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parents

Guest Posts, cancer

You Can’t Make That Up

April 26, 2022
breast cancer

How do you know your dog is dead?

My mother was concerned and texting me about her elderly dog. I asked if he was breathing and no, Wilbur was not breathing. He had collapsed soon after peeing. I told my mother to put a towel over him and I would be there as soon as possible. It was already a busy day. My novel was coming out in two months and I needed to respond to emails before picking up the kids from a local park. But trouble worships at the altar of inconvenience.

Later that night, after transporting the corpse to the vet, I found the lump in my breast.

I am now being treated for breast cancer. According to my oncologist, one in eight women gets this disease. More women get breast cancer than floss regularly. This makes my diagnosis somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is both reassuring and frightening. As I write this, I am sitting up in bed leaning against something called a wedge pillow. I am between surgeries and chemotherapy, considering a buzz cut and reading about the likelihood of mouth sores. I want to write, but as it turns out, cancer is time consuming. It’s infuriating. It won’t let me make stuff up.

Like parenting, cancer is something you do while you do all the other things. “Breast cancer is the one you want,” said my friend with lung cancer who manages a fitness center. Another friend, upon learning of my diagnosis, said, “At least it’s under a Biden Administration.” And then she promised to knit me a boob and would I mind merino wool if they were out of cashmere.

The day after I dropped off the dog corpse, I scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. As the Russian woman with the blue mascara and N95 mask maneuvered my breast into a plastic tray while explaining that, due to my age (47), half of my breasts had migrated to my armpits, I stared at the daffodil mural and wondered why women needed to be reminded of flowers while they’re standing topless in front of a big white machine. One week later, I was back for a biopsy and, this time, a field of bright orange poppies. As I perched on the table awaiting the technician, I jotted down some notes for a story about a Russian woman with blue mascara.

Soon after, on my way to pick up my daughter from physical therapy, I got the call. “It’s not the news we were hoping for,” is how the nurse began. As I pulled the car over, she declared matter-of-factly, “You will get through this. But we should act quickly.” There were other words: fast-growing tumor, surgery, chemotherapy. I interrupted her. “I need to find parking. Can you email me what you just said?” She said she would. I found a spot around the corner.

In the car, I told my 13-year-old the news. “I’ll be ok,” I said, crying, “But I have breast cancer.” She was quiet and stared out the window. Back at home, she made me a cup of mint tea and suggested we watch Gilmore Girls. It was the episode where Paris gets bossy about the school newspaper. We stared at the screen and waited for the rest of the family to come home. My husband had taken the older one to the DMV to test for her learner’s permit. When they walked into the kitchen, permit in hand, I restated something I would later say one hundred more times to my extended family. “I’ll be ok. But I have breast cancer.” As I described what I understood about my disease so far, my older daughter cried, and my husband nodded slowly, as if drawing an invisible line between his brain and his body. We ordered Thai food and read the pathology report. After dinner I excused myself to listen to a sample of my audio book.

“The good news is that you can keep the top skin and nipples,” the plastic surgeon informed me, after drawing a diagram of my breast showing the location of the tumor. He depicted my breast as a perfectly round circle with the nipple as a tiny donut, smack dab in the middle. I told the surgical team my first novel was coming out in a few weeks. “How exciting,” one of the residents said. “We can schedule around that.”

I spoke to a stranger who, eight years ago, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with the same surgical team. She told me to buy this wedge pillow, and to request an anti-nausea drug to get me through general anesthesia. She encouraged me to take the pain medication, and to wear a button-down blouse to the hospital because I wouldn’t be able to pull shirts over my head for several weeks. She assured me I was doing the right thing, and what my new breasts would lack in sensation, they would make up for in symmetry and perkiness. She sent me a photo of her cleavage and offered to meet me somewhere so I could see and touch her silicon breasts. “It’s just what we do for each other,” she said, when I marveled at her invitation and politely declined. Then I put on lipstick and attended a virtual event for debut novelists.

Between blood tests, Zoom book events, and doctors drawing on my breasts with Sharpies, it began to hit me. Rocking back and forth on the floor of my bedroom, I fantasized about running away. I could fly to an island, swim in warm water, and order drinks from someone who thinks I’m healthy.

On a Friday in March, I woke up at dawn and showered with antiseptic body wash. After removing my jewelry, I pulled on sweatpants and my mother’s button-down shirt. My husband drove me to the hospital and held my hand in the waiting room. When the woman with the hoop earrings asked if he was my next of kin in the event I couldn’t make health decisions for myself, I started crying. My surgeon visited and asked if I was writing another book. “I think so,” I told her. “I’ve been busy.”

The nurse with the mole on his forehead had to put the IV in my foot. The veins on my hands are “tricky,” he said. I surrendered to him my merino wool knit boob, and he promised everyone would take good care of me. Then he put a mask over my mouth and told me to take several deep breaths.

Six hours later, I woke up woozy with a large bandage across my chest. I felt an incredible weight which made normal breathing difficult. Below the bandage, under my skin and pectoral muscles, were two expanders that would hold the place for future implants. Drains to collect excess fluid hung down from my body like extra intestines. My husband kissed the top of my head. His lips were soft. “You did it,” he said, looking proud and relieved. We ordered chicken teriyaki from the hospital menu, and I sipped apple juice through a straw. That night I requested that the nurses leave the shades open so I could watch the lights flicker in the skyscraper next door. I half-watched Crazy Rich Asians and a corset movie with Keira Knightley while I drifted in and out of sleep. I first saw Crazy Rich Asians on a plane two years ago. I had cancer then but didn’t know it.

