sleep, to the realization that I did want to know more about him. But when I went to ask my mother, I was too late. Wandering bewildered in her barren desert of Alzheimer’s, my mother couldn’t conjure up Eliahu at all.

And so, I stole my parents’ letters from the cardboard box in my mother’s seniors’ residence. There were hundreds of them. Eliahu’s letters revealed a romantic man who was rational and pragmatic, and I realized these were also traits of mine. I looked up the names on those letters, hoping to find friends still living.

I found Miriam. She told me that Eliahu was full of surprises, and she described an evening following his return from a summer music school in Italy. “He asked me to go with him to our special singing spot in the mountain. I was leading the way up the path and as we sat down, I looked up. Hanging in the tree was a bottle of Chianti he had brought me from Siena!” Her face shone with the memory of his playfulness and generosity, still fresh after sixty years. Then, she turned and pointed to a wine bottle holding flowers in her hallway. She’d kept it as a vessel for her love.

Eliahu appeared fun-loving and untroubled to Miriam and his other friends, but inside he struggled with despair. The letters revealed that after moving to Canada, one catastrophe after another rained down on him—disappointment, death, betrayal—each blow adding to the last until he could no longer hide the damage.

#

As I open and shape the cup, I feel a disturbance within that is causing the walls to wobble. It’s an air bubble—an empty space trapped in the clay body. I wonder if it had always been there or if I’d done something wrong. This pocket of air has a big impact on the whole, knocking it completely off center. I stop the wheel, poke the bubble with a needle, then smooth and fill in the indentation. When I start the wheel back up, I pray the clay molecules will realign and repair the damage.

Two more pulls of the cup’s wall and the piece is back on center. I am relieved, as if I had recentered Eliahu, giving him the strength to persevere. Maybe I’m chasing a fantasy, trying to create something lasting from loss, but I believe in the restorative power of stories and art.

I press against the inside with a kidney-shaped tool to bowl out the cup and ease off as I near the top. I sit back to look. It is good. The delicate taper of the cup’s wall beckons the eye to the gentle curve of the inside. I smooth the lip before slicing off the cup from the hump of clay below.

#

It turned out David wasn’t such a saint. My mother knew he had a drinking problem, but in their early days together it only added to his appeal as a tortured poet. She probably hoped her love and a family routine would turn him sober. But it didn’t, not for a long time.

One day when I was twelve, he picked me up late from aikido class. During the silent drive home, he suddenly turned off our route, saying he had to make a quick stop.

“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” he said, parking behind some brick buildings. After a long time, I started to worry. I left the car to look for him. Just beyond the alleyway between the buildings was a pub and I looked inside the window. He was sitting at the bar, a big glass of beer in front of him, talking and laughing with another patron as if he had nothing else in the world to do. I returned to the car to sulk and cry. My daddy was flawed. The sudden realization rattled my sense of security.

When he returned, he slid into the driver’s seat and looked at me in the rear-view mirror. Seeing my scowl and crossed arms, he turned around. “What’s the matter, sweetie?” he said in the syrupy, slurred voice I hated.

“I know where you were.”

“Oh, dear,” he said.

I glared at him.

“Don’t tell your mother.”

“Of course, I won’t,” I said. I did not want to be the cause of an argument between them.

Sometime after, David quit drinking. But his alcoholism had already shaped me, and from then on, I viewed the drinking habits of the people I loved with an anxious wariness.

#

A bit less than half of the original ball of clay is left on the wheel. As I shape it into the goblet’s stem, I reflect on stories of my adoptive dad, hoping the details of these memories never fade. My musings guide my hands as they work to define the stem. It should be as graceful as the cup and its base should be wide enough to keep the cup steady, especially if I want a tall stem—tall like David was.

