Blink If You Can Hear Me

Blink If You Can Hear Me

eyeBy Jennifer Fliss

“Blink if you can hear me,” Mo says. She’s dressed in black and leather. Half her head is shaved, vulnerable and bare. The other half is a dark and silent waterfall of slick black hair.

I can hear you, daughter.

“Mom, blink if you can hear me,” she repeats. Yes. I can hear you. I can smell you—vanilla and cigarettes. Mom. She hasn’t called me that in ages. She calls me Kate. One syllable. Hard consonants. Kate. Particularly striking when spit in anger.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Mo is saying, sibilant ‘S’s lisping together. Behind her, beeps and pneumatic sucks, distant PA announcements: the cacophony of a hospital.

Mo, short for Maureen, was always horrified by my quick tears. I remember walking her to class on the first day of school. She put a stop to that as soon as the torrent of tears descended. Mommy, why are you sad? It’s school. Weeping, I cheered for her soccer games. When she and a friend came home after school and ignored my how was school today? I tried to keep the rush at bay. If only your father were here, I had said. Embarrassed she grabbed her friend’s hand and dashed up the steps.

Mo’s angry hands are rubbing at my arm where the IV is held in place. The beeping in the room is getting faster, but she keeps kneading me.


“I’m so sorry,” I am saying at her face. She probably can’t hear me. But the doctor said she might, even if she can’t respond.

“Remember when I really wanted bomb pops—those red, white and blue popsicles—from the Good Humor Truck and you’d say honey, we’re pacifists? I never got it, and chipwiches were better anyway. I loved twisting the two cookies and sitting on the curb to split it. You always let me have the half with more ice cream. Anyway. Pacifists. I get the joke now. Please? Mom? C’mon…you have to wake up. This whole thing is freaking me out! You’re just staring.”

Before Dad left, we’d sit around the table and Mom would watch as we ate the meal she’d been preparing all day. Sometimes she never ate. But then there was late night yelling and the early morning yelling and the over-the-phone in the middle of the day yelling. Then it went quiet. You could hear all the sighs and coughs and almost-silent cries from every part of the house. And then, there was just the two of us with three white stick figures on the back window of the Subaru. The happy family sticker. Why did you force him out!? I had yelled. Of course, how could he love you!? I tried to remove that sticker, pushing a thin blade between the glass and the adhesive. I only succeeded in beheading a parent and cutting my thumb. Blood smeared the window; I left it there.

It was stupid, really. Typical teen stuff. Rebellion. Drinking. Smoking. Piercings. If I spoke to her at all it was to say how awful she was. And how ugly I was, since she gave birth to me. I knew, somehow, that by insulting myself, I’d cut right to her core. But, she constantly reassured me that I was the most incredible thing. And even though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I said those things just so I could hear her tell me I was beautiful. I knew she hated what I had become. At least on the outside. But she never said it. Not once. She only said she loved me. Over and over and over.

How stupid we are, in our young naiveté, our brains working double-time just to keep up with the world around us and so we ignore the people who created us. We go through that rite-of-passage. The be-mean-to-your-mom rite. It’s expected. But it must be heartbreaking to commit your whole life to someone and then have them say such hateful things. Mom. I need you. Come back. As I stared at the flaccid skin hugging the nose tubes and tape, I unscrewed the small ball in my nose. I shed my smoky vest. With tissues from the table, I rubbed at my eyes, leaving behind thick threads of black makeup and a life I vowed to be done with. If she woke, I wanted her to see my eyes. She always said they were my most lovely asset. “Right through those alpine lake blues into your soul,” she’d say.

“Blink, if you can hear me,” I repeat. And then, a quivering of eyelashes. Slow shuttering of an eyelid. A smile. A horrible rictus of a smile. Right upper lip puffs out, her eye bulging. It is beautiful. And I sob.

Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin schooled, Seattle based writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in diverse publications including, The Establishment, The Manifest-StationZelle/Runner‘s World, and The Citron Review. More can be found on her website,

Ground-Level Memories

Ground-Level Memories

By Jennifer Fliss


When I ran a search for “parents with disabilities,” all that came back were articles and experiences on raising a child with disabilities. Scores and scores and scores and probably not nearly enough if you are the parent of a child with special needs. But still, it was not what I was looking for.

