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death

Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

How to Have a Dead Child, The First Five Years

August 20, 2015
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By Adina Giannelli

Live in a state of fog, half-submerged in water. Everything is fuzzy, cloudy, gray. Feel as though you’ve been anesthetized, but badly. Quickly you realize that what you thought was a general anesthetic turned out to be a local; the pain comes through the haze in sharp shards, and there’s no one you can sue for malpractice.

Cry, seemingly at random, at strollers and strawberries and the number 23. Living after death is not rational. Even through the anesthesia you see that. Exist as unhealed wound, sore and open, vulnerable to everything, yet somehow impenetrable. Scar tissue forms keloids around your head and heart; refuse to be moved.

Stare coldly at strangers who ask questions; stay angry. Exercise until you’ve lost all discernible body fat and rip your hair out at the root. Cry in your bed, in your car, in your office, at the gym. Wear age-inappropriate clothing that hangs on your gaunt frame like a signal light, a warning sign, a red flag.

Imagine yourself pregnant, feel phantom kicks; dream, occasionally, that your dead child is reincarnated as younger sibling. Become pregnant, accidentally but essentially on purpose, by your dead child’s father—a man you once loved and now hate.

Go to Russia where you sleep for fourteen hours a night and cry silently into your cheese grater cot at night, hoping for another day to pass, willing yourself to forget all you’ve left behind. A voice so small it is nearly inaudible whispers in your ear: remember, remember.

Two

 Move to a beautiful apartment in an idyllic little village an hour from where you work, where none of the faces are familiar and no one knows your troubles or your story or your name. Strangers stare, no one bothers to ask. Walk the streets in the day, to the library and the cooperative market and the village’s flower-covered bridge in rainy mornings, sit in your living room chair late into the evening, staring out the window and wondering why.

Your water breaks in the living room late one evening on the precipice of winter. A fierce cherub is born in the bedroom shortly thereafter, apparently healthy and squealing. Your midwife Kirsten catches the baby and places him on your swollen breasts; silently, in a manner discordant with your tradition, you pray.

Do not name the baby for eight days, less for religious reasons, more because you’re scared he won’t survive. His father, if you can call him that, wants to name the baby Uzi. You want to name the baby Ariel. His father is nowhere to be found for most of that first year, visiting occasionally as you monitor your second child’s breathing and anticipate the moment at which it might cease

Cry sparingly, for tears do no good. Winter births spring as you birthed your December baby, who passes through the five-week mark easily and without fanfare and tell yourself that if you don’t get too attached to the idea of his permanence, there is a very small chance he might survive.

Give strangers death stares when they ask about your husband, how many children you have, if he is your first. It is just you and this small infant this first year. Wake every fifteen minutes, checking his breathing, which steadies your own. You call this baby Samuel, a Hebrew name meaning God has heard. You are not so sure.

Three

Exhaust yourself with work and the task of raising a needy infant alone. Stress yourself with thoughts of your own poverty, the loneliness of a solitary future, the uncertainty of how you will survive. Realize you have no idea how to parent this beautiful baby when no one parented you, when you exist in a state of fog, when half of your heart is buried miles away, encased within a tiny white casket in a verdant cemetery plot, left to earth beneath the shade of ancient maple and pine trees.

Visit the cemetery and the other half of your heart as frequently as possible. Watch as your second baby is reborn a toddler through a sort of fog which offers a strange clarity, even in a haze of grief.

Repeat, as a mantra to guide you:

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Sometimes it will work and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes your days are better than others, even good. See that life is extraordinarily beautiful, at times; feel happy. See that life is extraordinarily blessed, at times; feel grateful. See that life is extraordinarily difficult, at times; feel angry. Your daughter did not deserve to die. Your son did not deserve a dead sister, an absent father, a mother teetering on the edge. Resign yourself to the fog, lean into it and hope that like all other weather patterns, it will one day lift. Some mornings it is a challenge to lure your body from bed, the fog is so heavy, but you rise. Even on the worst days, you find yourself lifted.

Four 

Struggle. Become so busy with teaching and work and the labor of parenting a toddler that you have to remind yourself daily of your reality. You don’t feel sad, most of the time, you feel so overextended and exhausted by the activities of daily living that you nearly forget you have a dead child. Cease speaking about her, as a means of self-preservation.

Listen as people ask if Samuel is your only child. Tell people you had a daughter but she died; comfort them as they work through imagined grief. Learn to lie when people ask if you have other children, so as to maximize everyone’s comfort. Think of her daily; cry less frequently; try to move forward and upward and on. Feel guilty, as if by approximating a life you have betrayed your dead child, your buried half heart.

Realize that the fog very nearly overtook you, but it was merely an overture: a necessary beginning, but a temporary one. Recognize that even if you don’t know how to get it, you and everyone around you deserve something else.

Five

Decide you really have to get it together, to get off the treadmill of stagnant, unspent grief where you’ve stationed yourself in the years since your daughter’s death. See that every bad decision you’ve made in the last half-decade has been a function of indecision, a failure, driven by fear, to make a move, to take your life by its own balls and do the thing you were initially driven to do.

Realize that though your daughter is dead, you are not. Recognize that though you have tried desperately for the better part of the last five years to match her in her death state, it is physically impossible. You cannot be dead while you are still alive. The realization is shocking in its simplicity, and somehow profound, if only for the fact that you’d never considered it before.

Recognize your process was blocked, and you need to get unstuck. Act accordingly. Throw yourself into exercise, and friendship, and work. Help everyone who asks. Be kind to everyone who crosses your path. Write and read and teach with fire burning beneath you, from the place where for five years, half your heart’s been buried.

