Tag Archives: I’m not sure I should post this

Tract for the Day of the Dead

One of my first official acts as a newly minted 40-year-old was to help my mother pronounce my stepfather dead after a prolonged and terrible brain illness.

It was dawn on the morning after my birthday and it was harder to be sure of this than you might imagine. He left this realm the way a flashlight dims – flickering into a barely perceptible glow before extinguishing completely. We called hospice. A nurse came to confirm our suspicions and called the funeral home. I watched my five-year-old son touch his grandfather’s cool face and arms before he asked me “how do you know for sure?” The undertaker arrived. I remember moving a clay bust my mom made of my stepfather’s face out of the foyer, because I had a sudden and vivid fear that the gurney carrying his body would snag the pillar it was on and smash it to bits. They took the body and left an artificial rose on his bed.

And then I helped my mother organize his funeral.  He was a spiritual man, but not at all religious. There was no minister to call for assistance. We arranged to use the chapel in the funeral home. My stepbrothers and brother and I each committed to deliver a eulogy – four in words, one in classical music. But we felt we needed to wrap the service and burial in some kind of formality, so my mother and my future ex-husband and I dug our way through books and books of one thing we knew my stepfather had faith in – poetry.

We ended up selecting pieces by Wallace Stevens and George Santayana.  But my mother had heard the most from my stepfather about his admiration for Imagist poet and New Jersey physician William Carlos Williams (also mentor to Allen Ginsberg).  We pushed through volume after volume, looking for something of his that one of us could read. The first poem we found related to death or loss began:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

So that hardly seemed appropriate.  Actually, we laughed at its total inappropriateness. Fresh grief can be like that – manic and grimly hysterical. Then there was another poem. It felt too raw at the time, so we didn’t read it either. Williams was left out of the funeral. But that other poem is still with me.

Last week, I completed training to be hospice volunteer for the organization that took such extraordinary care of all of us before and after my stepfather passed. We have had (I have had) several other losses since then, and none of those experiences have felt alike.  The training made me think more deeply about all of the pressure valves people blow open and seal shut in dark times or mourning, the crazy emotional acrobatics and contortions that can lead to accepting — or never accepting — a loss.  For some people, cracking a single emotion may take remarkable courage. Others (like me) may expectorate feelings with more persistence than we are usually able to muster to wipe down the kitchen counters.

I like Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins “I measure every grief…” because of her stark consideration of several ways that grief may manifest and her conclusion that its very existence is something that unites us all. Death, loss and everyone’s inevitable experience of them at some time bind us like quantum physics, the interconnectedness of Buddhist philosophy or Walt Whitman’s beautiful line from Leaves of Grass – “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

When someone dies after a long illness, particularly one that seems to strip away the person that you knew in pinpricks and bold strokes, it can take time to recover; time to begin to remember them well.  My stepfather was an intellectual, an elitist, even, but a brilliant and loyal man. He inherited me as his very first daughter-like person when I was 19 and while I know I flummoxed him at first, we grew into a relationship that ended with the intimacy of hallucinations and dying.

And I have him to thank for the fact that I’ve read a lot more William Carlos Williams in the last two years than ever before.

I’ve always loved the rituals around Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day, because they give memories a chance to breathe within us. We can make offerings to the people we’ve lost, remember the parts of ourselves that they gave us.

I think my stepfather would have liked it if this poem had been read at his funeral. It would have been bold. But I think, rightly, that it might have been too raw for those who were grieving for him. So I make it as an offering to him, and anyone who needs permission to feel anything at all they need to feel, today:

By William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.


I remember you, Stephen.


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The re-education of a science mom

The other day, my son was asked to draw a picture of something he is grateful for.

He made semi-scribbly, red twisty lines. Above them, he wrote “DNA.”

I asked him why. Why DNA?

“Because it’s here,” he said. “No life would be here without it. Not the trees, not you or me. Nothing.”

To be honest, I am far more grateful that he is happy we exist than I am that he understands DNA.

I asked him if I could blog about what he said and he agreed.

“What should I say about DNA?” I asked him.

“Life needs it in order to be here, just think about it,” he said. “Just write about it in a long sentence. Write that it controls cells. That cancer happens when DNA is broken.”

I think back on high school and remember myself as a girl with an aversion to science.  Today, I don’t know that it was an aversion so much as something that my teachers presented in a way that I couldn’t find relevant to my daily life. I was technically adept, but confounded by chemistry. And if there were programs designed to promote women and girls in science and math in 1980s Central Ohio, we never crossed paths. I veered into social science and the arts and humanities, where the world seemed to invite me.

So now I live with an almost six-year-old whose aptitude for understanding quantum mechanics, geology, biology and especially astronomy have long since dwarfed my own. This is thanks to Google, several extremely cool kids’ science books, our fantastic local science center. a great, old-school observatory, the vast array of images in discounted Hubble Telescope picture books, PBS, National Geographic, the History, Science and Discovery channels and the availability of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix.

