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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Not Down this Road

January 29, 2021
water

By Jack Clinton

Although she said she didn’t approve, Anita was there on the dock, in the grey light, slipping a touring kayak into the green water, loading it with a fly rod and bags.  She like the richness of estuaries, so she didn’t complain, and it was not like there was a morning chill. It was tropical, and the cool of dawn was the only reasonable time of day.

Anita had her binoculars in hopes of spying rare birds flying out to hunt.   Always the dedicated husband, Tom watched birds with her for a few days, excited that she had seen some rare species like the roseate spoonbill and the anhinga, the snakebird.  He was glad she had seen them, and enjoyed birding with her.  But, he wanted more of a conquest than birding, so he came looking for game fish.  He wanted either tarpon or snook, and he had hooked both, but none were quite right— too small, or too many spectators.

“Well, that’s fine,” she said.  “It will give us another day.  I believe there are night herons in the mangroves and I want to be sure they’re not bitterns.”

“No hurry,” he said,  “The fishing is good, and all this takes time.”

“I know he’s an old friend, but Charlie isn’t stringing you along?”

“No, he has all the money he’s going to get.  He’s no choirboy, but he does what he says he’ll do. He told me to get my cast together, or he’d dump me and return the money.”

Anita gave her thoughtful grunt and said, “Well, you trust him, and I trust you.”

“You won’t lose the house to him.”

Anita snapped her head to retort, but it never left her lips. Instead, they stood quietly, one leaning against other in their identical sun shirts and broad-brimmed hats, turning as they heard the boat.  Tom could see it through the morning mist, running without lights. Charlie stood in the tiny cockpit, and Andy on the bow with a short bight of rope in his hands, surly, with a cigarette in his mouth. Charlie was Andy’s antithesis, with a warm smile, bright blue eyes beaming in the haze, saluting with a traveler of coffee in his free hand.

Charlie made eye contact with Anita, and she held his gaze as he brought his skiff to dock, both nodding mutually.  Andy looped the pier deftly and cinched the boat in smoothly.

“Tom?” She said with a catch.

“I know,” he said. “I know… all the discussions are done.” His voice hitched.

Tom kissed her, Anita clung for a moment, then he was aboard. The line slipped free, and they headed out with the tide.  Tom waved and put one palm to his heart.

“Tom,” Charlie shouted above the engine, “we’re going to the edge of the mangroves, the small barrier islands to fish for snook in the backwater.  We’ll only have an hour or two before the sun’s too high. Then we’ll probably go for tarpon along the drop-offs and flats, or we’ll go look for baits further outside.”

Tom knew it’d be a while, and so he took a seat out of the wind, on the cushioned bench behind the helm.  Andy was already in the bow working on the leaders and tippets for the quiver of fly rods. When he was done, he reverently slipped each rod in the plastic tubes fixed to the squat spotting tower above the cockpit.  Charlie was an excellent Capitan, and his boat was spotless and his gear very good.  Tom had seen better, but every piece of Charlie’s equipment simply fulfilled its function.

Tom watched the birds along the tidal river, wishing Anita could see them.  Egrets and herons rose from their roosts in the mangroves, and he saw an enormous wood stork and petite ibis pecking for fiddler crabs in the tidal mud.  Occasionally, quick clouds of gulls, terns, and pelicans dove for pods of baitfish that leapt and skittered across the swirling water.  Charlie pointed at the activity and shouted, “It’ll be a good day.”

As the boat ride lengthened, Tom remembered similar rides in his dad’s open skiffs, out where feeding fish sent anchovies and silversides leaping into the beaks of wheeling birds. His father was from a commercial fishing family in Maine, but he had come south after earning a degree in engineering. His mother had his sister, Cloe, but Tom was forever his father’s accomplice. He often worked with his father, rebuilding and selling used boats or painting houses. Tom loved listening to his father’s lively banter while bartering for parts and prime boat lumber, his father squeezing every dime when he found himself between jobs.

Whether in New York or Delaware, they always lived within a few blocks of docks or piers, where Tom grew up renovating and maintaining their modest sailboats and fishing skiffs. He waited all spring and early summer, watching for shivering skitters of bait fish on the glassy surface of the estuaries. He listened to fishing reports and harbor gossip for news of bluefish and striped bass coming close to shore.  That was the only time his dad would be “sick” from work, or even quit one job for the uncertain prospects of another.  Tom and his dad would always be there though, out with the frenzied shoals, in screaming clouds of herring gulls, casting plugs and live baits into the swirls of blues and stripers.

 

“Here,” Charlie said, rousing Tom blinking from his reveries.  “This is a good island. Cast along the current and then strip it through the dead backwater.  Let it sink to the dark blue.”  Tom could see it was good water.  His father would have been magnetically pulled here from miles away.  “Fishy water,” his father called it.

Andy passed the rod to Charlie, who inspected the leader and tippet rig, nodded and passed it to Tom.  “This is the place.”

Tom stretched as he clambered to the front of the boat and took his place on the casting platform.  Andy had tied on a standard streamer, green on top, white on the bottom, long and weighty.  He flipped the streamer forward and paid out a length of line, made a few false casts until he could feel the flex and action of the rod. He shot the streamer out to the nearer end of the current, stripped in a few feet of line then made a longer cast to the point of mangroves.  He saw a flash on one retrieve and then hooked up on the next.  It was a good fish.  He played it, and Charlie laughed, “This is gonna be a day.”

