Browsing Tag

grief

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

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

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

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

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

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

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

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

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

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

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Pilgrimage in the Land of the Rising Sun

December 27, 2020
temple

By Edith Darmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

The Long Path: Healing the Wounds of Childhood

December 15, 2020
bag

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete.
It’s so f***in’ heroic.”
–George Carlin

By Julia K. Morin

When you look at this photo, you probably see nothing more than a plastic bag.

I see the trigger that caused me to have two panic episodes in the hospital— the first roughly three years ago, and the second about a year ago — and ultimately, the catalyst for me realizing I was struggling with unaddressed childhood trauma tied to my mom’s sudden death 25 years ago, and needed to seriously consider trauma therapy (which I began almost five months ago). Unfortunately, due to current events with the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the transition to virtual therapy sessions as the new normal for the time being, my therapist and I came to the decision together to table any further trauma “digging” until we’re able to meet in person again. I quickly learned just how emotionally triggering and draining these sessions are, and that I need as much support as I can get — in person — to get through them.

I’m proud of the difficult trauma work I’ve already done, I’m proud of myself for taking the first step (despite how long it took) to recognize that I needed this help, and then getting it — without any shame, explanations, justifications or apologies. And I know I still have a lot of hard, emotional work ahead of me when we resume. But that grueling work is what needs to be done in order to begin peeling back many complex layers, and prying beneath the surface I’ve just barely scratched all these years of loss, trauma, triggers, and how this has all manifested in my adult life.

It has taken me a while to open up about all of this, but recently I had to pick something up for some medical labs, and was sent home with this bag. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because I only saw the white side of the bag. It wasn’t until I got home, put it down and saw it in my dining room, and the words on it, that I realized it wasn’t just any plain old white plastic bag — and felt the familiar panic rising up.

I crumpled the bag up in a ball and threw it in the trash. I crumpled myself up in a ball and threw myself into bed. I took the bag back out of the trash and broke down crying and wanted to set it on fire.

Because 25 years ago, I saw this very same ‘patient belongings bag’ in the dining room of the house I grew up in…and its contents were the clothing & jewelry my mom had been wearing when she entered the hospital, and died less than two days later.

In April 2017, I was in the hospital for a diagnostic procedure (my first time in a hospital as a patient) prior to surgery, and suddenly found myself inconsolable. And then I had an epiphany: the plastic belongings bag I had been given by a nurse. A light bulb went off in my head. And then everything got very dark.

And this is how a plastic bag became the thing that makes me come undone.

My hope is that over time, addressing & talking about this and other trauma triggers/memories (and addressing associated cognitive distortions) will help to lessen the panic and intense emotion an inanimate object or other visual association has been causing me.

Because right now, it feels like a Goddamn plastic bag has control over me.

I keep catching myself saying it’s stupid or it’s silly, because…it’s just a bag. But in truth, nobody else can possibly know or understand how “just a bag” makes me feel. And now I recognize this as trauma.

My plastic bag is someone else’s fireworks that trigger the memory of an explosion that nearly killed them while deployed overseas. Or another person’s certain smell that they associate with someone who abused them.

This is hard, heavy stuff, and I understand not everyone is comfortable with it. I’m still not completely comfortable with it. But if you’re still reading, please remember to be gentle & kind with yourself and with others.

Because these are the invisible battles people are fighting as they go about their day, doing the best they can and just trying to be okay. These are the silent struggles we so often don’t see or know about that keep people up at night. These are the reminders we all need that everyone carries an invisible burden on their back, and what we see portrayed on social media is rarely a complete picture of what people are dealing with internally.

At eight years old, I watched my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway from a bedroom window. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was the last time I would ever see her again for the rest of my life. Will I ever “get over” that? No. Certainly loss and traumatic experiences change shape over time, and we somehow figure out how to continue on with life and adapt with that massive void in our hearts. We learn to “dance with the limp,” in the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. I know many, many people who have experienced and witnessed horrible, painful things that have changed them forever. They will never be the same. They will never “get over it.” They will be forced to learn a new normal and to figure out how to breathe with a piece of their heart missing, and they will survive and maybe even thrive eventually. But there is no date they will circle on a calendar with a note: “Be done hurting about this by today.”

These experiences are a key part of our stories. But do they define us? No. Neither does how long it takes us to process them, to feel a little less broken apart, to start to patch our shattered hearts back together, to feel “okay” again. And it’s okay if we’re never completely okay again.

