Saturday, December 27, 2008

What were you doing

At Valley Forge
Peering into the cabins where once
your great times 8 grandfather shivered to sleep?
Walking the lawn toward the grey stone
home where Washington watched them freeze
each night remorseful of the snow
you stepped
on that specific patch of springtime grass and cried.
No war was fought here.
When your foot
took up some dark electricity from beneath
lift it and the crushing circuit breaks

what voice did you hear then?

Was it his? Your father's? Your son's?
Or your own echo and how do you tell
one from another
when you don't even have an explanation
for the four of you?

He was the 12th generation.
He is gone.
The line goes on.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

I made it.

It's Christmas day. I got home from work yesterday at noonish and sat around watching aimless tv reruns, hoping for what, I don't know. My younger son's room was dark: I had't heard him come in last night. Thought maybe he'd gone out and stayed, knowing I'd banned Christmas. I waivered a little. Ate some homemade cookies. What did I want? It felt odd to be alone. Shamefully passive. I could be hauling out the ladder and fixing that light. I could be working out and losing that extra weight. I could be reading something worthwhile instead of the mindless drone of news and popified science (Ben Franklin would have gotten fried if lightning had really struck his kite; Charles Darwin got seasick a lot). Fucking natural selection and my slender stock of genetic material. Did I push Jesse too hard? Was there something I could have done differently? Oh, that's what I want. Impossibilities.

Then I heard the door open from his brother's room. And I knew that all I wanted, really, was to have dinner with my son, someplace he liked. So we did.

Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post. I'm happy for those I've inspired, that means more to me than I can say. Topazz, artnsoul, thank you for your stories. It helps to know that your experiences are so similar to mine with young adults. I remember feeling the same way about my own mother. How hard it is to flip that mental coin and put myself in her shoes, what she must have felt like trying to reach out to me in my early twenties. I was horrible. I know my own childhood held plenty of justification for it; but she's changed/changing, and those awful memories fade. How much has she changed? She volunteers now, the things that she did that were wrong. At some point I'm not sure it's about forgiveness any more: it's about trying to construct some kind of relationship out of what parts you've got left. We went to Italy for a week and got along fine. That would have been impossible even a few years ago. I can still tell the urge in her to cross boundaries she has no right to cross, I can hear her check herself in conversation. It's a lesson. A coin to flip on myself.

And arch, yes. Worse than a lost limb, but an urretrievable mutilation. I think I'll pour us that drink now. Cheers.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry fucking Christmas.

I'm sorry, I just don't care if it's Christmas. I didn't even open the box of holiday crap. Christmas cards on the table are the only hint in our house that it's not any other time of year. It's just not in me. Jesse was never a big fan either (of course, you say, he was an atheist. But lots of atheists celebrate Christmas--for that matter there are a lot of atheists in churches, mosques, and synagogues around the world). Or so I thought, until after he died. Turned out that every Christmas, when he was telling us he didn't celebrate it, and wasn't interested in it, every year that he didn't say thank you for his gifts, and didn't get anyone else in the family anything, and pointedly avoided the tree, all those years, that he was going to someone else's house and having the party, the tree, the presents. I saw photos of him from the last Christmas of his life at this family's house. And don't get me wrong, they were a nice family, and I'm glad he found a place where he could enjoy himself, despite the fact that it wrenches my heart to realize that place wasn't with me. I mean, I know why, I guess, and there really wasn't much Jesse or I could have done about it that year. I'm not sure that, even if I knew it was going to be his last Christmas, I could have changed anything. It was his choice, to stay distant; he knew it wasn't mine. I guess we both thought we had the luxury of time. Even a few more months, another year? The last thing he wanted to think about, even on his last day on earth, was dying. It all seems like it happened in the same week: he tells me he broke up with his girlfriend (he stands in his kitchen, looking stern, as if he's saying in his head do NOT hug me). He comes into our apartment to ask us to lower our voices because he's studying for finals. I come to his for some reason, maybe to give him his stocking full of silly things I'd bought for him (they all had resonance for me, with events of his life, our lives together) and tell him I'm sorry we aren't closer and burst into tears and leave (he rolls his eyes and says, oh jesus). He's over at our place, looking for nice shoes to wear to a party, he can't find his own and borrows his brother's. They're too tight, and he comes back from the party limping, with blisters. (I find his later, after he is dead, they were under his bed the whole time.) I walk back and forth from the subway to the hospital at all hours of the day and night. He's afraid to die. He wonders why I am here every day. Why I stay so long. He knows there are times when he needs me there, indispensable things only mothers do, but still, he is cautious with me. The mother in the other family there, telling me Jesse had presented himself to them as not really having a family. She was surprised, maybe even shocked that I was at the hospital as much as she was. Jesus Christ. And then I'm standing just outside his room, and then, I am holding his foot so he won't be alone when he dies. I didn't mean to leave you, Jesse. I meant to take you with me. I fucked up everything.

