Alive and Breathing and Happy

Alive and Breathing and Happy

Beautiful young woman with long hair sitting on a bench in a city park

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I attended a birthday party held at a cute little downtown arts and crafts studio. The birthday girl was turning six, and ten little girls gathered around the craft-paper covered table to make glitter-and-jewel studded shadow boxes out of recycled tins. Giant magnets were adhered to the tins so that their creations could then be displayed on each girl’s home refrigerator.

A few of the other mothers stayed and the rest departed. My daughter was shy at first, but eventually settled in. We mothers moved about the table, helping the girls with each task and reminding them to listen when the studio owner gave the next set of instructions. We joked about how happy we were that the vast quantities of multi-hued glitter were here and not in our homes. After the projects were complete, the girls moved on to snacks, cupcakes, and gifts

The studio was dog-themed, with dog paintings, photographs, sculptures, and trinkets abounding and we began chatting about pets. I noted that my daughter frequently insists we need another pet despite the fact that our home menagerie currently consists of two dogs, two cats, and four chickens (and a preschooler, I usually add).

One woman casually remarked, “But just one child, right? That’s not too bad.”

“Yes,” I replied, and left it at that as my mind teetered within my skull.

There was so much more that I could have said. I didn’t hold it against her, though, as there was no way for her to know. This type of thing happens to me all the time.

Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, I only have one child, but it’s just me now. My husband is dead. I have all these things to keep alive and breathing and happy, and it’s just me.”

A smaller part of me wanted to say, “Yes, I only have one child, but my dead husband and I wanted another baby, very badly, and it didn’t happen. We tried, we attempted a mini-IVF procedure, everything failed, and then he died.”

These are the facts that I face every day of my life, but I didn’t say any of these things. I didn’t even mention the simple fact that I was widowed. The only people I knew at the party were the birthday girl’s mother and grandmother. They know my history intimately, but everyone else present was oblivious, and I know facts like these often make people intensely uncomfortable.

Sometimes I bring up the fact that I am widowed (it is an enormous part of my life, after all) and sometimes I don’t. I am in my early thirties, so it is almost always a shock when it comes to light and every casual conversation is a potential minefield.

As I buckled my daughter into her booster seat that afternoon, she laid her head on my shoulder and sighed, a little overtired from the day’s events, and said, “Mama, I miss Daddy.”

“Me, too, babe,” I replied, “me, too.”

Early on in my widowhood, I almost always brought it up when I met someone new. At that point, it related so directly and intensely to every single aspect of my life, and my grief was such a raw and gaping wound, that I felt I had to tell people. The wound was enormous, but also invisible; if I didn’t say anything, it didn’t exist.

Acknowledging it directly was the only way for everyone I interacted with to understand, even just a little, where I was coming from and what I was wrestling with. Even when it brought me to tears and felt like rubbing salt in the cut, it also felt like affirmation: please see that even though my life is a horror, it is mine, and I am doing with it the best I can.

Eventually, my need to tell virtually every single person I encountered lessened. There are still times when I bring it up, but it is now often a choice rather than a desperate need.

A few days before the aforementioned birthday party, the local school called to schedule my daughter for her kindergarten registration day. We scheduled the appointment and the woman kindly detailed the items I needed to bring. Before we hung up she said, “Oh, and I don’t have her father’s information here, so I’ll need that.” I explained the situation, that my husband had died nearly two years prior and so there was no pertinent information to give. Awkwardness and social fumbling ensued, and before the conversation was over, I had apologized to her.

Later that night, a dear widow-friend and I had a good laugh about the transition that had occurred: when we started apologizing to other people for the deaths of our husbands. We had reached a point when the facts of our widowhood became far more uncomfortable and panic-inducing for others than they were for us. It’s not that we’re no longer sad or no longer grieving, it’s just that the facts that often make others squirm have become our new normal.

I am a young widow with a young child, so strangers frequently ask if she is my only child, or how many siblings she has, or if I plan to have any more; they ask what my husband does for work; or they make some comment related to the nuclear family because they just assume that we are part of one. When they learn the truth, they find themselves flabbergasted and at a loss for what to say, and that’s okay, because I know it is atypical for a preschooler to have lost a parent and someone my age to be widowed.

Sometimes I wish people would generally be more aware of what they say, but mostly I just try to let it all go. While I have had complete strangers and close friends say innumerable insensitive things over the years, to my knowledge no one has ever done so intentionally. When you fall outside the norms of society, this is just what happens.

Most of the time, if people notice at all, the transgression has already escaped their mouths. I could spend endless hours of every day offended and appalled at the things people say to me, but I have absolutely no desire to live my life that way.

I find that my situation has also made me particularly aware of my own assumptions about people I don’t know, and even the ones I do. No matter what presumptions are playing around in my head, I tend to be quite conscious of not voicing them.

If someone wants to offer information that they feel comfortable sharing, that’s wonderful, because I love to hear people’s stories and discover connections. If they don’t want to share, that’s their prerogative. Regardless, I try to keep to myself whatever narrative I’ve woven in my brain because I know that impressions do not equate to truth.

The trajectory of my life will always be a bit of a conversation-stopper and jaw-dropper. People will never get used to hearing that my husband was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at 27 and that he died when he was 31. They will never be comfortable with the fact that I was widowed at 29 and that my daughter lost her father when she was barely three. The important thing is not how others feel, however, but that I am now comfortable and at peace with these aspects of my life.

