In the ER

In the ER


By James M. Chesbro

Over my four year-old son’s shoulders the wounded adults gazed across the room in our direction.  Between their absent stares, maybe they replayed their accident and the ways they could have avoided it. What replayed in my mind was coming home from work and seeing a gash in my boy’s head. He was mimicking the downhill skier on TV, lost his balance and banged his head on a table. As I zipped his jacket over his pajamas he choked back sobs, accepting the news that instead of going to bed, we were going to the hospital. The receptionist said “Anna” into the microphone, another name that was not ours. My son’s eyes followed the movement of white fish in the large tank by the receptionist’s desk.

“Dad, look,” James said. “The fish have blood on them.” As I considered my response I saw the two drops of crimson stain on the collar of his sleeper. He kept his eyes on the fish.
“No, James.” I said. “That’s not blood. It’s just the color of the tips of their fins.”

“Oh,” he said, relief spreading across his face. We stared at each other for a long moment. I spent the day teaching high-school students, the early evening teaching college freshmen, and I hadn’t seen James since I waved to him in the driveway as his mother drove him to school. The big automatic doors to the main entrance opened as two people approached the receptionist over his head.

When James needs a haircut, his stubborn cowlick gives him a perpetual case of bed-head. When the hairs on the top of his head sprout into the shape of two ears of corn, the husks half peeled, it’s an indication of how busy I’ve been, since taking him to the barbershop is exclusively dad duty. In the morning, he runs away from me when I try to wet and comb his hair before nursery school and the husks shake.

“Can we leave now?” James asked as he twisted his white ID bracelet on his wrist. Until I told James we had to see the doctor, he was feeling pretty good about himself. We had left the triage room where the nurse fingered his way through his husks of brown hair to the wound. Neither of us knew we had three and half more hours of waiting.

“Probably two staples,” he said, as the rubber gloves snapped off his hands.

To pass the time we made up games together. We played follow the leader, which didn’t last long. We played a game of stepping on tiles and not the gray grout. If you stepped on the grout we called cracks, you were frozen and could only move if the other person tagged you.

We checked in with the receptionist to see how many people were in front of us. James sat himself in the chair, placed his elbow on her desk, rested his head in his hand and told the woman about his sisters, classmates, and teachers as if this woman knew who they were. A man wheeled an intoxicated woman to the desk. She demanded pain medication for her ankle. She waved her pointed finger at the receptionist and shouted.

James and I retreated back to the pediatric section where we sat at a small table. The TV blared over the woman’s proficient use of the f-word.

In the emergency room, I wasn’t cutting off his pleas to evade going to bed. I wasn’t standing on the landing, pointing to the second floor, exclaiming, “Up!” I wasn’t thinking about the work I still had to do after James and his sisters finally settled in their beds. I wasn’t thinking about how our three month-old might fuss throughout the wee hours of the morning. My objective that evening in the ER was as singular and apparent to me as the fear in the brown eyes of the boy in the green-fleece sleeper and sneakers. At home his younger sisters require more of my attention, but in the ER I could devote myself entirely to him. I didn’t know it then, and I hope I don’t have to repeat the experience soon, but my four hours with my son in the emergency room were a gift, because it gave me the opportunity to be the kind of father I wish I could be all the time.

Eventually, around 1:00 am, James slumped over my shoulder. I saw his body covering most of mine as I stood before the wall of windows, his legs dangling, his sneaker-covered feet tapping my kneecaps.

With two staples in his head, James slumped over me again, his sobs eventually steadying into more rhythmic breaths as drizzle fell on the slick blacktop, shining in the glare of parking lot lights. In the rearview mirror I watched my boy bring his knees toward his chest, and place his hands between them. The motor started. The interior car lights glowed orange. With his eyes closed, the cornhusks on his head rustled as he turned his head to the side. As I drove I thought about carrying him to bed, and wondered when we’d be able to go get him a haircut.

Author’s Note: I had a conference with parents of one of my high-school students the same day I ended up taking James to the ER. As they were leaving my classroom they asked me how my kids were. They told me it goes by fast, to enjoy spending time with them while they’re young, that before I knew it they would be in high school.

James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Writer’s Chronicle, Under the Gum Tree, The Huffington Post, Connecticut Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Find him on Twitter or on his blog


We Both Got Sick, But I Didn’t Die

We Both Got Sick, But I Didn’t Die

Sick-child-in-bed-006By Jennifer Moses

You can’t pee lying down on your back, which is something I’d never thought about before until, recently, I found myself marooned atop a bed pan unable to produce a single drop despite my bloated and distended bladder. I’d just had a hip replacement, and had someone come along and offered me a quick, painless way out of this life, I’m not sure I would have refused. I was on the young side for a hip replacement—and otherwise healthy and fit, and yet couldn’t fathom how I could survive the pain.

During those three post-surgical days in the hospital, I gobbled Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Tylenol. I peed and pooped in pans and pots, sometimes with only my elderly, Italian-speaking roommate in the audience, and other times—who knew? There was a whole world of orderlies and nursing assistants and cafeteria workers out there, in the hallway, just beyond the open door.

I was born pigeon-toed, and spent my first year or so in a metal brace designed to give me a more dignified gate. What followed were the usual childhood illnesses—flu, mumps, chicken pox, and many episodes of what my mother called “the whoops,” as in: whoops, gotta puke. And it was during this time that I realized—because it was glaringly obvious—that illness had its upside. In my case, it meant not only avoiding the terrors of school, but also being fussed over by my mother on the one hand, and our housekeeper, Mae Carter, on the other. I’d lie in bed while first one and then the other brought me Jello and soup, read out-loud to me, and best yet, let me listen to story-records on the family record player that they’d schlepp to my room. Danny Kaye. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Bill Cosby doing Fat Albert. Later the record-player was upgraded to the portable TV, and I’d idle my mornings away with an endless lineup of sit-com reruns.  And it would be like that, all day long, until, sometime in the late afternoon, paradise was shattered by the return, first, of my three siblings, and a few hours afterwards, by Dad.

