Browsing Tag

grief

Grief, Guest Posts

A Universal Language

July 3, 2022
language

Budoia, Italy 1983

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

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

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

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

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Have you ordered Thrust


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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Gratitude, Grief, Guest Posts

I Say Goodbye and You Say Hello

June 19, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, moving on

Jimmy Five

May 15, 2022
jimmy

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

“We have to talk,” he seemed to say.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

“Jimmy, you read my journals!”

“I was looking for answers,” he claimed.

“You had no right!”

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

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

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

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

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

He twitched his right shoulder and walked out.

***

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

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

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

I wouldn’t stop until he stopped.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

And he did. Stop drinking.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was simply not sexy.

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He was dead within 24 hours. Maybe 48.

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

I wasn’t.

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

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

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

We’d had him cremated.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

It was time.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Future Past

December 18, 2021
portland maine lighthouse

by Casey Walsh

I’ve been craving just one good beach day all summer, nothing to do but lie in the sun and gaze at the peaceful horizon. There’s something hopeful about looking out at the sea, as though you can see the past and the future, all there in the shimmering expanse of blue. Beyond the children on the sand and in the shallow water, past the more capable swimmers and surfers and the small vessels, ocean kayaks and canoes and catamarans, farther even than the cargo and cruise ships miles out, there is, at some point, nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination. No end in sight.

I’ve finally had the day I dreamed of—two of them in fact—at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. My husband, Kevin, and I spent a couple of days there and two more in Newburyport, just what we’ve needed as fall closes in.  Now we settle in for a meandering drive home, including a planned detour north along the coast.

Leaving Newburyport’s historic downtown, I assume my role as navigator to Kevin’s as driver. When we first began this alliance, my task typically involved paper maps. Now, though, it’s a dance of devices. As we drive over the Merrimack River on Route 1, I plug the address into the dashboard GPS, and while it calculates, I alternate between checking the Maps app and the radar on my iPhone. Glancing up to admire the boats in the inland harbor, I plan our route and hope the weather will hold while we explore Portsmouth, NH.

For the past few days, I’ve been focused on local treks, how to get from our hotel into town or from one hotel to the next. But as we turn off onto 1a—the scenic road along the coast—I take a broader look at our surroundings. It surprises me we’re so close to Hampton Beach, the crowded honky-tonk seaside scene my first husband and I had thought was fun back in the dark ages, before kids, when we still believed we’d be together forever. It won’t take Kevin and me long to reach Portsmouth. We’ll get a feel for the city, browse the shops, and grab a bite to eat before heading home to Albany.

Scrolling up on my phone as we drive, I see the places where my high school friends spent yearly summer vacations with their families: Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, places I only dreamed of. I scroll still more, farther up than I remember, and there it is: South Portland.

Suddenly, it’s fall 1997 again, and I’m driving east across Massachusetts, then up into New Hampshire with my oldest son, Eric. We reached the outskirts of Portsmouth, then ventured on into Maine, past exits for beach towns, and finally arrived in South Portland. I was instantly enchanted by this small city, with its cobblestone streets and cyclists and parks, as we drove along the mouth of the Fore River. I pictured Eric here in the fall, riding his bike to a job in town, making a little cash to keep him afloat.

Eric and I drove out of downtown and out toward the water, where the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. Like most lighthouses, its distinctive beam patterns, varied sequences of light and dark, not only warn sailors of hazards but help them find their position as well.

Beautiful as it is, the lighthouse was not our destination. We were here to see the campus of South Portland Technical College, where the lighthouse is located on a breakwater at the tip.

Earlier in the year, I’d ventured into Eric’s high school guidance office asking for information about colleges for him. While the counselors offered personalized support to top-tier students, they paid little attention to kids like my son—those who had caused more headaches than pride for faculty in recent semesters. Screw ups…I believe that was the technical term. I was fairly certain the only way we’d figure out the right direction was for me to show up in person, put my best intelligent, efficient foot forward, and ask all the right questions. Essentially, I would stand in for Eric: patiently navigate the information, lay out his options, and apply just the right spin to help him see all the world could offer outside of Cambridge, our small upstate New York village.

Predictably, the counselors were busy, busy, busy, but they could steer me to a computer with a program that allowed a filtered search. Carefully, as though his life depended on it, I entered my criteria, channeling Eric as best I could: Industrial Drafting and Design. Dorms. Intercollegiate soccer program. Bingo. South Portland Technical College it is, I thought, within driving distance yet far enough to allow him to see what’s out there.

