Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer


I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.


“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.


I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.


I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.


Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.


Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”


While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.


Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.


On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.


The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.


I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.


At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.


 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.


A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”


I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”


Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.


The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.


Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.


History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at






Raising My Black Son

Raising My Black Son

A portrait of a happy laughing African American man

By Suanne Schafer

Twenty years ago, I adopted an interracial child—I’ll call him M—thinking a mother’s love could overcome all barriers, even racial ones. Twenty years later, I’m not sure I did my son any favors. I’m a white mom trying to figure out how to raise a black child in a hostile—and potentially lethal—environment.

M came up for adoption during my fourth year of medical school, the unwanted love child of a sixteen-year-old white mother and a black seventeen-year-old father. Unable to take her mixed-race baby home to her blue-collar family, the young woman kept her pregnancy secret from everyone except her mother then gave the baby up for adoption.

My family was tickled to have a grandchild, whatever his color.

As a physician I often think about nature versus nurture and have found that, though we’re not genetically related, he’s clearly my son. We’re both a bit shy but share a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with science ranging from dinosaurs to birding to stargazing to medical oddities, a dash of sarcasm, and the joy of using just the right curse word to express our true feelings. We both love science fiction, Star Wars, and exploring international cuisines.

Early on I bought all the appropriate books on black heroes like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King and incorporated them into our daily reading ritual, but M was never interested. Unfortunately, Mr. King was not a Tyrannosaurus Rex and therefore didn’t capture M’s attention. I marched in the MLK parade alone.

After completing my residency, I interviewed from New York to California, including a small rural community in which M would have been the second black person. Ultimately I chose to practice in San Antonio, a culturally diverse city where interracial families are common. Thus, M grew up with friends of multiple racial and ethnic groups but seemed to choose his friends based on common interests rather than common skin tone.

Fortunately, we had very few racial incidents as he grew up. Probably the most blatant occurred as we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. A white man came to pick up his take-out, saw me sitting with my four-year-old black child, and approached us practically spitting through his teeth, demanding “With all the white kids out there to adopt, why the hell did you adopt a nigger kid?” The Chinese owner of the restaurant, who certainly must have encountered racial barriers himself, apologized profusely then escorted the gentleman to the door and asked him never to return.

When he was sixteen, we went to Tanzania together. Going on safari was on my “bucket list” and M had some desire to find his African roots. There, though no clear-cut incident occurred, he seemed very uncomfortable. He’d never been in a place where blacks significantly outnumbered whites. Because he was clearly interracial and accompanied by an affluent white woman, he was considered an mzungu, a white person, and was treated accordingly.

We live in a predominantly white neighborhood – yet M came inside one day from checking the mail saying, “Mom, these folks in a car watched me until I got inside. Guess they were making sure I wasn’t breaking in.”

About that time, the news exploded with stories of young black men in hoodies being killed. With M’s tendency to take long walks in the evening to blow off steam from raging male hormones, I grew nervous, treading a delicate line between making him fear life and teaching him to use common sense. Teaching him to avoid potentially hostile situations, to never mouth off to a cop, to not wear a hoodie, to keep his hands visible and empty at all times, to back down in a confrontation. I suspect I was more worried than he was.

Last week he hollered questions from the kitchen back to my office. “Mom, how much money did we make last year?” I raised my eyebrows at the “we” but gave him the figure he sought. After few more rather personal questions, I asked what he was doing. “Calculating my privilege,” he said. A few seconds later, “I’m really privileged.”

I asked him to come into my office to review the application he filled out and suggested he give “real” answers, not those based on his white physician mother’s income, education level, etc. The findings: He was an unemployed black male who dropped out of college and therefore—surprise—had no privilege.

A female child in blue-collar family, I too grew up without privilege. My father dropped out of college one semester prior to completing an agricultural degree, left the family homestead, and worked as an itinerant well logger in the oil field. By the time I was twenty-four months old, I’d lived in twenty-two towns across the western United States. Over the years, Dad’s wanderlust abated somewhat, but I still attended three fourth grades, three seventh grades, two ninth grades. I graduated from high school and put myself through college with scholarships and by working full-time and going to school part-time. I picked cotton, worked as an aide in a nursing home, roofed and painted houses, clerked in a bookstore, did piece work in a toy factory. Later I became a secretary and medical transcriptionist, a travel and medical photographer. I continued the wanderlust bred into me and attended four colleges and traveled abroad before deciding to become a physician. By the time I graduated from medical school, my parents had contributed a total of $275 to my college expenses.

Knowing how hard it was to juggle work, school, relationships, and life in general, I wanted M to have an easier life, easier access to an education. As a result, he’s had every economic and educational advantage possible. I realized he was intelligent but having trouble focusing, but the school district refused to believe he had ADHD because he was doing well in school. A private psychologist tested him and verified my diagnosis. ADHD, dysgraphia, and a borderline learning disability in mathematics hampered his ability to learn. Once he was diagnosed, I fought yearly battles with our school district because of their failure to follow the learning plan set out by his psychologist. Medications to tone down the ADHD turned him into the world’s grumpiest kid and completely suppressed his appetite, so for years we’ve teetered between a controlled or uncontrolled attention span.

Coupled with the learning problems, unlike his mother, he’s not a “driven” person. A procrastinator par excellence, he’d rather play video games than anything. I keep telling myself this must be his nature, because he certainly wasn’t nurtured to be lackadaisical.

At this point I am the mother of an unmotivated child, one who despite having a substantial college savings account, doesn’t wish to attend college. He’s also a black child raised in a white family. I’m not sure he grasps what it means to be black in America. I’m equally unsure I can teach him that, or perhaps it’s too late to do so.

M is a good young man, a success in that he graduated from high school at a time when blacks are twice as likely to drop out of high school, when 40% of children expelled from school are black, when 70% of children arrested are black or Latino. He’s sexually active but not promiscuous, doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Except for an occasional outburst of testosterone-related temper, he is caring, even-tempered, and sweet. At some point, he’ll be a good father, but due to the procrastination issue, not necessarily a good husband as he’ll put off doing household chores as long as possible.

I’m coming to terms with the idea that M will have to make his own mistakes. Letting go has been hard. I am getting better at it, learning to offer support, rather than fight his battles for him. I no longer set my alarm to be sure he gets to appointments on time. I let him decide if he needs to take his ADHD medication to get through a job interview or other duties.

Mostly I hope that at some point he can reconcile the duality of his heritage and can integrate his exterior with his interior. I pray that American culture will evolve to the point “white privilege” no longer exists. That a black man can be simply a black man without negative consequences. That a black man can earn what a similarly educated white male does. That black children will have true equality of education. That a black man should not have to be a superman to be equal to an ordinary white man. That every black male has the opportunity to become the best person he can be.

Suanne Schafer’s short works have been featured in Bête Noire Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing and two anthologies, Night Lights and Licked. Her debut novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of a nineteenth century bisexual artist living in West Texas and will be out in 2018. Her current work in progress involves a female physician caught up in the Rwandan genocide. Suanne also serves as fiction editor for Empty Sink Publishing, an online literary magazine.







The Birds And The Bees

The Birds And The Bees

Art Love birds

By Mary E. Plouffe

Just when you think you’ve done it right, you’re wrong.

Wait ’til they are ready; wait ’til they ask, the advice goes. So I did. And one winter morning just after breakfast, my son, age 5, posed the question. “So, I get how the baby might look like you ’cause it’s growing in your tummy. But what I don’t get is how it could look like Dad”

The sex talk. Right then and there. Ready or not and perfectly primed, I began. And my son listened intently as I discussed sperm and eggs and the process of conception. He offered no expression, no comment, no reaction.

When I was done, he was still silent. So I asked “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes, Mom I do,” he said, looking at me sternly. “This is very important information. Why haven’t you told me this before now?”

He looked betrayed. I trusted you, his expression said, and you let me down.

I was chastened, chided by a kindergartener, shamed by my own son who found me wanting. His words echoed in my head. “Very important information, why haven’t you told me?”

Reponses flashed through my mind. You didn’t ask. We’re having a baby in a few months… It didn’t seem necessary until now.

But I was looking at an expression that would have accepted none of them as an excuse.

And he was right.

This was the infant who locked onto new faces from the safety of my arms, his expression frozen as he absorbed the new image with disconcerting intensity, until the subject squirmed.

This was the two-year old who tugged on my arm in the midst of festivities at the office Christmas party. “Mom, can I interrupt? I have two more questions about death.” The three- year-old who pleaded for workbooks on letters and numbers and addition and subtraction at the grocery store. “I don’t care if it’s hard. I want to learn it.”

This was the almost 4-year-old who tackled fractions on a long bus ride from Maine to Maryland. “Mom, how can I still be three? I’ve been three for so long.” he asked as we headed to visit his cousins. So out came the paper, and we drew circles and halved them and quartered them, and talked about months in a year. Later that weekend, we ended up in a Quick Care center to clean up a nasty scalp wound that flattened the left side of his blond curls with blood.   A nurse took his hand.

“Hi Justin, I’m going to clean up your cut, Ok? How old are you?”

“Three and eleven-twelfths” he said, as I followed them down the hall toward the exam room.

So, as I stood in the kitchen that morning after our sex talk, I realized he was right. He’d let me know since the day he was born that he wanted to learn everything as soon as he could. Not when he needed it, not when he asked, but as soon as he was able to understand.

And the look of betrayal on his face said something else to me as well. Something that made me very uncomfortable. “If you didn’t tell me this, what other important things have you not told me?”

So I apologized. And we had a different talk. One about how Moms and Dads aren’t always sure when to explain things to children, and so they wait. And about how that didn’t really work for him. “I like to learn things,” he said firmly, his steel eyes blue eyes mirroring disappointment. “You know that. And I want you to teach me.”

We agreed that if there was important information I knew about things I should tell him that.

“Even if it might be boring grown up stuff? I asked

“Just say ‘I know lots more about this. Do you want to know it?'” he coached. “If I don’t, I will tell you.”

“Deal” I said. And it was. Over the years there were a few odd reactions from other parents, when I’d follow a quick definition with “and there’s lots more to know about that” but he was happy to say “You can tell me the rest after baseball practice, Mom.”

We got through the sex talk, even though I clearly got it wrong.

But looking back, it was the trust talk that really mattered.

That was the most important information of all.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.

 illustration © art-girl






The End of Toys

The End of Toys


By Sharon Holbrook

We bought my son’s dresser when I was pregnant with him, my eldest. The blond-wood dresser matched the crib, and it used to have a changing pad attached to its top. My son does not know this, nor do I plan to tell him, because 10-year-old tweens do not want to think about their diapered past. But I remember. Not so very long ago, the dresser’s six drawers used to hold tiny onesies, diapers, and piles of carefully folded receiving blankets.

On his 4th birthday, my son entered his Lego phase headlong, catapulted by a construction vehicle Lego set from Grandpa. He insisted on keeping that first instruction booklet, and every one of many that came after, and I relented. We found a place in the dresser that had been vacated by the diapers and blankets that my big preschool boy no longer needed, and that became the Lego instruction drawer. His t-shirts and shorts and socks, still tiny, did not require the use of every drawer.

Now my son is almost as tall as I am. We wear the same size shoe. Sometimes, I do a double-take at the laundry basket – is it my husband’s, or my son’s? His clothing, like him, is getting bigger and bulkier. It spills out of his drawers or sits on the top of his dresser, where I place the folded clothes for him to (eventually, hopefully) put away.

He needs that dresser drawer now. Now and then I’d ask, “Can you let these Lego instruction booklets go? You never use them.” Invariably, the answer had always been an adamant “No!” Until now.

His room, to my eyes, is a mess. It’s a different sort of mess than it used to be. There’s that dresser that barely closes. There are books haphazardly spilled on the floor near his bed, and lone socks are always sprinkled around the room. Rainbow Loom bracelet and art supplies are scattered and piled this way and that. Earbuds peek out from under the bed. But where there used to be Bey Blades and cars and light sabers, there are now no toys.

Every week, it’s the same dance. “Clear your floor, buddy. We have to vacuum.” He has dust allergies, and I use this to bolster my fight for sanitation. “But Mom. I don’t have room on my bookshelves. I need a bigger bookshelf.” Maybe, I say. But first we need to stand the books up straight and perhaps let some of those books move on to someone else. Then we’ll decide. To my surprise, he says yes. He wants my help going through them, too, which I am happy to give.

We pull out the A to Z Mysteries and Magic Treehouse to pass on to his second-grade sister. The tundra and desert and all the other biome books that he loved when he was 5 (and that I still love) get set aside for his kindergartner sister. My packrat is suddenly ruthless. “I just don’t like that one.” And, “that science book is outdated.” He should know better than me, I guess, since he now reads about the periodic table for fun. Into the out pile they go. On the bottom shelf lies a big colorful hardcover, The Lego Ideas Book. It was a Christmas gift when he was 6, and he pored over it for many hours over the years. “I’m done with that, Mom,” my 10-year-old says. “I’m think I’m done with Legos.”

Just like that. “OK.” We’re done with the bookshelf now, and I stack the castaways neatly. “What do you think you want to do with them?” He shrugged noncommittally, with a bit of melancholy about him. Or was that me with the melancholy? I had guessed my 10-year-old was heading this way. Years of single-minded devotion had gradually faded into increasing detachment. The giant bin of Lego in the playroom had been gathering dust like a lonely, outgrown lovey. Sometimes I catch a whiff of restlessness about my son. He’s abandoned the kind of all-in imaginative play that his sisters still adore, and longs to replace it with the things of teens – screens, social media, video games, freedom. He is only 10, I think. I am almost 11, he thinks. I try to hold him in this middle zone, and he strains against me.

I tread carefully. “Do you want to let the Lego instructions go? Should I get a recycling bag?” He surprises me with his certainty. We begin. The recent ones are on top. They are less familiar to me, because for the last few years of Lego, my son assembled them on his own. “Oh, I loved this one!” I barely remember the Star Wars set he’s talking about. He’d tear open the box and work doggedly at the dining room table from start to finish with a kind of focus that is now reserved for Minecraft.

We get a little deeper in the dresser drawer, a few years back, and I become part of the journey. “Mom, do you remember this castle?” he asks me, and I do. “Didn’t we build this one in the basement in the old house?” I answer, and the memory of that place and time floods back, right down to the annoyingly dim lighting in the corner where we’d set up a plastic folding table so my Lego-obsessed boy could have a place of his own to build.

FullSizeRenderNow he’s found a Lego Atlantis booklet. “Oh, Nana got me this one! I wanted it so much that Christmas!” I remember building it side by side. It was a big one, and it took a long time. We had great fun doing it.

My 8-year-old pops into her brother’s room now, and seeing what we are doing, chirps, “Aw! Old memories are the best!” Before I can savor the truth of that, or the charm of her young wisdom, my son has answered quickly and evenly. “But they have to go.” They do, right? I’ve been suggesting it for years, after all. But emptying the drawer is going fast, like a fast-forwarded reel of film through the last six years, and suddenly my son seems more ready than I am. I swallow this, though, and I echo his readiness. “Yup, I guess it’s time.”

“And, oh, this fire truck! You had to superglue the ladder on, Mom, because it wouldn’t stay on.” I remember this, too. “You were so frustrated that it kept falling off! Remember,” I reminisce with him, “we were in the dining room at the old house, and Grandma was there, because Daddy and I were leaving the next day for our anniversary trip?” He does. That was when he was 4 ½. We are almost to the bottom of the pile, and he is unmoved by the fattening Trader Joe’s bag of recycling. I cannot say the same for me.

At last, on the bottom, is the very first booklet. It’s that 4th birthday construction vehicle set, the one that started it all. We both gasp with excitement. We really did it together back then, my early-30s mama hands showing his chubby preschool fingers how to snap together the bricks for the first time. “Oh, Mom, I loved this set! Can I keep just this one for the memories?”

Oh, yes. Yes, you can, my boy. And when you outgrow even that, because you will in the finger-snap of a few years, I’ll take it and I’ll tuck it away.

I’ll keep it for the memories, too.

Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.


Her Canvas, My Son

Her Canvas, My Son


By Terry Cox-Joseph

His eyes, blue to ocean’s depth, stare from canvas, perfect brush strokes with perfect white highlights, perfect lashes, innocence, precocity. I wish I had painted that portrait.

The artist’s brushstrokes kiss the canvas the way I kiss my son’s forehead as he sleeps. She strokes the canvas the way I stroke his hair, caress his cheek.

My son is real. He is mine. He is flawed, something deep within his brain, axons miscommunicating, frontal lobes overworked, chemicals too high or too low. It has taken years for us to teach him not to hit when he’s mad, not to kick holes in the walls, not to spit. He has no buffer for impulse control, no “stop” button. We have hired tutors to teach him at home what he should have learned in school. Still, on many days, he comes home with a notebook blank as his stare.

Her canvas depicts a fantasy child. She gave away the real child, she told me once, sent him back to some institutional cement world. Who would hold him, I wondered? Who would caress his forehead? Who would love him? How could she do that?

As much as I have hated my son, I have loved him. From the moment I first saw him held in his birthmother’s arms, bundled in hospital green and white, a silly, warm, hand-knit cap pulled over his brow, I wanted him. The weight of him in my arms, the softness of his black hair, the tight grip of his fists that defined him. My husband, our daughter, and now, our son. Our family was complete.