And as much as it pains people to hear the story of my widowhood, they love to hear about how my husband and I fell in love in the woods and got married on a mountain; how selfless, unflinching, and humorous he was right up until the end; and what an amazing father he was in the time that he had. These are the facts I try to put my focus on.

Though I had little choice in the way things played out, I am now choosing to be happy and fulfilled despite the tragedy and grief I have seen. I am choosing to move forward and to embrace the changes as they come, and I am trying to see a little more light than dark in the world. The often inflamed and sometimes barely perceptible emotional limp of grief and loss always comes along with me, but that is simply part of my story and part of my truth, part of me.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at






My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

When We Were Two

When We Were Two


SU 15 WHen We Were Two Mother and CHild ART 1By Dorothy Rice

There was this time. Friday night and I was getting ready for a date. I plucked at my brows, first one, then the other, then back again to even it up. I sat cross-legged on the gritty orange shag in one of several apartments my son Fred and I lived in after the divorce, my face close enough to a full-length mirror to see my breath, a David Bowie poster taped to the sliding closet door. Fred, three at the time, lay on his tummy beside me, a He-Man action figure clasped in each hand. I would take him to my sister’s house to spend the night before my date arrived.

I had decided, what the hell, I’d have sex with this guy. I didn’t want to. Or not want to. I was ambivalent. But it felt weird not to after so many dinners, clubs and flowers delivered to the office. It loomed. I remember my brows after the tweezers, two thin, peaked lines I reinforced with brown pencil and that I wore a clingy purple dress and pink fishnet stockings. He was taking me to a French restaurant that at the time was reported to be the most expensive restaurant in Sacramento. The bill would likely exceed my monthly food budget, a fact that seemed to underscore the implicit expectation the evening would end in sex.

In anticipation of the rich food, I’d starved myself all day. Seated in the restaurant, I ordered and sucked down the first of several Margaritas. On an empty stomach, the cocktail made me woozy. I excused myself and wobbled to the restroom on six-inch platform heels. There was a girl in the john, early twenties. I was twenty-nine. She was bent forward over the washbasin, studying her reflection, staring at a pimple on her chin. Our eyes met in the mirror.

“You hardly notice it,” I said, lying.

We talked, neither of us anxious to get back to what we’d left. I showed her a wallet photo of my son. She showed me one of her cats.

“I’ll check him out for you,” she said, when I told her about my date and how I figured the evening would end. “I’ll shake my head yes or no.” We left the restroom, arms linked, leaning into one another, laughing. It was unlikely we’d ever meet again yet in that moment we were conspirators and friends.

When I returned to our table my date stood and pulled out my chair. I searched for my ladies’ room friend to give me a sign. She did a ‘meh‘ with her shoulders.

I don’t remember much about the sex. I do remember how fastidious he was. He arranged his creased pants and shirt neatly over the back of a chair. He folded his underwear and laid them on the seat. His shoes, with the socks tucked inside, sat side-by-side beneath the chair. Last, serious as a surgeon, he unstrapped a Rolex and laid it so it nestled on his Fruit of the Loom’s.

Saturday morning I drove to my sister’s house to pick up my son.

Well?” she said, lifting her brows.

I shrugged then stooped to hug Fred. He buried his face in my neck. Soft, blondish hair tickled my nose. He was dressed the same as the day before, and the day before that—a pair of navy-blue tights with superhero Underoos over them.

My sister handed me his magic cape and the black rain boots that completed the costume. She wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s time to wash Superman’s cape.”

He-Man,” he said, glaring up at her, his eyes like two raised fists.

“My apologies, little man,” she said.

“I’m He-Man,” he repeated, muttering softly as he clutched handfuls of my sweater.

Sunday evening I sat on the bathmat turning the pages of a Rolling Stone magazine while Fred whipped the bathwater with an egg beater, plastic bowls of water pudding balanced precariously on the tub’s rim. His costume lay on the bathmat. I reached for it, to add it to a white, plastic basket half filled with the week’s dirty laundry.

No,” he shrieked. He stood abruptly, teetering on the slick porcelain and toppling two bowls onto the linoleum. I tossed a dry towel over the puddle.

“It’s dirty,” I said. “If I wash it you can wear it tomorrow.”

Tears gathered in his eyes. His chin began to quiver.

“We’ll go to the store while the washer runs,” I said. “When we get back, I’ll put the clothes in the drier. When you wake up in the morning, it will be ready for you.”

He cried in earnest then, with a ragged edge to his sobs. His skin was puckered and goose-pimply from the bathwater. I pulled the plug, wrapped him in a towel and lifted him from the bath.

“How about this,” I said. “We’ll get your pajamas on.”

No. Only those.”

“Okay,” I said. “You stay in the towel. Come with me to the laundry room. You can put the clothes into the washer yourself.”

His body tensed.

“You can add the soap and put the quarters in.” He relaxed, a little, searching my face for adult trickery. “Then we’ll go to the store. But you have to wear something. You’ll get cold.”

“If we go to the store, somebody will steal it,” he wailed between sobs.

We didn’t go to the store that Sunday evening. We sat in the apartment complex’s laundry room while the washer completed its rickety cycle. We read books about superheroes and their super powers. I made up stories about a finger boy and a finger girl who could fly. Fred watched my fingers leap on the stage my hand made and for those moments his grip loosened and the fear receded from his eyes. We transferred the damp clothes to the drier, verifying that each piece of the costume had survived the wash. The clothes in the drier thumped and twirled, the laundry room grew warm and steamy, his body heavy on my lap. His eyelids fluttered and closed. In my mind I catalogued the meager contents of the cupboards and refrigerator, thinking what I could possibly pack for his lunch in the morning, what we would have for breakfast besides dry cereal.