Tom brought a nice amberjack to the side of the boat.  Andy was there with his pliers and tugged to hook free and the fish disappeared into the deep blue.

“Good fish. Maybe we’ll keep a bigger one,” Andy said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Good fish, Tom,” Charlie repeated, “a bit deeper on the retrieve.  The snook will already be looking for darker water.”

Tom worked the eddy line, letting his fly drift deeper before his retrieve.

He caught a small snook after a few more casts and then the water went dead.

They wasted no time pulling the anchor, motoring off to find another island with swirling waters and a good drop.

“The last hurricane really carved up these islands and dug some good trenches,” Charlie said.  “The island ahead was cut completely in half.  I’ve never fished it, but I noticed there’s deeper water. Sit and relax until we’re there.”

“It’s all good to me,” Tom said with his toothy grin.

They swung in downstream, and Charlie quietly dropped anchor, letting the skiff drift while Tom took his stance on the deck. Charlie hand-hauled the boat up the anchor line until they were within casting distance.  On Tom’s second cast he was into a great fish. Charlie and Andy were there beside him. “This is it, Andy, this is the one. Easy Tom, play him, let him run, use the rod, give him line! He’s heading to open water.”

Charlie pulled up the anchor to follow the fish.  Andy hung close behind Tom.

The snook came to the surface twice and they could all clearly see its great size. “I’m saying fifteen pounds!”  Andy spoke into Tom’s ear.

“It’ll do,” Tom shouted over his shoulder.

Charlie had his eyes on Andy.  “Lower the transom deck, “ he said with an air of gravity.  The fish was in the air once more, throwing spray across the sun, as Andy unfolded a tiny platform off the stern so Tom could bring his catch to hand.

A motor roared out in the glare of the morning sun, and shouting came from the starboard side. A rabble of tourists gave hoots and thumbs up from the deck of a bouncing charter heading to the deep water outside the islands.

Charlie and Andy rose from their crouched positions, shocked to have missed the motor in the silent morning.

“That’s it, Andy… That’s it…  We’ll go for another fish a little farther out.”

Tom was still whooping, lost in his moment as he stood on the transom platform, water sloshing up over his canvas shoes.

“Jesus,” Charlie said.  “That’s a big damn snook.”

“I haven’t seen many bigger,” Andy said, handing Tom his skinny hook pliers.

Charlie quietly supervised as Tom brought it to hand and worked the hook free,  stnding aglow in the early sun as the fish swam lazily away, stunned from the exertion it spent.

“That was perfect, just perfect,” Charlie said shaking his head.

“Charters,” Andy grumbled.

Tom turned, smiling, “No worries Boys, it’ll be a good day.”

 

Tom had turned pale from the exertion, sweat beaded on his brow and ran from his temples.

“Take some shade, Tom, there’s water in the cooler — eat some fruit.” Charlie moved to his side. “Easy,” he said with a hand on Tom’s elbow, “you gotta last all day.”

“Sure, I’ll take some shade,” he said to quietly to himself, ducking under the canopy, handing the rod to Andy.

Tom sat and thought of Anita and his father as the boat skimmed and bounced on the open water.  His father would’ve liked the diversity of the fish and birds, and the topography of the water.  The New England coast was so limited, and the fish were either Blues or Stripers, and the birds were either gulls or terns, and they never expected anything different.  But when surprised by the occasional heron or ibis, his father would stop and look up reverently, “Will you look at that, Tom! I’ve never seen one of those around here.”  That was the last thing his father said to him in the hospital, looking up from a nest of tubes and wires that sucked away his life, his savings, his house, and dignity.  “Will you look at that!” his father said.

That was the same fatal day his father told him, “I wouldn’t go if I were you Tommy, not down this road.” And then — like father, like son, there he was, fifteen years later, with his father’s cancer.

Instead of hospice, Tom was riding along on the deck of a small skiff, hiding from the sun, waiting for the next patch of good water.  He reached for his insulated lunch bag, resting its coolness in his lap. He pulled out the ice pack and settled it against his stomach for relief, and opened his pill organizer, swallowing a few of each.  Anita would be watching and counting if she were there.  Andy eyed the box hungrily, and Tom gave him one of the big, powerful painkillers, which Andy swiftly stashed in his shirt pocket.  A moment later Charlie was looking over his shoulder from the wheel.  “Go easy, Tom.  Don’t get goofy on me now.  There’s still a lot of water ahead.”

“Just staying even, Charlie.”

“Good.  Stay cool and drink water – A breeze will come up soon, maybe some cloud cover later on.  It’ll be cooler outside the shoals and mangroves.”

“Why are we going outside?”

“Because there’s good baits and birds.  Plus, the fish outside won’t be as picky as tarpon and snook.  Andy and I are gonna bottom fish a bit, put some in the hold to sell.”

“It’s all good.”

“The rods are all strung up, just stay cool till we find a good patch of water.”

Andy stood on the bow with binoculars in hand, watching intently, and then went up the tower.  He shouted down to Charlie, and the boat swung hard to the north.  Tom could tell it was north, even with his eyes closed.  He could feel the angle of the swells, the angle of the wind, and the angle of the sun.  All of them said north.

“Ok, Tommy boy, this is you!  They’re skipping on the waves!”

Tom opened his eyes and stood too quickly.   He swooned and staggered, falling hard against the hold.  Andy was there, concerned with the tumble.  Tom felt the sweat on his brow, and he saw blood on his knuckles.

“Give me a second.  I just got up too quick.”