Pitch stories to editors and proposals to agents, knowing that many of them won’t be accepted. Eat ice cream after you go to the gym and have three drinks at dinner with your beautiful cousin and her wonderful husband, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Wrap your arms completely around the broad body of the man you’re casually dating but beginning to love, even if you don’t know where things are going, even if it means your heart will be broken and badly. Your heart’s already broken, and if you’re very lucky, it will break again, and again, and again, anyway.

Go to the cemetery at dusk on the evening of your daughter’s fifth birthday, and cry into the grass while your son runs circles around you. Walk down the hill to the nearby playground with your preschool aged son. Stay there until well after dark, blowing bubbles on park benches and chasing your boy on the pavement, summer fireflies lighting the night around you, long after he should be sleeping. When you arrive home, read him seven books in bed rather than the requisite three. But I’m three, Mama, he will protest, conflating his nightly reading load with his chronological age. Yes, but you’ll be seven someday! you will tell him, and you will mean it.

Maybe it is G-d working in and through and for you and this revelation is holy. And maybe it is for your daughter and maybe it is for your son, maybe it’s for your favorite cousin or that man you are only casually dating but find you’re beginning to love. Mostly it is for yourself, but it isn’t selfish. Your child has been dead for five years, but you have walked among the living, even if half your heart’s been buried since. If you are going to have a dead child you must find a way to be alive. You start by choosing to live.

 

*

 

A writer and teacher whose essays has appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post, Adina Giannelli lives and works in Western Massachusetts with her son Samuel. She is currently at work on her first book.
Join Jen Pastiloff  and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Join Jen Pastiloff and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Featured image by Barbara Potter.

death, Family, Guest Posts

Grandmother

August 20, 2015
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By Michael Price

John was my boss and he was very boss-like about it, significantly more managerial than I had ever known him to be.

“Leave the bar,” he said softly but firmly–and in extreme contrast with the din of the night’s shenanigans–looking me straight in the eye, not a smile on his face, which was decidedly unusual.

I thought he was kidding.

“Now, Mike.”

He wasn’t.

“That man over there says he’s your uncle,” he said, pointing.  “You need to go talk to him.  I’ll watch the bar for you.”

I hardly remembered my uncle Bob, it had been so long.  But that was him, most assuredly, standing at the far corner of the bar, behind another guy and his lady friend sitting in front of him, waving timidly.  He looked old from that distance, still a head taller than most people, but older than it seemed like he should have looked.

John is a great guy, I’ve always liked him.  And, being Saturday night, dinner hour, he knew what he was stepping into; the bar was three deep everywhere.  John had tended bar—we all knew that—and was probably very good in his day.  But that had been many years prior, several thousand margaritas past, and he had to know he was about to get slammed, and real bad.

It was a very busy night.

Uncle Bob was…I had very little recollection, really.  He was a relative, a very tall relative; I remembered that.  An army doctor somewhere, I thought.  Used to move around a lot; I vaguely remembered that, too.  Who I hadn’t seen for twenty, twenty-five years.

And he had my grandmother in the passenger seat of his car.

“She wants to say goodbye to you,” Bob said calmly, softly cupping my shoulder in his bony-fingered hand, leading me out the door, past the waiting list of wanna-be diners, and out into the parking lot.

It was about ten-below, and I was dressed in the my work uniform–black high-tops, cut-off jeans shorts and the company logoed mid-sleeve T-shirt, twice rolled up at the sleeves–but I don’t recall being the least bit cold.

Bob was my grandmother’s son, my mother’s brother.  I may not have remembered him much, but I certainly remembered his mother.

I loved my grandmother, the most spiritual person I have ever known.  And I’m not even sure what that means.

“I’m taking her back to Colorado with me,” Bob said.  “It’s where she wants to be.”

I knew what that meant.

“Here, you get in front.”  He unlocked and opened the driver’s side door for me.

The car was parked in the back row of the parking lot–engine running, heated defrost hard at work–facing the restaurant, just to the left-front of the main entrance.  There wasn’t another available spot in sight.

Like I said, it was packed.

I remember bumping my head getting into the car, but I didn’t feel that much, either.  I sat down and turned to her.

“Oh, honey,” she said to me.

The high, overhead parking lot light beamed down through the front windshield, directly onto my grandmother’s face, ineffective, for the most part, in concealment of the deeply drawn features that had crept over her face since the previous time our paths had crossed.  She had always had gray hair, ever since I could remember, but that night the bright light from above shone down on a head of almost unbearably phosphorescent white curls, tightly spun and immaculately brushed, as if Bob had just picked her up from the “beauty parlor,” as she still called it.  Her heartrendingly weary and doleful eyes looked happy to see me, somehow, contented, at the very least—we both felt it, a stronger connection I had and have never sensed—eyes that were smiling somberly through moistness, and her body was shivering from only, I hope in recollection, the cold.

“Oh, honey.”

“Hi, Grandma.”  Then, with a deeply lodged lump in my throat and desperately at a loss for words, “How are you?”

“Oh…”  She looked far off, past me and out the window, her head tilted skyward, as if she were searching for a divine answer.  “…fine, I guess.”

She gently shut her eyes, deep in reverence, it seemed to me.  I assessed her appearance; I all but stared right at her, it was difficult not to.

Much too much white facial powder and blue around the eyes; that was my initial impression.  A character straight out of Ghost Story.

Except, excluding a little carefully applied red lipstick on Sunday mornings, my grandmother had never worn make-up in her life.  Of that, I was all but certain.

I wavered but held on.  “Good.  That’s good.  It’s good to see you,” I blathered.

I didn’t know what to say.  Five minutes earlier, from behind the bar, you couldn’t have shut me up.  And glib stuff, too, not that conversationally appropriate drivel you get from a lot of bartenders.