It’s okay if we dance with a limp forever.

And, a note about grief now that I’ve recently survived the 25th anniversary of my mom’s death, and another Mother’s Day without her: grief is not linear. Neither is trauma. There is no straight line from point A to point B. There are no shortcuts. There is no right and wrong; no mathematical equation or formula. It has taken many years for me to figure out that the reason I’m still carrying around such a heavy burden of grief and trauma from my childhood is not because I’m broken, weak or somehow defective at healing. It’s because I experienced a significant loss and associated trauma at an age where my brain was still growing & developing, and simply was not capable of processing the loss and its magnitude. The result in these cases is typically a sort of delayed processing that only really begins to occur later in life.

And then one day at 30 years old, you have a panic episode in a hospital (followed two years later by another), and suddenly realize the sheer weight of this grief and trauma you’ve been carrying on your back for 22 years is actually crushing you. It’s winning.

So I decided to take back my power and start on the path of turning trauma into healing. I’m giving myself credit for doing the hard, painful work…and giving myself grace that it’s not going to be an overnight process.

This bag is my cross to bear. It is the tidal wave that keeps trying to ravage my boat, knock me down and drown me.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it steer this ship.

Julia Morin is a writer, wife, aunt, dog & cat mom, sister, daughter, friend, and a survivor, residing in New Hampshire. She is passionate about ending the stigma around both mental health and grief, and speaking openly about these struggles and the ways they have impacted her own life.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Young Voices

Peripheral

December 9, 2020

By J Steinman

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

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

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts

Sleep Training

November 18, 2020
dreams

By Lindsey Abernathy

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

They are always bad, the dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Gravel

November 6, 2020
manya

Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Misty Urban

The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.

As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.

Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.

Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”

Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.

The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.

Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.

“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.

“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.

“Tourist?”

“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.

“Says here two adults.”

Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”

“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.

“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.

That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.

“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.

“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.

“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”

“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.

“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”

“You still have canoes for rental?”  Manya handed her cash.

“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”

Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.

Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.

The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.

She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.

Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.

She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.

She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.

“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.

“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.

“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.

“I’m all right,” Manya said.

“What was it, then?” the woman asked.

“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.

“Your husband. You said it was quick.”

“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?

The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.

From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.

The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk.  She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.

Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.

A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.

But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.

Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.

Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.

He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.

Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?

The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.

Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.

At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.

And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.

Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.

He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.

The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?

The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”

“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”

“Jeanette?” Manya said.

“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.

“How are you?” Manya whispered.

Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.

A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”

Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.

“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”

Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.

“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.

In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.

After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”

He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.

“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”

A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.

Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”

She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”

Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.

She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.

Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.

She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.

“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.

“No,” Manya said honestly.

“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.

“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”

The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”

“This one won’t,” Manya said.  “It was dead this morning.”

The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.

Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.

A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.

“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.

Manya pulled the door shut behind her.

Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.

Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.

Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Why Don’t You Talk To Your Sister?

November 4, 2020
brother
By Irene Cooper
Some months after my brother dies, my mother tells me to call my sister. “She needs you,” my mother says. And, “Do it for me.” And then, “You know, you have no sense of family.”

I see a picture of my estranged sister, perhaps three, in sleeveless undershirt and panties, Debbie Harry blonde mop, doorknob knees stacked one behind the other, leaning against our brother, Bobby, who looks like a man, but can’t be more than fourteen. She’s not looking at him, in the way that a baby opossum looks out from and not at the adult she clings to. I am not in the picture, nor is our brother Bill, though it is perhaps he that attracts her attention. Bill was a clown, though at that point, not a professional.

Nearly a decade after Bobby’s death from bone cancer Bill lay in a hospital bed in our living room, framed by Gothic carved mahogany panels and a defunct red brick fireplace. My sister sat by his side, recreating a composition of our older brother’s death bed.

My brother Bill did not have either Ewing sarcoma or osteosarcoma, and he was not then dying. He’d herniated a disc, and then another, ending a tennis career that might have at least paid for college, if not taken him pro. He’d been playing for a small college in one of the Carolinas. And, as it turned out, drinking a lot. A small college in one of the Carolinas had not been the dream. At home recovering from surgery, he entertained the crowds from his bed. Friends smuggled vodka in two-liter 7-Up bottles to supplement the Percocet.