I am a full-able-bodied new mother. However, my own mother, who lives nearby and wants to play a visible role in her granddaughter’s life, is not. She is 62 and walks, not very well, with a walker. What started as a limp when she was young has degenerated to an almost lack of mobility in her legs. As a child, I was bullied and only one of the frequent taunting refrains was about my mother being a “cripple.” As if that made her less of a person. As if that made me, her child, less of a person.

It is true that it has made things difficult. For years I’ve had to help her with stairs, walk her to the bathroom, provide the sturdy arm that I always thought should be the parents’ responsibility to their children. It is something I struggle with. Often. But it is also something I’ve had to just get over. Be okay with. Not easy.

When I moved from New York to Seattle, my mother followed. When I had a baby, naturally she wanted to spend time with her grandchild. Isn’t that what so many grandparents want? But how would this work? What would she do? There would be no bouncing on the knee, no pushing in swings (as I remember my mother doing for me, while singing Elvis songs), no walks to the duck pond (as I had done with my beloved grandmother), and later, no bowling or trips to amusement parks.

Of course, going through my mind were frustrations when people would say “Oh, it must be so nice to have help nearby.” The thing is, I couldn’t trust my mother to hold my daughter. In her thin and shaking arms, I was sure she would drop her. I certainly couldn’t get a breather while grandma watched over a sleeping or crying newborn. When out of my mind caring for my colicky girl, I desperately needed the help I thought a mother should provide. But, I couldn’t get it. Yes, she wanted to help. She bought us a stroller, a car seat, and myriad other baby items. But I wanted more than that. I wanted what money could not buy. I wanted someone who would hold me and tell me I was doing a great job and here, why don’t I watch her and you get a break, some sleep Sweetheart. But those fantasies never came to fruition. If my mother came to my house, I had to watch over my baby and my mother. And in that selfish time, I just couldn’t.

So, that led me to my Google search. There had to be parents or grandparents with disabilities and challenges like my mother’s. What did they do? How did they do? Surely there was some kind of online support network with resources. Here is a little game Grandma can play with an eight month old. Look at this new gadget that makes it easier to hold a baby for someone with such little body strength. Read this story on this fantastic parent and her experiences and how wonderful her children turned out. Nothing. The digital version of crickets.

What do I do then? I still struggle selfishly, but as a parent, my selfishness must be put aside for the benefit of my daughter. So, I do what I can to foster their relationship. I bring my now thirteen month old daughter to Grandma’s apartment. I set her on the ground, at the same level as her grandmother. And they laugh together. I’m never very far away. If I’m lucky I can sit up on the couch, check my email, read a book. We have gotten a wheelchair for my mother that allows us to go on walks with her. Baby in a carrier or baby backpack, or if my husband is with us, in a stroller and granddaughter and grandma tour the park next to each other, laughing at the ducks or pointing out the resident elusive heron.

I am never going to have a fully-physically able-bodied mother. It is still going to bother me sometimes; the unfairness of it. But I’m also an adult, one that, I think, turned out pretty well, despite my mother’s declining difficulties. Maybe it’s helped me learn compassion. Maybe I understand that others have situations that are worse. I have a mother. And she lives just up the street, less than a mile away. And walking doesn’t mean loving and holding doesn’t mean laughing. She cannot walk. She cannot hold her granddaughter. But she can love and she can laugh and together, they’ll make wonderful ground-level memories.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

The Lovely Beast

The Lovely Beast

WO The Lovely Beast Art 1By Jennifer Fliss

“Do you have the giraffe yet?” she asks me sotto voce. As if it were a secret. I had been asked variations of this question a few times. “Do you know about the giraffe?” At first I was expecting some allegory about parenting that would somehow make the all-nighters more manageable.

But no. Not a metaphor. This well-coiffed and perky woman in the check-out line was bestowing upon me the secret of a squeaky toy. One step away from a dog toy, but four times the cost. “Do you know about the giraffe?” As if this ubiquitous toy isn’t hanging from the grip and gob of every infant and toddler out there. Sophie. “Oh yeah,” I respond flippantly. Pre-baby, I vowed that I wouldn’t cave to parental peer pressure and invite the smug creature into my home. I can do it on my own. What did I know? Everything? Nothing? The woman smiles a knowing and vaguely condescending smile. “Oh you need it. Babies just love Sophie the Giraffe.”