So, fuck Christmas. You can have it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Stomaching it.

Yesterday I spent the morning having my stomach reamed out through a tube. The doctor found three polyps, one big, two small, and took them all out to be biopsied. Funny how that can drain you. I sat in bed the rest of the day, and skipped my company holiday party because it seemed like too much effort to shower and get dressed, much less step into the elevator and out to an actual street alone. No spouses invited. This morning everyone showed up with hangovers and stories (apparently the place lent itself to misbehavior.

But I wasn't allowed to drink alcohol, or eat anything that might disturb what was left of my stomach lining. So I missed: editors, supervisors and vice presidents of this and that jumping on the catwalks and bars, dancing till they fell off; someone tossing a drink on someone else's head; a vice president falling into a tree planter. Women in high heels falling down stairs. I should have gone, if only because this Boschian scenario suits me drunk or sober. I'm sure I'd be paying for my glimpse into the eternal fate of the souls of my coworkers though. And I don't mean like Young Goodman Brown, because I already kinda know what they're all capable of. I mean I'd feel even lousier if I'd torn myself away from my DVR full of Dr. Phil and Chocolate News to witness their descent into irredeemable corruption.

This morning though, someone asked me if I was worried about the biopsy. It seems so odd and far away: I won't know for a week. And I said no. I have so many things going on, so much has happened these last couple of years, that I just can't make myself worry about it. She asked me what I meant and made a few wrong guesses. I didn't want to tell her, because Jesse is dead and any fear of the possibility of myself getting cancer is wrapped in the same cotton batting as the real loss. My own death just means I don't have to lose anyone else. I love that I will probably be here to watch my younger son start his life and live it, don't get me wrong. I don't love my fear that he might not get that chance.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is this crazy?

Last night I was going through a couple of old address books so I could send long-neglected family and friends our shiny new photo Christmas card. Among the other scribbled names and numbers was the contact information for Jesse's urologist, a guy he saw only for the purpose of preserving his sperm before the chemo began in 2004, on the chance that he'd be infertile afterward. I'd paid $400 a year to store it, until Jesse passed on, and then told them I wouldn't be paying for it further. After all, what would you do with your dead child's sperm? It seemed a bit morbid to keep it around. So I figured it had been destroyed.

Time passes. I start thinking, what if. There were little blond children strolling around the streets of Michigan, with a little of Jesse's DNA? Would that make me happier than if, as now, there were none? It certainly wouldn't be any worse. Still, there's a Pandoran hesitation to open that possibility. What if there were? Would I then be unhappy until I saw one? Knew one? How crazy could I get? So I let it go. Until last night.

Now, I've just gotten off the phone with them. The director I spoke to told me the sperm is still there. Jesse had signed a consent form to use it for experimentation if he passed on. At least, that's what she thought. She said, you can possibly transfer it to a sperm bank, I'm not sure how that works legally. That loosening of the rules of life and death all wrapped up in that word "possibly"-- possibly I could be a grandmother to children he would never know. Possibly there would be beautiful, smart little babies everywhere, or anywhere, at least. Possibly, somehow, all the care and work Jesse and I put into making him himself would be let back out into the world, projected forward one more generation. Possibly all his potential, drive, ambition, love, would spring into the future in the souls of his children. She'd said, "he was beautiful," and I said, oh you knew him? She'd said, wistfully, they're all beautiful, these young men who come in.