Who said: “You’re looking better already! You’ll definitely be able to go back to school tomorrow!”

“But I’m sick. I have a temperature.”

Ignoring me, he’d continue: “You know what Brave Mister Buckingham would say, don’t you?” Of course I knew what Brave Mister Buckingham would say. I, along with my siblings, had been raised on Brave Mister Buckingham, a truly monstrous fable of said Mr. Buckingham who, as he goes about his day, suffers one physical calamity after another, until, by the end of the book of which he is the titular character, he appears to have lost most of his limbs. Nonetheless, after each attack on his person, he looks up and says: “THAT didn’t hurt!”

“THAT didn’t hurt!” my father would say. “You’re fine.”

And maybe I was, but that was hardly the point, now was it? Because the point, and something I felt that my father could never understand, was that I didn’t really belong out there in that rough-and-tumble world where Brave Mister Buckingham gets conked on the head by a falling safe and nevertheless bounces back up with a shit-eating, can-do grin. I did not belong in the world I was in; where swift, blonde athletic children routinely terrorized and humiliated slower, darker, non-athletic ones; where the prizes went to those who mastered their multiplication tables and fathers routinely disappeared to work not to be seen again until bath-time, or perhaps even later.

I liked it at home, in the sun, with my fairy-stories, my stuffed animals, and my mother.

There were any number of differences between the way my mother and the way my father saw and reckoned with the world, but the one that, I think, had the biggest impact on me and my siblings was that Mom believed that we could and would get sick, and that doctors could be useful in resolving matters of illness; whereas Dad didn’t. He’d lie for hours, flat on his back in the garage with spasm, rather than admit that perhaps he needed help or that something was wrong. And that’s because those with backbone, those with grit, didn’t succumb to something as trivial as illness or injury.

I have a fair number of friends who tell stories about going to school with 101 degree fevers, or taking out the garbage with a broken wrist, but on the whole these stories come from people who grew up in a home with either two working parents, or a single mom. A sick kid meant a missed paycheck. Then there are those whose parents just didn’t want to deal with the whining and sweat-soaked sheets. But it was a little different in our family, because in our version being sick didn’t mean missing a paycheck and didn’t pose an inconvenience. It meant a day home with our mother, who was fully up to the job of tending to a sick child. Because if ever there had been a woman who was born to take care of her children, it was mine.

Despite my inchoate longing to get something serious enough to merit sympathy, or even better, admiration—how I envied those lucky kids who came home from skiing vacations with a broken leg!—I never managed any real illness at all. Until, in the sixth grade, I did. I got an ulcer, and once it was identified as such, the rewards began to flow: unlike all the other kids, I got to choose my lunch from the teachers, lunch table, where they had such sophisticated offerings as cottage cheese and endless amounts of canned fruit cocktail; kids who’d formerly tormented me for my lack of athletic derring-do tiptoed around me, as if in silent communion; and at home, not only did my mother go around telling me how stupid she’d been not to have initially taken my complaints seriously (until she did, and took me to the doctor) but even Dad, I thought, felt contrite. At least he stopped talking about Brave Mister Buckingham.

Then, nothing. For years and years, I enjoyed blissfully good health. True, my first pregnancy was a drag, with morning sickness and full-bodied queasiness, bloating, and bouts of panicked terror as I contemplated the ridiculous fact that I, who was wholly unready for it, was soon to be someone’s mother. But the kid popped out all perfect and within a few months I was perfect too. So it wasn’t really until my second pregnancy, with my twins, that I got to be sick again, and that was because their idea of growing into healthy fetuses involved sending me into spasms of nausea and vomiting so violent that, towards the end of my first trimester, I landed in the hospital, badly dehydrated. Still, by the time I was allowed to return home, Mom had once again come to the rescue, providing me not only with help in the form of a woman named Cheryl whom she’d hired to look after me and three-year-old Sam during the long days when my husband, like my father, disappeared into Downtown Washington Lawyer World (when I say “hired” I mean “hired and paid for,”) but also with the treats of my childhood sickbed: chicken and dumplings; chocolate pudding; decorating magazines; and most of all, herself—Mom, in all her wonderful, glorious Momness. She simply knew how to nurture, how to say the exact right thing or keep silent or just look at me in the way that made me know that everything was okay. Night, night. Sleep tight.

Whereas several months later when I was eight months pregnant, Dad called one day to tell me that he and Mom were about to go to Maine for a two week vacation, and explain that, while they were gone, he expected me to water his flower gardens, in Virginia, about 7 miles away.

“But Dad,” I said. “I’m on bed rest.”

“Hmmph!” he said. “Stuff and nonsense!”

Naturally, the twins, born full-term and healthy, didn’t give rat’s ass that the blobs of warm softness that provided their mouths with that sweet juicy utter perfection had spent the past nine months alternatively praying for a miscarriage—please dear God anything to end this puking—and begging God to ignore that last one—and we all just kept keeping on with the usual minor scrapes and cuts, fevers and colds, until, nine years later, when the now-five-of-us were living in Glasgow, Scotland, during my husband’s sabbatical year (he was by then a law professor) I was diagnosed with breast cancer. By then, though, Mom had cancer also, only her cancer, which had been diagnosed years earlier, was a killer. Dad, in Washington, sent emails telling me not to let Mom know that I was sick, explaining (rightly so) that this was information that, if shared, wouldn’t be good for either of us, and additional emails telling me that, like many women of his acquaintance, I too would “bounce right back,” I had surgery, then six months of chemo, then a month of radiation, and it was behind me. By the time my mother died, in February of 2004, my biggest health issue was that I couldn’t stop crying.

