Mother As Witness

Mother As Witness


By Melissa Uchiyama

My daughter’s tooth lies over there, on a tea saucer by the sink. It is her first one, the first milk tooth to drop from her mouth. She wiggled it with incessant fascination, so much so, that she got an instant cough, fever, and must wash her hands every few minutes. All the germs that come with wiggling teeth. This is all new.

Her pink training wheels sit by the front door, wrenched off like another two baby teeth. Not needed. Grown out and flung away. All this growing and that’s hardly the end. This is the tip, the first shoots. My baby girl cannot stay small.

She is climbing up like a vine, a summer tendril with beans and new flowers. Another wiggly tooth sits by the other’s hole. Her legs cast off from the hips and she is almost-six going on eight. Amazed at the sharp sides of the tooth and that which couldn’t be seen before, she kept placing it back inside, back in its place. Everything had already changed. That which falls out cannot go back. It’s done being there. In fact, there are already grown-up teeth with ridges.

I fight to record the growth. Not just hers, but also my son’s. I cannot capture the changes fast enough, cannot devote myself to sitting long enough with paper and pen. It’s easier to nurse with Netflix than to peck one-handedly on a keyboard. The material stacks up. Already like teens, they sour their faces when I again whip out my phone to take a picture or ask them to repeat a phrase so I can pin it verbatim in my notebook. Three out of five times, my son will ruin a shot by sticking out his arm. They want pictures later, the camera away now. They want the evidence, but they want my eyes, my whole body engaged in the present, actively listening, in real time.

I’ve gotten fast at taking the right shots, so I’m still in conversation. I count it my job to take so many pictures and record short clips with my phone. Parenting frenetic, funny, emotional kids takes effort and momentum. I do not always record quotes, conversations or dramatic essays. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with everything taking place. I wash a few dishes or lay down to nurse, and the time seems to be gone. If I’m not recording, not wildly looting and frantically puling each memory into a case, who, then? Life with kids seems like it’s long, the whole “the hours are long”, but like the chomp of a gator, it’s quick. Each glimpse into who we are together at this moment could be lost.

That’s the challenge and total impetus of this writerly-mothering movement: we want to capture these moments of growth and pain, all the stretching of muscles and mammary glands before it’s over– before we’re lost to the blur. We want to feel each pearl of truth. It is not enough to simply jot down, “July 10: no more training wheels”. How big were her eyes when she peddled into the sun? Did she squint in concentration? How about those knuckles and what did she say that sounded proud? I already forget.

My infant, the newest person in our clan is two months old, and holds up her neck with the best of them. Her yet-blond lashes double daily and her faculties increase, yet I’ve not even written out her birth. I have not written about those first looks and how she feels in my arms. That weight increases as she takes in my milk. She is already twelve pounds and nearly rolling over. I think I’ll remember the big things, but I already rely on my photos to spark memory. It’s like jumpstarting a car’s battery. That’s the trick about motherhood–no stage seems like it’s leaving until suddenly, it does. You need every member of the family to roll around life with a Go-Pro camera stuck on their heads so at least there’s no want for footage.

I used to record conversations with my daughter, verbatim, used to keep a notebook of her funny expressions and all of the wonderful words, mispronounced. This new gap in her mouth may change new sounds in her speech as she already corrects the old, endearing ones. “Door” has been “doh-ah” and “excited”, “es-kited”. My son is in that stage of trying out autonomy through knowing my first name. He tries to access my attention, calling out “Moolissa” when “Mommy mommy mommy” doesn’t work. He’s perfectly integrated the word “actually” into his everyday lingo. Yet, I have zero remembrance of their first words.

I mourn the thousands of gorgeous moments undocumented. They are lost. My son, his legs are growing thicker. He stands with his father’s shoulders and back, giggles and speaks with me about how baby popped out and isn’t there anymore. He wants to talk about planes, engines, his baby, favorite teachers, with the language of NOW, of him being three, today, at 4:51. Without sufficient recordings, I will forget the ring and tenure of his voice, loud and then soft.

To want to write, to be a writer, though stages of child and mother is both blessed and torture. It is to adore a summer sun and see it fading. To be so busy with the act of loving and the desire to remember every ray of sun as it spreads. Childhood in itself is the act of changing, the seasons of marking time. Maybe writing, then, is the remarkable.

We want this, but most days leave us so plumb tuckered-out, we may barely get through the tuck-in story. My husband and I have both knocked our poor kids on their heads with hard-cover books when we’ve fallen asleep, mid-story. Who can journal much or write anything cogent any of these tired days? And suddenly, months have passed. Suddenly, it is time to invite guests to the first and then next birthday parties. Suddenly, teeth sit under a pillow, waiting for you. Time keeps moving; they keep growing and we mothers, we try to keep up. All we can do is snap, capture even a moment of beauty, a whir of beating wings.

These fallen teeth, these training wheels sit while I decide what we shall do with them. Treasure? Trash? Leverage to stick under a pillow for money and the promise of something better? It all leads to independence, the kind of run that makes us proud. It also makes us weep. Our babies are gone, pumping legs, splashing hard, teeth under fluffed pillows.

Today I caught my daughter’s thin limbs peddling, pushing hard round the corner. Those training wheels shall not go back on and that tooth is out for good. Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I wrote it down.

Melissa Uchiyama is an essayist and sometimes poet. She focuses on raising bicultural children and young writers in Japan. Find more and connect via

The Bittersweet of Motherhood After Loss

The Bittersweet of Motherhood After Loss

red sunset over road

By Kathleen Sullivan

“You know when you’re in the moment, and things seem perfect, until you realize your life will never be?”

No, I didn’t understand. Yet. My husband Brian and I were at our first bereavement support meeting. We had just lost our firstborn son Liam to a congenital heart defect. He was nine days old.

The woman — I forget her name — continued on. She told us about the contentment of watching her two children laughing and playing with their father. However, there was a crucial piece missing: the daughter she lost.

Back then, I couldn’t even think about the process of having additional children. Honestly, I thought our lives were completely over. I wanted to die.

That was eight years ago. Today, I spend most of my time chasing the two children that I was eventually blessed with. I get it now. The woman was absolutely right.

My living children bring me great joy. In many ways, they saved my life.

My daughter, who arrived first, was born thirteen months after Liam’s death. She gave me something to focus on besides my own grief.

It wasn’t over, though. I was still angry. I was bitter. I couldn’t face seeing another red haired little boy. I cringed when I heard another mom call after her Liam. I was resentful of friends and family who had living children. It was unfair. It always would be.

I still cry. However, my Julia and Owen keep me laughing too.

Almost eight years ago.

In some ways it feels like yesterday. In others, it feels as if a lifetime has passed.

I am noticing that family and friends don’t speak of Liam much anymore. Eight years ago, if I had asked our parents how many grandchildren they had, they would have definitely included Liam as part of the troop.

Would they do the same today?

I have been writing about loss for several years now. I was told early on that the pain would “soften”. Although I didn’t believe it at the time, I do now.

That doesn’t mean that the pain is not present everyday in some form.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t break into sobs from time to time.

In fact, I did so last week. I came across Liam’s death certificate. I couldn’t stop staring at the time of death.

His death.

My son died.

In talking about my journey, I have sought to help others. I don’t know what I would have done without the support of some special friends early on.

I call these amazing people “the friends I wish I had never met.” Losing our children is what brought us together.

As I sit here writing, my two living children are tired and content. It was a great day. We went to the movies and had ice cream.

Regardless, I did feel it.

The missing piece.

The heavy burden that I carry every day.

The guilt.

A therapist once told me that it was okay to have some sadness, yet still celebrate happiness. I didn’t believe her then, but it is true. Emotions are strange that way.

Mostly, I am happy for my living children. They did nothing wrong and our tragedy should not take away from their joy.

Not to say that I don’t have to fake it sometimes. I have become very good at forcing a smile.

As my children are getting older, they are starting to ask questions. We also try to go to the cemetery when we can.

They are fully aware that they had a big brother and his heart didn’t work well. My six-year-old tells me that makes her sad.

I see her sadness. I also see her happiness. She experiences both, just like my therapist told me.

As parents, my husband and I will never “have it all.”

Recently, a family member gifted me with a special bracelet. It was a “penny from heaven” and had Liam’s name and birth. I wear it every day.

The token brought me joy, comfort and sadness. I can’t carry Liam physically, but I can carry him in my heart.

I promised him that I would. I promised him that I always will.

For Liam, my heart will always ache.

Still, because of Liam, Julia and Owen my heart will always be full.

And I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Kathleen’s work has appeared on: The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, Mamalode, Parentco., and Your Tango.
I am also the creator of the blog:



Sometimes, I Yell

Sometimes, I Yell


Young beautiful woman doing yoga indoors.

I started studying yoga and meditation when my boys were still young. I used to joke that I’d still yell at them, but at 5:00 pm rather than 4:00 pm.

By Diane Lowman

My mother was a screamer. If she thought we did not hear her, did not understand her, or did not change our behavior quickly enough, she just shouted louder. I know, now, that she shrieked to be heard. To be acknowledged. It had nothing to do with toys on the floor or the still-full dishwasher.

I, beaten down by the raised volume, vowed to be different. To speak softly, without the big stick. But, as often is the case with parenting traits, we inherit them, whether we want them or not.

My outbursts may have been neither as frequent nor as thunderous as hers – after all, I was a product of two gene pools, the other quite quiet – but I did often default to a raised voice as a discipline device. It was as ineffective with my boys as hers was with us. I regret having hurled it at them at all.

Fifteen years ago, after earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do (my way of venting the pent-up aggression, perhaps?) I took up yoga. I liked that it helped me to cultivate the same qualities of calm and focus as the martial art, without subjecting me to hand-to-hand combat. I studied the history and philosophy of this ancient practice, and now I teach it.

I don’t believe we can fundamentally change who or what we are with any activity, drug, or distraction. What I have learned through Asana and meditation is that changing ourselves is not the goal. What I have learned on the mat is how to recognize and radically accept myself, foibles and all. Including the proclivity to shout when frustrated, provoked, or dissatisfied. I notice, more quickly, those signs in my body that tell me I’m about to blow, and watch them with curiosity and kindness.

“Why, Diane, are you so irate at that moron in front of you who cannot seem to find the gas pedal, ever, when the light turns green?” I might ask myself as I white knuckle the steering wheel on, ironically, my way to yoga class.

This is not to say that I don’t get annoyed at stupid little things, or yell at the moron anyway eventually, but I might wait longer and I certainly notice it more.

I started studying yoga and meditation when my boys were still young. I used to joke that I’d still yell at them, but at 5:00 pm rather than 4:00 pm. But that’s something.

If I was particularly short-tempered or agitated they would ask: “Mom, have you gone to yoga today? Do you need a class?” And if I thought for a moment before admonishing them, the answer would inevitably be “No, and yes.”

In her 50s, my mother went back for her associates’ degree in early childhood education. She had found and was following a better path later in life, as had I. She would call me, almost daily, to tell me something she learned in class, and “what horrible mistakes I made with you girls. I wish I had known this then.”

“Mom,” I’d say, “We do the best we can. You were and are a wonderful mother.” Yet she continued the self-flagellation all through her formal education. Maybe she couldn’t change how she parented my sister and me but she was the best, most patient, most attentive, and most fun grandmother ever to my boys and my two nieces.

There is no gold mommy star shining over my head just because I shifted my path ever so slightly. And I would never take away the gold mommy star that now shines like a halo over my mother’s head just because she shouted. She was a saint; she earned it many times over.

I, too, often feel not heard, not seen, and not acknowledged, as she did. I just wish I’d started working on better ways to earn my star earlier.

FullSizeRenderDiane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men, living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  In addition to writing about life, she teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She looks forward to what’s next.
































Through My Mother’s Dying Eyes

Through My Mother’s Dying Eyes

Sky and clouds from flying airplane

By Shira Nayman

I’ve just returned from a trip home to Australia to say goodbye to my mother, who is in the final stages of terminal cancer. The twenty-two hour flight has never seemed longer. And back in the US, on vacation in Ithaca, NY, I find that the world looks different: I feel as if I’m seeing everything for the last time, as if through my mother’s dying eyes—sunlight filtering through the trees, the lake ablaze in the late afternoon. Smells, too, and sensations of all kinds, coming at me in a rush of vital intensity, as if every mindfulness meditation I’ve ever done has taken roiling, permanent hold. It’s all too much: too bright, too loud, too beautiful, too there. And also, soaked in grief, whispering—no yelling—that it is all about to be swept away, heaving waves dragged by an undertow that is both life’s great, howling bellows, and also the final, crashing end.

I am prisoner of my mother’s dying: a hostage born of our deep connection. From the moment I could think, when my first memories were slicked into place, I was electrically attuned to her quicksilver moods–cyclings of passion and frustration, her own artistic strivings thwarted by the demands of motherhood and marriage.

Visiting her in the nursing home aroused the kinds of emotions I imagine most people feel in a similar situation—including disbelief that the powerful woman of my childhood memory would be reduced to this, to requiring help going to the bathroom, to struggling with her walker to get to the dining room, where this once superb chef and lover of fine cuisine now dutifully, gratefully, eats soggy vegetables, tasteless mashed potatoes, and every night the same desert of tinned fruit and store-brand ice cream.

But there was something else, something more existential. I was free to come and go, to return to the world of the goal-oriented jugglers of multiple demands, each adorned with an exclamation point: Career! Children! Marriage! Creative endeavors! Volunteering! The ongoing striving for success! Travel! Plans! Big and bigger plans! But now, out in that heady, jostling, accomplishing, forward-looking world, from which my mother, no-longer-fully-of-this-world in her infirmity, was now barred, I myself felt like the ghost–one of Wim Wenders angels from his film Wings of Desire, sent down from a gritty, earth-worn heaven, aware of the flimsiness of everything, tuned in to the cares and struggles and anguish, but most of all knowing that for me, at least, everything was already over.

I know rationally that it is my mother who is dying, not me, and yet emotionally, her story is simply my story; I find myself moving through the world as if I am myself looking through the window of her little room in the nursing home, no longer fully one of the living. We have always had an uncanny connection—not unusual between parent and child (I shudder to recognize this same kind of bond with my own children; work against it, an inner voice whispers, one day, when it is me dying, let them not feelthis”). My psyche has always had a parallel groove, her experience somehow silently sliding along within or beneath my own. Though the Pacific Ocean has separated us all my adult life, I have known when she was unwell or unhappy. I have startled awake many times, minutes before an urgent phone call came in; I have felt dogged by black clouds I knew were not my own, troubled by anguish that was hers. Though the ocean did not muffle the power of the psychic connection, it has served me well—the earth’s largest moat—allowing me peace enough to get on with my own life. Only now, when the coordinates of her life have shifted into that final, two-dimensional arrow, pointing to the grave, that parallel groove has taken over.

As the long-ago established holder of my mother’s psyche, I seem unable to push aside this crushing approach of death (and the fact that death awaits us all gives credibility to my experience). I feel it as a struggle for breath, aware that soon, the air will not move in and out of my mother’s lungs. I feel it as a panic that I’ve not appreciated life more (though I’ve appreciated it a great deal), that I’ve not given full flower to the many opportunities I was, by chance of my birth, accorded–not treasured every single second of motherhood myself, aghast in confronting that my own children are grown, or nearly so: that I’ve not fulfilled—I don’t know, the privilege of life itself, though I’m not sure what it would mean to fulfill this. I am staring, through my mother’s eyes, at the reality that life is almost forever over, the final wrist-slap of death itself.

My own voice booms in my ears: see this hand, typing on the computer keyboard? The hand that holds my lover, that once held my children, that clapped with joy or fluttered with despair, that makes a living, cooks meals, that reaches out for life, ever more life. This hand, my mother’s hand really, since it came from her, since it looks a bit like hers once looked, will soon be cold flesh in damp dirt. Thoughts that come from a life that is now filled with the approach of death.

And since I’ve looked for so long through the eyes of my mother, I suppose I can’t really imagine how the world will look when her eyes are no longer there to see. And now that she will never again see the beautiful lake I am looking at in upstate New York (she saw it once on a shared vacation long ago), I am channeling it back to her, trying, in some Twister-like contortion, to reverse the configuration—to have her see through my eyes, since hers, soon to be sightless, are confined to a space dominated by limitation, suffering, indignity.

I can’t help thinking about how the world will look when her funeral is underway and I am standing at her grave. Knowing the gaze that was the very first sight of my own blinking, newborn eyes, no longer exists: her beautiful eyes—loving, angry, delighting, rejecting, searching, aching, always alive, ever seeing—now inanimate beneath the earth. What will happen to the sunlight, when she is no longer there to see it? What will happen to the sight of my own eyes, which lay claim to the world, from the start, through hers?

Shira Nayman is a Clinical Psychologist and the author of three books, A Mind of Winter and The Listener, (novels) and Awake in the Dark (novella/stories). She has published fiction and nonfiction in The Atlantic Monthly, New England Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. She lives with her family in New Jersey.



The Dance

The Dance

Art the Dance 2

By Allison Slater Tate

Though I think I have blocked most of middle school out of my consciousness in the interest of self preservation, I do still possess a few vivid memories 28 years later. Among the best: the night of one of our few middle school dances that fulfilled every excruciating promise of its kind, including boys on one side of the darkened, slightly gym and girls on the other, punch bowls and bad snacks, bored chaperones, and a distinct lack of actual dancing.

My neighbor’s dad brought us home, and I remember bursting into my bedroom, still decorated in the yellow gingham wallpaper of my childhood nursery, and throwing myself on my white wicker canopy bed, my cheeks flushed from the night’s excitement. My room was tiny, but I didn’t know it. My lavender, art deco style boom box sat on my dresser, and I turned on the radio and listened rapturously to the same songs that I had just heard at the dance: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Starship’s “Sara.” I was buzzing on a cocktail of hormones, friends, and the possibility of romance (Romance would not actually arrive in any real shape or form for another three years). I was a first child with no one to model, the owner of a mouth full of braces, a chest I didn’t know what to do with, and zits that befuddled me. I still carried the baby fat of adolescence.

There was nothing about me that wasn’t awkward. And still, I felt broken wide open, like anything was possible. Thirteen is not the easiest age, but it has its own magic.

I’ve lost the braces, but I still have a chest I never quite mastered, baby fat of a different nature, and, most maddeningly, the zits have returned, full force. I’m 41, and now my oldest child is 13. I never imagined when I was 13 that I would still be growing up, and yet, here I am, growing up alongside my child, both of us learning how to deal with chin hair at the same time.

From the day he was born, I have been anticipating this time: he’s coming into his own, growing into a body that has always seemed to fit him like his father’s shirts, filling out both physically and emotionally. He has opinions and a sense of humor and when he speaks, he makes cultural and literary allusions sometimes that make my heart leap out of my chest because I realize how much he is aware of now, how much he is in the world. He’s filling out his high school registration papers. He has middle school dances of his own.

He and I have our own awkward dance going on between us, too, because, frankly, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I have never parented a teenager before, and he has never been a teenager before. If there is anything I have learned in the past almost 14 years, it’s that every single child is different, so there’s really no book or set of instructions I can pore over and study and learn that will tell me exactly how to navigate his last four years at home. I have to wing it, and that feels a little like being 13 myself: broken wide open, like anything is possible.

That feels a little more terrifying from this vantage point.

Art The DanceSo I worry about how much time he spends alone in his room, even though I know I did the same, because I miss him. I leave new books on the staircase where he might stumble over them, resigned to the knowledge that anything I recommend outright will be dismissed summarily. I yell up to him in the mornings to wake him up a minimum of three times, my tone and my threats growing fiercer each time, then seethe when he casually shuffles into the kitchen 15 minutes before we have to leave for school and settles in for a leisurely breakfast. I nag, he shrugs. I cajole, he demurs. Push, pull, back and forth, as we each struggle to lead and not to step on each other’s toes.

Sometimes we are really in sync, and I hate to even acknowledge it, because I’m afraid I will puncture some hole in the bubble and it will all crash to earth: he wants to spend time with us, or he tells me about his day at school in more than one sentence, or he texts me about a triumph over a particularly gnarly biology test. After volleyball practice, he and I swing through a local drive-thru and we talk about music or books or what he is analyzing in English class. I tried not to grin too hard when he recently mused, “I tend to like ’80s music the best. After all, it’s what I grew up on.” My work is done here, I thought with a mental fist pump.

Other times, we stumble and fall, and this is where the hardest work is: learning when to let him struggle and when to offer my hand if he needs a lift, encouraging him to stretch and grow even when it is painful. Recently, he pulled a stunt involving his schoolwork that I pulled when I was his age. Because I had done it myself, I called him out immediately. He was busted, full stop. The question was what consequences to give him.

In general, I have been pretty lucky so far. My teenager is most definitely a teenager, but he is mostly responsible, mostly reasonable, mostly a kid who doesn’t make me worry too much…yet. But the problem is, I know to sustain that, I have to draw boundaries; I have to be a parent when the situation calls for it. That day, I struck a compromise. I let him know how angry I was, and that there would be very real consequences for his actions. I let him know that if it happened again, the consequences would be much bigger. I wasn’t easy on him, but I wasn’t quite as hard as I could have been. I didn’t exactly give him the gift of failure, but I gave him the gift of one strike.

The worst part of that day was having to discipline a kid that has only made one B in middle school, a kid that is excited about joining the Debate Team in high school and tells me he “doesn’t need the drama” of a middle school romance. He never complains about volleyball practice, he comes and kisses my head every night at bedtime on his own accord, and he fiercely loves his baby sister. He’s a good kid. Don’t make me do this, I wanted to plead to him. Don’t make me come down hard on you. Because I knew that I had to, but I didn’t want to. I know we’re both learning, both figuring this out, and as much as I want to give him room, I want to make sure he knows I am not a fool or a pushover; I’m paying attention.

But this is the dance now. When they were babies, it was a waltz: there was a rhythm, a cadence to our days, so that even when the unpredictable happened, it happened within a pattern. But now, we’re two-stepping, quick-quick-slow-slow, turns as fast as we can take them. I’m trying to keep up, trying not to step out of turn, trying to keep him with me – my cheeks flushed, my adrenaline pumping, broken open, because that is the only way to do this.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and the mother of four children in Central Florida. She is a Contributing Blogger for Brain, Child, and she also regularly writes for the websites of both the TODAY SHOW and NBC News covering parenting and college stories. Her writing also appears at the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, The Mid, the Huffington Post, and the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Follow her on Facebook ( or at her eponymous website,

The Decision

The Decision

mother and two daughters playing on the beach at the day time

By Francesca Grossman

My childhood stairs were carpeted red with little black flecks. The rug was threadbare in places, and I spent hours every day pulling the little wiry strings back to reveal more wood. The stairs always squeaked as they do in old houses, so that later, as a teenager, I knew exactly which side of which step to avoid when I snuck out to meet my boyfriend in the dead of night.

I felt most comfortable on those stairs, perched on the small landing exactly three stairs from the top, where upstairs became downstairs and daytime became nighttime.

I floated down those stairs once; I can still feel the flight in my flesh, the ultimate little girl freedom dream when life had yet to leaden me. That night of the floating dream, I ended up pouring a glass of milk in the kitchen, the cold white liquid overflowing the tall glass, spilling on my hand and then the linoleum floor, waking me up.

One winter afternoon when I was about seven, my father came back from the hospital after having surgery on his hands. He had arthritis, and it was bad enough that he had to “fix his thumbs” in my mother’s words. All I remember was he disappeared rather suddenly, and was gone at least a week.

It was a Saturday morning, and I wore a flannel nightgown with a lace collar and elastic wrists I would pull until they ripped and stretched. I wore my nightgown all day on the weekends, feeling the freedom of a day without pants.

My father was a gorgeous man. Still is. Tan, thin, one part Cary Grant, one part The Man with the Yellow Hat. His mole, black and distinctive, sat right on his cheekbone, below his left eye. When he walked in the front door, which was directly at the bottom of the stairs, my mother had to help him take off his coat. She had driven him home. His thumbs were wrapped in white braces wrapped in Velcro to render them immovable.

“Hey, CiCi,” he said.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said, and came down the stairs from my perch, not knowing whether to hug him in case I would hurt him.

“Miss me?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I missed you,” he said, and ran one finger under my chin, feeling the soft skin there. The Velcro scratched my neck, but I kept that to myself. He kissed my head.

He went into the kitchen to talk to my mother and I stayed in the foyer, the black marbled linoleum cold under my feet.

A little later, after he went upstairs to rest, I crept up after him and sat again on the stairs, slowly inching my way toward his room. The door was closed and no light shone through the crack at the bottom. I reached the doorframe and sat outside. The old floor was hardwood and splintery, and I arranged my nightgown so that I wouldn’t sit directly on the prickly bits.

At first, I thought my father had the TV on. Long low moans punctuated by hiccupping sobs filtered through the doorjamb.

Then it hit me—my father was crying.

I had never heard my father cry before, though I would hear it again in the years to come. But on this day in my childhood, I had never even considered my father crying a possibility. He was a mostly happy man who only seemed to ever get upset when I woke him up from a nap, or when my sister and I would pretend to run away, filling our knapsacks with stuffed animals for dramatic emphasis.

My mother was always the anxious one, the rule maker, the one who checked the stove twice before we left, even though she hadn’t used it that day.

I didn’t know what to do. I scooted closer to the white, peeling door and held my arms wide and flat. I pressed my face up against it, and closed my eyes, smelling the old paint. I stayed there, hugging that door, for a long while, knowing that I couldn’t go in, but not willing to leave.

My narrative on love, marriage and parenting was tight and exact. Everyone in my family met young, married young, and stayed together until they were old. I grew up with parents and grandparents all who were still together and (mostly) happy. The people in my family loved their children fiercely. There was never a doubt in my mind that my parents would do anything for me or for my sister, anything at all. I never wondered if they wanted me, I never felt as though I didn’t fit in the family. There still is no doubt in my mind about that. If I call, they come. It has been tested more than once, even in my darkest days. That’s it.

I think, as a child, my understanding of this kind of love made me feel protected and safe. As I grew up and moved away, I set a goal for myself: give myself to other people, especially my future children, with a feverish protection of love.

So when I heard my dad cry from pain, or I saw my mom anxious and worried, or any sliver of doubt made its way under my fingernails, it unwound me. It shook me to see them shaken, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. What I decided on was probably the worst way to deal with anxiety: stomach it all and not let the unraveling show.

In a sense, it was this self-magnified promise of parental love and safety that rooted something in me that was both good and bad: a deep need to echo my childhood, and an even deeper fear that I wouldn’t be able to.

As long as I can remember, I have been a hopeless maternal. I would mother my friends, my pets, my sister and my stuffed animals. I wanted to be able powerful, multitasking, strong. Like my own mother.

My mother put us before herself at every instance. There was never any doubt in my mind that my sister and I were the best things that had happened to her. There was never any competition with friends, or work, or life, really. As I look back, I realize this may not have been the healthiest reality for her, but for us, it was paradise. And it was the way I learned what motherhood meant—giving everything, all of myself, to everyone else.

Every summer, still now, my family rents a cottage on a beach in Cape Cod. The house is tiny and sparse, but the beach is expansive, spectacular, ours.

Almost every day, we would walk down to the completely desolate part of the beach, about a half a mile from the eighty stairs that took us up the dune and back to our cottage. There was clay that made itself from the water and the sand and the wind and we would paint it on ourselves with our fingers, sure it would do something magical to our skin and soul.

My mother, sister and I were painting with the magic clay when a gust of wind blew by, whipping sand into our faces. My sister got sand in her eyes and she burst into tears. Later in life, my sister’s eyes would get her into or out of anything she wanted, but back then, a child of four or five, they got in her way. Catlike, huge, taking up half of her face, they were quick to catch pinkeye and seemed to always be irritated by something.