Fred was in full superhero regalia when I dropped him off at daycare Monday morning. The mother of a tidy girl with a perfect French braid gave me her best down-the-nose stink eye.

My mother once imparted this pearl of wisdom. It is a parent’s job to break the child’s spirit, she said, so they don’t grow up with foolhardy expectations or with the mistaken notion that the universe revolves around them. In her opinion I wasn’t doing my son any favors. At the time I wondered if she was right. Not about breaking children as if they were horses, but whether embracing his fantasies was a good thing or had I inadvertently made life even harder than it already is. Both, I now think. The other boys and girls teased him because he wore his underwear on the outside. Yet that didn’t deter him. He knew what he knew.

The fastidious guy who took me to the French restaurant asked me to go to the state fair with him the next weekend. It was in my heart to say my son would enjoy the fair and could I bring him. But I wanted my date to be the one to ask. And he didn’t. So I left my son with my sister.

The fair was the fair, a monster agglomeration of all the county fairs, heat rising like swamp gas off the black top, carnies in the midway you’d cross the street to avoid anywhere else, everything battered and fried. Kids ran from ride to ride, tugging a parent’s hand. They watched baby pigs being born and new chicks toddling in the straw. I watched them, the children, not the piglets and chicks, and felt alone, sharing the horrors of the state fair with the wrong person.

That was our last date. No regrets there.

I do sometimes miss the little boy who clung to a pair of tattered blue tights. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to deep six the underwear and cape. For those few months in 1984 they made the world a safer place than I could.


On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.


Most of the eighties I worked in California’s capitol building, in an office on the fourth floor of the new wing, as an analyst for a standing committee that heard legislation related to toxic waste, a political hot potato in the wake of Love Canal and countless other chemical disasters. The work was exacting and the hours long. I delivered my son to daycare early each morning. If I had to work late, as was often the case, my sister or mother picked Fred up from daycare and kept him for me.

It had taken me several years to work my way out of the clerical ranks and into the job at the state capitol. Lacking the educational credentials and experience of most of my counterparts, I compensated by researching the hell out of every topic and then checking and rechecking my facts. I never considered myself ambitious, though I may have appeared so. I was responsible for a child and received little to no support from his father. Holding onto my job and advancing were necessities, or so I thought.

Out my office window I watched squirrels leap from branch to branch, and at night the lights of cars bumping down L Street. On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.

Each year the Legislature worked long into the night in a mad scramble to complete its business before adjourning for the summer. One such night I wore a big-shouldered suit, turquoise with matching heels. It was past midnight and the building was ablaze, the capitol dome an electric wedding cake. Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly at the time, had stopped the clock so they could continue voting, though by any other measure it was a new day and the end of session. There was a carnival atmosphere in the halls and offices. The squawk box was cranked up high. Bells chimed to herald when the vote opened and then closed for each bill. The clerk intoned the ayes, the nays and the final outcome with rhythmic solemnity.

The office phone rang.

Our committee secretary answered. Winifred, or Winnie, was a tiny woman with lipstick and foundation thick in the cracks and wrinkles that radiated outward from her mouth. She seemed an ancient relic to me, though she was no older than I am now—this was before sixty became the new forty. Her fingers quaky from going too long without a drink, Winnie scribbled down the numbers of the bills due to be considered on the Assembly Floor in the coming hours. The analysis for each of these bills—which included a description of the problem, proposed changes to the law and who supported and opposed the change—needed to be reviewed, quickly revised and delivered to the eighty Legislators’ desks, all well before the vote was called.

Winnie stood behind my chair and set two tiny Snickers bars on my desk blotter along with the slip of paper on which she’d written my latest assignments. She gathered up the six-inch tail that trailed down my neck—my hair was short and spiky on top, long in the back, my attempt at an edgy rock and roll style. Her yellowed fingertips smelt of cigarettes and cheap perfume. She looked over my shoulder at the photo album in my lap, open to an image of my ruffled-haired, snoozing son.

“You okay, honey?” she said, her voice husky and thick.

I unwrapped a candy bar, ate it in two bites, chocolate, peanuts and caramel blending in my mouth, my gums numb, barely tasting. It wasn’t recreational drug use; given the unforgiving hours and the need to stay at the top of my game, the occasional line of coke was a necessity, or so I told myself.

I opened a document on the computer and pulled the latest amended version of the corresponding bill from a short stack on my desk to see what changes I needed to make to the text. The clock was ticking. The bells chimed to signal the vote on another bill. There was always the sense of an impatient machine, grinding on, waiting to be fed.

“I married the same man three times,” Winnie said, with a throaty laugh. She’d told me the story before. They would bump into one another on a street corner, have a drink for old time’s sake and wind up back where they started. As she reminisced, my fingers moved on the computer keys, one anxious ear tuned to the squawk box.

The backup secretary pulled my updated bill analysis from the printer.

“Want me to run it up to third reading?” he said, referring to the office that churned out the paper copies that would be delivered to the Legislators’ desks down on the Assembly floor.

I said I’d do it. I had energy to burn.

“You’re the boss,” he said, with a cheeky grin, because I wasn’t.