Andy held Tom’s belt as he washed the blood from his hands in the sea, and splashed water on his face.  Tom focused on the water and saw the seabirds screaming and plummeting to the sea.  Pelicans dove off the bow and terns plucked smaller baits right off the surface.

Charlie was beside him on the deck, pushing the rod into his hands.  “This won’t last all day, Tom.  Come on, just start casting! Were right in the middle of ‘em!”

Tom was surprised by the size of the swells and the deep blue of the water. He was amazed at the boiling, slapping and snapping as larger fish pushed baits up into the mouths of waiting birds.  A large fish randomly launched into the air and cart-wheeled head over tail across the waves.

Tom was casting and Charlie yelled at him to keep it away from the birds.  He landed the streamer at the edge of the boiling water and felt the shuddering surge of a striking fish, and there was a tuna skipping across the water.

“Ho, ya got a Tunny.  Yeah, that’ll keep ya busy for a while.”  Andy shouted above the screech of the birds and the whine of the reel.   Charlie pursued the fish with the boat, careful not to crowd the feeding school.

Tom swooned with nausea in the open sun; its rays pierced him through and through, but fighting the fish was like holding on to lightning. He could feel every pulse of its tail and every thrust of its fins.  Tom shouted and whooped every time it came up tail-walking across the waves.

The birds had attracted other skiffs, and Charlie grew morose watching them approach.  They landed the fish and Tom gave his consent to have it dumped in the hold.  “Release three, keep one, that’s not bad.  That’s a bonito!  It’ll sell and keep Andy in beers tonight.” Charlie winked.

He took the rod from Tom and sent him to the shade of the cockpit.  Andy stowed the rod in a tube and they headed off away from the crowd.  When they found some space to themselves, Charlie anchored in deep water and handed out sandwiches and chilled fruit from the cooler. Andy bottom fished for a couple of hours, filling the hold with a grouper and several large snapper, which made them happy.  “That’ll all sell well,” Charlie said.

 

The sun was now in the west and Charlie stood on the tower.  “Birds are all gone.”  He said, lowering his binoculars.  “Those damn charters are just thick today.”

“I thought that bonito was it,” Tom said, standing, stretching, feeling better after food, rest and water.

Charlie and Andy looked at each other, considering his words.

“Well, let’s head back to the islands to fish the evening.”

Tom went up to sit in the cool wind of the tower, watching for dolphins and sea turtles as they plowed the chop on their way back towards shore.  He wondered where Anita had gone and worried if she had found any shade in the heat of the day.  Tom closed his eyes and pretended that his father was at the helm.  He thought of the white yarn and Christmas tinsel streamers his dad had tied to troll for the smaller blues that came up into the estuaries.

He remembered his dad standing on a skiff’s bench seat, telling Tom to take the helm while he fought a huge striped bass, the thick rod doubled to the water, the wind in his hair, flapping his shirt. “Come on Tom, we gotta chase this one!”

As they neared the green islands, Tom came down from the tower and took up his rod.  He looked at the tippet and the knot attaching the streamer.  He ran the line through his fingers to feel for nicks or abrasions.  He was happy with it and had finally shaken the residual miasma from his last chemo treatment.

“Tom, we’re gonna on keep moving.  I’ll pull within casting distance of the mangroves and let the engine idle as we drift by.  You know the water you want.  If you don’t get anything in a couple of casts, we’ll move on.”

He had good sea legs and cast well at any water that appeared to hold fish.

At the third island, he hooked a great snook and worked hard to keep it from tangling in the oyster-crusted mangroves, then it ran with the reel screaming.  Andy ran up into the tower and Charlie put a hand on his shoulder, “This is it, Tom, this is the one.”

“I know,” Tom laughed, “I know it is, Charlie.”

Tom whooped as the fish dove; the tip of the impossibly long rod dipped to the waves. “Let it be the last.” He laughed between deep breaths, “My arms are tired. My legs are tired.  I’m tired.”

“How is it out there Andy?”

“Were good!”

“Well, Tom, this is all you,” Charlie said dropping the small transom deck.

“Yes, this is me,” Tom said, but he wasn’t listening.  He had the reel resting in the palm of his hand, breaking against the long, steady runs, laughing like a child at the wild tail-walking leaps.

The fish turned and headed back to the Mangroves.  Tom held the rod high and palmed the reel hard to stop the run.

Finally, from the transom deck, he knelt panting and sighing beside the exhausted fish and he slid his hand under it.  He guessed that it was twenty pounds.  He got his hand firmly on its lower lip and pried up a bit to paralyze it while he freed the hook.  Some baits shimmered on the surface a few feet away and a tern floated just above the water to pick at them.  “Will you look at that!”

The two quick pops of Andy’s .22 were no louder than firecrackers snapping at the endless, darkening sea.  Tom floated face down in the water, a rose-colored halo spreading out from his gray hair.  Charlie hooked his belt with the fish gaff.  “That was great, Andy.  That was perfect.”

Andy flung the small, black pistol out into the blue water and then slid out of his t-shirt and deck shoes, dropping quickly into the warm water with a length of netting in his hands.  He wrapped Tom in it and cinched it down with short cords he had clenched in his teeth. Charlie fed Andy a length of heavy chain, to wind tightly around Tom’s waist, passing it tightly through loops of netting.  He pulled the last few inches snug and fixed it to a middle link with a length of wire. Then Charlie handed down an old thirty-pound anchor, which Andy fixed to the chain.