Later that day. Or maybe the next day. Or week. Or every day and every week since she was born. I am on speaker phone. Gillian is crying. I’m crying. The cat. Is crying. My breasts are leaking. The acidic and acrid stench of spit-up wafts from somewhere – my bra? My hair? The answer is both. No rubbery BPA-free, phthlate-free, save-the-environment-save-your-child squeaky toy is going to save us from this place. My husband’s voice on the other end of the line does what he can. In the end, we hang up and I’m alone with her tears again. Our deluge of tears.

I hear phantom baby cries. In the shower. In bed. Many things disguise itself as Gillian’s cry. The cat. The air filter. The lawnmower next door. My own mind.

My baby doesn’t wake from sleep chattering to herself or her animals. My baby wakes up wailing. I am immediately pulled from a soapy sink of water, a half eaten peach, futile attempts at reading a book – the same page again and again, or washing my hair. I try to walk slowly. Surely my child will become spoiled if I respond too quickly. The book said so. One of the books anyway. Or maybe the internet. Her piercing cry escalates. What she is saying is that she wants me. “Help me mommy,” her shrieks call out, for she has no other way to tell me that. Right now, it’s saying “Only you. Only you can help make it right.” I know when she is fourteen, I’ll desperately want this back, but right now? Right now I am still hungry and half a peach does not a lunch make. But the baby, Gillian, is hungry. And so I nurse her until she is sated. Lunch having been served, she looks at me. “What next?” Her bright face asks. Indeed. What next? Four more hours until my husband gets home. I have to make the time go by. So. Many. Hours.

Our first trip to a public space. It took a lot of gumption. It took deep breaths and when I walked out the door I knew we had reached a milestone. Not one that people talk much about. But it was momentous. The zoo. I want to tell everyone what a feat it is that I’m even there. Hey chimps. Hey cheetah. Hey nice old lady volunteer zoo docent. It’s a big deal. This is me. And my baby. Six months. Can you see she isn’t crying? Can you see that I’m not?

I meet a friend and her three children at the indoor zoo play area. This takes a surprising amount of coordination. By the flamingos. Past the food court. Near the log. By the other newish parents. See this mother is being pulled by one child to the bathroom. Another to the coloring station. Her arms and her smile being stretched like Gumby. See this father with a laughing toddler on his shoulders playing the bongos, off key. I see them. And I am one of them.

The baby, my baby, is still not crying.

It takes a lot of self-control not to approach every parent to a young child that I see. To not say: Hey. Hello. Me too. Oh my god, me too. I feel you. You’re doing a good job. It gets better. It gets worse. This club; it’s huge. There are quite a few parents out there and they’re all just wandering the streets. Loitering. Hoping to catch the eye of one another. Hoping for vitamin D. Hoping that the sunshine will somehow make it all okay. The salvation in some rubbery swings and a playground lined with wood chips and perhaps another stroller with a crying child in it. The park. The playground. A church of the highest order. When it’s empty, you swear you can see God. When it’s full, you swear you can see yourself.

This parenthood thing. It’s often called a roller coaster. I don’t know about that. Maybe one where you walk up and down the tracks yourself. Powered by your own will and sheer strength built of exhaustion and necessity. So I’m on this roller coaster. And I guess you could say I’m coasting right now. But ask me again in a month. A week. An hour. A minute. It’s in flux. That’s the thing though. Stagnation is boring. We become complacent. You can’t race down hills if you don’t trudge up them. A piece of cake isn’t as sweet unless you’ve eaten broccoli right before. Those brilliant moments of childhood aren’t as bright unless we have seen how dark it can get too. Our kids are little flashlights. Those ones you have to hand crank. Lots of work. Bright lights whenever you need them.

I don’t need Sophie the giraffe. I just need a light for the darkness to help guide the way.

That day at the zoo, Gillian is strapped to me. She is, once again, an extension of my own worn and tired body. I point out the giraffe in the distance, the one that doesn’t squeak and she couldn’t fit in her mouth, though I don’t doubt that she’d try. The giraffe in front of us doesn’t carry a $20 price tag and hang out in strollers, cribs, and playrooms around the country. This one is unique. This lovely sweet beast is walking toward me. Towards us. I don’t think Gillian knows what exactly I’m pointing at, her depth perception not what it will be some day. Some day. Later.

But I do. And that makes all the difference.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.