I gathered materials and made my pitch. Eric was surprisingly enthusiastic, devouring the catalogs, and soon we were planning a visit. I remember the tour, Eric realizing he’d had such good preparation at Cambridge, having already taken many courses in high school not available to some of the other students on the tour. And the coach was bursting with enthusiasm for what Eric would add to the team. All spring phone calls and letters arrived from the college, encouraging Eric to keep up his grades and updating him on who had been recruited, what promise lay ahead.

“By the time I graduate, I will have made so many new friends, snowboarded on the toughest mountains, and played college soccer,” he’d said with his trademark grin, slipping into the future past tense that swelled with optimism.

“Ah, but first you have to do well on that chemistry exam,” I’d teased.

From Eric, in characteristic form: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

After years of guiding him through life closer to home, it seemed he, too, was ready to broaden his view to a world that just might include South Portland.

None of this would ever be. In the end, Eric settled on a local community college rather than leave his on-again off-again girlfriend, who had somehow completely drowned his ability to imagine a future on his own. That semester was a bust; partying and killing time killed all of his focus and enthusiasm for life. Afterward, he floundered for a while, searching for a path until he chose the Navy. He scored so well on the ASVAB that he was selected for aircraft technician school in Pensacola, FL, following completion of naval basic training in Illinois. If only he would stay the course.

Yet each of these options was somehow part of the tornado of trouble, the huge disturbance that had already begun its wreckage and was simply too big to fail. Though they offered brief glimmers of possibility, it was obvious even then that they were never to be. There would be stressors of a divorce that no amount of my own intelligence or efficiency could allay, adults who let him down, bad decisions and bad luck. There would be factors even I, the better part of two decades later, couldn’t begin to understand. Ultimately, a tragic crash would end his life.

Still, I remember so well how South Portland, where it all began, had a different vibe entirely. It seemed its lighthouse—which had protected seafaring travelers on Casco Bay from all sorts of dangers for more than a century—had the power to keep my son safe as well. But first he would have had to get there. Once Eric had turned away from that beam of hope, he lost his way. With nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination, there was no end in sight.

I squirm in my seat next to Kevin, who is oblivious to the places I’ve gone in my mind. Staring out the window at the sand and the waves, I feel the lump form in my throat, feel the tears form, hot and insistent. I let them wash over me. I’ve learned there’s no use in the fight, anyway. It’s a mystery to me, how I can feel so resolved at times, accepting of Eric’s life and of his passing as what was. What is. Then come days like this one, when everything is so present, invading my thoughts, refusing to share space with my current life, teasing me with visions of the life he never had.

I think of something I heard years ago—how sadness is missing what has been lost, but sorrow is missing what will never be—and I’m overcome with a rare wave of anxiety, something I haven’t felt in quite this way since the day Eric dashed out the front door that one last time. If only I could reach back and change one little thing, it all so easily could have happened for him. He’d been so damn close. I picture Kevin and me driving to Maine to visit Eric and his wife and outdoor-loving, risk-taking kids living out their happy lives in an idyllic seaside town. It tortures me.

I sit silently for a while as we drive along the coast, wallowing really, and fantasize about the student Eric could have been—living in the dorms, playing on the soccer team, making new friends on campus and in town, enjoying the ocean views that might have inspired him as they do me. Caught in the past, I’ve been exercising my best Google-fu, frantically searching for the online home of the place that had once drawn us in, frustrated that SPTC seems to have vanished along with the life I imagined for my son, and for me. Using the lighthouse as the beacon it was meant to be, I finally locate Southern Maine Community College on the web, the same campus anointed with a new name, another entity entirely. How like my own life, it strikes me, completely rewritten, though some of the old remains in different form. Still, the college will never again be what it was on that day, at that time.

And neither will I.

I notice we’re about to reach Portsmouth.  Kevin and I are on vacation, after all, and I owe it to him to at least attempt to come up for air. “Hey, listen to this,” I offer, feigning enthusiasm, hoping the feelings will follow.  “They even have a comic book on their website describing the lighthouse and its origins.”

Step Into History!  the title commands.

If only it were history, I think, not a future imagined but never fulfilled.

I close the app, drop the phone into my bag, and turn my eyes to the road ahead.

Casey Walsh is a writer and former speech-language pathologist living with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project; Fresh.Ink, The Under Review; Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine; Barren Magazine; Brevity Blog; and ModernLoss, among others. Casey’s essays also appear at TheFHFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to the genetic cardiac disorder that affects her family. Learn more at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com.  Casey is currently seeking representation for her memoir, The Full Catastrophe.