“It’s been a long time,” I trifled.

“Oh…” I was so sure she was scrolling the highlights of her life across the top of her memory.  “…yeah,” she finally answered, smiling wistfully at me.

We—my parents, older sister, and I–enjoyed several Christmases with my grandmother in North Dakota when I was a creature.  Those early memories are few but precious: the wondrous aromas emanating from grandma’s kitchen–krumkake, pfeffernuesse, and other family holiday delicacies–while watching football on TV with my father and, before he died, my grandfather; playing Go Fish with my older sister and, sometimes, when she wasn’t cooking, baking, or vacuuming, my grandmother; listening to George Beverly Shea sing his Christmas tidings and other generic praises from the big brown stereo console I wasn’t allowed to touch; playing with the across-the-alley neighbor kid’s basset-beagle puppy, Samuel (not Sam, I remember that distinctly; I forget the kid’s name), an animal that stepped on his drooping ears about every third step, which I thought was the funniest thing at the time; and assisting my grandmother with the Sunday crossword puzzle–in ink, no less.  Although I’m quite certain I knew very few answers, if any, she always had a way of making it seem like I was “a big helper” to her.  Sometimes she even let me help out in the kitchen—I was “a good little stirrer”–to my father’s mild dismay.

“How are you doing, honey?”

Incidentally, she and my mother are the only two people that have ever called me that.  I don’t know why that seems important, but it does.

Insipidly, “I’m fine, grandma.  Really.”

If my life ever reaches the stage where the end is nigh and I know it, when I’m cognizant of the fact that I don’t have long to live and am fortunate enough to be able to articulate a final goodbye to my family and best of friends, it is my sincerest of wishes that I am able to look at my loved ones the way she looked at me at that moment, that night.  I have never felt so treasured, so cherished, in my life.

Who am I kidding?  I’ll never come close.

In my dictionary, the word spiritual has five definitions, at least three of which can be directly or indirectly associated with religion.  Certainly, being the loving and devoutly supportive wife of a Lutheran minister, with whom she ardently and faithfully helped serve multiple parishes sprinkled throughout both Dakotas for over forty years, my grandmother was most certainly the very model of a spiritually religious being.

But it wasn’t just that.  In her presence, spirituality was more than that. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

To May, with Loss.

August 10, 2015
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By Julia K. Agresto

I want to like May, I really do. But I just can’t. Hear me out.

May brings new life. It ushers in a tapestry of flowers and abundant sunshine and the promise of endless summer, of bonfires and warm nights. For me, the stark contrast of loss against a backdrop of such beauty has always been too much to reconcile. Beauty should be born in May. It should not die.

May 14, 1995 was Mother’s Day. I had turned eight years old two months before. I still have a framed photograph from that day of myself, my mom, and our family dog, sitting in the backyard in the sun – my mom in a brightly striped beach chair, me in the grass next to her, leaned in close and clutching on as if to say, “Don’t leave me.” In retrospect, I wonder how much I was actually able to appreciate on a day that’s all about appreciation. Did I thank my mom for all that she did for me? Did I make her a well-intentioned but less-than-impressive card by hand? Did I give her a gift? Did I say, simply, I love you?

Six days later, she did leave me.

On the night of May 18, she suddenly became ill. My sister and I had gone to bed, presumably after being tucked in by my parents, under the guise of normalcy. Sometime later, I was awoken by the sound of my mother’s cries. My father came into my bedroom, scooped me out of my bed, and transported me to my 12-year-old sister’s room, again tucking me in and explaining that mommy was sick and he needed to bring her to the hospital. At some point, they returned and again I heard my mother crying out in pain. Light spilled in through my cracked-open bedroom door, coming from my parents’ room down the short hallway, and I saw what my young brain registered as a police officer, though I know now this was likely a paramedic. The next thing I saw, through my sister’s bedroom window, was my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway on a stretcher. I didn’t know what was happening; what would happen. That I would never see her again. That she would fall into a coma after uttering her final words to my father: “What about my girls?” We were the first thing on her mind always. We were the last thing on her mind before she left this earth. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Johnny Cash, Eve, Me, That One Guy, and Maybe You

August 5, 2015
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By Nick Belperio

The statue was naked, and I was nine, and the first thing I thought was, Her privates are out in public.   In the hush of the art museum, I snickered like someone much younger, like a seven-year old.   Mom squeezed my hand, nodding at a small plaque on the pedestal.

“Can you read that, honey?”   The first word was easy.

“Eve,” I said and sounded out the rest.  “Dis…con…SOLE…eight?”

“Disconsolate,” she corrected, emphasis on the second syllable.

“What’s that mean?”

Mom regarded the statue for a long moment:  Eve towered over us, her smooth face pitched heavenward, a serpent twining her ankle.   “More than sad,” she said.

“Why’s she so sad?” I wanted to know.

“She was thrown out of paradise.  Cast out forever, along with her husband.  That’s why.”

I looked it up when we got home:  Adj., without solace or consolation; hopelessly unhappy.  Mom was right:  more than sad.   Nine year-old me shrugged, filing it away with the other big words I knew that no one ever used.

It came back to me thirty-some years later, during a typically sclerotic Los Angeles rush hour.  As I inched homeward on Pico Boulevard, I glanced in my rearview mirror:  the driver of the SUV behind me was crying.  Really crying.  White man in a suit, early fifties I guessed, and in the grip of a strenuous bout of weeping.  A woman in the passenger seat offered him tissues and awkward half-hugs, but he looked beyond comfort.  This guy was distraught.  Keeping my eyes on traffic was nearly impossible.

