Woke Tidal Wave

We knew it was coming, but, still, it felt like a punch to the gut…or rather, the uterus. I had a hard time concentrating after learning about SCOTUS’s official decision to strike down Roe vs. Wade when I glanced at the push-notification that popped up on my phone while I was working. Working from home meant that I could let the tears flow between answering calls. Some of the calls were for scheduling initial ultrasounds for newly pregnant women. It made me wonder if it they were happy or, now, terrified. When I wasn’t sobbing or choking back tears when a call came in, I seethed with rage. How can this small group of people…and I mean REALLY small…like five people out of millions of Americans…decide that women don’t have autonomy over their own body and lives? Only one of those five people even has a uterus. How did this happen? Did we have the worst head cold in the history of head colds over the past decade when we started to get the merest whiff of what ultra-conservatives were cooking up? Didn’t we smell the full bouquet of the nauseating stench when it finally reached a full boil in the past six years?

And what’s next? If Clarence Thomas gets his way, women won’t even be able to prevent pregnancy with birth control. I can’t get pregnant anymore, so you might say I don’t have any “skin in the reproductive game,” so to speak, but it’s so much more than having babies or not having babies. It’s about who has rights and who does not. SCOTUS has now established that women do not have the right to make decisions about their own body. We still have the right to vote though, right? Weeeeell, not so much for black and brown women. Okay, okay, okay. They can vote, but it’s not quite easy breezy for some of them or their male counterparts in some states. Who has the right to marry the person they love? Not everyone, according to Justice Thomas. Is deciding who you have sex with your decision? Maybe not. Maybe SCOTUS gets to hide in your bedroom closet and pop out when you violate their interpretation of what is right. Or maybe they just “like to watch.” Who knows?

The ripples of today’s decision will lap off into the distance where the water meets the sky. In some states, if you have a miscarriage, it might be investigated as a crime. Was it a miscarriage or a “miscarriage?” “Did you make yourself lose that baby, Becky? Tell us the truth!” I’ve never had a miscarriage, but I worked in an OB/Gyn office at one time. I remember the faces of some of the women who suffered that fate. It was the face of abject trauma. SCOTUS has left those women open to being retraumatized by law enforcement questioning them about whether they lost that pregnancy “on purpose” or not. What about if you want to have a baby but your body doesn’t want to cooperate? Yup. IVF is likely to be threatened by this ruling, as well.

See. It’s not about “saving babies.” If it was about “saving babies,” there would be free prenatal care, and giving birth wouldn’t cost a penny for any woman. If it was about “saving babies,” there would be funding to assure adequate nutrition and medical care for mother and babies. There would be universal childcare and pre-school. What it’s really about is power…and politics.

Chances are, you love someone whose rights SCOTUS wants to take away. I have daughters. One of them might want to marry someone SCOTUS thinks she shouldn’t. As much as I’d love to be a grandma, I don’t want either of my daughters to have a child if she doesn’t want to. As the mother of a child that was the product of an interracial marriage, I guess I should be grateful that Loving vs. Virginia – the law that allowed interracial marriage – is likely to stand…as long as Clarence Thomas’ tiny shriveled heart beats within his chest and keeps him alive (he’s black and his wife is white). He’s a hypocrite.

The 14th Amendment allowed Clarence Thomas to marry the person he loved, and, yet, he couldn’t find, within that very same statute, the provision to give women authority over their own body. It reads, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is someone I hold in absolute reverence. I know she’s looking down and imploring us to fight. I have a tiny “action figure” of her on the shelf above my desk. Through my tears today, I kept looking at the tiny figurine of my larger-than-life heroine. I felt her. She consoled me. But she reminded me, too. Fierce is a state of mind. In spite of her small stature, this woman was the definition of fierce. She struck fear into the heart of the likes of Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham and those of their ilk. It wasn’t until her passing that they could advance their agenda. So, friends, she speaks to us…from beyond. She speaks to us…along with the voices of all those that fought for the rights of the downtrodden – Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Stanton, Sandra Day O’Connor, MLK, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, John Lewis, Harvey Milk, Marsha Johnson. With one voice, they tell us. VOTE!!! Use your hard won right at every possible opportunity. VOTE!!! We can create the world they envisioned, if we wake up and vote. Drown those motherfuckers in the woke-est tidal wave they never saw coming!!!

The Path Back to Katherine

The winery’s tasting room was almost empty. It was early, and we had time to kill before our dinner reservations. We decided to hit up a different spot before this one, so I was already one Pino in and happy as a clam. We sat across from a mother, daughter, and the daughter’s toddler-aged child. The little girl caught sight of us. She waved with what seemed like her entire body and shouted, “Hi!” We waved back. We heard the women call her Katherine. Katherine’s mom was enjoying a glass of wine. I will confess. Whenever I see adults at a winery with kids in tow, I feel a bit “Karenish” and judgmental. I never say anything…because I have manners, but I can’t help but have some thoughts. First, I feel sorry for the kids. Like, what a boring place for them. And then I can’t help but think about who’s gonna be driving the clan around in the Lexus LX after Mom pounds a couple of Chardies and Dad downs a pint or two of hard cider. I didn’t have those thoughts about Katherine’s mom and grandmother, though. Nana had her soda, and Katherine was having the time of her three-year-old life. All three were noshing on tapenade served in a bowl on a colorful platter with an array of crackers and flatbread fanned out around it. After observing Katherine for a while, I came to feel that perhaps Mom’s glass of wine might be pretty well-deserved. This child was spunky.

A tiny discarded pair of tan suede Ugg boots lay under the table. Katherine’s naked toes dangled above them. Mom persuaded her to try some of the tapenade on a torn-off corner of flatbread. Her expression was priceless. You could tell she thought it was tasty. She grabbed the serving spoon and, with great gusto, plunged it deeply into the bowl. Pulling out a heaping spoonful, she stuffed the whole thing into her mouth. My husband and I laughed out loud as we nibbled our warm pretzel bites and cheese sauce. Mom and Nana looked embarrassed. “Katherine!” mom exclaimed. “She’s adorable,” I reassuringly called out. She thanked me and explained she was heading to a night out. Her mother was taking Katherine from there. I was happy for her. Mom looked like she deserved a child-free night.

When Katherine had had her fill of tapenade, she hopped down from the table and began to bear crawl on all fours across the polished concrete floor. She would stand briefly, from time to time, to hoist the waistband of her striped leggings up over her adorably squishy-looking belly. I watched, mesmerized. Her unspoiled authenticity struck me. She was free and joyously unencumbered by others’ judgment. From her sweet little bare feet and saggy leggings to her tapenade smeared face and cockeyed ponytails, she was unapologetically herself. It made me wonder.

We finished our drinks and appetizer and left our new friends eating, drinking, laughing …and bear crawling. I found myself lost in thought as I gazed out of the passenger side window on our drive to the restaurant. Katherine reminded me of a version of myself I’ve long since lost. Events and circumstances caused it. I’ve written about it before. Abuse. Bullying. Physical and emotional abandonment. Death. I guess…life. All of these things were part-and-parcel to the beat-down of a Katherine-like version of me. I think many women…maybe most women…experience the same thing. From an early age, we’re made to feel like our authentic self is not the best version. We invest time, money, tears, and heartache into striving for a “better” one. We set unrealistic, unattainable goals. We starve ourselves. We neglect ourselves. We mistreat ourselves, and we let others mistreat us. We secretly…or sometimes not so secretly, hate ourselves. We stare into the mirror and look straight past our value. Some of us spend a lifetime pursuing the illusion of what we think we should be.

Watching Katherine made me wonder when exactly this perverse phenomenon might begin and how. Is it plucked from us by others, perhaps those closest to us and whom we most trust? Is it extracted from us by the pressures of life events? Does society somehow grind down our “sharp edges” to make us smooth and submissive and easier to deal with? Or do we relinquish it willingly, persuaded by the world that we must. As usual, song lyrics are clamoring inside my head.

"You're not the type to give yourself enough love. She lives her life hand in a tight glove. I wish that I could fix it, I could fix it for you..."

from Follow You by Imagine Dragons

I have to choke back tears every time I hear this song. It’s written from the perspective of someone who cares about a person that struggles with self-love and self-acceptance. Watching her struggle is painful and confusing to the storyteller. He wishes she could find the path to loving herself and vows to stand by her side on that journey.  “I will follow you way down, wherever you may go. I’ll follow you way down to your deepest low. I’ll always be around wherever life takes you.” Truth be told, that road leads within, and while those we love can “be there” for us, it’s a path we must walk alone. It’s the path that leads to our “Katherine” or, perhaps more accurately, back to her.

We drove toward town and along the bay. Our reservations were at a favorite restaurant that was once the haunt of another famously authentic individual – Ernest Hemingway. They only display a couple of pieces of Hemingway paraphernalia, and fittingly, there’s a drink on the menu that bears his name. It’s a tasteful and subtle nod. Once seated, I looked around the room and thought of him. I imagined him smoking and drinking while holding court amidst the dark wood and dim lighting. He was honest, raw, and unapologetic bordering on offensive, but like Katherine, he was entirely himself. Of course, he was a man, so that’s not saying a lot. I’m not sure many women of my generation, by and large, will ever get to feel the glory of that kind of self-empowerment. Some will. Some have. Still, we have daughters. We have sons who will grow up to be men that have women in their lives. God, grant us the will and the wisdom to raise daughters who are Hemingways. Let us bring up women that are Titans true to themselves and beholden to no one. Let us show them that they never have to twist and contort and conform to become what they are not. Let us help them set their feet on a path from the start to being Katherine.