He hauled himself up back on the transom deck as Charlie pulled the body tight to the skiff with the fish gaff.  “Good job, Andy. Nice work.  That’s how it has to happen.”

“I know. That tern, just hovering right beside him…, kinda religious.”

“Could’a been,” Charlie said, passing the gaff to Andy.  “Hold him alongside ‘til we get into to the current of the trench.”

Andy nodded and surveyed the empty horizon, looking into the low, western sun, wondering if it had ever seemed so encompassing.  Charlie eased the boat until it caught the current of the green water and then into deep, deep blue, well past the tidal cut. Charlie nodded and Andy slipped the gaff from the netting.  Tom sank quickly in a subtle spiral, losing color and then definition, disappearing into the depths.

Andy held Charlie by the shoulder as he raised the transom deck.  Charlie nodded and crossed himself and then swung a bucket into the sea to swab the decks.

 

They motored up the tidal river until they reached the mangrove bay to pick up Anita who was sat unmoving in Tom’s sea kayak.  She stared straight ahead as they pulled alongside.  Andy dropped the transom deck and helped her aboard.  Her legs were stiff as she struggled while climbing over the stern.  “I had to wait quite a while.” She fought to control her voice.

“I know.  I ‘m sorry, Anita,” Andy said.  “It just takes as long as it takes.”

She patted his hand, which was still linked through her arm.

“It was beautiful, Anita.” Charlie said. “It might have been the best thing we’ve ever done.”

“I know that Charlie – I know that.  I know that it happened just then… Tom trusted you, and considered you a good friend.”

Charlie nodded silently, his forehead furrowed.  Andy looked west at the gold edge to the purple clouds.

She squeezed Andy’s hand at her elbow. “Thank you, Andy. You were so patient.”

“It was a pleasure Anita,” he looked timidly down at the water, avoiding her eyes.

 

The motor purred along at slightly more than an idle, moving the boat quietly, without running lights, towing the kayak to the drift of the falling tide. Andy tangled the fly line to a tiny deck cleat and dropped the rod in the cockpit with Tom’s life vest.  Anita took a vial of painkillers from Tom’s insulated bag and handed them to Andy, who then cinched the pack down to the kayak’s tiny cargo deck.  They considered the tiny boat for a moment, as if it were a manifestation of Tom. Charlie flipped it and let go of the line, letting the current take it to open water.

“Now I have to report him missing,” Anita sobbed a few times and wiped her eyes. “I have to go back home without him.”

After a long silence, she said, “I would like to see the colonies of glossy ibis some time.” Anita was nodding her head to agree with herself.  “Charlie,” she said, fixing his gaze, “I would like to see them come in to roost. If I were sick, you would take me? Would you do the same for me?”

“Of course, if there is the need,” Charlie said nodding. “When you call.”

Jack Clinton lives in Montana. He has written on environmental issues and has also on two fiction awards at a state level. Jack published my first novel, Clovis, which won the best LBGTQ novel at The American Book Fest.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 27, 2021
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

  • • •

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

Grief, Guest Posts, 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.

 

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

THE END

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

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

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

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Grief, Guest Posts

Sleep Training

November 18, 2020
dreams

By Lindsey Abernathy

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

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

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

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

If only.

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

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

They are always bad, the dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 

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

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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, The Body

We All Live Here

April 16, 2020
hair

By Jillayna Adamson

First, the wrecking.

For months, my hair would come out in clumps. Gobs, pulling out in my fingers while gathering it into a ponytail, or brushing it out of my face. In the shower, the gobs were bigger, and as I rinsed the conditioner I would gather my broken hair onto the side of the tub to throw it in the trash can. In my palm, a mass, wadded and shocking.

16 months later, every single day when I strip my clothes, I am shocked at my body. If I lower myself into the tub, I get flashes of those months I was so immobilized in it, barely able to wash myself. Flashes of the huge round of my bulging belly. Of the weakness of my whole body, my legs hardly able to carry me. And I still see the endless needle marks and swells all down me. Bruised veins from the IVs. My pump hanging over the tub, its tube a trail to my bruised and scarring thigh. “I don’t like needles” my son would say, watching me reinsert the tubes every two days, tracing my body for untapped skin not scabbed or knotted with scar tissue, to insert.

Now, my hair isn’t coming out in clumps. Instead, it breaks like straw. Over one half of my forehead, you’d swear I went scissor crazy and started for bangs and changed my mind mid-forehead. And so I moved my part, dividing my hair down the middle to hide the long patch of short jagged hair. At my part, it is brittle with scattered short patches. And underneath, it’s all broken off. It coils into curls under my long blond waves that stretch half down my back. Perhaps a person wouldn’t notice, but I do. Every day it dictates how I am no longer able to wear it, and the careful ways I have to keep all the broken parts in some semblance of order.

It reminds me every day that I am in shambles.

The great bulge of my belly is gone. It’s now walking around with my same curls, wreaking general (though adorable) havoc. And my stomach has a sag of wrinkles below my belly button. A deflated balloon, extra skin bunching up in patches, slick white stretch marks now collapsed and synched. Again and again, I look in the mirror, or down at myself and I recognize a light alarm of disbelief through me. Throat shock, sinking down, down, down, to a pit in my stomach. This is me now, somehow.

I see it in the mirror, the now-lines on my face, the way the bags under my eyes have grown and darkened. How I look older, creased. And again, I feel those shambles. Not much the shambles of a great passage of time, which might feel more natural, but the tumbling shambles of experience. Of heavy living, in relatively short spans. Of getting wrecked.