And also, my hip hurt, and as the years passed, it began to hurt so much that walking became problematic.   Was it genetic? The result of my own bout with chemo? My decades of depression? Who knew?

My husband contends that I like to be sick because some small part of me still thinks that it’s only through sickness that I can get the attention I still crave, that sense of being a beloved child safe at home and under the watchful eyes of its doting parents. Or, in my case, parent—because my father was mainly at the office, and nursing wasn’t exactly his specialty.  Though I like to think that I’ve outgrown the little girl who’d pour Baby Powder on her face in the hopes that she’d look pale enough to miss a day of school, my husband isn’t entirely wrong, so much so that I was actually looking forward to my hip replacement, to what I was imagining as a vacation from trivia—there I’d be, lying in my hospital bed, blissed out on addictive pain killers, while my loved ones fussed around me, and sent me flowers. Which wasn’t exactly how it went down at the hospital, in part because my blood pressure kept bottoming out so I didn’t get to have enough of the really good drugs, and in part because, no matter what, the first few days after hip replacement surgery are nasty. My 84-year-old father, who’d sworn he’d be in the hospital to greet me when I swam up out of anesthesia, was felled by a stomach bug, though, not that he admitted it, and had to make do with phone calls that I was too weak to take and flowers. But once I was home, he and I started bonding over my recovery.

Me: “Guess what I did yesterday, Dad?”

“What’d you do?”

“I walked to the bathroom!”

“That’s my girl.”

“And this morning I walked without my walker.”

“You’re a champ.”

Or: “That bitch nurse kept me on a bedpan for forty minutes. I thought I was going to die.”

“Sounds dreadful.”

“But now I’m back and running Dad—the home health rigged up this old-person’s toilet set, so I can go any time I feel the need.”

“Now you’re talking! You show them!”

And so here we were, at 54 and 84, hurdling and hurtling back through the decades, spinning and tumbling all the way back, until we arrive, again, to the early 1960s, where the grass is always green, and the sun is always shining, and my beautiful young dark-haired mother confers with Mae in the kitchen over what to prepare for dinner, while at my end of the house I’m learning to walk and to use the toilet, only this time, instead of being downtown at the office with all the other dads, my father is at home, with me, in the Enchanted Pee Pee Forest, the same place where my siblings and our dog George and our several bunny rabbits and my own special family of stuffed bunnies live, in an endless round of snack time and clover-smelling time and nap-time and story-time.

“You can climb the stairs by yourself!” Dad says on the phone. “Wow! That’s marvelous!”

And what neither of us says is that, though Mom took every form of chemo available to her, that she spent years suffering from nausea, pain, various infections, loss of hope, bloating, emaciation, bruising, punctured veins, burning sensations, and sheer, raw misery, it did hurt, and she was never all right again, until, by dying, she slipped through her pain, and, leaving us, left us forever.

Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of Tales from My Closet, Visiting Hours, Bagels and Grits, and Food and Whine.  She’s also a painter.  She and her husband live with their two dogs and cook a lot for their grown children, who like to come by to do their laundry and get fed, in Montclair, NJ.




Cancer Mom

Cancer Mom

WO Cancer Mom ARTBy Kristen Brookes

I am a cancer mom. Like a gymnastics mom or a swim mom, but different.

At gymnastics, we would all huddle around the window into the gym, admiring the strength, grace, and coordination of our daughters. Seeing how hard they were all working. Sharing in the pride and excitement as one child did a beautiful beam routine or nailed a back handspring for the first time. We passed many hours in a very small room with long, rambling chats. We talked about our children together, and we shared stories of our lives. We were friends.

At cancer, although I smile at the familiar faces from weeks spent inpatient on the 8th floor, compliment the cleverness of a dad bringing a futon on the elevator, and show another mom a picture of how great my 13-year-old daughter looks in her new wig, I do not talk with other cancer parents. We are not cancer moms and dads together.

I am sure some people create community around their children’s cancer, but I do not see a lot of parents happy to see one another at the clinic, picking up their conversations where they left off or sharing the mundane details of their lives. I believe we are not cancer moms together because what we have to share may not be very nice. I do not want to know other children’s diagnoses. I don’t want to know how other children are doing because I do not want to be more afraid or experience more pain. I do not want to hear of more bad things that might happen to my daughter. I do not want to know children who might die. And I do not want to know their parents. I do not want to feel their loss. And I do not want the possibility of my own loss to be any more real than it already is.

Rather than connecting with the cancer moms, I google-stalk their kids, hungry, despite myself, to learn about their diagnoses and prognoses, finding out things I didn’t know. I feel a silent empathy for the mother whose child kicks and screams every time she has her port accessed, extending their clinic stay needlessly and aggravating even the most patient of nurses. And I feel both disturbed by and sad for the fifteen-year-old boy who tried to escape admission to the hospital and had to be wrestled into submission by security guards. I feel concerned when “Big Boy,” the tall young man who drives himself to his appointments, looks drawn and hollowed-eyed and even more when I hear a doctor lecturing him about his defeatist attitude. Relieved when I see him again, months later, looking much better.

Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean that you have a child who is a gifted athlete, who makes age group cuts, who has beautiful strokes, or who is still swimming hard at the end of practice when everyone else is slacking off. It doesn’t mean sustaining yourself during long meets with the hope that your child will beat her best time or with the dread that she might actually make finals and have to come back in the evening. It doesn’t mean becoming over-invested in the activity not only because you enjoy your child’s success but also because it is easier to endure six hours of swim meet when you are tracking her times against meaningful markers.

Being a cancer mom means, of course, that your child has cancer. It means that all the fears you ever had and laughed away were warranted. Your absolute worst fear—or maybe even something much worse than you ever dared to fear—has come true.