My brother, Bill, did not die of bone cancer at fifteen. He died of liver disease and kidney failure at 53 after his body rejected a liver transplant made imperative by alcoholism. In his early twenties, after his back operations, he maintained his athletic shape but walked with the stiffness of an old man, and then, at some unbearable moment, let go the tenuous hold he’d had on his own body. As if someone pulled the emergency cord, his body blew up like a life raft, like a parade float, no edges, hard to steer.

He remained hilarious, the life of the party, particularly to the older crowd, keeping the seasoned corporate execs laughing at expense account meetings in Manhattan over steaks and martinis—hold the steaks. If my parents worried about his drinking, which was alarming by any measuring stick, they didn’t express their concern while they were in the glow of his charm, so devoted as it was to their entertainment and happiness.

Growing up, Bill loved to eat. Our family meals had something of a performance quality— somewhere between Scheherazade’s 1,001 Nights and America’s Got Talent—but the food itself was no prop. We ate widely and well. As adults, Bill and I almost never saw one another, and rarely shared a meal. When I did see him eat, he chose party foods that induced pain—six-alarm chicken wings—the kind of food where you could witness the lips of the eater bead and blister halfway through the pile, food of unambiguous sensation. Otherwise, he followed the influencers’ diet typical of his colleagues, could be taken for one of the Four Fat Bastards referenced in Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for choucroute garnie (a steaming heap of pork)—an old-school player with a constitution too arrogant for anything but protein and liquor.

My brother visited San Francisco on a business trip while I was living there, shortly after I graduated from culinary school. He invited me to dinner.

“You pick the place. Anywhere you want,” he said with the philanthropic air of a railroad baron who’s brought a box of fancy chocolates and mittens to an orphanage. He was a man of means who would treat his little sister to a splendid meal he was sure she could not by other means afford.

I told him to make a reservation at STARS, an iconic hot spot owned by one of the more flamboyant founders of California cuisine, a late century vanguard of exploding food culture, and, true to its name, a rocket for upcoming talent in the industry. I didn’t tell him I worked there.

Upon arrival, and despite a line at the host stand, I, my brother, and a couple of his cronies were whisked to a large table in an elevated seating area, coveted for its panoramic view of the glittering clientele and open kitchen, a universe away from the dark paneled caves of my brother’s East coast haunts, where the kitchen might actually be in the basement. Before we could order a round of cocktails, a kick line of waiters straight out of Hello, Dolly! swooped onto the table with platters of iced oysters on the half shell and chilled flutes of Absolut. In between the Caesar salads and grilled meats my brother & co. ordered off the menu, we were served unsolicited little plates of shaved apple dotted with foie gras, fire-roasted scallops on a bed of preserved lemon, strewn with a spray of fresh borage, fragrant as a French meadow. Wine glasses were topped up, cocktails replenished. Dessert was offered and refused and brought anyway, a miracle of layered pastry and persimmon crowned by a shard of stained-glass sugar, accompanied  by slipper glasses of Port.

My brother was accustomed to obsequious service, but the red-carpet treatment from the gate confused him. He hadn’t yet had an opportunity to slip the maître-d’ a tip or authoritatively select an obnoxiously expensive California Cab from the wine list. Shortly after the oysters, of course, the truth came out.

“So, you work here! That’s…impressive.” He understood that his position at the helm of the evening had been usurped, and his response was complex, a mix of pride and consternation. On the one hand, he could take the staff’s attention as a gesture of family taking care of its own—and so, respect.

On the other hand, my sensitive brother labored to enjoy himself at this unexpected extravaganza. I don’t believe his inability to take pleasure from the meal was because he’d lost control of it, or because he wasn’t the center of attention. He was not a narcissist; he was, in fact, the complement to the narcissist—a serial provider, now deprived of his super power, his generosity cut off at the knees.

I believe, too, that my brother sensed a second agenda of the staff, and by extension, of me—a message about something other than stellar customer service.

Unbeknownst to Bill, I worked as a prep cook (out of sight, often in the basement, as it happened), a half rung up from dish pit in a strict hierarchy that spiraled up to Executive Chef through a dizzying gauntlet of positions. I’d worked there less than two months. That night, nearly every front house staff member visited the table and greeted me by name. I hadn’t even met most of them, and could not have returned the kindness. What I think my brother intuited beneath the show was resistance. Expense account diners were the bread and butter of high-end restaurants,  and roundly despised for it. Bourdain’s Fat Bastards didn’t know borage from Borax, in the opinion of the foot soldiers in the business, and threw money around like chimpanzees flinging feces. My brother, I think, picked up on the hostility inherent in the hospitality: We take care of ours, and she’s one of ours.

