Browsing Tag

sister

Grief, Guest Posts, Self Image

The Grief In My Belly

July 29, 2021
weight

by Elizabeth O’Nuanain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

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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 itself is important.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Why Don’t You Talk To Your Sister?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Binders, Family, Guest Posts, Relationships

It’s All Relative

June 2, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Candace Kearns Read

Kinship is a slippery thing.

One night during dinner, our son asked whether his teenage step-cousins once removed were in our family, and to my dismay my husband responded “Not really,” while I firmly stated “Yes.”

I had no doubt that my teenage step-cousins were my relatives, albeit by marriage, since they are the granddaughters of my grandmother’s third husband’s daughter Irene. But once the scrutiny of kin began, the quicksand of questions kept pulling me deeper. I began to wonder about my hodge-podge of step- and half-relatives, thousands of miles away. Did their removals by marriage and divided ancestry make them somehow less valid?

To me, family is an abstract. Family can consist of friends you’ve had since you were young, or people who’ve taken you in, such as my Aunt Irene, whom I have always called “Reen.” I spent all my Christmas, Easter and summer vacations in her sprawling North County San Diego home, until I went to live with her when I was twelve.  Technically, she is my mother’s step-sister, and there’s not a drop of blood between us, but we finish each other’s sentences, get each other’s jokes, and know how to heal each other’s wounds.

What I remember most about going to stay with Reen when I was a child is her unwavering devotion to my happiness. I experienced this in the form of Jack-in-the-Box French fries dipped in chocolate shakes, alfalfa sprouts growing on the kitchen counter, and long drives out to avocado orchards, where we would stop and “just grab a few.” I felt it all those times we’d watch old Shirley Temple movies in her king size bed when my uncle was away on business, opening thean immense box of crayons she gave me forat Christmas, and in her passionate whisper when it was time to say good-bye: “A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck.” Continue Reading…

Addiction, Binders, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Consequence

April 22, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Chris J. Rice

 

Small bodies stared out a car window, helpless, listening to the drone of a voice, pitiless, and naïve, a horrible combination. Houses never furnished. Refrigerators full of liquor and doggie bags, steak slices, and baked Alaska, toddlers hidden behind beige drapes peeing on white carpet. Babies crying. Shit stains and Martini olives. Poodle yelps. Flash of ocean daylight. And remorse.

My Moody Sister died in a drug-induced coma. Dark hair matted with vomit. Fell asleep on a double bed in a Tulsa motel room beside her abusive boyfriend, and never woke up.

I jumped out of sleep to answer the phone.

“I’m calling to let you know,” my paternal aunt said. “Didn’t want you to hear it from none of them.”

Receiver to chest, I crouched down. Balanced on my heels, and rocked.

“Cancer,” my aunt said. “Had to have been. Just look at her obituary picture. Looks like it to me, like she died of cancer.”

I knew that wasn’t true. Got off the phone quick as I could and searched online for my sister’s obituary, head full of unanswerable questions. When did the drugs and drinking start? Was it because we had no real home? Why did she stay in Mama’s dark orbit so long past youth? Was it the only life she knew, or the only life she could imagine? Frantic and doubting, I searched until there she was in glowing bits, my Moody Sister.

Pixilated otherworldly eyes smiled above a brief paragraph.

She left behind three children, at least eight half siblings and survived by both her parents, was buried in an Ozark cemetery facing old Route 66. Her three children went to live with her last husband. Their names in her obituary were long jingly strings of karmic payback and wishful thinking: combinations of our Mama’s real first name alongside my sister’s absent father’s surname.

She didn’t meet her biological father until she was a grown woman.

Come from a childhood with no fixed address.

Identity, a combination of what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, flawed mosaic of who you are, and who others think you are. Not who you are inherently, but also who and where you came from, and what you were able to make of yourself.

Outcomes.

Origins.

Consequence.

She was Mama’s favorite child and most constant companion, always riding beside her in the front seat of the car as we traveled from town to town. Disregarding its isolation, she accepted the position of best loved, her dark head barely visible to the other kids crammed together in the backseat. When left behind with the rest of us she became inconsolable, running after the car, plopping herself on the sidewalk as Mama sped off. Sat there, cross-legged, head thrown back, mouth wide open and skyward, wailing with all her need, outdoors and out loud, for her Mama to come back home. My peaceful respite, lolling alone on the motel carpet unobserved with a new Nancy Drew, was her full-bodied pain.