“Get it out, get it out,” my sister shrieked, holding her little balled-up hands against her eye sockets, hopping on one foot to the other. I had closed my eyes in time, my seven- or eight-year-old self much more sandstorm savvy. Plus, my eyes were a much smaller target – relatively normal sized, and plainer than my sister’s.

“Stop, wait, stop!” my mother exclaimed as my sister jumped around in agony. We had nothing with us, no towel, not even a tee shirt.

“It hurts,” my sister cried.

My mother paused.

“Ok, hold on.” She kneeled on the sand next to my sister. Her red bathing suit wedged up her bum but she didn’t move to pick it; she was working. The tan line on her rearend made a perfect “V.”

My mother pulled my sister’s head close to her face.

“Here,” she said. And she put her lips right up against one eye, and then the other, licking her eyelids.

“Ew,” I said, but quietly.

She did it again, slowly, making sure to get the sides of the eyes too.

“Ok, now try to open.”

My sister opened one eye slowly, blinking rapidly, then the other. She looked around.

“It’s gone,” she said.

The awe I felt watching my mother lick the sand out of my sister’s eyes was palatable. That was the kind of thing that big love makes. That was motherhood. My mother was a master of motherhood. She put us first always. She’d lick the sand from our eyes.

In that moment, as I watched my mother heal my sister, I knew I needed to have children of my own someday; even then, I wanted the ability to come up with a solution out of thin air. I wanted to love my children with that kind of thick, unconditional, and obvious maternal love. And I’ll be honest: I wanted, of course, to be loved with that kind of awe too. I wanted, I still want, I think, the kind of gratitude that my sister had for my mother in that moment. Her mommy stopped her pain.

I was twenty-nine and had just had surgery to remove my thyroid and the cancer had grown. I was also sick with Crohn’s disease and a peripheral arthritis that brought me to my knees. I was stricken with insomnia and used that time to internally obsess about whether it would be selfish to have a baby in my state, to the point where it’s all I could think about. It was taking over every inch of my headspace, and I was slowly starting to drive myself crazy. What would I do with my life if I didn’t have children? What would my husband do? Would he leave? Should he leave? Should I leave to save him that choice?

There’s no clear prognosis with Crohn’s. Usually, hopefully, it was possible to get it under control and live a long, happy life. Doctors, patients and the internet showed me the gamete of other dire possibilities. Since then, I have heard more varying and optimistic versions. But it’s also very possible that my life could be spent in and out of hospitals, having numerous surgeries, living with very little energy and a low quality of life. Even if I never got worse, living a life I had been living—having to be within a ten-foot vicinity of a clean, private bathroom, hiding my depression from my friends, having a difficult time walking, standing up, sitting down, lying down, turning over—wasn’t a great indication of the life I would lead in the future. I could get better, sure, but what if I didn’t? What if I got worse?

My doctors had told me that the Crohn’s was an indication that I had very severe inflammation response, and the thyroid cancer was just one more confirmation that my immune system was severely off kilter. When foreign agents entered my system, my body tried to kill them. Why would that not happen with a fetus? Why would my body spare those new cells when it won’t anything else?

Also, this disease (and my other autoimmune maladies) was genetic. My father suffered from several ailments, as did my grandmother. What right did I have to pass that on to an innocent child?

I kept overthinking, bringing myself into reality: What would I do if I had children, but I couldn’t care for them? What if the cancer comes barreling back? What if I was too tired to help take care of them? What if my husband, Nick resented how much work of a burden he had to shoulder?

My mouth felt coated in cotton and tasted like play dough. Some of my prescriptions came with a side effect of dry mouth, and the aftertaste of the pills was always salty and surprising. I grabbed the water bottle by my side of the bed and took a long swig.

I knew Nick was sleeping, but I started talking to him anyway.

“What if it doesn’t happen, or maybe worse? What if it does happen but then I kill it?” I said.

“You are not going to kill it,” Nick said sleepily, as if he anticipated me waking him up with that thought. He sighed, turning over to face me.

Our bedroom had one big window right next to the bed. I stared out of it in my insomniac nights, watching the trees. The phone lines and their birds turned from black silhouettes to 3-D as the morning arrived. Pinks and oranges painted the sky. Clouds swirled above the buildings and the trees. It was so big, that sky, it made me feel like I could believe in some sort of God.

“What if I can’t take care of one?” I asked again.

“Well, I think you can, but I know what you’re saying,” he said.

The sunrise was blocked by the building across the street, but I got up and climbed onto the windowsill to peer around it, trying to find the sun.

“We could just try,” Nick said from the bed.

“Yeah, we could.”

I searched the sky for the answer to the real question: could I live with not being a mother? Could I live without giving birth? Could I? Could I really be like my mom on that day on the beach, ready for anything, giving it my all? Or would I be like her in different ways, ones less strong?

We are not supposed to remember things before we are four, but I do, down to the feel of the wallpaper.

I remember my mother, deep in her bed with her socks on, sticking out. She never wore socks, so I remember it surprised me. Her heels were always cracked, like mine are now, and though she perpetually tried to soften them, with creams and gels and special razors, in the summer they immediately toughened up, calloused and yellow and split as soon as she set foot on them. There was nothing wrong with her skin; it was just the way she was put together.

When I was about twenty years old, my mother told me that the best thing she learned in therapy during that period was that at a certain point you get to choose if you want to stay miserable. I’m not sure when that choice happens. After all, we can live inside of sadness for a long time before we see the choice as real.

I remember my father looking for me, I could hear him call, and I realized after a moment that my mother didn’t see me. She was sleeping, maybe. She had been in bed for days, maybe weeks, though at age two I should not have been able to remember anything like this, especially not the feel of time.

It was summer. The big fan in the attic was whirling. The air was heavy and hot. I sat on the coarse bright red and white rug on the floor of my parents’ room and looked at my mother’s face. It looked creased and old, though she was just over thirty. Her long dark brown hair spilled over the side of the bed but a thin piece stuck to her cheek with what I realize now was a glue of dried tears.

Something was different about my mother then. She was skinnier than I remembered, weaker. Her fingers were bare, her plain thick gold wedding ring sat on the mirrored tray on her dresser next to the perfume she didn’t wear anymore.

I heard my father again, this time closer.


He came into the room and scooped me up. My bare legs burned on the rug from the quick movement.

“I lost you, for a second,” he said with a laugh because he didn’t mean it, or didn’t want to scare me, or something.

“Daddy,” I said, reaching up.

He had me on his hip, which was not really a hip for holding children—bony and sharp. His dog tags, actual dog tags because he thought it was funny to wear them, bumped up against an old Talmud pendant in sterling silver in the jingle that always told me he was there.

He perched me again on the other side, and then went over to my mother’s side of the bed, the left side, or the right if you were in it. He looked down at her, and just for a moment, lost his perpetual smile. The jungle wallpaper behind him became 3-D and I reached out my hand over his shoulder to touch it. It was rough, like real leaves, which at the time I imagined it was.

He took the little piece of stuck hair and pulled it gently off my mother’s cheek, placing it back on her head and holding it there.

“You need anything?” he asked, which surprised me because I thought she was sleeping.

“No,” she answered quietly, not opening her eyes. Not sleeping.

He nodded and turned away from her, back towards me.

“Should we get a snack?” he asked me, nuzzling his face into my neck, feeling the underside of my chin with one finger, as he always did.

I don’t remember nodding, but we went to the kitchen anyway for our usual snack of three cookies on a plate washed down with some ice cold milk.

That night, staring out the sunrise, Nick tucked into bed, arguing with me about my chances at motherhood, I realized something. At different times in my life, both my mother and my father were sick in some way. This is true for every child, I suppose. My mother had some times of sadness, like I do, and my father suffered the kind of severe genetic inflammatory disease I have been dealt. He has thyroid disease, and severe arthritis, and stomach problems, at times. I cannot know if the way I see the world is natural or nurtured. I imagine some of both. But I know what love is. And it is bigger than illness, in all its forms. It busts through.

The kind of love my parents have for me and my sister is fiery and absolute. It’s as small as the circumference of our four-person nuclear family and as big as the blue September sky. I have never doubted it for a minute and I can only hope that someday, someone will trust my love like that; that I will be that love that shines through any of my illnesses; that I will be strong enough.

Years later, we are on the beach, the same beach that my family has been going to all my life, the same eighty steps down the bumpy dune from the cottage at the top. I am with my family, my children, and Nick. Theo and Brieza and I are walking towards the surf. It is colder than usual in July, and the waves are rougher than they usually are on Cape Cod.

Nick is perched in a chair out of the way of the water, dressed in a bathing suit and a sweatshirt, holding the rainbow umbrella he just put up with one hand, but having a tough time keeping it still.

My son and my daughter play ahead of me, both only in bathing suits, neither of them cold. I pull a Little Mermaid towel tight around my shoulders, but follow them to the foamy break.

The wind kicks up. Sand whips around us and I throw my towel out against it.

My daughter laughs, but my son cries. He kneels, holding his face in his hands.

Immediately, I know what happened, and I know what to do. I run to him, lift his five-year-old head in my hands, tilt his chin up and peel his balled up fists from his eyes. I lean down and lick the outsides of each of his eyelids, one by one. He is surprised, but doesn’t squirm away.

“Better?” I ask. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, Mama. I’m OK.”

There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. It is on that line I balance. I used to think the beat of my life was uneven, stopping and starting with the poison of sickness. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the beating has been pretty steady all along. I can’t do this, I must do this, I can’t do this, I must do this. And on and on.

Nick and I have landed in our life. It’s not settled, it never will be. We have two healthy children I thought we could never have. We have jobs, we have a home. We are well more often than we are not. We have an old cat that likes to find the square of sun on the edge of the bed. We battle chronic disease.

I used to wonder what would make me whole: what pill, or man, or relationship, or therapist. Now I think it isn’t about adding things to your life to become whole, but instead it’s about taking them away. Like my fear. Like my vanity. Like my need to be healed. Maybe, if I unfurl myself so that the palm of me is naked to the world, and I am here, in my body and in my life, in my remission, then I can finally be complete. Right there is freedom. Right there is absolution. Right there is grace. Right there is me.

Francesca Grossman’s work includes contributions to The New York Times Motherlode, Drunken Boat, Brain, Child Magazine, Ed Week/Teacher,, S3 Magazine, and Interview Magazine. She graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in Education and from Harvard with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, with a focus on writing education and improvement. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza.











The Joyful Mysteries

The Joyful Mysteries

Woman with Rosary Beads

By Maria Massei-Rosato

Prayer beads are used by many different religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Catholics use a form with 59 beads and pray the Rosary.

I don’t remember owning a set of rosary beads when I was young, although I’m sure every Catholic girl did. My memory of rosary beads is of a cranberry colored glass “necklace” resting on my mother’s nightstand. I rarely saw her pray with them, but when she did, she fingered each bead with eyes closed, in silence. I wondered what she was telling God. At some point I understood that when you held a smaller bead you recited a Hail Mary, and when you held a larger bead you recited The Lord’s Prayer: the mother and son duet first taught to Catholic toddlers.

Later, I learned about the “Mysteries,” vignettes meant to focus the Rosary recitation on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are the Joyful Mysteries which begin with the Angel Gabriel telling Mary she would conceive a son of God, and end with the young Jesus teaching in the temple; then there are the Sorrowful Mysteries representing the pain and suffering of Christ culminating in his crucifixion, and the Glorious Mysteries that exalt Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s ascension into Heaven.

If I had attended Catholic school, these Mysteries and the recitation of the Rosary might have been performed by rote quickly breeding contempt and contempt breeding rejection. Instead, twenty years later, I was intrigued to discover something familiar yet unfamiliar. I found a particular connection to Mary, mother of Jesus, mother to all, perhaps because her prayer is the dominant force of the Rosary: ten Hail Mary’s are recited for every Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps, I also felt connected to Mary because I became a mom.

Joyful Mystery #1: Humility

Originally the rosary had 150 beads, the same number of psalms in the Bible. In the twelfth century, religious orders recited together the 150 Psalms as a way to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. Those people who didn’t know how to read wanted to share in this practice, so praying on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate could remember the Lord and his mother throughout the day.

Sue, my mother-in-law, died in 1999, the year my son was born. At sixty-six it was unexpected. She had broken a hip. Then the doctors discovered bone cancer and told her she’d live because they had caught it in time. But when you don’t want to live, your body listens to that desire. She recovered from hip surgery in a nursing home – a rehab center with overworked nurses’ aides and a community of residents parked in wheelchairs along the hall waiting for visitors, the next Bingo game, Jell-O dessert, death. She felt old, her mind stifled by years of living with a man who floated through jobs, leaving them with no pension, no hope, no desires, and no money. Her voice had been muted, her life force sucked out.

My husband and I bought Sue a clear set of rosary beads in a gift shop at the legendary New York City, St. Patrick Cathedral’s. We brought it to the nursing home thinking they’d provide a sense of peace while she waited. But she insisted on using the white plastic set provided by the nursing home. “I don’t want anyone to steal my rosary; you don’t know the people here.”

Soon after, I coordinated the details of her wake so my husband and his father could grieve. I searched Sue’s closet for the rose colored chiffon dress she wore to our wedding, the matching pumps, her glasses. Wanting to bury her with the sparkling translucent beads, I searched for them in the two black Hefty bags sent by the nursing home stuffed with her personal belongings. A pair of sneakers, a silk jogging style jacket interlaced with gold thread, a well-worn cardigan, a bunch of nightgowns. I searched the bags three times but never found the beads. I thought, maybe Sue was right; maybe someone had stolen them. She was buried right hand on top of left, holding the rosary beads provided by the funeral home.

A day later I opened one of the garbage bags. I froze. The beads lay atop a sweater, cradled by the gentle folds of the fabric, in plain sight. I sucked in a deep breath and knew with certainty that these rosary beads were meant for my daughter, a daughter yet to be conceived.

Joyful Mystery #2: Love thy Neighbor

The Rosary gained popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks planned a raid on the coast of Italy. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked the faithful to say the Rosary and implore the Blessed Mother to pray for the Lord to grant victory to the Christians. Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians, the Moslems were defeated.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I decided to learn how to say the Rosary. I purchased a pocket guide and began carrying Sue’s beads with me. I learned that the smaller beads represent rosebuds—each prayer like a rosebud being lifted to heaven. Ten beads represent one mystery or one decade, and each decade begins with reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I tried to begin each day praying one mystery: one Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be.

I work two blocks from the World Trade Center and when my son was a toddler, I dropped him off at a daycare center nearby. On the morning of 9/11, I exited the subway station with debris raining from the sky and I realized it was not a day for daycare. So I found myself in the bowels of my office building pointing to comic book characters to keep my 2-½ year-old son from realizing the danger we were in. I didn’t remember that the rosary beads were in my bag. I didn’t remember as we stepped into the white powder of death that lined the sidewalks. I didn’t remember as we walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hardly able to breathe through the soot that permeated the air and shrouded the trees. I didn’t remember I had them as we sat on a bus that took us across the bridge. It wasn’t until we were on the commuter railroad, on our way home, staring at a woman who was uncontrollably crying that I remembered the beads. I could not comfort her because I feared I would end up crying just like her and I had this toddler who didn’t understand how difficult the world had just become.

“Mama, we’re taking the train. Is this the 4 or the 5?”

“No honey, this is the Long Island train.”

“I want to sit next to the window.”

I took out Sue’s rosary beads. “Anthony, let’s pray together.”

He pulled the beads.

“No Anthony, they’re not a toy.” I tugged back.

He laughed. He was testing me. I didn’t want to be tested. I just wanted to pray.

“Anthony, please let go of the beads, or they’re going to break.”

I pulled gently, and a fragile silver link broke, yet the beads remained intact.

Joyful Mystery#3: Detachment from Things of the World

When England and Ireland were severed from Rome under Henry VIII, Ireland maintained a separate allegiance to Rome. Practicing Catholics carried small, easily hidden rosaries to avoid punishment, sometimes as severe as death. These rosaries, especially the smaller ring-type, became known as soldiers’ rosaries because soldiers often took them into battle.

Mom had been widowed at the age of fifty. When I married, she began her empty-nest stage and then nine years later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her nighttime routine: eat dinner in the living room on a snack table watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, turn off the television after the Mets lost the lead in the bottom of the ninth and mumbling to her empty rooms “Oh they stink!” climb the stairs, sometimes brush her teeth, change into a flannel nightgown with white anklets so her feet won’t be cold, and reach for her rosary beads on the nightstand as her mattress enfolds the body it knows so well.

At seventy-nine she suffered two heart attacks and congestive heart failure. One of her nurses remarked, “Her breathing sounds like a washing machine.” For the nineteen days of Mom’s hospital stay, I arrived in the mornings elated to see her alive. Her hands were a bruised plum and mustard map of the IV needles and blood tests. I placed her frail hand in mine so her fingers rested gently over my palm. “How are you doing Mom?” I knew she couldn’t answer, but trying to create normalcy was a habit I had developed during the Alzheimer years. I silently thanked her for hanging on overnight, and then, as if I had split personalities, I prayed for her death. I would settle into a stiff hospital chair to begin praying the Rosary on a set of wooden beads. I savored the mysteries – Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious – as part of a routine that would get me through the hospital day.

The set was a miniature version, only 10 Hail Mary beads—the soldier rosary. A woman from my church had given them to me a few months earlier. I didn’t know her name. I recognized her in the emergency room of our local hospital when I had to be intravenously hydrated because a parasite had made its home in my intestines. The woman was lying on a stretcher just across from me, her arm extended over the gurney, her face distorted in excruciating pain. She had dislocated her shoulder and cried in agony even after she had been pumped with painkillers. All I could offer was my prayer card – the one I had searched for before leaving my house for the emergency room; a Saint Anthony’s prayer, the saint of miracles and the saint my husband prayed to when, before his birth, my son was diagnosed with hydronephrosis, a swelling of the kidney area. The saint had delivered on our miracle six months later when the pediatric urologist announced, “I looked over the latest CAT Scan and I don’t understand it, but it’s gone.”

I reached over and handed my prayer card to her husband. He took it, whispered something to his wife and gave her the card. She looked at the portrait and immediately placed the card under her face, clenching it tightly. The next week at church when mass was over we exchanged, how are yous. We both were better. Then she lifted my hand and placed inside the miniature rosary with a wooden cross and beads and a Padre Pio medallion. In her broken English, she said “Pray for Saint Padre Pio.”

I had heard of Padre Pio, something about the stigmata, but the beads prompted a bit more research. Born in Italy, he became a priest in the early 1900’s. He suffered various illnesses most of his life. The stigmata, bleeding from wounds similar to those caused by crucifixion, began early in his priesthood and lasted for 50 years until his death. He believed in the power of meditation, often meditating with the rosary. He is quoted as saying: “Pray, Hope, Don’t Worry.” He died holding a set of rosary beads in his hands.

Mom outlived her rosary beads. On day seven of her hospital stay, the link connecting the cross was broken and the cross was missing. On day twelve the Padre Pio medallion had disappeared. Both times I searched the sheets, the floor, the drawers next to her bed. I asked the nurse’s aide. “I saw them last night after I changed her.” Then she proceeded to look in the same places I had. The day before her death, I walked into my mom’s room and after I kissed her forehead, I searched the usual places for what had been left of the rosary, ten wooden beads held together in a circle. I came up empty. This time I asked the nurse. “Oh, yes. I remember seeing them next to her pillow. Maybe when they changed the sheets…I’ll check with Laundry.” She returned ten minutes later to say nothing had been found. That day I prayed the Rosary using my fingers to keep count.

Joyful Mystery #4: Obedience

In 1917, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared before three children in Fatima, Portugal, telling the children she was “Our Lady of the Rosary” and asking them to pray the Rosary to help save the world.

A week into Mom’s hospital stay I became extremely ill; severe diarrhea, like hemorrhaging of a life. My husband visited my mom while I slumped on the couch and my 4-year old son alternated between concern and helpfulness. He handed me the thermometer: 105! I took it again, 104.5. Again 105.2! In a flash of panic, I remembered a vision I had had two days into Mom’s hospital stay as I was folding myself into a hospital bedside chair, half asleep: Mom, dressed in a red and white flowing robe was standing, which was remarkable since she hadn’t been able to lift herself to an upright position in years. She was talking to me, also something she hadn’t done in years. “Maria, I want you to come with me.”

At the time of the vision, I rationalized its meaning. Since my father’s death thirty years ago, it had just been the two of us. Perhaps the reason she had been defying the expectations of doctors, nurses, and me was because she was so worried about me; leaving this earth meant detaching from the bond we had shared for so long.

Processing the vision with a 105 fever, my panic deepened and I found myself offering a silent plea: You can’t take me with you. I need to be here for Anthony. You need to do this on your own.

“Can I read it?” Anthony asked for the thermometer. His concerned face mirrored mine. He walked over to the mantel, opened a red wooden box decoupaged with pansies in search of his children’s rosary beads. Colorful oversized wooden beads; they were a Christmas gift from a very good friend. Ever since receiving the gift, our bedtime ritual had begun with Anthony and me reciting the Rosary – one mystery every night before bed – accompanied by a CD version of children praying with an Aussie accent. It was a bedtime routine unconnected to illness, so it surprised me that he was searching for the rosary beads. He walked back over to the sofa, beads in hand, and said, “Mama, you’ll feel better. I’m going to pray the Rosary.” With that my 4-year old began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Joyful Mystery #5 True Wisdom

Christians believe that those that recite the Rosary are promised during their life and at their death the light of God and His graces, and at the moment of death they will participate in the merits of the saints in paradise.

Mom died in the hospital without her set of rosary beads. I held her hand as her breathing became shallow until there was none. And in that moment, a chilled gust swept through me as if her soul had passed through mine on its way to heaven. On the day we buried her, standard issue funeral rosary beads were placed in her hands.

Author’s note: I don’t attend Sunday mass as often as I used to. I don’t pray the Rosary every night with my son. I believe God loves me even when I don’t show up to mass and even though I don’t pray the Rosary as often. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I found Sue’s broken set of rosary beads and asked my husband to reattach the links. He did. Then I placed them in my 5-year old daughter’s jewelry box.

Maria Massei-Rosato has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities and currently teaches a writing/yoga workshop in NYC and in Maine. She bicycled across the country in 1995 and completed manuscripts of a memoir and screenplay depicting how the journey, which began in Seattle and ended in Brooklyn, New York, taught her valuable lessons about caring for her mom.


Disbelief, Suspended

Disbelief, Suspended

images-4By Kelly Garriott Waite

Evenings, just prior to giving each of the three door handles (one front, two back) a final twist and firm tug, to reassure myself that the deadbolts were engaged, I would unplug the coffee pot. As I slipped into bed, my mind would flash with what ifs and are you sures, images of fires and robbers swirling around my head. In order to relieve my brain, I would repeat this procedure, tiptoeing down the stairs so as not to disturb my parents who’d since gone to their room to read and, for my father, to smoke the night’s last cigarette. I’d hear the click as Dad flipped open his silver lighter, hear him thumb the spark wheel against flint. I’d get a hint of butane and know from the faintest sound of burning the precise instant when the end of Dad’s cigarette caught.

Sometimes – not often, for I had learned to be silent – Dad called out after he snapped the lighter shut and inhaled deeply. What was I doing out of bed? I would claim I needed a glass of water, in the kitchen going through the motions of turning on the faucet, the running water blanketing the sound of my checking the back doors one more (quietly twisting, quietly tugging – already I knew that there was something unacceptable about my behavior) before giving the coffee pot plug a glance. Often this wasn’t enough. I would have to pass a hand directly in front of the outlet: Perhaps there was an invisible connection between plug and socket that my eyes had not seen.

After, I would sneak into the den and grab my father’s overflowing ashtray, take it to the kitchen, and turn the faucet on again, watching the cigarettes bob in the rising water. Just before heading up the stairs, I’d give the front door another check, just in case.

Back in bed, I hoped to fall asleep quickly so that my mind wouldn’t force me downstairs before breakfast. If I did have to rise again, my checking turned violent: I would yank each of the door handles and wave the plug before my eyes. Sometimes I would run my thumb against the prongs, stab them against my hand. Here was visual, tangible proof that the coffee pot was unplugged, although sometimes even that wasn’t enough to make me believe.

Growing up, I was uncertain about religion: My mother was Catholic, my father a lapsed Protestant. My sisters and I were raised with a foot in each tradition, a situation that left me divided and confused. But I did learn to pray. At night, I’d repeat Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an awful prayer – die before I wake? – probably taught to me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. I prayed as well that the house wouldn’t burn; that the robbers wouldn’t come; that my mind would detach itself from its ever-present worrying. Then I would blink up at the dark ceiling, thinking about the endless black wave I imagined eternity to be.


Shortly after my brother’s birth, my mother nearly died. For days after she’d returned home, somewhat slimmer and with a squalling infant on her arm, Mom complained of a neck ache. The slightest breeze sent her into spasms of pain. She spent hours in our living room, resting her head upon the green card table normally reserved for bridge night. My sisters and I learned to tiptoe. We learned to whisper. We learned how to help care for an infant. I remember watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on television, holding a bottle to my brother’s mouth. As I lifted him to my shoulder to pat his tiny back, my mother turned her head to look at me: You’re going to make a good mother someday.

In the evening of the day that my mother nearly died, my father gathered my sisters and me around him on the couch in the family room while my brother slept blissfully unaware in his bassinet. We almost lost her today. My father swiped at his eyes. It was – and is – the only time I can recall seeing him cry.


Before I turned twelve, I’d convinced myself I had breast cancer, mistaking normally-developing tissue for a lump. I stole the Better Homes & Gardens Family Medical Guide from the den’s bookshelves, reading, under Concerns of Women, about my surgical options. Later, I flipped through my sister’s biology textbook. It showed a breast in the late stages of cancer. For years, I believed I was ill, but I told no one, of course, imagining my slow demise, the horrible disfigurement of my breast eaten away by cancer, and the goodbye note I would write and clutch in my dying hands: I knew it all along. I consoled myself, thanks to Billy Joel, that if I must die young, at least I knew that I was good and so would go to heaven. For years I carried around the fear of breast cancer until it suddenly dawned on me that if I had had the disease, it would have killed me by now.

Every other week, Dad would drop my sisters and me off at the Hilltop Christian Church where we attended Sunday school and then church on our own. I remember newsprint paper and broken crayons. I remember the teacher’s cheeks tinged with pink when she got to the seventh commandment. That’s for adults, she said.

On alternate Sundays, my sisters and I attended St. Joseph Catholic Church with our mother. This, of course, was not church. It was Mass. And the priest (not the minister, nor the pastor) didn’t give a sermon. That long mind-wandering period during which a man stood rambling at the front of the church was called a homily. I remember cushioned kneelers covered in red vinyl. I remember missals with thin yellowed pages. I remember incense and holy water and colorful light slanting through stained glass windows, tinting my legs blue and red, yellow and orang.


After deciding our house was too small for the six of us, my parents bought forty acres of land. We cut down trees and hauled brush. We stacked logs and peed behind the tool shed while our house was being built. We celebrated small victories with takeout chicken dinners, sitting on the plywood floor of the future kitchen of our future home. We worked the land. We made a farm.

We planted a massive garden, too much food for our family to consume: peas, carrots, zucchini and green beans. My mother learned to make strawberry jam, her daughters stirring the pot with a long-handled wooden spoon, hoping to avoid the inevitable splatters. We baled hay. We rode horses. We kept cows and pigs and chickens, whose shit-littered eggs we stole from beneath their warm white breasts every morning.

We walked in the woods, easily jumping across Silver Creek to explore the junk pile, until the beavers moved in, dammed the creek, and made a home of their own.

For a time, my sisters and I exclusively attended a local Disciples of Christ church, my mother having fallen away from the faith of her birth. But after a time, we, too, divorced ourselves from religion. Work and nature had become our altar.