Perfect Fit

Blazing sun baked the pavement. Sweat soaked Amy’s bra. It dripped down her back and into her underwear. She sat on the brick wall outside the mall’s north entrance, exactly where she told Mom she’d be. She waited and waited. The smell of asphalt from the parking lot paving job was beginning to give her a headache. Cordoned-off parking spots might come in handy for back-to-school shoppers, but the work crew wasn’t in a rush to finish. Amy was hot and wanted to go home.

Amy looked at her thighs. She hated the way they oozed from her shorts like bread dough. “Gross,” she said aloud. Sensing eyes upon her, Amy peered over her white Wayfarers and in the general direction of the looker. One of the workers smiled and called, “Mamacita! You waiting for your man? Want me to give you a ride?” He made a thrusting motion with his hips, grinned, and looked toward the others. They laughed. Redness crept up Amy’s face. She choked back tears. “Where the hell is Mom?” she screamed inside her head. Then she spotted the sky-blue VW Beetle.

Gil rode shotgun with Uncle Moby driving. He saw her and motioned for Moby to pull around in front of her. “Thank God! Can you give me a ride? My loser mom was supposed to be here an hour ago,” Amy pleaded. “Sure. We’re going to pick up papers for my route. Leslie left you hangin’ again?” Gil asked. Amy didn’t answer. She climbed into the back seat. The vinyl burnt her thighs. She considered it a fitting end to the disastrous shopping trip. 

Amy turned the key and flung open the door. Cold air greeted her. Leslie had remembered to turn on the air conditioning. Calls of “Mom? You home?” were met with silence. “Figures,” Amy thought. She flipped on the television. The universe seemed determined to pour salt into wounds. The first thing she saw was skinny Brooke Shields talking about how nothing comes between her and her Calvins. “Are you kidding?” Amy muttered and lunged toward the television to switch it off.

Still stinging from what happened at the mall, Amy flopped onto her bed. All she wanted was a pair of Calvins. She saved up her babysitting money for months. Leslie dropped her off, and Amy went straight to Marshall Fields. Those jeans were the first thing on her list. At the display of neatly folded denim, she gazed up at the placard of Brooke Shields. “May I help you?” the clerk inquired. “Uuuum. I’m looking for some jeans for school,” Amy replied. “We have some over there,” the clerk gestured toward the “Plus-Sizes.” “No, I mean these,” Amy pointed to the table. Her anxiety rose. “Hmmm. What size?” the clerk asked. She knew Amy couldn’t wear any of them. “Maybe the largest one,” Amy laughed. The clerk looked uncomfortable. She pulled a pair from the bottom of the pile, handed them to Amy, and said, “The fitting rooms are over there.” When all was said and done, Amy left the jeans in a pile on the fitting room floor. Tears streaming, she couldn’t get out of there fast enough. 

Amy surveyed the walls of her bedroom. Posters of bands and musicians covered every inch. Music was her salve. Opposite her bed hung a poster of The Beatles. Her dad loved them, especially John Lennon. She listened to their music with him when she was little. Revolver was his favorite album. After he left, she never saw him again. She blamed Leslie. Mom was a lot to deal with. Who could blame him for leaving? 

Amy’s maternal grandmother, Mamo Doyle, felt guilty about the mistakes she’d made as a parent. “You have to show your mum some grace, love,” she would say in her lilting Irish accent, “She’s had a rough go.” Amy loved Mamo but often wondered how “rough” Leslie had it compared to the rest of the world. Everyone has problems. Mamo always made excuses for Mom. Everyone suffered while Leslie looked for answers at the bottom of a bottle or in some guy’s bed. Amy’s eyes began to feel heavy. Sadness melted into sleep. Sleep gave way to dreams of music and happiness and fitting into those jeans.

Even in August, summertime sunsets come late in southern Ohio. Amy awoke disoriented from her nap. She rolled over and looked at the clock. Wandering from room to room, turning on lights, she checked to see if Mom was home yet. She wasn’t. “Whatever,” Amy muttered. She was starving. She opened the fridge and found a Tupperware container of fried chicken with a note from Mom, “Don’t eat it all in one sitting, darling. Boys don’t make passes at plain and plump lasses!” “God, I hate you, skinny bitch!” Amy thought. Then, out of spite, she ate it all.

Amy plopped onto the couch and thumbed through a People magazine. Lady Diana Spencer graced the cover. She admired the slim, pretty, ivory-complected young aristocrat. “I wish I looked like her. I bet she’s size 2,” Amy said aloud. She was deep in thought and mentally calculating how much weight she could lose before school began for her to fit into those Calvins when the doorbell rang. It was Gil. “You okay?” he asked, pushing past her and entering without asking. That’s the way it was with them. He knew she needed him and that she’d never admit it. 

Amy met Gilford Blunt back in grade school. They bonded over their shared experience with a bully named Danny Cotton. Danny had persuaded kids to call Amy “Amy Fat One” because she was chubby and her last name was Stratton. Gil was odd, skinny, gangly, and small. The Blunt family was even stranger. They were a large family and poor. Gil’s clothes were hand-me-downs from his older, much larger brothers. His clothes and stature were a favorite subject of Danny’s cruelty. 

Amy and Gil also shared a passion for music. They spent hours after school listening to records on Amy’s junky record player. In the beginning, most were 45’s from the collection Amy’s dad left. As they got older, each introduced the other to new music. They shared LPs received as gifts or bought with hard-earned cash from Amy’s babysitting or Gil’s paper route. Gil was partial to heavy rock like Motorhead, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. Amy liked all kinds, from pop and rock to disco and even country. The Beatles were her favorite, though. Their music reminded her of her father. 

Gil sat opposite Amy at the kitchen table. “What happened at the mall?” he asked. “It’s embarrassing,” she responded. “You didn’t have enough money for your school clothes? That’s happened to me,” he sympathized. “No, it wasn’t that. I can’t wear the clothes other girls do. I wanted some Calvin Klein jeans, but I’m too fat.” As much as he wanted to, Amy knew Gil didn’t understand. He didn’t see her the way kids at school did. He didn’t see her the way she saw herself. “Forget about it. I don’t want to think about it anymore,” she said. Looking down, he nodded, “Wanna ride bikes down to DQ and get ice cream?” Amy flashed a broad smile. “Hey, you’ve got chicken in your braces,” he said. Hearing this from anyone else would’ve mortified her. But this was Gil, and he “got” her. “Thanks!” she laughed. Nothing more needed to be said.

September’s start of school arrived. Sophomore year proved challenging for Amy and Gil. Amy’s mom got diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and had only weeks to live. Gil’s dad lost his job and the family’s house. His siblings were scattered across the country and sent to live with various relatives. Gil moved in with Uncle Moby. Both Amy and Gil sleepwalked through schooldays. The thoughts, opinions, and talk of other kids was white noise amidst a maelstrom. Not fitting into Calvin Klein jeans seemed silly compared to losing her only remaining parent, as shitty a parent as Leslie was. Gil and Amy found shelter from the storm within their friendship, like they always had. One day after school, Gil invited Amy to accompany him on his paper route. “I’ll drive the bike. You can sit on the handlebars and toss papers into yards. It’s fun. I pretend I’m pitching for The Reds when I ride with Moby,” he said. Amy wanted to go, but she wasn’t sure about the logistics. “You won’t be able to pedal with my fat ass on there,” she replied, “I’ll just ride my bike.” Gil’s route was long enough to allow them time to process the day’s events. Afterward, they went back to Amy’s to listen to records, like they always did. It became their daily ritual.

On a frigid day in early December, Amy’s Calculus class was interrupted by the school secretary’s voice over the intercom. Her grandmother was there to pick her up. Amy knew why. Approaching the office, she could see Mamo. She looked distressed and pale. Mamo greeted Amy with a kiss on the cheek. She whispered, “Come, child, we must go. Your mum’s passed.” Leslie’s cancer had been too advanced for treatment. Palliative care was the only option. Hospice was called. From the start, Amy knew it was a matter of time. Every day after school, she expected to come home to the news. Every day after school, when it didn’t happen, Amy called Gil to come over so they could deliver papers. She wondered if it felt weird for him to be hanging out in a house with someone on the verge of death. If it did, he never said anything. Then again, Amy knew he never would. When she didn’t call him that day after school, he knew…and he came anyway. 

Mamo knocked gently on Amy’s bedroom door. “Amy, love, Gil’s here,” she said quietly. Amy met him outside. “It’s okay,” Amy said, “There’s no dead body in there. They already took her away.” The rawness of Amy’s words stunned Gil, but, knowing her as he did, he understood and read her pain. “Wanna come on my route with me to get away from…all this,” he gestured toward the building. “Sure,” she replied. Her relief was palpable.