As I was typing this, she called back to tell me it had been destroyed, after all.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Maybe if I just make myself write every morning, soon after my walk. Soon enough to remember what I was thinking, if not the actual words. Lately I've felt a buffer grow between my consciousness and my heart. Just enough so I don't cry when I walk through the park. A little numbness, an unreality that lets me believe against rationality that somehow Jesse is still there (and by extension, that we are all still there, somewhere outside time). If we're no longer conscious, self aware, able to make decisions, to learn, to grow, then we are only memories (as in dreaming, as we exist in others). What we were in time, what was known of us lives on a little. It's a bit morbid, really. The memory of that person so easily bends to our will, sends us love, watches over us, whatever we ask of the dead, or the not-present. What say do they have, in what we imagine of them?

Monday, November 24, 2008

I can't write

I still hear it in my head, what I want to say and how it should sound, I still edit as I walk, finding better words, stringing ideas together, but I can't get it out of my head any more. Everything leads me back to Jesse, to tears and then despair. I don't know how to get past that minefield, I can only skirt it and keep moving. I want to talk about Italy, about how I knew Jesse had been there; could feel it. Feel him, in Venice. Maybe he told me once, and I just don't remember. I do remember sitting outside the neurology ICU with his ex=girlfriend. There were a series of black and white photos of European cities hung along the hallway where we all camped like, my mother said, gypsies. Knowing he would never wake again, keeping vigil for him anyway. And his ex-girlfriend said, Jesse and I have been to all of those places. And I said, thank you. Thank you for taking him there, thank you for helping him to really live in those last two years. Thank you even for taking him skydiving--that was his Facebook photo, too, before they took it away, him in the plane wide eyed with an almost-grin on his face, the kind of expression you wear when you are about to do something amazing and you know it. Thank you, thank you, thank you. At least I know that happened. At least I know something wonderful happened for him. Not nearly as often as it should.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lave a mano

...she said, mimicking handwashing the sweater. We were standing on the corner of Broadway and 8th, it was sunny but too cold for a toddler, and the hand knit sweater was Jesse's size. And wool. Bright blue, darker than the sky. On the chest was an applique merry go round with little cloth dolls sewn onto the horses. The kind of thing I would have loved at two, myself. Expensive for me back then, $25. It had probably made its way up to New York from somewhere in South America, but I don't remember any more and now, anyway the tag is too faded to read.

It was seldom cold enough for him to need it, so it never saw much wear. It still looked new when I opened a box today, marked baby clothes. The worst though, was the little stuffed-tiger headed slippers I'd wrapped in a plastic bag -- long forgotten that I'd done it, kids size 5-6; I nearly doubled over. I sat down and dumped the whole box out onto the bed, wanting to get it all over with at once, like ripping off an enormous bandaid.

Time goes by for all of us. Everything changes. The baby is gone, no matter what happens to the man. I buttoned together a little onesie, and realized I will never do this for my own child again. I'm fifty. That part of my life is over. How do I let go of it? Long before anything had happened to Jesse, just after my new husband told me that he'd changed his mind, and didn't want to have a child with me (despite what he'd said repeatedly when we were dating, when I asked, when I told him that's what I wanted)I told him, if I lose one of them, I'm going to have another. I must have had some idea. Maybe just knew that I don't get to go through life unscathed. No Hail Mary pass gets me safely to the future. That's never been the life I had.

If I were to write a play about this, act two of my life with Jesse would have begun with the phone ringing on June 10, 2004. "Mom, don't freak out.... I have leukemia."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whom can I tell?

About riding down 5th avenue with you on the bus, when you were only 3 or so and no little brother, a winter morning and we're going early to your little program you loved so much, and the sun is just breaking over the street and you say, "Mommy, what's that yellow stuff on the street" and I say, "It's the sun honey" and you make a disgusted face and say, "I don't like it."