Somehow, between the aperitif and the after-dinner menthe, his and my family ties came undone. In cooking, when we speak of a sauce falling out of solution, we say it breaks. If he wasn’t exactly the enemy, it was also true I wasn’t exactly an ally, and we weren’t on the same side, after all. If this place and these people were my new family, then I had abandoned the old, and him. To say no to the narcissist is to throw their love back in their face like a frosty glass of ice water—shocking, but ultimately inconsequential. To say no to the giver is to pull him out of solution, to break him.

When there was nothing left on the table but the dregs of our espresso, my brother stood up, exhausted.

“Let’s find a good bar, get a drink. I guess you know a place, yeah?”

I told him I had to get home, had to get up early for work the next day, thanked him for dinner.

The next time we talked one-on-one was nearly twenty years later, after our father died, and he came to sleep on my mother’s couch, to organize her affairs. He’d had his first liver transplant.

When my husband got sober, my mother felt the need to tell me she thought he’d been a lot funnier when he was drinking. Her model was Bill, whom no one would have accused of dulling the blade of his schtick after he was forced to forsake the booze. What’s more, after the transplant, as his cells drained themselves of decades of poison, his body returned to its late adolescent form. For some months, despite the grey at the temples, Bill was nineteen again, tall as an oak, graceful as a willow, sharp as a switch. Sobriety, unchosen and unwelcome as it was, provided a rich cache of new material, and his patter took no prisoners. As at our childhood dinner table, Bill made whatever my other brother was drinking shoot out his nose as he comically admired the innovations of vodka tampons, butt chugging, eyeballing, and other collegiate practices designed to intoxicate while bypassing the liver. Now why didn’t I think of that? he mused as he spit tobacco juice into a Solo cup, sipped at his Diet Coke.

His humor at this stage was a relief, a kindness, but he wasn’t all punchline post-transplant. He didn’t joke when he spoke about the difficulties of parenting his elementary school-aged son and two high school-aged daughters, due to his debilitating ignorance of the protocols put in place while his alcoholism and workaholism kept him AWOL. He wasn’t cutting up when he tried to talk, whispered, really, about the challenges of his complicated drug regimen, of the pain he suffered constantly, of his loss of strength, of appetite, of his concerns about being able to do his job, his fear of being replaced by a new generation who had limited appreciation for his expertise, nearly none for his sense of humor. He struggled with the post-transplant revelation that his attempt at the world’s slowest suicide had failed, that he, in fact, wanted to live, if only to imperfectly parent a little longer.

Sober, my brother dragged the empty folds of his slackened skin with him everywhere, like Marley’s ghostly chains, a mortal rattle echoing from his plastic pill box, big as a carry-on.

The body contains its deep and secret pools of shame, until the body breaks and the murky reservoirs drain, to nowhere. My mother says, “You should talk to your sister.” But I can’t be heard over the spill.

Irene Cooper’s poems, reviews, and essays appear in print and online at The Feminist Wire, Phoebe, Utterance: A Journal, VoiceCatcher, The Rumpus, What Rough Beast by Indolent Books, and elsewhere. She is a freelance copywriter and editor, facilitates creative writing workshops in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, a spyfy thriller and her first novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts

I’m Missing The Ritual of Funerals

October 8, 2020

By Dana Schneider

This essay is dedicated to my stunning, jewelry obsessed warrior of a woman cousin Ally.

I’ve always secretly thought that you could catch death.  I mean, not catch death, as in if it’s an actual thing you can physically grab and catch, more like, if death was a virus, if I was in the same room, I would catch it. Then mysteriously I’d be the next person that people would be coming to mourn.  I know how that must sound.  Childlike silliness. But when you have a true fear of something, it manifests itself in your brain in weird ways.  Funerals as we know them from when things were normal, popped up whenever and wherever.  No mental prep time.  When I had to go to a funeral, I would layer myself with my own protective shields of superstitious accessories, like wearing a red something to ward off evil, then pairing that with a good luck charm given to me by a friend, along with not looking directly at the casket, and sitting all the way in the back back back of the service room.  Somehow, this kept me feeling safer.  It was a layer of protection to cover my raw naked fears.