Obsessions don’t just disappear. They metastasize. As soon as my cancer worry was under control, a new fixation began to torment me: Before getting out of bed, I promised myself I wouldn’t overeat that day. But I always did, had already imagined, while still beneath the covers, what I would eat first. A breakfast of sugared cereal, topped with creamy Jif peanut butter and Half and Half, eaten, of course, in secrecy, was immediately followed by a snack: More peanut butter, smeared so thickly on a piece of toast that I could see the imprint of my two front teeth where I’d bitten. I would eat without tasting: A dozen Pop-Tarts, whose empty boxes I would hide until I could safely get rid of the evidence; candy bars from the video store where I worked – I ate so many in a day that I lost track and would stuff the cash register with a handful of singles and hope it was enough; the ten-pound block of Nestlé chocolate my mother kept in the pantry for baking, from which I would hack away hunks with an orange-handled ice pick. After cramming myself with thousands of calories, I was full of shame.

I tracked my food intake, the day’s list always beginning with promise: Puffed Wheat with milk, plum, tea, glasses water, 4. Then cookies, 2 appeared on my list, which suddenly came to an abrupt end. A squiggle appeared across the leftover portion of the day’s page, accompanied by the damning word: binge.

I tracked my measurements, tracked my exercises: jogged 10 minutes with weights on trampoline; 100 jumping jacks; 107 jump rope (not straight). I promised myself a subscription to Shape Magazine, even Glamour if I could reach 125 pounds. I regularly wrote in my journal that I would be totally happy if I were thin, yet happiness eluded me.

I discovered that with Chocolate Ex-Lax, I could eat as much as I wanted and lose weight. I discovered that cigarettes could curb my appetite. I started cooking gourmet dinners for my family and internally criticized them for so openly enjoying food.

Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.


After eight years of farming, my sisters and I gradually lost interest. We sought boyfriends. Independence. Cars. Whenever I drove home from work, or school, or shopping, I’d have to double back to where I’d just been, so certain was I that I’d run someone over. As the miles passed beneath my tires, I’d check the rear view mirror, picturing body parts strewn about, people standing in the street, hands pressed to cheeks, round mouths around horrible screams. A mile would pass. Two. Five. Even ten. My mind, in this mode, was ungrounded, like a bratty toddler having one hell of a temper tantrum, wailing and kicking the ground, demanding that it got its way. Eventually, I would give in to it, turning around in someone’s driveway, my mind circling as I scanned the road for signs of trauma that I knew I’d never find. Through the windshield, I resentfully watched pedestrians going about their business, jogging, shopping, eating ice cream cones. How could they behave so normally when inside I was falling to pieces?

I kept silent about my driving obsession. There was no easy way to bring it up: Sorry I’m late. I thought I ran somebody over. And there wasn’t a lump. There was no fever. There was, in short, nothing tangible to offer up as proof. Having nothing to poke or prod, nothing to press down upon, I certainly could not be ill.

Eventually, I learned to reason my way out of this driving issue, in the same way I’d reasoned my way out of my cancer fear: I forced myself to drive further…further…further, my mind screaming all the while: Stop!Turnthecararound!Danger! My hands shook. My eyes watered as ten miles stretched to fifteen, then twenty. But then, my stomach would fill with the heavy knowing that the irrational side of my mind was about to take over. I was frustrated and angry and so sick of myself and my stupid life.

Yet I learned to fight back, telling myself that I had not heard a thump or a scream, that I had not felt a lump beneath my tires. I promised myself that I would watch the evening news and if there had been a report of a hit and run, I would surrender myself to the authorities.


Before marrying, I told my future husband I would convert to Catholicism. Religion was important to him. I was kind of half-Catholic anyway, I reasoned, even if I hadn’t been to church in years. I wanted our future children to have one faith. I wanted us to attend church as a family.

At the Easter Vigil, after months of Tuesday night lessons, I was baptized and confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, according to the Catholic Church, although my mother had baptized me at home and I’d taken the bread and wine regularly with the Protestants.

My husband and I bought an eighty-year-old house for seventy-nine thousand dollars. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs. One small bathroom. A living room with a hole in the floor and a hideous brown fireplace. There was a dining room with a built-in bench and fabric wall paper. A kitchen with bright yellow tiles, easily dislodged by an incautious tread.


After the birth of my eldest, I thought I had schizophrenia. While my colicky newborn screamed every day from 3 until 6, I put her in her stroller and wheeled her endlessly around the dining room table or sat on the built-in bench, holding her close, praying that she would stop screaming, just for a moment. One day, a clear voice whispered to me: Kill her.

I hadn’t heard of postpartum depression, still wasn’t clear on how to handle my obsessions. I told no one but my husband. I thought that if I sought professional help, my daughter would be taken away from me forever. But I should have remembered the intrusive thoughts I’d had for years.

Sometimes a voice would tell me to drive up on the sidewalk into a crowd of people. I’d grip the steering wheel tightly, press on the brakes, fight the voice inside my head. Sometimes I’d look at a complete stranger, just a sideways glance, and a thought would fill my head: He deserves to go to hell. It didn’t matter if the person was man or woman, child or adult, black or white. My mind chose random targets to mentally condemn. I was a horrible person. I was a sinner. I deserved go to go hell. No they deserved to go to hell. No, I…Back and forth, my rational mind would argue with its irrational partner until my brain felt as if it would explode. But to have such thoughts about my child…I promised myself I’d commit suicide before I harmed my daughter.

I didn’t know the Catholic Church’s stance on this action, killing oneself to avoid harming another. I didn’t care. I would gladly burn in hell to save this infant.


Before my daughters — by now we had two — could get up from their morning naps, I would sweep the floors of the entire house, afraid, if I didn’t, that the girls would get lead poisoning. When I ended in the kitchen, thinking about a cup of coffee and a few moments of reading, I’d tell myself I’d missed a spot and would have to head back upstairs to restart the process. Again and again, while my children slept, I swept those floors, hating myself, hating my brain, wishing for once in my Goddamn life to be a normal human being.

I used to throw away entire meals, so convinced was I that I’d somehow contaminated it with shards of glass or a splash of bleach.

I used to take my daughters’ temperatures. Every. Single. Night.

My husband and I enrolled our daughters in Catholic school at the very church I had attended with my mother and sisters. I continued to wrestle with my new set of beliefs. I confess I have sometimes wondered whether the words of a prophet were actually spoken by a madman, if an angel’s visitation was actually a hallucination.


After we tucked her into bed, my older daughter slipped into the bathroom to wipe down the toilet seat with a tissue. If she didn’t, she knew that a mean man would come through her bedroom window. Every night, she would rid her room of pointy objects and frightening books. She would call down the stairs: Will I be all right? Will anything bad happen? Are the doors locked?

My daughter dealt with her obsessions by constantly seeking reassurances. I gave her what she wanted: A mean man isn’t coming. You’re not having a heart attack.

For a while she was content with this response. Then the obsessions began demanding more. After each reassurance, she sought proof: How do you know?

I just do, I told her. It’s like faith. My own faith was on shaky ground. But still, I told her this. I offered her faith to give her some sort of hope when life felt hopeless.


Before she was in kindergarten, my younger daughter began confessing things: I stuck my middle finger up, which she immediately chased with, Well, I might have. I’m not sure. Later, she developed a strange noise, a high-pitched snort, which she would deploy with regularity. A tic of sorts, my husband and I figured.

Eventually the tic disappeared. My daughter stopped making her confessions. My husband and I concluded that she’d outgrown whatever it was that had been troubling her. We didn’t then know she’d learned to be silent, too.

Because I didn’t tell my daughters I suffered from mental disorders. I told myself that my obsessive behaviors stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home; that the girls were too young to understand; that if I kept silent, if I didn’t name it, mental illness would bypass them. I told myself, too, I was a bad mother. Sometimes–often–I still do.

Faith and OCD. Both powerful. Both mysteries, one of the brain, the other of the soul.


Obsessions are a set of rules for behavior, different for each person: for me, checking the coffee pot, for one daughter, wiping down the toilet, for the other, making confessions. These rules represent an attempt to gain control over our uncontrollable, uncertain world. Christianity, I’d been taught, also has rules which, if we follow, increase our chances of getting to heaven. Life doesn’t actually end when we die.

But reaching that security requires two different paths. The best way for me to work through obsessions was to learn to apply my rational brain to them. I had to look for proof, or lack thereof: Had I heard a thump? No. A scream? No. Had my tires lifted off the ground? No. Only then could I conclude that I’d probably not run anyone over. Faith, however, required suspension of rational brain: I couldn’t see Jesus in the disk cradled in my palm, didn’t see a flash from the sky as He came down from heaven, but I had to accept that He was there. It was a mystery. There could be no proof.

Obsessions and faith and rationality and mystery and those damned intrusive thoughts that grip the brain. Perhaps, like faith, obsessions require a person to go beyond mere rationalizing. Perhaps both faith and OCD require a person to accept the unknowns, without reassurances; without certainties. Will the house catch on fire? Probably not, but a definite possibility. Does God exist? I can offer no proof. And yet, there is always hope.

Now, when I leave Starbucks where I’ve been writing, I have to return to my table to see if I’ve left anything behind: my computer, my notes, the cell phone I know is in the pocket of my jeans. Clearly, I have not exorcized my obsessions. But their grip has lessened somewhat: I don’t unplug the coffee pot before heading to bed. I no longer drive around the block to see if I’ve run someone over.

I used to hope to become the person I was before obsessions crowded my brain. But I am not certain she ever existed. Perhaps I have always been the person I have, for so many years, tried to escape. Perhaps I have always been the after person. And that’s OK. I have learned to accept the mystery that is my brain. I am learning not to be silent about my history of mental illness. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to speak.

Author’s Note: Six weeks ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died this morning. My dad passed on to me his love of hard work. Half of my faith. My respect for nature. He gave me his obsessions, too. The funny thing is, we never talked about it. He suffered in silence. I suffered in silence. Isn’t it time we all started talking?

Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about her search for the stories of both her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-owned Poland, as well as the forgotten owner of her historical Ohio home, an English immigrant who married into a Native American family.

Mountains to Climb

Mountains to Climb

belly copyby Julie Polhemus


“I want to work mountaineering courses,” I told my husband. He smiled.

I had just summited Eldorado Peak, heavy with spring snow, in Washington’s North Cascades. I had even led the climb, heart hammering, pounding in snow pickets along the mountain’s surprisingly airy ridge to protect the climbers following me. Dark, ancient mountain faces dropped to gently curving shoulders of ice behind me. Wide valleys filled like bathtubs with Caribbean-blue glacial melt. My employer, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), offered this mountaineering seminar to instructors who wanted to develop steep snow and glacier travel skills. I became certain on those clear-as-glass May days that I needed to climb more mountains—that I was only just beginning to grasp their good tidings.

I had returned from that seminar nearly bursting.

“But,” I looked at him, still smiling at me, “I think that means I’m not ready to have a baby.” I kept talking, so that he couldn’t. “They need female mountaineers. We can wait to have a baby, right?” I didn’t let him answer. “I’m only 30. We have time. I’m just so excited about climbing mountains.” I finally stopped talking. I looked up at my husband with only my eyes, my face tilted toward the ground. My toes shifted in my sandals.

He considered my words for a few moments. “I’m surprised,” he said softly, his eyes unblinkingly blue, gazing straight into mine.

I nodded, chewing my lips. “I know. But…this is the only job I’ve ever loved. I want NOLS to remember me as a mountaineer when—if—I can work courses again…after we have kids.”

He nodded, understanding. “So, when will we have a baby?”

I shook my head, my eyes welling with unspilled tears. “I don’t know.”


“Back up!” I yelled to Sara, the student on the rope behind me. My ice axe had plunged too easily through the soggy snow, opening a hole into a deep blue crevasse from which I hurriedly backed away. The two students behind Sara on the rope responded quickly, but she fumbled to keep the rope taut and avoid stepping on it with her crampons. Sara. Why hadn’t I asked Emily to tie into the rope directly behind me? I shook my head in nervous frustration. This late in the summer, too little of last winter’s snow remained to bridge crevasses as wide as school buses.

This course was my first as a mountaineering instructor. My careful route-finding had kept us safe as we crossed Mount Baker’s Squak Glacier, but it had also cost us daylight. I found my headlamp in my pack and strapped it over my helmet. Its beam illuminated a circle only four feet in diameter, nearly enough to scan for cracks in the snow that might portend crevasses below. The snow glowed softly, matching the first luminous stars. I turned to check the progress of the other rope teams. I knew that everyone was struggling against fatigue and cold, trying to kick good steps into the sloppy snow. From my vantage, each team was a Christmas strand, four white lights bobbing in a snow-lit sea. I stepped onto the promised land of the gravelly Sulphur Moraine, yelling “Zero!” to Sara so I could set myself up to belay her toward me. This time, when I called to Sara, I relaxed my shoulders. When Sara, Emily, and Neil had all reached me, I coiled the sodden rope.

Three days earlier, I had asked Emily about her medical residency. She had delivered nine babies during the first month. We kept climbing, rhythmically swinging our ice axes into place before taking two more steps. “It was amazing,” she said. “Women’s bodies grow these perfect little people. It was the only part of residency I liked.” When I had imagined myself with children, I had never thought about babies. My husband joked that he would parent for the first ten years, then I could take over.

“Are you going to have children?” Emily asked. “Can you have kids and still work for NOLS?” She looked over her shoulder at me, ice axe in hand.

“You can,” I said, planting my ice axe in the snow. “And I will.”


“More pasta!” my 4-year-old son yells. I stand at the gray counter, chopping pale cheddar cheese. I pull back my puffy down vest so I don’t end up with a greasy stain on the front. A lifetime ago, I snuggled into this vest as I boiled elbow macaroni on Eldorado Peak, high in the Washington wilderness. Then, I shivered as the wind whistled, pushing the windchill to a dozen degrees below freezing, and I stamped my feet and did jumping jacks. Now, all three kitchen lights shine down, a yellow glow battling the day’s damp gloom. I cube another slice of cheese. A voice grates behind me, “Mom, pasta!” I take a deep breath, then remind him to ask politely.

I turn to my daughter, who is silent and deeply absorbed in her work. She is carefully picking up one sweet organic pea after another, squishing each one between her thumb and forefinger, then dropping the skins on the floor. Creamy pea guts slick her hair. I sigh.

All three of us are so much happier when we’re outside, but sometimes the distance between here and there seems insurmountable. I dice more cheese.


I decide I need to climb some volcanoes, climb something other than up the stairs with a basket of laundry. My favorite hiking partner, my husband, is at work—”bringing home the bacon,” we explain to our confused vegetarian son—so I go alone.

I’m on my way to Cowhorn Mountain, the rugged old core of a Cascades volcano. I turn off the highway onto a Forest Service road and brace myself for fourteen miles of dusty, jaw-shaking washboard. I don’t carry a cell phone—it wouldn’t get service up here anyway—so I consider how far I’ll have to walk if I can’t change a flat by myself. Far.

Forty-five minutes later, after negotiating tire ruts deep enough to hide a small child, I arrive at Windigo Pass. Windigo: a sinister, cannibalistic demon. I wish I hadn’t looked that up yesterday.

Mosquitoes swarm me when I emerge from the car. I retreat back to the driver’s seat. In the stifling heat, windows rolled up tightly, I unzip the small cooler and take out an empty glass bottle. I piece together the breastpump. My daughter is over a year old, so this seems like more a good deed than a necessity, but I pump a few ounces and return the bottle to the cooler.

I open the car door and propel myself past the mosquitoes, never slowing to a vulnerable pace. When the barren, lodgepole pine forest gives way to moisture-loving Douglas firs, I slow down and take a breath. Pendants of fragile white flowers hang from twisted manzanita twigs. Each small blossom balloons outward, a pantaloon gathered at the bottom, with a frilled edge.

As my legs move, I start talking to myself; in the woods, I can speak freely. I mutter, working myself up over the cost of past decisions. I wonder about selfishness. I think of my husband, of scaffolding, of bearing the weight of choices and responsibilities.

A Swainson’s thrush sings—a song from my past and maybe yours, a song I am incapable of ignoring—urging me back to this trail, this moment. Aloud, I berate myself for focusing on my internal landscape: “Pay attention.” I look above the trail to a rounded outcrop of rock—tan, full of quiet places. A mountain lion would live there. Already walking quickly, I speed up and look over my shoulder. I’m always warier when I’m alone. A breeze passes over a remnant patch of snow, cooling my bare arms.

Diamond Peak rises out of the trees to the northwest. The trail I’m on—the Pacific Crest Trail—could take me there. I trace a possible path for the trail through the forest of mountain hemlocks and Douglas and subalpine firs—a forest so green it’s almost black. It’s July, and Diamond Peak’s massive eastern flank is still skirted with snow. I take an audible breath, sighing slightly. “I know, I know,” my husband would say, were he here, “you love that mountain.” I do. Five years before, he and I had reached Diamond Peak’s southern, false summit. I stopped short at the corniced snow ridge that led to the true summit, unwilling to go any farther, my balance new and unpredictable. With a ballpoint pen my husband had written 8421 FEET 25 WEEKS on my belly, already round and firm as half a watermelon.

I shift my gaze from Diamond Peak, ten miles away, nearly to my feet. Just downhill, a pika eeps from atop a rock. I’ve scared him. He retreats under the rock and protests again. I can imagine mistaking the sound of this cuddly, rabbity creature for a birdcall. I stand still, watching for his rounded ears, hoping he’ll peak out again.

During my lapse into myself, my moment of inattention before I stopped to observe Diamond Peak and this pika, I’ve lost an awareness of where I am. I look at my watch: an hour and fifteen minutes since I hurried from the car. Have I walked too far and missed the place where I’m supposed to turn off the trail and climb onto Cowhorn’s shoulder? I think back, trying to remember each turn in the trail, each curve of the land. Tracing the trail on the map with my finger, I realize it doesn’t matter. I’m on a trail in the woods. I read maps well. I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, I’ll just walk.

diamond_fromcowhorn copy


I stand in the middle of the kitchen, mentally dressing my children. She needs shoes, and where is his jacket? “Please look for your coat,” I tell my son. “It might be on the hook in the laundry room.” My daughter needs only to hear me say the word “shoe” and she quickly toddles off to find her boots. She returns with one, says “doo” to indicate the shoe in her hand, and leaves again, saying “doo” to each empty room as she passes through, searching for the boot she herself hid this morning.

The diaper bag is already inside the cavernous canvas bag embroidered with my daughter’s name, a present from Grandma. I throw in some food: fruit leathers, sliced apples, cheese, Cheerios, water bottles. It won’t be enough, but I tire of packing snacks. A sunhat for her, a vest for him, sunglasses for me—I think we’re set.

“Okay, let’s load up.” I strap them into their car seats. My son has to pee. Before I can stop myself, I ask why he didn’t go while we were still inside. I unbuckle him and he dawdles his way into the backyard, where he’ll pee on the fragrant daphne bush, his marked territory. “I’ll be right back,” I tell my daughter, heading into the garage to get the backpack into which I’ll slide her if she tires. She won’t. He might.

On a bridge at the Arboretum’s entrance, she figures out how to throw leaves into the stream below and watch for them on the other side. We experiment with twigs, too, chasing our boats from the water’s edge. I find a pulmonaria lichen on the ground. Lobed like lung tissue, it’s easily seven inches across. I put it on my head. My daughter reaches for it, so I place it on her head and call her Princess Pulmonaria.

My son leads us down a hobbity trail under spreading vine maples. He steps right into the river in his winter boots, reaches in, and pulls out a stone. He shows it to me. We look at the underside and find a cylinder of pebbles cemented together: a caddisfly larva. He tosses the rock into the river. I wonder how the caddisfly feels about that. My daughter tries to walk into the water, and I pull her back, unsure how far she’ll go. I turn her to face me. “I love you,” I tell her, “and I need to keep you safe.”

Author’s note: Years of pint-size outdoor explorations with my children are paying off. Now that they are school-aged, we go on short trail runs together. I foresee the not-too-distant day when they beg me to try to keep up.

Julie Polhemus climbs mountains, writes, and parents in Oregon, where the volcanoes loom large and the summers stretch on forever (although she’s not supposed to tell you that). You can find her hand-drawn maps in Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark. She instructs three NOLS courses each year—enough to keep her sane and not enough to drive her family insane.

Photo credit (top): Chris Jones

Photo credit (bottom): Julie Polhemus





By Sarah Layden

My brain is a box of wires.
Some connect to appropriate
portals, some fray at both ends.
I sort the tenth tragic email update from a friend
to the folder marked Baby. I begin to reply but draw
a blank, I type a few words then backspace the screen
clean. My own souvenir ultrasound picture is taped
to the monitor, little ghost in the machine. Some
machines work better than others. Mine was
broken, then fixed. Now this me-chine provides
sugar and fuel and god knows what else, fuel I
needed but expelled last night, a great
heaving, & I had the presence of mind
to clip back my hair. They say puking
while pregnant is a good sign. It feels
like being poisoned but it’s a good sign.
Best not to think of the emails left
unanswered, the failings of friendship
stretched thin by grief.
This is a moment of being
unwired, unhinged,
to anything but flesh,
to a baby technically
connected to me.
I am the host,
the server, and
the plug
only works
one way.

Back to November 2015 Issue

Cancer Mom

Cancer Mom

WO Cancer Mom ARTBy Kristen Brookes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Team Photo.


The Good Mother

The Good Mother

image3By  Sarah Minor

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told was my mother.

At least, that’s what I told her.

I called my mom on my drive back to work after my first doctor’s appointment. The mascara that had survived the stream of happy tears clung to the tips of my lashes.

There, on the screen beside me, I had just seen my baby. A little bean. A pulsing heart.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. I hadn’t planned anything to say and had to speak quickly before she interrupted me.


“Ahhh!” she screamed when I told her. “I knew it! I’m so happy!”

I smiled into the phone. A real smile. “Yes! I just went to the doctor today. You’ll never believe…”

“I can’t believe you waited so long to tell me.”


“I mean, how far along are you? Most daughters call their mothers the moment they find out. Most women just can’t wait to tell their mothers.”

I clenched my teeth.

“Well, you know, I just wanted to wait until I saw a doctor. I thought I was only eight weeks along. But it turns out I’m twelve!”

“So when are you due?”

“December 23.”

“Oh,” her voice turned grim. “That’s going to be hard, with the holidays and everything. I’m not going to want to miss my grandchild’s birthday, and the way I have to share holidays with Paul’s family, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

“Oh. Well, I’m at work now,” I lied. “I have to go. We’ll figure it out.”

The first person I actually told, aside from my husband, Paul, was my sister, Jill.

“You can never tell mom that you knew first,” I whispered. “Never.”

“Oh my God, of course not,” Jill said. “She’d kill you.”

But now, with my mom told and the first trimester safely behind us, my pregnancy finally felt official, real. Paul and I set about preparing for the new baby: picking out furniture for the nursery, attending childbirth class, whittling down a list of names.

The news of my pregnancy also set my mom’s wheels in motion. The arrival of the baby would bestow upon her a new title and with it, a new purpose in life. She had been retired from teaching for five years and was in a on-and-off long-term relationship, the second since her divorce from my father. As displeased as she was about the due date, this Christmas baby was for her, in many ways, a savior.

Our conversations immediately turned to when she would come see the baby and how long she would stay. She was a plane ride away, so the details of her visit couldn’t wait until the last minute.

“I think you should come in January,” I told her, positioning myself in the chair in our home office like I was conducting a business call. I tried to keep my tone light. “The baby could be late, and it would be silly for you to be here twiddling your thumbs with us waiting for the baby. And Paul will be home for the first week anyway. It would be good to have someone here when he goes back to work.”

This was not acceptable.

“None of my friends can believe that you would ask your mother to wait to come until two weeks after the baby is born,” she told me, her voice climbing an octave. “Their daughters want them in the delivery room! They just can’t believe you would do that to me.”

“Mom, I just think it would be good for us to have some time alone, just the three of us, before anyone visits.”

I was standing now, pacing the checkerboard rug, waving my free arm for emphasis.

“Oh, that’s right, you and Paul, your perfect little family,” she sneered. I sat back down.

“That’s not what I’m saying, but yes, this is my family! And I think I should be able to decide when we have guests!” I was yelling now, lightheaded with anger and effort.

“Maybe I just won’t come at all. I’m sure you can just figure it out. Everything has to be just how Sarah wants it.”

“Yeah,” I said sharply. “This time, I guess it does.”

“Well, I hope you don’t have a special needs baby because then you’re going to need me and wish I was there.”

“Oh my God!” I screamed. My throat was raw. “It’s almost like you hope that will happen so I’ll need you! That is sick, Mom! This is not about you!”

The screaming brought Paul into the office.

“What’s going on?” He was used to our fights, which he had witnessed during the power struggles over our wedding and which had only intensified since we’d moved halfway across the country. Her visits were always full of tension: her thinly-veiled barbs followed by my snide retorts, and then my mom, shocked that her daughter would talk to her that way, storming out to the car or pouting in the guest bedroom.

Something always got broken. Sometimes it was an accident, a dishwasher-loading slip. But other times were intentional, like the time I wasn’t appreciative enough of wine glasses she bought me and she smashed them into the garbage can.

“This cannot happen when we have a baby,” Paul said. “We are not raising our child like this. It has to stop now.”

He was right. At 30 weeks pregnant, I called a therapist.

Her name was Libby. I found her on the Internet. We arranged a brief “get to know you” conversation before making a formal appointment. I took my cell phone to a private room at work and dialed her number. My hands were shaking.

“So, I’m pregnant, and I’m, um, just really worried I’m going to be like my mother.”

Libby’s voice was soft and soothing, with a hint of a New England accent. She sounded like an NPR news reporter. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes, mostly me rambling about my mom’s reaction when I told her I was pregnant and our subsequent arguments. I made an appointment to visit her office in a week.

“In the meantime,” Libby said, “I want you to get a book.” I jotted down the title: Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown Up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.

Narcissist. No one had ever used that word to describe my mom. I felt terrible even thinking such a thing about her. Yes, she was a little crazy. Needy. Mean sometimes. But she had such low self-esteem. She never seemed sure of herself, was always fishing for compliments. Narcissists were in love with themselves, weren’t they? How could she possibly be one of those?

That weekend I went to the book store. I searched the self help section to no avail. Finally, cheeks burning, I approached the register. I felt like I was at an adult bookstore asking about a kinky video.

“I’m looking for a book called Children of the Self-Absorbed,” I practically whispered.

As soon as I got home, I opened the book, a glossy paperback that looked like something for a college psychology class. Inside, information was organized in a series of bullet points, quizzes and writing exercises. I grabbed a legal pad to jot down my answers. My heart started to beat faster as I read.

Critical and criticizing…never completely satisfied…gets anxious when alone…hypersensitive to perceived criticisms…never forgets an offense.

My mom didn’t have all the traits of what the book called “Destructive Narcissistic Personality,” but certain paragraphs felt like they were written specifically about her.

There were explanations for some of the behaviors I’d struggled with, too, the “lingering effects of parental self-absorption.” Defiant, combative…overly defensive in response to comments she perceives as critical.

I started crying. Crying out of sadness for my mother and for myself. But also out of relief. This behavior wasn’t normal. It had a name. I wasn’t crazy.

And my mom wasn’t either.

Every Tuesday on my lunch break, I spent an hour on the worn red love seat in Libby’s sunny, cluttered office. Traffic honked and whirred outside the window behind me. My belly jutted out in front of me like a torpedo. I cried so much at each session that I eventually moved the box of tissues Libby offered from the coffee table to the empty couch cushion beside me.

Libby and I talked about my childhood. She took notes and occasionally illustrated points to me on a small whiteboard, stick figures and arrows demonstrating how my mom and I had reversed the roles of parent and child. Even as a child, she explained, I had in some ways been responsible for my mom’s well-being instead of the natural opposite.