Or when you were 2 almost 3 and we're walking away from the library toward the park and it's early spring and you point up at the gingkos and say, "Mommy, what's that green stuff all over the tree" and I say, those are baby leaves and you say "I don't like it." And I laugh, but not too loud and tell you that it means the weather will get warmer and you say, "oh, ok."

Whom can I tell these little stories of your childhood that tell me so much about the person you would become. Mothers need their children to grow up just for this reason, but not you. You leave me again. I don't know how I will ever find you in this vast dark universe.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Benefit, for Jesse, for LLS

Peachy Ciucur is throwing a Leukemia-Lymphoma Society benefit on Friday. In a sense, Jesse will be the guest of honor. Last year, she rode with his photo silkscreened onto her racing shirt, and she won the silver. She told me, this year we're going to win the gold. She means, she and Jesse; she wants him to have the gold. I think Jesse would have been all for it.

She asked me to make a poster of Jesse, to hang at the entrance where she takes donations; but he seldom let us take his picture at all, much less a professional shot we could blow up. And I can't bring myself to keep using his senior high school picture-- it's nice, but solemn and stiff. You can tell he didn't like having to sit for it. Jesse wasn't one to sit still for much.

So I made a poster, a collage of snapshots we'd taken through his life, starting with his birth, and ending with a party photo one of his friends sent me, from one of the Christmas parties he'd gone to, just a couple of weeks before he ended up in Sloan Kettering. It wasn't as painful as I thought it would be, to sift through all the boxes and books of pictures. It's hard to look at the thing now that it's finished.

She just sent me the location and time today:

Friday, October 3rd @ 6pm
Location: The Irish Rogue
356 West 44th Street(Between 8 & 9AVE
New York, NY

Minimum donation suggested of $30.00
or you could donate in advance @

Sometimes, I just have to stop, and sit back and realize that in some way Jesse has found a way to inspire others to help those in need, even after his passing. I hadn't realized how much he inspired his friends, until they all took turns speaking at his funeral, and I'm sure I'll never know how many lives he's touched, with his own words, and now through them, and people like Peach.

I'm not asking you to donate (although it'd be great), all I'm saying is, think about who you are in the world, and what you can do, even if it's a little thing, and do it. Let a little Jesse into your life. You'll be surprised how one act of support and care (even if it's like Jesse's personal brand of smart-assed coaxing and cajoling) can ripple through your life and the lives of those you love.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eyes Open.

Jesse used to sleep with his eyes open sometimes. We were living in a shotgun flat in Chelsea. He and his brother had the long narrow bedroom that led to the bathroom. I'd pass them in the night and Jesse would be lying there, as if staring up to the ceiling, seeing nothing. Just sleeping. I would close his eyes for him, because I was afraid they'd dry out like that. I'd walk back from the bathroom and they'd be open again.

What was he dreaming about? What did he see? He hated that I'd moved out of the loft he and his brother were born in. He would argue with me when he was at this new little apartment. It wasn't big enough. He didn't have enough toys, clothes, games. He missed his dog. He wanted to go home. I know he had no idea how this lacerated me, all of it. His father did, and I could read his imprint on all of Jesse's criticisms and unhappiness. I knew his turn of a phrase. But Jesse was just being a boy, miserable because everything he knew had been turned upside down and he couldn't understand why, only that I was the one who did it.

But you know, I was happy then. Not because he was miserable, but because now I was free, and if enough time could only pass, he would see that it was better this way. HIs father would calm down and stop feeding him this bitterness. I can't even bring myself now to say what happened in that loft that drove me out, but the only witness left in the world alive from those days is Jesse's little brother, and he was too young to understand or remember any of it. He wasn't even old enough to be upset at the split. He thought it was fun to have two houses at first. At least until their father realized how much mileage he could get out of making him unhappy too. I don't think my younger son sees it that way. I don't want to change his mind. It's better for him not to know or believe what I saw, what everyone who knew us saw happening. And what difference would it make? Proving I was right? For what? His father is gone. Jesse is gone. Even the dog is gone. All that's left of that life is my only remaining son, and me. And I will protect us at any cost.