The morning of getting dressed for said funeral and making my way to the car and eventually walking into the funeral parlor, for me, is beyond draining, energy sucking and confrontational as hell. The day always ended by throwing my clothes directly into the laundry machine so as to wash off any death virus particles.  Fact. And if you really want to know the truth, I had a funeral outfit.  This was not to be worn at any other time, because, then while wearing it, I’d think of death.  I know.  Insert eye roll.

So, coming from this place of fear, I never thought I’d say this, at least say it out loud, but I’ve never wanted to go to a funeral more in my life than I do right now.

Turns out, this fear of death is real.  Can’t deny that.  I’m working on it, especially in the face of COVID-19.  But the act of attending a funeral to say goodbye to a loved one, is in fact, a ritual, that I never was able to understand, before this pandemic, as cathartic and necessary.

Dana and Ally

I lost my cousin a few weeks ago to COVID-19.  My exact age (late 40’s) with a husband, 2 children and 2 dogs.  She was a NYC school teacher for 20+ years, dedicated to the core daughter and daughter in law, collection of dear friends since elementary school, an avid community member, law abiding citizen and adored family member.   She was one of us.  There is nothing in her story that will make any sense as to why she was taken from us.  In the past, when someone died young and unexpectedly, that “out of nowhere” story, sometimes I would wonder, for my sanities sake, secretly look for a reason as to why the universe decided to take that person.  Thoughts like “I wonder if they did something to deserve this death” would cross my mind.  I used to believe that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people.  It just made such clean good sense. I believe I thought this way to ward off the truth that we are all vulnerable at any given time.  Another false sense of security.  I’m working on that one too.

With this pandemic has come some of the most deeply disturbing and thought provoking times.  I find myself in deep thought about so many aspects of life from parenting, marriage, family relations, health, money and death.  What I can say for sure, through all these thoughts, is that I’m craving rituals.

I’m craving togetherness.  I’m craving hugs, tears, laughter through tears, funny stories, touching someone’s hands, heartbreaking memories, history of our family. I’m craving it all.  I’m desperately craving her funeral.

No news flash here, funerals have been cancelled.  Or at least no more than 10 people are allowed to attend the service and or burial.  In our almost 2 mos. home, we “attended” one funeral via Facetime and one was just a message sent out to let us know that the departed was comfortably laid to rest.  If you’ve been unlucky enough to lose someone during this pandemic, than you might understand what I’m feeling.

I have no proof that my cousin passed.  In my mature adult brain, I’m thinking that maybe they misidentified her body, it wasn’t her that died and she’s walking around the city with amnesia. Which means she will turn up on someone’s door step soon enough and this whole nightmare will be just that….a nightmare.   I’m sure this is one of the stages of grief?  Just not sure which one.  How many stages are there anyway?  But at the end of the day, there really is no closure without a funeral or service or something to recognize her beauty-full life.  This was taken from us.  Dying with dignity was taken from us.

The funeral allows us to say goodbye, to have that closure. To neatly wrap up death. Death hurts so damn badly, so at least let us wrap it up in a pretty bow and send the departed off with a beautiful good-bye.   She’s already gone.  We all know that.  But whether it’s religious or just ritual, saying goodbye allows us to move forward.  Not necessarily move on, just move forward.  One baby step at a time, one minute, hour, day at a time.

I want to be in a room of other people who adored her the way I did.  I want to hug them and cry on their shoulders.  They understand my ache.  They ache too.  I want to be able to share some funny stories about her that maybe she would have wanted to share with the world one day.  I want to say her name out loud.  She deserved to be loved out loud and talked about.  I want to be able to say good bye for goodness sake.  I miss her.

From my home base, in quarantine, I’m doing what I can to memorialize her.  Tears have been shed, pictures have been dug out of really loved brown-edged photo albums, jokes have been made of our teased and permed hair,  stories have been told. But I still need ritual of a funeral to say goodbye.  To know for sure she won’t be coming to knock on my door someday soon.  Until then, I can dream.

My name is Dana (rhymes with Banana)I’m a mama of three beautiful souls trying to figure out their way in this world.  As they wander and explore about, I find myself drawn to the computer to share our stories.  Turns out, walls can talk!  My hope is that you find comfort, relatability, tears and maybe some humor in my words.  I rely heavily on my friend squad to get me through the days.  If you need someone to get you through yours, I’d be happy to be that gal.  Lets connect.  Connection is everything.  When I’m not writing, parenting, wifing, daughtering and friending, you can find me decorating peoples homes.  danaschneiderdecor@gmail.com   or insta: @danaschneiderdecor. 