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Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

I didn’t know that a father wouldn’t solve all of my issues of being fatherless for my children.I didn’t know he would yell. I didn’t know he would make us feel bad. I didn’t know he wouldn’t be home a lot. I thought I could manage him and still give my children the luxury of two parents. I didn’t know that when he was yelling in the house that they were getting hurt and made to feel unsafe. I didn’t know that when I calmed him and told them he’d had a bad day that they felt I was choosing him over them. I didn’t know that they would feel better at home when he wasn’t there. I didn’t know that  things wouldn’t get better. I didn’t know that yelling was not better than silence than not speaking as in the house I grew up in.

I didn’t know that I couldn’t fix him. I didn’t know that when he was annoyed with me it wasn’t about me being annoying. I didn’t know that I couldn’t modify myself enough to make him happy. I didn’t know that if he was unhappy with me that my children would feel he was also unhappy with them. I didn’t know that spending more time with him in my life would only make things worse. I didn’t know why I felt so lonely in a house with three people. I didn’t know how to make things different without also making them worse. I didn’t know that being quiet and also talking were both problematic so I had no mode of behavior that would make it better.

I didn’t know that loving talent and intelligence were not love. I didn’t know that the first person who asked me to marry him actually gave me a choice of yes or no. I didn’t know that I was worthy of seeking. I didn’t know that staying married wouldn’t prove everyone wrong because nobody was checking. I didn’t know that if I told everyone about how good things were with my husband it wouldn’t make it true. I didn’t know that I was not the only problem. I didn’t know that he wasn’t better than me. I didn’t know that he could be kind to others and so unkind to me. I didn’t know that he could be so unavailable to his family yet so able to stay late at work and help others when they needed extra time.

I didn’t know that I should feel good in my home. I didn’t know that I wasn’t mentally ill. I didn’t know that I wasn’t ugly. I didn’t know that I wasn’t boring. I didn’t know that I was worthy. I didn’t know that I should’ve been treated with kindness. I didn’t know that when I was sick I should’ve been helped. I didn’t know that everything wasn’t my responsibility. I didn’t know that I was doing everything for everyone and being challenged for not doing better.

I didn’t know that while we were sexless he was seeking sex with others. I didn’t know he regarded me as so awful. I didn’t know that he didn’t hope for things to improve. I didn’t know that he felt lying to me was justified. I didn’t know he kept his schedule nebulous for more reasons than real conflicts. I didn’t know that he was available to others for intimacy but not for me. I didn’t know he spoke ill of me to others.

I didn’t know he would die But then he did. And then I knew.

Ruth Arnold is a widowed mother of two boys living with metastatic breast cancer. Her husband passed away almost 11 years ago but only lately has Ruth begun to share her story due to complicated grief and shame that she is working to overcome. This essay was inspired after she shared the story of her husband’s death to her two sons ages 10 and 16 who were 9 and 5 years old when he died. In spite of this darkness, Ruth is living happily and well.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Self Image

The Grief In My Belly

July 29, 2021
weight

by Elizabeth O’Nuanain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Home, memories

Memory and Loss Where a House Once Stood

July 20, 2021
house

By Gina Coplon-Newfield

My mother texted me a photo of an unfamiliar house. When I recognized the slope of the hill, I gasped with realization. My modest childhood home was gone, replaced by a McMansion.

I haven’t lived in that house for 27 years. I wish I could better trust the reliability of my memories from inside it, but I know which memories are from before and after grief moved in.

I can picture my father at our dining room table pouring over maps, trying to determine the perfect driving routes for our national park vacations. There too, he paid the bills and created my soccer team line-up. He grew up in rural Georgia in the 1950s where soccer was an unfamiliar sport, so coaching girls’ soccer in suburban Boston in the 1980s was something he studied like a new language.

I recall one dinner when my sister and I, at ages two and five, were laughing at the silly names we were brainstorming for our new puppy. My mother exclaimed with her pointer finger skyward, “That’s it, Feathers! Golden retrievers have hair like feathers.” But it’s possible I remember it that way because my mom often makes exuberant exclamations, or I’ve seen a photo of us in the kitchen that morphed into that memory.

I can summon a scene –like a movie- of Feathers sneaking into the living room, taking my dad’s wallet from the table, chewing it to bits, and looking sheepishly at my dad when he entered the room. My dad started yelling at her, but then he stopped, having realized she was just a puppy, and took her for a walk. Or at least, years later, that’s the way I told my children that story over and over when they were little. They loved hearing it. Had it really happened that way?