Back at home in bed, propped up against the wedge pillow, I checked my email. Many people had enjoyed my novel. One reviewer called it “strange and beautiful,” and another said, “This book will haunt me for a while; maybe forever and not in a bad way.” I smiled and swallowed more pills. I could barely move. Sharp pains shot through my chest like lightning bolts. My left armpit felt like it was on fire. I had no appetite for anything other than ice water. And more frightening than the physical pain, was the psychosis. I was scared to be alone. I was worried I might rip the drains out of my sides and pick open the incisions to tear the expanders out of my chest. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I wanted, no – I needed – the foreign objects out of my body. The next day I picked up a prescription for an anti-anxiety med.

A few days later, I went to a bookstore for a signing. I wore a black hoodie with inside pockets to hold the drains. It was designed for women who had had their breasts removed. It also came in pink but that seemed too upbeat. I sat in a folding chair and signed 30 copies of my novel. A customer asked me what it was about. “Secret-keeping,” I replied.

My oncologist’s assistant called today, interrupting a short story I was working on. Next week I will start chemo. This will involve 16 infusions over the course of five months. The story is about a policeman who is concerned about his aging body. I can’t decide how to end it. The strongest of the drugs, Adriamycin, is bright red and can cause burning sensations in the body, which is why it is referred to as The Red Devil. You can’t make that up.

Rebecca Handler is a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at www.onewomanparty.com. Edie Richter is Not Alone, her debut novel, was published by Unnamed Press in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred Review, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Rebecca was recently awarded a MacDowell fellowship and looks forward to spending April 2022 in the woods in New Hampshire, writing her second novel.

***

If you liked this essay you will love this book:

“A tragicomic exploration of the collateral damage of Alzheimer’s disease… Handler gets it right from the title on out. Edie is definitely not alone. Her plight is one many readers will respond to deeply and perhaps even be soothed by… Profound yet often quite funny, keenly observed, and deeply affecting.” ―Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Hope, parents

Cake, and Other Necessary Comforts

April 17, 2022
mountain

The cake, with its creamy swirls of orange and yellow, is weirdly magnificent—a sunset in a pan. Banana caramel upside-down cake. I want it, but the list of ingredients and onerous instructions kill my appetite. I text the picture to my kitchen-whiz friend, Yvette.

She replies: “Wow. Are you going to make it?”

“Yes, someday.” And then I add: “Before I die.”

She sends back laugh-crying emojis because she knows me. I love salads-in-a-bag, jars of minced garlic, one-pot frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Why rinse and chop, dice and blend (and then do all the clean-up) when you can catch up on grading, or putter in the garden, or better yet, sit on the porch with your cat?

I also send the picture to my mother, which I regret at once, because she wants the recipe, and though she would have made a wonderful cake, a sweet sunset like no other, there is no way she can.

And my heart hurts again as I face the chasm between what could be, and what is.

***

When she and my stepdad Mark decided to live off the grid eight years ago, they were in their early 70s, and a working kitchen was one of the loves my mother gave up. They’d used their last $10,000 to buy the tiny one-room cabin on 20 isolated acres, the sloping land so matted with juniper and bitter brush you have to shove your way through. They haul up water in 200-gallon containers and hike up a hill to the outhouse; keep their perishables in a Coleman cooler. It’s like dry camping year-round. Their mountain cabin is so hard to get to that if they were gravely injured, they’d have to be rescued by helicopter.

Yet she still pulls off savory bread in the Dutch oven, and makes pioneer-style cakes on the wood stove. Sometimes she sends me pictures if there’s a good enough cell signal.

***

“It’s like going on a cruise,” my mother says every time she visits my son and me in Reno. From her door to mine, it’s only 135 miles, but it takes her half a day. Their 3-mile road, originally a deer trail, is so steep and narrow and winding, so rocky and rutted that only a 4-W drive truck can manage—and then only at 2 mph. So they get up early and throw in Hefty bags of garbage and laundry in the truck, along with Mom’s duffel and the dogs, and trundle down the mountain.

In the valley, “the flats” they call it, a rancher lets them keep their ‘90 Suzuki Swift on his property. It sits there like a faded blue go-cart in the weeds, attracting mice to its innards, which they scare off with a few thumps on the hood.

After they transfer her bags to the car, Mom waves goodbye to my Mark and the border collies, Jasmine and Teddy, whips on her wraparound sunglasses, and takes off along the two-lane highways that cross the high desert basin of northeast California and into Nevada. Sometimes a highway patrol officer pulls her over for going so far under the speed limit—but at 79, her eyesight is bad and her hearing worse, and what’s the rush anyway. Three hours after leaving the flats, after a stop in Doyle to pee and eat an ice cream bar, she’ll pull into my driveway.