The daughter in the front seat never learned to be alone; disconnection terrified her.

I ran away from all my family, especially my Moody Sister, putting real distance between us, and seldom looking back. Her unhappiness was of another order altogether from mine: unquenchable, indulgent, and seductively unhealthy, like too much syrup on an already too sweet dessert.

The last time I saw her, I drew her portrait. Pencils sharpened, I layered colored lines on a flat green page, porous and textured. Watched her bow her head slightly to the left, as she had done so often in our earliest days together, and recorded what I saw and what I knew to be true. Made art of our brutal detachment.

Long black bangs curled across a forehead into downcast blue eyes.

A heart-shaped face held sharp lips painted red.

Absence charged by a presence, deceptive and confounding. Continue Reading…

cancer, death, Guest Posts

Foxholy

April 9, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Janet Reich Elsbach.

“Smile, would you please?” said my sister as I came through the door to see if she needed any help. “Jesus loves you.”

There were a number of surprising elements to this interaction, beyond the fact that the room we now both occupied was the bathroom. For one, she might more reasonably have requested that I do a tap dance. My sister was dying of cancer, her beautiful athlete’s body wrecked and wracked, and we were just home from another two days in the hospital, where as usual she had questioned and refused 98% of what was on offer, where as usual the doctors and nurses had glared at me reproachfully behind her back, and where as usual I had done a non-stop theater-in-the-round cabaret of advocacy and placation for 48 hours. Maybe I had slept for two of those hours, and not in a row. So of all facial expressions, a smile seemed farthest from my reach.

For another thing, we’re Jews.

“He does, you know,” D. continued as I attended to her. “Don’t you know that?”

Once I became old enough to really put some muscle into talking back to her, some time in my teens or twenties, I pointed out that a large percentage of what she said to me (and to others, to be fair) ended with an audible or implied, “you don’t, do you?” As in, “do you know you’re supposed to put X on Y in that order, rotate your whatsits seasonally, never accept domestic yah-yah and ONLY buy organic hmm?” Here she would pause for a second to see if there was a flicker of agreement, then sigh or even snort a little when it failed to appear. “You don’t, do you?” Eventually the sniff or sigh could stand in for the four-word codicil. Sometimes I would say it for her.

Cancer had intensified her dissatisfaction with rubes and imbeciles in ways I mostly understood, as well as raised the stakes. As her prospects grew darker and her misery increased, so did the percentage of the population around her who could get nothing right. Since I frequently numbered among them, staying present and supportive was not easy, and with this new Jesus angle, she had managed, yet again, to sling a curve ball that could completely undo me. Having a front-row seat at an epic struggle with mortality, even if it is not your own, can inspire a person to feel around in their toolbox for some connection to a higher power. Over the 18 months of her illness, I hadn’t come up with much.

We aren’t especially Jewish, even though we are Jews. I majored in anthropology, so it’s easy for me to put it that I am culturally Jewish, just not spiritually. Meaning the cuisine, the mannerisms, the sensibility: yes. I like the food well enough and the rest I couldn’t shake if I tried. Bred in the bone. But whatever spirituality I possess, I don’t tune into it on that channel.

When I was little, we were high-holy-day Jews. We had a seder at Passover, and some excellent little hamentaschen from William Greenberg’s on Third Avenue at Purim. A menorah was lit at Chanukah, but the house saw a little Christmas action, too. Barring a funeral, wedding or someone else’s mitzvah (bar or bat), the only time we went to temple was on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; on all these occasions everyone around me knew the prayers in Hebrew and I did not.

Our house was generally a mood tinder-box at the holidays, our parents reverential one moment and irritated the next, apparently with us for not taking it seriously enough. I liked to please them, but I didn’t have much to invest since my sisters and I had never gone to religious school. So I would feel guilty and anxious, as well as excluded and confused, and all in all it was not a pleasant base from which to grow a faith. For a long time I connected my not feeling Jewish to this history, and I bet my parents did, too.

