Browsing Tag

parenting

Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts

On The Cusp

August 7, 2021
steve

by Joy Riggs

Elias packed everything he needed for eight weeks away at college, and Steve helped him stow it all in the trunk of my car. Everything except the bean bag chair, which they smushed into the right rear passenger seat. The trunk contained a plastic laundry basket brimming with bedding for an extra-long twin bed. A suitcase packed with spring clothes and a few sweaters. Books, new spiral notebooks, a desk lamp, classical piano music, plates and utensils for in-room dining (the cafeteria still under a pickup-only operation). A laptop. Three bottles of allergy medication. A fan, which Elias had deliberated about – how hot would it get by the end of May? He wasn’t on campus last spring, so he didn’t know.

The trees in our yard stood tall and bare, ready for new buds to emerge. The snow was gone. Elias left his winter coat on a hook inside the house.

After he hugged his brother, who was staying back with the dog, Elias buckled himself in next to the bean bag chair, and we set off on a four-hour drive, grasping the welcome chance to inject some life into what remained of his sophomore year.

Forty minutes into the trip, Steve realized he’d forgotten his sunglasses. He was usually uber-organized when it came to vacations, but we weren’t used to traveling anymore. The opportunity to plan this overnight trip had made him almost giddy.

“There are some plastic sunglasses in the driver’s side door, if you need them,” I said.

Ahead of us, the afternoon sky was a dull gray; rain seemed more inevitable than sun. I turned my head to look back at Elias. His long fingers were tapping out a rhythm on his knee.

“Have you thought of anything youve forgotten?”

He paused. “I might run out of toothpaste. I have a few travel-sized ones,” he said.

“Well, if that’s all you’ve forgotten, you’ve done well. That can be easily remedied.”

Elias was the youngest and most organized of our three children. But I never thought of him as “the baby.” He’d always seemed like an old soul, from the  he emerged at the hospital, with his shock of sandy brown hair, clear blue eyes, and laid-back demeanor. Although most people said he looked like Steve, he reminded me of me, personality-wise. Responsible, steady, high-achieving but modest. Slow to anger – in fact, had I ever really seen him angry? Not for years. He grew up being talked over by his older sister and brother; when he made the effort now to speak up, it was usually because he had something thoughtful to say.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and drizzly. That evening, we met up with Elias’s girlfriend, Nameera, and ate dinner outside in the 40-degree weather, preferring to risk frostbite over COVID. The next morning, we chose “grab-and-go” items from the hotel breakfast area and ate them in our room.

I felt like I should say something meaningful, but after sheltering together for twelve months of the pandemic, what more was there to say?

“I’m really proud of you. It’s been quite a year,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s been strange,” he said.

Tears formed in my eyes, so I changed the subject.

“How did you sleep last night?”

“I had trouble getting to sleep at first,” he said. “I’m really excited.”

At the campus center, he picked up a room key and a plastic bag stuffed with snacks, hand sanitizing wipes, and a face shield – essentials provided by the college. What had they given him at the start of freshman year – a lanyard, a water bottle? It was hard to remember now. He made two trips to carry everything from the car to his dorm room; we weren’t allowed to help him.

When he returned to say goodbye, I pulled out my phone. “Can we get a picture? And can you take it? Your arms are the longest.”

The three of us squinted into the morning sun, and he snapped a picture for posterity.

“I love you,” I said, as I hugged him.

“I love you, too.”

Steve and I walked back to the car, wiping tears from our eyes.

“It actually seems harder saying goodbye this time,” I said.

“I know, that’s what I was thinking,” Steve said. “Why is that?”

As Steve and I drove out of town, I stared at the trees. A derecho had struck Iowa in August, and the damage inflicted by the straight-line winds was still apparent. Trees with their tops shorn off, as though snipped with a giant scissors. Trees stripped of branches and bark. Trees bent in half, as though bent over in grief.

Yet, against the backdrop of trees and dormant farm fields, I also spotted life: cows in pastures, raptors soaring overhead, songbirds flitting across the highway. A gentler wind was blowing. We were on the cusp of spring.

JOy Riggs’ essays have appeared in numerous publications including Toho Journal Online, Topology Magazine, and Peacock Journal. She lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota. Joy is the author of the nonfiction book Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

A New Kind of Wild

August 2, 2021
bus

by Melissa Bauer

“I DON’T WANT TO DO SCHOOL ON THE COMPUTER!!” my five-year-old daughter shouts at me while catapulting herself onto the floor in the hallway, right outside of our kitchen.  I agitatedly glance at the clock on the microwave; her virtual class starts in five minutes.  Five minutes to try and rescue this sinking ship.  “I know,” I say, and walk over to try to soothe her.  “But you have to,” I add.  As if knowing you have to do something ever makes doing it any easier.

We’ve been in virtual schooling for about two weeks now.  The novelty, like my positivity, is wearing off.  My daughter’s friends and classmates from preschool have chosen not to go the virtual route for kindergarten.  “You can’t do kindergarten on the computer!” they all crooned in my ear, spewing their seeds of doubt.  So off to private school their kinder went while we forged ahead apprehensively with public school.  The pandemic, it seems, wiped clean all of our familiarity.  It feels as though we are navigating this alone.

Still lying on the floor, but crying now, my daughter continues to shout “Noooo!  I won’t!”  Exasperated, I walk back into the kitchen.  My eyes immediately dart towards my candle burning on the island, bonfire and spun sugar filling the air, but I can’t smell it.  My irritation is mounting.  And now my three year old is on my heels looking for a snack.  “Alexa” I yell to my echo dot “play Freeze Dance” in hopes to change the energy.  But as the rhythmic beats penetrate the air, things only get worse.  Her crying has turned into sobs.

We’ve officially entered Emotionville.  An unpleasant, foul little town where emotions are big and patience is small.

Here’s what I want to tell my daughter.  I DON’T want to do school on the computer either!  When I pictured my little, big girl going off to kindergarten, it certainly wasn’t through Microsoft Teams.  When I imagined buying her school supplies, it didn’t include a desk and chair for her online classroom.  Or where to comfortably place her desk and chair within our modest sized home.  By a window overlooking our wooded backyard so she can get a glimpse of nature while she learns?  Or will that be painful to see the open-air, verve beyond our four walls, just outside her reach.   No, I didn’t imagine buying a “reading buddy,” a stuffed grey elephant that sits on her table, substituting for another child.  Or how my back would ache from bending over her kid sized desk repeatedly when she needed my help completing her assignments.  But I don’t say any of this.  I swallow my feelings and pinch my eyes shut.

Breathe, I tell myself.  Remember to breathe.

One minute.  We have one minute now until class starts and my daughter is still lying lithe on the hardwood floor, her tears flowing, my anger rising.  It’s becoming a living, breathing thing, my anger, panting down my neck with each second that passes.  The smell of burning wood fills me now.  I pick her up, whispering tersely in her ear “I know honey, you don’t want to do this, but you’re going to” and I carry her over to her chair.  She sits begrudgingly, a limp and nimble rag doll, as the teacher’s voice rings through the speakers.  “Welcome back class!”  My daughter straightens up in her seat.  I breathe in, and smell wood and this time, a little sugar too.  I squeeze my daughter’s shoulder, an offering, I suppose.  All is calm for an exhale, and then my three year old shouts at me from the kitchen “MAMA, I wannnaaa snack!

———

Our virtual school days continued like this, more or less, for nine weeks until we slowly transitioned to face-to-face learning.  Phase 1 included a ninety-minute session, one day a week, for two children while the remaining ten classmates participated virtually.  We were assigned to Mondays.  Watching the other students participate in person while my daughter remained online was hard for her.  “That’s not fair!” she’d cry out to her computer on her non-assigned days.  “Soon it will be your turn,” I offered, silently counting down the minutes for both of us.