***

Before she comes I clean the house in a flurry. I have no answer to why—she doesn’t notice or care if the place is cluttered or clean, dusty or wiped and gleaming. To her, it’s glorious enough to walk from room to room. To sit at a dining room table or on a couch; to use sinks with running water, a flush toilet. Still, I fluff the pillows on her single bed in the little guest room, lay out new fleece socks for her feet that are always cold. I cut flowers in the summer, buy them in winter. Put a box of Junior Mints on the nightstand because her sweet tooth is legendary.

The two main things I offer that are the most magical in her mind (and you’d think I’d hired a limousine to escort us to the Atlantis spa): ice cream and a hot bath. So I always buy a gallon of salted caramel ice cream and an extra jar of caramel topping. She’ll finish both off in three days.

The bath is less grand, but she doesn’t agree. I live in a small manufactured home, with a crappy, cramped bathtub with plastic walls that bow inward if you lean against them. But on the mountain my parents use an outdoor shower—a solar-heated canvas bag of five lukewarm gallons. In the winter, they wash by the wood stove with vinegar and a basin of melted snow. When she comes here her hands are stained with dirt and wood ash.

At night, during her visits, I light a candle, and set out tropical bubble bath from Whole Foods. She soaks in the tub for up to an hour, reading a book or, I imagine, feeling her bones relax. Now and then I’ll hear the hot water blast as she freshens the temperature, and who can blame her for wanting to make it last?

***

It wasn’t until she met and married Mark, a taciturn, misanthropic man who loves the remote outdoors, 30 years ago, that the idea of this kind of living began for her. Although she’d taught my brother and me to revere nature, we grew up in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, and our times in the “wild” were spent in campgrounds with vending machines and hot pay showers. We never lived on a road that wasn’t paved.

With Mark, my mother moved from a house in a small town, to a farmhouse on 23 acres, to a trailer alongside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, to the faraway cabin they have now. Each dwelling more rustic, more remote, than the last.

Early on, my mother was worried and went to see a therapist, who suspected their marriage was suffering from “folie a deux,” madness of two. She warned, One day one of you will die from this.***

I mail them care packages between Mom’s visits. Because for them the post office is a 40-mile, 3 hour round trip, I try to make it count, with fun and useful variety. I do what I can afford, and it’s never enough:

Just-Add-Water mixes: pancake, soup, mashed potatoes, tea and coffee
Hand and foot warmers
Waterproof gloves
Hats with LED lights built in
Books
Chocolate, no nuts that can break a tooth
Coconut oil for chapped skin

***

My stepdad doesn’t like comfort and convenience; they are signs of weakness, of capitulation to the bullshit status-quo. (When I got her a pedicure, he rolled his eyes.) But he loves her cakes, even when they’re dense from the 6,800’ elevation, or burnt on the edges. He calls my mother a trooper, which she enjoys. She likes being the only woman who could even begin to live up there.

Their clothes, mostly from the thrift store, take a beating from the rough mountain life, and when they go to town, they look like homeless people, or refugees who have walked across the land for a very long time, in all kinds of weather. As my mother says, it’s futile to try and keep clean on the mountain, what with all the dirt and dust, plus their two big dogs, and water so precious. “It’s just dirt, it won’t kill you,” she’s fond of reminding me. (This from Portland, Oregon’s 1964 Rose Festival Princess.)

One time, a woman walked up to them in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet and handed them a loaf of bread and a $5 dollar bill.
“So funny!” my mother texted, but I tried to picture the scene without crying.

***

When she comes here, I do all the cooking. On her first visits, years ago, I thought she’d jump in with glee to make her favorite recipes with every power kitchen tool I had: soufflés and mousses, Boston cream pies and buttery Dutch babies with a golden surface that bubbles and rises like the surface of the moon.

Yet she only hovers nearby, loving to watch—and, I realize, to rest. At the cabin, she does everything related to food—the grocery list and shopping, the cooking, the cleaning up that is a daunting chore when you have no plumbing. Burying scraps down the trail so as not to tempt mountain lions or other creatures.

For the first night, I buy appetizers, her favorites that are hard to keep on the mountain: egg salad, Greek yogurt, seafood salad in creamy white sauce, which she eats by the forkful straight from the tub, eyes raised to the ceiling in what can only be called ecstasy.

Theirs is a life of such physical work that even the thought of my mother’s day makes me want to go to bed and collapse into a long, warm nap.

***

I try not to show it, but her visits take a toll. After the third night, I get antsy at the work that’s piled up, and my 14-year old son retreats more into his bedroom for the solitude he’s used to. He likes having his bathroom to himself.

I’ll be quiet as a mouse, Mom tells us before a visit, which is impossible, and anyway, my kid and I are introverts, and she’s an extrovert. A flaming extrovert, she once admitted. And that is another love she’s given up to live on the mountain with a man who prefers silence and space. Each morning, if the reception is good, he’ll read fringe blogs on his phone about the New World Order, the dark dangers of the vaccine, chem trails, and other concerns.

Mom told me that she sometimes just talks to herself, which Mark doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll say, ‘How’d you sleep, Carol?’ And then I answer myself: ‘Well I had to get up six times to squat and pee in the chamber pot, so it was pretty awful! What do you think about that!?’”

Knowing this, I just have to buck up (as my mother would say), but it’s not easy to throw out the routine that anchors my day: I get up at dawn, make coffee, throw out bird seed, and then feed the cats after giving Tiger Bomb his thyroid tablet in a salmon-flavored “pill pocket.” And then, with my son still blessedly asleep, I can return to my room to work. Sometimes, when there’s a lull in the semester, I get a chance to write. When those precious mornings come, the time feels carved out of my life like a vein of gold.