The artist’s adopted son lit matches, dropped them on her carpet, lied, covered his lies with lies. Just like my son. He lit matches behind the couch, then dropped them on the wood floor in panic. He lit them in his room, too. Our therapist suggested sitting on the lawn with a bucketful of water and 1,000 matches and making our son light them until he was fed up with it. He only made it to 85 before my husband called it a day, satisfied that this was a lesson learned.

The other artist dismissed him after he rifled her purse for coins. My son went through my purse, too, when he was 14. I learned to hide my purse, even while I was sleeping. But he snuck behind my bed, behind the headboard. He stole my credit card. Stealth seemed wired into his movements. He bought online gaming points. Before that bill arrived, he slid the credit card from my purse not three feet away while I was sprinkling ginger on chicken stir fry. Amazing, his sleight of hand, sense of timing. He shocked us with his audacity, lack of boundaries, ability to thieve without remorse. Once the credit card was cancelled, he figured out how to use his cell phone to buy gaming points. I didn’t know you could do that.

If only he had directed this ingenuity toward school work.

When we disassembled the computer, he smashed two chairs and nearly shattered my eardrums. My heart had already been broken. Only the hope that this was an addiction held me to him. Surely, he hadn’t stolen out of malice. We could make it through this, too.

Her son lied to make her hate him, to prove he was unlovable, proved she couldn’t love him, proved he was a discard, proved he was right, couldn’t, shouldn’t love anyone because all people were liars, he was just one more liar, anyone who told you they loved you was a liar so why tell the truth to anyone? Lying is survival.

Clinically, it’s called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). I call it mental illness and a bruised heart. I call it a process. I have no idea if my son has RAD. I think he’s got Asperger’s and a mood disorder, definitely anxiety issues that send him rocketing past the ozone layer if he senses too much emotional pressure, too much homework, too harsh lights, too much sound, too many transitions. How many times have I slammed on the brakes when he has kicked the back of my seat during a tantrum, cracked my favorite CDs, pulled my hair in the middle of an intersection? How many times have I wanted to open the car door and throw him out right there?

Black markers streak foul words across my son’s walls, X’d out sentences replaced with exclamation marks, wrestlers’ names, and football scores. They mar the pale blue clouds that I once papered his room with in the fantasy world I prepared. There are holes bashed into drywall that my husband I and deliberately never repaired to prove a point, if anyone remembers what the point was the day our son threw a toy truck through the wall. We never repaired the screen, either, the day he whaled a baseball through the inside of the window, shattered the glass into glittering reminders of chaos.

My canvas is never blank. It is never complete. My brushes harden in dried linseed oil and turpentine because I’m checking the toothpaste on my son’s toothbrush, making sure he’s reached those back molars instead of lying and smearing toothpaste on his front teeth with his finger and then reassuring me by exhaling in my face. I check to see if he has scrubbed his face, taken his medicine, sprayed bleach on the mattress to mask the odor of urine for the millionth time. I check his closet for the smell of urine, worried that he may have awakened in the middle of the night again and confused it with the bathroom.

I remind him to put sheets on the bed, turn out the light, and wonder if he’ll plead, “cuddle,” so I have an excuse to snuggle next to his warm back, rub his shoulders, rest my cheek against his neck as his breath keeps pace with the crickets chirping outside. Or if this time, he’ll inexplicably rage, kick me in the jaw as I bend down to kiss him, scream “GET OUT!”

He wonders why I haven’t painted him as much as I have painted his sister, who poses for the camera naturally, chooses perfect lighting that brightens her hair like spun gold, who tilts her shoulder just so, bends to pluck a daffodil, knowing that hers is a world of beauty and charm, and everyone in her orbit is captured by it. I tell him that he won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, won’t sit still to pose for the canvas, scowls when I suggest a pose. I don’t want to paint scowls. I tell him that he broke my last camera, stepped on my canvas in the back of the car, threw my paint across the room. He doesn’t understand the connection.

I have taken pictures of him climbing trees. Exploring the yard in his diapers. Climbing on all fours inside a fiberglass turtle at a children’s museum. I will save these for reference and paint these canvases when he’s grown, when he’s in school, when he’s got a girlfriend, when my paints are inventoried and fresh and my canvases are stacked neatly against the wall. I will paint him when he has grown into another world, the world of order and reason, and even if he hasn’t, the world that someday slots time into compartments, chunks of time that I can claim for my own. Because without this belief, without this goal, I cannot make it through the day. There must be a “someday.”

I will paint him with an overbaked smile, wearing a Hawaiian straw hat, face so close to the camera that he leaves nose prints. I will paint him with wild, loose strokes, shouting colors, globs of paint, because a calm, blue-eyed little boy, staring wistfully through a rain drenched window is not who he is, and I wouldn’t want to paint a stranger.

He is mine, and like an unfinished canvas, I will complete this task. Not all paintings are pure joy. Not all are effortless. I have problems with perspective, and occasionally stumble with foreshortening. But I can always come back to it with a fresh eye, a good night’s sleep and a full stomach.

Imagining my son in some faceless institution is too painful to bear. A hospital stay, yes. A special needs camp, absolutely. But to send him back, to open the fluffy New Parent Package with such desire and fervor and love, and then slam shut the lid and send him back is unfathomable. Therapists, teachers, parents, doctors are part of our team. My husband and I could not do it alone. My son cannot do it alone. But together, we can.

The other artist spews accusations with disgust, fires words like paint splatters: “He stole from my purse!” I asked her if she’d taken classes on adopting older children, if she’s heard of RAD.

“No. What difference would it make? I will not put up with that.”

I feel my heart snap shut on her, just as she closed hers toward her son. There is a finality, a certainty I feel, knowing that while being an artist defines me, I am not solely defined by it. It is one of many roles. I am more than that. I will not be satisfied with less. I will not turn my back on an unfinished canvas. I will study it, learn from it, correct it and in the end, I will take joy in it.

Some paintings are perfect. Some are hyper-realistic, traditional, each stroke so perfectly placed, so studied, so measured, it is like a photograph. The light falls perfectly, the angles are measured with precision. But some paintings are fraught with stress tempered by freedom, a tension of line, juxtaposition of secondary or tertiary color that otherwise would not have occurred in a traditional piece. That is where my artwork differs. My canvasses may never be as perfect as hers, but they will be painted from the heart, yanked from my soul, squeezed fresh from the tube and the palette with vigor and resolve. Where she craves perfection, I crave depth. If I have to, I will dig my fingernails into cadmium red, cobalt blue, viridian and sienna, and smear them where they need to go.

Let the artist keep her perfect portraits. Mine are messier. They are real.

Author’s Note: Raising my daughter was so easy. My son, however, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole, but with strapped on explosives.  Writing and art are my outlets. “What do other mothers DO when they’re at the end of their ropes?” asked an artist friend. I don’t know. But my son is now 19 and no longer lives at home. Take a deep breath and enjoy. 

Terry Cox-Joseph’s essays, articles and poetry have been published in Dog Fancy,  Entrepreneur, and Virginia Builder, among others.

Art: Mary Ann Cooper



An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

shadow of a boy with mother at a wooden fence

By Emily Cappo

The T-shirt was simple: solid black with the words “Pauliestrong” written across the chest in bright red.

“C’mon, put it on,” I said to my 11-year-old son Matthew.

“I really don’t want to,” Matthew replied.

He was usually an agreeable kid, so his resistance didn’t make sense to me. I explained that Paulie was having a tough time and we needed to show our support. I kept pleading with him until he finally burst out crying.

“I just don’t want to be reminded of that time,” he admitted.

I immediately let it go, realizing that I hadn’t been sensitive to how Matthew understood all too well why Paulie needed support.

Except then a few minutes later, Matthew picked up the shirt and put it on.

“Okay, let’s do this,” he said.

I smiled and acknowledged his sense of empathy and ongoing resilience.

I had it all planned out in my head: Matthew and Paulie would meet, form an immediate bond over what they had in common, have play-dates and be best friends. Matthew was 11; Paulie was 10. We lived 20 minutes away from each other in neighboring towns. Their paths would never have crossed if it were not for my friend Julie who lived around the block from Paulie’s family.

As soon as Julie heard the news that Paulie was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric cancer, she called me, knowing I’d know how to support to his family since Matthew had been diagnosed 2 ½ years earlier with the exact same type of cancer. Suddenly, pediatric cancer – and this particular type of sarcoma – didn’t feel so rare anymore.

Without hesitation, I told Julie to offer my contact information to Paulie’s parents if they wanted to reach out and talk to someone who had navigated this crisis. I had hoped to help them feel less alone – because no one really understands what it’s like to watch your child undergo treatment for cancer unless you’ve been there. And no one understands that the only thing worse than having cancer yourself is if your child has it. Only a ‘cancer parent’ knows how upsetting it is to helplessly stand by as your child rides out days of nausea because he refuses to swallow pills to control it. Or, how a ‘cancer parent’ has to put on a happy face as their child is about to experience his first MRI. I wasn’t sure Paulie’s parents would want to talk to me because sometimes families are private or overwhelmed or don’t want to compare notes, but Paulie’s mom emailed me immediately.

Over the phone, she was lovely and honest and didn’t hold back. I was awed by how calm she sounded. I wondered if I appeared that way during the early weeks of Matthew’s diagnosis. Our first phone call was an hour and a half and I’m sure I could have talked to her all night. Before we hung up, I reassured her that she could call me anytime about anything. I heard from her again a few weeks later because she wondered if I had any suggestions on foods that Paulie might be able to stomach since he was rejecting almost everything. We had similar challenges with Matthew and I was eager to offer suggestions and support.

Although the two phone calls solidified my connection to Paulie and his family, I knew it was more than that. I was invested. I barely knew this family and yet, I cared so much about them. At the hospital, where Matthew and I still went for his check-ups every month, we saw a lot of the same kids each time we were there. Yes, they all had been or still were in treatment for cancer. But, that was all we knew. We didn’t know their names, where they lived, or their specific diagnoses. I’d always smile and say hello to the parent accompanying their child and we’d exchange that unspoken greeting of relief that our kids were sitting in the waiting room, rather than in a hospital bed upstairs. But, other than that, our connection ended there.

I only had one instance where a mother of one of the children in the waiting room sat down next to me and started chatting. Her son recently had part of his leg amputated, and yet this mom was more concerned with getting him ready for baseball season. After sharing with me what type of cancer her son had, she outright asked me for details on Matthew’s cancer. I knew I couldn’t hold back after she had been so forthcoming, so I told her. And, she began to rattle off statistics to me and reassure me that I shouldn’t worry. I was glad Matthew had his earbuds in and couldn’t hear her. Instead of appreciating a fellow cancer mom reaching out, I was hoping the nurse would call us inside soon so I could escape the intrusion.

But, with Paulie’s family our context was different. They reached out to me. I didn’t push myself upon them offering unsolicited advice, or at least I didn’t think so. And I certainly didn’t spew survival rates at them. I tried to be a good listener and only offered my opinion if asked.

I was grateful I could follow Paulie’s progress over their Facebook page, a closed group they set up to keep friends and family informed. Unfortunately, Paulie’s treatment was not going as smoothly as Matthew’s did, but his case was more complex and required a more aggressive protocol. Paulie had several unscheduled visits to the hospital, including one on Christmas Eve that lasted until New Year’s Eve. Despite these setbacks, Paulie’s parents were relentless in their hope and faith and even mustered the strength to start selling the “Pauliestrong” t-shirts to raise both Paulie’s spirits, as well as money for pediatric cancer research.

Before I snapped the picture of Matthew in the T-shirt, I asked him how he could show his support beyond just smiling. He shyly gave a two thumbs up. After we posted it, Paulie’s mom posted a reply to us with the comment, “we can’t wait to meet you” underneath a photo of Paulie giving a two thumbs up in return.

Right then, I could envision their friendship growing out of that first introduction over social media. I pictured them having play dates, then hanging out through high school, maybe even going to the same college. And I didn’t picture this just because they both had the same type of cancer. I imagined their friendship blossoming because they were both sweet, gentle boys who also liked Star Wars and sports. And, I pictured it because I needed to see them both in the future, after they had kicked cancer’s butt.

Finally, a few days into the new year, Paulie’s dad posted something positive: the chemo was working! The comments poured in with “woo-hoos” and “hoorays” and cheers that this would be their year. But then the following morning, another post appeared pleading for prayers, except this time it sounded much more urgent than ever before.

It doesn’t matter what specifically happened. What matters is that this young boy was taken from his family way too soon. I debated whether to attend the wake, since I had never met Paulie or his parents in person. But then my emotions won. I knew I needed to hug them both, despite the possibility of an awkward moment. Except there was no awkwardness. Paulie’s mom gave me a warm greeting and hugged me right back. As we talked, she held my arm and thanked me for our support. When I greeted Paulie’s dad, he too gave me a sincere hug and recalled an email exchange we had had about the intolerable, hard to sleep on hospital chair-beds. They were both poised and genuine and it made me wish I knew them before their child was diagnosed.

When a tragic event like this occurs, a very common response is, “there are no words.” But, I couldn’t accept saying that. I knew I needed to find some words to attempt to comfort this family. And I found them in pictures. The pictures that Paulie’s parents had posted on the Facebook page during his treatment. In every single photo, Paulie was smiling, whether it was from a hospital bed or at home. I knew I wanted Paulie’s parents to know that I noticed that. The fact that he was always smiling meant one thing to me; that Paulie felt safe and brave, knowing his family was always by his side. Doesn’t every parent want their child to feel secure even in the most difficult of circumstances? Paulie’s parents clearly gave him that gift, until the very end of his too short life.

At the wake, Paulie’s mom had said to me, “I wish you could have met him.”

“Me too,” I squeaked back between tears.

Although Matthew and Paulie did not have the opportunity to meet in person either, I know Matthew won’t ever forget him. And neither will I.

Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom (, she has recently completed a memoir, “Hope All Is Well,” which chronicles mid-life loss, re-connection, and revelation.

For more information on Paulie’s story and childhood cancer, visit


The Other Man

The Other Man

Art Running BasesBy Catherine Campbell

I always let them down gently, but firmly. I pick a quiet place with a quick exit. Sometimes I have their things already boxed up—blues records, T-shirts I liked to sleep in, the earrings they bought me on various business trips—so they don’t have to go through an awkward epilogue. I chalk it all up to it’s not you, it’s me, and use some varying formula of “fear of commitment” plus “you deserve better.” I tell them they will find the perfect woman. I wish them nothing but the best. And once I’m home and the door is firmly closed and locked behind me, I pour myself a good drink.

The first question a man always asks when I break it off with him: “Is there someone else?”

I pat their shoulders. “No, of course not.”

I want to tell them the truth.

I don’t introduce my son Thaddeus to all the men I date. Thaddeus is seven. He’s sweet as a candy apple when he wants to be and a little jerk on the bad days, but don’t all parents experience a piece of heaven and hell wrapped up in something that can barely peddle a tricycle?

When Thaddeus’ father and I got divorced, Thaddeus was only a year old, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “revolving door” house. We split custody, which I assumed would make it easier for me to kill the loneliness. But surprisingly, I found myself plunging into finding another partner. I came close once or twice, in the form of intense rebounds. And these couple of men met “the other guy” in my life.

There was the Musician, a gentle man with the loveliest voice, who tried to get my son to eat salads. We made it almost ten months, but when he said he loved me, I couldn’t say it back.

Thaddeus was born without his right hand. He’s different. Special needs, his pediatrician says. On IEP reports and insurance forms and checks from the state, he’s considered permanently disabled, a condition that can never be fixed.

“Aren’t we all screwed up?” asked the Water Park Designer, as I was in the middle of dumping him on the front porch after a few intense months. When I had told him I had a kid, he said that was great, but his own father was an asshole and he wasn’t gonna be dad material…ever. It was easy to let that one go.

In the world of single motherhood, there isn’t a lot of time for relationships. It’s like trying to run between two movie theater shows at once, ducking in and out of each room, frantically trying to keep up with each plot. How can I possibly come home after a full day of work, medical appointments, occupational therapy, park play dates, grad school, cook meals for my kid and for someone else, cuddle with a boy and then a man, make meaningful conversations, and have sex?

For dinner tonight: quesadillas, just the two of us. Thaddeus practices holding a cup between his stub and his good arm. He paces the kitchen while I assemble the first quesadilla. “Only cheese?” he asks.

I nod and flip the tortilla. “Plain and simple, how you like it.”

Thaddeus repeats it in a sing-song voice. “Plain and simple.”

After a few rebounds who I thought I might want to love, I went on to date the sure cases of quick implosion. Much older men, men who didn’t want kids (“they impede vacations”), ex-boyfriends passing through town, new widowers who bawled in my arms, the separated husbands—still angry and lost—the men who just needed a good preening and a road map to get them back on their way, away from me.

The terms “amelia,” “anomaly,” and even “difference” all sound much more pleasing than the word “disabled.” But I can’t help use it all the time. It’s like a red light in the intersection of a sentence. It has meaning, it has consequence. People just stop and nod. They don’t need me to explain much more.

There’s a chance it was genetic. I remember how, after Thaddeus’ diagnosis, his father and I held our hands together in the ultrasound office, scooting closer, studying each other’s palms and fingerprints for the first time.