Outside, J, K and L Streets had been returned to the homeless for the night. Under the dome it was Mardi Gras—laughter from open office doors, a buffet spread in one, cookies in another, Irish Cream and Kahlúa for your coffee, big boxes of See’s chocolate, tokens of appreciation from lobbyists, reminders of their sway.

I speed walked in my heels, ankles popping from side to side to ease the friction against nascent bunions. Not fast enough to match the beat of my heart. I shucked the shoes, tucked them under one arm, and sprinted down the hall. The polished floor was slick beneath my stocking feet.. One foot in front of the other, knees bent, I slid the final few feet, light from the bustling third reading office spilling into the darkened hallway. I slapped the paper on the counter, shouted out ‘hey’ to the faces I knew, the faces that knew mine.

Rumpled from the run, a big toe sticking through my stocking, I returned to our office bearing cookies. The backup secretary saluted. Waiting for me, on a clear corner of my polished wood desk, was another line of white powder. I pinched one nostril and sucked it in.

“It won’t be too much longer,” Winnie said, though she couldn’t know.

Fred was four when I started that job, eleven when I moved on. My first daughter, Veronica, was born in between, the product of a short-lived second marriage. It’s been over twenty-five years since her birth but I still recall what my boss, the Assembly woman we all worked for, said the day I brought my newborn baby into that capitol office for everyone to see.

“When the fuck are you coming back?” Those were her words, muttered around a skinny, brown cigarette clamped in her lipsticked mouth. I was back at my desk before Veronica was six weeks old. I added her sleepy-time photos to the padded album.

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.


I was forty-five and pregnant when I married for the third time. Unlike Winnie, I married three very different men. The wedding was at a rural inn, with a garden-size, rocky waterfall out the tall dining room windows.

I was anxious about the marriage, about having another child at my age and about blending our disparate families. My soon-to-be-husband’s two boys displayed varying levels of animosity towards my kids and I. My son and daughter, seventeen and eight at the time, were resentful at being uprooted from their schools and friends.

I awoke with a migraine and as the hour of the ceremony neared, the pain intensified, pulsing behind my eyeballs, pressing against the sore spot on my skull. My son found me in the bedroom of our rented chalet, standing before the mirror, smoothing my bridal muumuu over my middle, convinced I would never see my waistline again. My eyes were puffy with tears, spoiling the garish makeup I’d had applied at the local Merle Norman. With fat, droopy curls framing my face, I looked like a frowsy, aging saloon girl on an episode of Gunsmoke. Fred was dressed in a pressed white shirt and tie. Though he would turn eighteen and start college in less than a year his cheeks were still round with baby fat.

“You okay, Mom?” he asked.

I dabbed at my eyes, sopping up streaks of black mascara.

“Hey, don’t cry,” he said.

“I’m just scared, I guess. It’s nothing.” I waved a damp tissue and forced a smile.

“If this thing,” he said, which I took to mean the marriage, “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always be here. I’ll take care of you.” He studied the carpet, digging at it with the toe of a stiff dress shoe.

Which snapped something inside me back into place. It had been just the two of us for nearly ten years. And then, during junior high and high school, while his friends goofed off and did sports after school, Fred had helped me with Veronica. I took a deep breath and blew my nose.


There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others.


Three weeks before my third and last child was born, we moved into a house big enough to accommodate seven and merged our two families. I started maternity leave a week later. I had parlayed my years with the Legislature into an executive position as the advocate for the California agency that regulates solid waste. A temporary replacement was conscripted to manage my programs and staff until I returned from maternity leave.

When my new daughter, Carolanne, was six weeks old I packed all the requisite baby paraphernalia into the car and drove to the office to show her off to my coworkers. The building was a three-story glass and steel box along the freeway, one of half a dozen cut from the same mold that hugged the exit. On the elevator, headed for the third floor where the executive offices were, one of the clerical staff, a plain woman with an active mouth, beamed at me as though I’d made her proud. She clasped my baby girl’s bare foot.

“It’s so wonderful that you finally took time to have a family,” she said, with a beatific smile. “I’m so happy for you. It’s the ultimate experience. Believe me, you have no idea how wonderful.”

It took me a moment to make sense of her words. “She’s my third child,” I said.

At the second floor, the elevator doors opened with a hydraulic whoosh. The woman stepped out. Before the door closed she turned and with an saccharin smile, said, “Well, maybe you’ll make more time for this one. So busy with your career and all, I just assumed.”

The director came out of his office to greet us. A trim man, he sometimes bragged he was the same weight as when he ran high school track. He was trussed up pretty tight. I was used to that. But it did seem as though his collar was even more confining than usual, his face a more uncomfortable shade of red and his jaw stiff with the effort of holding onto a smile.

“It’s good you’re here. Keith has something to discuss with you,” he said. Keith was our new Chief Deputy, second-in-command. “Better if someone keeps an eye on the baby so you two can talk.”

Carolanne had dozed off in her car carrier. I left her with the secretary. Keith rose from behind his desk. He looked more like a professor—classics perhaps, or philosophy—than a regulator. He wore a jacket with leather patches at the elbows. Wispy hair sprouted around his bald pate.

“Shut the door, if you don’t mind,” he said. “Sit. Make yourself at home.”

I tugged at a blouse button that kept springing open and hoped to God I didn’t leak. He dropped a manila folder in front of me as though it were a hot plate that had singed his fingers. Inside the folder was a duty statement for a job doing something called “data integration.”