While the dome spins, I press in on the sides, giving the clay nowhere to go but up. It becomes a pillar with a clay skirt at the bottom, which serves as the stem’s base. I form a shallow cavity at the top that looks like a miniature rice bowl. This cavity will enclose the bottom of the cup when I’m ready to join the two pieces together. I pinch the stem at different heights to create three knops, mimicking the classic profiles of goblets I’ve seen online. When I’m finished, I assess the outcome. The stem will be stable, mostly. The knops, while handsome, are potential weak points and will require vigilance. I stand up and crouch down to look at the stem straight on. Overall, I’m satisfied. It too is good.

#

Reading the letters between and to my mother and Eliahu allowed me to learn more about him than I ever thought possible, each small detail darkening the hazy outline I’d carried all my life. Amongst those letters was an obscure document from 1963.

In the fall of that year, Eliahu was attending a community college to complete the high school coursework he needed to get into university. He was unemployed during the winter break and finances were tight, so he applied for unemployment insurance benefits. He was denied on the grounds that his unemployment would last for only one month. The 1963 letter was an appeal that he wrote, arguing that he shouldn’t be disqualified because he was both available and willing to work as required by the law, from which he quoted.

I recognized in his arguments my own dogged trust in reason and logic. I possess the same zeal for justice and directed this passion into a career as a worker advocate. My father used the government’s rules as his evidence and rationale, a strategy I also employed in my work. I always assumed the attributes that made me good at my job came from my mother, who was a professional writer and editor—but maybe they came from Eliahu?

Two years later, my father gave up fighting for himself and the things he cherished—a choice I vowed never to follow.

#

Despite being Catholic, David participated fully in our Jewish upbringing and even attended synagogue with us. “It’s the same God,” he always said. Once, as a teenager, I set out to challenge his religion, just for the fun of it. My mother always hoped he would convert and I, still focused on pleasing her, decided to be helpful by undermining one of the central tenets of Catholicism.

“Don’t you think that story about Jesus dying and coming back to life is pretty dumb? You know, the whole resurrection thing?” I waited for defensiveness and was startled by his comeback.

“No dumber than some guy talking to a burning bush,” he said, breaking into a big smile that opened the space between his mustache and beard, revealing all his not-so-white, but perfectly formed teeth.

“Ha, you got me!” I said, laughing. It took years for me to appreciate how his wisdom and respect for my intelligence nurtured my own open-minded, critical thinking. Once a parent myself, I stopped brushing him aside in favor of my mother. I could depend on him for non-judgmental advice and comfort. On visits and calls home, my former monosyllabic answers to his questions turned into genuine engagement. I came to love his kind, molten voice, which still had that slurred, dreamy quality.

I was forty-three when he received the lung cancer diagnosis. From that point on, each time I called, he reported the latest symptoms of the disease attacking his body, such as night sweats and falling out of bed. I begged him to let me come take care of him, knowing my mother wasn’t coping.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“I can sleep on the floor next to the bed and break your falls.”

“Oh, sweetie—thank you, but no.”

When he went into palliative care, I did go to him, and we were both glad. He asked me to read his favorite Psalm—#23. Then, he left me too.

#

The two pieces are leather-hard dry, and it is time to join them together. I return the cup upside down to the wheel for the final shaping of the surface. The protrusion of clay where the cup was cut from the host mound is facing up, ready to receive the stem. I add some goopy slip to its rough surface, then turn the stem upside down and fit the rice bowl-shaped cavity on to the protrusion, pressing until wet clay oozes out and the curve of the cavity hugs the cup. I check to make sure the stem is centered and plumb, then turn on the wheel, blending the wet into the harder clay to bind and smooth the area of attachment, creating a single structure.

It is me; it is them. The creators and the created.

When it is dry enough to handle, I wrap my hands around the cup and lift it to my lips, the taste and smell of the clay a reminder of its elemental origins. I breathe into the hollow of the cup, sanctifying the space with my gratitude. Setting it down, I marvel at the stability and beauty of the tall, elegant stem. From one lump to two forms, and back to one again. I’ve never made anything this good.

Michèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step-adoption. Her essays have been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Salon.com, Oldster Magazine, and The Brevity Blog. She also interviews memoirists for Hippocampus Magazine. Find her at @micheledhaber on most social media platforms.

 

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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.