“Good morning sweetheart!” I chirped as I turned on the lights to wake my daughter up for her “first” day of school.  Sleepy eyed, but smiling she dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.  “I can’t wait to ride the bus!” she squealed with a mouth full of cereal.  To her, riding the bus was akin to getting your driver’s license.  She could taste the freedom.  “Let’s go!” I shouted and we hastily ran to the bus stop.  Within minutes the bright lights of her yellow chariot rounded the corner.  “Don’t forget your mask,” I said as she donned it on her face.  “Bye mom!” she yelled over the loud engine as she entered the bus, one giant step at a time.  But my excitement soon faded when I looked around and noticed she was the sole rider.  Am I an irresponsible mom for sending my daughter to school in person?  With her big, curious blue eyes peering over her mask, she looked straight-ahead and then at me as the bus pulled away.  Her little hand went up in a wave, five fingers spread open.  My lungs filled with the smell of exhaust as the bus drove away.  My chest constricted.  I was overcome with the urge to run and grab her off that bus.  To take her home and cradle her inside our little bubble, where my candle burned at both ends, because at least there I could keep her safe.

“Bye sweetheart” I mouthed in the rearview.

——-

I walked back into my house, and felt like I was missing an appendage.  Our virtual schooling was tempestuous at best, but now I feared the silence.  I hadn’t had a moment to myself since my children’s preschool shut down the previous year.  Yet, I couldn’t relax.  Instead, I padded towards the kitchen worried for my little girl out there in the wild.  Will she have a hard time wearing a mask for 8 hours a day?  I washed our morning dishes and thought about her.  I stared at her empty desk.  Her vacant chair mocked me, a silent reminder of “what if?”

The days slipped by and I held my breath as we transitioned through each phase.  Slowly, more students joined her class in person.  Turns out, my daughter didn’t mind wearing a mask all day or eating a socially distanced lunch in the cafeteria.  Especially if it meant she could try the chocolate milk.

We settled into a new norm.  After several months, she was finally attending face-to-face learning full time with her entire class.  And I began breathing again.  What once felt wildly terrible and wildly devastating now felt wildly normal.

“What was your favorite part of school today?” I ask her, our hands clasped, her mask shoved into her backpack as we walk home from the bus.  “Recess!” she shouts, her lips curling into a smile at the mere memory of it.  A take-a-picture-and-show-it-your-sister kind of smile.

I’m smiling now too.

———-

Not long after face-to-face learning resumes, our town is hit with the after effects of a hurricane.  Hundred-year-old giant oak trees are uprooted by the winds, and they’ve fallen on houses and power lines.  They are blocking our roads.  School has been put on hold.  Again.  I am looking at one of those massive trees splayed out across our roads, like an enormous carcass, lying belly up, and I can’t help but think this is a metaphor.  This year stripped us bare; left our roots exposed.  And yet, in our shared vulnerability, we learned that hard times don’t last forever.  The wind eventually stops howling.  Fallen trees are removed.  And maybe, just maybe, we learn to love the view.

Melissa Bauer lives in Milton, Georgia with her husband and their two young kids. A former nurse turned stay at home mom; she has been writing about her journey through grief, loss, motherhood and healing since the death of her parents in 2010. An avid reader, podcast junkie, and mindfulness advocate she is passionate about living authentically and with gratitude. She values connection and the best compliment someone could give her is an honest ‘me too.’

 

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Adoption, Guest Posts

Born of Stars, This Love of Mine

July 22, 2021
stars

by Amy Sayers 

I held her in my arms, not believing all 6.8 pounds of her was real. For months she came to me in meditation, in visions, in my breath. But here she was in the flesh and perfect, all ten toes and ten perfectly slender fingers. Satin cheeks and searching eyes. What do you see, I wanted to ask—What are you thinking? Why is your brow furrowed? Then her belly peaked in a tent-like contraction. Was it a cramp? Was it hunger, gas? Or grief…

The bellowing began. The tubes and bottles from the breast pump tugged with her sucking but to no avail. All my dreams of loving and being loved by this child expired like air hissing out of a balloon. Not being able to feed her from my body made me feel a complete failure. I held her and rocked her, from her opening scream till the noontime nap. I walked her on my body, bathed her skin to skin, slept with her on my chest, wondering, what had I done.

Who was I to adopt this baby from her birth mother? Clearly she was missing her birthmom’s particular scent, the timbre of her voice, her touch. I struggled, knowing scent was primal, something that was part of her DNA, something I couldn’t replicate. Only in time would she come to recognize mine.

Colic can be digestive, allergies, fussiness—they don’t always know. I tend to think it was grief. And all I knew to combat it was steady love. So I held her, I sat in the swing and I sang the one lullaby I knew. I walked with her, I concocted home made formula, store-bought Whole Food’s colostrum, but nothing worked. I finally relied on the packaged formula, which probably had sugar in it and god knows what else, but she had to eat. She had to sleep. And so did I.

We made the mistake of reading the Ferber book which advocates letting your child cry themselves to sleep. It was hideous. No grace. No laughter. No song. No. Love. She’d make herself physically ill, throwing up, coughing, or an explosion of diarrhea. It was too much.

I said to my husband, “This doesn’t feel right. It’s not just belligerence. I’m convinced its grief. She needs to know she’s safe. She needs to feel love. This, for the rest of her life.”

Attachment is so crucial in the first months. And so we took turns sleeping with her, sometimes she snuggled in the middle, sometimes she slept with my husband, mostly with me, sleeping skin to skin. In time, the blankie served as a pacifier, in addition to the ‘bubba’, but she didn’t relinquish her bottle until she turned four. We then had to do a ceremony so that Blues-Clues wouldn’t feel abandoned. We wrapped him in tissue, sprinkled him with rose-petals, covered him in a fairy-box and sent him off in care of the angels.

Ceremony helped. Tough love is hard. I realized in an instant, I wanted it to be easy, without pain, pure and dazzling, mine to hers and hers to me. We had moments of that, along with laughter, song, dance and stories. Always stories. Birth stories, creation stories, and the hard questions that followed. The grief-stricken, angry, belligerent “you’re not my real mom” cry. The marking and cutting and other demons that broke her into her many scattered selves. The painful times where I felt so helpless, again, as to how to give sanctuary while she flailed in the darkness. Still, I continued to hold space and to listen. I offered therapists, healers, and for all the compassion, affection and love, I still couldn’t take away the pain. That being the hardest lesson to learn about love.

Now she’s finding her way, making her own discoveries and our affirmations and prayers continue. She is a gift, my beam of light, my inspiration. But she is not of me, she is of her own soul. She came from the stars. She was born of my dreams. That is how she came through. This is love and I hope I am blessed to have it dazzle for years to come.

Amy Sayers is a mother, writer, artist, healer, and Pilates Instructor. Her memoir, TINY WHITE DRESSES is a synthesis of life events, a culmination of dreams and visions that led to the adoption of her daughter, Marika. She lives in Santa Fe, NM with her British husband and their two dogs. Amy is currently working on a novel with her editor, Alice Anderson, while querying her memoir. Amy paints in her free time and has exhibited in local galleries. Her essays have been published in local anthologies and magazines, as well as Manifest-Station—a chapter from the memoir called PLATTER OF ORANGES.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Eating/Food, Guest Posts, parenting

Saving Your Family, One (Complicated) Recipe at a Time

July 5, 2021
cake

by Lee Ann Cox

There’s a 20-year-old photo of me rolling out dough on a floured pastry board while wearing my son in a backpack. I was creating his first birthday cake.

The idea was sparked long before that moment, as I thumbed through the pages of the Martha Stewart catalogue, lingering over a set of oversized copper cookie cutters, a whimsical menagerie that included a bear, an alligator, a donkey, a dove. They were absurdly large, but then so was I, pregnant with this baby. I didn’t yet know what it would mean to balance a food writing career with an infant who merely dallied with the notion of sleep. I only knew the cookie cutters were adorable, a splurge, and I had to have them.

As the birthday neared and my vision for the project crystalized, I was fortunate that my husband’s parents were visiting from California; I had three adults to help distract my son as I set to work. I began by making quantities of sugar cookie dough to the sound of Bay’s chortling from the front room as he knocked down towers of blocks. His mood didn’t hold, hence the backpack.

I chilled and rolled the dough thick enough to achieve a sturdy giraffe whose head would not break loose from its slender neck. Soon an unadorned zoo sprawled on racks around our farmhouse kitchen while I made icing of pale yellow, deep sky blue, sea glass green. I mixed two consistencies of each color, one thick to outline the shape, forming a dam to hold the flood of flawless liquid color. Once set, I piped manes and claws on lions, fluffy wool on sheep, an intricate caparison for an elephant adorned with various colors of sanding sugar I had mixed myself.