You have done something amazing, they tell me. Your body has been through astronomical things—twice. You have survived grave illness twice over. I know these things. I say them too. They are true, yes. But I am still here in these shambles. Within the leftover rags of wars I somehow survived and yet don’t even feel close to out of.

*

Exhaustion exacerbates the shambles. There are almost always people on me. Grabbing at my body, laying atop me, cozying themselves into my nooks. Climbing, pulling, pushing.  Rarely am I just there with my own autonomous self. The scarce self. There are days I can’t help but flinch at the hugs and grabs of my husband because he counts as one of these beings always situated on me, or pressed close, or pulling for a kiss. The dog too. And I wonder why. Why do they all come to me? At me? On me? My body, my autonomous self so far from my own. We all live here. It’s all of ours. And the times it’s just my own, I’m scarcely awake.

But I do love these people. These grabby, needy people that ask for all of me. I love them endlessly and consumingly. But I wonder, where have I gone?

This mothering thing, it is all of you. A disappearing act. In the gain of that love, you can feel an overwhelmingly exhausting and hollow loss.

This wasn’t in the parenting books. My mum never mentioned it, nor did I ever suspect it. It occurred to me one morning, after reheating my coffee for the tenth time, that as a child it never crossed my mind that parenting—that motherhood, specifically—would be hard. Would be difficult, exhausting, depressing, depleting. I carried around my sweet, rose-skinned dolls, and swaddled them up and pushed plastic bottles to their lips without ever once considering any possible unpleasantries within it. I played house, and mothering—I always wanted 12. I was a nurturer, a lover of kids. Never once did I look up at my mum and think is all of this hard? The three kids? Three! That are always hungry, and wanting more, or complaining or fighting, or having meltdowns. Do you know where you are? I never wondered if my mother knew where she was, if she lost herself or sought herself out. And now, she comes and she visits, and she scrubs at the crust on my stove I’ll never get to, and spoons yogurt to the baby while the boy runs in loud, fanatical circles around her, and she says, “You forget. I don’t know how I did it all.” And she doesn’t blame me for being in bed by 8:30 and she says, “It gets easier”. But I can’t help but think it should have crossed my mind, as I cradled my waterbabies, or made my mum lay with me at night until I fell asleep, my little hands gripping at her arm.

I told my 6 year old son the next day, after a regretful argument. I had yelled at him—I never yelled. I hated yelling. But I had lost it, my patience had cracked. And so I told him. “It is hard, you know, being a mom.” And from the back seat of the car, he was perplexed. I watched his eyebrows furrow in the rearview mirror. He was so young, so small looking sitting in his booster. “I love you and your sister more than anything, but sometimes I make mistakes. Because sometimes being a mom is exhausting and difficult. It is a lot of work.”

“I didn’t know that” he said. “Why?”

“Well,” I answered carefully, not wanting him to misunderstand that this didn’t mean I didn’t love him, nor love being a mother. “It never shuts off or stops. Moms worry, moms do all the little things to take care of you all the time. It’s a whole lot of little things. Big things too. There aren’t breaks from it. There aren’t clear cut answers to everything. There isn’t time to do a lot of things we like to do for ourselves.”

He is quiet for a moment, taking it in. Then he nods. “I just thought you get to play like all the time. Plus grownups get to do whatever they want.” He puts his arms out, hands flexed like it’s a question he sees a different answer to.

*

When I gave up my business and we moved out of state away from family and friends, it came up most starkly. I was playing the role one hundred percent. The glue. Making the best choice for the marriage, the family. Sacrificing the elements of me—that’s what this so often was, wasn’t it?

But there, in the beautiful sun and the palm trees, in a town I knew no one and had nothing, I was just a mother and a wife. Just the glue, with no independent self. Day in and day out, the shambles of me so apparent. I felt like nothing. Like the great erasing had taken hold.

My body showed it. Cracking, breaking, creasing. The wrecking.

Enmeshed in love and devotion but also stripped and also wrecked.  Highlighting Japanese Folklore about the Crane Wife, CJ Hauser wrote for the Paris Review, “ to keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps, she plucks out all of her feathers one by one”. I read this, and I think, yes.

First the wrecking, then the erasing. We all live here now, this body and self isn’t just me.

I push my partner away (No, I don’t want you to join me in the shower, I want literally 15 minutes without another human on or near me, thank you!), I sigh at the dog’s eyes following and beating into me constantly (Really, you too?). At the baby, holding my legs in screams as I try to make dinner, my son, asking for the 18th time if dinner is ready yet and lamenting that he will starve as he wraps himself around my waist. Not because of a lack of love or devotion. But because of depletion. Because of the tightness atop me, of the energy it takes to take a breath. There is no getting your oxygen mask on first in all of this—there isn’t. It’s a nice thought, and it’s true health-wise, sure! But it isn’t realistic. It is goddamn unattainable. It is a laugh, and every mother knows it. We, by our very nature, will scramble like hell for that mask at the final moment for ourselves because we are fucking busy and we are relied on and even when we want to take care of ourselves first, we don’t know how. The world is on top of us and screaming at us and for us, and until it stops, until we can simmer it, there is no breath, no mask. Try and tell me that we can’t help until we can first breathe, and you’d be wrong. I’d tell you, you don’t know mothers.