“I’m sure the director has told you all about this,” Keith said.

“No he hasn’t,” I said.

Keith blinked behind his glasses. “This will be your assignment when you return.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well, when you told him you wanted a less stressful job when you returned from maternity leave, I, um, he…”

I cut him off. “I never said that.”

I’d done what Keith was doing half a dozen times. I’d fired staff at the director’s behest. And I’d cooked up ludicrous special assignments like the one I was being offered. “Opportunities to fail,” we’d jokingly called them. It was my turn. I was being banished to the civil service equivalent of Siberia, consigned to the F Troop.

Through Keith’s closed door came Carolanne’s thin whine, working up a cry. I hugged my breasts tight to keep the milk from coming. But it was no use.

It had taken me fifteen years to get where I was in my career. I had charted uphill progress in terms of a growing paycheck, the size of my office and the position of my name on the organizational chart. I’d convinced myself it wasn’t only for me. It was for the kids, who deserved to live in a nice house in a good neighborhood and to go to college.

Clasping the baby seat for the long walk to the car, I felt the weight of those years, the choices I’d made, the many times I missed one of my children’s performances or events because of work. All those lost moments were rendered inconsequential by one swift managerial decision.


The next few weeks were a blur. I roused from bed to feed and settle the baby while the new house and its other occupants stormed around me. When even that became too much, I crept into our dim, walk-in closet and closed the shuttered doors, the baby in a small bassinet beside me, mercifully asleep.

At intervals there were voices at the door—my husband, one of my sisters, my husband again. Their words seemed distant, unconnected to me. Cocooned on the carpeted floor, with a pillow and my robe for a blanket, I drifted in and out of dream-choked sleep.

“Bob says you won’t come out.” It was my son. He’d started college and moved into the dorms.

“I will,” I said. “You didn’t have to come here. I’m sorry.”

Fred nudged the door open, just enough that we could see one another. He sat on the bathmat and hugged his bent knees. His eyes were round saucers of concern, his gaze steady, without judgment. I was simultaneously proud and ashamed. Proud of the young man he’d become, of his solid goodness, of how much he wanted to help. Ashamed that it wasn’t the first time he’d found his mother past coping and dealt with it as best he could, no matter his age.

“He shouldn’t have bothered you,” I said.

“It’s okay. You need me to take you someplace? A doctor or something.” I sat up and lifted the fussing baby from the bassinet. “I’m a heifer,” I said. “A fat, bloated cow.”

He gave me that sad smile.

“I missed your sixth grade graduation,” I said, my voice cracking. “There was some stupid deadline at work. I can’t even remember anymore.”

“You sat through an entire Depeche Mode concert with me and Chris.”

“Two Depeche Mode concerts,” I said, patting Carolanne’s behind.

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said, nodding. “Two years in a row.”

“Junior high. I missed that graduation too. Got tied up at work.”

“It’s no big deal, Mom. Remember that one time the sheriff drove me home. Woke you up at three in the morning. That wasn’t the only time. It was just the only time I got caught.”

“And the golf team,” I said. “You should have joined. You liked golf.”

“You needed me to pick Veronica up from daycare when you worked late.”

“You could have at least asked me.” Even as I said the words, I wondered whether the outcome would have been any different if he had asked.

“There are way worse parents out there. Believe me. My friends all thought you were pretty cool.”

“I bet they did.”

I looked at my son. Really looked at him. My mother was right. I’d told her she was crazy when she said he was starting to look like a concentration camp survivor.

“What do you weigh these days?” I asked. Fred shrugged.

“Stand on the scale,” I said.

I put out my hand and he pulled me to standing. I stood beside him, bouncing the baby, as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding. Fred was skin and bone, jutting cheek bones, jaw and clavicles, wrists and ankles I could have wrapped the fingers of one hand around.

Consumed with getting married, moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.


I stood beside him as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding… Consumed with moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.


I lay on the unmade bed with Carolanne. Two small, dimpled feet kicked at the air. She found them with her hands, first one foot, then the other and her eyes grew bright with wonder, with discovery, and she gurgled, telling me about it, telling herself, about these new things, attached to her, yet apart too, elusive, challenging her to catch them, and then the feeling when she did, of recognition, of touch that registered in the brain as pleasure and as an accomplishment, one of hundreds of discoveries brought by each new day. Light from the sliding glass door broke into dancing fragments all around us. She reached for it too, chubby fingers closing in fists, again and again, as slippery coins of light eluded her grasp and played on her soft skin and over the bedspread all around us, transformed into a tranquil sea of dancing, sunlit fish.

Though it would take months for me to shake the sense of shame and loss, being demoted within weeks of Carolanne’s birth allowed me an emotional freedom I hadn’t enjoyed when the other two were small. I returned to work after six months, rather than six weeks. I got back on my feet professionally, worked for another dozen years and ended my career as the Executive Director of a different state regulatory agency, yet my priorities had been irrevocably reordered. I never forgot that no matter how important or demanding a job may seem, it has no heart. I hope that I have been a good mother to all of my children, yet I know I have been more present this last time around.


I was a young twenty-six when Fred was born. He seemed to me an older twenty-six when he married. His wife once thanked me; giving me at least partial credit for the man he has become, always kind, thoughtful and empathetic. And with more pride than regret, I wonder, as I imagine all parents, and particularly single mothers, must sometimes wonder, did I just get lucky or did he feel my love and support, did he find what was good in me, in spite of all the rest.