There were people who saw a little of the drama. My sister. She testified in court. My mother. Family friends. People at the school. Jesse and his brother's friends, their families. I don't know why I'm talking about it today, except to make a little bookmark in history, to help you find this spot where the book of my life naturally falls open, because it's been pored over so many times. How I could have handled it better. How I could have left sooner, and gone farther, how I could have saved Jesse if only I had done this or that. And I don't even mean, saved him from dying. I mean, saved his heart from what he suffered from the time he was only seven or eight, when things started getting bad. I would go back to that time, and pluck us all up and away from there if I could, but how could I know how things would work? I didn't believe it at the time. I thought going slow, building a plan, an exit, a safe way out was the right thing. I didn't know how little time we had.

And still, I'll wake up in the middle of the night here, back in that loft where both boys were born, but safe now, because we tore out everything their father had built, tore out even the walls and bathrooms, tore it bare to the shell of the building itself, and rebuilt everything. I put up new walls, new bathrooms, new kitchens, with my own bare hands. We even stripped and sanded the floors down to bare wood, stripped them on our knees, and brushed away every trace of their father I could remove.

And I'll wake up in the dark in this reborn loft, and I'll remember Jesse's eyes wide open in sleep. Remember how I used to cry when I sang him lullabies when he was a baby. I must have known, somehow. I dreamed of losing him again and again, from the time he was born. Terrible dreams about disasters I couldn't save him from. How can I say I didn't know? Something in me knew I wasn't going to be lucky enough to keep this child. Who saved my life just by being born. Without whom his little brother never would have been. Whom I saved. I can't even say the words. I don't want you to know what his father wanted at first.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Again, just like that day.

Did you notice, New York? The weather was exactly the same. Where were we? At this time, I was trying to find my children. Funny how, in those moments when you fear for their lives, you really don't believe you have lost them. But it's not until you actually lose one that you know that you never believed it before. You're scared, sure. You're terrified. But nothing ever approaches this.

I've been trying to understand for myself, what it means, life and death. We can't call our dead and make sure they're ok (I wonder how that felt for nomads, when a son broke off from the tribe, you never knew what happened to him, just like death, even though he could have been fine, raised a family, thrived-- no way to call, check in, visit once in a while). That magic hellhole in the park, the playground, when I walked by on the way back from work, talking to my sister, thinking, if only I could call Jesse like this. Thinking how jealous I was of everyone around me with children they could talk to. Feeling sorry for myself for a moment, then snapping back. Jesse wondered about the other side too. Enough that the only dream he ever wrote down was of his father, coming back to tell us there was in fact, another side. (Which, in keeping with his father's personality, you could apparently reach by bicycle through our front window if you pedaled fast enough.)

What if my sorrow is what the Buddhists say, an illusion? The desire to have Jesse back, an illusion? The difference between us, an illusion? I don't quite believe that either: empathy can't exist if individuality is an illusion.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The 9-11 of it all

Never fails.

This morning it occurred to me that Sarah Palin was really just a shiny bow and wrappings on the same old package. I really like her, although I couldn't agree with her less about a lot of issues. I could see getting along with her anyway. But people, imagine John McCain's health fails him in October. Do you really believe the Republicans would run her as their presidential nominee for the rest of the month? I can't imagine it.

It was pretty easy for her to take shots at Obama and the Dems in general. After all, she's in the duck blind here. They're the ones out in the open. We know all about the two of them, and we know almost nothing about her. In fact, every time the media, or anyone tries to dig into her life story or deviate from the Republican version, they cry sexism. They make up stories about "Obama-Biden Democrats" making slurs, yet whose names they can't seem to come up with when pressed. Yeah, she's a good hunter. A sniper. For now. As Obama pointed out on 60 Minutes last week, she's complaining about the snooping and nastiness she's getting now about her personal life, and it's only been a week or so. Look what he's been getting for the last year and a half.