He bawled openly, his face red and contorted, the mouth gaping; every once in a while, you’ll see an infant wail with such abandon, but a stranger?  An adult?   Never:  It seemed extravagant, to give yourself up to sorrow so fully, a luxury somehow, and also unseemly:  this level of sadness usually insists on strict privacy.  He’s losing it, I thought.  Why doesn’t he pull over?  Doesn’t he know people can see him?

And that’s when the word first returned to me.  Presented itself, fully-formed:

Disconsolate, in my mother’s soothing voice.   Ah, yes.  Disconsolate, adj.:  illustrated—dramatized, in fact—right here in my rearview.  I watched greedily, until I turned my corner and left them.  I don’t remember the make of his SUV, or its color, or the color of his hair; but the anguish on that guy’s face, how pure and unmitigated it was, has never left me.   That I remember.  I recognize it, now that I’m in my fifties.

Aging, it seems, is an accumulation:  of years and then decades, of course; of knowledge and experience, sure; of grudges and injustices and mysterious bruises, certainly.   Sometimes aging brings wonder—Can you believe we’re in our fifties? my friends and I whisper incredulously.  We’re officially middle-aged!—and sometimes a kernel or two of wisdom.  Always, though—always—it brings loss of some sort; we know this.  Losses come, and sometimes they multiply; adulthood stacks sadnesses and disappointments like firewood out back.   Look at your friends.  Look at mine. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts

Can You Turn Off The Light?

July 26, 2015
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beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Kristi DiLallo

My grandmother always wore nightgowns around the house. Most of them were the kind that looked like knee-length tee shirts from airport gift shops with cartoon buildings or bridges or taxis on the front.

“I’m going to change into my robe,” she used to say when she got home from work, referring to one of the nightgowns folded up in the dresser near her bed. I never understood why she called them robes when they were nightgowns and I always argued with her about it.

“Betty,” I would say, because she didn’t allow me to call her Grandma to her face, “It’s not a robe! It’s a nightgown!”

We always disagreed about things like that. We would argue during dinner and over bowls of chocolate pudding we made from a packet of powder and a pot of milk on the stove, looking things up in the dictionary and on the internet to prove each other wrong. My mother and my older brother, Nick, were usually not home during our arguments, so we would go on and on, yelling across the house about something that would eventually become irrelevant. Sometimes we would go for weeks without talking because we couldn’t agree about the spelling or meaning of a word. We’d tiptoe around the house and avoid each other in our respective rooms until one of us gave in.

“I’m the one wearing it so I can call it whatever the hell I want,” she’d say out of the side of her mouth with a cigarette pressed between her lips, and finally, we’d agree to disagree.

The nightgowns in Betty’s closet might have been the only thing she had in common with other grandmothers. She was different, as my friends used to say when they came over to our house. When people met Mom, they always stared at her, saying they couldn’t believe she was old enough to be a mother. Continue Reading…

Binders, Forgiveness, Guest Posts

Friending the Dead

July 22, 2015
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By Suzanne Roberts

When the friend request comes in, the mind’s rolodex immediately places the name with the pinkish face, red hair, and tooth-gapped smile.  With a shaky hand, I click over and see it on his wall: RIP Kenny Williams. A cousin, or perhaps one of his children, saw we have mutual friends. Maybe my name came up in the drop-down menu under People You May Know because we went to the same junior high, listed the same hometown. Alive on Facebook, but dead.

There’s relief and something approaching happy. What’s wrong with me? It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve seen him.

***

The junior high classroom is arranged by last name, so Mr. Ballard, the ancient Life Sciences teacher, can remember who’s who.  R gets seated next to W. And we are required to share a worm, a frog, and a fetal pig with our partner during dissections. My partner, Kenny Williams, is far more interested in scrambling the frog’s guts, pulling out the fetal pig’s heart to mash between his fingers, and seeing if the giant worm will stick to my curly hair.

And that’s the best of it.

Between botched dissections, Kenny whispers, “I bet you don’t know what a blow job is?”

“Yes I do.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“If you know what it is, will you give me one?” he asks.

“Sure. Why not?”

And with this, everyone in my seventh grade class will be told, by Kenny Williams himself, that I want to suck dick. That’s when I learn what a blow job is, though at first, I don’t believe anyone would put a penis into her mouth on purpose. I have yet to be kissed and have no idea that a blow job is in the repertoire of the possible.

By the middle of the year, Kenny passes me notes:

I know you want to fuck me.

Your tits are hard. Thinking about me?

Nice jeans. I can see your coozie.

We are eleven years old.

I gather the courage to ask Mr. Ballard if I can move seats, but he tells me that we don’t always get what we want in life, and my last name begins with R, so I am to sit at the back of the room. He can’t go around moving everyone who doesn’t like her dissection partner, now can he? I would have to learn to work with other children, no matter the differences. And besides, Kenny’s just teasing.

In fairness to Mr. Ballard, I don’t tell him that Kenny Williams said he wanted my coozie. But what if I told Mr. Ballard exactly what was happening to me? Would I have suffered the blame? Even today I think I might have. I didn’t have it in me at eleven to doubt the inviolable alphabetized seating chart, to see Mr. Ballard as the accomplice he was. How many teachers are ignoring it while children are being terrorized at the backs of classrooms?

I know that eleven-year old girl is not to blame. But there’s still that girl buried inside of me, something of her that feels like maybe it really was my fault. Because of my silence? Because of my confusion about my own burgeoning sexuality? Because though I found Kenny’s advances terrifying, I also felt something bordering excitement? Like getting sick on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair—a scary but thrilling nausea.

By the end of the year, Kenny not only passes me dirty notes, he snaps my bra (hard), snatches at my early-developing breasts, and reaches for the crotch of my purple Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, which fit tighter as the year wears on. And when he grows a hard-on, which is often, he grabs my hand and tries to put it on the lump of his OP corduroy shorts. He says You’re such a tease. Because of you my cock’s hard.