They rode in silence, punctuated by Gil’s occasional grunt with a long toss. “Have you watched any television or listened to the radio,” he asked. “Nope, we spent the day at the funeral home. Why?” she asked. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he replied, “I want you to hear it from me, not the tv or radio.” Amy stopped pedaling. Gil continued, “Uuuum. It’s John Lennon. Some guy shot him. Amy, he’s dead.” Amy felt like the ground beneath her gave way, and she was falling through a dark chasm. “What? Noooo! This can’t be happening!” she shouted. She stood, frozen astride her bike. “Are you alright?” a panicked Gil asked, “I know you love The Beatles…and him. I thought you should know.” Amy threw her bike down. “Let me up there,” she insisted, “let me onto the handlebars.” Gil sat back and steadied the bike. Amy lumbered onto the perch. “Peddle!” she demanded, “Peddle as fast as you can!” Gil obeyed. 

Soon they were flying down Driftwood Boulevard. Biting wind stung Amy’s face and flowed through her long red hair, whipping it into Gil’s eyes and almost eclipsing his vision. Her heart pounded. She was sure she would soon rise into the sky and clouds would envelop her. When the road came to an abrupt end, Amy jumped to the ground and collapsed into a sobbing heap. It was dark now. Poor asthmatic Gil gasped for air. He laid his bike down, knelt beside Amy, and placed his hand on her back. She convulsed in tears.

The next day was even colder. The sky was a mournful dove-gray and dotted with big lacey snowflakes. Mamo laid out a black wool skirt and some black tights along with a fuzzy black sweater. The sweater had a white lamb on the chest to her heart’s right. It reminded Amy of a sweater she once saw Lady Di wear. The whole day was a blur of hugs and tears from people Amy pretended to know. The whispers and pitying looks made her feel like her head might explode. When she glimpsed a familiar face, calmness settled over her. “Hey,” said Gil. “Hey,” she replied. “You okay?” he asked. “Yeah,” she said. “Cool,” he responded, nodding. “Call me if you want. I could use your help with the route. It’s been cold, so Moby’s been driving me. The Bug needs an alternator now. He’s gotta order one, so it’ll be a while before he can help again,” he continued. “Yeah.” Amy said, “I can help.” Gil nodded, turned, and disappeared into the crowd of mourners. Amy knew he wanted to say more. She figured he couldn’t find the right words, like everyone else. She longed for him to hug her and regretted not reaching out to hug him. 

Amy felt like she was watching some strange movie about someone else’s life. People bending over her, putting their faces in hers, touching her, hugging her, and crying. She stood like a zombie. She stood there watching the movie. Once everyone had gone, Mamo wrapped Amy’s coat around her shoulders and squeezed. “I know that was bloody hard for you. It was hard for me, too, but it’s over now. Thank God!” Mamo linked arms with Amy. The two made their way outside. Gil was waiting. “Go on, Mamo. I’ll see you at home,” Amy said. Mamo looked at Gil, then back at Amy, and nodded.

Astride his bike, Gil offered a tiny smile. He started singing. “You say you want a revolution. Weeell, ya know. We all wanna change the world.” Revolution was Gil’s favorite Beatle’s song. He said it had a hard rock edge he liked. Amy sang back, “You tell me that it’s evolution. Weeell, you know. We all want to change the world.” “Hop on,” he said. They headed down Canal Street. Gil peddled as fast as his skinny legs could. They sang Revolution at the top of their lungs. They rode and sang. They rode to the edge of town. They rode until they were out of breath from screaming the last “alriiight” of the chorus. 

Gil was spent and stopped to catch his breath. Amy hopped off and sat down on the curb. Gil tossed the bike to the ground and joined her. Still gasping for air, Gil said, “It’s true, ya know.” “What’s true?” she asked. “It’s gonna be alright. Everything’s gonna be alright.” Amy was taken aback by the words…by the thought. She stared at Gil with tear-filled eyes. Her lip quivered. She glanced at her feet, then back up at Gil. She nodded, and, in that moment, Amy felt like it just might be.

Sorrow On a Cellular Level-Transformed

For most women, carrying a child leaves an indelible mark. I’m not talking about stretch marks or weight gain. I’m talking about something more. I’m talking about a permanent change on a cellular level. It’s a change that connects her to that child forever. She has a connection whether the child is born or dies before or as they are coming into the world (disclaimer – this is NOT a commentary on what I believe about when life begins). She’s connected whether she raises the child or someone else does. She has a connection whether she raises that child for a day or into adulthood. She remains connected whether she’s in the same house with that child or on the other side of the world from them.

I don’t know if being an empath makes me more aware of this connection or if it makes me feel it more deeply. What I can tell you is that I’ve carried two children. One of them is still alive…and one of them is not. The connection I feel to the child that is gone is just as strong as it is to my surviving child. My surviving child is grown and on her own. She lives in close proximity. She has a full and busy life. I see her often, but, as is the case for most adult children, she’s off living her life just as she should be. The connection now is an undercurrent – always there and just as strong, but flowing beneath daily life. It’s the natural order. Occasions when we are able to spend time together bring the connection back to the surface, and that’s the best part of being with her. When your experience is anything other than giving birth to the child you carried and raising them to adulthood, that deep connection is forced to exist as an undercurrent always. It becomes a connection without an expression…except that of grief.

For me, days that should be an opportunity to feel the fullest expression of the connection to my late daughter are the hardest. Her birthday is one of those days, and today is that day. It’s been many years since her death, but each year it just feels like a renewal of loss. She would’ve been thirty-one this year. We lost her when she was just sixteen. I can still see her, in my mind’s eye. I can still hear her voice and, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can feel her hand in mine. I feel her little girl hand on the way to kindergarten…and that of a silly teenager pressing mine, along with a whiny “pleeeease,” in an attempt to get her way. I still feel her whole being so deeply…down in my cells, but the connection only goes one way now. My soul calls out, expecting a response, only to feel anguish and confusion when there is none.

I’m lucky. I still have my surviving daughter. I also have a wonderful step-daughter with whom I share a loving connection. Not every mother is so lucky. I’ve been reminded of that on a daily basis since the beginning of the pandemic. Each day I hear yet another story of a mother losing her child or a child losing their mother…so many people losing loved ones. It compounds my grief and ignites my deepest fears. Will my family end up being “marked by Covid?” Will I lose another child or my husband? Will I be the one lost? Like everyone else, most of the time, I try not to think about it, but today I can’t not think about it.

We will still celebrate my daughter’s birthday today, like we did when she was with us. We just gather at the cemetery instead of the dining room table now. We lay a bouquet of her favorite red roses on a patch of ground instead of giving them to her. Sometimes we tie a balloon to the plaque that proclaims for eternity her status as a “Rockstar.” We usually share a meal of her favorite Italian food as a family, too. This year, because of the pandemic, it will be just the three of us – her sister, her stepdad, and me. The meal will be take-out instead of at a restaurant. 

My thoughts, again, go back to the mothers and the children and loved ones lost in the past few months all around the world due to the virus. I think about the birthdays that will have to be celebrated the same way we’ve celebrated my daughter’s each year for the past fifteen years. I think about the holidays and the anniversaries and the milestones the ones left behind will have to celebrate in their absence. My heart breaks for all those mothers…all those families, because I know their pain, and I know some things just never get any easier.

Yes, our sorrow “marks” us. We will always feel the pain of a connection we can’t express directly to our child (or loved one), and we can’t feel the pleasure of it being reciprocated. What we can do, though, is transform our sorrow and give the love once reserved for our departed to others through acts of kindness, caring, compassion, patience, and empathy. And, yes, “Karen” that means wearing a God damn mask (apologies to any actual Karens I may have offended with that remark).

Finding “Home” in the Heart



Mike and I began house-hunting, as a couple, nearly a year before we married. He had been planning to buy a home of his own for him and his daughter well before we met. Before my divorce I’d owned a home too, with my then-husband, until our divorce brought about its sale. After it was clear we were a permanent thing, Mike and I needed a dwelling large enough to accommodate a blended family of five. Mike’s daughter was only with us on the weekends, so she had little concern about where we lived, as long as she had her own space. It was a reasonable expectation. My daughters found the prospect of moving to a new school district, and leaving their friends, to be a source of hysterics and great drama. Anyone that has lived through having teen and pre-teen daughters understands that it doesn’t take much for them to feel like the entire world is ending. So, we acquiesced. We made certain our house hunting focused on places within their school district. We found an adorable four-bedroom, two story traditional, on three-fourths of an acre, in a tract that had once been an orchard. It was in a “country-like” setting, around the corner from a family farm with horses and a donkey, in a quiet little neighborhood, and removed from the hustle and bustle of town. It had a huge backyard that butted up to a wooded area. The lot even had some original fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Each girl had her own bedroom. There was a family room with a wood burning fireplace, a redone kitchen, and a semi-finished basement (well, circa 1975 “finished”). It was idyllic. I have a very clear memory of seeing it for the first time. It was bright and spacious. I mouthed the words “I want this house!” to Mike as the realtor took us from room to room explaining the house’s features.