Of course, this was to be a cake, so I picked a family favorite, vanilla with the layers split and alternately spread with lemon curd and cream cheese frosting. To achieve my fever dream of perfection, though, I needed two cakes of different sizes to stack, supported by wooden dowels. Over the course of a couple days, I had concocted a child’s version of a tiered wedding cake, graced, not by a spray of elegant flowers or ironic plastic newlyweds, but by a double carousel of handmade edible animals, each unique, one cuter than the next.

“Mom are you high?” my daughter would say now. I must have been undone.

This cake, I need to say, was not the centerpiece of an overdone celebration with too many presents and too many people; no hordes of aunts, uncles, and cousins were coming to admire my two creations. It was just us and a close friend and baby from playgroup. That eases my embarrassment and heightens my wonder at the forces that drive me. The birthday boy was too young to be enchanted by this cake (nor, it turns out, would any confection not chocolate ever achieve that standard). But when my husband held Bay aloft to blow out his single candle, both of them grinning, my camera shuttered on a moment of pure beauty.

*

Time spun out from there. Bay turned 18 having spent equal parts of his life with and without his dad, who died young of a rare cancer. On this birthday, the cake was a basic, rich chocolate number; his dinner request was the two-day cooking festival: the tagliatelle with braised lamb ragu he’d had in New York, helpfully codified in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual, a book I highly recommend for the recipes and the writing. Even for a dish whose steps are helpfully divided into “Day 1” and “Day 2,” the authors charm you through the process, suggesting a flip of the lamb mid-roast “if you think of it” and, later, to remove the meat from the stock so it can rest and “regain its composure,” suggestions I recommend for the cook as well.

I bought my lamb and bones from a local Vermont farm, filled my basket with onions, carrots, fennel, and tarragon. I roasted and braised. I made the Frankies tomato sauce, a simple affair, demanding only devotion (along with your good olive oil and the best Italian tomatoes). “Take your time—there’s no rushing it… when you’re cooking the garlic, you want to very, very slowly convert the starches in it to sugars and then to caramelize those sugars. Slow and steady.”

By the second afternoon, I skimmed my lamb broth of fat in favor of fresh butter that married the tomato and lamb concoctions, finally, into a sensuous, swoony situation, like the ones that really should come from restaurants.

I will confess how the years have changed me, especially as I was also the one to make the cake and wrap the presents and parent the son and also his little sister. (First, no, she did not get a two-tiered carousel cake, an already preposterous enterprise without a baby, a toddler, a job, and a 130-pound Newfie upending the kitchen for any unmonitored morsel of food, but she has not been denied her share of fanciful cakes.) I dismissed the Frankies’ instruction to make a double recipe of Basic Pasta Dough from page 94, cut into tagliatelle. I bought the pasta.

*

Nearly a year later, I made the ragu again for my son’s farewell dinner before he left for college, 3,000 miles from home. I felt from the tender ache of my own bones as if they were rendered into that stew, an amalgam of everything I put in it, lovingly tended, and every hope I had for what it would yield. I hid my tears and fed the dreams we both shared, of joy and challenge, adventure and a new sense of belonging.

And then, abruptly, he was home. The pandemic put it all on ice, suspended him between two worlds.

With third-quarter finals cancelled and an extended spring break, Bay came to the kitchen. “Mom, I think we should cook something.” His grin suggested that it would not be banana bread.

“Watch this video with me,” he said, reaching for my laptop and pulling up Joshua Weissman’s YouTube page, introducing me to the obsessive food phenom with nearly three million followers. “Making the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich at Home, But Better” was Bay’s fixation; we would hit play and pause on that video uncountable times.

The next afternoon we got started, beginning with the Japanese milk buns (which begin with making the tangzhong). We mixed up our marinade, our spiced dredging flour, and our sauce, albeit without the optional oyster mushroom powder, and, more critically, and ashamedly, the black garlic—it’s clear now we had the time to start aging our own ingredients, since he wouldn’t return to school, but we lacked that kind of patience.

We did choose the largest boneless thighs we could find, properly slice our pickles lengthwise for maximum coverage, and toast the truly amazing buns. I taught my son how to deep fry. And I acquainted him with the fact that, no matter how much you clean as you go, the exalted experience at the table will temper at the sight of a grease-splattered stove and the general havoc wreaked preparing a plated meal. The regret, like the mess, is temporary.

*

For two decades I’ve thought about that birthday cake, wondered if there was an impulse behind it beyond what food writer Tamar Adler, in a recent essay I admired, called “a peacocky presentation of leisure time and skill.” I won’t argue there wasn’t a tinge of that, but if it was for anyone, honestly, it was me. I know it’s more, though, that I wasn’t quite kidding about being undone.

I feel so vulnerable at times, on the knife’s edge of joy and heartache. My infant son turns one, then moves far away. My infant daughter turns two with a party held in a hospital lounge near her dad’s room, then she’s a beautiful, maddeningly sassy teenager. The weave of love, longing, and potential loss is gossamer silk and the instinct to protect is fierce, tireless effort. That takes me to the kitchen. The sense of control is a mirage, but there’s art in the attempt and at the end you have dinner, or, even better, cake.

The crazy thing about COVID is that it upends the promise I made myself years ago to try to keep my anxieties and fears from infecting my kids. What I want—on my best, bravest days—is for them to live big, juicy, connected lives, for their regrets to be few, especially for experiences they didn’t seize. Now we’re told to hide our children at home and mask them from danger. There was a moment’s appeal in that, my deepest instincts sanctioned.

Mid-March was like the first hour or so of losing electricity—candlelight Scrabble and toasting marshmallows over a gas flame—before the melting down, before we met the grief spilling out from every angle of this disaster. There are worse things, to be sure, but I ache for my kids, for everyone’s. Instead of testing boundaries, they’re circumscribed by them.

At the end of the summer though, my son, unable to return to college in the fall, quarantined and then met up in a central location with his would-have-been roommates in an Airbnb for a week. Bay texted a photo of the meal he made for his friends: better-than-Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwiches. He had made the buns himself, crisped the coating on the tender thighs to tanned perfection, slathered on his homemade spicy sauce.

I imagine those big blue eyes gazing over my shoulder from his backpack, absorbing my need, the protective pulse that drove my energy. With food, he would now nurture the fledgling life he’d begun, hoping the web holds through untold months ahead in Zoomland. And sure, I’m guessing there was a serious dash of peacockiness behind it, too. I mean, that was an insane amount of work.

Lee Ann Cox is a Vermont-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is a recipient of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award for the manuscript of my memoir Beauty Like That, as well as a Vermont Arts Council creation grant. 

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

Improvise, Stabilize, Stagnate, Repeat

July 3, 2021
all

By Abby Braithwaite

“Mom, let’s go up there!”

“You don’t want to go just a little farther on the flat part, see if we can find the stream, and maybe see some of those frogs making all that racket?”

“No, up there! Hmph.”

My daughter stomps her foot, crosses her arms, and juts her chin at the near-vertical bank to our right. An expanse of loose rock, dead grasses and newly-awakened poison oak leads up to the abandoned mine above us, and beyond to the top of the rim-rock where her dad, brother and beloved babysitter are hiking. But really, it wouldn’t matter if no one was up there. Every time we have hiked this trail over the past couple years, off-roading has been this 4-foot, 9-inch teenager’s path of choice. She huffs again, tossing her pink bangs off her mostly-shaved head and standing firm.

“That way. Now.” It’s amazing how clearly she enunciates when she is mimicking my get-serious-and-listen voice. If only her speech therapist could hear her now.

“Alright, let’s go.”

***

If you want proof that evolution is dangerous, all you have to do is parent a teenager. Or teach one. Or just choose one out of the crowd and watch her move through the world. The fact that an entire species has banked our survival on the teenage brain is a mind-bender, and the ultimate proof that in order to get anywhere in life, you have to be willing to risk it all on a twist of DNA.