“I’m telling,” I try.

“I’m only teasing,” he says.

I am the first of my friends to get her period, wear a bra, and by the seventh grade, I already fill a C-cup. I believe Kenny Williams’s advances are my fault for developing early. I start wearing tops with frills along the front and long dresses, as if I am auditioning for a part on Little House on the Prairie. And at lunch every day I eat a chocolate shake, chocolate chip cookies, and French fries. I gain 20 pounds in a year, and my face blooms with acne. My breasts and my butt only get bigger. There’s no hiding, not even under a layer of pre-teen fat and prairie dresses.

I had been in the Popular Crowd since the fourth grade when I moved to the suburbs from Los Angeles. Being “in” is a benefit I enjoyed without thinking twice about the possibility that I could so easily be out. In the complicated politics of junior high school, you can go from Popular to Misfit overnight, and that’s exactly what happens to me. The popular girls are slender with clear complexions. They don’t wear glasses, and they have the right jelly shoes, the kind my mother says are too expensive, and to her credit, they are made of plastic.

I start getting crank calls from the girls who previously wanted me to wear the other half of their BFF necklaces, girls who passed me notes with hearts over every I and j. Now the notes read:

Fatty four-eyes. You are so fat. How do you fit through the door?

Slut. Everyone knows you want to suck Kenny Williams’s cock. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Triggers

July 21, 2015
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By Heather Regula

My dad died on April 17 2014. It was totally unexpected – he was getting ready to get his hair cut and boom –  just dropped dead.  My mom opted not to do an autopsy as there was little good that could come from it. The doctor told us it was likely a stroke or massive heart attack and that he was probably dead before he hit the ground. My dad’s death has been brutal on me and there have been a few times over the past year when I’ve felt that reminders of my dad’s death were going to crush me. There are physical symptoms associated with where I’m at mentally and emotionally – inability to sleep, restless sleep, grouchiness, extreme sensitivity and being overly emotional, etc… Mainly I feel like fifty bricks are sitting on my chest – every day for the past two weeks.

My dad’s birthday was on September 1st and in a typical overly dramatic fashion I’d like to announce that September damn near killed me. My annual “Dad’s birthday” alert popped up on my iPhone. That visual reminder hit me harder than I ever imagined and it took me months to seemingly bounce back. My dad’s birthday was definitely a sorrowful trigger and I’m cognizant of the fact that September 1st will probably hit me hard every year. I left the birthday alert on my phone – sure I could’ve easily deleted the reminder but I chose not to. Not because I want to feel heartache when it pops up, but because I want the forever reminder – kind of like how my dad is still listed in contacts on my phone. Perhaps if I don’t delete his contact or the birthday reminder, then his death won’t be so permanent. Childish? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Definitely. Avoiding? Likely so. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

A Murder of Crows

July 20, 2015
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By Mary Petiet

On Monday my movements were shadowed by crows. A murder of them swooped along as I drove down the street, and one came straight at me, nearly hitting my windshield, a kamikaze crow playing crow chicken.

A murder of crows is a flock, and if you’re ever plagued by one, it might be trying to tell you something.

On Tuesday I was confronted by an insistent single crow on the beach. It landed on the sand five feet in front of me and proceeded to engage me in vigorous crow talk as it edged a little closer, a little closer, and a little closer before finally taking flight, circling my head once and vanishing into the sun.

Crows are the messengers of change and death.

On Wednesday afternoon my Aunt Lisa died suddenly and the crows were gone.

The last time I saw my aunt I was in traffic behind her. When the lights changed I turned left towards the harbor while she proceeded straight. She drove one of the few remaining proper station wagons, not a cross-over, but a silver Mercedes four door wagon, styled like what we all used to drive before cross-overs and mini-vans ruled the roadways.

She headed east, and now I imagine her following the historic Old King’s Highway to its conclusion at the easternmost point of Cape Cod, the edge of America, the spot on the far side of the Cape’s tip in the oceanic wilds beyond the colorful cacophony of Ptown. The spot where Thoreau said you can stand and put all America behind you.

From here, any progress further east is blocked by water.

I imagine her on the edge of the ocean, the surf pounding and the blue of the water losing itself in the blue of the horizon, and it would have been so easy for her to slip into the depths and dissolve into the ephemeral nothingness of the blue fluidity.

Instead she checked herself into a Boston hospital with chest pain, was admitted to the cardiac unit, and declared dead of a massive heart attack within the hour.

Growing up my aunt’s house was a short path through the woods from mine. The path wound through trees, passed a daisy field, and followed a bridge over a stream. It was an ancient way, and it traced the old Indian Trail past colonial stone walls and bottle dumps my aunt would excavate.  It connected our houses and we called it the Psychopath.

I would follow the Psychopath to visit her and she would make elegant tea parties with Red Rose tea. She always called me Muffin, and she taught me to arrange flowers, find clams on the flats, and how to make tuna fish sandwiches. We’d spread the tuna on Pepperidge farm bread and have gold fish crackers with seven-up for lunch.

When my mother took her first tentative steps back into the work force, I would follow the Psychopath to my aunt’s house on school mornings, and my aunt would give me breakfast and put me on the bus, and she was always home when the bus dropped me off again at the end of the day. When I needed her, she was a second mother to me.

She was 70 when she died, the first leaf to fall from the tree directly above me, jolting my cousins and me with the realization that we are now the grownups, and jolting her own generation with a deeper insistence of its own mortality.

I hadn’t seen her in some time. She had unmoored from the old ties and I had been distracted by my own children, for whom I now make tuna fish and meet the school bus. Other people occupy our old houses, and the Psychopath is overgrown. I never thought of her as old, and there was never any feeling of urgency to the idea that we should connect.