Her speech really didn't reveal as much about her as it could have. I didn't hear her speak about a couple of her supposedly strongest beliefs last night, the pro life issue, her belief that the Iraq war is a mission from God, that Bush's foes are going to hell; that creationism should be taught in the schools; but she ws pretty clear that she wasn't going to stand up to international oil conglomerates who want to drill up every inch of our country and sell our oil resources to China or the highest bidder on the open market. I heard her talk about McCain's suffering at the hands of his torturers, but I didn't hear her speak out against torture. Or for the Constitution. Or for checks and balances in government. Or against the imperial presidency.

I heard her belittle Barack Obama's, and by extension, every grassroots organizer's work and yes, responsibilities to the people they serve in poor communities-- and these are Christian organizations he, and others like him, worked and work in. She sold them down the river for the sake of a political point.These are the thousand points of light, the faith based initiatives that the Republicans say are better than governments at serving the needy. Yet she thinks she's superior to those folks who give of themselves for the poorest of us?

I didn't hear her admit that she was all for the bridge to nowhere until it became unfavorable in Congress, then, when it became clear it wouldn't pass, and Stevens was in trouble, she was all against it. But that is in fact the chronology. I didn't hear her admit that she went to Washington herself, lobbying for her own earmarks for Alaska. But she did, and got them by the tens of millions.

On the other hand,I didn't hear her claim 9-11 for the Republican party, and try to make it a political trophy. She alluded to the war, and McCain's experience (although frankly, a fighter pilot is not a general). But I respected that she didn't try to shove the images of our burning cities in our faces, and threaten us with more of the same if we didn't vote for her man.

Oh no. She didn't have to. The RNC did it for her just a little while ago. And the voice-over, smarmily saying, "we all remember where we were on that day."

Fuck you, whoever you are. I was there, on Fifth Avenue, right after dropping my kids off at school, watching helplessly with thousands of my fellow New Yorkers. I was there, frantically trying to find my children in the ensuing chaos. I didn't see Jesse till the next day because they cut off the bridges and public transportation, so he was stuck in the Bronx overnight. My friends were in DC, evacuating federal buildings where they had served America most of their adult lives because no one knew what would be hit next.

And we New Yorkers were there for months afterwards as the photos went up and the body count mounted and the burning and the digging and the praying and the mourning continued. And you don't get to call dibs on what happened to us.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Remember. (from the Tibetan Book of the Dead)

0 nobly-born, the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path [in reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself, and abide in that state. I, too, at this time, am setting thee face to face.

After the expiration hath completely ceased, press the nerves of sleep firmly; and, a lama, or a person higher or more learned than thyself, impress in these words, thus:

now that thou art experiencing the Fundamental Clear Light, try to abide in that state which now thou art experiencing.

Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. 0 nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.

Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha.

Thine own consciousness, not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect, shining and blissful--these two--are inseparable. The union of them is the Dharma-Kaya state of Perfect Enlightenment.

Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light-Buddha Amitabha.

Knowing this is sufficient. Recognizing the voidness of thine own intellect to be Buddhahood, and looking upon it as being thine own consciousness, is to keep thyself in the divine mind of the Buddha.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sing it.

As I was walking through the park I got a quick memory of Jesse smiling that little turned up corner smile he had, then him laughing when he was little. God that hurt. After that movie, brave one, where she’s telling her husband to talk to her, it’s easy to identify with that. I was saying to Jesse last night, kind of knowing how futile it is. Talk to me. And then this morning kind of mentally chiding him to help me find my card (it’s a family habit to nag the dead about things like that).

Kept hearing these background singers in the park (in my head) going
Sing it sing it sing it

But I couldn’t remember the song. I couldn’t stop hearing them either. So I tried to let it “play out” as I stood on the platform, nah. Nothing. Think of other things. I could hear the strings, a little, the voices swelling, a little insistent. Wait endlessly for train. I’m late.
Sing it sing it sing it
Then I get a train, the 6.
Sing it sing it sing it
And I sit down, and go through my bag, hoping to find my card. Noticed that my sweater had a stain on it (brand new, now I have to throw it out). And then

Some day, we’ll be together
Yes we will yes we will oh yes we will.