I shuffle spiders out of corners, finish client reports, fold another load of laundry, repaint the flaked white trim long into the night. In the morning, the Spiderman lunchbox sits flap-open on the counter. Jar of peanut butter. Clean knife. At 7:10 a.m. every morning, I make his lunches. The backpack is stuffed, the prosthesis is carried or worn, and then through the car window, I watch my son blow me a big, public kiss as the kids rush around him to beat the class bell. On the weeks when Thaddeus is at his father’s house, I sit on my back stoop alone, overlooking the garden, watching the cardinals burrow themselves into sunflower heads. I myself am starved. I shower and go to work.

One autumn, on a five-day romp through Boston, I met a man who was absolutely perfect on paper. Handsome and funny, he bought me a beer before a Red Sox game and he fed me oysters afterward. I flew back to North Carolina expecting it to end, but instead of the “So long, farewell!” single date, we stayed in touch, made travel plans involving direct flights and long weekends. I met his parents for Christmas dinner. We lounged like cats—smart, mature, romantically compatible cats—on the sundrenched couch of his living room. Each time I would fly home to Thaddeus, refreshed and focused. Boston Guy made me feel beautiful. We would text each other excitedly about the latest TV episode we both watched. I told him I had a son, and he laughed at my funny stories about my son’s antics. We didn’t talk about Thaddeus’ disability. We talked about everything else.

He was 900 miles away, which, I figured, would give me plenty of time to fall in love with him and warm up to the idea that I could slowly bring two special men together in my life. After years of flitting away so quickly, this time—I told myself—I would stick around because I could. No pressure to jump into the hard stuff just yet. It was going to happen. After I opened my heart to this man, I would finally have a normal triangle family with love and acceptance and all the fairytale trimmings.

“Will I ever grow a hand?” Thaddeus asks. He has crawled into my bed again at 5:00 a.m., shaking off a bad dream. He traces my face with his stump. His eyes are big, the shade of blue that makes you feel like you’re sailing paper boats on an endless day. The first girl to break his heart—what will she look like? Will she let him down easy as she can and what formula of stereotypical things will she say? Will she have his things already packed for him?

“You won’t grow a hand,” I tell him, and hold him so he’ll fall back asleep. “But I have extras. I can help you whenever you want.”

One afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend. My relationship with Boston Guy had just ended on an amicable yet bittersweet note. The distance is just too much, he said. It’s not fair to either of us. I cried a lot more than I expected.

I called a friend for consolation about Boston Guy, and then the topic turned to what it was like to raise our sons. At one point, we started talking about Thaddeus’s disability, what teenage life might be for him. I tried to spin the positive as I always had, going on and on about prom and guitar lessons and driving the car.

“But you can’t know that,” my friend said. “None of us can know exactly what Thaddeus is going through. You’ll never be inside his head. No matter how close you are to him, you’re not him. You have all your parts of yourself.”

The first girl to break Thaddeus’ heart probably won’t know what she’s doing. Maybe it will have nothing to do with the fact that he can’t tie his own shoes or cut a steak, or that she is tired of standing on one side of his body, the only one with the fingers that interlock with hers.

Lowering myself onto the couch, I stared at the coffee table in silence.

“Hey,” my friend said over the line. “You still there?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Still here.”

We talked a bit more, and then hung up. I sat and repeated the conversation in my head. Still here. It dawned on me that not once had I ever used the phrase “me time,” it was always non-mommy time…a worn groove of a joke among my friends. Not once had I left the word mother out of the description of myself: on resumes, through social media, at cocktail parties. My identity as the mother of a disabled child floated around everywhere.

When I found out I was pregnant, my sister had said, “This is the best and longest companion you’ll probably have.”

The way she blurted it out, like it wasn’t coming from her but from somewhere else we couldn’t possibly imagine, and why she was saying that a tiny bean of a something growing inside me was going to be a better person than my husband didn’t make an ounce of sense.

Will I ever fall in love beyond the love and commitment I have for my son? Will I be able to hold both loves at the same time? I’m scared that the answer may be no in the end, so I guess for now, I should just say, I don’t know.

What I do know is right now we have T-ball practice.

Thaddeus and I walk a few blocks to the recreation field. I’m lugging the T-ball set while he’s skipping along and whistles to himself while I set it up. Try-outs will be here in a month and I want him to have a fighting chance. I don’t want people to notice his missing hand but they will. So we practice throwing and catching. We use this trick we found on a video of a one-armed kid playing baseball, this trick of flipping the glove from hand to underarm. Thaddeus is not very good at catching. Perhaps it runs on my side of the family. We do drills: rolls, pop-ups, batting practice

My son swings and connects, it’s not the satisfying crack of a wooden bat but a THUMP of two plastic toys, and the ball whizzes past my head with startling ferocity. “Okay, now, run as fast as you can!” I yell.

He hesitates.


He drops the bat and throws all of his tiny force into a sprint, rounding first, then second and third, reaching home. Yes! I throw my arms up in victory.

But he doesn’t stop. He runs another lap, pumping his arms, his stump and his natural hand blurry with speed. He runs another lap. As he circles, his face is lit up. He’s laughing. I tell him to keep going, heck, we’ve got all day. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, and for a moment I wonder what it would be like to see a third person in this field, someone on the horizon, holding the plastic ball in their hands, and what it would be like if I could wave that man infield, my arm moving in a way that already felt warm and familiar, gesturing for him to come closer.


Catherine Campbell’s essays and fiction appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Arcadia, Drunken Boat, Ploughshares online, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find her on Twitter @thecatcampbell


Pinch the Baby, Make Him Cry

Pinch the Baby, Make Him Cry


By Rebecca Swanson

He is blue.

It is far away, a planet from the sun, the sun from the moon, his small face from mine. I feel as if I am looking through a tunnel—worse, down the barrel of a gun—at his lips, his chin, his rigid body. Yet right at the end of my fingertips, I feel his warmth.

I must be looking through someone else’s eyes, because my own world has stopped as his world has turned blue. He must be someone else’s child, because my child is not, cannot be, blue.

My mouth seeks his mouth with no instructions, no directions, only instinct. When that fails, his seized jaw locked firmly into place, my mouth moves to the only opening it can find. I blow. I blow into his nose, his nose that is still small as a dime, his nose that will be big, someday, like his father’s. If only.

It works and the pale rushes in and erases the blue. The pink won’t come for hours yet. They will tell me, the paramedics whose faces I will never remember, that it was not the blowing that helped; it was just because I moved him. He would have been fine, most likely, anyways, they say. But I don’t care. Their words are meaningless because he is limp in my arms now, heavy, a delicious shade of un-blue.

I pinch his thick forearm, a last bastion of chubbiness between babyhood and toddlerhood. I am grateful when he cries, a weak mewl. I have hurt my child and I am grateful, because in hurting him I hear him.

I tell the story backwards, when they ask for it, because it is only the end that I care about, how I pinched him and he cried. Before that, he was blue. And before that we were downstairs, and somehow I must have gone up the stairs, because that was where we were when he stopped being blue. That was where my husband woke, and called 911; disheveled and unsure in his faded boxer shorts, vision fuzzy without his glasses, seeing the outline of his now limp, pale boy in his wife’s arms.

His boy is limp, and pale, but not blue, because we are almost at the end of the story now, the part where I pinch him. This is the part my husband sees, and he has no story to tell when they ask for it, because he has not seen the rest.

I tell them how we had been playing, my son and I. How he was dancing out of my reach, giggling, as I tried to catch him and put his shoes on. We will be late for Starbucks, I told him, teasing because it was a Saturday and it was Starbucks, and it didn’t matter if we got there in five minutes or five hours save for a needed infusion of caffeine for mommy.

The light peeking through our yellow curtains caught his hair as he twirled, and when he fell backwards I thought he had gotten dizzy and fallen down so I laughed.

I laughed. I laughed because I did not know. But I should have known, because when I retell the story I know clearly that little boys don’t fall straight backwards like arrows. They crumple. And they giggle when they fall, they don’t lay silent. They don’t convulse, marionette arms jerking on a string.

And they don’t, under any circumstances, turn blue.

This is the part of the story that is mine alone, no matter how much I wish it weren’t mine at all.

The rest of the story belongs to our family. My husband, who will never sleep soundly again, who will sleep with a baby monitor next to his ear for years to come even when our children are far from babies. My son—especially my son; every day for a lifetime, the story of epilepsy will be his. The story will even belong to his baby brother that will be born two years later, because I will treat both of them differently from now on, no matter how much I try not to. I will pull the car over on the side of the road if someone doesn’t answer quickly enough. I will hold my hands above their mouths, their noses, while they are sleeping to feel their warm, moist breath on my fingers. I will make them wear helmets on their tricycles, and will sit next to them while they bathe long after other children’s mothers take to reading a book in the next room. They will wear life jackets in kiddie pools, and on the beach. They will not know football, or hockey, other than from afar, for as long as I can hold their interest elsewhere. The baby, his options limited before he even came into the world, and despite my best efforts.

Because the blue has changed me. No one can see the changes, except, perhaps, my husband. He will think he shares the same fears, and he does, mostly, plus some all of his own.

But he will not know this one. He will never, I hope, know the blue. I will shoulder it alone, with lonely gratitude for each moment that it stays away.

And sometimes, in the night, I will pinch my children just to hear them cry.

Rebecca Swanson lives in Colorado with her husband, two young sons and toothless dog. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brain Child Magazine, River Teeth Journal, Scary Mommy and The Manifest-Station. Follow her on Twitter.

Art: Linda Willis


The Explosive Child

The Explosive Child

large tornado over the meadow (3D rendring)

By Tracey Watts

I have an explosive child. I have been aware of this fact for well over half of my son’s six years. Our days are fraught with outbursts that go off at regular intervals and then dissipate, like so many summer storms. We are hit with a sudden downpour, then the skies clear and the sun returns, hard and clear as ever.

I have an explosive child. I know this. Still, when I write the words on paper, they stare back at me, awkward and confrontational. Perhaps they carry so much force because my son’s anger carries so much force. Or perhaps they startle because they appear once the rage has subsided and we have resumed the ebb and flow of household stasis. At that point, they are aftershocks invading the recuperative calm. Or perhaps I am jarred by the very simplicity of the sentence, its stark illumination. In the space of five words, the mystery of the rage – the incomprehensible cause, the elusive solution – suddenly appears ordinary, even manageable. Sometimes demystification feels surreal.

I haven’t learned how to manage the problem, not yet, though I am trying. I stumbled upon another set of potential solutions yesterday, in fact. I was browsing through a consignment store, waiting for my potential sales to be tallied, when I saw the book: Dr. Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. I hesitated. The title was perhaps overly obvious. It lacked nuance, which meant that the advice inside might be short-sighted as well. It also wasn’t the sort of book you’d like someone to see you reading in public. Whew! they might say. Thank God she left those kids at home! But the store was empty, and the clerk wasn’t finished with my bag yet, so I thumbed through it.

I scanned the pages that the former owner had highlighted. I could see that we were living in similar homes. I wondered how they were managing now. Had they sold the book because it didn’t work? Or had they, by adhering to a miracle theory, dumped the book because they resolved the issues? Could that parent now go quietly to brush her teeth, trusting that her son would not unleash a torrent of reproach upon his sister?

But after awhile, the initial kinship began to feel more like exposure. The book included a series of scripts in which the parents tried but failed to reach their children, allowing the fuse to ignite. I saw myself in these parents. I told her she would have to eat the chili. But she seemed unable to get macaroni and cheese out of her head, and I continued to insist that she eat the chili for dinner. The more I insisted, the more she fell apart. There I was, on the page. Quivering, confused, pandering, hostile, embarrassed, inconsistent.

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground. Seeing oneself on the page, even as a hypothetical parent involved in hypothetical wrangling, can make one feel immensely vulnerable.

I closed the book and turned to the first page of the book in my other hand, Artemis Fowl. I was hooked on that one by the end of page one, but even the child hero of that text, as I had learned in the space of about 200 words, had had to submit to psychological testing. Quit quitting, I chided myself. When I opened The Explosive Child again, Dr. Greene was trying to comfort me. He knew that I had tried. No no, he seemed to soothe, it isn’t you. Your child’s brain cannot manage the influx of stimulation. His ability to manage frustration is compromised. His tolerance levels are low. Learn the triggers. Learn to avoid them. Learn the methods to diffuse his tensions. Diffuse. Yes, I thought. He is a bit like a bomb.

I flipped the pages again, looking for a section without highlighted prose. I stopped at page 95, where Dr. Greene was casually recommending not taking one’s explosive child to grocery stores. I’m sure I smiled. I was back on the page again, represented, but not so nakedly.

About a month ago, I cried in Costco. It had been necessary to take both children, the explosive six-year-old and his less-than-compliant four-year-old sister, on my grocery errand. My explosive child, as you might surmise, if you know an explosive child yourself, is many things besides explosive. He is curious, impulsive, boisterous, gregarious, and oblivious to the flow of shopping cart traffic. In the course of half an hour, he and his sister, who emulates and encourages him, had delighted in frolicking up and down the wide, breezy aisles of the store. They had darted across the paths of several shoppers, requiring them to stop short. They had caused at least one worker to snippily inquire about my whereabouts when they asked for a food sample. They had balanced on every ledge they could find in the store, tightrope walkers who badly needed a fix. What they had not done was the one thing that, in my pre-parenting years, I had expected difficult children to do in grocery stores – beg for a food item that they couldn’t have.

As always, I managed the in-store discipline that day using methods like redirection, reprimanding, and quick progress toward the checkout line. When we reached it, a kind man offered me his space in line and commented on the wonderful enthusiasm of my children, who really seemed, he said, to have a zest for life. But taking his place meant that we landed a spot behind another mother. My children approached her, questioning her about the toys in her cart.

They are for my children, she said, not a hint of defeat in her voice.

Where are they? my children asked.

Oh, she said, at home with their grandmother. She smiled at them indulgently. She began telling him more about her children as she calmly moved her items to the conveyor belt. She spoke slowly, with palpable calm. Her skin was radiant. The word beatific surfaced in my mind, and in response to it, I teared up.

My children were starting to hop around her instead of simply asking questions, so I called them back to me and tried to redirect them, to ask them about what she said. But they were like bunnies, bounding with energy and slippery to hold onto. One was behind the register, alongside the cashier, before I could begin loading my items on the belt, and the other had slipped past the checkout line entirely and was aggressively pushing buttons on a soda machine about 20 yards away.

Still, I managed not to yell, and we did leave the store. The explosion, in fact, came as we were leaving. At Costco, some of the workers who check the receipts of exiting customers like to please little children. Some draw happy faces for them on the backs of the receipts. One woman even draws Olaf and Elsa. Of course, some just mark through the numbers on the front side and hand the receipt back to you with a brief smile and nod. That day, we picked a worker who drew one smiley face instead of two.

There isn’t much left to tell of that story. The storm opened with a torrent of rain. Then it cleared. The day went on. I texted my husband that I would never ever ever ever ever bring our children to the store again. In the next week, I told a few other moms, mothers of boys mostly, that I had cried at Costco. It’s the holidays, one of them responded. I cried on Christmas morning this year.

I know I am not alone, but sometimes I feel alone. I want to feel less alone. I look for solutions every day. I bought The Explosive Child at the consignment store. I am reading it. Maybe there is a useful theory in the book – a framework, a lens that will help me understand him. Maybe there is a script, a conversational outline, which will work. I have learned, over time, to be far less suspicious of scripts. Sometimes scripts are revolutionary.

Last night, I was lying in bed with my son – my six year old, boisterous, curious, impulsive, explosive son – the one who takes an hour to finish his relatively light first-grade homework. I thought it might help if I built up his confidence more during a restful moment together. So I reached for an idea and came up with what I’ll admit sounds like a line: Your bed is so snuggly!

You see, I’m not always good at this. Complimenting my son effectively feels a lot like dating, like I’m trying to court the popular girl at school and always coming up short.

Still, he bit, but not in the way I had hoped. Whose bed is snugglier? he wanted to know, looking to out-shine his sister.

I like both of your beds, I said, limping through the attempt. Still, I kept trying. Do you know why your bed is so snuggly?

Why? he said. His eyes were sparkly, even in the dark.

Because you’re in it, I said.

He giggled. After a second, he asked, Who’s the best kid?

You know, I said, there’s a reason why I can’t love one of you more than the other. It’s because I love you infinitely.

In the quiet that followed, I realized that I had gotten it right – right for him – so I kept going. If I love you infinitely, and I love your sister infinitely too, then I can’t love one of you more than the other because my love for both of you is infinite.

My son, my explosive and beautiful son, readjusted his little legs and arms on my body. The moment grew even quieter, and his body felt close, nearby, in a way that it usually doesn’t, even why I’m lying right beside him. But what had changed? Was it the fact that I had attached a measurement to my love? I mean, I know that infinity is immeasurable, but for him, it’s like zero – a fascinating idea that has something to do with numbers, those reassuringly concrete entities. Had I finally quantified my love the right way for him, even if the concept itself relied on being unquantifiable? Had I given him a more concrete framework for understanding how love worked?