She left quietly through the back door, and never got to say goodbye.

I imagine her young and tall and blonde and statuesque. She loved the ocean, was a strong sportswoman, and she effortlessly sported those iconic American good looks Ralph Lauren tries so hard to capture.

A week later my best friend died.

The evening before his diagnoses, a pair of peacocks roosted in the maple outside my back door. Crows are not a rarity here, but peacocks are unheard of, and the near Technicolor hue of their necks lent meaning to the concept of peacock blue. They perched there silently, made large by their dangling plumage.

The peacock is phoenix-like in aspect, and is said to symbolize rebirth and transcendence, and is death not the ultimate transcendence?

The next morning dawned with the knowledge that it was time to bring our rapidly declining black and white cat Faust to the vet. The peacocks stayed until well after sunrise, sitting vigil for Faust. I missed their departure meeting deadlines as I tried to get Faust examined.

He was diagnosed with a myriad of symptoms. He was dying of old age and suffering badly in the process. We knew his time had come, so we scheduled the appropriate appointment for the following morning.

This meant letting go of a dear friend, and I call him my best friend because he was more dog then cat, he was always with me, always at my feet or in my lap. Right now I am re-learning how to write because there is no softly purring presence sleeping against my left arm as I tap the keys.

It is hard now to discount the old traditions, symbols and omen. There is something to the ancient idea that information can travel on the currents of energy circling the world to manifest in subtle, easy to miss hints. Everything is connected and everything holds a space.

There has been an especial starkness to these first two weeks of April on the tail end of a horrendous Northeast winter. The seasons change, the earth tilts, and each death both takes something with it and leaves something else behind.

Lisa, the suddenly lost aunt I knew from day one, helped me grow and was of my childhood. Her absence places that time a little bit further from reach, and leaves me to grow more as her generation moves forward and my generation continues to somehow assume the mantle of true adulthood, in the space  between our children and our parents. We are sandwiched in the middle and we are holding the space so each can grow, the younger to maturity and the older to whatever comes next beyond this mortal coil.

When we arranged the flowers Lisa grew, we brought beauty inside to illuminate our interior spaces. When she taught me to dig clams, extracting delicious beautifully packaged morsels from the mud, she showed me how to find beauty in dark places, and when we fueled all of this with shared tuna fish sandwiches, we were tapping into strength and nourishing community.

Faust, the suddenly absent cat we acquired fifteen years ago in the bright days leading up to 9/11, was the starter child my husband and I added to the wonderfully ramshackle Cape starter house we’d just moved into.

Faust was what remained of us from those halcyon years before airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the tech bubble crashed, when the world was truly our oyster and we were just starting to think about having children.

So we treated Faust like a child, and he became a true family member, always present with a happy greeting. He was our first parenting experience, preparing us for the children we now have, and his declining old age may help ready us for the inevitable fading of my parent’s generation.

We buried him in the rain at the foot of the maple tree.  The air was finally alive with spring as we worked through clumps of blooming snowdrops and struggled deeper through roots and stones and unyielding clay. As we finally placed him in the wet, dark earth, I thought I heard Aunt Lisa’s voice calling on the wind across the low tidal flats, “Don’t worry Muffin, I went first to check it out!”

A crow cawed high above, heading north out over the water and there was no sign of the peacocks. Their vigil had ended and they had vanished as fully and silently as the cat when his soul slipped from his body.

Mary Petiet (www.marypetiet.com) writes about current events, organic farming, local food, history and spirituality. She is a long time contributor to Edible Cape Cod Magazine, a reporter for the Enterprise Newspapers, and her work has been featured in Parent Co. Look for her upcoming article in STIR Journal, and her book Minerva’s Owls, which reinterprets old stories in new ways to create a new future from Homebound Publications,  April, 2017. Follow her on Facebook or twitter @maryblairpetiet.
Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

Book Girl Power: You Are Enough now! A workshop for girls and teens. Space is limited. Sep 19 Princeton! Sep 20th NYC. The book is also forthcoming from Jen Pastiloff.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on august 10th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on august 10th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

Do you want the space and joy to get back into your body? To get into your words and stories?  Join Jen Pastiloff and best-selling author Lidia Yuknavitch over Labor Day weekend 2015 for their 2nd Writing & The Body Retreat in Ojai, California following their last one, which sold out in 48 hours. You do NOT have to be a writer or a yogi.  "So I’ve finally figured out how to describe Jen Pastiloff's Writing and the Body yoga retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s story-letting, like blood-letting but more medically accurate: Bleed out the stories that hold you down, get held in the telling by a roomful of amazing women whose stories gut you, guide you. Move them through your body with poses, music, Jen’s booming voice, Lidia’s literary I’m-not-sorry. Write renewed, truthful. Float-stumble home. Keep writing." ~ Pema Rocker, attendee of Writing & The Body Feb 2015

Do you want the space and joy to get back into your body?
To get into your words and stories? Join Jen Pastiloff and best-selling author Lidia Yuknavitch over Labor Day weekend 2015 for their 2nd Writing & The Body Retreat in Ojai, California following their last one, which sold out in 48 hours. You do NOT have to be a writer or a yogi.
“So I’ve finally figured out how to describe Jen Pastiloff’s Writing and the Body yoga retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s story-letting, like blood-letting but more medically accurate: Bleed out the stories that hold you down, get held in the telling by a roomful of amazing women whose stories gut you, guide you. Move them through your body with poses, music, Jen’s booming voice, Lidia’s literary I’m-not-sorry. Write renewed, truthful. Float-stumble home. Keep writing.” ~ Pema Rocker, attendee of Writing & The Body Feb 2015

Featured image by Tiffany Lucero.