Memory is a curious thing.

I can picture myself at 14, struggling through a math assignment at the kitchen table. My dad urged me to approach it one section at a time rather than get overwhelmed by the entirety. I interpreted this as not just a logistical way to think, but also a calming way to feel about what I needed to accomplish. One step at a time, I tell myself regularly even now in my 40s when I’m facing a difficult work project or just staring down a mountain of dirty dishes. My dad was a psychiatrist. He likely often repeated this kind of guidance, but for some reason, I only remember him sharing it this one time.

My dad died of a sudden heart attack at age 47. My sister, age 12, and I at 15 were at sleep-away camp. Our mom shared the grim news with us in the camp owner’s living room. We screamed in horror.

When we returned home, the house felt completely different. On my dad’s bedside table, I saw Night, Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir. I wondered if he had read it on my recommendation and what he thought of it. I realized I’d never get to discuss the book -or anything- with him again.

I can picture my paternal grandmother lumbering up our steps that day. I thought this is what a broken person looks like.

After the funeral, I was sitting in my bedroom with an older cousin on my dad’s side who said, “Your dad was the glue that held our family together.” I remember thinking this was the new kind of grown-up conversation I’d need to get used to having.

That week when family and friends poured into our house with food, and our rabbi led nightly services in our living room, I learned that the Hebrew mourner’s kaddish prayer actually doesn’t mention death. Rather, it describes our belief in an awesome God that makes life possible. Learning this made me feel like life was more powerful than death. Reciting the prayer felt like a small act of resistance, like I wasn’t going to let death win.

In the years that followed, the absence of my father felt like a presence just as formidable as a living person. There my dad was not at our dinner table making corny jokes. There he was not sharing the gratification of me making the varsity soccer team after his years of coaching. There he was not sitting with my mom at the edge of my bed looking at college brochures. There he was at bedtime not saying “love ya” in his southern twang. This absence of him made our house feel heavy.

The walls of my childhood home did go on to contain some joyful memories during this after period. Close friends often slept over, and we talked into the night. On my 18th birthday, my mom made me a cake topped with icing in the shape of a ballot box. At 19, I brought home my college boyfriend –now husband of 21 years. My mom likes to recount how I was trying to leave, but he said, “No, let’s have a cup of tea with your mom.” Kiss-ass.

There are countless experiences that occurred inside that house –wonderful, terrible, and mundane– that I will never remember.

In my twenties, my mom sold the house and moved to Boston with Bob, the kind man who would become her new husband.

In my thirties, I became a mom. We named our first daughter Farah, choosing the “F” in honor of my dad Fredric. When Farah’s younger sister Dori was a toddler, I was once telling her a light-hearted story about my father –perhaps the one about Feathers eating his wallet– and Dori burst out crying. She sobbed it wasn’t fair that I got to know my dad, but she never did. I was amazed that my daughter felt so strongly the loss of a relationship she never had.

When I turned 40, my high school friend Abbie flew in from Michigan to surprise me. We drove the twenty-five minutes from Cambridge, where I live now, to Lexington where we knocked on the door of my childhood home. Farah, then nine, came along. No one answered the door when we knocked, but I felt comfort knowing the house was there, the vessel of my fortunate childhood and the painful intensity of my late adolescence.

Perhaps this is why I was so affected by the photo my mom texted me after she learned from friends of our demolished house. My memories felt more vulnerable because the house was gone.

Soon before Covid-19 prevented in-person gatherings, Dori stood next to me at a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. At the end of the service, we recited kaddish in honor of those who had passed. Dori looked up at me and said, “don’t die.” “OK,” I said, tearing up because we both knew this was an impossible agreement.

With some disbelief, I realize that my daughters are now the same ages my sister and I were when our home became a house of mourning.

My husband and I, too, are about the same age my parents were when my dad died and my mom became a widow. I am nearly the age my mom was when she successfully, quickly fought off uterine cancer, avoiding the early death my dad could not escape at so-called middle age.

I worry my kids might experience loss like I did, aware that life can be taken or not taken at any time –by the likes of a heart attack, cancer, or a pandemic. All we can do, of course, is treat life as a gift, though sometimes that’s hard to keep top of mind.