Finally I asked my mother why they never sent us to Hebrew school, if their faith was strong enough to twist and bind them with what had seemed like anger when I was smaller than they were, but I now recognized as guilt. By then I was in college, and they had become more obviously and contentedly Jewish: studying, actively identifying as Jewish philanthropists, lighting Sabbath candles, and I had become more confused about where the faith I felt was rooted. I could tell I had some but I also knew it wasn’t found, or fueled, in a building or book that I had yet encountered.

“We didn’t want to force it on you,” she said. “We had taken a big leap getting a place in the country, and at the time I felt more sure that getting out of the city would be good for you three than I did about Hebrew school. And we couldn’t do both.” I scoffed a little when she told me this, but now that I am a parent I can see completely how a person could arrive at that kind of inconclusive conclusion as the rush of life came at them. Punt! I can’t say that I’ve done much better myself, for my own three.

Around this time I was in the habit of spending a weekend in New Orleans every spring, at Jazz Fest, with D. One of the notable features of that densely packed weekend is the stream of little parades, the congregation of here or there decked out in team colors, waving flags and belting out gospel songs at the top of their impressive and collective lungs. “You kind of need Jesus for that,” I remember saying to her. Judaism, Buddhism, anything else I could think of—none of these other belief systems really loaned themselves to this kind of ecstatic, toe-tapping spectacle of testament. It was enviable, to me—that pure devotion and utter certainty and frank enjoyment that characterized their faith. Jesus had a plan, and come what may, that was the raft they set sail on and clung to in a tempest. It seemed as comforting and appealing as it was out of reach.

I was amazed that my sister had found that raft. Both my sisters had certainly gravitated more resolutely towards Judaism over the years than I had, and I’d had many occasions to wonder how it had all skipped me as they both spoke knowledgeably and comfortably about things that felt utterly foreign, even alienating to me. D.’s son even had his bar mitzvah, a first (and only) in our family for generations. And I also knew that D. was pretty open, as a seeker. Around her house you could find a little altar to Ganesh and a portrait of Lakshmi as well as a mezuzah, some Buddhist prayer beads, giant crystals from Arizona and an Islamic knot. But Jesus, now. That was new. Continue Reading…

Eating Disorders/Healing, Grief, Guest Posts

Down The Rabbit Hole Into Paris: Healing After The Death of My Sister.

November 29, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

 

By Kate Sutton.

I was sleep deprived, having not slept a wink on the plane. It had been an eight hour red eye and although I had tried too sleep, I couldn’t. Thoughts racing through my head. Love, loss, anniversaries. It was all painfully there. A huge hole in my heart that didn’t want to heal.

Part of me hadn’t wanted to go to Paris. But, as I stepped off that plane and breathed in the French air, I was struck with the sudden sense of freedom. It came as a shock. It was a feeling I hadn’t expected.

The last two months had been a calamity of vomiting, drinking, vomiting, drugs, binging, vomiting, blacking out and more bingeing and purging. All in an attempt to forget the emotional pain I was in, which was only made more brutally aware, as I approached the first anniversary of my sister’s death.  Continue Reading…

And So It Is, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief Averted in Paris.

October 20, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackBy Jennifer Simpson.

I was lounging in bed listening to “Morning Edition” on my local public radio station. It was April 15. Tax day. But I wasn’t worried about that–I’d filed an extension. And I wasn’t awake enough yet to remember that it was the anniversary of my father’s death eight years earlier, though I’d remembered it in the days before.

When the phone rang I let the machine pick up. I hadn’t had coffee, but the message Joe left was more of a jolt than even the strongest espresso could have offered.

“Hi Jenn, this is Joe. [pause] Everything’s okay [pause] but I just need to update you on a situation about your sister.”

Debby has known Joe and his partner Mike since the 80s when they were in training together to become flight attendants. I’d spent the occasional Thanksgiving with them, shared countless dinners out, and celebrated a couple of monumental birthdays: Debby’s 40th, and more recently, Debby’s 50th.

His voice sounded calm, but Joe never calls me, so I knew something was wrong.