*

My hand travels mindlessly up to my broken chunks of hair often. Twirls their short coils. My hair has changed. It’s no longer its familiar texture, no longer thick. Sometimes my hands run through it again and again, feeling the frame the breaks made around my face. As if searching for familiarity, as if getting to know this new wrecked self.

My breasts, the soft stretching skin of my stomach. My body half nourishment, half playhouse and home for grabbing, poking, squishing. And it’s the same on the inside. The reflection is right, it is truth.

For centuries, folklore, literature and history has shown us just how love allows humans to leave ourselves for others, to neglect and deplete, but to somehow carry on, shells intact, some semblance of strength we can’t quite find the source of. And mothers are the queens of wrecked selves who soldier on, who pause in the mirror, who stare a moment longer in the bath. But don’t get to dwell a second longer than that. It’s in the background, there isn’t much noticing in it, nor heroic championing. It’s just the bare bones of motherhood. Not the main character, scarcely explored nor marveled at. I think back to mothers across cultures and time and history—mothers who have fared true hardship I could never fathom—mothers whose stories haven’t been told because they never had a moment unneeded to do so, and because these are just the things mothers do. Their sheer devotion, survival, their pain and isolation, the stripping of their selves. And why mothers have held onto this so quietly, so careful not to let their children or those around them know that this is hard, I don’t know. The core, the basic structure of motherhood is careful knives carving folds into our bodies for our littles, chipping at pieces of ourselves we’ll sew onto them. Becoming a house, a home, the food, the love, and the catcher of tears, the holder and fixer of little hearts. Allowing for, inviting the wrecking, the erasing. Our bodies and selves, the background noise, the unnoticed shell for piling into. What we become, so far beyond ourselves, a place for us all.

Jillayna Adamson is a mother, psychotherapist, writer and photographer– and can often be found wondering how just to fit all those pieces together. She is passionate about all things people and culture, and explores this through writing and photography.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Breeze

November 15, 2019
breeze

By Lisa Poulson

As I walked out of the grand lobby of the apartment building onto Riverside Drive, a soft, plangent breeze lilted across my face, swaying my hair. Equal parts summer humid and fall crisp, the breeze coming off of the river felt so delicious on my cheek that I had to stop, close my eyes and drink it in. For nineteen days, my skin hadn’t tasted a touch that delicate, that present, that sublime.

Nineteen days before I found my fiance in the ICU after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks.

As I walked into the hospital room he was still and barely breathing, his face so swollen and bloodied it was only his eyelashes I recognized, his body so broken it was only his fingertips I knew. No other fingertips traced my face the way his had.

Careful to avoid the IVs as I reached for his hand, I found that it was still warm. But the Coast Guard said he had been underwater for fifteen minutes. Was the soul I deeply and eternally loved still inside of that mashed and broken body? Would those fingertips ever come back to me?

Marc lay in the hospital bed, never opening his eyes, never parting his beautiful lips to say a word.

On the third day, the swelling from his injuries decreased enough for the doctors to do an EEG. When they said there was “no organized brain activity,” it was clear what that meant. Marc’s mind and soul were gone, even if his lungs were pushing air in and out on their own. I left the hospital with a leaden heart.

On the fourth day, his lungs stopped doing their work. He slipped away on his own, before dawn.

At the cemetery, when the hearse opened and I saw the coffin, I almost lost my capacity to stand. How could the strong, beautiful body I loved be in that box?

Two weeks after the funeral I was still in a stumbling, useless daze. Grief came in molten waves that flowed into my body with no warning, drowning my senses and suffocating my capacity to reason.

Sometimes it came when I woke in the morning and realized anew that he was gone. Sometimes it seized me in the middle of the afternoon at work, or in a restaurant, or on the train. When these waves overtook me, my mind and my senses would desert me as the heat rose from my gut or my heart. I would no longer be able to hear what people were saying to me, comprehend time or speak. The grief would growl and stretch, enveloping my whole body and subsuming my brain. I would shake, or sweat, or cry, or all of the above when it had possession of me.

***

I couldn’t be in my apartment because it was too full of his absence. He was not standing in the kitchen making us dinner, he was not sitting on the sofa inviting me to lay my head against his chest, he was not kneeling beside me to pray aloud with profound gratitude for our relationship at the end of the day. He was not there to nurture my quiet, budding hope of a life filled with love.

I did not go to work. I did not cook. I did not do laundry. I stayed with friends, barely able to breathe in and out. The competent 30-year-old I used to be was lost.

But there on Riverside Drive, nineteen days later, a moment of unexpected grace reached through my grief. I closed my eyes as the nerves under my skin awakened to the delicate sensation of the tender breeze.

My skin didn’t understand why it hadn’t been touched. I hadn’t realized how lost and hungry it was.

I opened my eyes to the afternoon sun glowing over the Hudson, my heart full of compassion for the mute grief of my body. I hear you, I said. I will care for you.

Lisa Poulson, is a San Francisco-based tech veteran. She has her own business as a communications coach and is reinventing herself as a writer. Lisa can be found on twitter as @thelisapoulson.