Being a cancer mom means having ripped from you the confidence with which you faced the world, the certainty that things would work out. And along with it, your ability to tell your child that everything will be okay. It means being left with a heightened sense of vigilance, an understanding that something terrible could happen at any moment.

Being a cancer mom means always having your bags packed, in case you have to go to the ER and then get admitted. Lecturing an alarmist resident, telling him that, for hematology/oncology parents, low hemoglobin is really not “of concern:” it just means she needs a transfusion.

Being a cancer mom means losing yourself in hospital time. It means spending six or sometimes eight hours at the clinic, sitting and sitting as the poison that is to save your child’s life drips into her body. Finding a fondness for the characters in the Disney shows you before disdained. Losing your ability to think, as your mind becomes filled with blood counts, chemotherapy drugs, and countless medications for side effects. And mostly with worry.

Being a cancer mom also means gently bathing your child’s head, gathering the clumps of loosened hair, as one cares for a baby, with love and as a matter of course.

And it means feeling close to and dependent on people you wish you had never had to know and whom you can’t wait to never have to see again.

I do not want to be a gung-ho cancer mom. A mom who takes up the fight, raises funds for research, organizes a team for the fun run for the local clinic. And I pray that I will never be the ultimate cancer mom, who, after the death of her child, creates and dedicates herself to an organization to help find a cure or to make easier the lives of children and their parents going through what her family went through. In her child’s name. To honor her child’s life. To keep her child’s spirit alive.

But I am a cancer mom. And being a cancer mom means being part of the magic of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It means wearing a dog tag from camp around your neck as a reminder that joy can happen, along with an orange “positivity” bracelet for hope. Appreciating how beautiful your child looks bald and seeing what a great model she would make as she poses for Flashes of Hope and with a monster truck for a fundraising calendar. Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean a shining moment of pride when she earns an all-around gold medal at the state meet or drops 8 seconds in the 100 Fly. It means a long-term appreciation for how she is handling a horrific experience with as much courage and grace as possible. A gradual realization that she has become more much bold and assertive than before.  It means gaining the sense that so much of what mattered so deeply before is not at all what really matters. And it means the unfortunate sense that the cancer team is not one you can just quit when you have had enough. I am going to be a cancer mom for a long, long time. God willing.

Author’s Note: This essay was written in October 2013, after my daughter had begun the maintenance phase of a treatment that lasted 857 days. She completed treatment this spring and is doing well. I now find myself engaging more with other cancer parents than I thought I would and better understand the incentive to create community (but am grateful not to have needed it). I still follow stories I would be better off not knowing and sometimes google, fruitlessly, for information that would bring me certainty about my child’s future.

Kristen Brookes, a teacher and writer, lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and puppy. In a previous existence, she published articles in early modern studies, on topics such as race and tobacco and gender, sexuality, and colonization. Kristen is currently working on a collection of essays about her experiences as a “cancer mom,” an identity from which she wishes to flee.

Photo credit: Team Photo.


The Loveliness of Ladybugs

The Loveliness of Ladybugs

LadybirdsBy Banks Staples Pecht

They call it a loveliness when thousands of ladybugs gather.

Humming tunelessly in my kitchen, I unpacked the bag of gardening supplies we had just bought at the nursery. I smiled at the small cellophane bag teeming with fifteen hundred live ladybugs. My children had insisted I buy them instead of plant spray to control the aphids in our back yard. “Enough ladybugs to colonize an average yard,” the bag promised. Placing it on the counter, I walked across the kitchen, through the back door and onto the porch to pot our new lemon tree.

Several minutes later, the back door opened.

“Mom, look!”

Kyle, five, came onto the porch and held out his hand. My stomach dropped as I saw what was crawling on his palm: one ladybug. Kyle’s dark eyes squinted with pride and delight as he admired his six-legged prize through wire-rimmed glasses.

“Look Mom! I have three!” Evan, Kyle’s twin, followed in quick pursuit with arms outstretched, his ivory cheeks turned pink with excitement as three ladybugs crawled up his forearms.

Oh no.

“Guys, where’s the bag of ladybugs?”

Kyle and Evan looked at each other and then turned toward their bedroom.

“Mom, I found this on the floor. ” My eight-year-old daughter, Martie, walked out holding the now empty cellophane bag. One straggler climbed out.

“Cute!” She coaxed it onto her index finger.

Between them, Kyle, Evan and Martie had five ladybugs. That meant one thousand, four hundred and ninety-five ladybugs were missing.

Oh, NO!

I sprinted to the boys’ bedroom.

The floor of their room undulated with the ebb and flow of hundreds of ladybugs scurrying out of the big bowl into which, in an effort to be “careful,” Kyle and Evan had emptied the bag. Ladybugs crawled on the walls, the furniture, even into the boys’ bunk beds.

My hand flew to my mouth as I screamed. Then, I began to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a giggle, then into a deep belly laugh, because this was not supposed to happen.

My little boys were supposed to die.

Five years earlier, on a Saturday morning twenty-five weeks into an uneventful pregnancy, the contractions began. Kyle and Evan were born that night, limp and tiny, into a world of medical emergency. Two neonatal teams intubated my sons, and life support machines restarted their hearts. Kyle and Evan each weighed little more than one and a half pounds, each only one-third the size of the chicken I had roasted earlier that week for dinner.

Three hours later the neonatologist visited our hospital room and described a parade of horribles I could not imagine, but that my pediatrician husband, Ben, knew well. If they survived the first twenty-four hours… If they survived the first seventy-two hours… If they survived long enough to endure a months-long stay in the neonatal ICU… If they survived at all.

If they survived, their chances of engaged, purposeful lives were virtually nil.

If they survived, their chances of severe impairment were almost certain.