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Letting Go Of My Mother

July 19, 2015
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By Vivki Mayk

After my mother died, the long silence of my 60-mile commute was the hardest part of the day.  I think I missed her most then, after years of talking to her on my cell phone as I sped along, on my way home. We’d gossip about my Aunt Betty or compare notes on Dancing With the Stars. Now there was no sound except rubber meeting macadam or the latest report from NPR.

Sometimes I’d suddenly dissolve into tears, the shaky sobs triggered by surprising things. Dionne Warwick singing “What’s it all about, Alfie?” on the radio once set me off so completely, I’d had to pull over when I heard the line “Is it just for the moment we live?” That hokey question was my reality now, the reality of adjusting to the loss of someone who’d been part of my life for so long – but in the end, not long enough.

I’d grieved slowly. First came the sadness tempered by relief after the months of watching her small frame implode from cancer.  Absorbing her loss was not something that happened all at once on the day she died or even when I collected her cremated remains. I let go of her by inches and days – cleaning out her apartment, hauling carloads of kitchenware to Goodwill, carting her designer clothes to a resale shop.  Bit by bit I was acknowledging, with every box packed and carted away, that she wasn’t coming back.

My daughter acknowledged that finality much sooner than I. On the morning of my mother’s memorial service, she’d turned to me, her grief raw. “Grandma’s gone, and she’s not coming back,” Katti had sobbed, reminding herself – and me — that this was permanent. My mother was not at her timeshare or away for the weekend. Still, it had taken me months to begin going through her belongings. To do that affirmed what my daughter knew, what we’d all known from the moment of her death. She wasn’t coming back. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, healing, loss

How I Choose To Remember

June 30, 2015
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By Nikki Grey

My mother’s hand shook as she set the black velvet jewelry box on my lap. I knew she was trying to seem excited to give it to me, which was true of course, but she also was attempting to hide the fear in her eyes with the smile on her face.

I opened the box and saw the golden heart-shaped locket. An intricate carving of a mockingbird decorated its face along with a long stem of flowers. I knew the significance of this special gift. I knew she was going to die soon.

This necklace would soon be all I would have left of my mom.

I wore the locket around my neck day and night, even in the shower, for weeks before the day came when my foster mother pulled me aside and told me to go upstairs with her. Right away, I knew something was wrong. My foster mother never asked me to come to her room, even if I was in trouble. Besides, the look in her eyes was not one of contempt— the way she usually looked at us if she were upset, or just in general really, like every time any of us spoke. She never did like any of her foster kids much. But today my foster mother looked less cold and distant than usual. She appeared old and somber. I felt small and young. I was 13.

Immediately I knew what my foster mother was going to tell me. My golden locket clung to my chest, seemingly heavier than before. With its weight my real heart sank, too, because I knew.

I knew as I glanced at my foster sister. She knew, too. I knew as I climbed the staircase up to my foster mother’s room. I knew as I sat on her bed and she put her arms around me. The gesture broke my resolve and I started to cry.

My foster father was also in the room. He sat on the bed with us. I sat waiting between them, two people who hardly knew me and definitely didn’t like me. I held my breath and blinked back a few tears. Then my foster mother delivered the news.

“She’s gone.”

I saw it coming. I’d known for months. I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t know my body would shake uncontrollably. I didn’t know I would let these strangers try to comfort me. I didn’t know I would feel so alone. I clutched my golden locket in my hand and held on tight. I didn’t want to let go.

That was my final memory of my mother. It wasn’t a memory of her really, as much as it was my experience of her death. Now all that’s left are memories. The problem is that sometimes I’m not sure I really knew my mother all that well. I saw her as beautiful and fun, but who was she to everyone else? My mother was a drug addict to my older sister when we were growing up; Mom always let her down. To my younger brother she was just a compilation of stories and brief memories of being held as a child; he was only 10 when she died. Her parents viewed her differently from her friends, different from her kids. Continue Reading…

Binders, Grief, Guest Posts

I Never Expected to Grieve for My Mother

June 26, 2015
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beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Elin Stebbins Waldal

Lined up in the garage as if they are expecting us still are the dining room chairs of my youth. In all there are five. Yet now, as if in a dream, I see eight.

Eight wood chairs—each pushed under an antique table that, if you were not seated in the middle where the leaves met, touched the tops of your legs—three chairs on each side and one at either end.

But today there are five.

I close my eyes as if blocking the image of them here in the garage of my grown-up-life will erase the reality that these chairs equal in number those of us in my family of origin who are living.

There never were eight of us all at once.

One of the chairs stood empty. Empty in a way that occupied the space around me and shaped the backdrop of my growing up.

“Pain engraves a deeper memory,” Anne Sexton once said. As deep as an ocean I think with eyes still shut, my hands feeling their way across the faux bamboo back of a 19th Century chair.

The tips of my fingers search the woven thrush of the seat, the feel of which belies the hardness my butt once endured. I can almost feel the imprint of the thrush on the backs of my legs, traces of hours spent belly-up to the table bathed in candle light and the cacophony of voices, forks on dinner plates, and the occasional ring of the phone.

It seemed we were always at dinner—or at least the punctuated moments I remember best were at that table. Mealtime gatherings that spread out over hours, as opposed to the meals of today often swallowed while driving home from children’s games to this very garage. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, healing, The Hard Stuff

The Defiant Heart

June 11, 2015
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beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Karen Palmer

There was a family that lived two doors away from us, just over the top of a hill in Silver Lake, in a house that looked like a Beatrix Potter illustration, with a thatched roof and multipaned windows and roses in the tiny front yard. The dad was a doctor, a handsome pediatrician, the wife a full-time mom, blond, tanned and athletic, a swimmer and a tennis player, with happy crinkles at the corners of her eyes; and they had two children, the older a six-year-old boy, the younger a baby girl who was two. My mother and father didn’t know the family well — the parents moved in different social circles and their kids were several years too young to be playmates for me — but my mom used to get up the occasional bridge game with the mom, along with Meryl, who was my friend Jennifer’s mother, and a few other ladies from our neighborhood.