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Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Letters to a Lost Child

March 26, 2019
baby

By April Vázquez

June 23rd

Dear New Baby,

I’m writing this within days of your conception, if it’s worked. We had talked about trying for another child next year, I’d thought in January or so, but something just came over me. It’s exactly like when we tried for Dani: we had a plan (to wait until Daisy was a year old, in July), but I felt something indescribable, in February of all months, and just knew it was time. And it was. Dani came along the first time we tried. Then this month it happened that way again; if anything, I’d been slightly nervous about having THREE little ones. But then boom, I just knew. And I was able to convince your daddy, I suppose because it all worked out so beautifully last time, with healthy little Dani. You’ll come in the spring, March if it worked on the first try. And if not, well, then later, in April or May…

I put my Virgin Mary necklace on again, the one I wore through my previous pregnancies, and I’m going to do a test around July 10th, the day of Daisy’s birthday party. You’ll be Scarlett Fiona or Saul Francisco, and I think I’ll call you Cisco if you’re a boy. Cisco Houston is one of my heroes. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss

Partenza

January 6, 2019
partenza

By Kate Solovieva

partenza
[noun]

Italian.

  1. Departure, leaving
  2. Take-off
  3. Sailing of a boat

Within a couple of days of finding out about my impending miscarriage, I stop meditating. Not consciously, not on purpose. Yet… the first thing I do in the morning is no longer the five or ten minute session of just being, just sitting there. Instead, I go back to my default bad habits – pick up my cell phone, scroll through social media feeds, be entertained, be distracted.

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Is it so unreasonable to NOT want to sit in these feelings?

This sucks.

Forgive me, if I do not want to focus on this right now. It sucks plenty, even without sitting and focusing on how much it sucks.

And so meditation falls by the wayside, and with it, morning reading, and with it, morning writing. My journal goes unused week after week.

For someone who does not like emotions, being told to sit with them is not unlike being told to sit in a swimming pool slowly filling with water.

“Relax!”, you are told, as the water is creeping up your ribs, and squeezing your chest.

“Sit with it”, as the water is filling up your ears, and mouth. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Miscarriage, No Bullshit Motherhood

Things Unseen

July 25, 2018
exhausted

By Amanda E. Snyder

I’ve never done things in my life the way you’re supposed to. Or when you’re supposed to.

As an undergrad, I majored in fiction writing. (Seriously.) Then, after acing my first Big-Time Job Interview post graduation, which was as a copywriter for a restaurant food supplier in Chicago, I turned down the job because I knew that I’d be unhappy. I was 21 and financial stability wasn’t something I cared about.

Having a family wasn’t on the radar, either. In my 20s, it was always so distant; the idea of a family was nice, but I knew I wasn’t even close to ready. Dating in my 30s I had thought would be easier (aren’t we all supposed to be getting more mature by now?) but it proved just as difficult as ever. As for that far-away image of kids, that only diminished in my 30s. I loved being an aunt and I loved my freedom. I did want a partner, sure. But kids were not something I needed.

But then…oh, but then. At 39, I met a tall, dark, and handsome 27-year-old Brazilian man named Davi who remarkably had gone to college near my ultra-rural western Illinois hometown. We felt terrifically familiar to one another and less than three months after meeting, moved in together. One day when discussing our future, we broached the subject of children. We were at an Irish bar in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. We hadn’t moved in together yet. It was the 4th of July and we were creating our own pub crawl. It was early afternoon and we were two or three beers in. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss, Surviving

Cross Purposes

June 1, 2018
cross

By Aimee Ross

A cross has stood in that field for three years.

Three years since he smashed into me and the girls in my car that summer night. We were on our way home from dance camp.

The girls escaped the wreck with minor injuries. I barely survived.

He died.

Fifteen minutes from home. We were almost home.

Dear Zachary,

 I’m writing this letter to you because I feel like I have to, even though I don’t know you and never will. I can only know my version of you, and to be honest, it’s not good.

 I know you were the driver of the red Mini Cooper who ploughed recklessly into the side of my gray Saturn Aura that warm July night. I know you were only nineteen, and not one of my former students. And I know that doctors declared you “brain dead” the next day in a room near mine at Cleveland Metro Trauma Center.

The cross was first pushed into the earth less than two weeks after the accident. My mom, who drove past the site twice daily on her way to and from the hospital, was infuriated by it. She thought it was made of Bud Light boxes. I’d been past the site since then a few times, but I had never stopped. I never wanted to be in that space long enough to think.

Until now.

After the accident, visitors told me rumors about you. Even my own daughters. They knew people you partied with. They also warned me of your Facebook memorial page, but I didn’t listen.

I looked too soon.

You—the party boy with swag—were loved, and by many. They called you Zach. Throwing bangers, getting baked, and blowing smoke at the camera consumed the posted memories and fuzzy photos.

 Something kept telling me to visit the scene.

And I needed closure.

So, armed with notebook and pen and ready to record the epiphany I was sure to have, I drove there alone one mid-summer afternoon. I expected to cry, feel relief, be cleansed. The trauma would finally make sense.

As I approached the busy state route’s intersection, I noticed the warning signs of road construction—at least I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. I parked along the berm across from the site, realizing I had no intention of leaving my vehicle anyway. I would just be here, feel here.

A friend of your mother’s told me you had trouble with the law, and I know your driver’s license had been suspended at least twice before. You even spent time in a detention home. I wonder if other rumors about you and your buddies playing a very dangerous driving game to earn points for traffic violations were true.

Beyond the intersection, a cross made of two perpendicular skateboards—not beer boxes—jutted crookedly out of a grassy slope. The ground climbing from the ditch to the tilted cross was still scarred. Dry brown gashes in the earth, like my three-year-old wounds, littered the rise where energy from an inelastic collision was absorbed. The scars, evidence of an outside force. Inertia disrupted.