Potentially very wrong. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, loss

Air Hunger

December 4, 2013
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By Angela M Giles

 

They always begin the same way: a sudden flash of heat is followed by a cascade of electricity that deftly makes its way through my body in a quick, cruel wave. As soon as it hits my collarbone, I feel my face begin to flush and immediately put my hand to my throat, a quick reflex to try to cool my neck, a strangely protective measure. Then the chill begins. I focus on breathing. I keep my hand at my neck. If I can feel a pulse beneath my skin, I am still ok.

The first attack occurred on May 29th, 2001, exactly thirty days after my sister died, twenty-four days after she was buried, seventeen days after I returned to the east coast, seven days after I went back to work and four hours into my workday. The official diagnosis for what I experienced was ‘air hunger.’ But I didn’t feel a hunger for anything. There was no sense of lacking something or of needing anything. I wasn’t hungry, I was being invaded. I was being overrun. Something was winding through me that I couldn’t control. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, loss, love, Uncategorized

The Night Before My Sister Died.

September 25, 2013

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DAY MY SISTER DIED by Denise Barry.

*

I dreamed of my sister the night before the day she died.

She and I stood facing each other, just a few feet apart, and I remember thinking, “Wow, she hasn’t looked me directly in the eyes in such a long time.”

Darlene and I had grown apart over the years, but I still felt closer to her than anyone else in my family.  She was my big sister, my best friend and, whether she had liked it or not, my protector growing up, so there was no way I could not feel close to her, no matter what.

As I studied her face I found it interesting that she looked younger and more radiant than the last time I had seen her.  She’d been looking tired and run-down lately and I’d been concerned.  I wanted to tell her that, but the look in her eyes kept me quiet. She had something to say.

For a long time she didn’t say anything, but her eyes never left mine.  Not even when her hand shot up to clutch at her throat.  Not even when she said the only words she would say; “Oh my god Denise, it hurts so much!”

In real life, when I see someone in pain I go into panic mode. But not here.  The only thought I had was that Darlene was the only one in my family who never called me by my nickname.  To everyone else I was “Dee”, but Darlene knew me before the short version of my name stuck (thanks to our little sister) and for some reason I felt comforted by this.

Besides, even though I noticed a hint of fear and sadness in her eyes, on a deeper level I recognized acceptance.  Whatever was going on here, she seemed okay with it and if she was okay with it, so was I.

Until the phone rang the next morning.

It was our little sister calling to tell me that Darlene was in the hospital. She was having emergency surgery for the aortic aneurysm she had, which had burst the night before.

Forgetting all about the dream, I went into auto-panic.  Fear came crashing into my body in gigantic waves, one after the other, until I thought I would drown in it.

“This can’t be happening,” I thought.  “What if she dies?  She can’t die!  They have to fix her!”

On the way to the hospital I decided she was going to be fine so I went ahead and made plans for her recovery.  “After the surgery she’ll be good as new”, I assured myself, “and I’ll go to her house every day and take care of her, and we’ll be closer than ever before.”

But she wasn’t fine.

And there would be no recovery.

At Darlene’s funeral, I turned into a parasite, latching on to anyone she had known and sucking them dry of information about her life—the one I hadn’t been a part of for way too long.  I desperately needed to know that she had been happy and that her short life had not been wasted.  But it didn’t matter what anyone said because it was never enough and I crawled away hungry for more.

When I learned that Darlene’s best friend had been with her the night she was rushed to the hospital I cornered her and began my interrogation; “Missy, tell me everything that happened that night, everything!”  I shouted maniacally.

Instead of running away, she nodded her head sadly.  She understood.

“Well, Darlene and I were playing cards and I was making her laugh and then all of a sudden she grabbed her throat and said, Somethings wrong. I feel funny, and she told me to stop making her laugh because it hurt when she did.”

Icy shock ran through me as my dream rushed back.  This was no coincidence, I was sure of that.  The realization of this slowly settled into the void my sister’s death had left in me, and for the first time the questions fell away.

I knew Darlene had come to say goodbye to me and to plant the seed of a promise; we will always be connected, no matter what.

head shot Denise

Denise Barry is an inspirational writer and author.  Her children’s picture book What Does the Tooth Fairy Do with Our Teeth? is available now on Amazon!  To learn more about Denise, visit her at www.denisebarry.net

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

 

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