This morning, I was hoping that I had filled his bucket enough before bed to circumvent the fireworks that might be on the horizon. But no luck. My husband cleared my son’s cereal bowl before he had finishing sipping the milk from the bottom, prompting a meltdown that involved lines like, You did that on purpose! and Everybody in this family hates me!

In The Explosive Child, Dr. Greene laments that explosive children often don’t find the sympathy they need from adults because their rage is alienating. Criers, he says, are far luckier, relatively speaking, because people sympathize with tears. That was a big truth for me. Had I had a highlighter in the store, I would have pulled it out for that section. My son’s anger often made me angry too.

As the meltdown waned, my husband I took turns picking up the pieces. I offered to sit in my son’s room while he dressed, fulfilling a daily demand that we usually ignore. But my son mooned me and then farted in the process. Irritated, I labeled his behavior inappropriate, and he exploded again. My husband tickled him to lighten the mood, but he complained that my husband was trying to hurt his arm. So we gave him some space, and afterwards announced that it was time to leave for school.

The sky broke open again. I haven’t had time to play with my Legos! he screamed. He ran to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, pressing his back up against the tank. You hate me! No one in this family loves me!

I thought of the movie Looper, which involves a telekinetic preschooler who uses his TK to explode people’s chests open in his fits of rage. I thought of the climactic scene in which the boy’s mother is hovering in the air in front of him, just as he is about to blow open all the people in his line of sight. I thought of the measured calm in her voice, how she said, as quietly as possible, I love you, Sam. I love you. I thought of Dr. Greene, and I thought of empathy as love, and I thought, How radical.

I love you, I said to my son. I love you so much. I have infinite love for you. Then I looked at his sister, who had followed us, wide-eyed, into the bathroom, perplexed although she had seen similar situations unfold before. Hey, I said to him, realizing, do you want to see how much your sister loves you? Do you want to see what she wrote yesterday? She wrote your name down. She wrote, “I love Finn.” Do you want to see it?

He got quiet, radically quiet, and he nodded. I picked him up, even though he is almost seven, and I carried him into the room where we keep the art table. Look, I said, showing him the paper. It says right here that she loves you.

I looked around the room and spotted a set of Valentine hearts he had painted as a toddler. Five years after he had created them, they were still taped onto a cabinet. Oh, I said, walking him over to them, and look at these. Do you know what these are? He shook his head no. You made these when you were just a little toddler, and I couldn’t throw them away because they made me so happy – because I loved them so much. Because I have infinite love for you.

And then the storm passed. I was still holding him, and he put his head on my shoulder and sucked him thumb. He chest became soft against my chest.

On the way to school, he was curious and impulsive, boisterous and fascinating. He told me that some geckos have to lick their eyes because they don’t have eyelids. He talked about how fish swim when they sleep. He told me that sharks are fish but whales are not fish.

I told him about a poem I had heard someone read once, when I was visiting Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was a poem about whales falling to the bottom of the ocean floor after they die. I told him that the idea had fascinated me at the time, since I had never thought about what happens to the bodies of whales. I wondered aloud for him whether the whales ever passed up submarines when they were falling, if the submarines had to move out of the way. Go on, he had said, and he had sounded much older than six.

I think he was the first person I had ever described that poem to, who had wanted to hear more.

Tracey Watts is mother to two spirited children who spend their better hours immersed in elaborate pretend narratives. She wishes she could still imagine with such abandon. She teaches writing at a liberal arts university in the South. You can read more of her work at



What’s Mine Is Not Yours

What’s Mine Is Not Yours


Pink share key

By Isabelle FitzGerald

“No sharing, Mama!”

My livid two-year-old swatted my hand, which hovered over his untouched supper, the meatballs I made growing cold and gray. My son clearly wasn’t hungry. I, however, was ravenous and could not stand to watch those delectable morsels of beef and oregano congealing on his plate.

Cooking together is the closest our family comes to having a ritual, and as soon as he was able, my son sifted flour for banana bread and scrubbed vegetables on his step stool next to the sink. Alas, he wanted to be in complete control of these tasks, but couldn’t be, a struggle that reached its apex whenever it was time to hand over the wooden spoon with which he stirred the soup or to relinquish the carrots he’d rinsed to the cutting board and my waiting knife.

“Mama taking my carrots,” he’d blubber. I explained that the carrots did not belong to him, that the sooner he gave them to me, the sooner he would eat them. Sometimes, he surrendered the vegetables; more often, I had to pry them from his angry fists, leading to the inevitable tantrum, to the occasional burnt meal, and to the unshakable sense I’d committed some injustice I could not place.


“Mine” was bound to be among his first words, according to the weekly parenting newsletter I subscribed to. The distinction between “you” and “me,” and therefore “yours” and “mine” was all part of my toddler navigating his newfound autonomy after the relentless dependency of being an infant. The experts promised that he’d outgrow this phase, eventually.

In the meantime, my son’s possessiveness intensified, expanded beyond the culinary realm. At his grandparents’ house, he prostrated himself and pounded his fists when his cousin touched the blocks he deemed were “his.” In the sandbox, he grew hysterical when the girl who owned the plastic bucket he’d been playing with came to collect her toy. “That bucket belongs to her,” I said. “See how nicely she was sharing?” He did not.

I tried positive reinforcement: I lavished him with praise on the rare occasion he offered me one of his playthings or a bite of his apple. I tried logic: if he wanted to play cars and trucks together, he needed to let me use at least one of his many miniature vehicles. No luck. Whenever I touched something that belonged to him, my otherwise cheerful child would detonate. My husband worried. I assured him this was normal toddler behavior, but I, too, began to wonder why our son’s reactions were so extreme.


One September afternoon, the three of us were in the car, stuck in traffic. It was hot. I was thirsty. My husband reached over the gearshift and swigged from my water bottle. I blew up. “That’s my water.”

From the backseat, our son listened. He’d overheard this fight before: my high-decibel freak out after my husband took a sip without asking and swallowed half the bottle’s contents in a single glug. To my husband, my fury over water theft seemed comically overblown. To me, it felt like he disregarded my boundaries, my basic needs. In eating from my son’s bowl, it seemed I’d picked up my husband’s same annoying habit.

A few weeks later, we sat down to dine at a restaurant. My stomach stabbed with hunger, and the stars of low blood sugar dazzled my eyes. The waiter brought our son’s food first, a hotdog with a heap of golden fries. I swiped one from his plate and stuffed it in my mouth, sweet ketchup-y relief. He howled. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asked.

“Mama shared with me,” my son said.

My husband shot me a dirty look.

“Taking without permission isn’t sharing,” he said. “It’s stealing.”

Pot, kettle, black? I thought. Nonetheless, he was right.


Even infants know right from wrong.

A few years ago, a research team at Yale demonstrated this fact by putting on a puppet show for babies about a bunny struggling to remove a toy from a box. First, a “mean” puppet entered the stage and slammed the box shut. Then, a “nice” puppet appeared and helped the bunny get the toy. When asked which puppet they preferred, the babies reached for the “nice” puppet three times as often.

In a second experiment, the researchers put on a different show, three puppets rolling a ball between them. When the ball reached the bunny puppet, he took it and ran off. The researchers then performed the first show, the one about the bunny trying to get the toy from the box. This time round, the babies overwhelmingly preferred the puppet that slammed the lid shut. That larcenous rabbit deserved to be punished.

My son knew stealing was wrong without having a word for it, or worse, having the wrong word. Sharing.


That refrain from my childhood, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is as lazy a dictum as it is ineffective. My son reflects my actions, good and bad. I have sworn in front of him and later heard him parroting my blasphemes in his crib, testing inflections beginning with “F.” If my husband drinking my water drives me crazy, why would I expect my child to act – or to feel – any differently? Being his mother is as much about correcting my hypocrisies as it is about telling him how to behave.

Now that he knows the difference between sharing and stealing, he’s gotten better at the former with his playmates, if not with me. Maybe he still sees me as the thieving bunny, not to be trusted, not to be rewarded. I’m doing my best to lay off his dinner. When I forget, when my fingers sneak toward his neglected string beans, my son shouts, “No stealing!” He teaches me, little by little, how I ought to behave, too.

Isabelle FitzGerald studied creative writing at Brown University. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus and Yahoo! Parenting. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on her first novel.


Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.


Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 


Finding the Center

Finding the Center


By Dawn Erickson

“Let’s go to the swamp,” my son says. It’s not really in today’s plans but we go. We walk the railroad grade from our house to where it crosses a small seasonal creek. Here we slip off the grade and follow the creek to the swamp and eventually the park.

The swamp itself is some twenty acres of wetlands. Each time we visit we find some new thicket or channeled water to explore.  My son likes to leap from one grassy hummock to another, seeing who can make the most daring-crazy jump, seeing how far we can get into the heart of the swamp. We find that crossing atop beaver dams are good, and though we see blue herons, and kingfishers, eagles and salmon and big green tree frogs, we never see beavers.

On this day I tell my son not to expect much. It’s only just stopped raining and when I last walked by the swamp was more a river, with a mighty current. So I’m surprised we can go as deeply into the swamp as we do. My son leaps and jumps. Our dog leaps and jumps. We shimmy across narrow logs over deep clear water, or pools of muddy water, or water covered in a thick green slime. We watch the dog leap into water that leaves a luminous green sheen across her back, even after she shakes. It’s fun, my son says, to watch the dog run around. It is here while we are bumping along and laughing at the dog, that my son tells me about the party.

“There is a party today,” he says, as if talking up to some tree or a blank piece of sky.

“Oh?”  I say.

“I wasn’t invited,” he says. It’s not like he doesn’t get invited to parties. He is mostly well liked. Usually I’m surprised at how easily things roll off him, how he doesn’t get upset about slights or meanness. He is much more forgiving and patient than I am—more willing to think the best of people.

“Whose birthday is it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry you didn’t get invited.” He shrugs his shoulder and says from across a small channel of water,  “It’s probably like his mom said ,he could only invite a few kids or something.”

“Yeah” I say. “It’s probably like that. It’s hard you know, you can’t invite everyone.” When I look there are tears in his eyes that I pretend not to see. “It must hurt though. It would make me sad.”

I want to hug him but I know he’ll pull away. So we talk more, from across the channel, about his birthday party and did he invite this boy. He did not. I remind him that it’s hard to know who to invite and we can only hope that people understand that you can’t always invite everyone.

It seems a small thing, a kid not invited to a birthday party. But I see the flash of pain pass across my son’s face. I know that ache. I know the pain of not belonging. It is real and universal. Whoever we are, whatever our age, exclusion hurts.

The swamp is actually a series of beaver dams but it is rare to actually see or even hear a beaver. And the dams themselves are grown over with grasses. Many times we think the beavers have moved on, but then we’ll see a fresh fallen tree or a stump carved clean.We find sticks gnawed and chiseled so smooth we take them home and place on our mantel above the fireplace. When I look down today I realize we’re walking on one of the old beaver dams. A long solid one covered over in a thick grass, except in places where the recent high water has eaten away the grasses and exposed a mishmash of sticks and mud waddle.

Many Native American cultures call beavers, or the habitat they create, the “sacred center of the earth.” Their dam building creates a place where life can flourish in all its extravagant diversity, the pools they create are a haven difficult for predators to reach and do harm. But more than that, wetlands are a place of repair and restoration. It is the beavers that set things right again, beavers that create or mend the center, create a place for the living to become strong.

I think of how the beavers protect themselves. How I come to this place because it offers me protection, it is home. The blackbirds and herons and beavers, are all reminiscence of my childhood home in the Midwest, the places near our house I would ride a bike to and hang out for an afternoon reading or sorting things out in my head, especially the mean girl middle school years, the years that loom straight ahead for my son. Those mean girl years stung, and still do. I’m still loath to admit the bullying and ostracizing that took place years ago. I feel a shame creep in, as if I deserved whatever was dished out, that what they said was true, all of it. It’s taken me twenty years of adulthood to recognize cruelty for what it is, to know it and name it, to take action against it.

That’s what I’m thinking when I realize the dog is running back and forth across the top of the dam, tearing into a big hump of mud. “It’s a beaver lodge!” my son yells. The dog jumps in the water, her muddied body disappearing underneath the mud and sticks.

“Look, look, look!” my son cries. He grabs me and nearly pulls me into the water as we teeter on the little narrow strip of beaver dam we stand on. I don’t look, instead I try to push my way past him to stop the dog, to put a leash on her and pull her away from the lodge, if it is one.

“IT’S A BEAVER!” he says, “LOOK!” And I look because he won’t let me past. My son has never seen a beaver before.

A stick is moving rather unnaturally. “There, see that stick?” my son says. “The beaver is doing that.” Then I see the beaver under the water’s surface. He glides silent and graceful, swims all the way across the pond before curling into some cubby hole we can’t see. We just see the brown and what we are sure is a wide flat tail.

My son walks toward the dog, calling her name now. It takes the two of us to pull her away from the water and get the leash on. Getting back across the dam isn’t easy. But we do and are relieved to see there is not much damage done and we start back home.

When we come up from the swamp and onto the railroad grade boys are running about off in the distance. It turns out the birthday party is at the neighbors. “Oh,” I say to my son. “Is this the birthday party, here at the neighbor’s house?  There are shouts and laughter and moms calling from up on the hill. Now I understand they must have all been talking about the party at school and on the bus ride home. The boys stand with their Nerf guns, shout back and forth, and run in and out of the trees. My son first tries to slow his pace and head back into the swamp, but when they leave he decides to speed up and try to say hello. But the boys go back into the trees and we guess up the hill.

“They probably went up for cake,” my son says. The kids are mostly younger kids and mostly all on the same basketball team but even though I know there’s no real reason he should have been invited, I know we both feel a little like outsiders.

And I know these boys aren’t bad kids; their parents aren’t unkind. They’re not bullies or and this is not all my fault or anyone’s fault, because there is no fault to be had here. It’s just another birthday and there will be other parties. There will be friends that come and go, and friends that might be there forever. There will be times my son is included and times he’s not, and there will be times he’s inclusive and times he’s not. But I fear these middle school years. I fear what my son might suffer. I fear the ways he’ll be influenced by his peers, that he’ll stop talking with me, that he’ll be bullied or bully. I want him to be strong yet compassionate. To be able to stand up to bullies, to say no when needed.

I do admire the beavers. I admire the way they protect themselves, the way they create so much for those around them while keeping themselves safe. And I like that I seek out marshes and wetlands where beavers live. I like that my son wanted to go here today, that it was here that he was able to say what was on his mind, that we could talk.

Maybe there is a reason we like it here. Maybe there is a lesson to learn. Maybe if we cross enough dams, or wander deep enough we might stumble upon an insight or two, get some ideas about creating our own place to flourish.

Author’s note: I sometimes think my husband and I spend too much time dragging our son from trail to trail, exploring and investigating cool spots or pretty places. But then these conversations happen and I realize this is where we all feel most comfortable and maybe that’s a good thing.

Dawn Erickson lives in a small town in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington State. She once made a living fixing trails for the US Forest Service before deciding to write about life with her husband and son. She has written for Literary Mama and Wanderlust and Lipstick. You can read more of her writing at









world-explorersBy Alicia Rebecca Myers

I could tell you how a stranded Robert Bartlett walked 700 across an iced-over Chukchi Sea, how Robert Burke traversed the latitude of Australia but died from exhaustion after turning back from a mountain called Hopeless. I could hold court on malaria and capsize. I could list disappearances.

I mitigated anxiety by reading about explorers on Wikipedia. Their failed attempts at discovery, their terrific demises. This wasn’t an exercise in schandenfreude. I took no pleasure in frostbite, in swells. I called up extreme scenarios the way a surgeon might review dark particulars before entering the operating room. I received the past as a safeguard, as if empathy could preclude the unknown. I lingered longest on those who logged the most distance.

There were very few female deaths to parse because there are very few female explorers. I reinterpreted phrases. Phrases like “New Land of the Codfish,” which suddenly described my pregnant body.


In my mid-twenties, I backpacked for three weeks, solo, through Eastern Europe. I had been managing a student travel agency on the Upper West Side while enrolled in an MFA program. New York City felt invasive, and I suddenly wanted not to talk. The halfway point of my trip was Budapest. After spending a bleak afternoon in the bowels of the Terror Museum, where I learned about Hungarian victims of the communist regime and contemplated gulag torture, I signed up for a pub crawl, desperate to be around people again. I worked hard to get my forints worth of Soproni and do justice to this particular pub crawl’s injunction to “make a transcendental bond through drinking.” I made that bond with Kyler, a curly-haired Canadian who dressed like a lumberjack. Kyler was handsome and non-threatening (important after a day touring the Terror Museum), and he had interesting things to say about politics and art and pilsners. I invited him back to my boatel. “THAT’S A HOTEL ON WATER,” I kept shouting, because I thought it lent me an air of sophistication.

Kyler and I stayed up all night, mutually transfixed in the kind of heady rapture that only comes from getting to share your best self with a stranger you’ll never see again. His attentiveness was like his burly frame: it filled the room. I felt like I was back in 1987, sitting across from the roll of unopened paper towels I’d positioned on the dresser so that the Brawny man’s gaze never left mine – except that Kyler had his own questions: Who’s your favorite poet? What have you learned so far by traveling alone? Would you rather be trapped for a day on a deserted mountain or a crowded subway car?  I answered honestly: Bishop, it’s lonelier being alone, crowded subway car. Then Kyler  asked the question that up until then no man had ever asked me directly: Do you want kids?