As we settled into life on Gleneagle Drive, we noticed that the neighborhood was mostly populated by senior citizens and retirees. There were almost no families or children. My kids didn’t mind, though. They had their friends at school, so we drove them to see those kids. What our neighbors noticed about us was not so innocuous. We were loud. My kids played their music loudly. Opening the windows during warm weather meant everybody within 100 yards of our house could hear the girls bickering. They could hear me or my husband yelling at them to stop or any one of us calling to one another between floors or rooms. We also had a huge yellow Labrador that was prone to “jail breaks.” He roamed the neighborhood getting other dogs riled up or nosing through stuff on people’s property. Retrieving him was a spectacle. It was me driving the junky family mini-van around the neighborhood whilst the kids dangled from the open sliding door, calling to him and waving slices of bacon as bait.

Our home saw quite the menagerie of pets over the years. Besides the aforementioned Labrador, we had two cats, two fish, a rat, three guinea pigs, and two more dogs. One of the cats and at least two of the guinea pigs are buried in the woods behind the house. We honored one fish, a red beta named Tony Beets, with a Viking funeral in the fireplace. He passed after a particularly long stretch without power one winter. The entire neighborhood lost power an average of two to three times every year. And that is something I do not miss.

The kids grew up and moved out and our crazy dog got too old to run around like a terrorist. Time mended our reputation in the neighborhood. Somehow our neighbors forgot who we once were. I know this because one year my husband and I took up running. We began by walking. We mixed in some running intervals until, over time, we worked our way up to running a three-mile series of laps through the neighborhood. One day some of the folks on our route started giving us smiles, waves, and happy thumbs up. A few of them even motioned us over to congratulate us on our progress and to tell us “how proud” they were of us. We were surprised, because we had always kept to ourselves. We weren’t aware that they had been observing us. They remained our little white and gray-haired cheerleaders as we trained for our first 5K. Sadly, our foray into running ran its course (please excuse the pun), but I will never forget the caring and support those lovely people showed us.

Our immediate neighbors to the South were Roy and Gloria. Like nearly all our other neighbors, they were older and had grown children. They were both still working when we moved in, but a few years later Gloria retired from her job at a nursing home. Shortly after that, Roy retired from his job as a materials manager for a local construction company. IEventually, the reality of being at home with Gloria all day every day set in for Roy. He ended up going back to work part-time in Mike’s store. I am certain his decision to return to the work was Roy’s way of escaping, if only for a few hours a few days a week. Once he got over the “shock to the system” of retirement, Roy quit working altogether and seemed to “up” his landscaping maintenance game. One summer morning I awoke at about 8:00 a.m. to the sound of Roy using his leaf blower to blow stray leaves…in the SUMMER…from his lawn and into the road. Good on ya, Roy. You’re the Beyonce of neighbors. Fuck the sleeping neighbors! You go on with your bad self! You go and do what you wanna do! Here, lemme get up and put on a bra, so I can pass you a mic to drop!

The thought of Roy and Gloria brings many things to mind. First, Roy was the consummate handyman. Whenever my “all thumbs” husband would attempt any project – like building a picnic table or fixing the mower or starting the snowblower – Roy would appear out of nowhere for an assist. I once watched him “help” Mike assemble a picnic table meant to be a memorial to our late oldest daughter. With Mike being a huge Star Wars fan, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wow. That looks like a Jedi Master (Roy) with his padowan (Mike).” I also remember feeling awestruck by Roy’s skill. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. He rebuilt our deck, and insisted on adding a badass elevated octagon-shaped platform. He and his son reroofed our garage. He fixed the sump pump on the drain for our washing machine. He even diagnosed the source of a leak we discovered upon arriving home from Mass one Christmas Eve that had sprung from the kitchen ceiling. When he wasn’t “helping” his negligent homeowning neighbors, he was “just checking in” with us. We affectionately referred to this as “getting Royed.” What it meant to my husband was a fifteen to thirty-minute conversation about a variety of topics. Sometimes simply going to get the mail would take ten minutes. “What happened to you?” I would ask Mike. “I got Royed,” he would reply. He never had to explain what that meant.

I was somehow able to avoid getting “Royed” much of the time…except in the summer. In my former profession as a teacher, I had summers off. I typically used that time to do home projects like painting, replacing electrical fixtures, or landscaping. In fact, by the time we moved, I had replaced every light fixture and painted every room with my own two hands. One summer I decided to plant flowers and bushes around the backyard. I put in a patch of my favorite lilies and, against the back of the house, a lavender hedge. I wanted its lovely fragrance to waft through the ground floor windows and to deter mosquitoes in the backyard. I also decided to plant azalea bushes around the awesome deck Roy had built. During the project, I thought I would be smart. To avoid getting “Royed,” I made sure I wore earbuds and listened to music while I worked. I also wore sunglasses, so I could remain on the lookout…on the downlow. The strategy was minimally effective. I’ll reluctantly admit it. There were times I peed my pants, just a little, when Roy snuck up on me while I was rockin’ out to my 90’s alt jams and vibin’ with my landscaping vision. Aaaaah! Having to put on cool dry underpants on a hot summer day after having wet yourself as a grown-ass woman (HEY! JUST a little). Yes. Thanks, Roy. Good times. Great memories.

There are so many memories that live at 7971 Gleneagle. Weeknight dinners around the family dining table featuring stories from our respective days. Meals that devolved into quarrels and ended with one or more children leaving the table in tears and stomping off to her room. Opening gifts Christmas morning in the room we spent the least amount of time in most of the year because it lacked a television. The sweet smiling faces of extended family gathered ’round the table for a Thanksgiving dinner I lovingly prepared. The way light poured in from the big picture window and changed, ever so subtly, with each season. Moments of calm, watching all three daughters getting along for a change. Seeing them laying on the trampoline, gazing up at the wide blue sky and talking about nothing in particular. How quiet the house became after the loss of our oldest daughter. How even quieter it got when our remaining two graduated and went on to make their own lives. Parting with that place was sweet sorrow.

Two years before we moved, my husband bought a fire pit. He’d insisted on getting one ever since he began working at the outdoor sports store he now manages. I didn’t see the point of such a purchase, but I finally relented. It proved to be one of the best he ever made from that store. It created some truly lovely memories of us as empty-nesters in our last days in the house. I had camped a few times in my life. Those experiences never led me to appreciate the relaxation that comes from sitting in front of a good ole fashioned fire. We spent two consecutive summers and well into the following autumn seasons relaxing by that damn fire pit. We enjoyed many campfire dinners – hot dogs, pan fried fresh lake caught blue gills, s’mores, and pie iron sandwiches. We even found the perfect campfire adult beverage – a red wine that recreates the taste of s’mores with chocolate and marshmallow flavors. Those summer nights by the fire pit were sublime. We often spotted deer near the woods at the edge of the yard. They always found their way to the apple tree to nibble fallen apples. Fireflies dotted the air and little bats would wing in and out of the trees. At twilight, the hydrangeas, lavender, and lilies made the yard look like a water color dream.

Selling our house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For both my husband and me, it was the place in which we’d lived the longest of our lives. We decided to move for several reasons. One was the upkeep of such a big house and large yard. We knew it would become too much for the two of us as we age. When we had three able bodied teenagers in need of spending money, having the lawn mowed or the bathrooms cleaned was a non-issue. Once our kids were gone, we grew weary of the housekeeping obligations. We also watched my parents age. We watched as it became clear their home, which was like ours, no longer met the needs of aging bodies with limited mobility. We knew we needed a dwelling that could accommodate the changes to come. We needed a home where we could “age in place.” My leaving teaching necessitated the move, as well. We needed to eliminate the sizeable debt we’d incurred over the years. We needed a way to reduce our monthly mortgage payment to offset the reduction in my wages, too. The facts converged. We resigned ourselves to the fact that selling our big, beautiful, beloved, and memory filled home was the only way to achieve our goals.

I’d spent years making improvements to the house – room by room, summer by summer. I decluttered and purged and staged and invested every spare penny. We were excited when we finally listed. I bought a little St. Joseph (patron saint of home and family) statue and, per Catholic lore to expedite the sale, buried it upside down in the front yard. I chose a spot near our lovely birch tree. I prayed the prayer every morning before I went to work. We immediately had people interested in seeing it, and, happily, we had an offer within the first week. We were thrilled, but that meant the pressure was on to find a condo. There was little available within our budget. We somehow managed to find a place we liked. It wasn’t ideal. It was a third-floor unit, defeating one of the main purposes for moving. It also posed a headache when it came to taking the dog potty. Still, it was the best option, and we made an offer. Then, as if on cue, our universe seemed to enter some sort of karmic retrograde. My father died suddenly. His affairs, including guardianship of my incapacitated nursing home resident mother, were left for me to sort out. I had just begun a new job and had little time off to devote to the sale of a home, the purchase of a condo and taking care of my parents’ stuff. The inspection of our home revealed a myriad of issues, including some very pricey ones. The appraisal of the condo came back under asking price and the seller was unwilling to come down. Ultimately, the sale of the house and the purchase of the condo both ended up falling through. Our heads were spinning. We had to start over.