I wonder which memories of joy and pain my children will keep from our house as they get older. I am realizing each memory is not a solid thing, but rather something re-shaped, lost, or cherished over time.

house

Gina Coplon-Newfield is an environmental and social justice advocate. She has published a case study about environmental advocacy with Harvard Law School, written many recent blog articles about clean transportation issues, and is quoted regularly in the media in such outlets as the New York Times, Bloomberg News, and Politico. This is her first venture into writing a personal narrative for a public audience (since a few overly serious poems in college). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She can be found on Twitter @GinaDrivingEV.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Porcelain

July 18, 2021
letter

CW: This essay discusses miscarriage.

by Cammie Clark

“Yours is the light by which my spirit’s born;
you are my sun, my moon and all my stars.”
~ e.e. cummings

This is a letter to the tile floor in my bathroom––hexagonal and white, grouted a dingy grey. I sit on the toilet, connecting imaginary shapes in the inch-sized pieces beneath my feet. Maybe the tiles are porcelain––they’re always cold––but they’re original, laid into the home about 100 years ago. I live here with my husband and daughter; we don’t own it, but we dream about it. I’m careful of the tiles in here and also of the hardwood floors throughout the rest of the house. I wipe things up immediately––splashes of water, spilled coffee, bodily fluids.

Or maybe this is a letter to the sky blue painted walls of our bedroom, a dreamy color I did not pick but love to get lost in. 375 weeks ago I posted my first post on Instagram––it was a view of these walls from where I lay in bed. I simply captioned it, “Blue”. Because it was and I was, and I laid there for a long time, but this isn’t a letter to the color blue.

I don’t like to turn onto my left side while I sleep––mostly it’s uncomfortable, but I’d also have to contend with my husband’s snoring much too close for my liking as he sleeps on the left side of the bed. Sometimes in the morning, after he is in the shower and the sun has come up and brightened the blue walls of our bedroom, I’ll roll over to my left side and reach my hand out to touch the spot where he was laying––warm still. Just a glance past his pillow hangs a framed graphic print of the stars in the sky, as they appeared on the night of December 5, 2013. This is definitely a letter to that framed print. At the bottom, a quote from e.e. cummings.

This is a letter to my anxiety, and to the morning of Dec. 6, 2013, when I think that something is not quite right. It was still early––too early, except what I mean is there was no sun up yet, no blue walls, no shower or warm spot. I propped myself up––it was too early for me too, at 17 weeks pregnant, to feel not quite right. What was moving? No, what was the movement that was happening inside me? I walked halfway down our short hall and quickly returned, each step agonizing. This is a letter to the edge of the doorway, to the edge of our bed, to the edge of my sanity.

My husband, annoyed by the hall light and by my indecision to go to the bathroom or not, “What’s up? It’s 5:30 in the morning?” he had groaned. “I don’t know––I don’t know, something doesn’t feel right. Just let me go pee.” For a moment, I felt fine and I stood fine, but each step brought a familiar radiating pain that reached around my back and clamped down––hard––into my pelvis. The pain was coming in waves and I was like a wave, ebbing back and forth in the hallway, attempting to drift into my bathroom, unsure if this was all just nothing. I sat on the toilet taking deep breaths–––I counted tiles, then traced shapes like geometric hearts and geometric flowers with their outlines.

This is a letter to my entire bathroom, to its walls and pedestal sink––a place that held me. When something warm and small slid out of me I breathed a sigh of relief when it wasn’t red and for the briefest of moments, everything paused––there was no pain, no early morning nature sounds outside the window, just a magnitude of nothing pressing deep into my ears––I didn’t even move or exhale. I didn’t exhale because I couldn’t, not with the sudden terror and racing heart beat when I realized that the small, yellowish sack that slid out of me was the mucus plug from my uterus.

This is a letter of inevitability.

But I think this letter is also to my body, how it did what a woman’s body does, and with my uterus clamped down into contraction after contraction, I steadied myself over the toilet. I glanced with a fury toward the door, beautiful and ornate as it was but pissed off by the antique door knobs with locks that no longer functioned. I tried not to alarm my husband in that moment because this is also a letter to his childhood trauma and to his sobriety and how if he opened that fucking door I knew all of this would break him, my sweet husband.

I write this letter on behalf of myself, as the woman in the moment, trying not to scream in agony too loud, trying to control the level of terror and disconnect that was taking place in my mind, so much so that I placed both my hands over my mouth, one atop the other, only to release them to say through clenched teeth and sobs: “Don’t you open that door, Timothy! Don’t you open it!”