When Mom’s here, she tries. She tiptoes and peers in my door, which I leave open for the cats to go in and out.

“Oh! You’re up!”

That’s my cue to click off whatever I’m doing and tell her, Yes it’s fine, come in and sit here beside me and I’ll get you some coffee. She settles into the teal velvet chair next to the bed, wrapped in my robe. When I return and see her sitting there, like a grateful gnome who’s crept in from the cold wilderness, the pang returns to my chest and I think, to hell with the Forum posts. We sit and sip and chat about the day and I tell her funny stories about my classes. “This student’s title is ‘The Farters of the Enlightenment,’” I say, and she whoops. Haha! I tell her about the girl who wants to be a “pillow in the community,” which we agree is both funny, and sort of wonderful.

“Quiche or French toast,” I ask.

Her eyebrows raise. “French toast? With fruit?”

“How about sautéed strawberries? And powdered sugar.”

She sighs and says, “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

***

By the second day I’ve usually blown off my work entirely, and have sent an announcement to my students to text me if there’s something urgent.

“How about we go to World Market today?”

“Could we?” Mom chirps, as if I’d offered to fly us to San Francisco for steamed clams and French bread. I feel a burst of anger because whatever I do or buy is so small, so fleeting, it doesn’t deserve such gratitude. What she needs is not gourmet groceries but a new car, a new wardrobe, hearing aids, solar panels for the cabin and a snowplow and a greenhouse that can withstand the winter storms. The list of what she needs is so long my pen will run dry before I’m done.

Instead we go to World Market and buy Sicilian pesto and German egg spaetzle, and Walnut Scottish shortbread for dessert. She lingers over lingonberry conserves and I say, toss it in. Then I add a jar of Devon cream and butterscotch root beer to drink while she discovers a few more things to try. In line, she says to the woman behind us, “Isn’t this place a kick? What a feast we’ll have tonight!”

On the way home, she inspects the items again one by one, as if these were gifts sent from around the world, just for her.

Each time she comes, she resembles a bit more the trees on the mountain, the dark, gnarled branches of the mahogany, the juniper and Manzanita; even the bitter brush that crouches and grips the earth through the harsh summer winds and the deep snowstorms of winter. She’ll be 80 next spring.

“Can’t you keep her,” a friend asked, after seeing a picture of us on Facebook during one visit. As if my mother were a stray dog who’d wandered in from the desert. It’s her choice to live this way. I tell myself this, again and again. She always tells me what she loves on the mountain—the birds who make their home in the cabin’s eaves, the view clear to Mt. Shasta hundreds of miles to the west. I see that her visits are a way of replenishing herself, and if this is all I can do, then for now, that will have to be enough. Beyond that, the future is a path that curves out of sight and into the dark.

By the fourth day we’ve done their laundry at Mr. Bubbles (with extra wash/extra rinse because the clothes are stiff with dirt and grime), which we fold and stuff back in the Hefty bags, and nestle them in her car. This process takes at least four hours. On top of the laundry we layer boxes of food and supplies from Wal-Mart. We find a space for the used books she’s picked out from Grassroots Books.

The night before, I’d heard her on the phone with Mark for their evening call, telling him about our day, and as always she asked about the sparrow family and the dogs, wanting to know if they missed her. She described all the things she’d be bringing home.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” she told him.

Then it’s time for her to go and my son carries out her duffel bag and we all stand in the driveway. She puts on her cowboy hat and the giant sunglasses and gives us both hugs, and I try not to feel the way her bones push through her coat.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s so long,” she says. Then she backs the car out slow as a tractor into the street, and before heading forward, waves out the window to us and yells, “Tra la!”

***

The other day, she texted she wouldn’t be able to visit any time soon. The Suzuki had broken down, needed to be towed away. It would cost a lot and they’d have to save up.

“When I do visit again,” she wrote, “can we make that cake, the banana caramel one? The one that looks like a sunrise.”

“Sunset,” I started to write, and then stopped because we try to have hope where we can.

Joelle Fraser, is the author of two memoirs (The Territory of Men and The Forest House). A MacDowell Fellow, her work has been published in many journals, including The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Pangyrus, Crazyhorse, and Michigan Quarterly Review. 

She lives in Reno, Nevada with her 15-year old son and three rescue cats and is researching her next book, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. Her website is www.joellefraser.com.

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
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  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Guest Posts, parenting, parents

Driving With Mom

August 15, 2021
car

by Susan Cohen

The house is bathed in black. There are no lights to guide me.  I move slowly, step by step on the icy walkway covered with snow, clinging to the iron railing.  When I reach the landing, I stamp the snow off my boots and ring the doorbell.

I hear the quiet, gentle, familiar sound of the chimes echoing through the hall and then wait patiently for the lights to flip on and to hear the sounds of footsteps on the carpet.  But minutes later, the house is still dark.

The car is sitting in the driveway covered with a layer of snow, and I don’t see any fresh footprints along the walkway.  My mother never goes to bed before the 9:00 movie.  My heart beats faster, remembering how last winter she was anchored like in her chair, robotically bringing a cigarette to her lips, one after the other.