That first amoeba family could have just trucked along blob-like for an eternity, comfortable in its amorphousness, and populated this planet with slime. But no, some type-A couple of perfectly good cells had to go and mix it up and complicate the next generation with extra material, and things just went from there.

Improvise, stabilize, stagnate, repeat. Evolution in a nutshell. Sure there’s some loss along the way, but how else is a fish supposed to crawl out of an ocean and walk across the sand, if it’s not willing to take a chance?

***

As I follow Adara up the side of the hill, I keep one hand on the small of her back to remind her to keep her weight forward so she’ll tumble up if she trips, and not topple all the way back to the nice sandy path below us. As I feel her push herself up, muscles tensing under my hand, I notice again that her right glute is about half the size of her left, the result of a long-ago surgical repair on a bad hip, and I wonder if she likes this kind of climb better because it’s a break from the relentless, crooked pound-stumble that is walking when one leg is an inch shorter than the other. Maybe, like the short-sided mountain goats in that old comic, she knows she’s built for side-hilling.

Or, maybe she just likes to do it the hard way.

Either way, I’m glad to be walking behind her in the April sun, grateful I was able to get her off the couch and out the door after the rest of the group headed out on a hike I would have been on if there was someone else to hang out with my kid. And truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up with them anyway. I’m probably better off down here where I can collect rocks, listen to the frogs, and watch the clouds roll by while Adara picks her way up this impossible slope.

***

And so, some number of millennia and branches of the tree of life later, we arrive at the human species. Like many living things before us, plant and animal alike, we had figured out that for the healthiest populations, we had to spread out to mate. Trees send their seeds on the wind. Thistles catch onto the coats of the wandering beta wolf, and so propagate new thistle fields on the other side of the mountain range. The scent of ripe berries on the breeze brings a feeding frenzy, and berry seeds are shat out in myriad piles across the watershed.

Travel to make babies. It’s a pretty foundational principle of procreation.

But humans had to complicate things. We birthed impossibly dependent babies that stayed helpless far longer than any other animals’ offspring, and we became programmed to nurture, to tend, to need each other. We created intricate social structures, interdependency, emotional attachment. How were we supposed to get far apart enough to mate safely, to ensure the mutations that would lead to increased variability and strength, rather than the dangerous effects of an insular community?

Enter the teenager, a creature designed to cast out on its own to points unknown, with a particular penchant for pushing away the very people it has depended on most for the past decade and a half.

***

We’re spending a few days at our family cabin on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It’s on the site of an old perlite mine, where several buildings were converted to a fishing camp after the mine closed in the 1940’s. My husband’s grandparents happened across the place when the mine office building was up for sale, so we have access to a ranging two-story box in the desert that can hold more than a dozen people comfortably. It’s just the five of us this weekend, though. My husband, our two kids, and our babysitter, here off the clock to explore this place she has heard so much about in the years she’s been working for us.

On the far side of the river—you have to take a cable ferry to get here, with everything you need for however long you’re staying—with no internet or cell reception, and stone’s throw from the shriekiest mile of curving railroad track in the West, it’s a love it or hate it kind of place. It’s fiercely cold in the winter, and impossibly hot and dry in the summer. In late spring and early fall, it’s mild and lovely. In April and September, it’s all those things in the span of an afternoon.

Adara’s on the hate it end of the spectrum, but we ply her with salt and vinegar potato chips and let her smuggle her phone over the river so she has her music, and she puts up with it. And every couple days, I manage to get her out for an explore. Every teenager who has come of age here—except maybe my introverted fisherman of a husband—has had a period of hating the place, hating the spiders and bugs, hating being away from friends and stuck with family, hating, over the past decade, the prohibition on technology, which doesn’t really work here anyway. But they come, and they are forced outside, and they learn to take care of the place; eventually keys pass from the hands of one generation to the next. Corwin, my 11-year-old, loves the place still. But given her druthers, Adara would take a pass altogether.

***

A quick Google search on “evolution as risk”—looking to see if any researchers have asked whether evolutionary steps can be viewed as a species-level gamble—tells me I need to spend more time on research if I want to follow this trail any farther. I find hits on Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—the threat posed by the mere concept of evolution to the human understanding of our roots, when the theory first arose—and the evolution of risk, with lots of sub-articles on the evolutionary role of adolescence. And that’s part of what I am talking about here, of course, but my bigger question is about the gamble of mutation itself. Why evolve at all? Why not just stay the course?

A species grows from the mire, defines itself, settles into a niche. All is fine, if not terribly exceptional, to be a lizard crawling around on the ground. Everything is working, comfortable enough. But then one day a cold wind blows across your scales and on some cellular level, some strand of lizard DNA buzzes awake and—bam—scales grow into feathers, feathers grow longer, lizards spend more time on the edges of cliffs, lots of them fall off, and the once stable ground-lizard population is suddenly on the brink, life is a lot more dangerous. And then, one day, instead of falling, a lizard flies. And so we have birds, which never would have come to be if there wasn’t space for just the right mutations to build on themselves, improvising, stretching, changing.

***

“I can’t do it, Mom!” she shouts, after her third attempt at a handhold tumbles down the bank behind us. We’ve been climbing for about half an hour now and, despite frequent breaks, we’ve gotten through the hardest section. It’s grassier here, less rocky, and I notice that there’s a trail beaten by deer that traverses the slope off to our right, taking a gentler approach to vertical gain, following the contours of the hillside rather than heading straight up.

“You’re doing great, look how far we’ve come!”

She turns to look down, scares herself with the sheer drop, and turns back, crossing her arms and harrumphing again. “That scared me. I can’t do it.”

“Well, we can’t sleep here, can we?” I ask, attempting the light humor that will sometimes snap her out of recalcitrance. “And look, there’s the tree we’re heading for. We’re almost there. Look, you’re the leader, and you’re doing a great job, so I want to show you two choices. Either one is fine. We can keep going straight, up this way,” and I point to the rocky draw she’s been following, that traces a straight line between us and a budding oak tree. “Or, we can follow this sneaky deer trail that’s an easier path. I know it looks like it’s going the wrong way, but it twists back around, I promise.”

***

And what greater metaphor for this moment of improvisation, of leaving behind the cozy, safe, necessary known for some new dimension, than human adolescence? A risk-taking, precipice-walking, edge-living phase of our development carefully designed to carry us away from our community, out to points unknown, to mix with others and create new family lines. With the skills, knowledge, and strength to set forth for new spaces and places, but without the wisdom to worry so much about what’s coming; the power to plunge straight ahead to the next thing, without the discernment to think maybe there’s an easier way, around the corner, just out of sight. In order to survive babyhood, we needed to create the attached family unit. But in order to thrive as a species, we needed to find a way away from each other, a vehicle to spread the wings and sow the proverbial wild oats further afield.

***

True to form, Adara insists on heading straight up the draw, not interested in my advice about a so-called easier path. She’s tired now, and can’t make it more than a few steps at a time before she needs to stop and catch her breath, rest her shaking legs. She can see the tree, with the picnic rock next to it, and she’s confident in her knowledge of the best way to get there. Straight. Up. The. Hill. Though the pauses between pushing upward grow longer with each break, push herself she does, and we make our way slowly up the slope.

“MOM, I NEED your hand.”

“Kiddo, if I hold your hand, I’m going to pull you down the hill. Here, I’ll just hold your hi-“

“Fine, I CAN’T DO IT!” And she plunks back down, lifts up her butt to toss a sharp rock out from under her. It just misses my kneecap. “And I’m not a kiddo. I’m THIRTEEN!”

I take a deep breath and look out over the river. We’re so close to the top, where we can sit on a flat rock and eat the salt and vinegar chips and sing songs and tell stories and build fairy houses in the dust on the side of the old mine road while we wait for the rest of the crew to come down the mountain.

I just need to keep my mouth shut, and we’ll get there.

As a teenager with a developmental disability, my daughter perhaps inhabits the brink more precariously than others; she toggles in an instant between a deep dependence—still needing help to zip a zipper, tie a shoe, sneak a pee on the side of a mountain—and a fierce desire to do it her way, on her own, without interruption and condescension. But, then, the more I talk to her classmates’ parents, the parents of so-called typical children, the more I realize that it’s only really a difference of degrees. All the kids her age are doing this dance. She just does it a little more transparently. And she needs a little more help to get free of me.