The topic of kids had come up before in my handful of serious relationships, but somehow never seriously. I’d discussed children plenty of times with my classmates, drunk in a bar, in the context of how our parents had messed us up and in doing so, had given us something to write about. But up until that morning in Budapest, baroque light filtering through my dank boatel porthole, I’d never had a man look me in the eye and ask if I wanted kids. I was experienced enough to know that Kyler wasn’t asking if I wanted kids with him. Still, I surprised myself with my answer, words I’d never spoken aloud. I felt like I was admitting I didn’t believe in God.

“No,” I said, reaching for my crumpled dress.

Later, we staggered above deck and drank coffee in view of Margaret Island, an island named after a childless 13th century female saint.


I met my husband Dan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t believe in a biological clock since I had never heard mine ticking. My last relationship, with an opera singer, had lasted only a month. Alex had liked that I was a writer, a woman unconventional and messy, a woman whose kitchen table was an industrial spool she’d dug out of a neighbor’s trash. He had liked that when one of us couldn’t find something I’d ask, “Well, did you check the spool?” and we’d shine a flashlight down into its hollow wooden center. I broke up with him because I lost interest.

Dan and I emailed and talked by phone for weeks before we met in person. I was his boss. I had been hired as head of Human Resources for a small academic summer camp start-up in Brooklyn, and Dan, a poet living in Iowa, had been instated as director of our newest program. Actually, I’d picked Dan out of a catalogue long before the company had hired me. My roommate and Dan had taught at a camp together. One time, I’d found a brochure for that camp lying open on our couch and pointed to a picture of a lanky Jewish guy in a longshoreman’s cap. Dan was frowning, towering over an amusement park sign in the shape of a gopher that read, Must be no taller than me to ride this ride. I told my roommate: “I’m in love with this guy.”

I started spending less time directing Human Resources and more time wooing Dan. I secured him a slapdash staff and a total of six campers, but mostly devoted my energy to drafting witty, frank emails. The first time Dan and I spoke by phone, I had the distinct sensation of opening up, like I’d been preserved in a jar all these years, boiled and sealed. The unlidded feeling wasn’t sexual. More of a prescient joy. It was late April. Boats whizzed by on the Hudson fifteen stories below. I knew, in a way I’d never known before, that we would mean something permanent to each other.

Dan arrived a month later in New York for director training. He called me the minute he landed and showed up outside my Lorimer apartment at 2:00 am. I met him, barefoot, under a street light. It was both familiar and exhilarating. We slept together immediately. We were inseparable.

A tornado tore through Brooklyn that August, the strongest ever on record to hit the city. I watched from the grated window of my first-floor apartment as pitas from the bread factory across the street floated by like life preservers. Dan would be returning to Iowa to teach in just a few days. There was no longer a distinction between my heart and the weather. My sadness was tied to the solipsistic notion that I had begat high winds and destruction. I waded to my office in DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to discover everything intact but my desk: the ceiling above had caved in, lath and plaster piled high around my drenched computer and waterlogged files. I felt like nothing could survive in the wake of Dan’s leaving, least of all me.

Dan got on a plane. I got fired, downsized by a storm. I would fall into a fitful sleep by counting down the distance between us. Mile 997, mile 998, mile 999. I started assisting Sharon Olds, spent hours formatting her manuscript One Secret Thing, poems about the drawn-out death of her mother. In ghosting over her lines with my fingers I was internalizing some greater message of loss. I began to connect the ache of missing Dan to the forfeiture of a future family. Dan and I mailed a stuffed penguin back and forth along with missives full of love and longing. I grew practiced at typing the word “mother.” Something inside of me was shifting, had shifted.

Five years later, we were married. Two years after that, I was pregnant with Miles.


Towards the end of my first trimester, I heard a story on NPR about Louis Armstrong, how as a street performer he would tuck pennies into his mouth to prevent other musicians from stealing from him. My earliest sign of pregnancy had always been a metallic taste in the back of my throat. I wanted to stash our son inside me forever, keep him out of circulation. I imagined safeguarding him, my own private treasure, settling for a life of ghostly kicks to avoid a grisly, protracted birth scene. Or even worse, loss.


I began swimming three times a week at the start of my second trimester because of something I’d read about the movements in freestyle creating a streamlined birth canal, a luge tube the baby could simply slide down. I conceived of myself as a smooth centaur. No one knew I was carrying a child when I was in the pool. My hindquarters were hidden. Whenever I eased into the water, acclimating to the chill, I thought of Peter Artedi, the naturalist credited with fathering Fish Science. I had learned of him accidentally, a detour in my cataloging the bad luck of explorers. He drowned in an Amsterdam canal after a night of drinking. He had spent his whole life studying aquatic depths, the minutiae of structure, but no amount of studying could have prepared him for what it felt like to go under that way.


We moved across town on my thirty-seventh birthday, also the beginning of my third trimester. Our 600 square foot one-bedroom wouldn’t have accommodated our expanding family. The Georgia heat was indefensible, and I was far too big to be of any real help. I offered to scrub the baseboards of the old house, but mostly I just sat and ran a cloth over the same spot, my hair in a do-rag, pretending to be a Victorian washerwoman. I cursed at Dan in a trussed up cockney accent and called him my costermonger, I word I’d only just learned from a BBC drama. It means someone who sells fruits and vegetables in the market, but I was using it to refer to a husband who was making me pack and unpack all of our worldly belongings when I was being sucker-punched from the inside.

And then: just as we’d finished unwrapping the bubble tape from all our breakables, just as we’d mopped the floor with organic baby-friendly cleaner, Dan got the call that he was one of three final candidates being considered for a tenure-track teaching job in upstate New York. The college was requesting he fly up for an interview that week. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of moving again, this time 2000 miles, at 37 weeks pregnant. I looked to our two cats. We would have to do the trip by car, for their sake and for mine. I was too pregnant to fly. The cats sniffed at the familiar couch like it was a stranger.

While Dan was away interviewing, I spent every afternoon underwater. I was in the locker room, massaging mango-scented stretch mark cream into my expanding belly, when he called to let me know he was offered the job. I watched as my naked reflection in the mirror answered the phone, watched as my mouth gaped at the shock of the news. I was starring in an avant-garde theater production with no costuming budget.

That night, we discussed the pros and cons, as adults do, doodling half-lists on a napkin. Cons: leaving our support system of friends, my parents nearby in North Carolina, and a trusted team of midwives. Pros: greater financial security, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agreed to move to a strange town in the country, sight unseen, under one condition: a visit to Hershey Park. We joked that this concession sounded more like a concession stand, as in candy, as in sweet.


It was late July in the South when we embarked on the long journey north. At a rest stop along I-95, I attempted some light yoga on the grass and decided it would be easier to give up and live there, next to a picnic table, walking distance from not one but two vending machines. On my back with my arms outstretched at odd angles, I looked like a broken sundial, measuring distance, not time.


At Hershey Park, I slogged from one chocolate room to another. Crowds parted. I cradled a mountain of Krackel bars in my arms, then abruptly decided to buy none.


Our half-domesticated feral cat, Girlfriend, got out of her carrier back at the Residence Inn. She bolted into a bathroom cabinet and hid behind sink pipes. Dan wrapped his left hand in a towel and attempted to dislodge her, yanking blindly, his face angled towards me in dread. The cat hissed and thrashed against metal. When Dan produced her, he was bleeding profusely, claw marks up to his sleeve. In my mind he was Hugh Glass, the 19th century American fur trapper who was mauled by a bear, left for dead, but then regained consciousness. For six weeks, Glass crawled 200 miles solo across Missouri until he reached the Cheyenne River and built a makeshift raft to safety. Dan assured me he could still drive.


A waitress at Denny’s mistakenly wrote paincakes on our check. I repeated, “I will consume rather than be consumed by contractions. I will consume rather than be consumed by fear.”


A week later, we met our New York midwife for the first time. After she listened to me recount our recent upheaval, how our furniture still hadn’t arrived and I was sleeping on an air mattress that stayed deflated on my side, she handed me two pamphlets. One on placenta encapsulation. The other on postpartum depression.


As my due date loomed, I devoted my final weeks to reading about Ina May Gaskin and homebirthing. I practiced mindfulness by chewing raisins, one at a time, very, very slowly, trying to visualize harvest conditions. I tackled pain tolerance by submerging my fingers in bowls of ice. I took a Lamaze class with Dan to perfect rhythmic breathing and a hypnobirthing session to learn traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques: mainly how to massage my butt joint. I became an acolyte of the theory that language instills in us our real fear of childbirth, that by merely reframing pain as pressure we can transcend the horror of contractions until they become expansions.

Like an explorer, I filled my hospital bag with essentials: an eye mask, a tennis ball for butt joint massage, a green cotton halter I’d ordered from a company called Pretty Pushers. Their tagline is “a stylish alternative to unisex gowns.” They promise that “you won’t have to show your backside.” I made a pushing playlist and instructed Dan that it was his duty to see that Miles was born to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wrote NO EPIDURAL NO PITOCIN in all caps on my birth plan. In those final weeks, I informed anyone who didn’t ask that I was going to labor on the shores of Lake Cayuga, about five miles from our house, regardless of the time of day, until I could no longer talk through contractions. But first I would cook up a protein-heavy meal. Maybe make organic oatmeal in the crock pot. Once I was full, and comfortably dilated, we would drive the speed limit to the birthing center, where I would ease into a whirlpool and deliver our son in water, under soft lighting, my wrists smelling faintly of lavender oil.

Because pregnancy requires the ultimate relinquishing of control, because I had suffered three early miscarriages, it made sense, this need to wrangle my labor into the Platonic ideal of labor.


Miles was nine days late. I spent the morning of my labor watching a Woody Allen movie at the closest theater, a thirty minute drive. The August heat was so oppressive that once inside I removed my shirt. The only other patron was a woman who must have been in her nineties. I had the distinct thought that she would probably die before the baby came.

On my way home I stopped at the grocery store. There was nothing I needed. I paced the baby aisle, stumbling like a rabid dog, cradling my belly like a basket. On the way out, I copped two cookies from the “Free For Kids ONLY” bin. I stuffed them in my mouth, laughed as a chunk fell to the floor. Miles triggered the automatic door well before I passed through it.

That night, I accompanied Dan to a campus cook-out on the boathouse lawn. He was due to start teaching in four days. There was a lavish, homey food spread: hotdogs and hamburgers, coleslaw and baked beans, all kept warm in chafing trays. The coleslaw was clumpy and tasted of blue cheese. I swallowed five hot dogs, hardly chewing them. I was a championship eater and my only competition was myself. I rested my sticky hands on my stomach. A faculty member introduced herself. “Any hour now!” she said, poking my shoulder. I returned for a sixth hot dog. I filled a cup with ice and kept my pinky submerged in it while making small talk, only I thought of it as big talk, I was so huge.


I went into labor suddenly, at 2am, with contractions lasting sixty seconds and spaced five minutes apart. There was no time to soak oats or wade out. When we arrived at the birthing center (forty minutes away), a cheerful attendant informed us that due to a “baby storm,” there was only one room available: the one without the whirlpool tub. I managed to dress myself in my stylish and modest green gown, only to rip it off moments later and sit in the shower, defeated and splayed, while Dan hosed down my exposed backside.

It turned out I didn’t want to be touched. At all. I needed the opposite of touching. I refused everything I’d prepped so hard for. My midwife and the team of nurses referred to me as The Silent Laborer. Through a fog of hurt this sounded like a cancelled Jennifer Love Hewitt drama.

For over ten hours, I labored naturally to full dilation in a state of pre-language. I was a mime in an ashram, freed from the burden of words, pain still undeniably pain. My water had to be broken with a crochet hook. Our 9 pound 4 ounce son wouldn’t descend. Ten centimeters dilated and still not progressing, I begged for an epidural. Begged. My midwife calmly referred back to the all-caps portion of my birth plan. I denied having ever written it.

I labored for a total of twenty-two hours. For weeks after, my husband would bear the remnants of thick blisters on his hands from where he had held up my legs for traction. After four hours of pushing, I didn’t care what music welcomed Miles into the world. The last hour of fire and crowning was beyond comprehension. According to Dan, Miles made his midnight appearance to Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” a song celebrating infidelity from the point of view of a mistress.


As painful as labor was in the moment, its end would usher in an analgesic forgetting. In the immediate aftermath of birth, as soon as my squalling son had been placed on my chest and had listed successfully onto my right nipple, I felt capable of anything: eating the entire three-tiered pastrami sandwich I demanded my father-in-law bring to me in the delivery room, for example, or walking unassisted into the recovery suite.

At 4:00 am, guided by endorphins, I rose out of my adjustable bed to unpack and correct some bad birthing center feng shui by moving a lamp and draping a receiving blanket over a tray table. I must do it all, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t even sure what it was.

I had the bravado of an explorer, one with the unfounded confidence and determination to press on – westward! – regardless of poor conditions. I was thinking specifically of Henry Hudson, who, after spending the winter of 1611 cooped up with a starving crew stuck in ice, still insisted on setting sail for the Northwest Passage as soon as the ice cleared. Like Hudson, I also wanted to keep going. I was at the helm of my own Discovery, deluded in spirit, unable to acknowledge a torn perineum and a low iron count.

But Henry Hudson’s men mutinied against him. They put Hudson, a few loyal crew members, and his son in an open boat, then set a course for England. A journal indicates that Hudson oared feverishly to keep up with the ship, whose sails were unfurled to garner maximum speed. He couldn’t. This was me: repentant of my boundless stamina, claustrophobic in the wake of the world, alone in strange waters with my son. I kept sounding out his name to the clock on the wall. It felt apt. Miles. How far I was from the person I had been.  


It was as if I had trained months for a marathon, all that pre-dawn incline running with silly miniature water bottles velcroed to my middle, only to be handed a server apron at the finish line and told I was expected to show up for my restaurant double shift. I’d treated labor like a one-off, like a task accomplished. We had the glut of paraphernalia, the Ergo and the bouncy swing and the snot sucker and the diaper cream, all crammed into a nursery with its magical attention to detail. The mason jar with the electric candle on the windowsill. The stenciled grinning menagerie. I remembered only a few days before, raking my hands against the walls of this room like it was Narnia, a remarkable land I had stumbled into by accident. A land I could leave.


There was mesh underwear and clots the size of a teether. Curled up in our bathtub, I placed a desperate call to my septuagenarian mother, crying, asking her to administer an enema. My nipples were raw and chaffed. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t realized the kind of tired I would be, nauseous tired, how tomorrow would be replaced by a never-ending today punctuated by mere pockets of sleep. Without that recalibration, the gift of closure disappears. Years of yoga hadn’t prepared me to live in the moment this way. I Googled “longest a person can survive without sleep,” only to discover I would be dead in seven days, like the Chinese man who couldn’t stop watching a soccer tournament.


If depression is a rendering of the self invisible, then what I experienced was acute visibility. Seeing that my son’s eyes were my eyes, that his lips were my lips, allowed me to feel unprecedented self-compassion. I connected immediately with Miles. I reconnected with myself more slowly.


I had never dressed a baby, or nibbled on tiny toes, or put a newborn down for a nap, or lowered an infant into a car seat. I had changed exactly one diaper – I’m not even sure if it counts if your college friend did most of the changing while you offered at the last minute to “stick the sticky tabs,” like you were a gymnast attempting a tough landing. Caring for our son is exhausting, but rewarding, physical, like planting by the moon, using your hands, sweating, nothing like the cerebral life I’ve cultivated, nothing like it at all.


My love for Miles is an unfamiliar love, a contradictory love. It simultaneously multiplies and tethers me. I anticipate his waking a split-second before he wakes. I startle and touch Dan’s face in bed next to me, expecting anything warm to be him, a vulnerable bundle of need. When I nurse, I am being drawn down into the earth, stabilized, but also released of some weight that has held me back my whole life. Sometimes at night I play a sinister game of questioning. Would you die for your son by train? By axe? By wheel? By sandstorm? By stonefish? The answer is yes. Always, unflinchingly, yes.


Miles and Dan and I live in unmapped wilderness, in a geothermal house, with a view of a lake, in a small rural upstate town. If, as Khalil Gibran writes, pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding, then joy is a walling-off. A family of ten deer comes to feed in our yard every dusk. I count them out loud to our son. One deer for each centimeter I was dilated, a distant memory of pain, of distance itself.


Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when Miles was still a newborn. He’s now a rambunctious 15-month-old with a mullet and a penchant for dragging large objects across the room. My writing process has changed so much since becoming a mom. I finish more because I’ve had to jettison perfectionism. I hope this serves as encouragement for other women who are considering a family but are afraid that children will compromise their creativity.   

Alicia Rebecca Myers is a poet and essayist who holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Rumpus, The American Literary Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Carolina Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia. She has also had a poem featured in an NPR Radiolab podcast in conjunction with the NYC based performance series Emotive Fruition. In February of 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City. Her chapbook, My Seaborgium, will be released by Brain Mill Press in 2016. She teaches at Wells College. You can find her online at



All God’s Children

All God’s Children

Worried young woman in pyjamasBy Amy Roost

My brother remembers that I never picked up after my kids when we came to visit mom. He remembers that after we left, the cleanup fell to him.