The summer of 1967, the family went off to their annual vacation at Big Bear Lake, and the little girl drowned. The parents, each headed back to the cabin for lunch, took different paths along the edge of the lake. Each thought their daughter was with the other.

Everyone was so sorry about the little girl’s death — this was such a nice family — but as the shock wore off, I became aware of a creeping communal notion that the wrong child had died. No adult ever said so, and certainly not to me, but the feeling was palpable. The little girl was bubbly and sweet, full of personality. The boy was skittish, dorky, and therefore less appealing. At the funeral he was too lightly hugged and then too quickly let go. Later, when the bridge games resumed, I heard someone say, What a shame, now that one was going places, and the ladies all sighed. Continue Reading…

Binders, death, Guest Posts

Gone To Feed The Roses

May 31, 2015
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beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Katherine Vaz

The home I share with Christopher Cerf, on Gerard Drive in Springs, was not spared Hurricane Sandy.  We were residing in our main residence in New York City when the water rose over the spindly, mile-and-a-half long cape bounded by Gardiners Bay and Accabonac Harbor.  Police cars blocked the entrance to Gerard, we read in the Times.  It was not safe to enter.

Aerial views made the spit of land look like the Loch Ness Monster surfacing—humps of spine, the creature mostly submerged.  A friend reported that our yard and patio were ravaged, but our house was unharmed.  After a spell came the news that my eighty-seven-year-old father had collapsed in northern California.  A day later, for the first time, I entered my childhood home without him greeting me with a blessing and kiss.  Content with his history books, his painting and gardening, he was a homebody; I sensed the vacancy as a prelude to loss.  At Eden Hospital, he cried out my name when he saw me, the daughter from far away. Continue Reading…

Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

On Losing a Brother, Survival, and Sweet Clementines

May 28, 2015
Joanna aged 16

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By Joanna Chen

I remember the moments before learning of my brother’s death. It’s mid-December. I do not know why I have been called out of class but I register the horrified look on the face of the secretary as she enters my classroom. I am standing at the window, looking out at the dull fir trees swaying in the wind. I turn around when she calls my name and follow her obediently. Schoolgirls in bottle-green uniforms move about from class to class, ascending the stairs on the right, descending on the left. I am descending. One foot after another, very slowly. My hand lingers on the smooth, polished wood of the banister at the bottom of the stairs. The secretary leads me to the waiting room opposite the office. The pale oak door is closed. I place one hand on the circular door knob, turn and enter. They are waiting for me inside: Headmistress. Mother. Father. There is a pause as they look up at me, standing there, my hand still on the door knob.

Six years in this school and I have never been in this room. There are green easy chairs in a half-circle. On a low table is a silver tray with cups, saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl decorated with rosebuds. Sugar in lumps.  The headmistress wears cat-woman eyeglasses. I offer a small smile. I giggle. I am fifteen.

And then a sentence with words one after the other strung together, each word falling heavy into the air.  My brother Andrew, not yet eighteen, is dead. A coach came out of a side-street into the main road and my brother, on his blue motorbike, hit the side of the coach head-on.  And I imagine him speeding along, his first week with the new motorbike, freedom at last, no more standing at the bus stop in the cold of northern England, no more waiting for our father’s red Rover to drive by after work to pick him up, no more.

That last time I saw Andrew was in the mirror, three hours earlier. He was leaving the house, and stopped at my bedroom door. I was adjusting my school tie and did not bother turning around to face him. It would ruin the knot. I remember his face in the mirror, his hair thick like a bush, his hands on the keys, his stubby fingers, dirty fingernails. And now in reverse. His dirty fingernails, stubby fingers, his hands on the keys, his hair thick like a bush, his face in the mirror.  I always go back to this moment.

I bolt the waiting room. Outside it’s a cold day. Snow. Slush. Crunch under shoes. No coat. My finger traces a word on the window pane. Andrew. I am standing outside the school building, looking in. The separation has begun but people are looking for me already. My green gabardine coat is handed to me, and my school bag. I am led to the car.

We drive first to the Goodmans, friends of my parents. Mrs. Goodman tells me tea with sugar is good for shock and I should have a couple. She leans her stumpy body over me, sitting where I was put, and reaches for the sugar bowl with her right hand. She drops one lump into the tea and then another. The first one splashes faintly as the white lump hits the milky, still- steaming water. The second one she drops in more gently, more reverently, as if the little square of crystal is a child that might fall over. I say nothing. I hate sweet tea.

She hands me a magazine, tells me to stir the tea, passes me the spoon as if she is not sure I understand her and returns to the kitchen, where my parents are sitting. I need to speak to your parents, she nods at me, thundering along, already halfway across the living room with the white carpet.

I slide out of the chair onto the carpet, pull down the magazine and place the cup and saucer beside me. I’m still in my school uniform; we have not gone home yet. My shoes are by the front door; the Goodmans are very particular about their white carpeting. My socks are dirty. I had been in a hurry that morning to dress and grabbed socks from the day before.

Sitting in the living room will be quite a treat for you, she tells me earlier, patting me on the shoulder, and I wonder exactly what kind of a treat she is referring to. I suddenly feel very tired and want to go home. Perhaps he is there, after all, and he’ll punch me in the arm and tell me I’m an idiot. Continue Reading…