Reaching into the ceramic pot through a clump of gray snow, I feel the sharp edge of the key and then try to push the front door open with a firm shove. It resists opening as if it’s frozen shut, and I need to muster up all my strength until it finally gives in.  I wonder when the door was opened last.

“Anybody Home? Mom?”

The electric radiator is clicking away, struggling to heat the air through a film of dust. I fight the urge to sneeze.

I am beginning to regret my decision to hitchhike home to retrieve the backdrop for “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”  I came without warning because I didn’t want my mother to get excited, make a fuss, and start shopping and cooking, but I forgot after one year at college that she had a habit of folding inside herself during the cold dark days of winter.

I slide open the kitchen door, and I see my mother surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.   She doesn’t jump up, shout my name in surprise and wrap me in her arms.  Instead, she is staring at the upper left-hand corner where the kitchen cabinet meets the ceiling.   Deep in concentration, her eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead, and her eyelashes flutter as if she is dreaming sitting upright in her chair.

The plan was to take her to a restaurant for dinner and then borrow her car to drive to the summer cottage where the backdrop is stuffed in a trunk in her bedroom. But I can’t leave her this way.  I decide to take her with me. Perhaps the memories of sticky hazy afternoons dangling her feet into the lake from the dock will reignite and warm her spirit.

After I rinse and load dishes in the dishwasher and scrub away fried egg glued onto a frying pan, I sit opposite her at the kitchen table.  I push aside a burning cigarette that’s dangerously close to an open newspaper.

She startles when I gently touch her hand.

“You want to drive with me to the summer cottage?”

Her gaze moves down from the ceiling and but she doesn’t look at me. It’s more like she sees through me.

“It would be nice to get out of the house, don’t you think?”

I pat her hand gently. She nods, gets up from her chair, and slowly heads towards the coat closet.  This is a good sign.

I watch her quietly as she slips on the same ankle-length mink coat she has been wearing for over thirty years. Miraculously preserved, it’s still soft and shiny, and I feel an impulse to pet it, just like I did when I was a child.

Thrusting her hands into the deep pockets of her coat, she pulls out a red wool hat with a pom-pom and a brightly striped scarf that I wore when I was in junior high. If she was pushing a shopping cart, she could be mistaken for a homeless person. On a good day, I could tell her I am calling the fashion police, and she would laugh.

In the car, we sit on the icy cold seats and put on our seat belts. I crank the heater all the way up.  A chill from the night air seeps in as my Mom opens her window a small crack and lights up a cigarette.

She blinks as she exhales as if the smoke is stinging her eyes.  I am waiting for her to ask about my studies or ask if I am seeing someone.  As much as I long to hear her voice, I’m not in a mood to answer either question. All I hear is the purr of the fan.

Suddenly she giggles.  I don’t know why she’s laughing.  It’s silly to visit a summer home in the dead of winter, but I wouldn’t call it funny.  My grip grows stronger on the wheel until my knuckles turn white as I drive down the ramp and merge into the middle lane of the highway.

“Hope you’re in shape. We have to hike through the snow to our back door.”

She’s doesn’t turn to face me but keeps her gaze straight ahead at twelve o’clock.

“Have you been to the summer cottage in the winter before?”

I am afraid she has been hypnotized by watching the white lines fly by, one after the other, and is now even further away from me.  Perhaps I won’t be able to coax her out of the car, and I begin to fear we will be doomed to driving forever. I fiddle with the radio until I find a light rock station. Putting my hands firmly on the wheel, I keep the speed at a steady 65 miles per hour.

Then I hear Carole King’s voice.  I see myself, thirteen years old sitting on my twin bed looking at my poster of a fluffy white baby seal taped on my wall, and I begin to sing,

“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”   

“What does this mean?”

She’s speaking!  Her voice is sweet and soft, like a bashful child.   But then I am confused, and I don’t know how to answer. There are several different possibilities.  She might want to know why we are driving to the summer cottage or maybe the significance of life itself.

“Are you asking what the song means?”

She nods her head up and down. Something as simple as being heard feels magical.  My shoulders soften.

“A woman fell out of love and wants to end her relationship.”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“I guess there comes a point in a relationship where you just can’t try anymore.”

Then my mother exhales smoke with a loud sigh.  She seems satisfied with my answer for now.

I want to ask her what “it’s too late” means to her.  But I am afraid her answer will bring memories that will force her back inside her shell.  I have memories of my own.  Like the night my father came home late after making full professor; purple balloons strung along the ceiling, a bottle of champagne sitting in a sea of melted ice, cheese dreams with a hard crust from turning cold.  At midnight my mother jumped, thinking she heard his footsteps on the landing was the sound of a tree branch blowing in the wind, rubbing against the windowpane.

A sign announces a familiar exit up ahead, and I panic because I can’t remember if I’m supposed to take it. I try to bring back the warmth from the hot sun beating on the roof, the sound of crickets through the open window to remember if this is the exit l took last summer. Meanwhile, the exit is coming closer.  I need to decide.

I feel a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the car veers sharply to the right.   Terrified, trying to regain control, I grab the wheel and pull to the left. The car begins to skid.  It spins into a circle and then falls gently against a snowbank with a muffled crunch.