I, on the other hand, remember that nothing brought mom greater joy those last few years than spending precious time with her precious grandbabies.

Between visits, I remember taking her to the oncologist and pain specialist on my “days off.”

During these same years, I remember the empty Stoli minis in our neighbor’s side yard next to our driveway tossed there by my husband who passed out on the sofa most every night whilst I made airplane noises so my infant son would “open the hanger” and eat his peas.

I remember every detail of my firstborn’s spindly body after we brought him home from the hospital. I remember the surgical scar on his chest running 180° from front to back, the hole where feeding tube was, the red abrasions from tape that held in place the tubes that kept him alive those first three weeks.

I remember carrying 115 pounds on my 5’10” frame and friends telling me I was too thin, for once.

I remember the sound an epipen makes when I’d inject it into the thigh of my two-year old son who has just ingested a Valentine treat containing peanuts.

I remember the improbable phone call I received from my brother whilst dropping my dog at the groomer, informing me that mom had fallen, was on the kitchen floor and would I call an ambulance.

I remember dropping my kids at a neighbor’s who was preparing a meal for her father-in-law who was dying.

I remember getting to my mom’s house and finding her lying on the Italian tile in a fetal position, moaning.

I remember finding my brother in his upstairs bedroom shaking nervously as he raised a cigarette to his lips and his protestations that he couldn’t deal with mom because he was suffering from a poison oak rash.

I remember the beautiful hunk of an EMT grabbing my brother by the front of the shirt and ordering him to get his ass into the ambulance with mom because he had treated broken hips and he had treated poison oak and he guaranteed my brother that my mom was in far greater pain than he was at that moment.

I remember going to gather my children before heading to the hospital only to learn that my neighbor had left for another hospital with my son. He’d touched a tabletop that had traces of shelled peanuts on it. Ones the dying father-in-law had eaten earlier in the day.

I remember not knowing which hospital to go to first, the one where my mother was or the one where my son was being pumped full of prednisone and epinephrine.

I remember the broken hip was the beginning of the end for mom and I remember visiting her at the rehab center in Golden Hill.

I remember the enormous centerpiece I won at a dinner auction and took to her on my way home. I remember standing outside the locked sliding glass doors after visiting hours in my eggplant-colored cocktail dress and high heels and the kind orderly with a thick Jamaican accent who let me in.

I remember the smile that spread across mom’s face when she opened her eyes and saw me, and the flowers.

I remember her staying with us after she was released from rehab and a well-meaning friend telling my three- and four-year-old boys, “your Nana is dying.”

I remember the boys sitting on the side of her bed, my bed, and asking “Are you dying Nana?” And her telling them “Yes” and asking them if they would keep and care for her two beloved cats after she died.

I remember them both earnestly shaking their heads ‘yes’ and I remember thinking they had not the first clue what the word “dying”meant.

I remember mom’s last trip to the hospital when the doctors told us that the cancer had spread everywhere.

I remember my evangelical Great Aunt Edith trying to convert mom, asking her to accept Jesus Christ as her Savior. And I remember mom saying in her weakened voice there was no way, and Edith persisting and my having to ask my once-favorite aunt to leave the hospital room.

I remember my brothers and I gathered in that same room at Harborview Medical Center making confessions to mom about things we’d never told her, but somehow she knew anyway. Who knew that the night she came home from her job as a banquet manager at the Kona Kai Club and found me praying to the porcelain god, who knew as she stroked my back and held my hair, who knew that she knew I did not have the stomach flu, rather had been drinking fruit daiquiris all evening with my girlfriends?

I remember the hospital bed in her dining room that hospice delivered. I remember the round-the-clock vigil we kept, her brother, sisters, friends and children.

I remember being thankful she had a few days to say her goodbyes before losing touch.

I remember crawling into her hospital bed, spooning with her and whispering into the curve of her ear how much I loved her, how I was going to miss her so, and the boys were going to miss her. And how all would be okay, somehow. And that it was okay for her to let go.

I remember her restlessness and distress at 2:00 am, despite the Fentanyl patch and morphine.

I remember the hospice nurse arriving at 3:00 am and checking mom’s vitals. I remember her telling us that mom was attempting to leave her body and that for some it was more of a struggle than for others.

I remember knowing then that soon she would die.

I remember waking the others camped out on sofas and chairs and I remember someone saying “where’s Bobby?”

And I remember calling Pacer’s strip club and asking the bartender if my brother Bobby was there and would she please ask him to come home because his mother was about to die.

I remember the shot of morphine the nurse gave her being twice the normal amount.

I remember during those last long breaths praying but not hoping for the next inhale.

At 4:12 am there was no next inhale. I remember that. And holding her hand as it turned cold.

I remember my boys and their dad arriving before the sun and before the coroner. I remember taking them to her bedside to say their goodbyes.

I remember my three-year-old turning to me and asking in a somber voice he must’ve sensed was appropriate, “did Nana die?”

“She did,” I told him. And I’ll never forget his response: “Yes! We get the cats!”

I remember a few days later peeing in the powder room off the living room at mom’s place and my four-year-old coming into the bathroom and asking “what are all of Nana’s things doing in the bathroom?”

I could tell by the way he asked the question that he still didn’t understand what dying meant. So I explained what I had resisted explaining. “You understand that when people die they don’t come back?”

“Jesus came back,” he said plaintively.

“Yes, honey, that’s true, but Jesus was God’s son, you understand?”

“But mommy, we are all God’s children.”

How do I tell my four-year old that Jesus was God’s favorite? I just told him, “That’s true. We are all God’s children, but Nana’s not coming back.”

I remember a few weeks later while packing up mom’s closet finding a tiny white eyelet dress stashed in the back corner of the top shelf. I asked my mom’s sister who was helping me sort, “whose dress is this?” For I knew, having been 12 pounds at birth, that it couldn’t have been mine.

“That was Rebecca’s,” my aunt explained.

Rebecca. The baby girl my parents adopted before adopting me. The baby girl my mother loved with all her heart. The baby girl she and dad did not learn was half black until weeks after they brought her home from hospital. The baby girl the social workers pried from my mother’s hands so she could be placed with a black family for “her own good.” The baby girl my mother never talked about except that one time when my brothers had teased me mercilessly that they’d had another sister before me. And so I asked mom if it were true and she said, “I’m only going to tell you the story once.” And so she did. And kept her word.

And because our church pastor advised her to relinquish Rebecca, that it was in everyone’s best interest to do so in 1960 suburban Chicago, she never went to church again. Nor did my son, who still hasn’t forgiven God for playing favorites.

I remember all of that.

What I don’t remember is not picking up after my kids. Perhaps it just didn’t seem a priority at the time.

Authors note: Memory is the main character of this piece because as with any main character, the reader must grapple with its nature its malleability and fickle tendencies, how it can be manipulated to subjective favor, how it clashes with another’s memory and somewhere in the unattainable middle is the truth with the capital T. One capital T truth is that my son never forgave God for playing favorites, never returned to church–not even for the donuts.

Amy Roost is a technical writer living in San Diego. She recently won a call for podcast proposals sponsored by NPR and is currently working on the pilot episode of Finding Rebecca, a serialized account of the early civil rights movement, adoption, abandonment, and redemption due to air in Spring 2016. She has written for, and Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Ritual and Healing (Motivational Press 2013). You can find her at Twitter at @sweetsweetspot.



The Beauty of My Autistic Child

The Beauty of My Autistic Child

Beauty of Artistic Child ARTBy Alysia Abbott


Before I had children I didn’t think I would care very much about their looks, certainly not in any remarkable way. Doing so would reveal a gross degree of superficiality, a collusion with a society that already places too much emphasis on attractiveness. I believed that to cultivate the value of beauty in my little girl (my first born) would be to short-change her other virtues—the openness of her heart, the spark of her imagination, the steel determination to get what she wants when she wants it.

But something changed when I had my little boy. I know that every parent believes her child to be beautiful. Even the most unfortunate face is the face that only a mother could love. It’s clichéd. So please, take this statement with a grain of salt: My son, Finn, is beautiful.

With large green-speckled brown eyes and cupid-bow lips, soft wavy brown hair that manages to look good no matter how badly I cut it, with the velvety peach fuzz of his soft rounded shoulders, skin that is exquisitely, prohibitively soft, I cultivate, even fetishize his beauty. I praise his looks to his teachers and his babysitter all the time. I take picture after picture of him using every lens available in my iPhone arsenal, studying his face in different states of repose and concentration, sharing the best of these on social media.

I’ve embraced Finn’s beauty because it’s one of the few areas where he can truly thrive. He can’t catch a ball, or throw straight; he can’t draw a picture, or sing a song, say my name, or a write a word. I’m quite certain he’ll never be an academic or even a good conversationalist. If I walk him through the house, pulling him forward by the hand if I’m not carefully watching, he’ll knock his head against the door-jams like a pinball. A teacher once advised us to put him in a helmet. This undiagnosed visual processing disorder was just another complication in his already complicated diagnosis of autism and PDD-NOS (persistent development delay-no other symptom).

Without possessing the means or desire for the sort of communication that forms the basis of typical relationships, Finn may have to rely on his beauty to get the support he’ll need to thrive. I’m hoping his beauty will charm people, as it has charmed his caregivers and teachers. I want him to be protected from the bullies I imagine waiting in the shadows for this soft mute boy.


How do you form a meaningful relationship with a boy like my son? I can’t relate with Finn intellectually. I can’t ask him how he’s doing. I can only learn about his interests incidentally. Watching him interact with toys and books and nature, I can tell you that he likes best digging his hands in dirt, throwing rocks into ponds and street drains, playing musical toys with the speaker pressed tightly against his right ear. If I fall and cry out, he’ll as likely laugh, just as he laughs at any emotion expressed with great intensity, including alarm and anger. He’s not yet shown a facility for compassion or generosity. Yet we—his mother, his father and sister—are incredibly attached to him.

In Finn, I’ve had to learn other ways of relating, of attaching and loving. And with Finn, that’s a physical relationship. Without the understanding that’s achieved through language there is only Finn’s predilection for touch, his extreme sensitivity. The way he slips his narrow fingers between mine, or curls his warm body into the crook of my arm, or wraps himself around my neck like a long mink stole when I’m sitting on the couch. In our relationship touch is everything.

This is how all of us bond with Finn. We lay with him. We breathe him in. We kiss his face. But there have also been times when I’ve bit him. Anything to get a reaction. Anything that would wake him up to my presence. I am here. I am your mother. I’m not like any another. Recognize me.

When I used to come home from a day of work and tried to seek him out, he’d pay me no mind. Distracted, focused on getting his food, or playing with the iPad he would, in these instances, see me only as a distraction, an intrusion into his world. If I was too assertive with my interruption he might try to bite or pinch me. Hard. But it’s me. I wanted to say. I am your mother. You love and miss ME. Hello! But recently, Finn’s been waking up.


I’ve come home from a night and a day in NYC. I call out his name and when he enters my line of vision at the top of the stairs he jumps up like and down like a spring and flaps his arms with excitement. I greet him there, stooping so I can meet him at his level. He would rush over to my lap were it not for the therapist, who stops him. “Who do you want to see, Finn?” she asks. “You want mom?” She prompts him to sign mom: thumb on chin, palm open, fingers outstretched. He holds the sign and the therapist verbally confirms it’s intent. Mom.

He starts to move forward again and again he is stopped, “What do you want from mom?” She prompts him to fold his arms across his chest. “You want to hug mom?” He nods, holding the sign. “Ok, hug mom.” The therapist over enunciates each word, to make sure he understands their assigned meanings. Finn is hugging mom.

And at last he is released into my arms, free to join me for a quick embrace before being ushered back to the table to complete his work for the day. After the long build up, the hug is brief, too brief for me. So I scroll through all the other motions and signs I know he understands that will deliver me the proximity I long for after so many hours away. “Kiss,” I command and he moves his stiff lips to mine for a light peck then quickly pulls way. And I make a kiss sound: Mwah! One of the simple noises I know he can reciprocate. He makes the kiss sound. And I smile. It’s our special thing.

Then his therapist leads him to the table where he will work for the rest of the afternoon and he whimpers, starts to cry a heartbreaking cry. I want to say to the therapist, “It’s okay. He doesn’t need to work now right.” But I know I can’t get in the way. He didn’t used to be able to nod “yes” or “no,” let alone sign “mom” or “hug.” ABA, assisted behavioral analysis, is working for him. It’s how he learns best. Sign “mom” and you will see mom. Sign “drink” and you will have your drink. I’m a tool, a means for him to try harder to adapt to our typical ways of communication. And I’m glad to play the role.


Today, I feel more accepting of Finn. I appreciate his beauty but I also appreciate him as an individual, not despite his peculiarities but because of them. That Finn-ness that is uniquely his, even coupled with his maladaptive autistic behaviors—the biting, the pinching and the hitting, the chewing of rubber-bands, and breaking of beloved things—is still him. And that touch. Jeff likes to say that though developmentally delayed Finn’s abilities to cuddle are freakishly advanced. “He’s a cuddling genius,” he says.

Finn’s sensory disorder, the amount of pleasure he derives from being tickled or having a stiff bristled brush run over his legs and feet is truly awe-inspiring. His expressions of pure glee, a squealing with a face stretched to a toothy grin, accompanied by a sort of thick purr are brilliant, a thing of beauty.

How could we ever trade these qualities for the temperament of another boy? This is a boy made to love. And we four are bound together by this love. Seeing in him a potential that has only grown. This is where he’s been. This is where he’s going. This is who he was. This is who he’s becoming.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay Finn’s home therapy has been interrupted and his behavior has taken a turn for the worse. These days his touch more often used to communicate frustration (pinching, kicking) than it is to communicate love. But this is part of motherhood too, to absorb and to listen, and to find balance between the mountains and the valleys.

Alysia Abbott is a writer and the author of Fairyland, A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton, 2013). Her work has appeared in Vogue,, Slate, Real Simple, TriQuarterly, and Psychology Today, among other publications. She lives with her husband and their children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can find her on twitter at @AlysiaAbbott.


The Last Stories

The Last Stories

DSCN0371~2By Anna Belle Kaufman

“Zackrabbit,” I say to the five year old seated behind me in his car seat, “I have another stop to make. But I can see you’re tired. If you don’t feel up to it, just tell me and we’ll go home now.” I glance back at my son in the rearview mirror.

My boy is no longer an eager little bunny. His once glossy bangs are now a limp curtain across his brow, dancing eyes are dulled by Dilauded (a powerful narcotic), the mischievous grin all but extinguished by pain. His neck and  right cheek are bandaged, swollen and purple with infection. Zack, cradling his constant companion – a small stuffed panda bear named Bumby – thinks for a minute, rubbing Bumby’s nose, then says, “I am very powerful Mama, I can hold in my tired.”

Heading towards our small home in the hills above Hollywood where the sun burns bright through smog, we drive through streets of MGM Technicolor: garish billboards, magenta bougainvillea, people bright as tropical birds in their shiny turquoise and pink spandex eighties aerobics wear. I, however, am living in different movie: one filled with the chiaroscuro nightmare and impending doom of Film Noir. The color leached from my world  a year and half ago, on the day – right before Zack’s fourth birthday – that my son was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1987 there are no treatments of any kind. Nothing.

I have grasped at whatever I could find: special diets, supplements, energy healing – anything that might help keep him alive until a medicine was created. But when Zack became too ill to attend kindergarten in the fall, I knew it was hopeless. Now, I only hope that he’ll be able to enjoy one last holiday season and not suffer.

The sense of doom heightens for me as each day winds toward dinner hour. The ever-present lump in my gut tightens with the sound of the liquor cabinet opening. My husband Gerry, working less and drinking more since Zack was born, is, at best, checked out after four or five, and can be a mean drunk (although never  to Zack, who he adores). I never know if he will start an exhausting nonsensical argument or angry tirade or how ugly it will be. I must negotiate a minefield, caring for Zack and trying to avoid explosions which, though not directed at our son, affect him. Gerry denies illness and death as much as he can. He says “I don’t do grief.” Now, even as help is obviously never going to come to save our boy, he forbids me, fiercely, to ever mention the D word with Zack.

So I must help my son on my own, covertly. But how? Although I have prepared Zack for numerous surgeries, helped him work through medical traumas with play and stuffed animals and blood made from paint, I have no experience or familiarity with death. I was not around my grandparents when they were dying, nor have I any religious education or community to draw upon or turn to. I don’t even know what I believe about death, if I think anything continues on. My pre-Zack career as a designer of costumes and sets did not prepare me for this; there is no script to study. I know the power of the right story, but what story is developmentally appropriate for a kindergartner? There are no children’s stories that I can find about dying that are not of the rather vague seasons variety with illustrations of trees losing their leaves – a metaphor that is useless to my suffering boy. Our Pediatricians never mention the D word and no one at the hospital is of any help. Internet groups, chat rooms and Google have yet to be invented. Bookstore shelves in the 1980s are not stocked with volumes on dying and grief. Except for one.