It wasn’t long before we had another offer on our house. Though the inspection once again revealed issues, the buyers were less demanding than the previous one and we were weary. We agreed to their requests and the sale went through. Once again, we found ourselves in a position where we had to find a place to live…quickly. The condo we settled on was adequate – a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot former rental property five minutes from Mike’s store. The seller lived in another city. For some reason, he’d had the electricity shut off when the tenant moved out. So the first time we saw the place was by lantern. Another oddity was that the owner’s realtor had little involvement. His dad, who lived nearby, did the showing. Still, I found the quiet wooded setting appealing. It was a second story unit, but the ground floor was below grade, so it was up just seven steps. Once again, it was not ideal. Once again, it was the best option…and a hell of a deal. We offered the asking price and were delighted when the seller accepted. Then karma again had her say. The buyers for our house had a to coordinate closing on the purchase of our house with the sale of theirs. Foster parents with three young children, they needed to be able to move in within the month. Closing on the condo could not possibly be completed within that time frame time, and we were heading into the holiday season. We would close on the sale of our house and have to be out before we had a place to go. But, as fate would have it, we did have a place to go – my parents’ house, now empty following my father’s passing. My father had lived there alone for several years. It looked like an episode of Hoarders come to life – a filthy, smelly, pack-rat disaster. We pitched, donated, and cleaned as much as we could to make it habitable. Having to spend Christmas in the dilapidated shell of my family home was salt rubbed into months of wounds. We washed and dressed them. We took some Tylenol, gritted our teeth, and rented a U-Haul.

Even though I felt like I had spent weeks packing, the week leading up to our last weekend in the house was chaotic. It was the holiday shopping season and Mike, a retail manager, could take a limited amount of time off. My daughter and her girlfriend ended up helping me with the lion’s share of packing and loading the moving truck. They could only help for one of the three days we’d carved out for the physical move. Sunday, the third day, was our final day in the house. Mike and I were left to finish on our own. Mike made runs to my parents’ house. He packed our Toyota Rav4 to the gills with the remaining miscellany of our shit. I cleaned and touched up nail and screw holes with spackling and paint. The vacuum broke, at one point, and it was more than I could take. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Mike returned from a run to find me sitting on the floor, in the empty living room of the now almost completely empty house. I was ugly crying with swollen red eyes and gasping for breath. He was drained and exhausted, too. He had little patience for my meltdown. There were still odds and ends that needed to be moved…or left. We battled over what to keep and what to leave. In reality, we were both grieving. His grief manifested as wanting to “Just leave it! Leave it! We won’t have room for it!” Mine was the opposite. “I can’t leave it. I just can’t. I might need it. We might need it.”

In the end, we took more with us than Mike wanted to…and I left more than my heart could comfortably part with. We both simply had to reconcile. The clock was ticking, and we needed to leave. Exhaustion was catching up with both of us. As Mike took the final load of stuff, I mopped the kitchen floor. It was the last task left. When I was done, I walked from room to room. Twenty years of good and bad and wonderful and horrible memories played like a video in my mind’s eye. When Mike returned, it was time to say goodbye…for good. It was cold and raining. Mike had backed into the driveway, so sight of the house appropriately filled the rearview mirrors. It wasn’t until that moment that I remembered St. Joseph. “Wait!” I said glancing toward the birch tree. Mike knew what I was thinking. “Nope! No! You’re not digging that thing up now. It’s raining. I’m exhausted, and we need to leave now!” I felt a twinge of panic. What if leaving it would bring us more bad luck? What if leaving it was like taking for granted the blessing it had bestowed? I searched my mind for a rationale. “Okay, okay, okay! I’ll leave it here to watch over the family, the new owners,” I said. Yes! That was it! It would be a talisman for the new occupants and their family. Mike’s expression was that of relief.

The thought did not keep me from going back, though. One December evening just before Christmas I persuaded Mike to be my partner in crime. We returned under the cover of darkness and when it appeared no one was home. He aimed the headlights at the spot by the tree. I had nothing but my bare hands with which to dig. It was cold. The soil was beginning to freeze and dead leaves carpeted the ground. I couldn’t find the stone I’d placed to mark the spot. I retraced the paces from the tree I’d measure out that warm September day all those weeks before. I bent down and started to dig, paw over paw like a dog. Nope! Not there. I moved a few feet to the left and repeated. Still no luck. I was beginning to get nervous that we’d be discovered. I made one more unsuccessful attempt before giving up and returning to the warmth of the running car, dirt caked beneath my fingernails. Mike’s expression this time said “I can’t believe you just did that.” It’s an expression I’ve gotten use to after all these years.

What Mike and I have learned from our recent experiences, and over the years, can best be expressed by an Oliver Wendall Holmes’ quote. “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Our house on Gleneagle was a dwelling for us and our girls for many years. The experiences from our time there made it home and, because of that, it will always be our home. Still, memories are made by people and attached to places. We’ve made a few good memories in our condo so far. We have new, equally amusing and fascinatingly strange neighbors (but that is a story of for another time). We’ve celebrated some holidays. I found spots for almost all my Christmas decorations. We added to our family in the condo – a tortoise shell calico cat named Roni. Unfortunately, we’ve subtracted, too. My mother passed away and my daughter ended her long-term relationship. I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve learned to enjoy having a smaller space to clean. I’ve learned to enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while relishing the tranquility of the woods, up-close, from a rocking chair on my balcony. I’ve savored a nice cup of Earl Grey on my couch while watching the gently falling snow on a Saturday morning in January. I’ve awoken on a spring Sunday morning by a cacophony of birds in a tree just outside my bedroom window. After my first trip abroad, I couldn’t wait to come “home” to my comfy bed in this condo. The photo attached to this post is a picture of the actual doormat that sits in front of my door. I got it a few months ago. It took a while for me to feel the sentiment. I guess this new place is becoming home now too.


My Love-Hate Relationship with Modern Appliances and Major Life Changes

stove on fire

We’ve lived in our condo for a year and a half now. We moved from a house that we’d lived in for about twenty years. Our house had a big yard, lots of room, plenty of natural light, and appliances I’d picked out myself – including an amazing stainless-steel gas range I got a killer deal on. The family that bought our house insisted we leave all the appliances, including my beloved range. I was heart-broken at having to say goodbye to it. Getting use to my new electric range in the condo was one of the hardest things about moving. Though I’d used an electric range before, I’d been cooking on a gas one for a long time. So, I had a very steep re-learning curve. Of course, it didn’t help that, for some reason, electric ranges seem to have two temperatures – “raging fires of hell” and “barely lukewarm armpit.” One of the first things I tried to cook was pasta. It wasn’t some kind of fancy Italian pasta either. It was basic Kraft Dinner Macaroni and Cheese. Yeah. Simple, right? Easy, right? No! It came out chewy and sticky. The frustration was more than I could take. Through streaming tears, I told my husband, “I don’t know how to work this damn thing! I can’t cook on it! I’m not going to cook anymore!” Granted, my overreaction was due more to the stress of moving and a variety of other difficult life events I was going through at the time, but the struggle was real.
I had better success with the oven and often resorted to bake-able meals in those early days. Even that, though, seemed like cooking with some strange “European” appliance. Everything…and I mean everything…seemed to take exponentially longer to cook. I persevered, though, and baking got a little better, a little easier. Apparently, all I needed to do was lower my expectations and double the baking time for any lovin that came outta this stupid oven.
The range continued to be a challenge. The peak of the aforementioned learning curve culminated in what will forever be known to my family as “the Easter ham glaze debacle.” Easter dinner was the first holiday meal I tried to cook on this devil device. Holiday meal preparation has always felt like a “spinning plates” performance set to The Sabre Dance, and my inability to master the use of the new range amped the panic factor tenfold. I was somehow able to complete every part of the meal without great incident…until it came time to make the glaze for the ham. I was trying out a new recipe. It was one I’d seen on a cooking show – a sweet and glossy orange maple delight. It would be the crowning jewel of the main dish, our holiday ham. I put the saucepan on a smaller back burner to simmer and let the glaze reduce while I finished up the other dishes. I had only turned my back for a moment when I heard hissing and fizzing from behind. I turned back to see waves of brown cascading over the sides of the saucepan like (in the words of Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil) “hot liquid magma,” coating the entire screaming hot cooktop and instantly hardening into a thick black crust.
I panicked and started trying to wipe the mess from the still piping hot cooktop with the scrubby side of a soapy sponge. Steam wafted around me as the wet sponge’s nubby plastic side began to burn and singe. “Shit, shit, shit!” I exclaimed as I felt my self-restraint dissolve into tears. How the fuck can cooking on a modern appliance bring a grown woman to tears? I ask you. How can such a thing occur in today’s world? In the end, I decided to leave the mess and finish preparing the meal. Miraculously, the food turned out well and everyone enjoyed it. Still, a year later, this cooking fail has left me scarred.
It’s been a year since my ham-glaze-hell-on-earth incident, and I’ve become accustomed to my sub-par range. I’ve boiled ears of summer corn on the cooktop without incident and heated taco shells for Taco Tuesday weekly. I’ve prepared baked birthday macaroni and cheese for my hubby in August. I’ve even prepared a full holiday meal for Thanksgiving – roast turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings. I’ve made my signature dishes (that same mac-n-cheese as well as my corn casserole) to pass at the Christmas Day celebration hosted by my daughter in her new home. I even made Easter dinner numero dos, albeit only for two thanks to the Covid-19 quarantine. Yes, I did, indeed, make another ham with glaze. The recipe de jour this year was a sweet tea brown sugar glaze, and, no, there was no “debacle” this time around.
It’s taken over a year to get use to cooking on my electric range. I still miss my old gas one. I miss a lot of things. I’ve been through a great deal of change in the past few years and little of it has been comfortable. I left a profession that I worked in for almost twenty years. I’ve lost friendships. I lost both my parents. I left a house that I lived in longer than any other place in my life. It was the place where I raised my children. My life has felt strange and unfamiliar for long time.
There is comfort in the familiar. The job you’ve been going to since you graduated from college. Your family. The friends you’ve known forever. The house you’ve lived in for years. The range you’ve cooked dozens of holiday dinners on. Familiar feels good. It’s warm and easy. Some people find change exciting and interesting. I do not. It’s hard, for me, and stressful and I often fight it. Not having my parents around will never feel quite right, but I’m adapting to it. Working in a job that pays half of what I made in my former profession hasn’t been easy, but I’m getting used to it. Living in a two-bedroom, one bathroom 880 square foot condo has been an adjustment. Cooking for two on the electric range in our condo will never be the same as preparing meals for a family of five on a bad-ass gas range in a two-story family home on an acre lot in a quiet neighborhood. Change is hard, but if you grit your teeth and can endure it, I’m convinced you emerge further evolved than you once were…and that’s a good thing. This thought reminds me of a portion of the song Everything Will Change by Gavin DeGraw.