Martie, two years old, lay in the hospital bed next to me while the doctor spoke. She looked up with a smile and offered me the half-eaten chocolate Santa the nurse had given her. I took a bite, but the chocolate tasted bitter. I held her close and kissed the top of her head.

If they survived.

Kyle.  Evan. The names Ben and I had settled on just that morning were now written in magic marker on name cards that hung above translucent unfinished people attached to countless tubes, wires and monitors. Colorful paper name cards told me these foreign babies were my sons.

Ben put his strong hand on my shoulder. It had never failed to comfort me before.

If they survived.

“You may touch him with one finger, Mrs. Pecht,” the nurse told me, the first time I sat at Evan’s bedside. I cried so hard I was thirsty.

Beeeeeeeeeep. Four days after the boys were born, a monitor across the room turned black as a baby boy died in his mother’s arms. Ben and I sat with our motionless sons, who languished on life support in their incubators. Ben’s shoulders hunched. I took his hand while he stared at Kyle’s monitor and willed it to stay lit. Doctors and nurses, healers never inured to the death of a child, mourned with a family in crisis. I swallowed my own vomit, my worst fears coming true for a kindred family.

Where is God in all of this? I raged.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The fly trapped in the fluorescent light banged against the glass. Kyle and Evan were three weeks old. It was almost Christmas. I sat on the faded green sofa in the hospital waiting room and pretended to read a year-old magazine. Ben sat next to me, staring at the flashing lights on the plastic tree in the corner, and chewed the cuticle of his right thumb until it bled. Behind the closed door a surgeon with grown-up hands opened our sons’ two-pound bodies, spread their ribs and clamped off leaks in their hearts.

The fly in the light fixture fought on, desperate for survival.

If they survived. 

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” the Hawaiian singer sang soulfully from the car radio on my way home from the hospital, a week after the boys’ surgeries.

It was the song we had decided to play at the funeral if they died.

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

I couldn’t imagine life with them.

I pulled over and sobbed onto the steering wheel.

Kyle and Evan were five weeks old when I first held them. Two nurses and a doctor managed all of their tubes and wires. My heart burst open when our skin touched.

If they survived.

Brushing my teeth one night I realized that, for the first time since their birth seven weeks earlier, I hadn’t cried that day.

“Either things are getting better or you’ve lost the ability to feel, girlfriend,” I said to the woman with the bloodshot eyes and frothy lips staring back at me in the mirror.

I sure hope its the former, I thought. I rinsed my mouth and drove back to the hospital.

When they survived.

Four months and two days after their birth, Kyle and Evan came home. They had developmental delays and required endless medications and daily therapy sessions. Some days they felt more like high-stakes science fair experiments than my children. I ached with fear for them.

When they survived.

We had been home only five months, and already Ben and I were breaking.

“Banks, I don’t even want to come home at night, and it’s not because of the kids, it’s because of you!” Ben shouted as he slammed the front door on his way to work.

I saw myself in the mirror over the fireplace: a harridan in a stained robe, a crying infant on one hip, another in a bouncy chair and a three-year-old drawing with her yogurt on the breakfast table. A woman who was once an optimist with plans and a burgeoning legal career, now angry, sad and resentful.

Ben, my husband, my lover, my closest companion, had become my punching bag.

“Please come back to me,” I whispered as his taillights receded.

When they survived.

Martie started preschool, paddled around at swim lessons, went on play dates and to ballet class. Inquisitive and engaging, she needed and deserved her parents. We were spent but pretended well, for her sake.

“You know I love you, right, babe?” I said and closed my eyes, feeling Ben’s warm hand on my hip as his thigh covered my naked belly for the first time in weeks.

“We’ll get through this, Banksie,” Ben murmured, kissing the base of my collarbone.

How? I wondered.

When they survived.

“If you want him to learn, you have to push him until he’s about to quit and let him fail and keep trying,” the physical therapist said. Kyle, two years old and struggling to walk, had fallen off the low balance beam a dozen times already that morning.

Kyle looked at me with tear-stained cheeks, his breath ragged. I yearned to jump up and help him but I sat in my chair, hands clenched.

“One more time, Kyle,” the therapist said with an encouraging pat on the beam.

Kyle squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and got back up.

“One foot in front of the other, buddy!” I choked out, my throat thick, thinking how much this advice applied to my own life.

When they survived.

Kyle and Evan graduated from therapy and started a special enriched preschool. They learned to ride tricycles and played with their seven-year-old sister. Their development was delayed and we still agonized, but Ben and I started to breathe for the first time in years.

When they survived.

“How come we never got divorced through all this?” I asked Ben on the way home from the beach earlier that ladybug summer, when the boys were five and Martie was eight.

“We were too tired,” he said with a wink. We laughed.

When they survived.

“Ben!” My voice was shrill with panic as I stared at the loveliness of ladybugs populating the boys’ room. Ben ran in from the backyard.

“What the…? Martie, grab me the broom!” he commanded.

Martie sprinted to the hall closet as I snatched the bowl, still half full of ladybugs, and carried it to the yard, dropping it on the lawn. Wiping ladybugs off my hands and arms, I hurried into the house. We swept load after load of ladybugs into dustpans and emptied them into the bushes. We shook out rugs and flicked ladybugs from toys. The boys sucked up ladybugs one by one with handheld bug vacuums they had received as gifts the Christmas before.

Ben caught my eye.

In that moment, that crazy moment that in any other story would have been a catastrophe, we realized that Kyle and Evan had survived. We realized that they had more than survived, they had thrived and were able to wreak good, old-fashioned little-boy havoc. In that moment, for the first time since the day of their birth, we were no longer afraid.

We started laughing, hard, amid a loveliness of ladybugs and the shocking ordinariness of five-year-old mischief that never should have happened.