Author’s Note: Fred, my eldest child, is now 35 and, among other things, an amazing husband and father of two. When he was small and it was just the two of us, getting through each day, balancing work and all the rest, often felt like a battle I didn’t always win. In many ways we grew up together and are, I hope, both the better for it. I know that I am.

Dorothy Rice lives in Sacramento with her husband and the youngest of their five children. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Louisville Review and The Saturday Evening Post website, among others. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist, a memoir about her father, will be published this year. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing.

Return to September 2015 Issue

A Failure to Feed

A Failure to Feed

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld


When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.


I slid the pizza in front of my 6-year-old who eyed it suspiciously. It was softer than usual, not as cheesy—a gluten free version I’d had in the freezer for a while, but that doesn’t usually bother my pizza-obsessed child. He took one tiny bite then clutched his gut as though something were stabbing him from the inside.

“Oh, my stomach hurts so much.”

It was the fourth night in a row he’d complained of a mysterious and sudden stomach ache at precisely the moment he was expected to do something he didn’t want to do, including eat this dinner. He does not have a medical condition, or any food allergies; the stomach ache is his inarguable go-to for any difficult feeling.

The muscles in my jaw went rigid, my neck tightened with indignation. It’s not uncommon for me to make three meals in my three-person household—that big no-no in all the parenting books. If cooking for one, I’d probably live on steamed veggies and cheese. My husband and son, however, eat from the school of carbs and cheese. And here I’d made the thing my child professes to love more than anything else: Okay, it was lackluster, soggy pizza, but still: cheese, bread, sauce!

“My stomach just won’t let me,” my son insisted.

I couldn’t help it, I shot him the glare I usually reserve for public disobedience, and he shrunk beneath its withering weight.

The worst part is, I’ve read the parenting guides—I know that fighting with children over food is pointless, causes them to dig in their heels and creates tension and anxiety around meals that can affect their habits negatively into the future. I don’t want to fight, but something seizes up inside me at the same time, my own inner toddler righteously making a grab for power.

“Well, if your tummy hurts, you should go lie down,” I said curtly.

My son scuttled to the couch, where he prepared to turn on the show he’d been watching just before.

“No TV,” my husband intervened. He’d seen the set of my jaw, the stiffness of my shoulders. “You can read, play, or just lie there.”

I couldn’t even exhale properly. My whole body was livid with frustration. I was shot back to the days of my son’s infancy, when he’d cry me awake in the middle of the night only to refuse the breast, or fall asleep after minutes on one, leaving the other painfully engorged to the point of tears. When my child won’t eat, I feel like I’ve failed my most basic job as a mother.

Perhaps it also taps into a deeper issue, somatically clutched within my very cells from my own childhood: my mother, a drug and alcohol addict until I was 20, recalled in therapy days when, sweating and stuck to the bed with the illness of withdrawal, she could not tend to my most basic toddler needs: to eat. I’ve always been a person who will eat anything, perhaps because I didn’t always know when I would eat again.

My son’s refusal of food felt personal, a rejection of my ability to nourish him, and of the time I spent preparing that meal.

I took a deep breath. I couldn’t look at my son pouting on the couch without that frustration beating inside me. We’ve long had a flexible policy that after dinner if he’s still hungry he can help himself to snacks up to a certain time of night; we aren’t depriving, nor are we overly accommodating. But in truth, I know there’s a part of me as deeply punitive as my stern German grandfather, whose upbringing in a house of six brothers under the rule of a strict Rabbi father, set him up to give his own two sons little slack. Some of that rolled over to me from my own father, preoccupied with healthy eating that bordered on obsessive; he kept a bland, macrobiotic diet and strict mealtimes, ate all organic food long before it was popular or easy to find, and forbade me sugar.

There, staring at my son’s abandoned plate of soggy pizza, I felt my father, and grandfather too, who had lived at subsistence level in a Palestinian kibbutz, rise up inside me. Gripped by the urge to proclaim loudly, “You will not leave this table until you’ve eaten every bite. I would have killed to eat this at your age!”

But I’m not that parent. That’s the parent my husband described from his own torturous dinners. A father who raised his voice to threatening levels, terrorizing his sons into eating what they disliked.

I took as deep a breath as my tight lungs would allow and then released it. I could feel my son shooting me his baleful pout behind my back.

In a calm voice, my husband asked quietly, “What if we just let him get his own dinner? Pull a bunch of snacks onto a plate, so long as he sits with us?”

My inner dictator sneered and snapped its whip—that was too easy, this voice said, tantamount to teaching him that stubbornness wins. But my husband had shared the agony of being forced to eat what you don’t like, under the glare of an angry parent, and had grown up with an aversive relationship to food; I knew I needed to trust him.

What’s more, I have shared sympathy with my son over the way childhood is a time of constant powerlessness—of other people making decisions for you, telling you what to do, where to be and how to do things. And, of course, what to eat. I do remember the days of quivering, sauce-less vegetables my father insisted I eat, and my fixation with the candy at the 7-Eleven always denied to me that I snuck on the sly with stolen change, like a junkie.

“Okay,” I said at last, and forced my shoulders down an inch.

We broached the idea of making his own dinners with our son, whose stomach ache instantly went away. He leaped up from the couch, “Can I make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

I nodded.

“Will you help me?” he asked.

“The idea is that you will make it yourself if you don’t want to eat what I’ve made.”

“You won’t ever help me again?” his eyes filled with sudden tears.