Back when it used to hurt
Took you a little while just to find the words
Losing, well, it sometimes burns, but you keep moving on
You’ve got to grow strong like you’re leading the nation
Got to make the best out of this situation
Get your hands up like it’s a celebration
And you keep moving on

Singing hey, before it gets too late
Before the night is over, before the world’s awake
Everything will change
Hey, I feel it coming on
Starting like a fire, tonight you lit the flame
Now everything will change

Yes, adapting to cooking on an electric range after cooking on a gas one is a purely first world problem and not at all a true traumatic, life altering change. Still, for me, it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol of resilience. It’s a symbol of my will to “fight” when I’m feeling defeated, overwhelmed, and beaten down. Yes, it “took me a while to find the words,” but they’re found now and Change has been embraced. So, do me a solid, Change, okay? Return the fucking favor.

Internalizing Atomic Numbers and Counting Sunrises


Thirty-years ago, I became a mother. In an instant I learned what it meant to care about another human being more than myself. I remember the strange sensation of hypervigilance that first night. Every sound, every slight stirring my newborn made from the bassinette positioned next to my bed woke me all through the long night. When they whisked her away in the middle of the night to do her vitals while I was asleep, they kept her a little too long. I awoke in a panic. I swear I heard and recognized her cry all the way down the hall. They brought her back to me and placed her in my arms. The sound of my voice instantly calmed her and her eyes intently gazed up at me. We’d long since bonded during the months I carried her inside my body. Meeting simply galvanized the connection.

My oldest child, Sarah, would’ve turned thirty back in October. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that fact. I might find it easier were she still here. I might find it easier, and I wouldn’t have to wonder. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she’d be doing right now. I wouldn’t have to wonder what she would look like at thirty and if she’d have a husband…or a wife…or a child. I wouldn’t have to wonder if I would have a grandchild. I wouldn’t have to wonder if she would’ve pursued a career in music, as she’d always talked about, or found a different path to happiness. I wouldn’t have to imagine what our relationship would be like now. It was pretty contentious back then. What would her relationship with her sister be like? They were so close – the inseparable now forever separated.

I have heard that each human heart possesses a finite number of beats and that that number varies from person to person. Of course, I’ve also heard that that is merely a myth. Still, it is another thing about which I now wonder. I wonder if death will, for me, come when, as Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl describes in the song One of These Days, my heart simply “plays its final beat?” Or, as it did for my parents, will illness bring my demise? Might an accident bring my life to an abrupt end, as it did for Sarah, or will I lose my lifelong battle with depression someday and die by my own hand?  Recent events have caused such murky thoughts to resurface after a long stretch of being submerged deep within my subconscious. Both my parents died about a year ago. So did Sarah’s cat, our precious Peanut.

My resting heart rate is about 70 beats per minute. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. That means my heart has beaten over 533 million times since Sarah died and over 2 billion in my lifetime so far. How much is left on the meter?

Before you dismiss my words as the wild ranting of some weird math nerd, I wasn’t always so obsessed. It wasn’t until the losses in my life began stacking up like the score of a video game. Maybe it’s a return of my childhood OCD behaviors. Maybe I’ve always been a little “on the spectrum” and the counting and calculating are just the latest indicators of it. Math is good. Math is solid, and unlike most things, it’s predictable.

It’s twenty-five paces from the pavement to my daughter’s grave. I count it in my head every time I go. I’ve never told anybody that. We visit on her birthday or the anniversary of her death or when I’m feeling an instance of disbelief that she really is gone – which still happens occasionally, even after all these years – and I still count.

The day after Sarah died, I remember feeling like the world should’ve stopped turning, and I was so perplexed that it had not. It just kept spinning. Everyone’s lives went on. They went to work. They went to school. They ate their meals and watched television. They did their laundry and shopped for groceries. The lives of many of the people that loved Sarah went on. In reality, it turned out that our lives were, more accurately, on pause for a bit. Then, somewhere along the way, time hit the “play” button, and even my world began turning again. Before I realized it, the world had revolved over 5,000 times and made its trip around the sun nearly fifteen times.

My heart, the muscular organ inside my chest, has beaten over half a billion times since that black day. My heart, the figurative seat of my emotions, has ached and made my eyes produce what could easily be measured as several gallons of tears. The sun has risen and set over 5,000 times since my beloved girl left this world, 5,292 to be exact. Maybe someday I’ll be able to stop counting – stop ticking off days, stop counting steps, and stop marking mental tallies on a slate in my mind. Maybe.

It’s funny that grief unleashed such an odd obsession inside my brain. I remember being in AP science classes in high school and thinking, “I’ll never be like these nerds.” In retrospect, I now wonder if their affinity for science and numbers and things grounded in the observable might’ve been an anchor for them in the tumultuous sea of social uncertainty that was high school. I never dreamed that one day I would have a “favorite element.” And, yet, now I do. This reminds me of a song that is dear to my heart, Atomic Number by Niko Case, KD Lang, and Laura Veirs:

Why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

I am the spark
Of this machine
Purring like the city bus
why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?

Well if your mercy’s lost
I have enough for us
Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Atomic number

That’s right. In keeping with my numeric obsession, I now have a favorite atomic number. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I have an atomic number…well, one with which I identify. It’s twenty-two. Twenty-two is the atomic number of Titanium – the strongest metal. Titanium can withstand anything…any assault…any abuse…and maintain its integrity. That’s me. I’ve withstood the elements…the wind…the rain…the fire…all of it, and I’m still standing. I’m still opening my eyes each day to see the sunrise. I’m still walking around. I’m still breathing. How is that even possible?

The cliché goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Here’s the thing. I’m not quite sure what the point of that actually is. Why? Why do we need to be made “stronger?” This is another of the many things about which I wonder. It’s true that, these days, I am hard pressed to subscribe to the teachings of any particular religion. I do, however, believe in a “higher power” of some kind and you can bet your sweet ass I’ve got a shitload of questions for he/she/them/it, if and when we meet. “Why you gotta do this kind of shit to folks…perfectly good people?” is top on the list. Until then, I’m left with my wonderings, with my questions, and with my numeric obsession. This post has 1,273 some words. I’ve read it and reread it half a dozen times. My heart hopes it helps you, if you need it to, and speaks to your heart like zero others. Namaste.