When we survived.

Before Kyle and Evan were born, life was a series of ipso factos that suggested that the universe handed out reward and punishment like Halloween candy. Kyle and Evan’s birth destroyed any certainty Ben and I had invented for ourselves and left only questions. Are control and security nothing more than illusions, even acts of hubris? And if that’s true, how do you find the strength to keep going when you cannot keep safe the people you love, when the terror is so overwhelming you can taste it in the back of your throat? Where do you find the courage to keep loving when the very act causes unthinkable pain? Perhaps the answers to these questions lay not in the controlled order I once thought I knew, but in the gorgeous chaos, and this exquisite, relentless connection that impels us to show up, always, regardless.

Fearless love. Ferocious love.

The next morning, as Martie, Kyle and Evan watched T.V. before breakfast, I lifted the lid off the coffee maker. Out crept a ladybug.

“C’mere, little guy,” I said as it crawled onto my finger. I walked across the kitchen, opened the back door and let it fly.

Author’s Note: Kyle and Evan are now eight years old and about to finish second grade, where they pore over books about knights and pirates, concoct explosive science experiments and engage in any game involving balls, dirt, or bugs with equal enthusiasm. We are still in touch with their therapists, doctors, nurses and special ed teachers, who will forever hold permanent keys to our hearts. Ladybugs continue to play a leading role in our family story; recently, Martie, Kyle and Evan spent hours rescuing hundreds of ladybugs trapped in the ice of a frozen California mountain lake. I am grateful.

Banks Staples Pecht lives in Ventura, CA, with her family, a Swiss mountain dog named Bella, two Dumbo rats named Oreo and Ice Cream, and Ninja, the Betta fish. When not writing, working as a lawyer/consultant/executive coach, caring for her three children or staying married, she can be found singing competitive barbershop and being beaten by her children in Wii bowling. This is her first published work.



WO Wings ARTBy Elizabeth Knapp

This is a story about the one who was brushed aside, the cancer child’s sister…

Four years ago on Valentine’s Day, my four-month-old daughter Molly was diagnosed with infant leukemia.

Four years ago on Valentine’s Day, my older daughter, then four years old, came home from preschool with her first bag of Valentine’s Day cards, brimming with happiness. She kicked off her boots, shrugged out of her puffy winter coat and before I could remind her to hang it up she spilled her many, lovely valentine cards out onto the hardwood floor, rifling through them to show me certain ones.

Then she noticed that her aunt and cousins were there. She noticed her baby sister was sleeping, her head lolling on my shoulder, instead of watching her with wide-awake eyes. She noticed that I wasn’t smiling.

“What’s wrong, Mommy? Look at this one! It’s made from a doily and it has my name on it! And why are my cousins here?” She fired questions at me.

I passed Molly to my sister-in-law and knelt down to be at her level, my heart breaking as I stuffed the cards back into their paper bag without looking at them. “Something’s wrong with Molly. She’s very sick and Daddy and I need to take her to the hospital. We might be gone all night. But you get to have a sleepover with your cousins tonight! Won’t that be fun? You can bring your rolling bag.”

She looked at me dubiously. “Can I at least show you my valentines before you go?”

Tears welled up, threatened to drip down my cheeks. I pushed them away and told her that I couldn’t look at them right now because Daddy and I had to leave right away, but I knew her cousins would be thrilled to sort through them with her. That I would look at them as soon as I could.

We went upstairs together to pack pajamas and a change of clothes. Her special stuffed lamb, Little Lamby, was to ride in the bag with the valentines. We packed her toothbrush and no-pull hairbrush. I took Molly back into my arms, kissed my reluctant and teary older daughter goodbye and watched from the window as she trudged out to the car with her cousins.

This could be a story about my baby who had cancer, but it’s not. There are other stories about that, stories about her scars, about how she almost died twice and then didn’t. Stories still to be written about the days, weeks and months during which we vacillated between fear and hope, dread and desire, boredom and anxiety. Stories that are so filled with horror I wish they were not mine to tell. I wish no one ever had to tell them.

This is a story about the one who was brushed aside, the cancer child’s sister, the one who went to preschool one sunny Valentine’s Day filled with the promise of a party and came home to have all her beautiful cards stuffed back into their drab paper bag. At least it had her name on it, looped in fancy letters: Amelia.

Amelia: my first born, my copper-haired firecracker. Amelia, who threw me into motherhood, introducing me to depths of patience, rage, love and joy I never knew existed. Amelia, who cried for ten months straight until she could crawl. Then, finally able to explore her world on her own terms, stopped crying and began to speak.

At the time Molly was diagnosed with cancer, Amelia was obsessed with fairies. She begged me to read books about fairies again and again and again. She drew fairies and wanted me to cut them out, demanded I talk for them so she could ask them questions. After being in the hospital with Molly for two days and two nights, I knew I had to go home to Amelia. But how do you explain leukemia to a four-year-old? How do you tell your daughter that her sister is just about as ill as a person can get and still be alive?

I made up a story about the fairies. Once upon a time, I told Amelia, there was a family of fairies: a mom, a dad and two sister fairies. One day, the baby sister fairy became very sick. Something happened and her body couldn’t make healthy blood anymore, and all fairies know that if a fairy can’t make healthy blood she gets very, very ill. The baby fairy had to go to the fairy hospital. The doctors at the hospital had to give her special medicine that seemed to make her even sicker but actually, they hoped, would make her better. It was red, and they had to put it directly into her blood.

The baby fairy sister, stuck in the hospital with all this medicine that was supposed to make her better but made her body feel terrible, lay around all day with her wings drooping. The mom and dad fairy were always fluttering over to the hospital, worried about the drooping wings and also worried that their big girl fairy would think they didn’t love her anymore when, in fact, they loved her so much their hearts ached every time they had to leave her. It turned out that the only time the baby fairy’s wings didn’t droop was when her sister fairy was visiting. So it was very, very important that the big sister visit her as much as possible, because all fairies know that you can’t get better if you have constantly drooping wings.