“Of course I’ll still help you sometimes,” I said, softening some. “But tonight, I think you can handle it.”

As he grappled with the recalcitrant peanut butter from the bottle, clumsily slopped globs of jelly on his bread, muttering about how hard it was, I felt my own frustration drain with the leftover jelly down the sink; it’s hard not to be proud of a child’s efforts at self-care.

If I thought this independence was just a phase, however, he has proved me wrong. Even when exhausted after gymnastics class this week, he insisted on making his plate: carrots, salami slices, crackers and strawberries. When he’d filled up, he patted his belly. “I like making my own dinners,” he said. “I like to do things for myself.”

Beneath that swell of motherly pride and relief, I also felt a tug of grief in my throat, a sensation like fabric tearing slightly away from the lining of a jacket; as the mother of an only child, I’m aware more keenly than ever of the preciousness of this transition between interdependence and individuation. I need as much help as he does to foster those skills that will carry him through many more meals, and the rest of his life, without me.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a California mother of one, and author of 6 books, most recently: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. She has written for: AlterNet,  DAME,,  the New York Times, Role/Reboot, and more. or @JordanRosenfeld on twitter.

Photo Credit: Diana Poulos-Lutz

The Leaf Scientist

The Leaf Scientist

By Diana Renn

Fall leafs seamless background.When my five-year-old’s invisible friend first showed up, I thought he was the ideal houseguest. Quiet, polite, he kept to himself. I hardly noticed him at all. When he visited, he typically showed up for dinner.

His presence was announced by a placemat my son drew for him, with pictures of his food—gourmet meals I did not have to cook. When he was done, the placemat got recycled. He left no mess. What’s not to love?

The invisible friend had a name. Leaf Scientist. The name was also his occupation. He first blew in around late September, when the leaves were beginning to turn.

A turning point was occurring within our house, too. My son was leaving behind his preschool days, becoming a more active member of our household. “Give the five-year-old child some household responsibilities,” a developmental chart reminded us at the pediatrician’s office. And so our son was dutifully learning a household chore: setting the dinner table. He learned where to set utensils on either side of a plate, and how to fold a napkin into a triangle. And then one day he set four places rather than three.

I thought he was just enjoying the task, or adding an extra place setting for practice, but he insisted it was for a guest.

“Who?” I asked him.

“Leaf Scientist,” he replied. “He’s my invisible friend.”

I grinned. Our shy son had been slow to make friends, of both the flesh-and-blood and the invisible varieties. So my husband and I were rather tickled that this new friend had dropped by.

And as invisible friends go, this guy was great. As we got to know him better, we discovered he had a whole personality: quirky, thoughtful, and curious. Leaf Scientist, we were informed, studied leaves. Through my son, he made pronouncements about recent changes observed in leaves, and predictions of changes to come. Over the next few weeks, we had many entertaining dinner conversations on the topic of leaves and trees.

I began to see my son in a new light. And with awe. This was no longer the toddler who banged a spoon on a table or pushed cars around his dinner plate. This was someone you could have an actual conversation with. At a dinner table.

Our whole family dynamic, our way of relating to each other, was also changing. I could see the approaching end of the dinnertime tantrums and disciplinary actions. I was grateful to Leaf Scientist for ushering in this new era of family bonding.

As the leaves fell, samples and specimens started coming inside, accompanying Leaf Scientist’s visits. Leaf Scientist and I had words over this, through the mediation of my translator son. Fascinated as I was by our guest’s area of expertise, I preferred not to dine with dead foliage, especially when small insects crawled out of its leaves. Leaf Scientist disappeared for a few days, and I worried I’d scared him off. My son briefly returned to banging the table with a spoon and pushing cars around the dinner plate.

But one day the placemat appeared again, with a plate of magic marker food, and no dead leaves. The friend was back. And so were our pleasant dinners. The house felt a little bit fuller.

I liked that full feeling. We are a family of three. Generally, my son is okay with not having a sibling. While he’s interested in his friends’ siblings at play dates, he comes home expressing relief that he does not have to share toys or fight over TV shows. He does not have to share his parents.

My husband is also fine with being three. I get where he’s coming from. I really do. He has two grown daughters, twins, from his previous marriage. And he is currently the breadwinner in the house. He is shouldering the bulk of the bills. And he’s older. He’s enjoying his “surprise” son, but he is done bringing more people into the world, thank you very much.

I admit, I always feel a twinge of resentment when people call him a “father of three.” I am, forever, a mother of one.

When we got married, my husband and I had agreed to have one child together. We even discussed it in counseling. I said I was fine with one. And I was. I wanted to write books, and I knew that having more children would make writing harder. He cautioned I might change my mind, that women often felt the need for a second after they had the first. I assured him that would not happen to me.

As it turned out, he was right. Something changed with the birth of our son. I experienced a powerful, emotional and biological impulse to have a second. I wanted to do this great ride again, and to create a bigger, fuller family. I marveled at what my body was capable of, and I loved being a mother. My heart had room for more.

Intellectual reasons bubbled up too. I had a sibling myself, a younger sister. Because of our age difference—seven years—we were not close growing up. In my fantasy family, my son would have a sibling two years younger, and they would grow up close, always having each other to lean on.

My husband and I had recurring hard conversations about the second child over the next few years. We had conversations that were emotional and conversations that were logical, intellectual, like lawyers making their respective arguments. To one of these discussions I actually brought a file stuffed with documents and data. I may have drawn up a spreadsheet.