Ode to My Winter Child



   I don’t know if my youngest child realizes it, but she was born from my desire to provide a companion for her sister. I watched my firstborn grow. Thoughts of her life stretching into a future well beyond my lifespan made me want to give her someone to be with. The conception of this “companion child” was difficult. Weight gain from the first pregnancy and an existing medical condition impeded fertility. My heart ached to be pregnant again and to give my daughter a sibling. I watched friends have second and third children. I sought help for secondary infertility. My doctor told me that I should “lose some weight.” I was about to give up trying when I found out I was pregnant. The pregnancy was fragile. I came close to miscarrying and early on had to spend time on bed rest. During that time I would lie in bed and talk to my growing belly – to the child I so badly wanted. “Come on little baby. Stay with us. Stay with us and come meet your sister and me. We want you with us so much.”
   Her sister Sarah was born on her due date after eight short hours of labor. Jenna was nearly a week overdue. My OB had warned me that, after such a short first labor, I should prepare for an even more rapid one this time around. So, when I awoke at 5am with the first contractions, we made haste. We dropped Sarah off with my parents and went immediately to the hospital…only to find that I was not dilated…at all. “Go home,” they said, “or, better yet, go to the mall and walk around.” We did and my contractions actually seem to slow. It was frustrating. I was tired. We went to back to my parents’ house to pick up Sarah since it seemed labor had subsided. They invited us to stay for dinner and ordered pizza. After eating one slice, the contractions returned with a vengeance. I thought the wives’ tales about eating certain foods to hasten labor might be true. We left Sarah with my folks, once again, and went home to wait until the contractions were closer together. It took another ten hours before that happened.
   Pain punctuated my attempts to sleep. A contraction woke me every ten minutes through the night. When the morning came they were finally coming every two minutes, so we returned to the hospital. I was exhausted. You can imagine my dismay when I found out all those contractions had dilated my cervix to a mere “one” (“ten” is where it needs to be to give birth). My fatigue was evident. They administered Pitocin to strengthen the contractions and speed things along. It felt like a mixture of mercy and torture. I had planned to forego pain medication, as I had with my first child, before that. But the drug enhanced contractions felt like a little more than I could handle. I meekly asked for an epidural. The nurse laughed and said I was “past the point” where I could have anything. Damn it!!! The pressure of the baby against my cervix felt like it was being blown wide open like a fresh bag of Lays potato chips. It kept making me feel like I had to use the bathroom. At one point, in the throes of extreme exhaustion and while sitting on the toilet, I told the nurse, “I changed my mind. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I wanna go home to Sarah now.” The nurse laughed at me yet again, “Well, it’s a little too late for that now.”
  When it came time to push, fatigue made my efforts less than effective. With every contraction, I pushed but made little progress. A battle of wills ensued. It was mine against hers, as it had been since conception. This child continued to resist coming into the world. Nurse Mamie was growing impatient with me. “Oh come on!” she said, “You can do better than that! Is that all you’ve got?” Her words enraged me. The swell of the next contraction began to rise. My rage compelled me to push with renewed determination. I wanted to show that bitch exactly what I fucking did have in me. Out flew baby, into the waiting hands of the OB. “Gee,” he said, “you’d make a pretty good pitcher!”
   Jenna Elizabeth entered the world…begrudgingly..at 1:00pm on December 2nd, 1992. It was halfway through my favorite soap opera Young and the Restless. Fat snowflakes swirled dreamily in the air outside my hospital room window. She was here. The second child I’d so badly wanted, the sibling to my firstborn, was here. After a character in my second-favorite soap opera at the time, Guiding Light, we named her Jenna. The character Jenna Bradshaw was a beautiful, powerful badass jewel thief. Yes, she was a villain. Hey! Don’t judge me. It was a freaking soap opera!
   You might think that the connection to a fictional villain would doom my daughter to a troubled life. The opposite is true. As an infant, she was a dream child – good-natured, smiley, and with a happy disposition. I would often hear her cooing and laughing in the nursery in the morning. I would come in to find her smiling sweetly. Her face beamed as her chubby little legs kicked with excitement. As a toddler, she was a happy but busy little thing. Her busyness earned her my nickname for her – Bee. She was the antithesis of her older sister. Still, they were inseparable. It was just as I envisioned they would be. Sarah began to spend more time with her friends when they reached their teens. Still, the sisters remained close. They fought, as sisters do, but the bond was solid. It is the epitome of irony that my second born, the one I planned to be a companion for my first, is now my only living child.
   In 2005, Sarah was killed in an automobile accident with a drunk driver. I can assure you. The only thing harder than losing a child is looking into the eyes of your surviving child and telling her that her sister is dead. The only thing harder than grieving the loss of a child is bearing witness to the grief of your surviving child and knowing there is nothing you can do to take the pain away.
   Jenna was quiet in her grief. She didn’t wanna talk about it. She didn’t want to “go talk to” someone either. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to be with her friends. I wanted to give her the space she needed. I wanted to let her grieve in her own way. I know she worried about me, though. Unlike most thirteen-year-olds, she was happy to spend time with me from time to time. Part of her wanted to push me away, but another part knew I needed to pull her close. Her compassionate heart allowed her to tolerate it…to a degree. I don’t know if I could’ve survived losing Sarah if Jenna hadn’t allowed me this bit of grace.
   Years later she confessed the depth of her sorrow during that time. She said that she use to cut herself. She showed me the scars. It was like a dagger to my heart. I never knew. I guess I was too enveloped in my own suffering to notice hers. To this day, the thought of her suffering so…in silence… cuts me to the quick. Recently, while leafing through school photos, I came upon the one of Jenna from the year after Sarah’s death. The obvious sadness in her eyes struck me. Not knowing…not being able to see it…is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
   It was hard for me to not be overprotective of Jenna as she got older. I struggled to walk the line between giving her the freedom she desired and keeping her out of harm’s way. I knew that holding on too tight would only drive her away, and I couldn’t bear that thought. There were many times she balked and accused me of being too cautious and of suffocating her. Getting her through her teenage years was a battle on dual fronts – me with her and me with myself. When she decided to move nine hours away to go to college, I wasn’t completely sure I could endure it. But I did, and I’m very glad. She flourished there. I watched, with a mixture of pride and admiration, as she found and claimed her identity. When I graduated from high school, though I was accepted to schools far from home, I never had the courage to go. I admired Jenna’s bravery. Here was my girl not just surviving…but thriving…all on her own, nine hours from home.
   Neither of my girls were ever “girlie” girls. They preferred comfortable clothes – jeans and tee shirts – to frilly dresses and skirts. They played with both Barbie dolls and Max Steele action figures. They loved Disney movies and action cartoons. They preferred playing outdoors to all else – in the dirt and mud. I never tried to tell either of them who they were or, more importantly, who they were not. Every time I uttered the words, “I wanna be…” it was met with an attempt to define me. “That’s not very practical,” or “How are you gonna manage that?” or a sarcastic “Oh yeah, right!” was my parents’ response. Those words built walls around me and those walls confined me for many years. It wasn’t until very late in life that I realized the way out was to look up…and to rise above those walls. All those years ago I decided I would make certain my children never felt the way I had. I would accept them. I would help them define themselves, not try to do it for them.
   The first few years that followed Sarah’s death, we found out that Jenna had been struggling. She’d been struggling to define herself. She’d been struggling with her sexuality. She came out to us when she was still in high school. She was nervous to tell us. I like to think that, deep down in her heart, she knew she could never lose my love. I like to think that she knew she could count on my acceptance. I can’t even wrap my mind around how any parent could ever reject or “stop loving” their child. Frankly, there’s pretty much nothing my child could do to make that happen. To reject a child because of whom they love is beyond comprehension. To me, all a parent could ever want for their child is for them to find someone who loves them as much as their family does. All a parent could want is for them to find someone that sees them for the amazing person they are. And why in the world would anyone want to put limits on love anyway? Why would they want to define it or contain it? That leads to less love in the world, and less love means more hate at worst. It means more indifference at best. I don’t want a world like that.
   I’ve written many pieces about my older daughter and my grief over her loss. In November it will have been fourteen years since she died. Quite a bit of time has passed. Part of my heart will always ache from that loss. A greater part of my heart is full and so proud of the woman my surviving child has become. So I felt like it was time. It was time to write an ode to my winter child.
   Like winter can be, my winter child is fierce…and a force. She is passionate and hardworking. She is funny, beautiful, and wicked smart. She is willful yet willing. She’s been through more in her twenty-six short years than some people ever experience in a lifetime. She resisted coming into the world, but she relented and ended up making it a better place. I am forever grateful that she did. She lit the dark places in my mind and heart. I would not be here anymore were it not for her birth.
   A few years ago I wrote this poem for her as a birthday present.
Ode to My Winter Child
A blanket of gray
stretched out as the sky.
Swirling currents of flurries surround me.
I summon my strength
and dig deep for my will.
You, naturally, act to defy me.
Defiance is futile,
when nature trumps all.
You accept your defeat with a fury.
Angry cries are relief
to a laboring room
and a body rung out from its worry.
Drowning and gasping,
amidst roiling seas,
I was a slave to the storm’s commands.
The merciful maker
then cast me a line.
I grasped
with both hands.
The cord that once bound us,
heartbeat to heartbeat,
was replaced by a tether of twine.
It chaffed
as you grew.
So I fastened it to
a heart of cardboard,
so as not to lose mine.
Once new and fragile,
the rope has now strengthened.
The tether has wrapped ‘round and through,
past cardboard and plywood,
through barbed wire and bramble,
its anchor has sunk deep and true.
My reason “to keep”
My reason to stay
My heart tied to yours
through the tow.
Your life saved my life.
Your life gave me reason,
when I once had a million to go.
   I’m writing this piece on the last day of Pride Month. I know Pride Month is about folks in the LGBTQ community celebrating who they are…who they were born to be. For me, as a Mama Bear of a member of that community, it’s also about parental pride. I am so proud of my second born…my winter child…my Bee. I remember a few years ago when Katy Perry came out with a song call Firework. My eyes would well with tears every time I heard it. It reminded me of her.
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
  When all is said and done, for me in my life, I may never have done much in this world. I may never have written a single word read by anyone other than those that love me. I may never have set the world on fire in any way. Still, the fact remains. I brought you into this world and you, my dear, are a masterpiece.


Strained, Strange…and Stronger Than I Thought – My Relationship with My Mother


My mother spent most of her life taking care of people. She cooked and cleaned for them. She shopped for groceries and clothing for them. She made doctor and dentist appointments for them and even took them to those appointments. She took temperatures and gave medicine. She changed diapers and sheets. She put hair in ponytails…really, really tight ponytails.