I turn towards my mother, looking straight at me for the first time, and I let her have it.

“What were you thinking?  You could have killed us!  If you reach for the wheel again, I am going to put you in the back seat.  Do you want to sit there all by yourself?”

My mother is squished against the car door, looking small and helpless, but now she is looking me straight in the eye as she tries to defend herself, “The exit was coming closer, and you were listening to the radio and not paying attention..”

“Why can’t you speak to me instead of grabbing the wheel?  Why do you have to act crazy and scare the hell out of me like this?”

This is a familiar pattern.  The withdrawal, a blowup, and then the gentle trickle of confessions and regrets.  A slow slide to something that resembles normalcy where you say what you feel, and it’s possible to breathe love in and out.

We drive in silence for a few minutes.

“Sorry I yelled at you.  But you could have killed us.”

“Why are we going to the summer cottage, anyway?” Her voice is stronger, challenging me.  Only now she realizes how strange it is to go to a summer cottage in the dead of winter.

“I want to get the backdrop for our production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Ah, yes, it’s stuffed in the antique trunk in my bedroom.”

I sigh and take a deep breath. Although the spell is broken, there are more challenges ahead. I haven’t thought this through.  The snow might be so deep or icy that it is impossible to hike to the back door.  I didn’t even think to bring a shovel.  The door could be frozen shut.  Even if I succeed in prying it open, it would still take a miracle to hop through all the lawn furniture stored in the hallway, find that trunk, pry it open, and drag out that backdrop.  Even if I can set it free and reclaim it, it might be stained by mildew or, even worse, became a nest for baby mice or squirrels.

As we approach the lake, there are fewer and fewer street lights, just an occasional spot of yellow between long dark corridors.  When we reach the road closest to our house, there is a windy ribbon of snow leading to our back door. The snow has a slight crust on it, like cake icing.

Before I can take the key out of the ignition, my mother opens the passenger door, and a blast of cold air comes into the car.

She places her right boot on the snow, and she manages to stand momentarily when suddenly the layer of ice beneath her foot gives way with a loud crunch.  With one foot six inches below the other, she begins to lose her balance but manages to steady herself with her two hands extended out on either side. Images flash in my head of her twisting her ankle, me trying to lift her back into the car, looking for an emergency room back home late at night.  But she’s filled with energy and isn’t discouraged in the least bit.

She laughs, “I ate too many cookies.  I am just an old fatty.”

“Mom, it’s not you. The mink coat weighs a ton.”

I walk around the car and have us swap coats so that she can wear my light down jacket to reduce her weight. As I slip on my mother’s mink coat, there is the faint smell of sweat mixed with a hint of Channel Number 5 that I give her every year for Christmas.

“I will hug you from behind to help you keep your balance. One, two, three march!”

We sink just a little bit. Thankfully the edges of the ice aren’t sharp.

I start chanting a song we sang together when we hiked through the woods in the summer years ago.

Left, left, I had a wife, but she left.  My wife left me with 36 children, and there is no gingerbread left.

Crunch, crunch, crunch,  our feet keep pace with the beat. The snowdrifts form a peak reaching up to the roof.

“Oh my Lord, where is the door? Mom, I need to set myself free so I clear the snow.”

I release my arms from around my mother’s waist to walk around her from the left.  At first, the ice supports my weight, but then after just a few seconds, my foot crashes through.  I grab onto my mother for support.  We stagger and fell to the ground giggling, making two small craters where we lay side by side, our backs on the snow, our eyes to the sky.  The snow isn’t wet but instead squishes under our bodies like a soft cushion.  There is a grounding feeling of being flush with the earth.

I look up to see a long band of stars packed so close together they form a swirl across the sky.  I feel like I am a child again at the Planetarium, seeing a black field filled with lights.  There is awe in seeing the width and breadth of forever.

“Mom, look at the arm of the Milky Way.  It’s beautiful.”

“Did you know that there is a whole generation of children that have never seen the big dipper?  New laws are forcing businesses to shut off their lights so people can see the night sky.”

Ah, here is the mother I love, quoting US News and World Report, a river of words traveling through topics all over the world and through time.  There is that opening of the chest, the spark to the brain, the rapid exchange of thoughts and ideas, insightful, thoughtful, and rational.

“Mom, we could talk all night.  But if we don’t move, we’ll freeze to death. How can I even find the door through all this snow?”

My mother chuckles and then laughs.

“No need.”

“Mom, why are you laughing? You’re scaring me with this laughter of yours.”

“The backdrop is back home in the attic.”

“What?”

“I brought it back last summer when we closed the cottage. I thought you might need it for college.”

“And you just remembered now?”

I reach over and place my gloved hands on my mother’s neck as if I want to strangle her. We wrestle in the snow like we are two little kids.

We follow our footsteps back to the car.  This time separately, my mother leads, and I walk behind her, putting my feet in the same impressions in the snow.  After we settle in the car and fire up the heat, I hear about my cousin’s wedding and my uncle’s retirement.  After half an hour, she snores lightly.

I open the door to my home that this time surrenders to my touch easily, tuck in my mother, and place a kiss on her cheek.