And him pleading from the other side, “Just tell me what to do––I don’t know––please.“

There was no such thing as time in that moment. So this is a letter to lost time––how my body got it wrong, or maybe got it right, and what I believe about it now is wrong. The physical agony suddenly stopped, but still, I didn’t exhale––because I couldn’t, that racing heartbeat came back as I peered down and saw our baby, still connected to me, swinging upside down from between my legs as I half stood, half propped myself up on the edge of our sink. So much time––lost.

Where do you send a letter like this? To god? Do I write it and then burn into the sky? Or should I consume it––like the way it keeps consuming me?

This is a letter to trauma, to my disjointed self. There is a version of me that only exists in this moment––and she never comes forward with me in time, she’s stuck back there in that bathroom with the beautiful tile. This house, in my mind, comes to me like a diorama, the roof removed and I peer in over the edge. Inside, I am a carefully felted doll––fibers poked and compressed together by pins––save for one long stray thread that’s dangling away from me, unravelling.

“Timothy, get me a plastic bag, hand it to me through the door please.”

“Should I call 911?”

“No, there’s no time. We need to drive ourselves––now.” This is a letter to my curious mind that read book after book about pregnancy risks and knew that an undetached placenta––a placenta accreta––could become a life or death situation very quickly. This is a letter to my grade school daughter, who would be driving by our house with her dad that morning, on her way to school, and did not need to see an ambulance parked out front. This is a letter to my hands and the careful way they cradled our baby like a broken bird, first in the plastic and then a bath towel, still attached to me between my legs. I tucked the baby bird infant against my pelvis and pulled my elastic pajama pants way over the top and waddled out to the car.

“Drive.”

This is a letter to the gurney that was rushed to me in a panic as I stumbled in through the emergency room doors, doubled over and mumbling, and to the nurse’s horrified face when I said “My baby fell out of me” in wretched sobs, my body folding around itself. And that diorama of my home exploding into the deepest recesses of my mind as I imagined splintered pieces of tile and wood and plaster piercing memories of birthdays and holidays past, every precious moment torn asunder.

I thought this letter might also be for the skeptical nurse who questioned the plastic bag, demanding to know what happened–––as if I had done something to our baby–––but there is no letter that comes to mind, only broken pieces of a diorama that no longer resembles a home, and I think maybe if the nurse had just taken my hand, she would have felt the little bits of plaster and tile and wood and understood why I could not fathom my husband wandering out to his car while I lay in a hospital bed and having to wipe the contents of my womb off the passenger seat of our car. Surely even she would see that this is a letter to an almost father.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a letter for my first home: my mother–––I really need my mother; all children do.

But now, this is only a letter to memory. Every now and then, I’ll lay down on that cold, porcelain tile, all of its geometry leaving mathematical indentations on my skin––my body attaching to home like we are being felted together. It’s me looking back up at me, from the bottom of the diorama––like our baby became this place, and this place forever holds me. It is a kindness I’ve imagined for myself.

This is a letter to 375 weeks, to constellations and going home.

Cammie Clark is a Creative Nonfiction student at UCLA, currently workshopping her memoir about being raised by disabled parents while living off the grid in Yosemite National Park. Clark’s work has been published online at The Rumpus, Salon, The Woolfer and Medium, as well as in print for several Bay Area newspapers. She is a professional member of PEN America and is a part of their Prison Writing Mentor Program. She lives with her husband in Half Moon Bay. To see a sampling of her published work, go to to cammieclark.contently.com.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Relentlessly Human

May 29, 2021
human

By Alli Blair Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a mom anymore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Beauty Hunting, Guest Posts

Why You’re Seeing More Birds (It’s More Than Science)

May 22, 2021
birds

By Megan Margulies

Late last summer, still bleary eyed and shuffling from my bed, I spotted a red breasted robin rustling beneath the leaves of a tree outside my bathroom window. It launched from the leaves, returning minutes later to the same spot, a commotion under the summer foliage. Delighted, I realized there was a hidden nest. Every morning I looked out toward that branch, waiting to see a breakfast delivery of worms or grubs, relieved when I saw a fluttery landing as proof of life.

As the weather got colder and the leaves began to thin out, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the birds in their exposed nest. But by the time it was revealed, the leaves on the ground below, they had moved out. The nest sat empty on the bare branch throughout the winter as COVID-19 cases surged, the world quiet again. The winter birds remained—black capped chickadees darting from branch to branch—but the chatter quieted.