When my son was two, he was in love with everything he could find out about the planets, moons, stars, dark matter and endless nebulae (he loved watching the short film Powers of Ten over and over, which we found on a now-defunct kids’ astronomy site). Around that time, Neil DeGrasse Tyson floated the idea on some talk show or other that he was working on a book that would tell parents the key things they needed to know to be scientifically literate and raise scientifically literate children.

I’ve longed for this book, although I think my re-education in science has gone okay without it. My son used to get frustrated with me over the things I couldn’t answer. Now we’re both content to let him do most of the teaching.  Truthfully, he always has.

Here’s the thing, though: If it all went away tomorrow, if his interests suddenly took a radical turn into Batman and baseball and fart jokes, I like to think that I wouldn’t turn into a judgmental parent who turned her nose up at “lesser” pursuits. I’d be sad to see interests that have been so fun and exciting and integral to his life diminished, but our lives would be easier. I wouldn’t have to evaluate, every year, the thorny politics of introducing him to a new classroom and new teachers. Parents wouldn’t dislike me because I’m worried about my smart kid.  To most, it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like bragging.

If you go around telling people that your kid is smart, special, or at least has a high aptitude for a particular subject, I’ve found out that you’re likely to do that child more harm than good in the classroom, on the playground, in life. What you say can turn morph into a temporary blind spot for teacher, who has heard a thousand parents’ confident descriptions, many of them wrong, or at least lacking the perspective on a sea of children that an experienced educator has.

I try to let my son unfold before his teachers without my assistance. And if they are good teachers, they find him. They see him.  And if they are very good, they know how complicated it can be for sweet-faced boy who still has all of his baby teeth to know so much, so very, very much. Together, we see him recognize the reality of things that once just seemed cool or interesting to know before, not scary or heavy. I see it suddenly weigh on him and I sometimes wish I could erase that thing he learned a year ago, that thing I thought he would forget. He rarely forgets.

And so I let him explore Super Mario Galaxy, joke books, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Justin Beiber. I am relieved when dances like a lion, puts a pylon on his head or tells me about playing “crazy baby” on the playground with a friend. I don’t want him to be the ultimate brainiac of the universe. That’s lonely. I want him to be every bit his brilliant self, but I also want him to be happy. I want him to feel okay and whole when he’s not feeling brilliant.

I imagine Sagan, as well as Tyson and the wide host of living celebrity science advocates I am now acquainted with as people with a dark blue sense of humor.

I keep joking with friends: “If you’re going to raise an astrophysicist, better to raise an astrophysicist who can make jokes about his balls.”

Or maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s my science mommy prayer.

This post is a contribution to the #scimom collection, an experimental conjunction of mom and science bloggers.

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When I went out East in August, I was beginning to feel lighter.

I felt invisible at BlogHer, but that was mainly because you have to work so hard to be visible at BlogHer, and I’m not much good at doing that on my own behalf. Having my son in tow and my liveblogging shifts, I didn’t have much energy for it. Meanwhile, my email inbox and east coast conversations bustled with unexpected work possibilities — things to consider or do when I got home and Declan started going to school full time. I was looking forward to this hard and glorious autumn full of work and schedules and cool air and time for coffee with friends during the day and possibilities.

But when I came home and started following up, my emails went out like arrows, got stuck in the wall behind the people I was trying to reach and weren’t returned. Or minds were changed. I searched for new possibilities and found some really promising ones, but the same thing happened.  It’s been frustrating. The more I try to advance, the more I feel like I’ve been checkmated.

So I’ve been doing invisible things. Like spending time in places I usually drive past with the windows closed. Places that have been invisible to me. I’ve carried household things my mom or friends didn’t want to an apartment complex that used to be another blur on the side of freeway. Now it’s home to a friend who is restarting his life with little more than what people have seen fit to give him.

I’ve sat next to a hospital bed, trying to keep an ear on the medical staff as they tended to a person who told me she loved me the first day we met. Another person who has shown me that you can lose everything, that your whole life can turn over, and you can come out of it better than you were before.

I’ve spent time inside of an urban church so humble you could barely distinguish it from an old used furniture shop. I sat on one of its folding chairs and stared at its plastic purple flowers. Just like the old urban church that is now a Buddhist temple that I frequent, I have found that it’s a place of extraordinary grace.

And there’s so little I can say here beyond that about these things, which are the things I can feel in my chest the most right now, I wonder that I should be writing here anymore at all.

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This inverted life

I wish I felt comfortable writing my way through this time.

I’d like to tell you about the fact that my son and I have been living at my mother’s since February because I needed to separate from my husband. I needed things to change. It was excruciating for a while and it is still not easy. We’re at a crossroads. We take things day by day. Sometimes I’ve only taken them moment by moment. We still plan on doing another radio show together. We are still family, connected by this amazing person we created — this person that I wouldn’t want to deprive of his father’s love or the ability to know who and where he comes from. One way or another, a new life will be built. I just have no idea what that life will look like.