But finally, at the age of forty-one, I accepted that having one more child would actually damage our marriage. Having another baby might have been the best decision for me personally, individually, but it was not the best decision for our whole family. My husband, in his fifties and with the end of his working years in view, did not want the financial responsibility of another child and the worry about financing college for a fourth kid. In turn, I had to face the reality of my own limitations: my lack of patience, my lack of nearby family to help out with childcare, and, as a freelance writer and editor, my own limited income. We were not rich celebrities who could outsource childcare and move to a mansion. We were a middle-class family with an age difference and finite means.

My heart was still pleading, but logic won out. I started donating the baby gear and selling off nursery furniture that I’d never use again. I threw myself into my writing and realized my dream of publishing a novel. And I devoted myself to my son, grateful that we could now afford to send him to an excellent school and enroll him in enriching activities. With a second child, he would not have had such opportunities. I knew that.

Despite the rationalizations, at odd times I’d still feel the pang of the phantom child, that missing fourth family member. One of those times was when setting the table. Having grown up in a family of four, it felt natural to me to put out four place settings.

Maybe that was why I was so quick to hand that chore off to my newly responsible son. I felt, too acutely, the palpable absence in that fourth chair. The lack of symmetry bugged me.

Throughout the fall, leaf scientist, strangely enough, came to fill that chair. I enjoyed seeing my son set out real utensils and cups for him. The invisible friend began to feel less like a houseguest and more like family.

“How’s Leaf Scientist today?” I’d ask my son.

“He’s doing great!”

“Where is he right now?”

“Finishing a TV show in the other room. He’ll be in for dinner.”

My son would report on Leaf Scientist’s research and recreation at odd times of day, so naturally, that it came to feel as though there really was a fourth body occupying the house. I looked forward to the Leaf Scientist reports.

Leaf Scientist hung around well into the winter. Even after the autumn leaves had been mostly gathered up and swept away, Christmas trees held his attention. There was still much to study and discuss. His placemat appeared at the table.

And then, one evening, it didn’t.

I asked my son if he forgot to set it out.

“No,” my son said. “Leaf Scientist has left.”

“But he’ll be back, right?”

He shook his head. Then he suddenly turned to me, his eyes brimming with tears. “He blew away,” he told me. “He’s not coming back.”

As quietly as he had entered our lives, Leaf Scientist had apparently vanished.

No goodbyes. No explanations.

My heart beat a little faster. I swallowed hard. I took my son into my arms and held him close.

“Spring is around the corner,” I whispered into his hair. “He’ll be back. There will be plenty more leaves to study.”

“He will not be back.” There was something different in my son’s voice. Sadness mixed with surety. He was processing feelings, experiencing loss. He was also accepting a truth.

I watched as he let the tears fall for a minute longer. Then he went into the other room to play Legos.

I sat down in the dining room next to Leaf Scientist’s empty seat, bewildered by the onslaught of my son’s complex emotions—and my own.

Was that the end of my son’s era of invisible friends? It had happened so fast. He’d turn six in a few months. How long did kids have invisible friends, anyway? My son had made so many new friends in Kindergarten. He talked more of real boys and girls these days.

And then another realization stabbed me. There would be no comforting myself with words like, “Oh, that was a fun phase; I can’t wait to see what the next kid’s invisible friend will be like.”

There was no next kid.

There was no next kid’s invisible friend.

Developmental phases like this would flare up fast and blow out like birthday candles, never to be relived through the experience of a sibling.

I thought I’d dealt with this second child issue. Maybe I hadn’t. Or maybe, on some level, I’d always be dealing with it, and that’s what I had to accept.

Intellectual acceptance and emotional acceptance are not the same things. It may take years before they dovetail. Or they may not dovetail at all. Maybe all of us hit a point where we’re left with our own invisible friends: the children we might have had, the dreams that weren’t realized. What’s in our own empty chairs? What fantasies must we relinquish?

I’d been hiding behind Leaf Scientist instead of truly dealing with my emotions and moving on. When Leaf Scientist wasn’t visiting, I was hiding behind other things. Like work and busyness. It was time to find ways to process my emotions about the size of our family instead of letting my resentment fester.

It was also time to start filling that fourth chair with other things. Maybe real-life people. Cousins, nieces, nephews. Grandparents, neighbors, friends. We could start inviting actual human beings for dinner, filling the chairs with folks we could all actually converse with, instead of indulging in our son’s fantasy life.

All of this could be a start toward letting go of resentment and accepting all the great things I already had. Including my one wonderful family. Opening the door to take down the dead Christmas wreath, I whispered a silent thank-you to Leaf Scientist for once again ushering in a new era. “Goodbye,” I whispered. A breeze sent some crunchy old foliage skittering down the sidewalk. I smiled and imagined our invisible friend quietly bowing and taking his leave.

Author’s Note: This essay surprised me. What began as a light-hearted, amusing sketch about my son’s invisible friend turned into a deeper exploration of our family’s size. I had no idea the two things were connected until the writing was well underway. Writing the essay was an important step in my coming to terms with this issue, and learning how to focus on the reality of my family. I am now looking forward to the next season, wondering what fresh surprises it may bring for my inquisitive son.

Diana Renn writes contemporary mysteries for young adults. She is the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring writing for and by teens. Diana’s essays and short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including The Writer, Writer’s Digest, YARN, and Literary Mama. A Seattle native, Diana now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. Visit her online at

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