The United States lost over five-hundred-thousand lives this year from COVID-19. This winter, at the pandemic’s worst, the United States Covid-19 hospitalizations peaked with 132,000 patients. We lost more than 20,000 people a week. Families upended, loves weighted by the despair of loss, and the world muted with cold and snow. What do we do with this loss? With the empty space left behind by the ones we love?

I’ve been looking to birds for proof of life since my beloved grandfather died in 2011. I struggled with the void he left behind, and I took great comfort in an obnoxiously loud male cardinal that visited me on our back patio, or sang to me while I ate breakfast. The cardinal’s song was so loud that it seemed there wasn’t even a glass pane between us. The old robin’s nest outside of my window will never be used again, but I like to see it out there, a reminder of life. We need these reminders. We need the birds.

Last spring when COVID first shut everything down, the animals came out. There are scientific explanations for these sightings. For the birds, it was less sound pollution, spring migratory habits, and maybe humans were just paying more attention. Sure, there are scientific explanations for the increased bird activity, but I think the spiritual explanations are worth considering.

Spiritual mediums believe that cardinals represent visitors from the spirit world, to either relay a message or simply to let you know that they are still with you, especially when dealing with a difficult situation. For centuries, across different cultures and religions, birds have been associated with death, renewal, and believed to be the messengers of spirits. Psychopomps, derived from the Greek word meaning “guide of souls,” are creatures who escort newly deceased souls from earth to the afterlife. In the form of birds these psychopomps wait in large groups near the soul who is soon to depart. Perhaps the birds of last spring and summer were our psychopomps, waiting to guide the souls we had yet to lose.

Some cultures believe that birds, like ravens and crows, to be omens of tragedy to come, but some believe birds provide a vessel for the souls who have departed. In Hinduism, spirits of ancestors reside in crows, and the birds are fed as a way of nourishing the souls of the ancestors. In Nepal, crows are worshiped on the first day of Tihar. Ancient Egyptians believed that our souls left the body in the form of a hawk or raven. They even included narrow shafts leading out from the tombs so that the birds could come and go as they pleased. Horus, the god of the sky, had a hawk (or falcon’s) head.

Since mid-February, with winter hinting a departure and taking its muffled world with it, I’ve noticed more birdsong, my yard crowded and noisy again. We see hope ahead with increased vaccinations. I count each bird as a sign of life, as proof of that the departed souls are still with us. If we look up to the sky, we’re never really alone.

My mom, who lives in New York City and rides her bike through Central Park, keeps spotting a hawk that swoops over her head. She texted me a picture of it sitting at the top of a tree and wrote “we’re friends now.” I sent her back a photo of our neighborhood hawk who perched on a tree limb scanning the ground for a small rodent to eat. While walking with my daughter recently we spooked a pair of grey doves. They flapped clumsily toward the sky, landing on the roof of our house, where they began their haunting owl-like sounds. “The doves are usually in pairs,” I tell my daughter as we watch them, standing hand-in-hand.

In many traditions doves symbolize healing powers and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The Bible shows the dove delivering messages from God. Pablo Picasso’s lithograph “Dove with Sun” shows a dove, wings outstretched, over the rubble of war and destruction. It was later used as the poster image for the World Congress for General Disbarment and Peace held in Moscow in 1962. How many doves do we need for all of our rubble? I watch them on my roof, pacing side-by-side, assessing the world below them.

The other day a bright red cardinal balanced on a cable wire near my front door. He sang loudly, his chest expanding and deflating with his tune, and then he flew off. Was it my grandfather? Or just another departed soul now flying free? He returned that afternoon. After saying goodbye to a friend whose father is dying of cancer, the cardinal landed on the spot she had been standing. She had already driven away, so I texted to tell her, hoping to give her a sense of comfort. “Someone is definitely watching over you,” I told her. She responded, “I feel it.”

In a paper entitled, “On the Relationship between Birds and Spirits of the Dead,” Professor Christopher Moreman writes, “Birds reflect a fundamental aspect of human nature—the denial of death as finality through a desire for renewal, transformation, and rebirth.” After a year of such tremendous loss, over 2.65 million souls leaving this earth, I embrace this denial. I hope that those who have lost loved ones look up to the sky. I hope that they see them soaring and singing.

Megan Margulies is a memoirist and native New Yorker. She writes about womanhood, motherhood, and figuring out why bodies do the things they do. Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in various publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Post, New York Magazine, and LitHub. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters.

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parents

Just a Moment

March 8, 2021
moment

A photograph of the author’s parents.