As we push on up her chosen path, my thoughts continue to circle on this idea that as a species, we have banked our survival on this risk-taking phase of human development. And as we stop again, angry at a piece of sharp grass that pokes into the sock, I remember something our midwife said, back when people were still saying things to try to make us feel better about Adara’s Down syndrome diagnosis. Something about how there are people who believe that Down syndrome—a genetic mutation that causes a triplication of the 21st chromosome, rather than the typical duplication, and the most survivable trisomy, as these triplications are collectively known—is the next evolutionary phase of the human species. That the emotional intelligence that is a common trait in Down syndrome is exactly what we need to survive the challenges in front of us right now.

I never looked the theory up back then, to see if she was just blowing smoke to make us feel better. And now I suspect any discussion of the theme will be rife with stereotypes and platitudes about Down syndrome—about how “those people” are happy all the time, and are pure love, and are just perpetual children who have found some stash of joy and contentment that we should all learn from.

But watching my kid choose the hardest path with a force and determination that I could only hope to attain, I have to wonder. No, she’s not happy all the time. She bridles at her little brother just as much as any 13-year-old should. No, she’s not a forever-child. She’s determined to finish school, go to college, and live in an apartment without her boring parents and their annoying rules and chores. But her joys are deeper than just about anyone I know, and she doesn’t carry a grudge. She has a gift for finding lonely people and bringing them into the circle, and for making them laugh with bad puns and absurd knock-knock jokes. She navigates life’s most challenging moments with a resiliency we all should envy. Maybe we could all stand to move that way after all, or at least to weave a little of the ways of that bonus chromosome into our dealings with ourselves and each other. Perhaps we’ve achieved a place as a species where we can choose some of our next adaptations. Choose to weave a new way.

A new thought to ponder. Luckily, there’s plenty of time for thinking on these hikes we take together.

Abby Braithwaite lives in Ridgefield, Washington, where she writes from a converted shipping container in the woods overlooking the family farm. She enjoys the soundscape of sandhill cranes, coyotes and freight trains trundling from Portland to Seattle underneath her bedroom window. Her essays on parenting, escape, and disability have been published in the Barton Chronicle, the Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and the Hip Mama blog, as well as a handful of non-profit newsletters. In 2019 she created “Contained”, a chapbook of her collected musings. She shares her home with her husband and two children, three cats, and two dogs.

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

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Grief, Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Relentlessly Human

May 29, 2021
human

By Alli Blair Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a mom anymore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, parenting, Pregnancy

Yellow Coat

April 4, 2021
cyrus

By Samina Najmi

This is an essay I don’t want my son to read.

When Cyrus first arrived at the daycare center, a handsome two-year-old with dimpled cheek, he refused to take his coat off. For weeks the battle raged. Even when he could be persuaded to walk into his classroom and sit at the communal table, he would not permit anyone to unzip his puffy yellow coat or slide the hood from his head. His teacher, a no-nonsense young woman concerned about the hazards of overheating, insisted. Cyrus would back away, clutching at his chest as she approached, but stronger hands than his pried his fingers away and retrieved the shrinking arms from the yellow sleeves that cocooned them. He’d crumple in the corner, then, his body hiccuping with sobs.

By the time Cyrus was four years old, he was already a staunch creature of habit. Every morning he climbed down from the top of the bunk-bed, one careful step at a time, with a plush animal or two ensconced under his arm, and at the end of each day he gathered his critters and climbed back up the ladder to bed. No matter how late the night or how tired his legs, Cyrus never left his critters behind.

But then his mother accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at Fresno State. During the five months in which our family of four had to pack up our lives in Massachusetts and move to California, Cyrus sorrowed for what he was about to lose: the bedroom lined with bookshelves that he shared with his older sister, Maya; the swing-set in the sprawling backyard with grass that his father mowed on a mini tractor, sometimes with Cyrus sitting ensconced between his knees; the above-ground pool he would venture into only with a yellow float that resembled a lifejacket; his preschool friends and teachers who had been part of his world for fully half his life–in a word, everything he knew.

I helped as I knew how: by buying children’s books on the subject. Together we followed the Berenstain Bears’ move from mountain cave to tree-house and Tigger’s move to a new home; we read about a human family’s sudden accumulation of cardboard boxes from the perspective of their dog, Boomer. In fact, I discovered scores of stories about animals whose families were about to relocate. The one Cyrus asked me to read most often featured a little boy mouse and bore the title:  I’m Not Moving, Mama!

Ten years later Cyrus would have to move again, this time within Fresno, following his parents’ divorce. I’ll worry about its effect on him, but though he’ll be more tentative about the condo than his sister, he will be surer of it than I. At fourteen, the relief of not having to water backyard trees or skim a pool, and the coolness factor of having the boutique drinks of Dutch Bros nearby will outweigh any sense of loss. This time it will be our four-year-old cat Winnie who’ll spend the first months after the move huddled in a cardbox box in our new garage.

But back then as we packed for the transcontinental move, Cyrus refused to part with any of his belongings, so we paid to have them all–not just the stuffed animals but every building block, every monster truck, every long-lost board-book, old socks, and worn shoes–we paid by the pound to have all of them driven three thousand miles in a big moving truck that sported the word Atlas on a blue wave across its breadth.

On the six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, Cyrus sat somber and resigned, like a kitten in a carry-cage that had stopped meowing but couldn’t be made to purr. An enthusiast about every mode of transportation, he allowed himself to be distracted only briefly by the airplane’s wing or the terrain below it. Often I’d look up to find his eyes holding the tears that would neither quell nor drop.

A single photograph captures the moment of Cyrus’s arrival at Fresno airport: he stands with his older sister at the top of the downward escalator in the terminal, a giant “Welcome to Fresno” sign visible above their small frames. Maya looks around her with bright, inquisitive eyes and a smile forming on her lips. Cyrus, on the other hand, wears a wary expression and a navy blue t-shirt with BOSTON in big red letters across his chest.

That first year, in addition to my new tenure-track job, the family had to adjust to the fact that dad was no longer working from home. This was especially hard for Cyrus. “I wish Daddy didn’t have a job,” he said more than once. (Until, within the year, his wish came true.) I arose at 5:00am to prepare or overprepare for my classes and get myself and my children ready for the day. I’d drop Maya off at Malloch Elementary and Cyrus at Kiddie Kare–the preschool he had picked over the more prestigious Fairmont on account of the quality of its playground (and yes, I gave him the choice because he had so few choices). Then I made my way twenty minutes east to Fresno State. I was teaching new courses and adapting to the rhythms of a large public university where the culture differed significantly from the small private colleges I had taught at until then. I was being tested and I didn’t want to fail.

Cyrus added to the challenges of my first year on the job by dragging his feet every morning. The day would begin pleasantly enough. He’d be the first person to awake after me, and as soon as he did so, he’d climb down from the bunk-bed with the stuffed toys du jour and come looking for Mama in the family room. He’d find her predictably reading on the couch, pen in hand. Our unspoken ritual dictated that I set my tome aside for a few minutes while he rested his head on my lap, and together we listened for the birdies. I didn’t know then how abruptly such rituals end or how often I would return to that morning communion between us when the teen years came. There are days now when my son will emerge from his bedroom and walk at brisk, preoccupied pace right past the living room, unseeing. But back then I would have to say, “Time for us to get up now, love.” And somehow as soon as the moment of idyllic stasis was behind us, as it came time to get dressed and head out of the house, the morning demanded some combination of coaxing, humoring, arguing, and reprimanding to get Cyrus out the door on time. Somehow, we managed.

Until one day, six months into the new school year, it got to me. And it was the morning of Cyrus’s fifth birthday.

He had come looking for me in the living room that cold February morning, his footsteps soft against the Mexican tiles of the hallway. But instead of bounding toward the couch, he paused at the threshold with smiling eyes, clutching Pinkie, the plush poodle, in one hand, his slender body wrapped in the fleece robe his grandmother had made him for Christmas. I went up to hug him before we returned to the couch together. That morning at the breakfast table he laughed at everything, the Birthday Boy, his dimples deep with the giddiness of turning five.