Goddamn I’ve been crying all morning.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Thinking about loss

I’ve spent a lot of my rumination time lately, trying to figure out the difference between missing Jesse and missing something in myself. I think of my kids’ childhoods the way some people think of their high school days. I can’t say those days were perfect—I wouldn’t have left their father if they had been even close to okay most of the time. But I can say that the time with my kids was as close to perfect as I could hope for. They were both the kind of boys people love to be with. Rough and sweet, athletic but gentle, loving, smart, funny, tough, a little smart alecky. They could be pains in the ass. I could come home and find mysterious divots in the furniture that defied my investigations. Jesse had a streak of bully, his brother a bit of trickster. But they were beautiful inside and out and it was more than I thought I’d ever get from life. I guess that made those days that much more amazing. And the loss of them that much harder to bear.
So I would be mourning that shining moment of my life, no matter where Jesse and his brother’s lives took them. That’s a thread. Another is that Jesse was angry with me for leaving his father. He pulled further and further away from me as he got older, from around age 11 to 13. So that by the time he finished 6th grade he moved out to live with his dad. He refused to come to my house. In 7th grade, I would sneak over to his school just to catch a peek at him, spend a few minutes while he glared at me and told me to leave him alone. He hated it—it was all I had. I’m trying not to blame his father for all of this, but there wasn’t any question in the court’s mind: the judge, the court psychiatrist, they knew what was going on, but there really wasn’t anything anyone could do. That is the closest I felt to what I feel right now. That I had lost him, but worse, that he hated me and believed horrible, untrue things about me that I couldn’t defend myself from. But at least I believed that somehow I could win him back. It’s not as if I had a choice. If I thought I could get him back from the dead right now, I’d do that, too. Motherhood is a form of insanity.
What changed it? Jesse ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. His father, unaccountably, refused to visit him there. His father’s comment was, “that’s what your mother does.” He couldn’t be bothered, was what it sounded like. After all he’d done to tear Jesse away from me.
I didn’t care. It was my chance. I stayed there for days by his side. He couldn’t leave. If he didn’t want to talk to me he could click his dosage button for morphine and fall asleep. He did that. Mostly though we slipped back into what used to be good between us. It was a tiny break in the wall. Within 6 months he was making excuses to come to my house for dinner. You know how hard it is to start a fire sometimes, and when you get it going, you nurse that little puff of smoke and spark, and hope to God it doesn’t die, but all your attention is on it? Well.
And now, the fire has gone out for good.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What I've been thinking lately

That we're each a bag of organized cells spewing molecules. That we call one of the floods of these molecules love, another hate, and so on, and affix them to something outside us.

Some of us see that each of us carries a reality inside, some of us think there is only one reality, our own inner one, that the rest of these bags of organized cells are somehow secondary. There are subcategories of these theories of self and other. I know.

What you call your "self" and I call "you" or say, even "me" changes all the time. The baby that you were that your mother loved or didn't no longer exists but to everyone who loved that baby, in our heads, there you still are, so far away and yet just behind our eyes. Like the dead.

You could get struck by lightning you know, say right in the prefrontal cortex and then you would suddenly not be the you you had been just a moment before. Never again. Or a stroke, a hemorrhage. Anything could change you. An epiphany. Trauma. And where would your love and hate be then? Who would love you or know you? What would you know?

So how does love work if it's a hormonal reaction, some function of the brain, some kind of communication among glands and neurons, an evolutionary mechanism that keeps the species propagating? Why do we believe we love a specific person, when we can't ever really know who that person is, or who we are?

Because you don't, really. All you know is what your chemicals tell you. And they're not always so honest or shall I say clear about their intent.

Five senses, five. They send signals endlessly, even when you sleep. You think that you are, outside these signals, but how do you know, because you are never outside them. They are you. Change them and you change. That's the lesson of medication. Why do you believe that the process of selfness will go on in some way after you are dead? Why do you believe in the retention of self? After all the glands and neurons cease their endless chatter what will run you? How will you love and hate? Where will you be, besides just behind our eyes before sleep?