Lying on my childhood bed staring at the wallpaper with vines running up and down the walls, I think about the patterns of my shared life with my mother;   the laughter, silence, withdrawal, absence, hospitalizations, medications, and her homecoming to start the cycle again. There are no facts but only theories about what triggers her slow disappearance; a bad gene, chemical imbalance, poor nutrition, failed marriage, empty nest, boredom, loneliness.  Perhaps it’s all of these things, or maybe it’s something simpler. Her spirit is searching for the calm that comes from having a witness, a caring soul to exchange her thoughts and feelings, the positive energy that comes from breathing love in and out.

Susan Cohen has had her work appear in Cyclamens and Swords, All Things Girl, Adanna Literary Review, Six Hens, and Chaleur Magazine and has been shortlisted twice for Glimmer Train short story awards. She is also the co-founder of a PR firm located North of Tel Aviv.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

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, Beauty Hunting

The Stream

October 11, 2019
stream

B Edward M. Cohen

Five year old Noah saw an old man in the market, he tells me, his body curling into an

imitation. He nods his head, pretends to be walking with a cane. The old guy was walking up and down the aisles, muttering, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” The memory makes him cackle.

I am not sure what this means but I’ll ask his mother later. Maybe she’ll know. Maybe not. . Ten minutes go by and, in the middle of another conversation, he mutters, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” his body curling, his voice crackling with make-believe age, and he giggles to himself once again. It doesn’t matter whether I understand or not. He enjoys the story.

He also loves to sing Allouette. He announces, “I can speak French, Grandpa!” Then he sings, “Allouette, gentil Allouette. Allouette gentil ploo merai!” He doesn’t understand a word. He is just mouthing sounds which his father probably taught him but he proudly sings the refrain over and over.

The most impressive thing about him at this age is the way he relishes private jokes, sets his own goals, pleases himself with his accomplishments, figures thing out, gets lost in his private fantasies.

We are spending the afternoon at the stream. His parents have rented a cottage near our summer home for the month because they can thereby get a vacation with free baby sitting: a treat for us all. They bring him over every afternoon and he has fallen in love with a nearby stream. We spent two hundred bucks on a membership in the town pool, figuring he’d meet other kids there, take swimming lessons, but no, Noah prefers the stream. The water only goes up to his waist so he can just wade in and sit and splash but the current is really strong and he loves to let the cool ripples rush over him. He has started to build a dam; flinging the rocks around, piling them up, then breaking them down, dousing his head under the waterfall he has created, singing Allouette to himself.

He used to be totally dependent on adults for information and stimulation. He soaked up whatever we told him. He wanted to hear the same story over and over. These days, when we walk to the stream, he talks to himself, repeats his favorite punch lines, does not care if I get the jokes or not.

In the fall, he will be going to a real school instead of the pre K he has been in for years. He will be learning letters and numbers. He will be losing old friends and will have to make new ones, travelling on the school bus. His parents are nervous, but not Noah. Now I know why; just when he needs it, his inner self is growing strong.

We walk home from the stream, he in his baggy bathing suit, hair golden from the sun, and he shows me his Karate poses, copied from television. He sucks in his tummy and I begin to see the outlines of muscles, like the very beginning of a scrawny pre-adolescent. He says, “I have to keep my knees bent like this for support!” God knows where he heard it but he seems to understand and is clearly impressed with himself.

I hope I never forget the way he is this carefree summer since there are so many hurdles ahead which he doesn’t even know about. He has been so happy in his current school, has been there for so many years, the darling of the teachers. This will be a great disruption in his life. To us, it seems frightening. Not to him. Maybe he is aware of the tension around him and, without even knowing, he has taken this summer to marshall his inner resourses. With the sense of self he is building, he will handle whatever awaits him. He knows it. We will learn. We have to, he is signaling. He will not be held back by our old-people concerns.

I know separation is a part of parenting but does it have to happen so soon?

This coming weekend, his friend, Andy, is visiting from the city so his parents tell us Noah will not be coming over until Monday. We will miss him terribly. After only these few weeks, we cannot remember how we used to fill the afternoons. And we are reminded how brief this period will be. Soon, too soon, he will be busy with soccer games and music lessons and boy scout meetings. There will be very little time for visits to his grandparents.

Maybe, every now and then, he will need to replenish his spirits by returning to the stream and, if so, we will be here.

Edward M. Cohen‘s novel, $250,000, was published by Putnam’s; his nonfiction books are published by Prima, Prentice-Hall, Limelight Editions, and SUNY Press. He has published over 35 stories in various literary journals, and his articles have appeared in CosmopolitanChildParentingAmerican Woman, and Out. Cohen has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NY State Council on the Arts.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, motherhood

Sequestering the Mother

May 12, 2019
mother motherhood

By PJ Holliday

“The mother is glass through which
You see, in excruciating detail, yourself.”
“The Mother” – Maggie Smith

Becoming a mother has divided my body in portions, passing out small pieces at a time to my child, husband and self.  I’ve been stretched to a capacity I formerly did not think possible and from there, have to learn to surrender my control of the unknown. I don’t recognize myself, and when I catch a glimpse of what was familiar, it vanishes like pools of water on hot asphalt. When I try to write, I am torn between comforting my child whose eyes are fixated on whatever I am doing. I try to catch some work between naps, but who wants to work when there is a moment for quiet reflection made available for the first time in the morning. I feel the pull of many children, my creative explorations and my boy, who undoubtedly should take precedent. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parents

Intergalactic

July 6, 2018
reality

By Amy Fowler

Several years ago, my mom started existing in a parallel but alternate reality. Her interdimensional trips began slowly at first, with the briefest of blips spent on the Other Side. Much more quickly than I care to acknowledge, Mom’s time-space jaunts became more frequent and lasted longer.