I don’t know when it began or how it escalated, but an hour later, the scene had shifted. Maya was dressed and ready, as was I. Also ready to go was a half-sheet marble cake for Cyrus’s classmates with strawberry filling and a miniature Lightning McQueen parked atop the icing. Then Cyrus was protesting–was it about wearing a sweater? putting his shoes on?–and I was trying to reason with him. Next thing I knew I was shrieking at him in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own. It wasn’t even the worst of his procrastinations, but I couldn’t scale back. My words, whatever they were, bounced off the dark Mexican tiles and resounded throughout the high-ceilinged house. Maya stared. Six months of practiced patience at home and nervous diligence at work had erupted in unaccustomed volume that terrorized the five-year-old boy before me. His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs.

I like to think I didn’t let him cry for long. That I recovered my sense of proportion, abandoning whatever had seemed important to insist upon a few minutes ago. I held him until the sobs subsided, led him to the bathroom to wash his face and pat it dry, my fingers smoothing his dark hair.

I load the Lightning McQueen cake into the minivan. We drop Maya off at Malloch and within five minutes we have arrived at Kiddie Kare. As I reach for the sheet cake on the backseat, I wonder if Cyrus is a tad too quiet. The teacher takes the cake from my hands and assures me that the children will enjoy it. “Cyrus makes everyone laugh,” she says.

My husband and I had gone all out for our son’s fifth birthday, his first one in Fresno. We even colluded in buying him the big, red motorized All Terrain Vehicle he could only imagine owning. After Kiddie Kare, there was Pump It Up, an extravagant space where brother and sister bounced their hearts out together. The following day we hosted Cyrus’s four close friends from preschool, all of them boys who displayed good-natured envy of his new ATV and took turns driving it around our backyard. Photographs show Cyrus and his playmates with exuberant expressions, intent on their fun. All evidence suggests a happy birthday.

So why has that morning been on my mind these past few weeks of summer? Cyrus and Maya appear to have no memory of it. Does that mean it didn’t happen? That I didn’t ruin the day–didn’t make my son cry on the morning of his fifth birthday?

Moments after that moment, six-year-old Maya had said quietly, “He wasn’t really arguing with you, Mama. I don’t know why you got so upset with him.”

Maya has always been communicative–to a fault, her teachers might say. “Why not try to sit with silence?” I’d ask her at the kitchen table sometimes. “It’s not the same thing as nothingness, you know.” Now, in her last summer at home before leaving for college, she does yoga and we hang out at cafés together, as comfortable with quiet as with our chatter. Our conversations move across varied terrains. She’s my window into contemporary pop culture as shaped by artists of color–Solange Knowles, Childish Gambino (whom I once recalled as “Childish Bambino,” much to my children’s mirth). I can’t get into the macabre crime shows she loves, but Jane the Virgin reels me in with such vehemence that within weeks I’ve caught up on all eighty-one episodes available on Netflix.

Maya was a junior at Edison High when Cyrus entered as a freshman. Many in his class looked up to his sister as part of the cool set, one of those tweeting upper-classmen who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of their times. She made a formidable opponent in debates at Model United Nations conferences and performed in Edison Tiger Theater Company’s productions of The Wiz and The Lion King. She’s also a freelance journalist for The kNOw Youth Media and Fresnans have seen her pictured in The Fresno Bee among a small group of young people speaking up for their right to meaningful sex education in Fresno Unified schools. Maya has an opinion on most things, including high school robotics, which her brother loves.

Robotics. Cyrus’s freshman year, robotics became the wall between us that I couldn’t scale. He’s been loyal to soccer and piano since he was little, but neither of those shut me out like robotics, perhaps because sports and music make room for an audience. By contrast, the robotics club at Edison High gathers in an extension of the lab that is a warehouse–a metallic room cramped with tools that I can barely name, let alone use. This unbeautiful space fires my son’s imagination. During the six weeks of Build Season, he and a few other hardcore robotics students like him spend at least as many hours in the wareheouse after school as they do in class. There they feel the rush of the hands-on, head-on thrill of designing and building a robot that can compete at the prestigious First Robotics regional, national, and even global competitions. A tireless mentor stays with them, including parent-mentors who have both the time and know-how to make themselves useful.

I am not one of them. But sophomore year I spend more money than I should to tag along to Houston when Edison’s team, Mindcraft 3495, is invited to the World Competition, sponsored by major tech companies, including Google. Their robot’s unique four-bar arm design, which Cyrus had worked on with a senior, had won the Engineering Award at the Central Valley Regional and caught the attention of the First Robotics judges. They didn’t win the global tournament, but they were there. And cheering them on, I felt for the first time that I understood something of First Robotics culture, if not of mechanical engineering.

Still, the mother seeks traces of the little boy who loved his stuffed animals and never failed to scoop them up at the end of the day.

Is the boy who held on to his yellow coat there in the sixteen-year-old whose teammates trust him not only to design and build their robot but to drive it in the tense, adrenalin-charged arenas of a tournament?

Maya has her own take on her younger brother. With the vantage point of a graduated senior, she casts a suspicious eye on “STEM kids” as likely robotic themselves. And as an enthusiast of psychology, she has been known, half-seriously, to call her brother a sociopath–as distinct from psychopath, she tells him; more like the profiles of CEOs. I recoil from the noun and admonish her for typecasting. What does she know of Cyrus’s capacity for tenderness, his vulnerabilities, and his loyalties? Mine is the memory.

Perhaps the memories of Cyrus’s early years press on me now because Maya is about to leave home. I have spent the past few years anticipating what her absence will mean for me, for Cyrus, for our home life. We’ve moved twice before, but as a family; now Maya will be moving out. She will be moving on. For the first time in our world, it will be just my son and me. We’ll have only each other to greet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Until, in two years’ time, Cyrus moves out, too.

As the harsh hand of change reaches toward me, I shrink into my yellow coat. I want to be the critter who won’t be left behind.

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, Samina’s essays have appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Daughter of multigenerational migrations, Samina grew up in Pakistan and England and lived in Massachusetts before moving to California with her then-young family.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Kindness, parenting, Self Love

Golden Repair: A Disfigured Mom’s Quest to Raise a More Loving Child

February 8, 2021
god

By Melissa Akie Wiley

She looked at my face with disgust. My infant daughter cooed. I had just placed the baby into a shopping cart when the woman first approached. A stranger. She came too close. Staring at my daughter.

“Your baby is perfect,” she said. “She looks like a doll.”

I thanked her and pulled the cart away. Then the woman looked up at me and froze. She was silent and scurried to her car, as if I might run after her. I stood in front of the grocery store with my daughter. The automatic doors opened and closed but I didn’t move. My baby smiled. Too young to know that she is beautiful but her mother is disfigured.

My daughter is 2 years old now. She has round blue eyes and blonde hair. Her face inspires joy. My face is lopsided and scarred. It was a dog attack. I was five. I am not afraid of dogs. People always seem more concerned about my feelings toward dogs than they do about me. I have had over thirty surgeries and they helped. But my face is instantly noticeable. And the world is bothered by asymmetry and imperfection. I am also part Japanese and part white. My skin is too pale and my hair is too dark. People tell me that my daughter is perfect and then they say she looks nothing like me.

I have never looked like anyone. Bi-racial and disfigured is a cocktail of isolation. In childhood, I left my hometown of Boulder, Colorado every summer to visit my Japanese grandma in Tucson, Arizona. One summer I begged her to take me to a crowded shopping mall to buy doll clothes. I was 7 years old.

“Did you see that disgusting girl?” a woman said then.

She was talking to her daughter and looking directly at me.

The girl met my eyes and glared. Her hair twisted in a tight braid. I dreamed of ponytails but didn’t dare wear my hair up. I looked at the girl’s flawless appearance and sank into shame.

“So gross. I can’t believe she even came out of her house. She’s going to give me nightmares. She’s a monster,” the girl said. She was my age and already this callous.

The mother hugged her daughter and shot my grandma a scowl.

Then she said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. People should know better but she’s clearly with some immigrant nanny who probably doesn’t even speak English.”