 And then there’s your family. Good people, I heard. I know you had dinner at home with them that evening. You asked your dad for the car, the one titled to him but given to you, so you could go to a friend’s house. You were on your way when you crashed into us. I also know your family loved you. Just moments after finding out you had passed—after being asked about donating your organs—your father and sister hugged my brother. They cried, said they hoped I would “pull through.” I imagine your mother was broken in a corner, lost in a sea of tears. I know your parents—an older, more settled couple—adopted you and your sister from another country far away. Maybe they couldn’t have their own children. Now they can’t even have you.

Why did he run the stop sign? How fast was his car moving?

 The most devastating thing I know about you, however, isn’t that you disregarded a stop sign or might have been speeding that night. What’s most devastating is that you were driving under the influence. The highway patrol officer who came to inform me I was the “victim of a crime” said so. They don’t know how fast you were going, but they do know that you had marijuana and benzodiazepine in your bloodstream.

And then the toxicology report. I researched. Benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety medication, can induce everything from euphoria to a hypnotic state, just like the recreational drug marijuana. Together, the two would have produced an amplified high, as well as an amplified tranquilizer effect. He might have been so high he didn’t know what he was doing. He could have been asleep at the wheel.

Why did you do that, Zach? Why?

Did you smoke pot and do drugs so often you drove stoned all the time?

Did you forget you had family and friends who loved you, a whole life ahead of you?

Did you think you were invincible, maybe even above the law?

But none of that matters. The outcome is the same.

Three beautiful girls, teenagers on the dance team I advised, were riding with me on the way back from dance camp that evening. I couldn’t protect them from you. You could have killed them. You almost killed me. I believed my daughter, also on the team, had left ahead of us, but in fact, she was only moments behind in a different car. You could have killed her that night. The thought makes me sick. I love her, just like your parents loved you. Our worst fear as parents happened to them: you didn’t come home.

I stared at the cross, thinking about what onlookers would have witnessed that July evening. A car shooting from the darkness and crashing into another. Impact in the intersection. Crunching metal, shattering glass. A body catapulted through a car’s sunroof and against the unforgiving road, as momentum propels both vehicles over a ditch to rest less than twenty feet apart. Airbags deployed, windshields buckled, a smoking engine. Four trapped inside mangled metal. Passersby stop, phone calls are made, and moments later, the chaos to save lives ensues. The scene is flooded with light, engulfed in disembodied voices, and swarming with firemen, ambulances, and highway patrol.

 Your parents must miss you desperately. I imagine they didn’t know about your regular drug use. I wonder if they were shocked, horrified maybe, to find out. I’m sure they have forgiven you by now, though—you were their only son.

 It is quiet here today at this place. Peaceful, even. Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze, midsummer warmth. The perfect setting for something—anything—to offer understanding. Redemption maybe. A setting to offer forgiveness.

But I am finding it difficult to do.

I am alive, but another mother’s son never went home.

We all make mistakes and poor choices. I know this. And if you had lived through the accident, maybe you would have apologized. You probably would have been sorry, too. If you had lived through the accident, maybe you even would have changed. You probably would have stopped being reckless, too. But maybe your life ended because of how you chose to live it. Maybe change would not have been possible for you. I don’t know.

I wait.

I don’t want to hate you, Zach.And I don’t want to be so angry . . . still. I even want to try to forgive you.

Nothing happens. I don’t even cry. I slide the pen back in my purse, toss the notebook to the front passenger seat, and head home. If only the intersection had been closed three years ago. If only we had taken another way home. If only he had been sober. If only he had stopped at the intersection’s sign. Then we would not have had our path crossed. T-boned. Crushed.

But I just can’t yet.

 Four lives altered forever, another life lost.

Sincerely, Aimee, the woman whose life you changed

A cross marks the spot.

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who’s been teaching high school English at her alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio, for the past twenty-six years and an aspiring writer for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir, was just published in March 2018 (KiCam Projects). She has also had her writing published on NextAvenue.orgwww.lifein10minutes.com, and www.SixHens.Com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2017); Scars: An Anthology (Et Alia Press, 2015); Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators (Adams Media, 2009); and Teaching Tolerance magazine. You can find Aimee online at www.theaimeeross.com.

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Grief, Guest Posts, loss

Dear Benjamin

May 13, 2018
boy

By Jennifer Roberts

My sweet boy,

I am sorry it took me so long to write to you. There’s so much I’ve wanted to say, but didn’t know where to start. How does a mommy write a letter to her baby that died? Mommies should never have to think about that at all. This is going to be full of words that are so different than what I would be saying to you if you were still here. I’m sure if you were here I wouldn’t feel the need to write you a letter at all, I would just tell you to your sweet little face how loved you are.

Next week you would be turning 20 months old. I can’t believe it’s been that long since I became your mom and since I last saw you.  I could have told you already that I’m sorry my body failed you and you had to be born 8 weeks early, but most likely I wouldn’t even be worried about that anymore. I might have told you that I am sorry for complaining about the heartburn and hip pain while you were growing inside me, but possibly I wouldn’t even feel bad about it now.

Since things turned out the way they did and you are not here, I have felt the need to let you know that I am sorry that I complained. I am sorry my body didn’t do what it was supposed to. I am sorry you were robbed of your life so early and never got to come home. I am sorry I needed a C-Section and you never got to be held until you were gone. I’m sorry that all you ever felt was the NICU bed and needles and stuff stuck to your skin. Continue Reading…