Then she asked me to talk about my mom’s childhood. While she had always painted it with an idyllic brush, my mom made it clear that she was an “accident,” born a decade after her sister to older parents. Even as an adult, she felt like she lived in the shadow of “perfect Barb.”
I told Libby of the interactions I had witnessed. Divorced twice, my mom took her new boyfriend home to meet her parents.

“Careful with this one,” my grandmother told her. “You don’t want to be a three-time loser.”

Libby helped me realize that my mom wasn’t a bad person, she was a hurt person. A bottomless well of need, desperate for validation. And because of this, she didn’t realize how much she was hurting others. And though I fought with her, screamed, pleaded and prayed, I would never change her. I could have sympathy for my mom. I could mourn the relationship we never had. But I had to accept that this was my mother.

“All you can do is create healthy boundaries for yourself and your family,” said Libby.

My mom booked a ticket for January 5. I was relieved that she had honored my request, but hardly triumphant. Maybe I was too controlling. Maybe I was being crazy. Maybe I would wish she were there sooner. But it was my pregnancy, my family, my baby and my right to find out for myself.

Ten days after my due date, I was induced. The induction turned into an emergency C-section, so I stayed in the hospital for four days. My mom arrived the day after we got home.

Our homecoming was surreal; I was dazed from sleep-deprivation and pain medication. Hormones and powerful feelings of joy, love, fear, inadequacy and the overwhelming responsibility of parenting swept through me like tidal waves, nearly knocking me senseless.

On our first night home, I fed William and laid him down to sleep in the bassinet next to our bed. I turned off the light, climbed under the covers and started sobbing.

“Oh no, what? What is it?” Paul asked.

“I just love him so much!” I wailed, my nose stuffing up. “And I just realized how much it will affect me if anything ever happens to him, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If he died, my life would be destroyed forever. What if he grows up and decides he wants nothing to do with me? It doesn’t matter what happens, good or bad. Nothing will ever be the same.”

My mom arrived the next day, her arms full of gifts for the baby. Books she had bought years ago, just in case. A cross to hang in his room. She needed pictures, lots of pictures, to email to her friends.

“Okay, enough with the flash in his face!” I exclaimed one afternoon as she held the camera inches from William’s bouncy chair.

“Oh, Sarah, please, this isn’t hurting him,” she said.

“Well, I think it’s enough!” I said. “And maybe I’m crazy, but I just had a baby so I have the right to make some crazy requests.”

Paul went back to work the next day.

“I’ll be back soon,” he said, kissing the top of my head. I started to cry. It was the first time since William was born that our little family unit was being separated.

Seeing my tears, my mom started crying.

“I’m here,” she sobbed. “Am I not enough for you?”

But she was good with William, cradling and cooing at him, animatedly reading him books. And she was helpful, too, running out to buy diapers and lanolin cream, vacuuming while I napped, making blueberry coffee cake and tuna casserole.

And as we sat marveling at William’s dark hair, his tiny fist pressed against his cheek, I could not deny that in our love for this baby we’d found something on which we could truly agree.

At the end of the two weeks, I took her to the airport. I had mixed feelings: she had been helpful, and I was nervous about going back to an empty house with William. I felt guilty for my nit-picky comments and overall impatience with her. I knew it hadn’t been the idyllic bonding experience she hoped it would be.

But mostly, I felt relieved. Relieved that I’d be free from the daily task of meeting my mother’s emotional needs, a job that was as exhausting as it was impossible.

“Thank you,” I said, returning her hug and inhaling the familiar scent of her perfume. “You were a lot of help. You’re a good grandmother.”

She pulled back from our hug and looked me in the eye, the muscles around her mouth tensing.

“Well, am I a good mother?”

I couldn’t change her into the kind of mother who would never ask that. I couldn’t fill the void in her heart. But now that I understood how fragile a heart becomes once a child has claimed it, I could tread carefully around it.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re a good mother.”

Author’s note: Six years later, I continue to struggle with setting healthy boundaries with my mom. While I no longer worry that I’ll become my mom, having children has further complicated our relationship. My kids adore their grandmother, and I don’t question her love for them. But I’ve also seen her try to undermine my relationship with them and use them in her attempts to manipulate me. That said, I truly feel sorry for her and want nothing more than for her to find peace.

Sarah Minor is a writer and mom of two boys living in North Carolina.


Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

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

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

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

“Your mama is dead?”


“Why is she dead?”

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

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Early Thursday morning, I awoke to a shadowy figure leaning over my bed, wielding a big pair of black scissors. They weren’t scissors one used to cut paper. No, they were the scissors someone reaches for to finish a heavy-duty job, like cutting wire or a chicken carcass. In one hand, my 12-year-old son Isaac held the scissors, the sharp ends pointed down towards me. In the other, he dangled a pair of shorts. My eyes struggled to focus while I gave him instructions.

“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing for Isaac, who has autism. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.

Still in a daze, I told Isaac it was too cold to wear shorts and watched him set the shorts on the couch in the living room. In typical fashion, he didn’t respond. Isaac struggles to verbalize his thoughts. After he was on the bus, I put the shorts back in his dresser.

A few weeks before, a friend had asked me if we would like some clothes her son had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.

All of the tags have been cut out.

After rummaging around in Isaac’s drawers, I found a couple of pairs of pants I’d bought at Target labeled size large. That would have to do.

It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Isaac was particularly happy when he saw the shorts and tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. The new shorts were long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac owned. The way he strutted around the living room with his faint smile said it all. He had hit the jackpot.

Every Thursday afternoon, Isaac has respite time at the YMCA. He goes with a caregiver, Lacey, giving the rest of our family some much-needed down time. He never deviates from the routine. Never.

Isaac qualifies for respite services based on the severity of his disability. My sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed boy has gained a bit of functional language in the past few years, but it’s not always intelligible to new conversation partners. He suffers from anxiety. He is obsessed with opening doors, turning on water and controlling meal time at our house, such as who is eating when. He loves elevators and swimming pools. He is particular about listening to a certain song in the van as we turn onto a street near our home. He cleans dishes and watches his favorite TV show every night before bed.

For the past few months, Isaac has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time — eating a snack, watching people and opening doors. He used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, play foosball or walk the track, but lately he hasn’t done anything at all. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he was happy and didn’t cause problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I said.

Later that day when Isaac returned home, I asked Lacey how things had gone.

“It went well,” she said, as she came inside. “Did you know he brought his shorts?”

“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.

“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.

“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.

Isaac didn’t respond.

“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.

“Me, too,” I answered. I bit the inside of my lip when I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I looked at Isaac, who was grinning from ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.

Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot, but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.

It occurred to me that perhaps he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he wanted to play with the other guys. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?

I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursdays, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way. It makes me smile. He has a lot to offer the world. People just need to take time to know him – and to include him.

I am reminded of a passage from The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, who is severely affected by autism and communicates through typing. The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?

Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He sticks close to his dad. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.

Like everyone, he likes to be left alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Sometimes his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.

Can he communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”

I was reminded of a flag football game a few years back in which Isaac’s twin brother Noah played. (Noah has autism, too.) As we were loading up the van to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing Noah’s football uniform from the prior year. While the game was underway, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them. When he dressed like a football player and wore the basketball shorts, those actions communicated more than his voice ever could. He wanted to be included.

As I watched Isaac interact with his brothers in our living room, my thoughts drifted to the events at the YMCA. I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.

I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son — and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.

I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw lives in Iowa with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, and she is a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is an autism advocate and blogs regularly at Follow her at @TyannRouw.

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What You’re Left With When She is Gone

What You’re Left With When She is Gone

WO What You're Left With ArtBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

In a box of old things my sister recently sent me I found a photo of my mother from when I was thirteen and my sister was ten, when Mom had just come back from her second cult experience.

She looks thinner than I’d ever known her. Hollows carve shadows under her cheeks and the pallor of her skin is off; her face has a gray tinge to it. She has a faint smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes. My sister dangles from her left arm and I, a little chubby and wearing too much make up for a middle-schooler, have my arm around my mom’s shoulder. I am leaning into her, a big stretched out smile across my face as if everything is normal.

It had been six months since me and my sister had seen my mother and we were grateful to have her back. But tentative. Like if we said the wrong thing or touched her without warning, or got too close, she’d disappear again. We had none of the casual comfort we might have once felt with her. I remember serving her tea, asking for permission to touch the tinsel threaded scarf she wore draped around her neck, offering her blankets and snacks, trying to keep her comfortable so she would stay.

For the longest time my mother seemed like a superhero, she was dazzling to me, which made no sense since she left me and my sister twice: once when she went to live on the ashram in India, and once when she went to live on the ashram in Oregon. I think it confounded my father, too, since apart from a few years of weekends at my mom’s after their divorce, she had left him taking care of us since I was six. Still, I dreamed of seeing her. She was the gift parent, the special occasion; I imagined her appearing like a fairy queen—and changing my life.

She was back this time because the ashram had broken up, her holy man arrested, his ninety-three Rolls Royces confiscated. She and the other followers—sannyasins they called themselves—had given up everything they owned for their guru and were now leaderless, scurrying back to wherever home had been to plan their next moves. My mother had nowhere else to go.

Even though this was the second time she had skipped town leaving my father to care for us, he told her she could stay at our apartment a few days while she figured things out. My sister and I were elated: both of our parents under one roof with us was something we had stopped hoping for. But my father should have known better before he agreed. And my mother should have known better than to ask.

I could feel his agitation soon after he came home from work that first day. After so many cancelled visits, so many missed birthdays, to see my mother curled up cozy on our sofa like she belonged there, a daughter fawning over her on either side, was too much for him. His frustration simmered through the apartment until it swelled into a wave of fury he could not contain. His profane expletives flew and my eyes darted between him and my mother, the panic in me growing, trying to figure out even as he got louder and louder how I could make it go better, how I could make it stop.

He said he wanted the child support money she owed him for all the years she hadn’t paid. But I understood it was much more than just that.

He stormed into the dining room and snatched her purse off the table searching for money. My mother tried to get it but he grabbed it away from her. He swung open the apartment door and she followed, crying out that he should give it back. But he wouldn’t. He threw it onto the stained burgundy carpet in the hallway.

“Where is the money? Where is the money?” he yelled, his eyes blazing, his face burning with anger. But I was so angry with him because after all us kids had been through, all the waiting for our mother to return, he was going to scare her off. It didn’t have to be this way but he was making it happen: he was going to force her to go away.

And that’s when our elderly neighbor Elizabeth from England, whose apartment was right next to the garbage room, opened her door to see what the trouble was.

There was my mother, kneeling on the old matted carpet, clutching at her purse, my father pulling at the handle. My mother wasn’t letting go and so he dragged her along the carpet by it for several feet, her thin scarf trailing, the warm garbage stink of the incinerator room filling the airless hallway, Elizabeth looking on.

I was so sorry Elizabeth had to see this. So sorry because it wasn’t really true, what she was seeing wasn’t our family. I wanted to smile at her to tell her this is not what it looks like, this doesn’t ever happen. But something about Elizabeth witnessing us made it worse, made it harder to convince myself everything was going to be okay.

My mother was gone by evening. She zipped up the two suitcases that she had not yet really unpacked and left.

It’s not easy now to look at that photo of us from before she left again, to remember how careful I was, how hard I was working to keep her with me. When we took the photo I understood I didn’t have my mother in my life. What I didn’t know yet is that I never would.

Ronit Feinglass Plank’s short fiction and essays have appeared on, The Iowa Review, Lilith and is forthcoming in Best New Writing 2015. She lives in Seattle with her young family.

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Mothers at the Microphone: Sharing Our Stories

Mothers at the Microphone: Sharing Our Stories

LTYM photoImagine the most loving, honest conversation you’ve ever had with a best friend and multiply that feeling of connection a thousand times and you could be me, last Thursday at the Listen To Your Mother (LTYM) reading in Minneapolis. Visiting the city, I gave myself a pre-mother’s day treat, attending LTYM for the first time. Among a packed audience, I was taken in as each of the 13 authors performed her well-crafted vignette one by one giving a kaleidoscopic view into motherhood: the complexity, diversity, and humor.

Every story stood out—the experience of simultaneous triplets, the loss of an infant, a mother breaking her ankle on the troll bridge at the miniature golf course—each told by the author herself.  The 13 performances were honest, authentic, and perfectly rendered.

Founded by Ann Imig in 2010, to expand opportunities for women’s voices, LTYM is a series of staged readings in celebration of Mother’s Day that now takes place in 32 cities nationwide.  The Minneapolis show was produced this year by two Brain, Child writers Tracy Morrison and Galit Breen (along with the talented Vikki Reich) and Brain, Child author Claire DeBerg who read from Choosing Gloria, which was first published in Brain, Child in Fall 2013.

Tracy, who also performed (tasting small bites of Hostess Ho-Hos between lines for effect) read from her hilarious, yet poignant piece, “The Mommy Wars”:

“I stand here today as a survivor. I was exclusively formula fed as a baby. I never co-slept with my mom.  I watched entirely too many episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Love Boat, and did not eat anything organic until I was 25. We enjoyed pre-packed Hostess desserts and red Kool-Aid by the gallons. I come from divorced parents who both worked full-time, enforcing a childhood at that time that was labeled “latch key” and would now be called illegal—please call CPS.”

She concluded with a forget-the-mommy-wars call to action, that I think we can all learn from:

“I thank my mom for making sure these (Ho-Hos) were always in the snack cabinet and not worrying about what others thought. She and others mothered without a manual, and I hope without a worry of whether they were doing it right, without comparison, without guilt, and without regret…So I’m taking a lesson from my mother and her generation and believe it’s time we make the mommy wars go away by ignoring them, because they truthfully don’t exist if we just focus on doing what we need to do for our own families…”

Tracy’s reading—all the readings of course—got me thinking about my own mothering experiences with my five children, as well as my experience of having been mothered. I left the theater, my eyes still wet, saying goodbye to strangers and friends, all the same really, bound by the common denominator of being mothers.

I went back to my hotel room (I was visiting the city for the first time) and of course I thought of the stories behind my life; the narratives that weave together to make up my reality. How I’ve written so much about my children, and how grateful I am for that. And I thought of my mother telling her stories about me, my ladybug first-day-of-preschool dress, my abhorrence of meatloaf since the age of three. And how now my mother, suffering from dementia, cannot tell the stories any more. Only fragments. I thought more about how storytelling transcends time and what happens when that power is lost, what becomes of my childhood if my mother can’t remember it.

So I thank Ann for creating such an event, and all the readers, for telling their stories—without pretense or judgment. Stories that make me feel less alone in my work to raise good kids, and help me feel less anxious about what I’ve done right or wrong.

A night full of emotions indeed. My own perspectives shifting with every reading, the lenses of who I have been and who I will be. All for the telling.

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WO Leaving ArtBy Nina Sichel


I have come full circle, and it is nearly time to leave.  I arrived here two decades ago, just months from the birth of my first child, and now the youngest is ready for college, my husband has moved ahead of me into a new job and a new city, and I am left to stem the flow of twenty years in Tallahassee.  I want to contain our time here neatly in a cool, clear bowl.  I want a lake we can return to, and gaze into, and see, in the depths, ourselves.  I want this tumble of remaining time to pause, so I can make sense of its passing, so I can choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here.  But time rolls perversely on, and it carries me dizzily along.  I pan for memories, trying to net the flow, but everything rushes out of grasp, and all I gather are glints of time past, not its essence.

I look at my children, grown into adulthood now, and think of what this move must mean to them, how it will affect them.  This has always been their home.  This is where they were born and raised and their ventures out have always led to returns.  There are whole lifetimes to be sorted through and wrapped up, identities redefined as we slip into new skins, evolve into new creatures, our circumstances and surroundings and self-images shifting with time and the need to move on.  And I wonder, what will my children keep as they find their new places in this world?  And what will cling to me?

I feel a creeping nostalgia for what might have been, sorrow and loss for a place I might have allowed myself to become attached to.  But I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela, growing up moving from house to house all through my childhood.  I believed I’d find home in another place, another time.  Resistance to settling became part of who I am.  I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life, but I still won’t root, and for all these years, I’ve been ready to leave.

Until now.  Now I find myself unprepared, and questioning this turn in feeling, this wistful desire for belonging I never had.  It is only now, knowing I am leaving, that I begin to wish I had sunk more of myself into this place, lived more fully and deliberately in the time I had here.  Is nostalgia anything more than an attempt to hold on to a place or time that is being pulled away from me? What am I afraid of losing?

I know there is much I will miss.  I love the languid lift of Spanish moss on a balmy breeze, the magnificent spread of live oak branches, their generous shade.  The rhythmic rise and fall of the land, and its gentle slope to the sea.  The slow-moving tannic rivers, flashing sunlight, the egrets starkly white against the dark brush.  The transparent aqua springs, so cold on torrid summer afternoons.  The beaches, with their wide and blinding sands, unpeopled, the dolphins arcing the waters, the hot salt air.  The sky, constantly rearranging its constellations and its clouds.  Floral palettes, picked from my springtime azaleas and placed on our round oak table.  Nostalgia is a gentle pull, though its hold is strong.  I am as wary of entrapment as I am of letting go.

Fiercer attachments bind me here, too, heartholds which are ripping apart as the time approaches for my departure — my children, splintering away to different colleges and new lives, the friends I’ve grown to love as family, the people I will leave behind, histories I have shared.

The births and deaths and cycles I’ve been a part of, forever tied to this place, receding into memory.  Mothering.  Nursing my babies, watching the stars move through the trees as I rocked, rocked, rocked.  The warmth of my infant children, bundled close, their slackening mouths, their drift to sleep.  As they grew older, the splash-pool, the tree house, chickenpox, Girl Scouts, soccer practice.  Music lessons, art lessons, summer camp.  Stitches, broken bones, fevers.  Formal dances, broken hearts.  The pets we’ve buried. The crisp air at the Christmas tree farm, where each year we have brought the children and the dogs and stomped through row after row of trimmed Virginia pine, looking for just the right tree.  Returning to the car for spiced apple cider while the tree is shaken to free loose needles, and then wrapped and tied onto the roof.  Driving lessons, the first time out alone, the first time in a storm, my held breath till they were safely back in the driveway.  The way I still ache with the memory of their long walk down the hallway to kindergarten, alone.  Their slow move toward independence.

This is a yearlong transition, and another one will follow.  This year my husband is gone, starting his new life while I try to wrap up our old one.  We meet on occasional weekends and fake normalcy.  Days and nights spin on.

If I tell you that I wrap myself around his pillows at night, and that I won’t wash the pillowcase he slept on till he returns, will it seem sentimental and silly?  Overblown?  If I tell you that his worn shirt is hanging on the hook by the door, and that I sink my face into it when I pass, breathe in the scent he left — if I tell you that I tried to wear it once, but something twisted inside me, and I couldn’t — will I seem obsessive?  If I tell you that I store up my anger and my stress till it explodes on his few weekends home, will I seem selfish, mean, unbalanced?

There are piles of papers to go through — children’s artwork, old bank statements, letters, Christmas cards — fragments of a settled life.  Where to begin?  Each drawing carries the memory of the time in which it was made, the life-stage of that child, that parent, the family.  I think, this is silly emotionalism, it isn’t the real thing.  But it might be.  Without those markers to bring me back, will I be able to remember?  I find a series of mermaid pictures my daughter drew with her bright, erasable markers, each one slightly different, each telling a different story.  How do I choose only one, to be representative?  And what, exactly, can one picture represent?  I look at them and see my daughter’s mind at work, her playfulness, her inventiveness — which aspect am I asking myself to sacrifice?  Can there be any part of her that does not deserve memorializing?

There is a book of basic numbers.  My daughter taught my son to add and subtract before he attended his first day of school, because she already knew how to do that and thought it was important.  They are only numbers.  They are an entire relationship, frozen in a place and time that I do not want to forget.

Here are mementos of trips we’ve taken, here are the games we played, unused craft supplies, musical instruments.  A toddler’s rocking chair, a puppet theater, the gown I made for my daughter’s eighth grade dance.  A softball glove outgrown, cleats left to gather dust in the back of a closet, jewelry and trinkets.  Junk.  The sand dollars we collected once, at sunset on St. George Island, as the water calmed in the shallow places and the sky shimmered and my husband peeled shrimp to boil.

How do others do this?  My mother periodically ransacked our closets, cleaning them out, keeping them organized.  I’d come home to find my clothes or toys had been given away “to the poor children,” she’d say, so I could feel good about it.  But I missed them.  What is there now to trigger memories of my childhood?  The only thing left are photographs.  Albums and albums of them, organized chronologically, and my mother and I pore over them every time I return.  But they only tell part of the story of my childhood.  And they tell it from my parents’ point of view.

Will my children miss their things?  Do they mean more to me than they do to them?

How, in the midst of such confusion, such conflicting emotions, all the daily obligations — how can I make the decisions that bring order and sense to all this?  There is my son’s prom and graduation to plan for, a new apartment to rent for my daughter, the dogs need their shots.  I don’t have time to stop and figure all this out.

I decide I can’t do this, I won’t, I’ll pack everything up and take it with me and sort through it before putting it away in the new place.  Wherever and whatever that might be.  I am brought up short by the fact that there is no new place, not yet, and whatever new place we find will surely be much, much smaller.  After all, there will only be two of us, most of the time.  I cannot contemplate that thought too closely.

Here are years of calendars, with the doctor and the dentist and the orthodontist appointments penned in — with reminders to myself about meetings, reunions, trips — with quickly jotted notes to remember the cute things they said — it’s only another box, it won’t take up that much room.  Baby blankets, stuffed animals, bedtime books.  It isn’t the item, it’s the memories it dredges up that I’m afraid I’ll lose if I discard these totems.

And if I do?  If I lose the memories?  Am I afraid I will lose myself with them, my family?  What is it I am clinging to?

What do we owe our memories?  How much of our souls do they contain?


Our listing realtor tells me I should leave the house when prospective buyers come to look it over.  They will feel more comfortable, she explains, they will look in your closets, they will feel free to comment.  In all my moves, so many before the children were born, it has never occurred to me to peer into someone else’s private space, not while they’re still using it.  I feel invaded, forced to flee my home and give up my time for someone else.  I am made foreign in my own space.  I put away the pictures of my children.  I did not teach them to smile at strangers.

Another realtor tells me it is fine if I stay home, I can share some of the problems of the house.  Problems?  This has been my home for twenty years, this is where my children had their birthday parties, this is where they were raised, I want to scream.  I hurt mental missives at the realtor — the house has character!  It has quirks!  It has personality!  It has no problems!

I strip wallpaper.  I paint.  Neutrals, I am advised, stick to plain, unexciting colors.  Clean your counters, get rid of the clutter.  Wash out the bathroom stall, it has mineral deposits.  Oh, yes, and get a good rug deodorizer — the dogs, you know.

I am doing more for strangers than I ever did for us.

My home is beginning to retreat.  It is becoming a house again.  I try to be cool and distanced.  I try not to judge the people who come to look.  I have no control over their decisions.  I have no control over the sales process.  I have no control over its outcome.

I spend hours every day poring over electronic listings in the metropolitan Washington area.  Costs are four or five times what they are here, and the competition to buy is vicious.  I select some interesting-looking sites, and my husband visits them on evenings and weekends.  Nothing suits us, everything is too expensive.  We panic, retreat, worry.  The real estate market has spiraled out of reality, the prices are fantastic, but, we are assured, this is no bubble.  This is the way it is.  We imagine another year of a commuting marriage, and quickly reject that option.  We will have two children in college and we are already stretched beyond capacity.

People come and go.  Our realtor assures me the house will sell, but this only leaves me feeling more pressured, more stressed.  We need to locate something else soon.  My husband has spent every weekend riding the metro, walking the neighborhoods, trying to find something affordable.

I travel north to spend a few days with him in Virginia.  We visit houses well above our budget, hopeful that something might miraculously become possible.  They are matchboxes, crowded one next to another with hardly space to breathe, a strip of lawn for the dogs.  This is a market of escalator clauses — you put a bid on a house and the price climbs and climbs and you tell your realtor what your absolute limit is as you enter a bidding war.  What kind of way is this to look for a new home?

We know we will have to downsize.  We begin to consider a townhouse.  We cannot duplicate what we have here, our three bedrooms, our deck, our woods with their wildlife, quiet nights broken by the call and response of barred owls.

I fill the back of the SUV and bring another load of household goods and clothing to the Goodwill.  I stop replenishing the cupboards of food.  I don’t stock for this year’s hurricane season.  When I drive by the places that meant so much — the children’s schools, parks, playgrounds, the library with its Tuesday toddler time, the bagel place where my writer’s group meets — I wonder if it’s the last time, if I should bid farewell.  I am in a strange limbo; I have no idea how long we’ll be here, I have no idea when we’re leaving.


One day, the house sells.  Our bid on an Alexandria townhouse is accepted.  The pace picks up as our time here draws to a close.  Months of preparing for this, but it still feels strange.  The remaining days become disjointed, dreamlike.  Soon, my Florida life will be only a memory.

Packers come to box up our lives.  All those books, all those papers, all those souvenirs.  We are told not to let them take our valuables — birth certificates, passports and other documents, jewelry, silver.  I stuff our photographs into containers and decide to take them myself.  They hold memories beyond value.  They are more precious to me than those documents, that silver.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us.  They inform us, shape our characters. These pictures are a gateway to memory, one of its languages in translation, and I want them safe and close.    They are a fixative — of time, of place, of history.  One day, they will help me remember the stories of our lives.  I can’t face the thought of losing them.  Who would I be without them?


My friends plan farewell lunches, last get-togethers.  I tell them not to.  I do not like parting.  The world is full of too many goodbyes.  I tell them I’ll be back.  I tell them to plan a reunion party instead.

They are good friends.  They ignore me.  There is a lovely last non-farewell dinner.  My daughter comes, and brings her close friend.  It is our last night together in Florida.  My son and his girlfriend are there, and several people I have grown close to.  The party goes late into the night, with much wine and laughter.  Next morning, a surprise breakfast send-off.  Feted with song, surrounded by friends I love, I am captured crying on film.  We hug and weep and they trickle away, into a rainy morning.

The cars are loaded.  There is nothing left to do.  The papers have all been signed, the keys turned over.  We’ve said our goodbyes to this place and this time.  There is nothing left to do but leave.

We have one last and lingering moment, arms wrapped around our hosts, and then we buckle ourselves into our seats and drive away.  The rain pours down in thick, heavy sheets.  Canada geese crowd the grassy slope on the ramp that leads to I-10.  I try to find them in my rear-view mirror, but the rain has swallowed them up.  There is no looking back.  I fix my sight on the road ahead and drive.

Nina Sichel is co-editor of two books about cross-cutural, international childhoods, Unrooted Childhoods:  Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004) and Writing Out of Limbo:  International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011).  They include her reflections on growing up American in Venezuela.  Her work has also appeared in The American Journal of Nursing, Among Worlds, International Educator, The Children’s Mental Health Network, and elsewhere.

She currently resides near Washington, D.C., where she is a freelance editor and writing coach.  Her memoir workshops are offered through the Northern Virginia Community College and at community art centers and other settings in Virginia and Maryland.

Photo credit: Mark Silva

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The Right Time for The Talk

The Right Time for The Talk

By Ellyn Gelman

Women Driving no 6I sat next to my mother at the kitchen table, our eyes glued to the bulky television on the Formica countertop. It was the summer of ’78 and the lead story that morning was the birth of the world’s first test tube baby. My mind could not shake the image of a little baby trapped in a test tube waiting to be born. I turned to my mother and with all the confidence of a sixteen-year old, proclaimed, “I would NEVER do that.”

It’s funny that word ‘never.’

In July 1992, I gave birth to the first of my three “test tube” babies. I was blessed with a son (now 21) and four years later, twins, a daughter and son (now 17). They were all conceived through the miraculous science of In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF).  The ordeal of conception that had consumed my life for ten years was over; the memories stored away in the attic of my mind like the box of high school keepsakes stored in the attic of my home. My focus now was ‘full on’ motherhood. I rarely gave IVF a thought until the first time I was asked, “Mommy, where do babies come from?”