We stood in silence with our doll clothes. I felt devastation that my grandma should suffer due to my deformity. I tried to wedge myself behind stacks of toys to prevent further commentary. My grandma adjusted her glasses with shaky hands.

“I am sorry I don’t speak good English,” she said.

That day she bought more doll clothes than she could afford. She had worked as a hotel maid and saved tips in the form of crisp dollar bills. She set this carefully preserved money aside for me. When we approached the counter to pay for the items, the cashier said, “what’s wrong with her face?”

“Nothing wrong with my granddaughter,” she said, in broken English.

Once I asked my mom if she was mad at God. We were sitting in my grandma’s backyard in Tucson. Looking at the night sky. It’s easier to talk about God’s failings in the dark.

On the day of the dog attack, she had only looked away for a minute. Long enough to drain noodles from a boiling pan. When she turned around, the yard lay covered in blood and my face was gone.

“No,” she said. “Because you are extraordinary. You have shown me what it is to live next to suffering and become truly beautiful.”

People ask how I survived. The answer is my mom.

I want to tell her that I am not mad at God because he gave me her, and a good mom is worth more than a pretty face.  I am thankful I learned this lesson in youth. When I still have more years on the earth with my mom.

Tragedy in childhood is a spiritual offering. Early redemption creates a fast track toward a more meaningful and grounded life. I shed the frivolousness of appearance, money, and status like a butterfly discards a cocoon. Because when the world rejected me, I sheltered only with the tender hearted and my own soul. And if we’re lucky, that is where we all eventually end up anyway.

My daughter will grow up with a disfigured mom.

On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college, I will take photos of her and children will stare. After I am gone, they will ruin these moments of childhood by asking what’s wrong with her mom. I know this because these moments were taken from me, too.

I will want to stay in the car to spare her. But I will not. Instead I will show up for everything. And when we hear the comments, I will tell her that the Japanese have a word, Kintsugi, which roughly translates to golden repair. It is the Japanese art of taking broken pottery and patching it with gold so that the imperfection is illuminated instead of disguised. I will tell her that my mother’s love was the glue that made my flawed life golden. And my love will hold her together, too.

This pain will make my daughter kind. It will teach her that the world is unduly harsh because we are all more broken than whole. And she will learn that love is restorative and the only thing of true beauty. She will inherit this wisdom in childhood. When we are both still young enough to walk the earth together.

And when people ask, I hope she says, “There is nothing wrong with my mom”.

Melissa Akie Wiley is a public servant and fierce local government leader by day and a mother and writer by heart. She strives to infuse joy into all aspects of service by living with authenticity and resiliance. After overcoming a disfiguring childhood dog attack, Melissa committed to a life of repair and love. She holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her husband, daughter, and dog in Denver, Colorado. She is the director of the nationally-recognized, Denver Peak Academy and is currently working on her memoir.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Drawers

October 11, 2020
drawers

By Hillary Richard

When I was a kid, my brothers and I routinely rifled through our single mom’s drawers. We didn’t really know what we were looking for. Clues, maybe? Mom was something of an enigma then, alternately mystifying and terrifying.

While we three roamed the Upper West Side barefoot, bedraggled, and unsupervised, Mom worked as a registered nurse, mostly at night because it paid more. Because she worked nights, she slept during the day. When we feral kids woke her (which was often) she raged. Screaming, hitting, and punishments galore followed. Sometimes, if we really, really misbehaved, she would take away holidays like Halloween or Christmas.

But Mom could also be really fun. A musician at heart, a lifelong pianist, she loved to cook up a big pot of spaghetti, invite tons of people over, and make music. More often than not, though, we sat alone at the kitchen table, eating chicken potpies and TV dinners. Sometimes a live-in student swapped rent for nighttime babysitting. Men came and went. Some were nice and taught us things we loved, like how to burp on command (I can still do this). Some, not so much.

Who was this mother we loved, but whose actions confused and frightened us? The answer, we figured, was in her drawers. My brothers and I were usually disappointed to find only scarves, pantyhose, and underwear. Sometimes, we found matchbooks and notes. We pondered their meaning.

In time, I would find much more.

I now have three kids of my own. I have the luxury of a husband, a well paying job. When the kids were younger, I was able to employ an excellent nanny who not only cared for them, but who cleaned and cooked.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to never enjoy the gift of time when I was a child. Just time to play with me or read to me; time free from worrying about how to pay the rent or clean the apartment. I, on the other hand, have clocked countless hours playing with Barbies, endless games of Candyland (which I never let the kids win without a real fight), and hours and hours of reading to them in bed or just laying there, feeling their hearts beat while they fell asleep. These quotidian minutiae shaped my relationships with my three girls. As did my desire to be an open book, unlike my mother.

When I was in third grade, I found some pot in one of my mother’s drawers. I had been fully indoctrinated into the belief that marijuana was a gateway drug that led directly to heroin. Naturally, I was hysterical. I told my older brother Chris, a sixth grader, that our mother was a drug addict, likely to die any day now of a fatal overdose. I thought we could confront her directly, you know: scare her straight. Chris calmly explained that he too smoked pot. Perhaps, he reasoned, if I tried it, I would understand it wasn’t dangerous like heroin. While I appreciated his soothing tone and calming efforts, I demurred. And rather than confront her, I just kept on spying.

Naturally, I grew to learn that weed doesn’t kill you, although alcohol might. And raising three girls firmly convinced me that of the two, weed was definitely the safer option. Alcohol would inspire me to make stupid and risky choices. Pot just made me hungry. My mom struggled with both. I joked that she could get addicted to anything – Coca Cola, aspirin, you name it. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so funny.

When my middle daughter started smoking pot in high school, I was relieved she wasn’t coming home drunk. I didn’t want her to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, just being female and a teenager makes you vulnerable. But I didn’t want her to be more vulnerable.

Eventually, I found some papers in my mother’s underwear drawer. They appeared to reference a medical procedure. I didn’t understand them. But I remembered the word abortion. Or a word close to abortion. They might have been in Spanish; I don’t really remember. But they scared me.

Sometimes we spent weekends with our dad (dads really, as my little brother had a different one). We never wondered what my mom was doing because we were kids and mostly just thought about ourselves. To the extent we ever thought about it, we just assumed she was at work or at home, like always. I was frightened to think that when we were away, my mom was having medical procedures, or doing who knows what else. But I couldn’t ask without admitting I went through her stuff. Was this taking away a holiday kind of bad? I wasn’t sure of the grade of the offense, and I didn’t want to risk it. Still, I thought about those papers for years.

We left New York for California soon thereafter. My mom married her third husband. We stopped going through her drawers. He had a bad temper and it wasn’t worth the risk. Also, she was home more. She stopped nursing. Actually, she stopped working altogether.

I understand now that she was desperately searching for herself. All of a sudden, she had the luxury of time. She wrote music, poetry, plays. She was finding herself as an artist. We kids remained feral, complicated, and unruly. I’m sure this contributed to the demise of that marriage. We moved on. My brothers left to live with their respective fathers. I stayed behind.

As a full-fledged teenager, I acted out, fell in love, got arrested, cut classes. My mom played in rock bands, had tumultuous relationships, and went on welfare. She was no longer an enigma to me. I learned she’d had a particularly rough childhood, was orphaned young, then separated from her three siblings in foster care, only to later learn that between her mother’s death and her father’s a year later, he’d remarried and sired another child. I knew that she was overwhelmed by sadness. That she had complicated relationships with men. That she loved us as best as she could, but often felt we were just too much for her.

I was no longer in danger of getting punished for going through her drawers years ago, so at 14, I asked her about the papers I had found.

As it turned out, she’d had an abortion. Not in New York, where it was illegal. She’d been having a fling, maybe an affair, with a doctor at the hospital where she worked. He didn’t want a child, at least not that one, and my mother couldn’t afford another one. So, he flew her to Puerto Rico, where abortion was legal. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was fairly common for women to fly from mainland US to Puerto Rico to obtain a safe, legal abortion. My mom could never have afforded that on her own.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if she had gotten pregnant instead by the violin player she dated for ages, or the Con Ed worker who for a while was a fixture in our house. Would she have gotten a back alley abortion and possibly died? I can’t imagine her having another child when life was already so hard, money so strained, and my mother so tired. Our lives, already in motion, already difficult, would have been so much worse. Not only am I grateful, I’m astonished she could do such a thing. It must have been frightening to leave home, have an abortion, and return to three loud, needy kids, and pretend like nothing happened.