By Allison Amy Wedell

Here’s what you need to know for this photo to make sense: I love my dad. I say “love,” in present tense, even though he’s been dead for almost four years. I would raid heaven to have him back, even if just for a moment—a snapshot, if you will.

Here’s how it happened: Dad and I went on a six-day, 360-mile bike ride in Wyoming in mid-July, my brother got married at the end of July, then Mom and Dad left for a month-long trip to England and Scotland in early August. Two weeks into the trip, he checked himself into an ER in London, where they confirmed what my dad, a retired doctor, had already suspected.

He had acute myeloid leukemia.

So Dad spent four weeks in a London ICU, fighting to put together enough white blood cells that they would let him fly home to Cheyenne. After a night in the local hospital and a frank talk with his doctor there, he realized he wasn’t going to bounce back from this, and opted for hospice instead. He spent six wonderful, heartbreaking weeks in hospice, saying goodbye to everyone he loved.

He died on October 29, 2016.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve already realized that he went from biking up mountains with his daughter and dancing at his son’s wedding to his deathbed in a scant three months. The speed of it still takes my breath away, like that instant after a car crash when you’re just sitting there blinking while you try to figure out what just happened.

Anyway. Back to the photo. My mom sent it to me about six weeks after Dad died. She received it from her friend Shel, who had been on the England/Scotland tour with my parents. Shel had been sorting through his photos from their trip, and he sent her a few. This one is my favorite.

It’s so casual, isn’t it? Just a couple of tourists, surrounded by a few other tourists, taking a break in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in August of 2016. They could be any retirees, caught in a moment of rest, planning their next foray among the antiquities. But I see so much more. So many tiny details of this captured moment reveal to me, in heartbreaking clarity, all that I am missing.

For example, the man has a camera slung over his shoulder. It evidences his passion for both photography and technology, and makes me wonder how many beautiful photos he has already snapped on this day alone. Some of them have his wife in them; some are landscapes; some are closeups of flowers in gardens. All of them delight in the world around him.

You can’t quite tell, but those pant legs zip off. This man is nothing if not practical. If it gets too hot in Oxford on this summer day, he’ll convert his pants to shorts and stow the legs in a backpack (that same backpack that contains a windbreaker and hat, should the weather turn in the opposite direction) or on the tour bus. He was a Boy Scout, and their motto has served him well all his life: Be prepared.

Despite the fact that he is thousands of miles and an entire ocean from home, he manages to look neat and tidy, right down to that crease in his shirtsleeve. His wife ironed that shirt before they left, but he packed it carefully and hung it up as soon as they arrived at the hotel. He wears a plain white undershirt so it doesn’t get sweaty, and any excess sweat on his face will get mopped up by the clean white handkerchief he carries in his pocket. Tomorrow’s shirt will be similarly plaid and similarly crisp.

That lovely salt-and-pepper hair (that same hair he will lose to chemo in less than a month, but we don’t know that yet, do we, viewer?) sticks up a bit in front. Several times today, he will unconsciously run the fingers of his left hand through it, smoothing it down and to the side. When it gets particularly unruly, next time he’s in the men’s room, he’ll take a little black plastic comb out of one of his pockets and tidy it more thoroughly.

The guidebook he reads is probably not dog-eared or wrinkled or creased in any way; if it has a binding, said binding remains intact. If he has found it necessary to make notes in it, he has done so lightly in pencil. The man and his wife have a large library at home, love books, and have instilled a deep respect for them in both their children.

You cannot see his right ankle, but if you could, you’d realize that his left ankle is swollen by comparison. This is due to an issue he has with the lymph glands in that leg; complications from a condition he developed when he and his wife lived in Haiti 45 years before, where he gave inoculations and saved babies from tetanus seizures using Valium they had smuggled in for that very purpose.

And speaking of his wife, that’s her head (with the curly hair inherited by both their children) just beyond his, bent over a map. They sit in the companionable silence borne of decades of marriage. She is the love of his life; he knew it the moment he met her, and they were married less than a year later.

They have already begun to make plans for their 50th wedding anniversary, but he will miss it by just over three months.

So yes, it is just a snapshot. It is just a moment—and not even a moment I witnessed. But oh, if I could have it back, what I wouldn’t give.

What I wouldn’t give.

Allison Amy Wedell is a blogger and speechwriter for the state of Minnesota. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and The #TeamEric Chronicles, a blog about her dad’s illness and death from leukemia. Her work has been published by MomsRising, Committee for Children, and Free Spirit Publishing. She is the single mom of one amazing daughter and one rather ill-behaved cat in St. Paul.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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