I had to stop here because I was crying too hard to continue.

The weeks that followed developed into a pattern. My husband stayed at the hospital Thursday to Sunday, and I was there Sunday to Thursday. Here is what Amelia remembers about that time. When I was home, we slept together at night, she and I. I had to wake in the middle of the night because, as a breastfeeding mother away from her baby, I needed to pump milk for Molly. Amelia, so in tune with my rhythms, would wake with me and follow me downstairs, the steady whoosh-pop sound of the pump lulling her back to sleep, slumped next to me on the couch.

On switch days, when John and I swapped duties, Amelia would usually come to the hospital, too. Molly’s eyes would light up when her older sister came into the room. Amelia learned quickly to be mindful of the IV lines. She got to know the nurses and the child life specialists, where the art supplies were kept and that the patient kitchen was always stocked with popsicles and ice cream. Sometimes the two of us would explore the hospital, tunneling through dark hallways and popping out in unexpected places. One cloudy spring day, we found our way a secret garden surrounded by towering hospital walls. On warm days, when Molly was well enough to leave her room, we took her with us, her IV pole bumping over the walkway.

After Molly came home, Amelia learned to live with uncertainty. Any fever in a cancer child is cause for a trip to the emergency room. Which also means trips to the emergency room for the sibling. Bringing Amelia with us meant that we loved her just as much as Molly, that she was an integral part of our family, too important to be left behind. Trips to the ER were an adventure for her and she was a distraction for us. As a cancer child, Molly had top priority in the ER but once we were in a room, there was lots of waiting and wondering and sitting around. Amelia’s presence cheered up Molly and made it impossible for us to sink into our own gray worlds of worry and fear.

Once, Amelia received a trophy from an organization that supports siblings of kids with cancer. It still sits in the center of her bureau. “AMELIA,” it reads, “SUPER SIB TO A CANCER KID.” And even now, four years later, when asked what makes her special she replies, “My sister had cancer.”

I have to believe that my thoughtful, serious firstborn baby has learned things—about compassion, about rolling with the punches, about finding your place when the world is not about you—that she may not have learned had her sister not had cancer. She played with kids in the playrooms with smooth, shiny heads like her sister’s, kids in wheelchairs whose cheeks were swollen from long-term steroid use, kids whose IV poles clattered after them wherever they went.

This story began with the cancer child because when you have a child with cancer their sibling, heartbreakingly, comes second. Their valentines will sit unappreciated in their bag. Their own plans for the day will be swept aside when their sister wakes in the night with a fever.

The year Molly had cancer, I recycled Amelia’s crumpled, forgotten valentine bag without ever looking at the cards inside. This year, four years later, Molly went to her own Valentine’s Day party and came home with her own paper bag, a fancy “Molly” scrawled across the top. She turned her bag upside down and the cards fluttered out on the floor. My two girls sat together, admiring the cards, their heads touching, blond hair mingling with orange. Watching them, I could see their wings humming happily behind them.

Author’s note: Molly is almost three years off treatment and remains cancer-free. She delights in provoking her big sister in a myriad of ways. Amelia is a curious and thriving second grader who, despite said provoking, continues to champion her little sister in every way.

Elizabeth Knapp lives with her family in a small town in Vermont. When not enjoying the antics of her two young daughters, she can be found writing, gardening and wandering the woods and fields around her house.

The “R” Word

The “R” Word

WO The R Word ArtBy Susan Lutz

I stopped the cart and wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry.

“My brother has three retarded kids,” a man said as my son, Addison, and I passed him in the canned food section of the grocery store. Addison was sitting in a fire truck shopping cart meant for toddlers. He was eight. He tried to beep the horn, but it didn’t work.

I paused. I turned to look at the man. He smiled and told me he really felt for me. “My brother has three of them,” he said again, as if we were talking about cars.

I made a sound I can only describe as a sputtering chuckle. Should I smile and say thank you? Did he just give me a compliment? Or was it an insult?  Retarded. I cringe at the sound of it. The tone is harsh. Retarded. Images appear in my head of poor, sad victims.

I don’t always have time for an educational lesson on the proper use of the “R” word. Campaigns run across television and the Internet to practice compassion and an end to the “R” word, that unspeakable and degrading term used to refer to people with disabilities. Retarded. I looked at the man’s weathered face. I guessed he was in his late sixties. His cart didn’t have much in it. He just kept staring at us. I felt like my feet were glued to the floor.

When Addison was born, I was given a list of characteristics that were consistent with t21, or Down syndrome: low muscle tone, round flat face, almond-shaped eyes, a palmar crease, eye folds, mental retardation, small ears and flat nape of neck. The “R” word nestled in the group like dish soap on a grocery list. There’s always room to educate, but sometimes it feels preachy and weird. Sometimes even I use the “R” word. Medical or educational moments exist when I can find no substitute. I guess the problem comes with the intent.

“Leben! Leben! Leben!” Addison yelled. He pointed to the sign above his head. We had skipped aisle eleven and gone straight to aisle nine. Addison likes things in order.

“It’s a lot of work,” the man said. He looked at the green beans in his hand and then at my son.

“Yeah,” I said. I nodded and offered a half-assed smile.

“Leben!” Addison yelled even louder. I knew the whole store could hear us. I reached for a can of peas and threw it in the cart. I made that strange chuckling laugh again, waved good-bye to the man and moved on.

Before Addison was born, my exposure to children or adults with special needs was almost non-existent. I had an aunt whose left arm was almost useless, a result of the polio she’d had as a child. But I never thought of her as disabled. She was just my aunt who crocheted me a cool poncho in magenta, my favorite color.