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Abortion, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

The Pull of My Own

August 26, 2020
pull

By Isa Nye

I craved a little being to nurture, to suckle. I dreamed of nursing a newborn – I felt the pull of the moon at night – procreate procreate procreate. But I waited. I waited and waited. Because the first time was wrong. I let the first baby go not knowing how I couldn’t, not knowing how I could, in a sweat, in a nightmare, in a dream, in a doctor’s office, in desperation. Metal medical equipment and cheap posters on the wall. I waited years then. I waited for everything to be right – to hold my baby in my arms, nurture it, give it my milk, and all my love.

The CIA says every five seconds 20 babies are born and 10 people die – all day, all night, over and over and over –so many humans come and go, and yet when it is my own baby my world re-aligns and spins around this tiny being, my own baby, even in the womb, my baby pulls at gravity and becomes the center of my very existence.

My third baby waited eighteen days past when he was due to be born. Each one of those eighteen days dragged past – each of those nights it seemed as if the sun would never set, the moon never rise, like the day would never come where I would meet my boy. But I did.

There were the cramps – they started low, below the belly, a tightening, like everything inside me was constricting inward to a point that it could not reach, straining and tensing. “I think this is it. I think I’m going into labor,” I said through gritted teeth, writhing on the hospital bed, monitors already attached to me. “Take the cords off. Take them off!,” I said, loudly, pulling at them, throwing them away from my body, and climbing from the stiff sheets, touching the cold floor with my bare feet, squatting down, standing up, grabbing at my belly, leaning over, breathing in. “This is it. I’m pretty sure this is it,” I said, sucking in air, breathing out loudly, squeezing my eyes closed tightly, and everything in the world reduced to the sensation in my body – the contraction of uterine muscles sending out shock waves in an earthquake all my own.

This was my third baby. On the maternity ward a lullaby played every time a baby was born, marking a new being’s arrival on earth. Several women were in labor at the same time as me, and nurses busily rushed from room to room, a night’s work for them.

He was born into water. I pushed him from me with a roar of strength I did not know I had and may never feel again. A lullaby must have rung out across the maternity ward, but I did not hear it. I only heard him. “My baby, my baby, my baby,” is what I said over and over as I cradled him to me, naked and wet, his skin against mine, as around us the nurses, midwives, and doctors hustled, as my husband cut the cord.

The second baby had not come so easily. Not like the third. She was born amid struggle, after hours of effort, hours of pain that took over everything and became everything and then subsided and returned and subsided and returned. I bore down so hard I though my intestines would come out. She drug her placenta behind her on a short cord and when at last I pushed her from me, she took a moment to catch her breath. “Say hello to her!” the midwife said, “She needs to hear your voice!” They had taken her to a table where they were working on her, getting fluid from her mouth and nose; her tiny hand clasped my husband’s finger. “Hi, baby. Hi. Hi, baby,” I said, my voice sounding foreign to me, disconnected. “Hi baby. C’mon, baby. Hi, baby.” A cry erupted from her and she sucked in her first breath of oxygen on earth. During my twelve hours of laboring her from me to the world, roughly 180,000 babies were born, statistically speaking, but only one of them was mine.

My first baby I never saw nor heard, but felt, yes. That baby’s exit from my body was not so monumental, miraculous, mythical. It was mechanical, methodical, medical. My breasts ached for that baby who I never knew was a boy or girl, or in between those. I didn’t know. The baby let me let it go, or so I told myself because everything was at stake. I was strong then too, on the operating table, waiting for the doctor. While she sucked the baby from my womb, I was strong. I did not cry or let out a cry. On the hour drive home I laid my head against the cool window of the passenger seat and did not talk, or cry. My boyfriend cried in the backseat. My friend drove us home, and for that I was grateful. During that hour long drive from the clinic to my bed, about 6,000 people died, statistically speaking, but none of them were mine. I might have been numb the but it was mine I knew I would mourn, and even if I knew I didn’t question my choice, I would feel the loss.

Isa Nye has written ever since she could. She was raised in Montana among cowboys and professors, and she turned to the written word to both escape and to make sense of that life. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young children, and writing still brings her both solace and clarity.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

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Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

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