At first I kept it simple.

“Well there’s a mommy and a daddy and they love each other and then they have a baby.”

When they were older I told them about sperm and eggs and which body parts needed to connect to make it all happen.  Their wide-eyed surprise about these simple facts stopped me from adding; “and sometimes the baby maker parts are broken and you need a Petri dish (aka ‘test tube’).”

It became more complicated as my children’s minds and bodies morphed into teenagers. No one, including me, wanted to talk about sex and reproduction any more than was absolutely necessary. So I stuck to the minimum “what teens need to know” script. The problem with this action plan was that everyone in my family knew the story of my children’s conception, everyone that is except my children. It had never been a secret, but it started to feel like one. Visions of them learning about their in vitro beginnings from an innocent remark or a tongue loosed by libation began to consume me. I realized my children needed to hear their story from me, to know the love and the longing and yes, the hard work that it took to bring them into this world.

How to tell them became a single grain of worry in my mind, just like an oyster worries a single grain of sand. Eventually, an oyster produces a pearl; I was producing an ulcer. How would my kids react to the news of their embryonic beginnings? Would they feel like I did at sixteen? In the early hours of the morning, I would lie awake and fabricate irrational fear-based scenarios.

Scene 1:  Alone in their room, my oldest son, or my twins, would search IVF on their computers and IVF mix-ups (incredibly rare, but easily found on Google) would be the first pop-up on the screen. Would they question whether I was their “real” mother?

Scene 2: I imagined them feeling lost and confused, like that famous little baby bird that sized up a bulldozer and said, “Are you my mother?” My insides felt like a jellyroll; creamy insecurity wrapped in a layer of vulnerability.

I planned a lunch date with my oldest son after a routine dentist appointment. He was home from college for the summer.  My plan was to tell him his conception story during lunch. I had rehearsed the words and knew it was time.

“I hate going to the dentist,” he said as he slipped his nineteen-year old lean, muscular man self into the passenger seat.

“Everyone hates going to the dentist,” I said.

We were barely out of the driveway when I just blurted out his story, so much for my original plan.

“You know,”‘ I said, “One of the happiest days of my life was the day you were born.”

He smiled and touched my shoulder.

“Aw,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said. “Dad and I had some infertility issues. It actually took us five years to finally conceive you with the help of a lot of Doctors and shots and stuff, IVF stuff.” IVF stuff came out garbled, a bit drunken, like “ivyfshtuff.”  Silence, our eyes focused forward as if the road ahead demanded it. Great job! Now he’s going to think his conception was like the creeping plant that grows up the side of our house I thought.

“So, um, they took out some of my eggs and then took dad’s sperm and injected one sperm into each egg. Lucky us, one little embryo formed in a Petri dish and was put back into my uterus and that was you, our miracle.”

I could have been reciting the recipe for pretzel chicken.

“That’s why Grammy always calls me her miracle baby,” he said as if it was all starting to make sense somehow.

“So what was the problem?” he said.

“We both had problems,” I said. “But the biggest problem was that dad’s sperm just didn’t move, low motility they call it.”

“Oh my God, do I have that?” He recoiled against the car door, both hands protecting his genitals.

“No, you don’t have that”

“Are you sure I’m never gonna have that?”

I thought about my answer.

“Pretty sure,” I said. I am no longer comfortable with the word ‘never’.

We pulled into the parking lot.

“So, um do you have any questions?” I said.

“Nope, I’m good, it’s kind of cool to be a miracle. Love ya mom,” he said as he opened the car door and headed into the dentist.

God I love that kid.  One down.  Two more to go… someday.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut. She is a frequent contributor to

Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

By Francesca Kaplan Grossman

Pink Breast Cancer RibbonThe first time I found one, I had just downed a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Sweet, soft on the back of my throat, ice cold and only 99 cents, it seemed to me the best deal in drinks. I needed it. It was August in Massachusetts, and the air was hazy and heavy around my face. The can sweated, and so did my back, in fluid sheets, and I could feel my sports bra forming a damp “o” shape between my shoulder blades. Soccer practice for high school preseason had already begun, burning off the early morning hours with drills I loathed.

I pinched the cotton of my tee shirt between two fingers and pulled it away from my chest, fanning myself with the thin white fabric. Putting both hands in my shirt, I wriggled out of the bra. It felt like a stunning release to let my breasts slap against my chest as I peeled off the sticky spandex. And then, for some reason, I laid my palm directly over my right breast.

I’m still not sure how I found it. The tiny marble under my right nipple shouldn’t have been noticeable, even to me. But somehow my palm landed directly on it. I rubbed it around for a minute, kneading the circle under my skin, the flesh soft and pliable around it. Then, I pulled my hand away.

I was only sixteen and I had a plan. College, work, motherhood. But mostly motherhood. My mother was the example I could hold onto—a working mom home every day by 3:00 p.m. She was equally obsessed with her work and her children.

My mother worked hard, played hard, and knew us well. Nothing would get in the way of my being just like her when it was my turn.

“It’s nothing,” I said to myself, flipping over onto the hot, yellow lawn, the sharp grass scratching my face, the sun drying my salty neck.

The ground felt hard under me, and though I knew it wasn’t possible, I felt the little marble roll beneath me, like the princess and the pea. I imagined it green and tiny, like a pea, but also hard and impenetrable, like a marble. A marble pea.

“Nothing,” I said again.

I ignored the marble pea for six years, until it started to grow a cousin. This one I could not ignore because I was twenty-two and into truth telling. On my neck, right above where I would have had an Adam’s apple if women had Adam’s apples, was what looked like an Adam’s apple. It was oblong, as if I had swallowed a whole olive and it had never gone down.

“You have a thyroid nodule,” the endocrinologist said, looking at my chart and back at me.

“What does that mean?” I? asked frantically. I scanned?the room for the diplomas?that would tell me this man?was the best doctor ever, but all I could find was a? Best of New York Doctors mention from 2000 taped to the side of his desktop computer.

“It’s no big deal, Francesca,” he said, mispronouncing my name “Francessa.” Not a good sign….

“So what do we do about it?” I asked, my hand instinctively flying to my throat to finger the olive. It was solid under a thin layer of skin, and it moved around when I pushed it.

“Nothing, we’ll watch it.”

“Will it affect me getting pregnant one day?”

“Are you pregnant now?” he asked sharply.


“Then don’t worry about it.”

But I wasn’t satisfied with this answer; I couldn’t bear to imagine my life without children. I remained quiet, nodding my respect for a doctor that I was sure must know much more about my body than I did.

So I watched it, in the mirror, in store windows, wherever I could get a glimpse. And it continued to grow.

My husband, Nick, is six foot two. I am five foot nothing, which makes for funny family pictures and a tough time kissing. When he’s on his knees, we’re the same height. There’s a picture of us on our wedding day with my head completely pushed back like a Pez dispenser as he leans down over a foot. At that moment, the olive had grown into a walnut, jutting out of my otherwise flat neck in what should have been the best picture of my life.

“Don’t you think we should take it out?” I had practiced this line a thousand times in the bathroom, at home, and then, right there, outside the doctor’s waiting room. It was the first thing I said to him when he checked on the walnut.

He gave me a stern headmaster’s stare.

“We don’t need to do anything, Francessa. It’s a nodule. Many, many people have them, especially Jewish women.”

Huh? I nodded. It had taken all my courage to get the sentence out, and I could say no more.

“OK.” I finally mustered, unsatisfied and uncomfortable.

“We’ll biopsy it. All right? If that will make you feel better,” he added. It sounded like an accusation.

But I welcomed anything that might reassure me that I was going to be okay.

I had the walnut biopsied every year for seven years, and there was no change. Every time the six-inch needle pierced my neck flesh, I winced guiltily for making the doctor check it.

*   *   *

The first time I shit in my pants I was on the platform of the Number 6 train. I was twenty-six, and a cup of coffee I’d sipped now led to stomach pain I can only classify as agonizing. Though I did everything in my power to get up the subway steps and into a nearby restaurant to relieve it, my cold, shaking body had to let go three steps from the top. The problem in a situation like that, I have since learned, is that walking makes it worse, and stopping gets you nowhere.

Now covered in a putrid brown film that no one could mistake for anything else, I sprinted in shame to my gym, a place that had been my salvation. I rushed? into the shower with all ?my clothes on, peeled ?them off, pumped bright ?green body soap into the crotch of ?my jeans, and threw away my balled-up underwear in a naked dash from the scalding shower to my locker.

When I was finished, I sat on the cold metal bench with towels draped over every part of me, my jeans and tee shirt and bra draped over the bench. How could I possibly live a normal life like this? How could I one day take care of someone else—a child. My child?

I should tell Nick it’s over, I thought. Let him find a woman who is healthy and strong, always ready for life.

Yet I felt elated, having escaped the stomach pain that had overtaken me a half hour earlier. It was blissful, this pause, like a welcome inhalation of normalcy.

I learned later that year that autoimmune disease means your body is attacking itself. It’s chronic pain you can’t escape. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you.

A delicate young woman with a black gym tee shirt came over to me in the locker room.

“Are you okay?” she asked me.

I nodded, unable to speak. A rising ball of humiliation threatened to choke me, almost like the giant walnut within me. “Do you want me to dry those for you?” she asked gently.

I sighed with gratitude, nodded my thanks and sat in tiny white towels for the next forty-five minutes while a woman I didn’t know dried my shit-stained clothes. She handed them to me in a CVS bag someone had left behind. I had no choice but to put them back on. I proceeded to walk home, seventy-three blocks and two avenues and one bridge, just so I wouldn’t have to get on the subway again.

All this time I hadn’t only been growing a walnut in my throat and developing an angry belly—it felt as though I’d also been growing new skin. Heavy skin. Skin that felt bruised in every pore. Soon, simply turning over in bed was torture. My skin was calloused, pocked, red and raw, especially in the joints.

The doctor told me this pain was peripheral arthritis, connected to the Crohns disease I apparently had developed to accompany my thyroid autoimmune disease.

He actually said, “It goes nicely.”

*   *   *

On a Tuesday I went to have my thyroid walnut biopsied, and, three weeks later, I was having it removed.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the doctor said. “It’s so rare to have cancer so young,” a second doctor agreed. “Plus, thyroid cancer is a good one to have, if you have to have cancer at all.”

When I turned twenty-nine, I went into Lennox Hill Hospital to have my whole thyroid removed. Doctors suggested I just take half out and “see what we are dealing with,” but I was getting to the point that enduring two back-to-back surgeries was an unbearable alternative. And, I was starting to doubt that these doctors knew what they were talking about, so I demanded they remove the whole thing.

I recovered fairly quickly from the surgery and was home on the couch, a cat curled in the indent of my knees, watching “The Golden Girls,” when the phone rang.

“I don’t want you to come all the way in to hear this,” the surgeon said. “It turns out it was cancerous after all.” He added quickly, “But the good news is, it’s out, so you don’t have cancer any more. Probably.”


I remember hanging up the phone and staring at the TV for a full five minutes. When I thought of Nick, my stomach curdled into ice-cold cement.

“I can’t believe I will never see my own children,” I mourned out loud. And then, “I can’t believe he is going to love someone else.”

Assuming I was going to die, I couldn’t bear the idea that Nick would have a whole life, a good life, a long life, after I was gone. And the children he would have would not be mine.

I called him. “It was cancer,” was all I could say. He was home twenty minutes later, sweating as if he’d run the whole way.

I’ve always been angry that the doctors didn’t acknowledge that I had cancer. For years, they told me I was fine, I was overreacting, nothing was really wrong with me, and then they took the thing out, diagnosed it, and it wasn’t mine anymore.

I am, of course, grateful it is gone, but I can’t help but feel cheated. It is a strange and wicked reality.

In a bout of post-cancer depression, I lay on our couch for twenty-two days. No extra radiation was needed, but I ducked out of society anyway.

No one but Nick knew how long I stayed there, only getting up to pee, eat, and feed the cats. I ignored calls and Nick ran interference. Sometimes, he would come home, walk over to me, kiss my head, make us dinner, and tell me about the world outside.

“It’s nice out, Fran,” he said at the beginning of April, two months after my surgery, seven weeks after diagnosis of something I no longer had inside of me. I nodded through heavy eyelids.

Soon after, Nick took me to Jamaica so I could get away. It was such a beautiful thought, to take me away from the grime of the city so we could spend a few days on the beach. It was a grand gesture because we didn’t have the money, and my guilt spread as I agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t imagine anything less inviting than spending hours on a plane, in line-ups at the airport, without the comfort of my own bed at night, in a strange, hot place.

The first night, I had a glass of wine and watched the resort show, thinking that if I were pulled up on stage to dance like some of the other vacationers, I would just have to lie down on it.

“You look great,” Nick said to me, smiling his crinkly smile and touching my arm. He was a liar, but he was a sweet liar. I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were rimmed with a yellowish tint. My skin was flaky and beet red from the sun be- cause the medicine I was taking made my skin sensitive in a new, exposed way. My neck was swollen and my fingernails, for some reason, were blue.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, knowing that I was about to throw up.

I muttered an “I’llberightback” jumped off the stool and dashed back to our room, three outdoor stairways away. I slammed myself through the bamboo bathroom door and didn’t make it to the toilet. Orange vomit covered the walls of the bathroom, sliding down the tile in gooey bits. I lay down in the middle of the room on the bathmat, and a few minutes later, Nick knocked on the door.


I couldn’t answer.

“Fran?” He pushed in the door and took a step back. I am sure what he saw repulsed him, and though I couldn’t possibly move, I imagined retreating even further into myself.

“Oh, honey,” he said sadly. He got a towel and washed the walls with the floral soap from the shower, scrubbing the floor, literally mopping up the mess.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and took the bundle of towels out into the hallway. When he came back in, he had bedding, a pillow, and a glass of water.

“Can you drink this?” he asked gently.

“I don’t know,” I squeaked. “I don’t know if I can sit up.”

Nick came over to me and slid down onto the mat next to me. He smelled like the floral soap and salt water and the beer he had abandoned. Lifting my head in his hand, he tipped a small sip of water into my chapped lips.

“There,” he said.

He put the glass of water down on the floor?next to me and I rested my?face on the tile in front of the bathmat, the coolness an astounding relief.

Nick tucked my head under the pillow and made a floor-bed under me.

“You don’t have to do this,” I croaked.

He ignored me and slid his body down next to mine. “Try to sleep,” he said.

I tried to nod as his hand traced light circles on my back.

*   *   *

Since that day, I have been to many doctors, but rarely one who smiled. So when I started to see OBs, I feigned calm as they poked and prodded, expecting a deluge of bad news, like “barren,” and “unable.”

I surprised myself (and Nick, too, I think), when we got pregnant swiftly, without event. Both times. And both times I was nauseous and swollen and pimpled and sweaty and so, so tired the whole time.

But I was a “healthy” sick. Which was new to me.

Finally, both times, my body was working like a normal woman’s, and I was finally growing something inside of me that wasn’t going to kill me.

*   *   *

Our son was twelve weeks old when Nick went into the hospital the first time. His first migraine was now six days old. The second time we were practiced in both migraines and newborns, but this one was accompanied with a stomach pain that drove him to his knees.

Covered with monitors, IVs and confusion, Nick stared at me in disbelief. I could only stare back. We were in the wrong roles and weren’t sure how to act them out. I grabbed his hand and squeezed the bruise that had started to form beneath the IV needle. He winced, and I mouthed, “I’m sorry.” So I did what he always did for me. I called his family, got him a ginger ale, cleaned his chin, rubbed his back, sat in the chair, and waited for answers.

We don’t have an answer, even today, for the disease that clots Nick’s blood. Until we know what it is, and probably even if we do, he has to take a blood thinner that prohibits him from any activity in which he might bump his head and bleed to death. He can’t ski or play basketball, and if he gets into a car accident, the prognosis is grim.

But there is more. Our roles have changed and meshed?into one. There is no longer the strong and the struggling. Now we are both.

There is not much we can do. We go to yoga on Tuesday mornings. I work part-time. We both take generic Paxil. We stretch our dollars, we cook on Sundays, we watch Millionaire Matchmaker and chuckle.

Even in the most peaceful, mundane, white-picket-fence version of our lives, there’s a tinsel-thin fear. Another knowledge, one neither of us will admit.

Sure, I’m scared he’ll collapse again from the pain of a clot, shield his eyes from the agony of light, or that his bruises will spread until they paint his skin purple. Or worse, that we won’t see the bleeding, and it will drown him from the inside.

I’m scared I’ll be aimlessly squeezing my flesh and come upon another marble pea that won’t be so easy to remove and will snowball rapidly. But there is more than that.

It is quiet, this fear, and it says: To have two sick parents is a curse. As I tuck in my son and I kiss the wispy hair on the back of my daughter’s sweet head, it whispers around the room. What if they lost us both and had to fend for themselves? Even worse, I wonder if there are silent horrors swimming around beneath their skin? Will their genes betray them? What have we done?

It does not escape me that my two children grew out of me the same way everything else has. They, too, started tiny and unnoticed, growing into the small, wonderful people they have become. I made them.

We made them.

Which can’t be good.

When one of them gets a cold, I prepare for tuberculosis. When one has a bruise, I take a sharp breath in, praying it will not grow. And fevers, well, they just about crush me.

Will my daughter shit in her pants on the 6 train? Will my son be attacked by knots of blood in his veins? Will they grow things the size of olives, walnuts, golf balls under their skin? Will they demand they be removed? Will they hate us for it?

I didn’t drink alcohol for nine months both times I was pregnant. I power-walked and did yoga, tried to sleep well and limited my medications to those that were absolutely necessary. I ate eggs. I did everything I was supposed to do to keep my babies safe and healthy.

But I couldn’t give them healthy, strong parents. And I don’t know how to live with that.

We have dinner together every night, the four of us, like the family we hope we can be.

“Mama,” my son says, his dark brown eyes wide, a yogurt mustache tracing his upper lip.

“Yes?” I say, controlling myself not to wipe it off for him.

“Will you take me to school tomorrow?”

“I can’t, babe.”


My daughter parrots, “Why?” in a two-year-old voice that barely makes sentences work. But her blue eyes are expectant.

“I have to go to the doctor, guys.”

“You always have to go to the doctor,” my son replies, annoyed.

I can do juice cleanses and downward dog myself into my forties. I can strip the negativity from my bones and delete phone numbers from people who will never be real friends. Nick and I can eat more quinoa, love each other late into Sunday night, cut up credit cards, and find family-friendly bikes.

But the very real possibility that something new is happening, is growing beneath the surface of our collective skin, is almost impossible for me to stomach. Though the only choice for us is to try.

Author’s Note: There is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. And it is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. We, as mothers, as women, as humans, all teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have—a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make—and the impending terror of the possible—a sick parent, or child, or us, a money catastrophe, a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. The thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us. That line is where I like to hang out, where I try to write. I hope it is the place where fact becomes truth. This essay turned me inside out, and I feel better after writing it, like throwing up after a stomach bug, or coming up from a deep dive, gulping for air.

Francesca Kaplan Grossman’s previous and forthcoming work includes contributions to Motherlode, the Huffington Post, Ed Week/Teacher,, among other publications. Francesca lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza. She is currently working on her first novel, The Night Nurse, and a collection of personal essays, The Math of Me: A Collection from a Life out of Sequence.


The Odds of Growing Up

The Odds of Growing Up

By Rebecca Givens Rolland

Odds of Growing Up ArtTonight, when my almost two-year-old daughter falls, I try not to notice. I try to let the fall just come to her, as she races too fast down the ramp a few blocks from our house, arms tipped like wings, breath puffing out the corners of her cheeks.

“Gorilla!” she shouts, gesturing upwards in an exuberant arc, staring out at a thin clump of oaks. Since we got back from the zoo last week, she’s been talking about gorillas nonstop, searching for them in every patch of forest, every collection of city trees.

She doesn’t want to be caught, I think, as she rushes off, doesn’t want to be told that gorillas aren’t exactly Boston natives. I hold my tongue.

It’s something I’ve had to get used to, staying quiet. For years before my daughter’s birth, I relied on logic to guide me through troubles in life. When stressed, I buried myself in books, the harder the better—serious novels, philosophy books—and, by high school, found a strange love for statistics in spite of a general dislike for math.

The probabilities of picking an orange ball from a series, predicting how likely disaster was to occur, in airplanes versus cars—I dove into both word problems and equations. They gave me the feeling that there was nothing too bad on the horizon, that there really was logic behind it all.

Years later, as a doctoral student in education, I should have known better. In the midst of an uncomplicated pregnancy—I was still working, finding time to go for regular swims—

I should have realized there was no way around it. That illusion would have to break down.

Yet when the loss of logic came, I wasn’t prepared. That night, only weeks off from my due date, I woke up with a serious itching on my palms and the soles of my feet. It felt like a series of ants had built a hive and started racing deep inside.

“Probably the shoes,” I told my husband, turning over in bed, my huge maternity pillows on one side. “Should have worn socks today.”

Turning on the light, he picked up each of my hands in turn. No rash, no scar.

“Just Google it in the morning,” he said, flipping over and heading back under the covers. The general household answer to everything.

The next morning, in a rush, I’d almost made it out the door before I remembered to look up the itching: pregnant women are generally itchy, the first two websites read. Relieved, I started to shut the computer off.

“Of course. Another one of those weird pregnant things,” I said.

But then it popped up: itching on the hands and feet can be the sign of a rare liver disorder, most common in women from Sweden and Chile.

“Hold on a sec,” I said, and read it out loud.

My husband shrugged. “It’s rare, they said. And you’re not Swedish.”
“Sure, but you think I have it?” I asked him, struggling over my belly to put on my shoes.

“Doubt it,” he said, calm as usual. I relaxed. If anything, he was more into logic than I was.

He had a more relaxed attitude about pregnancy anyway, which I attributed to his being from France, where they didn’t care if you ate the smelly cheese.

After a few hours at work, though, the itching got worse. Scratching my palms till they reddened, I decided to call. The nurse said to get to the hospital fast. I headed over, trying not to worry about what that meant.

“I don’t see anything,” the nurse said, looking my hands over like a fortune-teller scouting out lifelines. “But that doesn’t mean that everything’s all right.”

Sure enough, the doctor called that night. Liver levels sky-high, and the diagnosis: cholestasis, severe itching that signifies dysfunction and can be dangerous to the baby the longer you wait. She’d need to be born soon, my doctor told me, her voice strained.

“How long do I have?”

“A few days,” she said. “Just check to make sure she’s moving every few hours.”

Panicked, I spent the next day rushing around. I’d assumed I’d still have a few weeks—now I needed newborn clothes, a blanket for the stroller, a pacifier, who knew what else.

But the next morning, when I woke, I felt even worse. I couldn’t feel the baby moving. Sitting back on the couch, I gulped ice water, jiggled my stomach. Nothing.

“We have to go to the hospital,” I told my husband, grabbing my work bag. He nodded. My stomach dropped—yet another emergency.

We’d only talked with the doctor for a few minutes when she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Come back in two hours. You’re giving birth today.”

I had a meeting, I told her, looking over at my husband—couldn’t we reschedule? He shook his head. She laughed.

“Give up,” she said, pointing me to the door. This was the birth of the world that resisted logic, that wouldn’t shift, no matter how much I tried.

Back home, I picked a suitcase out of the ones we had stored in the closet, a bright plastic red one. It shone brightly, like it was ready to go. Packed a thick copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, thinking I might have to wait around a while. My husband, always more practical, threw in a copy of Vogue. Later on, sick and sneaking gummy bears, I’d thank him. It was all I could do to flip through the magazine.

I was lucky, I realize now—the birth was uncomplicated, and early the next morning, my daughter gave a clear, sharp cry. A few hours later, my doctor visited, patted her on the top of the head.

“It’s all good,” she said.

I sighed, relieved to see her, to have my daughter and me both safe on the other end.

Things could have turned out so differently—the probabilities weren’t as clear-cut as all that. Scanning the web, I’d tried to ignore the statistics on my condition, tried to ignore stillbirth printed as a possible outcome. She was fine, I reminded myself, even when I woke exhausted in the middle of the night. She was alive and breathing.

There was something about statistics, I came to see, that didn’t fit her, that limited us. Even if they suggested what might happen, they revealed nothing about the impossible, the imaginary, in which we still had to believe. That new belief was what my daughter taught me: there might be something beyond random, something unexpected but worthwhile in our dreams: children’s stories, monsters that visited us nightly, purple and black spotted, with star-shaped eyes.

And, more importantly, I learned to trust my daughter’s development—through watching her, I came to see it as an arc I could help along but not ensure. I could teach her words, could try to keep her from hurting herself, but I wouldn’t know what would come out of her mouth. I could never predict what she’d believe, the risks she would take, the dangers she might get herself into, even as she’d try to explore.

That could be scary, but I had to not let the danger overwhelm me. The process, if I saw it as joyful, would sustain us both. Playing together, we’d get to know each other, would create, between us, a new universe of our own, a whole new bond.

Tonight’s a night like any other, but a little cooler. My daughter’s birthday is coming up—it’s gone fast, those two years since the doctor called with the news of the disease.

We walk over to see a group of pink plastic flamingos stuck oddly in the ground at the end of our street. My daughter races toward them with an open-mouthed laugh, then starts scaling the steps of nearby brownstones. Those birds must know they’re in the wrong place, I say.

“Jump,” she says, holding her arms out behind her like an unwieldy airplane, stepping almost off the edge of the last stair. Sometimes it’s just a few inches, sometimes half a foot or more. I hold my breath.

I tell myself she’s fine, but I don’t know for sure, not when she races down the steps and off the cobblestones of our narrow street, not when we visit the animal shelter on the next block, and she sticks her fingers into the gray bunnies’ cages, their teeth near the wires, and puts her face up to the whiskers of the long-haired cats. I try to keep her hands away, even as I want her to explore.

It’s become a ritual for us, probably annoying to the shelter’s volunteers, since we’re not interested in adoption for now. At least my husband and I aren’t—my daughter would be happy to take one home if she could. Standing over the bird cages, she imitates their cheeps, runs her hands along the cages.

“Pat, pat, pat.”

We shouldn’t keep coming, I know, but she’s full of so much love I can’t stand not to indulge her. A surprising love, one I never could have predicted, not in all my statistics classes, not even in the baby books. It’s that kind of love that makes her cling to objects, to Toddler Activities, the book whose cover photo reminds her of her cousin in France.

Before bed, she circles the living room, dragging the book with her, propping it up so the girl in the cover photo can “see” her play and eat. I watch her face shift from dark to light. It’s her cousin from France, she keeps saying—I can’t decide if she’s pretending, or if it’s something she really believes.

She turns the book to me, blows a kiss. That cover girl has her captured: river-straight hair, bright blue wide-open eyes.

“Call, call,” she says. I want to tell her it’s a six-hour difference, there’s no way we can talk now—and yet I know I have to give that up too. Let her reinvent her world, resolve its logic in the way she needs.

Nodding at her, I say, “Time to go to bed now. Take your cousin.”

My daughter follows, taking the book with her, curling up in her crib, dropping off—gracefully, illogically—to sleep.

Rebecca Givens Rolland won the 2011 Dana Award for Short Fiction and the inaugural May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize for poetry. She currently lives in Boston.

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First Communion

First Communion

By Rowen Wilson*

First Communion ArtIt is a school night, and my daughter, in first grade, tries to set the table in the cute way that first graders try to help.  She sets the silverware all around, then the plates and napkins, and the glasses.  “And for you, Mama,” she smiles, setting the wine glass at my place.  An unsettling thought rises in the back of my mind and I push it back.

I am a high functioning person.  I am a teacher, a distance runner, a book reader.  I have a Master’s degree and I teach graduate courses.  I read to my three children daily and I help my daughter practice the violin each morning before school starts.  I don’t smoke and I eat healthy foods.  I enjoy my wine.