I’d like to tell you about the remarkable meetings and support groups I’ve found for the families of addicts and alcoholics. About the evenings when I find myself in a room with people I never imagined knowing, let alone being vulnerable with, and how they humble and lift me. How this 78-year-old woman heard me state the facts of my life, asked to hug me, and, once I agreed, whispered “that is one heavy load you are carrying.” She closed her eyes and pressed her hand over my heart with a prayer. Her warmth thawed my many years of cynicism about Al-Anon meetings. She helped me to hear what I needed to hear, to take what I needed, as they are so fond of saying, and leave the rest.

I’d like to tell you what it’s like to live with a stepfather who is dying and has Lewy Body Disease, which combines the debilitating physical symptoms of Parkinsons with dementia. About the things I can’t see that are apparently here, like cars that keep pulling into the house, dead dogs lying around, men moving freezers, people with scissors and family members that have long since passed. How, before he stopped being able to walk a few weeks ago, he showed up in my room one morning because he couldn’t find my mother. He thought he had to hold his breath for as long as she wasn’t in the room with him. As I watch my mother try to manage each day, I see just how brutal the business of caregiving can be.

I’d like to tell you what a house feels like after hospice swoops in, about the book they gave my mother that details what to look for in the last weeks, days, hours and moments before a person dies. About how strange and refreshing it is to experience health care that probes a family about its mental, physical and spiritual well-being and looks for ways to help. About being the bearer of bad news to my stepdad’s sons with each clear and dramatic decline, especially the brother who has been my close friend since I was 19 and has a baby on the way this summer. About how generous the heart of my stepdad’s paid caregiver is as he shows up every morning and evening (on the days he’s not working) to carry him from the hospital bed to a recliner in the family room and back.

I’d like to tell you how vulnerable my son was before all of this. How frighteningly perceptive and unfairly aware he is of the world around him, of cells and stardust and disease and disaster. Or how often I feel like I’m on a razor-thin line, some days thinking that this experience, this period, could be a profound opportunity for him to understand more about life, relationships and death, other days terrified that all of this will screw him up, scar or emotionally maim him because it’s all so, so much for someone who is freshly five to carry.

I’d like to tell you about my uncle who passed away this past Sunday after his years-long battle with cancer. And I do mean battle. He fought for every moment he had on this earth, and didn’t fail to live each one that he could. During one early remission, he traveled to Africa and nearly got himself killed by leaving the tent when hippopotamuses were around. I would know so much less about what a strong, loving family man looks like if I hadn’t known him. I would know less about what a self-actualized, truly indefatigable person looks like. I also wouldn’t know how hostile to humans and dangerous a hippo can be. While I’m not planning a safari, that seems like an important thing to know.

So I’m telling you.

It’s been months now that I’ve felt like a person walking around with an oozing, emotional gunshot wound on her chest, visible only to those who know me or know what’s been going on because even as I avoid writing about it here, I say these things out loud when I’m out a lot. I have to. Friends — especially so many beautiful, generous, supportive moms — cautiously ask me about how things are going, and I keep disappointing them with clammy, sad facts, because I’ve become lousy at sugar-coating things. I had started to feel like I’d suffocate if I didn’t say what felt true today out loud, so I do it, and almost always immediately feel lighter because there are so many people who can understand or relate to some piece of what’s going on here, no matter how small. They honor me by listening and offering help and I feel totally selfish each time they do because I am so overloaded with my own stuff right now I don’t listen the way I usually do. I usually pride myself on my ability to listen.

Life feels inverted. I cry the most when good things happen. Each offer of help is a salve. Each small solution that I see hospice offer my mother chokes me up. Joyful moments make me so, so grateful. Each expression of love and friendship, each person who has said “you are doing better than you know” to me, each person who looks at me like I’m hemorrhaging but knows she isn’t a surgeon and offers some small kindness to me anyway has been a gift this year.

I’m turning 40 in three weeks and I don’t remember a more difficult or uncertain time. I also don’t remember feeling more blessed or more open-hearted. On bad days, I feel very alone, but on the good ones, I am less alone than ever. I am more grateful than ever.

A couple of Sundays ago my stepbrother put my little, strangely nonfunctional family unit on the guest list for his big music festival. The three of us saw Michael Franti and Spearhead, who we’ve loved for a long time. The band brought little kids onto the stage for the encore, “Say Hey,” and my son danced, jumped, pranced, twirled, sang and ran next to Franti, apparently without an iota of fear or apprehension in his body. He told me looked for me but couldn’t find me in the crowd, where I was smiling so hard that my face should have cracked open.

When he came down from the stage, he asked, “could you hear my little tiny voice up there? I was singing as loud as I could so you would hear me.” And while I couldn’t literally hear him, I could hear him, and see him, and feel him up there, so fully himself, there to enjoy more than perform, so full of energy and faith and confidence that he is, in fact, loved. That he was certain his mother was out there somewhere listening for his voice made me feel like a pretty good mom.

The next morning, I woke up with him clinging to me the way he has every morning since we’ve been in this place — like a life preserver.  He snuggled up to my ear and sang the song, punctuating each line with a hug around the neck: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

Declan running across the stage (with Michael Franti).

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