A lifelong fan of Star Trek, I’m quite sure she didn’t think this was what Captain James Tiberius Kirk had in mind when he said, “Beam me up, Scotty.” She preferred The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, anyway. I mean, who wouldn’t pick Patrick Stewart over William Shatner?

I know that Mom doesn’t enjoy her extradimensional travels. The time she spends out of this world leaves her frightened and flummoxed. And there’s nothing I can do, but sit and watch as she rockets toward the place where the ionosphere gives way to Outer Space. There’s nothing I can do but await her return, my eye trained on the sky through the twenty-inch Ritchey-Chreiten at Banner Creek Observatory. There’s nothing I can do.

Theres nothing I can do. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, aging, parents

The Wild Green

May 9, 2018
green

By Zahie El Kouri

Less than a year before my father’s diagnosis, my parents bought their burial plots. They announced this when I came home to visit them in May.

“There is nothing wrong with your father,” my mother said. “It was The Greek Physician’s idea.”

“He wanted to buy his plots, and I guess he likes us, so he wants us to be near them.”

He shrugged, with a small, satisfied smile on his face, like he was talking about seats at the theater.

This was certainly not the first time my parents had discussed their deaths with me. Every year, my mother pulled out a yellow legal pad that listed all the details I would need to know, the combination to the safe, the location of a power of attorney, the man to contact about the life insurance payout.  Every year, on one of my visits home, we would sit around the kitchen table with the white marble floors and the view of the green lawn and the murky lagoon and we would go through the yellow list.

But this year, after we did this, the three of us got in my parents’ new dark grey Lexus and drove to the cemetery. As usual, my father drove, my mother sat next to him, and I sat in the back seat, just like a million car trips in the past. We passed the manicured lawns, whitish driveways, and big, new-money homes, always set back about the same distance from the street. Out of deference to me, my father turned off Rush Limbaugh, so there was silence in the car. It was a happy silence. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, aging, parents

Trapped Out of Love

April 6, 2018

By Martina E Faulkner

I always think it will get easier.
And I’m always wrong.
Every time.

 It’s not easier over time, it’s more numb. Consistency and frequency only served to create an existential morphine-like balm to the frayed nerve endings of emotions swirling through my body and brain.

 And now, when there are gaps in time, the nerves become more sensitive, just like withdrawal. Only, the solution is not more ‘heroin’… the solution is recognizing the inescapable truth that it doesn’t get better from here.

 And even that, I’m afraid, is no solution at all.

I wrote those words yesterday as I sat in my car, throat choked up and dry cheeks. No tears would fall, even though they were there. They were dammed up inside me, bottle-necked… stuck. Trapped might be another word for it. My tears were trapped, just as I have been, as I have felt. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Eating/Food, emotions

American Chop Suey

February 4, 2018
chef

By Kimberly Wetherell

The name alone mortifies me. American Chop Suey. It’s the name my mother gave to her signature dish, the supper we ate at least twice a week every week for as long as I can remember throughout my formative years. What Julia Child did with beef, bacon, onions and mushrooms, my mother did with elbow macaroni, browned ground chuck, Prego (It’s in there!) spaghetti sauce, and a sprinkling of her “secret blend” of spices; very likely nothing more than dried oregano, parsley, and basil. It’s that sprinkling of the secret spices that made her a chef, she told us. That quip was something I mocked her for to my professional chef friends when describing how pathetic my mother’s cooking was, and how it drove me to learn how to cook properly and eventually become a professional chef myself.

I’m not a professional chef anymore, though. I opened my own restaurant in Brooklyn three and a half years ago, and three years ago tonight (as I write this), I was reviewing my year-end books. I could see that we had been hemorrhaging money and that by the end of February 2015, our doors would be forced to close unless a miracle happened. It didn’t. I was a solo entrepreneur and I had sunk my life savings into the venture, which included leveraging my tony Park Slope brownstone apartment for the business loan, and I lost everything. As soon as I could, I left Brooklyn behind for the warmer climes of St. Petersburg, Florida and I spent two years there in an attempt to recover. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Dear Life., parents

Dear Life: The Unending Drama that is My Parents

December 13, 2017

Dear Life,

I am the youngest of five kids, whose parents have been married 50 years.  ’50 years’, people exclaim…and say what a wonderful blessing and example of love. Well, sort of.

My dad started beating up my mom before they were even married, in the mid 60’s. That lasted about until the mid 80’s, when my brother died in an accident.  My mom was finally saying she was going to leave my dad, right before my brother died.  My dad had been unfaithful (another secret I didn’t know until my twenties, and at that, I learned from a sibling – it was, and never has been talked about).  When my brother died, things changed for a while.  No more alcohol (both parents are alcoholics), and my dad went to therapy for his abusive behavior towards my mom.  The physical violence stopped, but the emotional abuse continues to this day.  They control each other and are so co-dependent that they don’t like anyone else.  No one. Continue Reading…