I am not an alcoholic.  I can control my drinking.  I don’t drink until after five. I drink chilled Chardonnay while I prep dinner at night on autumn evenings, a couple of glasses during dinner and while we move through bedtime.  I read to my kids every single night.  I bathe them and brush their teeth, and I often get up to run five miles or more before they wake up for breakfast.

The hours between when I pick up the kids from school and when Andy gets home from work are long.  The kids are tired and wild.  I try not to turn on the television, to help with the math homework, to negotiate peace between my three and six year old, to keep my toddler busy, to make something resembling dinner.  I reward myself with the bottle of wine and a plan for a nice meal.  The package store sells pretzels; the children call it the pretzel store.

I do go through a lot of wine. My husband drinks less beer.  My empty bottles pile up in the recycling bin.  Sometimes I throw a few soda cans on top.  My husband suggests we switch to drinking only on the weekends.  I agree.  Bath time is long and the kids slop the water out of the tub.

Winter drags on.  The winter coats are dingy now and the sky is dull.   I can’t drink only on the weekends.   Eventually, I go underground.  I start to hide my wine.  I drink before he gets home.  I pour wine into a water bottle and leave it behind the house.   I pay in cash so there is no record of the sale.  I have a secret now.

Something takes control of me in spring.  It is cunning. It begins planning our day.  It plans when we will get wine, how much we will need, how we will hide it, when we will drink it, how we will hide our drunk.  This becomes the priority of our life.  It is getting warmer; daffodils coming up through the earth.  On weekends I am drinking much more.  Sometimes I can barely read the words of my kids’ books at night; the letters spin.

One morning I wake up and I cannot remember putting the kids to bed.  I look in on them.  There they are, in their footsie pajamas, tucked in and sleeping with their sweet flushed cheeks and peaceful mouths.  At breakfast I ask my daughter what books we had read, hoping it will spark my memory.  “Mama, why did you ask me that?” she says.

Near the end, I have blackouts.  I hide wine in my closet.  I have to be careful to remember to throw it away when I am out.  Sometimes I drink in the morning.  One summer day my husband comes home to find me and the kids in the yard.  We are playing “Drive-in Movie.”  I have blown up a camping mattress and set it up behind the mini-van and let them jump on it and watch DVD’s in the car.  I am there on the mattress with a smile on my face and my eyes closed and the kids are climbing all around me.  I have been drinking all day.

I am afraid now.  I wake up in the morning sick.  I feel sick until I have something to drink.  I look in the mirror and I feel panic rise and I tell myself it is not going to happen again.  But it does.  I do not have control anymore.  I have lost control.  I am not the driver.  Alcohol is the driver.  I have not been the driver for a long time and now it is too late.

One of the last times I drink I almost die.  I go to the liquor store alone at ten o’clock in the morning.  I buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy and I drink both of most in my car right there in the parking lot.  I do not know why.  A small voice inside me asks me to stop but we push it back.

I went into a store.  That’s all I remember.  I was very, very drunk.  Somehow, a clerk in the store helped me.  She called my husband with my cell phone.  He got me to his car using a shopping cart because I was too drunk to walk.  He thought I might die.  I was forty years old, the mother of three.  He thought that I might die.  And I got drunk again all the rest of that week, just as soon as we got the chance.

Alcoholism is a terminal disease.  According to the World Health Organization, it is the third leading cause of premature death.  There is no cure.  However, people who seek treatment and stop drinking can fully recover.

I am powerless over alcohol.  I cannot manage my own life.  I must admit defeat or die.   I pick defeat.  I let my husband take my car keys, my cell phone, my credit cards.  I let my father leave me at High Watch Recovery Center in Kent, Connecticut, where I spend three weeks in treatment.  I let the therapists and counselors tell me what to do.  I don’t fight.

I stop with the rationalization.  I stop comparing.  I begin to identify with who I am.

In rehab, I have the profound experience of sharing a secret with a room full of strangers that I had not shared with myself.   Out loud, I say I am alcoholic.  I say I can’t drink safely.  I say I lied so I could drink and say I schemed so I could drink and say I drank around my children.  I shake and I cry and I rail and other women meet my eye, they don’t look away and they say “Me too,” and they say “I know,” and they say “oh, that was me.”  I see I am them.  I identify.  I see I am a million other women, alcoholic women suffering from this disease, keeping this awful secret and dying from it alone and hating themselves for it silently while loving their children like all mothers do, all while alcohol wants them nothing else but dead.

We sit in a circle and we say our names.  We say we are alcoholic.  To hear so many others say these words aloud is an affirmation.  I begin to breathe.  We begin to speak.

The communion I experience among these women saves my life.  I learn that in fact I am not alone. I learn that lies and secrets corrode my self-esteem and waste my dignity.  I learn that damage to my self-respect fuels my disease to drink.  I hear their stories, and in listening I see the cycle.  In their stories I become awake.

Today, I consider myself pretty lucky.  In the U.S, only 11% of alcoholics seek treatment.  Only 11% of the people in this country who have this disease, from which more than 75,000 people will die from every year, will seek treatment.  I am in that 11% and alcoholism is not going to take me down.  But my God, did it try.

One of the darkest factors of this disease is the stigma that is attached to it, and particularly to those who are parents.  People who have diseases like diabetes or heart disease do not develop resulting behaviors that cause them to drive recklessly, act belligerently, black out, or engage in other types of socially inappropriate and dangerous conduct.  People don’t worry about letting their kids sleep over the girl’s house whose mom has diabetes.  Nobody wants to carpool with the alcoholic mom.

Alcoholism is a disease of the mind and the body.  The shame that comes with this disease makes it difficult for the alcoholic to talk about her disease with doctors, friends, and loved ones.  To make matters worse, her disease tells her brain not to, because her disease doesn’t want her to stop.

I can’t be left alone with the whispering voice perched on my shoulder and I shouldn’t be.  I enter into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I am no longer alone; I break my silence; I find communion; I hold the hands of my sisters.  I do the next right thing.

I will always be an alcoholic, just like I will always be a redhead and I will always be a mom.  My disease is a part of who I am.   There are many things that I am still afraid of.  I am afraid that one day I will slip and drink again.  I am afraid for my three young children, who will have to navigate their own course through life, with its many liquor stores, its college days, its interstate miles.  I am afraid they might inherit my disease and be alcoholic like me.  There are plenty of things to fear.  More important, though, for me to focus on today and watch my seven year old set the table for supper, fully present.  She smiles at me, gap-toothed, the way that second-graders are.  What a gift.  What an incredible gift life is.

About the author:  Rowen Wilson is a pen name. The photo used here is stock photography.

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Little Man

Little Man

By Fran Dorf

Fran DorfOn October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt.  It was a boy. He was a month early.  We were thrilled.

Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly.  He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled.  I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.

Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room.  She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke.  She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?

Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls.  Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”

We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly.  He was ours.   We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.

By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.

A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love.  Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over.  I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.

I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled?  When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones?  When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?

In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer.  I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.


Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water.  Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool.  We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle.  He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him.  He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again.  And again.  And again.

Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him.  We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us.  We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.

In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and ” butter,” neither of which was one of his words.  We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.


And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah.  Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror.  I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like.  It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.

Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing.  My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next.  Even in my dreams I was screaming.

Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count.  Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.

The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void.  I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there.  He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.

After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word.  Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.

We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months.  We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen.  She mentioned that she’d had another child.  She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him.  Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives.  I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.


Our son would have turned twenty-three this October.  I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.

I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.

My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again.  Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist.  I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael.  We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child.  She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter.  As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.

Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent.  No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.

Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding.  And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.

Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art.  We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight (Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000).  Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE at, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.

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I Looked Away and She Was Gone

I Looked Away and She Was Gone

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only When I looked Back ArtMy daughter, she’s eleven. She’ll be twelve in November. She grew up one day a couple months ago.

We were going to a town about an hour away, in California’s Napa Valley, to hear my friend’s sister sing in a rock-n-roll band. We were going to have dinner first.

My daughter put on a dress, boots, hat, elbow-length gloves, and five years.

She wore them like a loose veil across cheek bones I never noticed, on the poise of squared shoulders, soft over eyes that knew something, something more than me, something adults know, or almost know, if they could remember.

She nearly stopped my heart when I saw her in that get-up, so beautiful she snatched my breath and words. I looked at her and looked harder and harder to see it clearly.

A woman?

The second I saw it, it vanished, and there stood again my little one, my first one, who played in the sand and still does sometimes.

My Ava. She was born when I was 22-years-old. I thought having her would be a cool new thing to do. Like going to Mexico or backpacking around Europe.  We got her name from a magazine article about Ava Gardner. It wasn’t popular then. I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.

“Mama, I hate you!” She screams and runs off.

I stir the meat in the pan and heat like the cast iron before me. I think “How dare she speak to me that way.” I AM THE MOTHER. I think about storming down the hall and demanding better treatment. HOW DARE YOU. Who do you think you are?

Well I’m a girl, growing up, and it sucks sometimes.A victim of biology.

Screw biology, hormones, and nature.

For taking my girl from me, even if it’s only in moments still, so young. A victim of a uterus and ovaries a decade or two before she even needs them. I have no idea how to stand near this child. I have no idea what to say or where to reach as I watch her slip away, only in moments still, of beauty or rage.

So damn young.

But always moving away, or so it seems, until she tells me that she wants to hear my voice to feel better, and I want to cling to today for dear life. I want to weave her back into my skin and hold her there like it was and it’s always been.

Except that it isn’t. Not anymore.

And I cannot.

Except sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, when we went camping in Mendocino, along the heaven coastline of California, where the cold and redwoods meet. The fog sits soft on jagged black rocks, waves crash against them in bursts beautiful and deadly, and it’s clear. Clear that you’ve got nothing here and never will. Against this ocean, the relentless pull of time, moons and earth and water, a speck of sand on misty beach. You put on your sweatshirt and enjoy your nothingness. Breathe the gray serenity of something you know or knew once.

On the day we arrived it was sunny.

And through our campsite ran a little creek. It was my friend, pregnant, and her toddler daughter, and my own three kids. Our husbands not here yet.

I guess something about the place made my oldest one feel like the littlest one, or one of the little ones. Maybe it was having her own mama and another mama and just little kids around. Maybe it was the sun filling up our spot among the ferns and trees or the fog that rolled in, or the ocean cove across the street.

Whatever it was, I looked over and she was 8 again or 7 or 6 or 3.

She wore a bathing suit bottom and a t-shirt and she was gathering materials to build a fairy house, proudly running over to show me the couch, the walls, the shell vase.

She stomped around the little brook, building a dam, of course. She got filthy, put a banana slug across her nose.

She spent hours rigging up a chipmunk trap, sure the damn thing would come any moment now.

I watched her like the best movie in the world, one that plays only once, each scene sacred: each time she squatted down without a lick of self-consciousness, acted a little too young for a girl her size, each time she wanted my appraisal of the effectiveness of the trap, or how to make the couch stay together, weave together the leaves. Look at the moss she found. “Won’t it make a great bed?”

“Isn’t this great, Mama?” And I almost couldn’t contain it all, being that person again to her, the one to praise her childish constructions. I was her for so many years. I only get moments now.

And she wasn’t the girl yelling “I hate you,” then. She wasn’t the kid losing her mind about something, irrational, full of rage, hormonal. She wasn’t the kid flipping out about whatever drama is happening at school.

And she wasn’t in that dress that made her like the waves. So utterly beautiful and terrifying I can’t figure out if I’m in love or want to run away, from the power of it all. It’s almost too much…

“I HATE YOU!” the words sting my core because they’re true, for a moment, and maybe I hate her too. Because how can I do anything different with this pain taunting me, dangling in my face? I know it’s coming. It’s right there.

I’m losing her.

Nah, I don’t hate her, not even for a moment, but I dislike her sometimes in a way that’s shocking and new, like I dislike adults on occasion. It hurts my stomach to have that feeling toward my child.

They say she’ll come back, after the teenage years. That she’ll just seem gone.

They say it’s so wonderful again, after those years.

They say supportive things.

But what I see is that my daughter is growing up, and it’s all exactly as it should be, except that this is not a change a human can stomach. How can I take it? How can I accept it?

TELL ME WORLD, how can I let go? When all I want is one more day and one more after that of our little family and the oldest child still a child and she’s going.

She’s going.

I can only let go, and yet I cannot.

Once again, here I am. A mother. The Mother.

With nothing.

I stir the meat a little longer and remember eleven and twelve and sixteen and how I couldn’t see myself in myself sometimes, and I didn’t know either. “Who do you think you are?”

I have no clue, mom.

So I walk down the hall a few minutes later and open her door. She’s weeping into her pillow. I sit by her and say nothing, look at the trinkets and the papers and stuffed animals. I look at the jewelry and the books and treasures. I touch her arm. The clutter, the mess, the thousands of things on the walls. The notes from friends and things from second, third, fourth grade.

The little girl beneath a towering world.

Her little haven in an untouchable world begging her to join it, her place in my home, her home, all I can offer beyond what I am in all my broken form:  a mother, her mother, a new mother I guess, to a new form of child.

I see again it’s all just a series of being reborn. It’s all just a series of recreation, of being tweaked and carved into something new, as I kick and scream and weep for the old.

Just when I was sure it would never end.

Just when I thought I knew what tomorrow would hold.

Janelle Hanchett is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (

Is She Yours?

Is She Yours?

By Anita Felicelli Is She Yours Art v5-1

One weekday afternoon, a woman hands me slices of pepperoni pizza and asks me if I am my daughter’s nanny. She frowns at me and at the baby in the stroller, so the question seems hostile rather than innocent. We are at a Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Palo Alto, walking distance from my house. “No, I’m her mother,” I answer, paying quickly and scarfing down the pizza so I can get out of the restaurant.

I am accustomed to people of all different races and cultures cooing when they see my daughter or asking how old she is, but I am also growing familiar with the questions. “Are you the nanny?” or “Is she yours?” I get these questions from strangers at the airport and local restaurants, and from unfamiliar staff at the pediatrician’s office. While I remain slightly offended by the questions, I have to admit that within a few days of giving birth, even I thought, Holy smokes! Are you mine? I was struck by how markedly different she looks from Steven and me, and briefly wondered if she’d been switched with another baby. The most obvious difference was skin tone. I am much darker-skinned than my daughter, and, although I am first-generation Indian-American, I have been mistaken for Afro-Caribbean, Mexican, and mixed race. My daughter Illyria (“Illy” for short) has the same fair-gold skin tone as her Italian-American father and eyes that turned from purplish-grey to hazel within her first six months.

At every family get-together after she was born, we all tried to pinpoint who she looks like, everyone voicing different opinions: she looks like me, she looks like Steven’s mother, she looks like my mother, she looks like Steven’s niece, or she looks like the girl on the cover of a Shonen Knife CD. Then, when she expressed a different mood and her face changed, whoever had spoken took back his or her opinion, uncertain again. Although I was born in India, I grew up in Palo Alto, California, before there were many Indians around and before interracial marriages became common. When I was a child, my parents enrolled me in an Indian Sunday school where I took classes in Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance), Tamil (their native language), and Balavihar (Hinduism). I remember one little girl with very fair skin who came to Balavihar for a few months. She never said a word. All the other kids, including me, whispered about her on the first day. Nobody was unfriendly, but we were all perplexed. I asked my mother who she was, and it turned out that she was biracial—half-Indian. This news startled me because, as a child, I had incorrectly assumed that all Indians had darker skin like mine. I had equated being Indian with a specific appearance.

But my memory of this experience quickly faded and it would be years before I fully realized the immense visual diversity of Indians. As a 7th-grader in the early 1990s, I hated going to the Indian Sunday school, particularly Indian classical dance, which requires females to move and emote in highly dramatic ways. Being bookish and reserved as a child, the class was painful for me, made worse by my sense that the teacher picked on me for being too Americanized, or ‘blasé’ as my father called it. Although Tamil was my first language, we all spoke English at home and it was a struggle for me to see how it was relevant to my daily life to learn more advanced Tamil. Hinduism appealed to me, but my father had been raised both Catholic and Hindu and taken me to a Unitarian Universalist church; by middle school, I had concluded there was no definitive answer to spiritual questions. I did not tie being Indian to being Hindu or to any specific cultural practice. By the time I was a teenager, I’d come to see all of the Sunday classes on culture as obstacles both to fitting in with my peers and developing my own individual taste, which at the time consisted of listening to punk and modern rock, wearing all black clothing and gigantic silver jewelry, and reading Anais Nin and Baudelaire. How sophisticated could you be if half your Sundays were taken up with a culture that nobody except kids who dressed or acted like hippies saw as cool? Since everyone around me noticed I was Indian anyway because of what I looked like, it struck me as far more important to develop chosen interests and ways of expressing myself over those I’d inherited. My parents were horrified when I said I wanted to quit. I found excuses not to go and faked colds until it became clear that it was a waste of money to send me. I felt guilty, of course. They wore crestfallen expressions.

“I don’t know why you don’t care about knowing where you come from,” my father said after he gave up fighting me. I thought I knew enough. I took being Indian-American for granted, but I also readjusted my perception of my cultural background over the ensuing years. Because of my skin color and facial features, many people over the course of my thirty-six years have asked me, within a few hours, “Where are you from?” I also often heard, “I went to India once, and I loved the food!” or “Someone I know went to India, and he couldn’t take how crowded and dirty it was,” or “Isn’t Slumdog Millionaire the best movie?!” India is more a collection of nation states roughly divided into North and South, with significantly different cultural traditions, foods, and languages, and South Indians in America have always been kind to me, recognizing our shared cultural background. Like being black, I didn’t think being Indian was something mutable. When I was in my twenties, my father told me that I was much more American than Indian, but I scoffed. I had internalized other people’s perceptions by then and I certainly didn’t feel “American.” My differences were the first thing anyone ever noticed about me. If I was perceived as Indian by everyone around me except my family, how could I be more American than Indian? While I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband Steven, who has read more novels by Indian authors than I probably ever will, insisted that my parents speak to her in Tamil sometimes so that she could start to learn both languages. I shrugged. How important could it be for her to learn Tamil? My family spoke English at home and if we went to India, most Indians could speak to us in English anyway.

My parents hadn’t even given me a name common to Tamilians—they specifically gave me a name that I could use no matter where I traveled. Steven and I are both writers and so we decided on a literary first name together—Illyria, the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. When Steven asked me whether I wanted to give her an Indian middle name, I couldn’t think of one that had any special meaning to me, so we chose another literary middle name, Kinnell, after the great American poet Galway Kinnell. But I read that babies in utero can develop a taste for particular foods, so I ate samosas, curries, green chilli uttha-pam, and hot sauces in the hopes that the baby would like Indian food. That was the only nod I gave to my ethnic background. When I played peek-a-boo with my daughter, or sang to her, or took her around the park in her stroller, all I focused on was how beautiful I thought she was with her chipmunk cheeks, her curious, solemn eyes, and her jovial two-teeth smile. But as strangers questioned my motherhood due to her skin color, I started to chafe against the implication that my daughter wasn’t Indian-American, wasn’t like me. To me, she was both Indian and Italian, not neither. That’s when I started reading more contemporary Indian authors. I wrote about being Indian-American more than I wrote about anything else. I started to regret not giving her an Indian middle name, something that would tie her to India for the rest of her life, the way I believed I was tied by my physical appearance, my more expected skin tone. Finally, I asked my parents, “Can we do a feeding ceremony?” An Annaprasana is a Hindu ceremony performed at a temple, during which a baby is supposed to get solid food for the first time. I asked them because they lived nearby and I would have no idea how to arrange such a ceremony. Initially my father was reluctant.

“Why? It doesn’t really have any meaning to you,” he said and to some extent, he was right. While religion fascinates me, I have been an agnostic ever since I learned what the term meant. For some reason, however, it seemed terribly important to me that Illy have an Annaprasana, God or not, and I was disappointed that after all our disagreements, now that I was interested, my father wasn’t. But in a few days, my parents did get excited. On a rainy day in early January, we drove in separate cars to the Livermore temple, which looks to me like a giant wedding cake. My mother had packed a giant bowl of pongal (a sweet rice dish), fruits, flowers, and betel leaves. Steven and I wore traditional Indian clothing. “Do I look like a poser?” he asked, both excited and concerned. I assured him he looked good. I dressed six-month-old Illy in a bright-red silk dress with gold edging. Inside the temple, I made awkward small talk with Kannan, the priest, who spoke in a kind of lazy English. Besides my husband and daughter, there were no other fair-skinned people in the temple, but everyone standing in the lines to worship at various altars smiled at us. During the ceremony, Kannan mumbled fast directions in Tamil, forgetting that Steven wouldn’t be able to understand him.

My father and I quickly translated that Steven needed to scatter the red rose petals and throw rice or hold the bowl, moving with his hands around the sandalwood incense. We placed Red Delicious apples and bananas on betel leaves, scrambling to peel the labels from the skin of the fruits, as the priest hurried on to the next part of the ceremony. When my father finally offered Illy the pongal, she squished her pink lips together, grumbling “Mmmmmm” to signal refusal. Finally, my father snuck a fingerful of food into her mouth, and once she tasted the sweetness of the jaggery (concentrated date sugar), she nearly inhaled the stuff, taking multiple spoonfuls from each of us. The last part of the Annaprasana is an optional game in which you set four objects in front of the baby within her reach: jewelry, dirt, a pen, and book. Whatever she chooses is supposed to symbolize what her path in life will be. Although none of us, except sometimes me, is superstitious, we decided to play the game.

At home, we’re always reading and Illy’s obsessed with grabbing the books and trying to chew the corners, so we all assumed she would choose books. All five of us let out a collective roar when she tentatively reached a chubby hand toward the gold bangle and picked it up. Wealth, something neither her father nor I have focused on. “So what did I choose at my ceremony?” I asked my mother after, when we were gathered at my parents’ house eating and drinking wine. I was sure it would be a pen. “Oh, you didn’t have a ceremony,” my mother said. “I didn’t have one?” I am baffled. I was born in India to two Hindu parents. Mom explained, “My parents assumed we wouldn’t want to do one because your Dad was raised a Christian. They didn’t tell us to do it and so we never did.” My parents had married outside their castes and religions and I grew up not with a single unified culture, but one that borrowed from a variety of traditions, the ones my parents chose to follow. The postmodern nature of this upbringing had never occurred to me before, but when my mother told me why they hadn’t bothered with the ceremony for me, an odd realization came over me. My own and Illy’s skin colors are utterly irrelevant to our identities. In that moment, I realized that what my father said was true: I am American. Maybe that seems obvious, but it was only when I realized that Illy could actually choose not to be Indian, that I understood in a visceral way how my parents must have felt thirty years ago.

As immigrants in America, they had tried to convince me that it was important to go to classes and socialize with other Indian-Americans and make an active choice to hold onto the identity I inherited—the one that, based on my appearance, other people would assume I possessed. I didn’t make that choice because I never realized that the ethnic aspect of my identity could disappear. I let go of my cultural background not intentionally, but because I assumed it would always be there—like my skin color, it would never vanish. Now, as a mother, I see I was wrong. How very American it is to watch the identity you inherited— an identity that might have been fixed in another country—disappear into a challenging sea of choices about what traditions are worth holding onto and what may be released as inessential. I resolved to take Illy to those Indian classes as long as she lets me in order to give her more choices in building her identity. If she one day decides, in a fit of adolescent rebellion, that they are not for her, even though it will probably bother me, I doubt I will have any new grand arguments to convince her otherwise. Instead, much as she chose the gold bangle, eventually she will have to forge her own cultural identity from the gorgeous chaos of her own intended and accidental experiences.

Author’s Note: Writing about identity feels scary to me. There are so many questions I continue to have about race, culture, and motherhood (not to mention the potential to inadvertently offend readers) that it is very difficult to commit to an opinion or even description. The language never seems right—”half-Indian?” “Indian?” “Indian-Italian-American?” Does assimilation into one culture mean your child is foreclosed from another culture? Does cherry-picking and choosing elements you like for your child mean you are committing to nothing, or is it a tacit decision to choose the culture which allows you to make it all up? Categories that seemed somewhat sensitive but straightforward when I was single became confusing once our daughter was born. Writing about the aspects of life I find the most uncomfortable is the only way I have of uncovering truths I didn’t even know were contested, surprising myself and readers, too, I hope.

Anita Felicelli’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Babble, Blackbird, India Currents, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her first novel Sparks Off You was a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year (Young Adult) finalist. Anita lives in Mountain View with her husband, daughter, and two rambunctious corgis.

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Meanwhile, Upstairs

Meanwhile, Upstairs

By Kris Woll

Meanwhile Upstairs Art 2When I realized what I had done, I reached for my phone and called my OB’s after-hours number (saved in favorites, just under his office number and right above my husband’s cell).

Yes, I need to speak to the doctor right away, I told the answering service.

Are you in labor? the calm voice inquired.

No, but it’s very serious, I said.

If this is an emergency, you should dial 911, the voice responded.

It is serious, but not yet an emergency.

Ok, so let me get your name …

I rattled off my birth date, my last appointment, my due date (still over 7 months away).

And what is the situation? the voice inquired.

I ate the wrong cheese, I responded, choking on the words.  Tears welled; I filled with guilt and fear.

I’m not sure that I heard you, the voice responded.  The wrong cheese?

Yes, the wrong cheese! I cried back.  I ate feta!  On a salad!  From the deli by work!  I was craving salt!  And it’s my favorite salad!  And then I came home and went to the fridge to get some cold water and …


And saw the magnet, with the “foods to avoid during your pregnancy” list.  Soft cheese.  Feta cheese!  I should have read it when I put it on the fridge, but I didn’t, and now …

My voice trailed off as tears took over.

There it was: the big catastrophe, avoidable, had I simply been prepared.  But I wasn’t, and now everything would be ruined.  I didn’t read the magnet, even though it had been on fridge for weeks.  And so I gave into my salt craving by going after some feta, ignoring the PB&J on wheat wrapped in tin foil, now squished at the bottom of my purse.

Can you please have the doctor call me?  I begged the voice.  I need to know if there’s anything I can do to …

I will, Miss, the voice responded.

I hit “end” and curled up in the corner of the futon in front of the TV, phone in hand and blanket almost over my head, waiting for the phone to ring.

I have always been a little bit of a—what’s the word?—let’s say a worrier.  A little on the nervous side.  For example, when I was a child for two entire summers—nearly all of the warm weather, no-school days between my 2nd and 4th grade years—I sat in the southwest corner of my family’s unfinished, cement basement, reading Little House on the Prairie books and stuffing cotton in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the thunder—if and when there was a storm.  I could not be forced to wait for something like a weather-service issued tornado warning, or even a storm watch.  Just in case the ever-present wind of my prairie hometown blew something my way, I would be safe.  I occasionally snatched my mother’s purse or all the fruit in the fridge and set them by me and my books until someone noticed they were gone and came to claim them.  Just in case, I’d explain.

My parents and older siblings tried to lure me out of the cellar with reason and logic.  Kristie, it’s sunny and there are no clouds.  Kristie, it’s only 40 degrees outside.  Kristie, it’s late August and you need to practice existing outside of the basement because school is about to start.  But this was not about logic and reason.  I’m not quite sure what it was about, really, because no one thought to invest in a psychological evaluation of the child who wouldn’t leave the basement corner during summer vacation.  But I can say it would be only the first of several—perhaps many would be a word choice here—demonstrations of my rather worrisome worrying.