I manage to find the number for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s office in Virginia and leave a message. Surprisingly, she calls me back almost immediately and we talk for quite a while. She gives me her home phone number, saying “Please, call me anytime, any hour of the day and night that you need to. I just ask one thing: don’t give my number out to anyone else.” Then she adds “I’ve written a story for another little boy. It’s just what you need, I’ll send it right away.” Zack’s anxiety level, as well as mine, has increased as he feels worse and I am relieved when the package arrives, a story bound like a pamphlet, illustrated by Elizabeth herself.

When Gerry is out of the house, I read “Letter to Dougy” to Zack. In it, Elizabeth explains that when one doesn’t need one’s body any longer, your spirit leaves it to go to God, like a caterpillar leaving its cocoon to become a butterfly and fly away. We study her pictures of butterflies drawn in brightly colored markers. When we are through, Zack looks up at me with his old twinkle, smiling through the swollen cheek, in spite of the pain.

“Momma, when I die, we will go to Grandma’s and you will take the station wagon and I will fly and I will get there first!”

Glad that we had some private time to have the death discussion, I am, however, unprepared for it to come up around Gerry a couple of days later. I am seated in the back seat of the car next to Zack while my husband drives along Santa Monica Boulevard. Zack turns to me and asks, in his piercing high chipmunk voice, “Momma, when I go to God, will Bumby come with me?”

I feel that too-rapidly-descending-elevator feeling sink in my middle: there will be hell to pay tonight if  Gerry finds out we’ve talked about death, or God, in whom he does not believe.

Speaking quickly I answer, “Of course.”

Zack gives me a look and says “But Mom…. he’s a stuffed animal!”

Busted. By a five year old. The one time in his life I’ve given him the brush-off. Luckily, Gerry seems to have not heard us and, relieved, I quietly reply,

“I believe that if you want him there with you, he will be.”

I wonder if Zack understood the message underneath the brush-off, because he never raises the topic again in his dad’s proximity; his dying becomes a new intimacy between us, after those of pregnancy and breastfeeding. The following week, while visiting Zack’s grandparents, my mother and I are in the bedroom discussing her health problems and her grandson’s worsening condition in lowered voices while Grandpa and Zack talk in the dining room. I suddenly become aware of a palpable silence beyond the closed door and open it to find Zack standing there, anxiously shifting from foot to foot, rubbing Bumby’s threadbare nose. His Grandpa, absorbed in snacking and reading the paper, has neglected his frightened charge who now wants to go home, tears running down his cheeks.

“Zack, Did you think Grandma and I were whispering about your illness?” I ask.


“You don’t have to to wonder, or hear accidentally. I’ll tell you everything you want to know and I will always tell you the truth.”

We talk about his illness. He already knows that his blood was poisoned by a transfusion when he was a baby but I have been careful never to use the word AIDS. People are terrified of AIDS and AIDS patients, fear they can catch it from mosquitos, shared potato chips, a hug or a kiss. Even some nurses at our hospital won’t go near children they once cared for when those same kids were diagnosed with HIV. I don’t want anyone to shrink from a child who – in spite of lengthy hospitalizations and traumas in his first two years – became an exuberant extrovert, a charmer who used to love to work a room. A boy who, just a year ago, had bolted in the mall, zooming up to a complete stranger to introduce Bumby. I watched while the woman in the elegant pantsuit appeared alarmed, then smiled, and, by the time I  reached them across the food court, was ready to sign him for her talent agency. Being small for his age was an asset, she said, handing me her card. One month later, I found out why he’d stopped growing and told her we’d have to pass on her offer to to make some college money. (Zack, acutely aware that he was shorter than other children his age, explained it to me — and to himself. He would grow on the day of his birthday, when he turned five.)

Now, at this moment at Grandma’s, sitting on the bed clutching Bumby, Zack asks me “And can I die?”

Other parents, who might also pause if this question is raised, are able to answer “Not until you are very old, not for a long long time.” But I have promised to tell the truth.

“Yes Zack. Your body can become very sick and tired and painful and your spirit might want to leave it, like the butterflies leaving their cocoons. Or like taking off and dropping  a heavy coat  you don’t need on a hot day at the beach.”

He nods, he loves the beach. Grandma then joins in, talking about heaven, telling Zack and I that we will all be together there someday and that when she gets there she’s going to find a great big beautiful piano and practice all day. And if she gets there first, she will be waiting for him. Zack, relieved and cheerful, says “Okay, Mom, let’s go to Century City now.” And I push him in his stroller to the outdoor mall to see the holiday decorations.

But as fever and pain intensify, his fears about dying return. After coughing badly he asks “Do I go now Mom?” Then again, the next morning he asks me “Am I dying now, Mom?” He doesn’t want me to leave him, even for a  few minutes, and I realize that he thinks death is imminent and  he is afraid that it will happen to him if or when I leave the room, or leave him alone. We have another talk.

“Zackrabbit, Death won’t sneak up on you and surprise you. You will know if it is coming. You’ll decide when you’re ready and you will tell me.”

I believe this to be true. And it is. The first time is just a hint: I am rummaging in the hall closet when Zack creeps up behind me

“Momma, what is it like to be a let-go balloon?” Because Zack pronounces L as W,  it takes me minute to understand what he has said: a balloon that has gotten away from it’s owner. I see a forlorn pink balloon, lifting out of the extended  hand that held it and is still reaching for it, getting smaller and smaller against a threatening gray sky. I don’t share my image, but ask “What do you think, Pumpkin?”

Zack says that he thinks it would feel good to float free and fly up in the sky. He is telling me obliquely that his body, tethered to earth by pain, would welcome release. I, however, am the hand that holds the balloon. I don’t want to let go. I know it is only a matter of time before my balloon escapes from me, disappearing into nothingness while I remain helplessly earthbound.

He next tells me — although certainly I see him failing — through a story. Not one that he makes up, but one he chooses: Watership Down. At the foot of his bunk bed stands a green oxygen tank I have decorated with a drawing  of a purple panda, and a small television so that he can be distracted from pain. From all the videos, Zack only wants “Watership Down,” ignoring even former favorites like Dumbo, that has a train in it. We rewind and repeat to watch Hazel, the rabbit heroine, die. It reminds us of the story of the butterfly. We study the part where Hazel’s body, hurt and sick, remains on the ground and the Black Rabbit – the angel of death- flying, comes for her. Hazel’s spirit self – a more transparent version – flies gently up out of her body into the sky and leaves with the Black Rabbit.

Our last story is the one that allows each of us to say goodbye.

It is December, 1987, evening. In Zack’s room the only light comes from the colored globes of the balloon man lamp on the night stand. Zack and I have watched Watership Down a few times in the past two days. It is clear to me that Zack is so terribly ill that he should have left by now. At his last visit to Cedars-Sinai a few days earlier, the pulmonologist listened to his chest and couldn’t hide the shock on her face. Perhaps he is hanging on for my sake; I worry that he thinks it is not okay to leave me, or leave without me. And, of course, it is not. But I can not bear for him to suffer more than I can not bear to lose him. He sits on the potty next to his bed, belly distended and aching, eyelids swollen with edema, eyes unfocused black dots beneath lank bangs. We are alone.

So I tell him a story. It is the story of his entire life, in third person – I never say it is him. I tell him about a little boy who was born early, who spent lots of time in the hospital and who had many surgeries and was very brave. A boy who had a tube in his tummy and then a silver trach in his throat when he was small. A boy who went to St. Thomas School and learned to ride a big trike. A boy who has a panda bear that he loves and carries everywhere, and who makes waffles with his Grandma and silver jewelry with his Mom and computer drawings with his Dad, and who loves trains more than anything.  A boy who loves his Momma very very much and whose mother loves him more than anything else in the whole wide world. His mother understands that it is time for him to leave his body behind because it is very sick and it hurts. It is okay with her. She will be all right.

Only the end is fiction: the biggest lie I have ever told or will ever tell in my entire life.

“Zack, do you understand the story?” He doesn’t speak, seems only partly conscious, the whites of his eyes rolling up, but he nods yes, and I know he comprehends exactly what I am trying to tell him.

The next night, at 3:00 am, the Black Rabbit flies to our house; it comes for him while I hold him in my arms, singing his favorite lullaby.

Hours later, after the death certificate has been signed and his body and Bumby taken away together, I sit on Zack’s empty bed in the dusk of the early December evening. Outside, just past the window, a monarch butterfly flits around and around and around, making figure eights below the porch eaves. It flies like that for a long while, thirty minutes or more, as if it is trying to get my attention. Then it settles on the eave closest to the bed, folds its wings, and remains there while I finally fall asleep. It is gone the next morning.

On Christmas morning, a week later, my husband and I distribute Zack’s still-wrapped gifts to children on the pediatric ward at Cedars. I return home to find, among the condolence cards, a gift package with my name on it. Unwrapping a small but heavy box, I lift out a dense object that lays smooth and cold against my palm: a black glass figurine of a rabbit.

On the phone, the woman who sent the gift explains that she sent different glass animals to everyone on her list. Not knowing  why, she sensed  the black rabbit was right for me. She has neither read nor seen Watership Down although she also has a young son, and is amazed to hear the story.


When I told the last story to Zack, and in the even darker time after, it was unimaginable that I’d ever be okay. But eventually I learned that what I thought was a lie was simply truth that took a very long time to reveal itself.

Now, so many years later, on my desk next to a photo of a little boy with an impish smile, a shiny black rabbit crouches on its haunches, nose in the air, gazing at me. It silently prompts me to tell the tale I’ve never told before. You know the one. About a mother, some butterflies, and a rabbit, and the stories that came when they were needed.


Author’s Note: Six weeks after Zack died, I met Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at one of her retreats. She gave me a scarf that she had knit, made from the wool of her sheep, in pink – Zack’s favorite color. Her teaching story for the group was about a black rabbit.

Anna Belle Kaufman is a retired art psychotherapist who lives in the country in Northern California with her second husband, dog, and two pet goats. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The Sun, Calyx, the Utne Reader and the Networker.



Clam Chowder Memories

Clam Chowder Memories

100_3816By Vanessa Wamsley

I perched on a porous boulder at the edge of California’s Monterey Bay with my three-year-old son, Brad. The September sun warmed our backs – local’s weather, as it is fondly called, when the summer rain and mist lift after the tourist season quiets down. A huge Styrofoam cup balanced on the rock between Brad and me. We took turns spooning out thick, creamy clam chowder, blowing to cool each bite.

Clam chowder was my son’s favorite food back then, and we visited the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf every Monday morning for a year to share a cup of chowder, our weekly ritual while his dad was at work. Just my son and I on the rocks. But we were a nomadic military family. We would be leaving Monterey and its chowder soon for the East Coast. And like every other move, home would be where the Army sent us.

From our rocky seat near the wharf, we stared down at some sea lions floating together in the shallow water. Their sleek rich coats shone in the sunshine. Pelagic cormorants, black and shiny as patent leather, preened in the sparkling water before suddenly turning tail-up to dive after a darting fish. Brad pointed out a slick sea otter floating on its back under the pier, hacking a clam open with a small rock.

I lifted another spoonful to my lips. The salty, bacon-laden chowder tasted of sunshine, seawater, and tender clams. I would miss that chowder when we moved. Brad and I belonged in that place with our soup and the salt air and the marine wildlife. Would we belong in our new home, too?

Our family moved six months after that day on the rocks. But that would be just one in a series of moves since I met and married my husband Jake in 2004 while he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In the last ten years, we’ve lived in Texas, Alabama, Illinois, California, Maryland, and Virginia, where we live now – that is, until we move to Alabama again this summer. All of these moves have addled my sense of where I belong in this world, even though I have roots like a cottonwood tree reaching deep into the small Nebraska town where I grew up. But I wonder where Brad belongs. His roots might be shallow after all our transplants, and I am afraid they are too weak to support him as he goes through life.


Three years and two moves after Monterey, in October of 2014, I took Brad, then six years old, camping at Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland, a mother-son camping trip. While I was preparing for the trip, Brad overheard me tell his dad that we could find clams right off the island.

“We have to go clamming, Mama! Please, please, please, please!” he begged, hopping from one leg to the other.

“I’ll look into it,” I promised.

“And we’ll make chowder, right?” he asked.

“Um, sure,” I answered.

I didn’t know what I was promising since I had never been clamming. But I wanted to give Brad good chowder again. In the three years since we left Monterey, I had tried to make his favorite dish a few times. But my chowder never reminded me of the sea on a sunny day. It tasted more like a muddled lake in the rain, a poor imitation of the chowder my son and I ate on those rocks next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I suspected that canned clams had ruined my previous attempts to recreate the Fisherman’s Wharf chowder. Fresh clams could be the answer.

Two months after promising my son clam chowder, we went clamming on Assateague Island. We rented equipment and got basic clamming instructions from a man at the rental shed on the beach. The rental man handed me a clam rake and a basket.

He told me to look for a spot with a nice mix of plants and sand covering the bottom. Too many plants would tangle up the rake. Too much sand meant the nutrient mixture in that area wasn’t right for clams. He stepped out onto the beach to demonstrate how to drag the rake behind us.

“When you hear a clink,” he said, “you’ve hit a clam.”

I imagined us shuffling around in the cold October water for an hour, struggling with the long, heavy clam rake. I pictured opening the canned clams I’d brought so we could make chowder even if we failed at clamming. This chowder might taste like disappointment, I thought.

We carried our equipment to the edge of the marsh about 100 yards from our campsite on the western side of the island. Rake and basket in tow, we waded into knee-deep cold water – almost waist-deep for my son.

Assateague Island is a 37-mile long barrier island between Sinepuxent Bay and the Atlantic, one in a chain of islands draped along the East Coast like a long string of beads from Maine to Texas. As wind, waves and storms constantly buffet the chain, the sand on one beach slides to the next island, a process called longshore drift. Each island constantly moves south, its sand no more a part of any one place than Brad or I was. We visited, we drifted along the island’s surface, and we moved on.

At my feet, the deep blue bay flowed into vivid green cordgrass. Salt marsh stretched back into the island for about fifty yards before hitting a bank that rose up into a forest. Loblolly pine trees reached gnarled branches over a thicket of wax myrtle and bayberry.

We dragged our rented rake and floating basket behind us with the edge of the marsh on our right.

When we stopped and the water cleared, we could see our toes wiggling. My toes looked just like they did under the clear sapphire-blue water in Monterey Bay when Brad and I used to wade in the surf. But Brad’s toes seemed to have doubled in size in three years. He wasn’t a toddler running from the waves anymore. He had grown into an inquisitive boy.

Around our feet under the brackish water off Assateague Island, small patches of plants clung to the sand around us, just like the rental man had described. My son pointed out little holes on the bay floor. He claimed the holes meant crabs were filter feeding under the sand.

“It’s the perfect spot!” Brad said.

We crisscrossed the area, the rake leaving ridges behind us in the sand like those Zen sand boxes some people groom in their offices. Clink! Brad and I sank our fingers into the sand, feeling blindly for pay dirt. Or pay clam. My fingers curled around something flat and hard, a clam the size of my palm, almost two inches thick. We leapt in the water, nearly soaking ourselves in our enthusiasm. A pair of kayakers decked out in jackets, paddling gloves, and thick hats stopped at the mouth of an inlet in the marsh to watch us, the lone clammers wading through 65-degree water on a chilly fall day.

“It’s our first clam!” I shouted to them, sharing our exultation. “Ever!” They laughed and saluted with their paddles.

Excited by our success, we covered the area in rake tracks. We found a couple more clams but threw them back because they were too small. A keeper has to be at least one inch thick. We decided to try another method the rental shack man told us about: searching with our bare feet. Removing our shoes, we threw them into the clam bucket and ground our heels into the muddy sand, twisting like Chubby Checker.

“Feel for a rock with your toes,” I told Brad. We added a couple more clams to the bucket and returned a couple more to their sandy bed.

After nearly an hour of dragging the rake and squishing our feet around in the sand, nine good-sized clams, each a triumphant treasure, lay in the bottom of the clam basket.

We waded back to the shore. I could taste the chowder already.

Back at the campsite, I scrubbed the ridged shells and laid them gently in my cast iron Dutch oven on our camp stove. After pouring in a little water, I lit the gas flame to steam open the clams. Remembering the sea otters in Monterey Bay smashing their shellfish open with a rock, I was glad I wouldn’t have to resort to their technique.

While the clams steamed, Brad and I put on dry clothes. Then I chopped an onion, a leek, and three potatoes.

I checked the clams. All were yawning wide, revealing tender white meat the shell once protected. I transferred them with their liquid into a pitcher to cool and tossed butter into the now-empty kettle. When the butter sizzled, the onions and leeks went into the pot.

I chose a cooled clam from the pitcher, its delicate morsel still clinging to the pearly inner surface of the shell. I had never cleaned fresh clams before, and their tenderness surprised me even as their slipperiness made them difficult to handle.

With pride and hope, I chopped my nine clammy trophies and slid them into the pot along with the broth left from steaming open the clams.

My potatoes went in next. The clam broth barely covered the white cubes. I left the chowder to bubble.

While the potatoes cooked, I built up our campfire. The coals had been smoldering all day, so a few dry twigs under a pyramid of logs started a blaze. Our campsite filled with the scent of our chowder mixed with the salty air blowing in from the bay and the wood smoke wafting from the campfire.

Another camper walked by our site.