In that moment, I realized that there was so much of her I hadn’t realized. All along, she’d been a nuanced, complex woman with experiences and feelings unknown to me.

I soon left home and set out to live my own complex, nuanced life. About two weeks  before graduating from college and heading to law school, to begin what I saw as my real life, my adult life, I found out I was pregnant. I wasn’t in a committed relationship, although that wouldn’t have mattered. I was going to law school and there was no possibility that I was going there pregnant. Is it awful to admit that I don’t remember exactly who got me pregnant? It was a long time ago. What I do remember – vividly – was that I had a graduation party at Danceteria. I had the abortion money in my clutch (worn with my vintage cocktail dress and combat boots – thanks, Madonna). I guess he had given me his half at the party. I put my bag down to dance and when I looked over, it was gone. I ran off the dance floor and headed for the exit. (I had no money. This was a big deal.) There was the cuprit, fleeing down those steep Danceteria stairs. I screamed at her to stop and was about to jump when she tossed the bag up to me and ran.

My mother, sick with cancer, wasn’t able to attend my graduation. It was the first time I realized just how sick she was because she wouldn’t have otherwise missed it for the world. I didn’t tell her about the abortion; it didn’t seem necessary. And, given her pragmatism about hers, I was confident that she would appreciate my pragmatism about mine.

My mom died during my first year of law school. What can unmoor you more than that? (Spoiler alert: losing both parents.) I went to El Salvador and lived under martial law during a civil war. At least you can’t feel sorry for yourself under those circumstances. I blew up a relationship that probably deserved detonation. I graduated law school with honors. I had another abortion. These things were unrelated. I marched forward towards my real life. After graduation I met the man I’ve now been married to for almost thirty years. We’ve had three kids together. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I longed for my mom. How did she feel when she was pregnant with me? Was she excited? Was I a surprise? I had so many questions that I’d never thought to ask. I longed for the time when I could rummage through her closets, scrutinize her expressions, pepper her with questions, if only I had known the right questions. Indeed, raising three girls, I long for her daily.

I firmly believe that we all keep secrets, even from those we have long, intimate, loving relationships with. Even those of us who consider ourselves an open book as I do. But am I an enigma to my kids? I think not. They know that I’ve had abortions. And they know not to eat any candy they find in my drawers because maybe it’s not just candy. But more than that, we spend endless amounts of time together; deeply together. We talk about things that were verboten when I was a kid: mental health issues, alcoholism, why every girl should own a vibrator, and just what it means to be alive and engaged in the world. Unlike my mom, I have the luxury of time. And I hope to have it long enough that they can ask me (once they are interested) what it felt like to be pregnant with them. How I coped working full time and raising kids. What to do when you find yourself pregnant and you don’t want to, or can’t afford to be. Let the rest of their lives be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Not me. Just stay out of my drawers.

 

Hillary Richard is a former lawyer and now helps run a social media platform for women over 40 called The Woolfer. She is editor of the weekly newsletter and occasionally writes short pieces for the site. Hillary also writes, is the executive producer, and co-host of a podcast called Raging Gracefully

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Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

Tough As A Mother

October 4, 2020
tough

By Talya Jankovits

Four months ago, my children came home from school, and they never went back. Backpacks hung hopeful on hooks, until weeks passed, and it was clear that it was time to reach deep into the crevices of a dozen purposeless pockets and empty them of little bits of folded pieces of paper, a solitary cookie, a dried-out stick of gum. Even further still to the tiny colorful erasers hidden in the folds of the lining, these small prizes hoarded from teachers. Treasures of days traveling to and from school, all splayed out on the kitchen counter as I sorted through them like an excavator. What I could sneak into the trash before they catch me, what must get stored for next year. The backpacks went into the wash, then hung up to try before being put in the basement storage with no clear idea of when they might get pulled out next.

When I first faced the realization that we would be bunkered down, myself and my four daughters together as my husband, an essential worker,  continued to work outside of the home, anxiety filled my mornings, my nights and every hour sandwiched in between. I lost myself in the heaps of laundry, the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I sank heavy under the demands of varying ages of children from a baby up to a fourth grader who needed to learn how to write a state paper and all the tiresome math problems in between. Winter was still hovering in the slow birth of spring, and we watched the seasons change as the weight of our outerwear hanging on the coatrack thinned ever slowly into straw hats and baseball caps. Finally, summer had arrived and with that a redemption from remote learning and a rebirth that I had not anticipated.

As a mother, I now have never felt stronger as a result from having never felt weaker. I hadn’t understood the immense value in self forgiveness until I was one of the very few people in my new reality who could offer it. I had never embraced my flaws as a parent until I was face to face daily with the reflection of myself in the eyes of my daughters – all of whom needed me more than ever.  By the time the first tulips poked their heads out of the thawing ground I was slowly gaining awareness of my own metamorphosis. My body was softer than it ever was, fuller than its ever been. But I found that so was my heart. Parenting during a pandemic was, is, the fiercest thing I have ever done in my entire adult life.

Raising small humans was never a small task, but with the onset of a worldwide pandemic which held inside of itself historic happenings towards social justice, there was a surge in my responsibility towards fostering children that are human conscientious, anti-hate and anti-self-serving. I was terrified at all that was being hurled at us as human beings. All my obligations to absorb happenings and seize the opportunity to step up my parenting instead of retreating inside. And something remarkable happened, after months of all of us struggling with the changes, the challenges, the isolation, and the uncertainty, I noticed personal growth inside of our home.

Summer brought heat, sprinklers, frozen treats, and endless hours together to fill in any way we could think up. It also brought dialogue about why we wear masks and who we are protecting. Why we have given up certain opportunities to practice human awareness – the concept of tikkun olam, our part in caring and protecting the world. It brought on conversation about skin color, about systemic hate, about privilege, about standing up, about accountability and kindness and goodness in both large and small scales.

Summer days are hot and our heads hurt with weary happy heat by the time the sky glows pink. The kids fall asleep happy. They thank me. They tell me today was such a great day. And yet there are still times I am feeling totally gutted. As if I have hollowed all of myself out for them to grab and take with greedy fingers. I think of how far we likely are from our old normal. How long it may be until I can see my parents in California. How school may not arrive in the fall the way we want it to. How masked faces are the new face of human interaction. I think these things and I want to crawl into my bed, lay my head down and hibernate until a miracle solution is found.  But then I put on my T-shirt.

The words printed on the tshirt: Tough as a mother. My grey t-shirt, unassuming, unremarkable – feels like a superhero’s cape. I pull it over my head, slip my arms through the holes, and holler for my girls: I am ready to start our day. I feel invincible. It seems inconsequential, almost absurd, that this shirt would have any influence over me. In no time it will be sweat stained, snot marked, sticky from melted popsicles. It will get thrown into a laundry shoot with little consideration after late summer dark finally blankets the sky and the last daughter has crawled into bed. Yet, it validates me. This shirt from the internet, it fuels me.

I am one tough mother. I did it. I am still doing it. Did I get through every day with grace and dignity? At first, no, definitely no. There was yelling. There was crying on cold kitchen floors as a baby gently poked me. There was hiding in bathrooms and there was anxiety ridden nights where I never fell asleep because the dread of the mundanity that morning would bring kept me awake until the first mommy! of the day clawed open my heavy eyelids. But four months have passed and I’m not rough around the edges anymore. I’m undoubtedly tougher. There is still so much summer ahead without any of our usual summer luxuries and indulgences. There is still a fast-approaching school year with so many unknowns. I have given up so much of myself for these four girls, and I likely will be giving up so much more. But I am at peace with that. I am braver and stronger than I’ve ever been and as this virus continues to rage on, as our country sets out to do so much work that needs to be done, I want my kids to reflect back one day on this time of their lives and think, we made it through ok, because we had one tough mother

Talya Jankovits’s work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Hevria, Lilith, Literary Mama, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters..

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Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and https://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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