Still, it took another 21 years—and approximately 10 weeks gestation—before my worry spread to Greek salads, which proved particularly troublesome.  Because here’s the thing: soft cheese knows no basements.  There is nowhere to hide from feta digested.  I scanned website after website, where people with questionable avatars submit poorly punctuated and deeply fretful questions about falling, having sex, and yes, eating feta, while pregnant.  And then know-it-all’s respond with finger wagging and directions to call your doctor or go to the ER.  I scanned these as I waited for my doctor’s call—What’s keeping him? What can an on-call OB possibly be doing that is more important than this? —and emailed a baker’s dozen of contrite, horrified, highly-repetitive emails to my husband, who was on a flight to the opposite coast for a conference and would get them six hours later, in one big batch.  (And who would, because he is patient and calm and wise, quickly delete them and wait several hours—blaming traffic, meetings, or the time change, before calling to check in.  He had to develop his own strategies for living with my worry.)

I was writing message number 14 (subject line: What Will I Do?) when the phone rang.

How are you doing? My mother-in-law asked.  She was calling because her son was gone and I was newly pregnant and she was being nice.

I started to cry.  To bawl, really.  To howl and wail.

You miss him?  she asked.

No, I sobbed.  I ate the wrong cheese!

After explaining, between tear-induced gasps for air, that I was not (yet anyway – sob, sob, sob) suffering from food poisoning, I described my deli lunch.  And the magnet on the fridge.  And my resulting terror.  She responded that, back when she was pregnant, they didn’t have those magnets.  But they did often have cocktails and cigarettes.  Which she would not recommend, but was just sharing.  To calm me down.  The ol’ but Kristie, come on up from down there! line, updated.

It’s just …

It’s just what? she asked.

I don’t want to lose this pregnancy!

Of course you won’t, she responded.

But last time I did.

I surprised myself with that line as it left my mouth. But I was now 10 weeks along.  Which—last time—was when I got those bright red spots, and then went into the doctor, and he turned the screen away and said, I’m so sorry.  On top of the salad topped with croutons and olives and that terrifying cheese, I was having a tough (gestational) week.

I don’t remember what else my mother-in-law said, but I eventually stopped crying, hung up the phone and even closed my laptop.  I sat on the futon, watching TV—the very futon where, the following July, my water would break, the very futon around which I would lean and stand and sway while I labored for several hours, waiting for regular contractions while watching Harry Potter DVDs.  And at some point—on the feta night, not while in labor—I fell asleep in the futon’s comforting little curve.

For the first day of 4th grade, I had to come out of the basement corner, strap on my backpack, pick through my short, permed hair, and put on my giant pastel pink glasses (with this sentence, at least one reason for basement-hiding seems a bit more evident), had to head out into world and its weather.  Looking back, that little act of bravery provided good practice for the rest of my pregnancy (and for the one that followed, and for years of motherhood that I am currently wading my way through).  We should read our magnets and keep an eye on the weather, be smart and safe, and then—though we often have no idea what to expect, and though we worry—we must get on with things.  Some of what will happen will come without warning.  Some dangers will never make it on a list on the fridge.  And sometimes those things we have always feared and associated with suffering and terror may surprise us.

Like that windy, stormy, thundering July night, after a hot and steamy day, when—eleven stories up, high in the Manhattan skyline—I gave birth to a son.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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Enveloped By Love

Enveloped By Love

By Melissa Hart

ARt Enveloped by LoveI found the seven mangled manila envelopes on my bookshelf; someone had recognized them—with their crude drawings of flowers and birds—as repositories for a devotion strong enough, no, interesting enough, to ward off a 5-year-old’s fear of losing her mother. I’d received the bizarre diagnosis, a cancerous lesion on my tongue, by cell phone at the playground. My first thought after stepping away from the swing-set and determining in quiet hysteria that I wasn’t going to die: Would my daughter survive?

Maia had already been through a lot. Her biological mother relinquished her to the state at birth. Her foster mom cared for four infants synonymously. Our daughter finally knew focused attention and affection when my husband, Jonathan, and I brought her home at 18 months.

“I don’t want her traumatized,” I told Jon when oral surgeons informed me I’d be a week in a hospital, encumbered by a feeding tube and trach, unable to talk after they’d excised a piece of my tongue and replaced it with tissue and muscle from my wrist. “No one tells Maia. I don’t want her scared.”

I, myself, felt petrified. Tongue cancer, my surgeon explained, is affecting more and more middle-aged women like me who’ve never smoked and who limit their alcohol to a few glasses of red wine a week. It’s sometimes linked to the Human papillomavirus, but I tested negative. “You’re an anomaly,” the doctor concluded and snapped pictures of my poor besieged tongue while my husband distracted our daughter in the waiting room with Superwhy on his iPad.

At home, after a four-mile run to remind myself that no one had offered me a death sentence, I called in sick to work and baked muffins—zucchini and chocolate chip, sweet potato and peanut butter—more muffins than Maia could eat in my absence. And I bought the manila envelopes, one for each day of my hospitalization.

I’d been away from my daughter before. At conferences, I’m gone for days. But a week in the hospital felt dangerous. People die under anesthesia; they expire from infection. “She’s already lost two mothers,” I wailed to my husband on the couch at midnight. “What if she loses a third?”

He allowed gently that I might be veering into drama queen territory. “People have surgery all the time. I’ve had six, myself.”

“Yes, but . . .”

It wasn’t just the surgery that frightened me—we knew that. I’d received the dreaded diagnosis, the C-word forever linked with my name in medical records, and though doctors termed it Stage I, who knew what they’d find once anesthesia bore me under and they could go poking around.

To calm myself, I focused on creating care packages for Maia. I borrowed her markers and decorated each envelope with a drawing. Then, I bought seven picture books. One each went into the envelopes along with a tiny box of Junior Mints, a Tootsie Pop, a gold-foil wrapped chocolate heart.

I’d bought seven postcards at the bookstore, each with a picture of a cat or dog or pig in some comic pose. “Mommy loves Maia,” I wrote over and over, hoping—if disease spirited me away from this earth—that the repetition would burn itself into her brain, assuring her that she was a child adored.

For levity, I added toys: Slinky, kazoo, pipe cleaners to bend into animals. The night Jon and I headed for Portland to keep our 5:30 AM date with surgeons, I read Maia bedtime stories and handed my mother the envelopes with firm instructions. “Put one a day on the doorstep.”

For days, post-surgery, I lay in a fog and pictured Maia running up the porch steps to discover her care package. The image cheered me, inspiring me up and out of the ridiculous hospital gown. The moment I could swallow a sip of water, I demanded that surgeons remove the feeding tube from my nose, yank out the trach, and allow me to quit the hospital.

“Drive faster!” I urged Jon home, preparing myself for Maia at the door tear-stained or red-faced with rage. Would she hate me for falling victim to a random diagnosis I’d done nothing to deserve? Or would my gifts redeem me?

A Welcome Home drawing greeted us at door, but Maia herself wasn’t there. Through morphine’s blue haze, I saw the silly postcards on the mantle. The kazoo lay in a corner; picture books peeked out from under couch cushions. A pipe cleaner horse gripped one lamp.

“Where’s Maia?” Tongue throbbing, I scrawled on my whiteboard, bewildered. “Is she scared of me?”

Jon stroked my head. “It’s okay—your mom’s gone to get her from school.”

I collapsed on the couch, longing for our meeting, dreading it.

We can’t keep our children from life—I know that. Accidents happen and cells divide and our babies must deal with reality sooner than we’d like. All we can do is try, creatively, to lessen their fear. And here’s the surprise—in helping them, we sometimes teach them to help us, as well.

Maia ran inside that afternoon and pressed her forehead against mine with shocking tenderness. Her brown eyes looked into mine. “You’re back!” she said, as if I’d gone to the market for bananas. I saw then that my surgery was but a blip in our life together, akin to the toothpick arrow stuck into a ring in the cross-section of an oak on our favorite hiking trail.

“Mommy…” My child didn’t recoil at the bulky blue splint on my arm, at the bandages on my throat; she didn’t question my inability to speak. Instead, she pulled the books out from under the couch cushions, sat down beside me, and tucked a blanket around my feet. “Let me read you a story.”

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

 Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

 Photo credit: Jonathan B. Smith

Peeping on the Potty

Peeping on the Potty

By Candy Schulman

WO Peeping on Potty ArtMy daughter is a nudist.  Greeting the Chinese take-out delivery man in a yellow turtleneck, she is not quite three and completely bottomless.

Mortified, I watch my husband pay for our dinner while I say in a loud whisper, “Come inside.  You don’t have any…pants on.”

“I’m just standing here next to my daddy,” she says, while I worry what the delivery man must be thinking about our American culture.

Amy tries to spear rice grains with the tip of a chopstick.  She’s having a great time, even though her bare rear is getting imprinted by the pattern of a cane seat.

We are not weird or perverted.  We are simply trying to toilet train our toddler. I teach; Amy resists. Child-rearing gurus advise parents to delay toilet “learning” until after the defiance of the terrible twos settles down. Given my daughter’s strong will and a case of terrible twos that began at eleven months, I may be waiting until Amy goes to college.

Today’s method is to get those disposable diapers off your child–she’ll never feel the urge to “go” when her butt is padded by super absorbency fibers.  In the homes of young children you’re sure to see a lot of little tochis flashing around.

My mother toilet trained my brother at eighteen months.  She had no choice, or should I say hehad no choice: with another infant to care for, my mother wasn’t going to hand wash two sets of cloth diapers.

Experts today adopt a laissez faire approach, lest the children turn into anal retentive adults. Hence my bare-bottomed girl…and if you need proof how far she is from anal retentive, all you have to do is take one look at the condition of her room.

Months pass.  Finally Amy agrees to start sitting on the potty. She smiles, saying, “I hear it.”  But I hear nothing.

“I hear it!” Amy says, but it’s all in her mind, rather than in the bowl.

“I’m finished,” she announces, wiping herself needlessly in the wrong place.  She flushes and is off.

Someday she will “go potty.”  But the more I see 4-year-olds in diapers, the more I wonder if my mother had a better idea.

I try behavior modification.  If I can “hear it,” she can hang one sticker from an array I’ve purchased. Perched on the edge of the bathtub, my usual observation spot, I finally hear it. I jump up and down, cheering.  Before her feet touch the ground, I dial Grandma in Florida.

“I made peep on the potty all by myself!” Amy screams into the phone.

Then she demands her reward: five stickers.

“We agreed on one.  One for each pee-pee.”  I can’t believe I am actually uttering such words.

“Four,” she says, a fierce negotiator, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.

“Okay…three.” All the money I thought I’d be saving on diapers goes into my sticker budget.

My mother calls from Florida.  “In the middle of my bridge game,” she reports, ” I told three eighty-year-old women that my granddaughter finally peed on the toilet.  They looked at me like I was nuts. Told me to finish bidding.  They might not care, but I’m awfully proud.”

So am I.  A year of reading Everyone Poops has finally paid off!  We buy a dozen pair of “big girl pants”—Amy appropriately selects Pooh.  What a deprived childhood I had, a bland world of only white underwear….

She refuses to put on her big girl pants.  She still insists on being bottomless, or else she wears leggings around the house with nothing underneath.  What have I created?

“When you’re ready,” I say, “you’ll wear big girl pants.” Every two seconds I inquire, “Do you have to go potty?”

“No,” she says, annoyed.  “I alweady went potty yesterday.”

Why do I feel competitive that Amy is the last one in preschool to still wear diapers?  I take comfort that her language skills are high; I don’t think any of her college applications will question the age she was potty trained.

The turning point arrives when Amy puts Pooh underpants on her cherished stuffed puppy.  When I check on her before I go to bed, I find her asleep, mouth ajar, hugging a golden retriever in underpants.  I find this image adorable…until the next morning, when she decides to wear Pooh underpants to school for the very first time.  Puppy goes to school identically.

Amy holds up Puppy in triumph, all fur and underpants. People giggle.  I feign nonchalance.  When you’re the mother of a three-year-old who peeps on the potty, you must pretend that nothing embarrasses you.  It will be decades before we learn whether allowing toddlers to make decisions for themselves will empower them or send them to shrink’s couches with the complaint, “My problems began when my mother was too casual about toilet training.”

On the way home from school, I tell Amy, “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m a big girl now,” she says.

Minutes later, in the grocery store, Amy holds up Puppy in his underwear and boasts to a captive audience, “I’m wearing Pooh underwear too.  But Mommy’s big girl pants are black!”

There is a hush.  People stare.  I smile wanly and reassure myself that this will all seem ludicrous when more challenging times arise.  Such as explaining the facts of life.  I can’t wait.

About the Author: Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents,,, The Chicago Tribune and several anthologies. She is Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

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Smear Campaign

By Jamie Pearson

pearsonartAs I waited for my two-year-old daughter to finish her turn on the toilet, I idly studied my reflection in the restaurant’s full-length bathroom mirror. In jeans and platform slides, I looked almost young. A recent bout of stomach flu had left me fashionably thin, and I wore lipstick for a change. Combing my hair with my fingers, I felt suddenly optimistic and carefree. We zipped up and washed hands, then crossed the crowded cafe to our table. As I squeezed into my chair, I bumped the man behind me. He looked up from his lunch and smiled admiringly.

“You know what?” said my daughter. “My mommy made a poo.”

The change had occurred some months earlier and literally happened overnight. One day my daughter was a harmless cherub, the next she wasn’t. The moment she handed the electrician a pair of my underpants from the basket of dirty laundry, I realized precautions would have to be taken to safeguard what remained of my dignity. I was being given fair warning. As I charged the astonished electrician and snatched the panties from his hand, my thoughts turned to my friends’ stories of maternal humiliation. They had never seemed real to me before now. Pink plastic tampon applicators fished from the bathroom garbage by Virginia’s children and worn as fake fingernails in front of her dinner guests. Kimberly opening her front door to find her diaphragm being thrown to neighbor kids like a mini-Frisbee. For me, it began with underpants.

The electrician and I avoided eye contact and acted as if no lingerie had changed hands. Explicit etiquette guidelines for this sort of situation are hard to come by, so we improvised. I offered him coffee. He politely declined. He installed a few dimmer switches. I slunk off to my room. The moment passed. Months passed. I put the experience out of my mind.

The story got more bearable over time. With each retelling, I laughed more and cringed less. I weathered other mothering humiliations. The restaurant incident. A colorful failure to buy my daughter’s cooperation with jellybeans at the pediatrician’s office. Her fixation on the adjective teeny-weeny. And her stalwart refusal to speak aloud the noun it modified. “Look, Mommy!” she once hooted as we approached a man walking a miniature Schnauzer. “That man has a TEENY WEENY!” I held my head a little higher with every embarrassment, imagining that I was no longer so easily defeated. Then she pulled my pants down in front of the Federal Express delivery man.

Much in the manner of a nuclear accident or an airliner crash, this catastrophe occurred because many systems failed sequentially. I had a newborn baby. All my pants had been vomited on or worse. The resulting laundry pile was insurmountable. I was wearing my husband’s loose-fitting sweats. My normally independent daughter was tired and clingy. The baby fussed to be picked up. By the time the doorbell rang, the dominoes of disaster were already in motion. I scooped up the baby, opened the door, and attempted to sign for the package one-handed.

The FedEx guy smiled at my daughter. “Hi there.”

At once terrified and delighted, she gripped my leg and cowered behind me. Had I tied the drawstring of my sweatpants? I couldn’t be sure. I casually leaned against the door, applying extra pressure at my hip for securitymother


The FedEx man was not so easily dissuaded. He knelt down to toddler level. “How do you like the big sister business so far?”

At this, my daughter held on tight and slid down my leg to sit on my foot. In one hand I held my infant son, in the other the electronic signature clipboard. I was entirely without pants.

It’s hard to say who was more aghast. The FedEx guy developed a sudden, fervent interest in our landscaping while I remarked favorably, and repeatedly, upon the weather. The nice thing about humiliation in the company of strangers is that the experience is transitory. However often I would replay this mortifying scene in my head, it was over as soon as I signed the clipboard, agreed to have a good day, and closed the door. Time passed. The Pavlovian urge to take cover at the sight of a Federal Express truck did not.

Our afternoon playdate with new friends, however greatly anticipated, was not going well. Toys were not shared. Words were not used. Feelings were not respected. The disputes, largely instigated by my daughter, escalated from tense to tearful to hysterical. I intervened repeatedly, to no avail. Just as I was debating whether to politely end the visit, the house went suddenly, unnaturally quiet. As I stood to investigate, the girls skipped into the room and ducked behind an oversized armchair. In retrospect, I realize they weren’t skipping so much as skulking. I checked on them, of course. Hidden from our view, they took turns steaming up the window with their noses and drawing in the fog with their fingertips. I chatted with my new friend, determined to put the girls from my mind. And yet, I was reluctant to do so. Their muffled laughter made me uneasy.

Then I heard it. A wet, slurping sound that filled me with instant dread. I was on my feet in a second. “What are you girls doing back there?”

There was tittering. “We’re washing the windows.”

They had discovered my nightstand drawer.

The moment unfolded cinematically. The girls emerged from behind the chair. I crossed the room in two strides, hoping to be first on the scene. Too late. My daughter’s friend handed something to her mother. A tube. I held my breath, wanting so very badly for it to be diaper ointment. It was not diaper ointment.

The slimy, depleted tube of personal lubricant jelly was somehow transferred from my friend’s hand to my own, although I have no clear memory of how this was accomplished. My ears buzzed, and my face burned. In addition to the windows, the girls had washed their faces and hair. My friend and I grabbed our children and ran to separate bathrooms. As I scrubbed my daughter’s well-lubricated head a little too vigorously with one of our guest towels, her intelligent brown eyes searched my face for some reaction. Mortified into silence, I could neither comfort nor condemn her. Grimly soaping her hands and arms, I blamed myself. I struggled to think of something light or witty to say to my friend. Nothing came to me.

In any event, the playdate had come to its natural conclusion. From this point, it was not possible to segue gracefully into playdough or stickers. We filled the conversational void with mindless clean-up. I sorted stuffed animals and dolls. My new friend gathered shoes and searched for a wayward sippy cup. She suggested another playdate. I agreed. My daughter and I walked them to the door and waved as they drove away. We have neither seen nor spoken to them since.

As a young associate on Wall Street, I once returned from the restroom to my post on a predominantly male trading desk with my dress tucked into my pantyhose. At my own wedding, I stage-whispered to my husband that I was not wearing underwear and was overheard by his seventy-eight-year-old grandmother. I thought I was a person who knew what it was like to be embarrassed. Then I became a mother.

Author’s Note: Even though we had talked up the passport concept to three-year-old Avery, when it came time for photos, she balked. She met our whispered offer of lunch at McDonald’s with stony silence as the other patrons sighed theatrically. “We need this picture so we can go to a VERY SPECIAL PLACE,” I hissed. “It’s almost EXACTLY LIKE DISNEYLAND.” Avery consented, and has so far been uncharacteristically diplomatic about the many disparities between London and the Magic Kingdom.

Brain, Child (Fall 2003)

About the Author: Jamie Pearson is the mother of two wildly unpredictable children. Her writing also appears in Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press, October 2003). Before uprooting her family to live in London this August, she spent many lovely summer days shopping for foul weather gear.

Art by Oliver Weiss

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Bad Medicine and Good

By Karen Dempsey

fall2008_dempseyMy breasts ached with the need to nurse Liddy as I stood at the pharmacy counter, gripping the prescription bottle of omeprazole the pharmacist had neglected to flavor. I knew that if I gave Liddy the vile-tasting acid suppressor unsweetened she would screw up her tiny face and cry, and when the liquid hit her tender stomach it would come straight back up. I had already delayed her ten a.m. feeding to pick up the prescription; she needed to take it on an empty stomach, before she nursed. I had left her at home with my mother and my eighteen-month-old son, Brennan. She was waiting for me, crying, I imagined, from hunger, and refluxing because of the crying.

The pharmacist’s voice and expression were passive as he stared at a computer screen and clicked the keyboard. “There’s no note here about flavoring.”

I leaned onto the counter, fighting the urge to scream or throw something. This pharmacy—a huge urban pharmacy in a national chain—had already failed to refill the prescription the first time I’d called. This was my third trip here in a week, and I still didn’t have what I needed. “She has to have the flavoring,” I said. “She can’t keep it down like this. I called last night, and they said it would be ready by ten.”

“I can mix it again, but it needs to sit for twelve hours. We can have it for you tomorrow.”

The week before, Liddy had stopped breathing after a feeding. She had just been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the mechanisms of reflux, and I’d thought she was choking, gagging on spit-up. I had been sitting on the couch, her warm little newborn body curled on my shoulder, when she spit up and then spit up again. Milk surged up out of her mouth and nose, and she suddenly tensed and arched away from me, her face puckered and red. “Okay okay okay,” I said, and turned her over my forearm and vigorously rubbed her back as I’d seen a nurse do at the hospital, when she’d stopped breathing after birth.

Liddy’s face was scrunched closed, and she’d turned a deep purple. John was downstairs, out of earshot. My heart raced as I searched the bassinet for a bulb syringe to suction her mouth. Suddenly she gasped, and breathed, and relaxed into my arms. The incident was over in a moment, so quickly that I had a hard time believing it had happened at all. The next morning, I learned from her doctor that these episodes occur in reflux babies when the esophagus closes off to protect itself against the burning of stomach acid. The closed esophagus prevents the child from breathing. “That scares the heck out of me,” the doctor said. “Next time, don’t hesitate to call 911.”

I thought about saying all of this to the pharmacist as he stood before me, so dispassionate, in his crisp white coat. I could feel other customers watching me, and I knew that I must look like a mad woman—my tearful, red-rimmed eyes framed by the dark hollows of sleep deprivation. Like Liddy, I’d been sleeping for only forty-five minutes or an hour at a time. When I finally spoke, my voice was low and even, though I forced the words through what felt like a knot in my own throat, a swallowed scream or sob. “She is three weeks old.”

He took the bottle from my hand and walked away.

For a moment, I thought the conversation was over, but then I saw that he was mixing something. He came back out with another bottle and said that though my insurance would only pay for the generic version of the medication he had refilled it with the brand-name, Prilosec, because it mixes faster, and had added the cherry flavoring. He said to shake the bottle, then remove the cap and let it sit for ten minutes before giving it to her, to help the medication break down.

The gastroenterologist had warned me not to expect Liddy’s condition to improve until the medication had been in her system for a couple of weeks. Omeprazole does not actually prevent reflux from occurring. It simply reduces the acid content in the spit-up, allowing the damaged esophagus to heal over time. Still, I carried the bottle home flooded with relief that we could at least begin Liddy’s treatment.

The first few days, Liddy swallowed the medication easily, but something looked off. I held the dark brown prescription bottle up to the light in the kitchen, swirling the contents and studying the bottom of the bottle, where I could see little beads floating in the liquid. John called the pharmacy again to ask about it, and he received the same advice I’d been given: Shake the bottle, remove the cap, and let it sit for ten minutes before filling the tiny oral syringe. I kept looking at the bottle, though, and at the liquid in the syringe each time I filled it. A few nights later, I called the pharmacy again.

“Oh,” said the woman who finally picked up the phone, when I described what I was seeing. “Oh, no … that doesn’t sound right.” I heard distress in her voice. She told me she needed to hang up and check something, and then she would call me back.

My phone rang again within minutes. The flavoring they had used, she said, was incompatible with the medication. The omeprazole had failed to break down. It had stayed in the bottle, in tiny, silvery beads, as I fed Liddy cherry syrup twice a day for a week. “I am so, so sorry,” she said, assuring me that she would have the prescription refilled again, this time with a compatible flavoring.

The next morning, I took the kids on a major outing by myself for the first time. We went to the Museum of Science, Brennan’s favorite place on earth, and I managed to time Liddy’s feedings right and keep her straight and still for the requisite thirty minutes afterwards while Brennan rearranged the pieces of an enormous Lite-Brite and built a fragile wall with spongy, yellow blocks. The outing exhausted but also energized me because I had made it through the morning alone, in public, with two very young children.

When Brennan fell asleep in his car seat on the drive home, I took advantage of the relative quiet to call the pharmacy again. Yet another pharmacist answered the phone. At first, he could find no record of another refill. Stunned that anyone in the store could be unaware of the terrible mistake they had made, I retold the story, no longer feeling the need to hide my fury. He put me on hold and came back on to say that the medication had been prepared overnight, and the store had identified the correct flavoring, but they didn’t carry it, and they had not yet been able to arrange for a delivery.

“This is the eighth phone call I have made to your store about this prescription,” I told him. “I have been in to talk to a pharmacist three times. Someone has to take responsibility here. My daughter needs this medication, and you need to get it for me. Someone has to figure this out, right now, and that someone cannot be me.”

He promised to call me back.

I drove home, slipped Liddy out of her car seat and into the special sling-like seat that held her body straight and upright, then carried a sleeping Brennan to his crib. I sat at the kitchen table and dialed John at work; the moment I heard his voice I knew that my reserves of strength had dissolved. I wept as I described my latest, fruitless phone call. I had remembered another pharmacy, one that specialized in compounds, and I wanted to know if they could take the omeprazole already prepared by CVS and flavor it into a form Liddy could tolerate. I just couldn’t pull myself together to make that final phone call. I spelled “Skendarian” out for John, and he hung up to look for the listing.

Skenderian Apothecary is an independent, family-run store about a fifteen-minute drive from our house. I had been there only once, after Brennan’s birth, when, in the process of sterilizing the tubes for my breast pump, I had somehow melted them into a rubbery lump. I’d spent that desperate afternoon calling around for replacement tubes and posting a message to my local new mom support group listserv. Another mom had e-mailed to recommend Skenderian. I called the pharmacy, and the woman who answered told me to come right over. She kept the store open for me past closing time and showed me how to cut the ends of the tubes so they would fit my machine.

John called me back just minutes after we talked to say that Skenderian, which specialized in compounds, could take the omeprazole we already had and flavor it on a form Liddy could tolerate.

I called the big-chain pharmacy for the last time, and the young guy I’d spoken with on the drive home from the museum told me they had located the flavoring and he would spend his own time, after his shift ended, driving to the other store to pick it up so that they could have it ready for me that evening. He also suggested that, after this refill, I transfer my prescription elsewhere. His pharmacy—with one of the highest volumes of prescriptions in the area—was not equipped to do it.

I let him finish and then told him I would be in to pick up the prescription, unflavored, and that I would be transferring everything over to Skenderian. And then I hung up, and waited for my new babysitter to come and care for Brennan so that he could run his toy trucks through the back yard instead of accompanying me on the frantic drive to two separate pharmacies.

After fetching the bottle from the original pharmacy (along with the address for the complaint department of its national headquarters), I drove over to Skenderian and carried Liddy inside. A man who I would come to know as Robert, the pharmacy manager, met my glance from behind the counter.

“My husband called—”

Robert nodded and reached out to take the brown plastic prescription bottle I held in my hand. “I talked to him,” he said. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” He examined the label, then held the bottle up to the light just as I had a few minutes before. “Bubblegum or grape?” he asked.

I paced Skenderian’s immaculate waiting area. We deliver for any reason, read a sign posted over the registers. I looked around and saw, tucked into the corner, a basket of brightly colored toys and books. Several therapeutic chairs rested nearby, including one that bore a sign beckoning, Try this seat.

Robert came out with the uncapped bottle of omeprazole, and held it out for me to taste. “Sweet enough?” he asked.

Skenderian became a regular outing for the three of us, as Liddy’s dosages changed frequently and her medication regimen soon expanded to three separate prescriptions. On my second or third trip there, I parked outside and entered into a long negotiation with Brennan over how many matchbox cars he could bring in with him. When I finally got both kids into the store, Robert’s younger brother Joe was waiting behind the counter, holding a pen out to me. He had already located Liddy’s prescription, set it on the counter and flipped to the page in his notebook where I needed to sign for it.  My face must have given away my astonishment. He laughed and said, “I saw you getting out of the car. I know from experience that it takes a while with two.”

Most of the staff, in fact, knew me by sight once I had been in a couple of times. “How is Liddy today?” they would ask, reaching up to the shelf or into the refrigerator for whatever prescription I had called in.