“You from Texas?” he asked, eyeing the license plate on our pickup.

“No,” I answered. “We live in Reston, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. We just moved there.”

The man sauntered on, satisfied.

But the real answer was more complicated.

I grew up in an agricultural town – population 244, depending on who is home on any given day – in rural southwestern Nebraska. I changed bedrooms once, but lived in the same house for eighteen years before I graduated from high school and moved away to college. As a child, I knew I belonged to Hayes Center, Nebraska. No matter where we live now, rural Nebraskan culture still shapes how I move in the world. At thirty-two years old, I haven’t lived in Hayes Center for fourteen years. But I drink pop instead of soda and cheer for my home state’s Cornhuskers. I clip my words when I speak, and I still gawk at tall buildings and marvel at public transportation. I breathe more easily under a clear blue open sky. Hayseed grows in my heart.

Since marrying a man in the Army, I haven’t stopped moving. But I am from Nebraska.

Brad was born in a hospital in Iowa, so even though we never lived there, he often tells people he is from Iowa. What else is he supposed to say? He has lived many places. He doesn’t really belong to any one of them the way I belong to Nebraska.

I want what every mother wants for her son: I want him to grow into a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, productive man. But I worry that Brad cannot be any of those things unless I give him more time to live in one place, letting the rhythms of its people and landscape sink into him.


Back at our campsite, I checked a potato in my chowder pot, and it nearly dissolved under my fork. Perfect. I turned off the camp stove burner and added the final touch to the pot: heavy cream.

While I worked, a small group of Assateague’s famous horses with their shaggy coats, stocky stature, and bloated bellies wandered toward our campsite. As the horses drew closer, my son became nervous and hid in the pickup cab. A park ranger had told him that in the summer during high tourist season, a horse bites at least one visitor every week. The feral animals protect their territory and their food.

Clicking my tongue and banging an empty cup against a plate, I tried to shoo the horses away from our site. They eyed me warily and moved on.

I ladled chowder into two blue enamel bowls while Brad hovered near my elbow, excited for his favorite meal. We perched on our camp chairs next to the fire and savored a moment of anticipation before tasting the chowder.

“Cheers!” I said, raising my bowl.

“Cheers!” he echoed, touching his bowl against mine.

I grinned at him, my spoon to my lips.

Salty clams and broth mingled in my mouth with velvety potatoes melting into rich cream. Savory onions and leeks lingered at the edges of my tongue. The simple ingredients melded like ripples merging to form waves.

I’ll never cook with a can of rubbery, watery clams again as long as I live.

“How’s your chowder?” I asked Brad.

“It’s the best I ever had! The best chowder anyone ever made ever!” He was as enthusiastic as I felt.

We ate in silence. Finally, I leaned back in my camp chair, having eaten more creamy clammy goodness than my stomach could bear. The fire snapped and crackled. I sipped a beer.

Brad groaned. “I’m so full, Mama,” he told me. “I can’t move.”

He threw his head back and closed his eyes. I let a lazy, satisfied sleepiness creep into my body.

Soon I would have to clean up our dishes. The fire needed another log. Our wet, sandy clamming clothes lay in a pile next to our tent. Always little chores at a campsite. But for a few comfortable moments, I just sat by the fire next to my son with a belly full of clam chowder.

My mind drifted back to another clam chowder day, the two of us balanced on a boulder next to the bay savoring a shared cup of chowder. What makes us belong to a place even when we live a rootless, nomadic existence, like the sand that blows across Assateague Island? In that moment by our campfire, smoky, creamy clam chowder memories anchored us to both the East Coast and the West Coast. My young son’s adventures bring a perspective to his life that my small-town upbringing could never have encompassed. Brad’s roots may be shallow, but they already stretch from coast to coast, held to the earth by the breadth of his experience rather than the amount of time he has lived in any one place.

Tucking the fireside chowder memory away next to the seaside one, I pulled myself out of my camp chair. I arranged our empty clamshells on a log next to the fire like someone else might display awards on a shelf.

We caught them. We cooked them. And they were good.

Author’s Note: I pass my children pieces of my childhood by experiencing the world with them, just like my mom and dad did for me

Vanessa Wamsley writes science, nature and education stories in northern Alabama where she lives with her husband, Jake; son, Brad; and daughter, Nora. Her recent work has appeared in Slate, Modern Notion, and The Atlantic.


In the Absence of My Son

In the Absence of My Son

images-6By Christine Poreba


A white fluff drops onto my arm

and a wind from inside the wall of me

almost pushes me over—


because the errant milky puff reminds me

of “danaliah,” which my son loves for me to pick for him

on walks, so he can blow and blow the seed pods off.


But what has dropped on me

is not a dandelion and my son is not here and the wind

soon carries the mystery gossamer away and I am left


to go back to my room to study his drawing,

bold circles dashed in waxy streaks. In my solitude,

the world seems to be moving in slow motion,


nobody else to determine what comes next.

The quiet is too quiet but then I can’t get enough,

but my arms are bearing a wilderness.


Our goodbye was saved by his being two

and not yet bearing the weight of the knowledge of time,

making this hug and kiss goodbye for him no different


from any other. I, on the other hand,

went out on the porch and wept, leaning over the railing

to wait for one more glimpse of him


over the mountain with his grandparents,

on their way to pay homage to “the broken boat”

he’d been telling everyone about the whole vacation.


Every time we walked up close, there was no

avoiding the fact that the boat was really a charred stack of logs,

remains of a ski lodge burned down last winter.


But the illusion for him never seemed broken.

And why shouldn’t one thing become so easily another?

The old ski lift, then, a seat from a Ferris wheel.


Which I can almost see turning as I wake this morning

to a room of gorgeous light, to acres of silence, an ache but also a dream

of unsharpened pencils being sharpened.


Christine Poreba lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband John and their now three-year-old son Lewis. Her first book of poetry, Rough Knowledge, will be coming out from Anhinga Press this fall.

Return to the September 2015 Issue



Doppleganger ARTBy Erica Mosley

Shel was half way to the car before she realized she had the wrong kid.

Half way! Of course when she told her husband about it later she did not say “half way.” She told him she was just gathering her bags and yelling goodbye to the other moms when she looked down and saw she was holding Ethan Penderton’s hand and not Milo’s. She did not tell him she’d gotten through the door, into the parking lot, and half way to the car with a boy who was not their child. She did not tell him about how she ran back, red-faced, clutching this doppelgänger, or about how shocked she was when she slinked into the gym and saw Ethan’s mother, stooped over her phone, oblivious to the error. Nor did she tell him about the look Ethan Penderton gave her when she released his small hand, the way he stood there, at the free-throw line, calm and grinning. He hadn’t spoken or pulled away, and she wondered how far he would have allowed himself to be taken.

She told Nathan none of this. Instead she presented it as a joke, after Milo was in bed and after Nathan emptied into her glass the bottle of Cabernet they’d started two nights before. It was too cold because it had been in the refrigerator, and it was beginning to turn. She drank it anyway. She said: “Hey, so I almost brought the wrong kid home today.”

Nathan snorted. “I believe it. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before, all those peewees running around in matching uniforms.”

And then it was over. Just a laugh, an amusing anecdote told over a bottle of wine. Nathan moved on to the dumb thing his boss said about turkey bacon and they never spoke of Ethan Penderton again.

Shel would never tell him how frightened she’d been, how ashamed that she’d been unable to recognize her own child. Yes, the gymnasium was a dizzying jumble of five-year-olds, one big blur of red and white jerseys. And yes, Ethan’s hair was similar to Milo’s: sandy blond with the faintest hint of curl on top, where it was longest. And yes, she’d been on her phone with the chiropractor’s office when she grabbed Ethan’s hand by mistake, and yes, she’d been in a hurry because the post office closed in fifteen minutes.

And yet, she told herself, not really listening to Nathan’s story about the turkey bacon, none of her excuses cut it because at the most crucial moment she had failed. She had grabbed the wrong child.

Nathan turned on the TV to check the weather. Shel carried her glass to the computer room and lingered over the last sip while scrolling her news feed.

There it was: the viral video she’d shared that morning, the body wash commercial. A row of mothers—each with perfect hair, white teeth, wedge heels—stood side by side in a sunny meadow. One by one their blindfolded children, arms outstretched, wandered toward them and felt the hands, the hair, the noses of the mothers until each found his own. The bond a child has with his mother is so strong, touted the body wash company, that he can pick her out of a crowd using only touch and smell.

Shel had cried at the video earlier, had tagged each of her mommy friends, had stirred the oatmeal feeling inspired, had dressed Milo slowly, savoring the milky-sweet skin of his wrists and his gangly toes and his fresh-from-sleep smell: fabric softener laced with sourness, like a lemon turning to vinegar.

Now she hit “refresh” and watched the video again. And again. Watched each boy and girl stagger down the row, sniffing ponytails, feeling for familiar fabrics. Did she see something, on that fifth, sixth, seventh viewing? Just the hint of doubt in the eye of the mother on the end of the row, the fear that her child would not be able to find her?

Shel thought back to the gymnasium.

After releasing Ethan she had found Milo on the bleachers, stooped giggling over his friend’s iPad. “Time to go,” she’d said, and he’d hopped up, still giggling, oblivious that he’d almost been left behind.

He never noticed she was gone.

On the screen in front of her, five blindfolded children sought out their mothers. And hers hadn’t even missed her.

Shel sat her glass on the computer desk and tiptoed into Milo’s room. He slept. He wasn’t a snorer, not yet, not like Nathan, but he tittered with every other exhalation. She sat gently on the bed, careful not to wake him. She bent her head over his, buried her nose in his sandy blond hair, breathed him in. Deeper and deeper, breathed him in.

Erica Mosley lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Austin Review’s Spotlight, and elsewhere. Check out her website at or follow her on Twitter: @ericamaymosley.

Dreams of Teeth

Dreams of Teeth

3457e11b6ec7feaeca35b87f6e2834acBy Lorri Barrier

I had the dream about teeth again last night. In the dream, I feel something odd in my mouth, and I put my tongue in the place. I feel the tooth move easily, back and forth. I find a mirror and look. It’s true. The back molar is loose. I push it again with my tongue and it falls out easily. My heart pounds. Oh god. What will I do? Ill call the dentist in the morning. I console myself. At least its in the back. No one will see.

I look in the mirror again. This time I notice it’s not the only one. One of my front teeth on the bottom looks angled and awkward. I touch it. The tooth falls into my hand. I can feel how smooth the sides are, like one of my children’s baby teeth, but jagged on the bottom where it was attached at the root. I taste blood in my mouth. I panic. How will I go to work with a missing tooth? How will I afford getting two teeth replaced? I look again, and the cascade begins, teeth like dominoes falling into my hands. I can still feel them like tiny invisible pebbles when I wake.

My eight-year-old daughter has crawled into bed beside me again. I shove her over, and rub the place that aches on my shoulder from where her back was pressed against mine. I get up, leaving my daughter in bed, and make coffee. I am groggy and spill grounds on the counter. I wipe up the mess. I wake my nine-year-old son first by brushing the hair out of his eyes. He is sleeping tangled in covers, his head off the pillow. He mumbles he’ll get up after breakfast is ready. I go back to my bed to wake my daughter. “Time to get up,” I say.  She stands, stumbling, and I turn and carry her to the couch on my back. I have done this since she was three. She flops on the couch and covers herself with the fuzzy throw. I make her brother’s breakfast.

I know she won’t eat, but I ask her what she wants anyway. She has inherited my difficulty with breakfast. I have to be awake a long while before I can eat. Most days, she goes to school with an empty stomach. I yell after her as she gets on the bus, “Get breakfast at school! You have money on your account!” Sometimes she does, but most often she does not. In the mornings my son is ravenous. It is possibly the only time of day he asks for more food.

My husband sleeps through this morning routine. He would get up if I asked him to, but there is a rhythm to the morning, a road worn smooth with years of use. Sometimes I am envious of his extra sleep, but I’ve been getting up with babies since they were born. It feels like part of me.

Once my two younger children are on the bus, it is time for my middle-schooler to begin his day.. I’ve been up for well over an hour when it’s his turn to get up, I only have to call him once or twice, and then I go ahead and turn on the water for his shower. He goes in without much prodding. He always eats a cup of yogurt in the morning, but I don’t think that’s enough. He spends nearly five dollars a day on lunch, so I imagine he is starving by noon. He swears he eats it all.

On the drive to work, I have time to think about the tooth dream again. In college, I took an anthropology course about China. During one class meeting, a woman from China came to speak to us. She’d interviewed hundreds of Chinese women, recording their thoughts on all sorts of issues. The most common dream among the Chinese women she interviewed was loss of teeth.

At work one of my colleagues comes to talk to me. Our community college is small and rural, with many of the instructors wearing various administrative hats in addition to teaching. My office is messy, and I’m embarrassed, but it’s how I work—I like to see everything. She tells me they want me to take on an additional duty, something important. I listen. It is important. I’d enjoy it. She asks if I have any questions. I never know what to ask when people are sitting right in front of me. It’s only later that I think of what I should have asked. But at the moment, before I blurt out yes, I only think to ask, “How will this affect my other duties?” She smiles and laughs a little. “It would only be a few hours a week.” I list my current responsibilities, then make a joke about giving up something I don’t like to do this. As usual in education, there is no mention of more pay. There is always more work, always the expectation of excellence, but never more money. But I do want to do it. Even as she speaks, I have ideas.

I eat my lunch around noon. It’s usually a microwave meal, which I eat at my desk. I figure I can stop grading papers, stop planning my online classes, stop jotting down ideas for this new duty for a little while. I love the beach, and I look at beach homes for sale on the internet. My tastes are not fancy. I look at what we might really be able to afford with just a little more money. Not beachfront, but cute and cozy. We could walk to the beach, or buy a used golf cart to drive around. I imagine how our lives would be different if we had this beach house. I imagine the clean line of sand and aquamarine water next to the shore, my three children floating out on the waves, their distant laughter lost on the wind. It is always summer at this beach house. We are always happy.

By the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted. My younger son meets me at my car as soon as I pull up and asks me if I brought pizza. Pizza? “No, honey. Not today. I’ve been at work.” My oldest son tells me his sister broke the remote and now no one can watch TV or play the Wii EVER AGAIN! I look at it. It isn’t broken, but the back did come apart and the batteries are missing. I find one battery under the couch, squatting, still in my heels and skirt.

I make afternoon coffee before I change my clothes. My husband is working in the study. He still has more to do. “She lost privileges for throwing the remote,” he says as I walk by. “Okay,” I say, already wondering how to keep her out of the living room while the boys are watching TV. “Let’s just turn it off for now,” I say to all three of them, doing exactly what my students hate—punishing the group because of the one. I put on yoga pants and a T-shirt because I need to go to exercise class at 7. I have to go, even though I feel too exhausted to stand. Somehow, I make it through. On the drive home from exercise class, I wonder what I’ll find when I get there. Have the kids been fussing? Is the homework done? Are they ready for bed?

Inside the house it’s eerily quiet. It’s just before 8:30. Surely they aren’t all asleep? I look in on my daughter. She’s reading in bed. She sees me pop in my head and says, “Get out.” I look in on the boys. They are both in bed, my oldest on the top bunk with a book light, my youngest already asleep. “Mom,” my teenager says from the top bunk, “When you go out, close the door.”

“Good job with the kids!” I say to my husband as we settle down on the couch to watch a show. This is the only time of day we spend together, these meager hours once the kids are in bed, both of us exhausted. “They do fine at bedtime when you aren’t here!” He smiles and I know it’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it. They are always talking to me, clinging to my arms, sitting in my lap, wanting a story, even though they read easily enough themselves. They become babies again at bedtime, or close to it, when I’m here.

In spite of my best efforts, I fall asleep during the show.

“We can watch the rest of it tonight,” my husband says in the morning. He’s talking to me through the door while I’m in the bathroom. I’m flossing my teeth, watching for signs of decay, being careful around the one with the crown. I should have had braces when I was younger, but they didn’t do that as much when I was a kid. If your teeth were mostly okay, they let it go. No one expected perfection.

When the woman from China finished speaking, students peppered her with questions. Everyone wanted to know more about foot binding. After a little while, I tentatively raised my hand and asked what I wanted to know. “The dreams of teeth—do you know what they mean?” She nodded her head a little. “It’s hard to say what someone’s dreams mean, but I think,” she paused, trying to find the right English words. “A loss of voice. Like, you have no say, no voice.” I was twenty then.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. The same blue-green eyes. The same fair skin. The same reluctance to be too noticeable, too bold. Twenty-five years later I’m still spitting dream teeth into my hands. I feel like the life-clock is ticking. I want desperately to begin shouting my truth, whatever it is, if I can just find a voice in me loud enough.

Author’s note: It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this piece. Many days I still feel like I’m treading water with the business of parenting, working and being a good partner to my husband. It’s hard to nurture the self in a sea of activity, meeting the needs of others. I have tried to find my voice more at work by starting an LGBTQ awareness club for students. I have also decided to stop dyeing my hair (after 17 years of color) and go gray. That might sound superficial, but I’m learning it is a journey of self-discovery and reflection. I write about my gray hair and my journey at

Lorri Barrier is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. Her other essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” “Unplugged” and “Idle Threats.