Mom began her caretaker role at a tender age. She was just a teen when my grandparents split up. My grandmother had to go to work full time, so the care of her younger siblings fell to Mom until she married my father. Then she had to take care of him…and eventually three kids.

Mom once told me that she’d dreamt of being a secretary when she was in high school. Of course, being a secretary was one of the few jobs that were accessible and socially acceptable for women of her station back then. She’d taken all the secretarial classes her high school had to offer. I remember seeing steno pads of shorthand that she’d saved. But Mom’s secretarial career was not to be, and I remember thinking that those steno pads were mementos…keepsakes…symbols of unfulfilled dreams.

My mother spent most of my childhood as a homemaker, and she was pretty good at it. But as the world changed around her and it became more and more common for women to work outside the home, I knew there was a longing inside her – a yearning for what might’ve been. Don’t get me wrong. Mom was okay with being a wife and mother. But there was a small part of her…deep down inside…that secretly resented, just the teensiest teeny bit, automatically being expected to forego her own dreams and ambitions to become a caretaker.

Once all her kids were in school and the financial demands of a bigger house out in the burbs made getting a job a necessity, she finally got her chance. It wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamt of in high school and it certainly wasn’t a “career,” but it was her opportunity to have an identity other than being “just a housewife.” Mom went to work in the customer service department of a retail store. Unfortunately, because, like Mom, I was several years older than both my siblings, her joining the workforce meant I would have to pick up the slack and, like her, become a caretaker. It was understood. The first-born daughter to the first-born daughter, the mantel had been passed, and I took it up. It wasn’t like I had a choice.

Mom might not have been completely in touch with that tiny bit of herself that resented the role of caretaker that had been foisted upon her, but I was. And it made me a shitty, shitty caretaker to my siblings. It also made me wonder if I would ever be able to love children of my own or care for them well. Happily, I was able to do that, and the caretaker mantel I’d taken up as a teen served me well in many, many ways. It helped me serve developmentally disabled adults when I worked in mental health. It helped me in my career as a teacher of young children, and, yes, it helped me be a good mother. Mom had set a certain example of sacrifice. She wasn’t the most loving and nurturing of mothers. She wasn’t warm and fuzzy by any stretch of the imagination. Her mothering had sharp edges, and, as what we now call a “highly sensitive child,” I was often cut deeply by them. Looking back now though, as a fellow caretaker, I respect the sacrifices she made…for her siblings, for Dad, for my siblings, and for me.

When Mom got sick, I think my dad finally recognized the sacrifices she’d made over the course of her lifetime and how she’d lovingly taken care of him too, for more than half a century. He tried his best to return the favor, but he just couldn’t do it at home. Caretaking requires a level of selflessness he just never had, through no fault of his own. Instead, he made what one might consider a more meaningful sacrifice – that of time. Not a day went by when he didn’t visit her at the nursing home, spending entire afternoons and evenings just sitting with her. I tried to return the favor, too, in small ways and tiny instances. I remember taking Mom to a doctor appointment on a day when Dad couldn’t. Rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged Mom’s joints by that time and walking was difficult for her. She asked to hold my hand as we walked into the doctor’s office. It made me acutely aware of how our roles had changed. I had that same feeling, more intensely, most recently at the nursing home. Mom had been put on a full, thickened liquid diet. All her food had to be spoon-fed. I came in at meal time one day to find Mom’s meal set before her but without a CNA available to feed her at the moment. The caretaker in me, the one she’d help create, took over. I instantly began to feed her. I said, “I bet you remember when you use to do this for me, huh?” She just nodded, as if to acknowledge a debt absolved.

On Christmas Eve of this past year, my husband, my kids, and I were watching the Pope say Midnight Mass on TV. Yeah, I admit that I’ve devolved just that far as a Catholic – from devout to Christmas Catholic to the worst kind of Christmas Catholic – one that watches Midnight Mass on network television on Christmas Eve. My cell phone rang at five to midnight. The nursing home had had a history of calling for less than urgent matters, so I wasn’t overly concerned when I saw the number on the caller ID. Mom had looked particularly good and alert just a couple days before. We’d planned to see her Christmas Day and bring her Christmas presents. But this call was different. “Come,” the nurse said, “We think it’s time.” I felt confused for a moment until it registered. “Okay,” I said, “We’re on our way.”

Mom was still hanging on when we got there. I asked my husband and daughters to give me a moment alone with her. Her breathing was labored, and physically she looked clearly to be on the dark threshold. I said her name and for some strange reason, I had great difficulty modulating the volume of my voice. No matter how hard I tried, every time I said, “Mom,” my voice sounded like it did when, as a child, I would lose track of her in a store. It sounded loud and frightened. After a few moments, I was able to compose myself enough to tell her, through tears, that it was okay to let go. I told her that I knew she was tired. I told her that we would all be okay and that she could go be with Dad. It was then that she took one last gulp of air and did just that – let go.

I think she waited for me that night, but I don’t think she was waiting for me, her daughter. I think she was waiting for me, the fellow-caretaker. I think she was waiting to ask – one caretaker to another – for permission to lay the burden down. After she got sick and went to live in the nursing home, it might’ve appeared to most people that her caretaking days had ended. They hadn’t. She was a caretaker right up until the day my dad died. Visiting her gave Dad a purpose. God only knows how lost he would’ve been had she gone before him. Once he was gone, her earthly mission was complete and, on the night she died, I think she looked to me for confirmation of that fact.

Today is Mom’s birthday, and I am missing her. I am missing her more than I ever thought I would. As complicated my relationship with my father was, the one I had with my mother was even more so. All my early memories revolve around her, and most of my memories begin and end with her. As I mentioned, Mom was not a particularly affectionate woman, and looking back on that fact now makes my heart ache a little. I would like to have had her hugs and kisses and cuddles when I was a child. I would like to have given them to her, too.

Home is the epicenter of my memories of Mom. The first home I shared with my parents was a tiny second-floor apartment in the building my grandparents owned. Of course, as a child’s experiences will, those memories mostly feature me, with my mother’s presence in the background. Still, it’s Mom that is in most of the memories…not my dad…not my siblings…Mom.

Though Mom stayed at home until I was a teenager, I honestly have no memory of what she actually did. I remember dinner being on the table shortly after my father got home from work every day. I remember having clean clothes. I remember living in a relatively clean house. I just don’t remember my mother actually making those things happen.

What I do have is snippets of memories – short mental “video clips” of Mom. I remember her washing my hair in the kitchen sink as I stood on a chair in that little apartment. I remember talking to her on the telephone when she was in the hospital when my sister was born. I remember turning back to look at her when she dropped me off at kindergarten…only to find her gone. I remember how beautiful and slim I thought she was compared to me. I remember her irritation at having to deal with me getting my first period on Thanksgiving Day when she was trying to prepare the holiday meal. I remember her sending me into the bathroom of the store she worked at to try on the dress for my first wedding. We had ordered it there because she got a discount. She sent me in and told me to let her know if it fit because she “didn’t need to see it.” I remember how much that hurt.

I remember hugging my mother tightly when my 16-year-old daughter died. “They killed my baby, Mom. They killed her,” I sobbed. In a rare moment of nurturing, she patted my back and whispered, “I know. I know,” as she returned my embrace. I felt her sorrow for me.

I remember the blank expression on Mom’s face when I had to tell her Dad died. I couldn’t tell if she understood or not. I remember the time tears suddenly began rolling down her cheeks one day after Dad died, when she, my husband, and I heard a loud altercation break out in the hallway outside her room at the nursing home. It seemed that, in a rare moment of clarity, she finally realized exactly where she was and that she was without him. My final memory of Mom is the empty look of her sky blue eyes as she took one final labored breath on the night she passed. It was like she was someplace else…already.

For some people, their relationship with their mother is simple – pure and loving. Mine was not. For most of my life, it was strained…and strange. I use to feel jealous of women that were “best friends” with their mom once they reached adulthood. I don’t feel that way anymore. I know my mother loved me, but I accept the fact that part of her secretly resented me and my siblings for robbing her of her dreams and for me then going on to pursue some of mine. She was human and humans are complex beings.

A song has been going through my head as I’ve been writing this. It’s Prince’s song Strange Relationship. The refrain goes like this, “Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy, but, more than that, I hate to see you sad. Honey, if you let me, I just might do something rash. What’s this strange relationship we have?” To be clear, this song is about a dysfunctional romantic relationship, but, in many ways, it’s applicable to my relationship with my mother.

Love is a strange thing. Its expression takes many forms. It can be expressed in words. It can be shown through deeds. It can look like affectionate gestures such as a touch or a kiss. But it can be expressed subtly, too – through the giving of time or resources or a sacrifice of self-interest. The words “I love you,” were not often spoken in the household I grew up in, and that once made me question the sentiment’s presence there. Time, age, and wisdom have shown me otherwise. I hope, wherever she is, Mom now knows the gratitude I feel but never expressed to her. I’ve come to understand that her love took the form of hard work, sacrifice, and all those little ordinary deeds of care. The expression says that deeds speak louder than words, but our hearts must be open to understanding them. My mother was a caretaker for almost all her life. I like to think of caretaking as a whispered language of love articulated through deed. And in the words of a song by my mother’s favorite band, The Beatles, “All you need is love….