Growing up, I’d lived a few blocks away from an apartment complex where adults with disabilities lived. I’d walked by it many times, curious about the apartments inside. But mostly it scared me. When I saw a resident walking towards me, I would cross the street to avoid being too close. I didn’t know what to do, how to listen or what to say. We were neighbors, yet we lived so far away.

In high school, kids wrestled with issues like racism, sexism and classism. Disabilities didn’t even seem to exist. I don’t remember seeing kids like Addison or with any special needs in my school. Where were they? What I didn’t know was that before the 1980s, children with disabilities were largely educated apart from the general population. But it’s not like I wondered about it.

“Leben,” Addison insisted again.  I’d have no peace until we went back to eleven. We turned the corner and started down the aisle. Addison pointed to the number on the sign above his head and said with joy and relief in his voice, “Leben.” He clapped. He smiled. Then, he started yelling again. “Coookie,” he said, pointing to the Sesame Street characters on the shelf. “Coookie Mosster!”

“Let’s try these,” I said, showing him some crackers.

“No,” he said. He crossed his arms in front of his chest. I pushed the cart forward and grabbed a gluten-free, cheaper brand of cookies and quickly opened them.

“Want one?” I asked. He held out his hand. I broke the cookies in half and fed him until we were finished shopping. The store was crowded. We were third in line to check out. Addison stuck his head out of the fire truck grocery cart and looked back at me. A string of chocolate-laced saliva dribbled down his chin. A ring of black crumbs circled his lips.

“Rink!” he yelled with a mouthful of un-swallowed cookies. Like those moments before a car crash, everything for me slowed down. I felt the heat of everyone staring at me. Addison could throw a tantrum, scream maybe throw something at the lady in front of us. In a second, I might lose control.

“Your drink is in the car,” I said. I looked in my pockets for a napkin and, finding nothing, wiped his face with my sleeve.

When Addison was a baby and a toddler, he was adorable. His cheeks were round and squeezable. It was easy to imagine little wings sprouting out of his back.  More than once, strangers told me I had been gifted an angel from heaven. When his pudgy hands and arms reached out to hug anyone he could find, people reached back.  He will turn nine this year. He is taller and freakishly strong. When he grabs hold of one of my fingers, he can pull me to the floor like some ancient, secret martial arts move. The low muscle tone and flexibility that kept him from walking until he was three has become a useful tool of agility and freedom. He can squirm into small spaces and disappear in a store in seconds.  And he’s fast. If he gets a good lead, he’s hard for me to catch.

“Your drink is in the car,” I told him again.

“Rink!” he said again. I gave him another cookie. The woman in front of us finished putting her items on the conveyer belt. She peered at Addison quickly, put a divider between our groceries and walked to the end of the lane.

People sometimes stare, smile or whisper when we enter a room. I know they often do not know what to say. Perhaps they tolerate or pity us. Sometimes they cross the street or walk in the other direction. Addison is rarely called an angel anymore. At times, it seems like he has traded in his wings for a pitchfork. But I still take him everywhere. By doing normal things, we become a regular sight in the world. Splayed open for all to see, we walk blemished, exposed, loud, awkward and different.

“Out, Mommy,” Addison said. He unfolded his legs from the shopping cart, stepped out and ran to the other side of the lane next to the cash register to help the cashier. He nestled between the woman and the scanner, grabbing items and waiting for the beep.

“Get back here,” I told him.

“It’s OK,” said the cashier. She was older than me and ran her register with confidence. Addison held the can of peas over the scanner until he heard a beep. He picked up a cucumber and waved it.

“Hey,” he said when he heard no beep.

“Get back over here, Addison,” I said, but I didn’t really mean it. I wanted him to have this moment of control. These were brilliant, tiny flashes of light that made a huge difference in his life. I wanted him to grab it and enjoy. I felt a relief from the constant struggle of moving forward.

“No worries,” said the cashier. Between managing my son and running her register, she looked up for a second and waved her free hand at me. I knew she understood. I stepped back and waited at the end of the aisle with my cloth grocery bags.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. Addison grabbed another cucumber.

“Wait,” the cashier said. “You have to put those here.” They set the vegetables on the scale. She pushed a few buttons. “You’re good at this,” she told him. “Do you want a sticker?” she asked when they were finished.

“Yes!” he said. He pushed back his sleeve and she stuck a happy face to the back of his hand. He looked at it, smiled and ran back into the fire truck. I gazed out the big glass windows of the store and saw the man who’d called my son retarded walk to his car. He carried a single bag. He swung his scarf around his neck. It was cold. I put the last of the bags into my cart. The cashier handed me the receipt.

“Thank you,” I said.

“He’s a great helper,” she said. She waved goodbye to Addison.

“Bye,” he said. He tried to beep the horn again.

“Do you need help to your car?” she asked.

“No, but thank you,” I said. “I truly thank you.” I pushed the cart forward and moved on.

Author’s note: The grocery store this story takes place in was small. The narrow aisles forced carts and people to
negotiate a tight squeeze. More than a year later, that store is gone and has been replaced by a big, open space with aisles I can navigate with ease. I am especially thrilled that they now have special needs shopping carts I can buckle Addison into. The cashier in this story was a real hero to me, and the store deserves recognition for employing such helpful, wonderful people.

Susan Lutz is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. Her film, “The Coffee Dance,” was awarded The Pollination Grant in 2014. She teaches filmmaking and is an editor for the Organic page at She writes about special needs and single parenting at

Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.

“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.

“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”

“Your mama is dead?”


“Why is she dead?”

I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.

My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.

I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.

Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.

Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.

I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.

Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.

Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.

The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.

Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.

Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”

Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”

“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”

Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.

I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.

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