We visited the store once or twice a week, and it soon began to rival the Museum of Science for Brennan’s favorite place on earth. He ran straight to the toy basket each time we walked in, digging for the red plastic van and the tiny dinosaur that had quickly become his favorites

I began to think of Joe as my personal pharmacist. He conducted a great deal of research after the shelf-life of omeprazole compounds came into question, and helped me determine when the time was right to switch Liddy from the liquid compound to solutabs, little tablets that break down instantly in water, which were easier to store and dispense. Joe would compliment me on a new haircut, and say things like, “You’re a good mother,” unsolicited, with utter sincerity. He told me anecdotes about his own two children, and said Saturdays were his favorite day to work because it is a slower day and he can chat with people.

The sense of ease and familiarity I felt with the staff took on new meaning as summer approached, when I finally admitted—to John, to my doctor, and to myself—that I was sliding into the depths of post-partum depression. When I spoke to my doctor about anti-depressants, I had a fleeting but intense desire to have her call the prescription in to some other pharmacy where I could remain anonymous. My cheeks burned when I went into Skenderian, alone this time, to pick up the medication. But Robert saw me walk in and sailed right over, asking gently, “We haven’t done these for you, before, have we?” And then he spent ten minutes advising me on easing into the medication. My eyes welled as he spoke, but he never looked away as he talked about beginning with half-doses the first few days and trying different times of day if the drowsiness was too intense. He cautioned me against taking cold medications, which would keep me awake when we both knew that I couldn’t afford a sleepless night. And he smiled when he said that a glass of wine, once in a while, would be okay.

Liddy suffered through eight or nine ear infections in her first eighteen months.  The pain increased her refluxing and fussiness and marked the periods of our most sleepless nights. With each new round of antibiotics, her pediatrician prescribed numbing ear drops to soothe the pain while we waited for the infection to subside. On New Year’s Eve, I checked our supply to see that we were nearly out, and desperately dialed Skenderian, hoping they had some on the shelf so that I could get it before the holiday.

The answering machine picked up and a prerecorded message told me the store was not only closed for the holiday but would close early for New Year’s Eve, at two p.m. I stared at my bedroom clock, which told me it was after three, as I listened to the message and the beep that followed.

“Oh, we’re fucked,” I said—into the pharmacy answering machine.

When I had confessed to John my reluctance, months before, to fill the antidepressant prescription with Skenderian, he had made me laugh by assuring me they already thought I was crazy.

So when I told him now about the message I had inadvertently left, he burst out laughing, then quickly composed himself. “I’m sure it happens all the time,” he said. Though I was sure I’d feel sheepish the next time I went into the store, I knew that they knew me and that they’d be laughing, too.

Author’s Note: The bad bottle of omeprazole sat on a shelf in my refrigerator for months. I kept it as a reminder of what we had gone through, Liddy and I, a reminder that I had held the pieces of the puzzle and that I had to fit them together, even when it was hard and I was tired. John took the bottle out one day when he was cleaning the fridge. “Why are we keeping this?” he asked. The stubborn silvery beads that had not broken down after all those months. I knew what it held and represented, and I didn’t need it anymore. I told him he could toss it, and I heard it disappear into the trash.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

About the Author: Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at

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See Me

See Me

By Betsy Fife Archer

Art See MeWhen my son was born, the midwives remarked in awe how much he looks like me.  Same hair and skin color.  Same cheeks.  Same nose.  It was a bit of a shock as my partner, who is Middle Eastern (olive skinned, black hair), gave birth to him.  We share no biology, yet he truly favors me.  He has started to tan, which is not like me at all, and I fear he will stop looking like me as he grows.  There is comfort in our similarities.  It’s not like I look for my father’s eyes in my son’s face, but other people do.  I am not closeted.  I openly talk about my life with most people (unless I feel unsafe).  So, when someone says that my son looks just like me, my most common response is, “Isn’t it funny?  I didn’t give birth to him.” But I did.  He was not born of my body but was born of my soul, that which is uniquely me.  As I write this, we are driving home from a beach vacation and he is asleep next to me with his tiny hand on my forearm like it belongs there, because it does.

I realized that while I do not hide who I am, there are certain situations where I don’t trust other people not to say hurtful things, so I might play along with their assumptions of my son’s heredity to avoid having to explain.  The fact that he looks like me makes this possible.  If he looked like his other mother, his eyes would be dark like the night, his hair the color of crows and his fair skin, brown.  Then, I would have to answer, “Does he look like his dad?”  “Where did he get those eyes?”  I don’t mind answering and, in fact, think that I have to for my son, to show him that there is nothing to hide about how he came to us.  But sometimes, I don’t want to answer.  I want the store clerk to assume he came from my body.  I want the waitress to ask only me if my boy wants water.  Somehow, the assumptions of strangers make me a visible parent.

I remember the first pediatrician appointment when my son was two weeks old.  The doctor hardly looked me in the face. She addressed all questions about how well he was nursing or how long has it been since he pooped to his other mother.  She asked her about his sleep patterns and whether or not we were ready to vaccinate.  As I sat there in that stark room, a heat began to fill me up, from my toes to my belly where my son did not grow, all the way to the top of my head.  Inside, I was screaming, “WE MADE HIM TOGETHER!  I AM HIS MOTHER, TOO!”

And maybe not so loudly, “See me.”

I was worried about whether or not I would bond with my son the same way his other mother would.  I worried that he would come out and only want her.  I planned about how I would react to this situation if it happened.  I talked to fathers and other non-gestational mothers about their experiences.  I journaled to my son for months before he was born about what I want for our relationship and what I want for him.  All that planning, and then he was born.  A gentle spirit who loves me as deeply as I love him.  In the first spring of his life, we spent many hours bound in a Moby wrap, wandering the streets of our town.  I would kiss his head as we avoided the as-yet-melted mounds of snow piled on the sidewalks.  We explored the dormant gardens and watched as the geese returned to the pond.  He grew and smiled for the first time and we kept walking.  His other mother went back to work and my son and I kept walking.

Then he got hurt for the first time.  He fell and bumped his face and the tiny tooth on the bottom cut his gums and there was blood.  I scooped him up and held him tight as he worked through the newness of pain. After a couple of minutes, he stopped crying and just immersed himself in my gaze.  In that moment, I really knew he was mine.

When my son was six months old, we moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina.  Like I prepared for my son’s birth, I prepared for this move, working through the various scenarios as our departure drew near: “Two mothers? That is an abomination!” “You are going to hell!” “That poor boy.  What is he going to do without a father?”  But none of that has happened.  Sure, there are people who believe those things, but we have been met only with kindness since we arrived.  When a woman at the farmer’s market asked, “Who’s baby is that?” when my son was on my back and his other mother at my side, I (without a moment’s thought) replied, “Both of ours.”  As I braced myself for her response, she launched into a diatribe about the lesbians who used to live next door (“Do you know them?” she asked) who “got their son from some California stuff” and weren’t they just the best parents you have ever seen.  While the my-best-friend-is-gay routine gets old, I appreciated her ability to surprise me with her type of kindness.  I don’t know what is said behind closed doors.  I only know that since we have moved back to the South, people have been nothing but warm and welcoming of our family.  In Massachusetts, it was expected that we, as a family, would be visible.  But here, I have been constantly surprised by how many people actually see us, the unit.  I like to be surprised by people in this way.

I expect that my son won’t always favor me and that people won’t always be nice to our family.  I am trying to plan for the day when someone, in front of my boy, says something mean or ignorant.  But these days, I am not spending too much time on that pursuit.  Instead, I play ‘boo’ with my boy and have whole family dance parties daily.  If my son gets a dark tan, we will still be a unit.  He will still be my boy if he looks nothing like me and people ask if he has his father’s eyes.  My son, who has no father, has two mothers who love him more than chocolate, which is saying something coming from me.

About the Author: Betsy Fife Archer is an artist, writer and mama living in Asheville, NC. When not chasing around her amazing 2-year old son, she blogs about being a queer, non-gestational mother (, makes hand-hooked rugs, fixes things, takes photographs and loves to explore the mountains near her home.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Boy Luck Club

By Lauren Tom

I’m forty-three years old and pregnant with my second child. I waited a long time to have kids so that I could become the Not-So-Famous-Asian-American-Actress I am today, and to have more time to work on my “issues” so that I wouldn’t pass them on to my children.

I’m hopelessly in love with my two-year-old son, Oliver—to have another boy doesn’t feel threatening to me. But what if it’s a girl? I would never want my daughter to hate me the way I have at times hated my mother.

My due date is September 13th, my mother’s birthday.

“Why is Ollie so slow when it comes to potty training?” my mother asks. We’re standing in the kitchen of my home in the Hollywood Hills. She takes a swig of Diet Coke and runs her fingers through my son’s hair.

“What do you mean?” I say, wanting to scoop up my son like a football and run with him to safety into the next room. My stomach tightens.

“Well, I mean, he’s two years old. He seems to be doing fine with language, but why he is still in diapers at two? Is he slow?”

“Ollie, you’re fine,” I say, looking right at my son. “You’re right on schedule.” My face feels hot. I breathe deeply, take Ollie’s hand, and lead him into the next room. “Here, honey,” I say as I hand him a toy airplane.

I know that dropping the subject would be wise, but I walk back into the kitchen and say, “The doctor told me to wait until he turned two to start potty training him, Mom. He said that most boys don’t really get it until they’re almost three.”

“That’s ridiculous—you and your brother were both potty trained by the age of two. In fact, your brother learned faster than you did.”

“Whatever,” I say as I pick up the sponge and start to clean the kitchen counter. I scrub it hard.

It’s my mother’s birthday, 1966, and I’m seven years old, just home from school, breathless. I’m standing in the kitchen, holding my mother’s gift behind my back.

“Reach out your hands and close your eyes, Mom.” She unfolds her long thin arms and cups her large hands. Her fingernails are so long they curl in, taking up most of the space in the palm of her hand. I wedge the gift in. She looks like a praying mantis as she accepts it. She opens her eyes. I’m so excited I can hardly stay on the ground. “Do you like it?” I can feel my heart beating.

My mother smiles, her straight white teeth framed in frosty orange lipstick. She is wearing orange plastic earrings and a sleeveless orange dress with big white buttons running down the front. Her hair is puffy on top and flips up at the bottom like Laura Petrie’s in The Dick Van Dyke Show. But she’s not as cheerful and silly as Laura Petrie. She’s cooler, sleeker, more like Emma Peel in The Avengers.

I desperately want to show my mom that even though I may be short and chubby, I can make her beautiful things. I’ve been working on this piece of pottery for two weeks at school. I think maybe it’s a “masterpiece” because my second grade art teacher, Mrs. Benassi, used that word.

I shift my weight from side to side as my mother holds my creation up to the light.

“This is beautiful,” she beams.

“You really like it?” My face feels like it’s about to explode.

“Of course, honey. It’s nice.” She cocks her head to one side. She smiles harder. “What is it?”

I guess I would call it a ceramic blob with bumps—sort of like a soap dish but more like a jellyfish. It’s painted my mom’s favorite color—orange. Even our front door is painted orange.

“I don’t know, Mom. I guess it’s a soap dish. I’m just really glad you like it! Happy birthday!” I watch her carefully place it on the oval dining room table. I wrap my arms around her waist and give her a hug. I can feel one of her ribs jab my cheek. “I’m going upstairs to my room. Okay, Mom?” I want to get out of there before anything can ruin the moment.

“Okay, sweetie,” she says.

I race up the staircase, which is covered with white shag carpeting. A plastic strip runs up the center of it. I am careful to never step outside that strip.

“Come down for dinner when your father gets home,” she calls after me.

My mother has made our home a “real showcase,” as my father puts it. Our living room has white shag carpeting, a light green silk couch, and wallpaper with hand-painted Japanese flowers. Against the wall looms a locked cabinet with old ivory Japanese tchotchkes. My older brother Chip and I are not allowed in this room. Ever. In fact, I’ve never seen my mom and dad in there either.

An hour later I come down to see Chip and my father sitting at the kitchen table. The table looks beautiful. It is set, as it always is, with orange dishes and brown glass tumblers. I look for the soap dish/jellyfish but I don’t see it. We’re having Lop Chung, rice, and peas for dinner. Lop Chung is Chinese sausage that has large polka dots of fat in it. Chip and I like to dig the fat out with our fingernails and line the sides of our plates with it. My mom always shakes her head when we do this.

My father asks my brother to talk about current events taken from today’s newspaper. All I can think is, When is my mother going to tell my father about the gift I made her?

“What do you remember most from what you read today, Chip?” my father asks, pouring a can of Tab into his glass.

I don’t even hear what my brother says because I’m too worried about the soap dish. I wait all through dinner for her to mention it. But she doesn’t. Maybe she put it someplace special so it wouldn’t get knocked down. I’ll bet it’s in the locked cabinet in the living room with all the other tchotchkes. I’ll go look after dinner. I can see everything in the cabinet if I stand at the edge of the carpet. I gouge out the last pocket of fat and eat my sausage.

After dinner, I clear the plates and take them over to the sink. I open the cabinet beneath the sink to scrape the food into the garbage can.

And that’s when I see it.

My masterpiece is sitting right on top of a pile of garbage. I feel my heart drop to my stomach. I want to throw up. My mother doesn’t notice me looking at her; she’s sitting at the table talking to my father. I feel a tightness in my throat. I scrape my leftovers into the garbage, turning away my face so I won’t have to look at the food hitting the soap dish.

Either Mrs. Benassi is a liar, or my mom is a liar. I scrape the next plate. The food completely covers the soap dish now. I start to cry. Maybe my mom liked it at first but then changed her mind. Why would she throw it away? Who throws away a perfectly good soap dish? Or maybe it’s not so perfect or even good. Mrs. Benassi must be the liar.

My mom calls out over her shoulder, “Honey, get the Jell-O out of the fridge and bring it into the den. Bewitched will be on in five minutes.”

“Okay,” I say, keeping my head down so she won’t notice I’m crying. We sit and watch the show, just like we do every Thursday night.

Twenty years later, it’s the late eighties, and people across the country are in therapy, dredging up their pasts, blaming their parents for every imaginable woe. When I finally confront my mom, I feel the support of an entire nation.

We’re sitting at the dining room table in my rented apartment in West Hollywood. My mom still looks like a knock-out.

“What are you talking about, Lauren? I never did that.” Her eyes dart away.

“Yes, you did, Mom. I saw it sitting right on top of the garbage.”

“I really don’t remember, but you’re making such a big deal out of it. Really.”

Here it comes.

“You’re too sensitive. You make everything into a big problem.”

“Well, maybe that’s because you dismiss me and what I’m feeling as if it has no validity whatsoever.”

My mother leans forward. “But it usually doesn’t, Lauren—that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t understand you. You don’t have any problems, not really. You don’t know what a real problem is.” She starts to pick dog hair off her black leggings.

“What do you mean by that?” I’m staring at her. Hard.

“That in the large scheme of things, a girl your age has no problems.”

“A girl my age? I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m a woman.”

She knits her brow and turns away her head. “You should see what I’ve had to deal with in my life.”

She’s right; she had a rough childhood. But we’re not talking about her. I was talking about me.

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Is all this ‘therapy’ helping, Lauren? You know, your brother and I never seem to have these kinds of arguments. He gets me. He never says things like this to me. But you? I have had problems with you since the day you were born.”

I dig my front teeth into my lower lip and say, “Fuck you, Mom.” I have never said that to her before. I am shocked that that came out of my mouth.

She looks at me, her face expressionless. She takes a swig of Diet Coke. “You can talk all you want, Lauren. Go ahead and talk. Say whatever you want. Your words do not affect me. I’m not going to change.”

Three years of near-silence followed.

Then, on the heels of my featured role in The Joy Luck Club, a film about mothers and daughters—Chinese mothers and daughters—I telephone. I invite my mom and her mother, Helen, to the film’s premiere. My grandmother is so excited she calls all her Mahjong pals and tells them she’s going to see her “big-shot granddaughter in that movie, The Pot Luck Club.

I’m wearing a black, ankle-length, so-tight-it-looks-sprayed-on Spandex dress, my hair slicked back with greasy styling gel (big mistake) and enough make-up to last the rest of the year. I can hear my father calling out from the grave, “You look like a hooker.”

My mother is wearing a deconstructionist, see-through silk dress by designer Xandra Rhodes. My grandmother Helen, four foot ten, eighty-one years-old—the woman I call “Who-Who” (Chinese baby talk for Grandma)—is wearing a traditional red Chinese silk brocade jacket, black pants, gold sequined tennis shoes with a matching visor, and diamond rings on each finger.

As we’re walking into the theater, the ushers hand out little packets of Kleenex. Who-Who takes one and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, Little Midget”—I’m five feet tall, Who-Who is four foot ten, and that’s her nickname for me—”why they give me this? They think I’m going to be some kind of crybaby?”

“No, Grandma,” I say, taking her hand. “No one thinks that—it’s just in case you need one.” She scrunches up her face as if she’s just tasted something sour. “It’s free,” I say. “Just put it in your purse.”

“Oh. Okay,” she says.

We settle into our seats as the lights go down. The curtains slowly open. A smile spreads across my face. My mom is sure to be proud of me now. Millions of people have read Amy Tan’s book; it’s already a success.

Twenty minutes have passed. We’re watching the scene in which one of the mothers is crying because she’s been beaten, when suddenly my grandmother starts yelling at the screen as if she’s hailing a cab, “Hey! Buck up!”

I whisper, “Shh! Grandma! We don’t talk in the theater.”

She turns and looks at me—as do several people sitting close to me. She turns back to the screen and yells, “What you think life gonna be? A gravy train?”

“Ma! Shh! Not now,” my mom chimes in.

She turns to my mom, “You shh, Moose!” (It’s her nickname for my mother because she thinks she has big bones.) They bicker in Chinese for a moment. I sink so low into my chair I’m almost lying down, my knees pressed against the seat in front of me.

Who-Who sneers and reaches for her purse. She pulls out a bag of mui, Chinese dried salted plums that have large pits inside them. She unwraps one, and the crackling sound and pungent odor produce more hairy eyeball stares from the people around us. She pops it in her mouth, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an empty plastic grocery bag. The sound is like deafening static over a microphone as she shakes it out and creates a makeshift garbage can on her lap. She rolls the pit back and forth in her mouth, trying to scrape it clean with her teeth. Click-clack, clack. Click-clack, clack. Patooey. She spits the pit into the bag. I settle in for what turns out to be the longest screening in the history of mankind.

The lights come up. The room bursts into applause. I look at my mother.

“What did you think?” I ask, feeling, once again, seven years old.

“Well, I have to say, I agree with Who-Who. I don’t know what the big deal is—all these women crying and whining about all their problems. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

I start to make my way down the row of seats to the aisle.

Okay, okay, I know that you and Who-Who have had to endure the long-held Chinese belief that women are valueless—heck, you’ve just witnessed a baby girl being drowned on the screen. Can’t you find some compassion for that girl, for yourselves, for me? If you can’t be supportive of me in this one moment . . . then just lie. I may have said that last part out loud. I’m not sure.

My mother, following me, calls out, “Why did you have the least screen time of all the women?”

“What?” I say, although I heard her. I stop, turn around, and look at her.

“Was your part cut or was it always that small?”

I keep walking. I try to slow my breathing. I open the double doors leading outside to a sea of photographers lined up along the edge of a long red carpet. “Uh . . . they may have trimmed a scene or two,” I say.

“Yeah, it definitely seemed like you had the smallest part,” she says.

A photographer yells, “Hey, Lauren, can we get a shot of you, your mom, and—is that your grandmother?”

“Sure,” I say, plastering a frozen smile across my face. Do not cry, do not cry. This is the biggest night of your life; don’t let anything ruin it. I stand between my mom and Who-Who, an arm slung around each of them. I can feel a large lump caught in my throat. I hope it’s not detectable in the photo.


Over the next ten years, my mom didn’t change much, but I’d started to realize that I wasn’t going to change her.

It’s two years after the opening, Ollie is a newborn, and my mom and I are talking on the phone. I’m picking dog hair off my silk-upholstered chair, thinking, Oh God, this is exactly what my mother does. We’re talking about how Ollie and my brother have the same shaped head and I look down at my son. He’s lying in a Moses basket, swaddled in a soft orange blanket. His large blue eyes, like pools of deep water, look up and to the left. He pulls one arm free, waves his hand and coos as if he is conversing with other beings, angels perhaps. I look at him and I’m so in love, my heart pounds faster and harder than it ever has, and suddenly my mom says,

“And don’t forget, Lauren, I love you as much as you love Ollie.”

When I’m twenty-four weeks into my second pregnancy I discover a new space within me—a space that can hold the idea of having and raising a baby girl. A girl, who will descend from a long line of strong, funny, independent women who love gaudy jewelry. Is my mom a warm and fuzzy sort of person? No. But it’s not warm and fuzzy that defines love.

I am stepping into my womanhood, and I couldn’t have found my way here without my grandmother and my mother. I know that now. And it’s my turn. I am a launching pad for a new soul.

So when I go to Dr. Katz’s office, I’m ready to find out I’ll be having a girl.

“I can’t take it any more—just tell me,” I say as Dr. Katz squirts warm goo on my belly and presses down with an abdominal probe.

“Do you want me to write it down, put it in an envelope and seal it so you and your husband can open it later?”

“Why don’t you just tell me now, write it down, and I’ll pretend to be surprised later.”

“You got it,” he laughs. Dr. Katz points to the middle of the screen. “There you go.”

“Is that what I think it is?”

Dr. Katz smiles. “Yes, yes it is. You’re having a boy.”

And I smile because I realize he could’ve said “you’re having a kitten” and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Author’s Note: Landing a featured role in The Joy Luck Club was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill, but until I gave birth to my sons, I had no idea what joy and luck I was to have in my life. Writing “The Boy Luck Club ” helped me understand to what degree that is true. 

Brain, Child (Fall 2004)

About the Author: Lauren Tom is an award-winning actress and writer. Besides The Joy Luck Club, she has starred in the films When A Man Loves A Woman, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, Mr. Jones, Bad Santa, and Disney’s Mulan II. She had a recurring role as Julie, Ross’s girlfriend, on NBC ‘s Friends. You can read more about her at

 Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.



By Keaghan Turner, Ph.D.

Waiting ArtMaybe because I’m teaching a women’s studies course this semester and everything “personal [seems] political”; maybe because of the most recent recrudescence of the Mother v. feminist debate surrounding last spring’s publication of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (passages from which I will assign to my students), I’ve been thinking about waiting rooms as empowering female spaces lately. Then again, maybe it’s just because I spend time every week as a mother in a waiting room, waiting.

I think this is a safe generalization: When you have a kid with a special need, you spend a good amount of time in waiting rooms.

These waiting rooms are different from the typical pediatrician’s or dentist’s. The waiting rooms I’ve frequented over the past few years are the waiting rooms of specialists—play therapists, occupational therapists, pediatric psychiatrists. When we wait for the pediatrician or the dentist, the only sound—besides maybe some coughing, sneezing, and whining—might be mothers softly reading picture books aloud or kids playing on DSis. These are communal public spaces—we are all sitting there together—but we remain isolated, anonymous, private. As parents, we are not there to make friends or to socialize or to chitchat. We are there, waiting for our child’s name to be called. We are there to see the doctor or dentist. We are there to get results. We are there to have a professional make things better.

In the waiting room of my son’s occupational therapist, the waiting room where I spend the most time on a weekly basis, this is not the case. Here, the same group of mothers whose children have the same Wednesday morning appointment slot wait together. These women talk. A lot. To each other. About everything. What’s more, in this waiting room, none of us expects to get results any time soon and there’s no guarantee the professionals can make things better.

The diagnoses of their children vary; the struggles of their families vary. But two things do not vary in the OT waiting room: it is full of women and the children are all boys.

One of these facts should not be totally surprising if we keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control report that ADHD alone, the most frequently diagnosed (and controversial) pediatric “invisible disability,” is diagnosed approximately three times as much in boys as in girls in our country. As of a 2011 National Health Interview Survey, 5.2 million American children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD; that’s 8.2% of that population. Given the pervasiveness—some would say epidemic—of “invisible disabilities” (which is a catch-all for anything on the Autism spectrum, anything neurologically atypical, anything neurobehavioral, anything to do with mental health), it’s no wonder our behaviorist, when delivering our three-year-old son’s diagnosis (after his first couple years of successfully and dangerously baffling all attempts at discipline and smashing a couple flat-screen TVs), said it’s “only ADHD” with a comforting smile and a relieved shrug while we blinked at her, thunderstruck. (After a couple more years in several different waiting rooms, I get the “only” now).

I have attempted to bring reading and to prep for my women’s studies class in the OT waiting room, but it’s impossible to concentrate amid the lively discussions that inevitably ensue—about the desirability or otherwise of covering forehead lines with bangs, about relieving neck tension by sleeping one night on a hard floor, about the latest developments in an ongoing battle with school administrators over an IEP, about the appropriate time to become a mama grizzly. I mostly just smile and nod, but still I know an awful lot of very personal information about a small group of women whose names I’m not even sure of. I know about their family history with panic attacks, their oversized male first-grader’s problems with a petite girl bully last year, how sorry their sister with three kids is that they could only have one. Eventually, it hit me that while I was staring at the same sentence in my women’s studies anthology, I was failing to appreciate the genuinely feminist, personally political experience happening around me on Wednesday mornings.

The atmosphere in the OT waiting room, despite the circumstances—which are sometimes heartbreaking in the form of preschoolers with feeding tubes and second-graders who will never walk or talk no matter how many waiting rooms their mothers wait in—is surprisingly cheerful. In the face of what most of us would consider tragedy (even those of us whose sons “only” have mainstream neurobehavioral disorders), these mothers manage to smile, laugh, and remark on the progress they observe in each other’s sons, even if the progress is as slight as the straightening of an arm. Being in that waiting room is like being inside of a real-live blog—or an old-school support group. Here is a handful of strangers (essentially) brought together by some degree of common experience, sharing their ideas, telling their stories—talking frustrations, failures, strategies, triumphs—and receiving feedback, edification, suggestions, encouragement, sympathy. The communal waiting room remains somewhat anonymous and so is, like a blog, altogether publicly intimate. All of us in the room together are insiders, and there is palpable relief in not having to explain, justify, or define. There is relief in not being judged and in being simply, immediately understood. Because of this insider-ness, there is a level of honesty, candor, and trust in that waiting room that I have never witnessed in a group of female (or male) acquaintances before. The neighborhood you live in, what your husband does for a living, the car you drive, where your degree is from (or if you have one at all)—none of it matters like it might at the pool, at work, or on Facebook. Our larger cause is common enough among us to affect the dissolution of boundaries (socioeconomic, racial, generational) that usually divide us into a true community motivated by a sense of the common good.

Maybe we should announce our affiliation with our own magnetic car ribbons: OT Waiting Room Mothers Anonymous. Neuroatypical Boy-Moms Anonymous.

Sure, there’s a therapeutic element to these sessions in the waiting room that is valuable in itself, but in trading stories and tips from personal experience, I’ve come to recognize that this group—whether they know it or not—exercises a form of consciousness-raising and call to action that goes beyond traditional notions of therapy or support groups. This community of mothers translates their personal discussions into action that often becomes, at least locally, political as they advocate—tirelessly and perennially—for their underserved and/or vulnerable sons: to teachers, school administrators, school boards, lawyers, insurance companies, health care professionals, society at large. This advocacy on behalf of our special needs children, empowered by a community of women, including not only other mothers but also the doctors, teachers, and therapists we collaborate with, must certainly qualify as some of the most important and practical activism some of us will ever perform as women and in solidarity with other women.

My Wednesday mornings in the waiting room have done more than all of my academic reading and training to prove to me the link rather than the conflict between identifying as a mother and identifying as a feminist. Every week I see that being a feminist mother exists not only in teaching our daughters to reject hollow beauty standards but also in banding together to persevere—personally and politically—in raising typically atypical boys.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.