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Last week as I was coming home from work I saw a half-naked older man getting CPR in the park. You could see the tremendous effort it took the EMS guy to thump his chest, by the waves of flesh that followed every move. You could also see the effort was going to be futile. It was hard to walk by even though I knew the cops were shooing us lay folk away: not because I wanted to see what was happening, I saw plenty already. It's the girl scout in me. I don't have the strength to move the ribcage of a guy that size, but it still feels wrong somehow, to keep walking.

I know damn well we were on the methadone side of the park, and the guy spent the last decades of his life putting himself under that EMS's hands on the dirty pavers, but somehow the thought of his soul parting his body as I walked by just wrenched me into tears. On the other side, the family-and-dogs side, a short walk from the dead man and his attendants, were a group of folks under a tree, doing some kind of tai chi thing and making these laughing sounds, and at first I wanted to tell them to shut up and respect the dead. But I realized, aren't we all, always, on one side of the park or the other? The business of living well or poorly is intimately pressed against the undignified business of dying.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


We were driving to the only really nice restaurant in St John USVI, around sunset. St John is mostly a national park, and the roads are mostly dark and windy and narrow. You're best off renting a jeep, if you visit. One stretch of cliffhanger passes above the little shack where Robert Oppenheimer passed his last days. It belongs to the people of St John now, and apparently a good number of them had just finished a loud party there (I know, because we'd tried to snorkel the bay in front of the shack earlier, and the music was so loud the fish had fled the coral). As we passed the exit a busload of kids flew past us, showering us with frozen drinks. Followed by cars, jeeps and pickup trucks full of overly cheerful folks barely navigating the barely two-lane road, its left shoulder the mountain, its right the cliffs overlooking Gibney Beach. If you look at the photo in this last link you can see the cut in the trees made by this little road.

We lost our sense of humor about their careening escapades at about the fourth hairpin turn, when a red pickup truck passed us, forcing Mr. Nomist to a near stop in the middle of traffic, followed by a leapfrogging little white jeep.

I've been a little leery of my stepdaughter's, um, focus skills, especially now that she's old enough to drive. Wanting to make sure she understands how dangerous driving can be, and how to drive defensively, I turned to both our teenagers and said, "This is the time when you need to slow down and let the other drivers get ahead of you as much as they want, because they're about to cause an accident."

My son agreed. He mentioned a previous incident we'd seen on a highway in Vermont that had ended with the driver being ticketed. The jeep and the truck were playing the same game, a weaving race through traffic, only this time it was dark, and there weren't many places to dodge.

By the time I turned back around, the little white jeep had gone over the cliff and gotten caught in a tree. She'd hit another car, bounced across oncoming traffic, and flipped sideways, fortunately stopped by a dense stand of trees. All the former party goers were now standing in (and blocking) the road, staring at the wreck, doing nothing. Or doing things, just in that unbearably slow post-wreck time speed that feels like nothing.

My husband, knowing me, tells me over and over, don't get out of the car, don't get out of the car. At first I listen, trying to accept his logic. Then I realize everyone else out on the street is at least half drunk or injured in the wreck. There is no cop, no ambulance. No lucky doctor in the crowd, just me with first aid training. So my hand opens the door and I hop out in my nice dress and over to the embankment.

She's young, slender, wide eyed, standing next to her rotated car, her arms folded over her pristine white and gold Cleopatra pantsuit. She's fine. Just a little chilly. "Is there anyone else in the car?" I ask her. No. "Do you want help getting out?" No. I take that to mean, not from me, anyway, and it's all I need to hear. I get back in the car.

I turn to my stepdaughter. "You notice how we all saw what those drivers were doing, and said to back off because they were going to cause an accident?"

"No," she said, "I wasn't paying attention."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Negotiating the ineffable.

On my way to work I still pass the park and think of Jesse. It's painful, but I do it anyway. I can't fully explain why. At any rate, it occurred to me today that it's not him, not the loss of him that keeps beckoning me toward the abyss. It's something else, something terrible; his image is only a lure. Whatever he may have wished for me in his short life, it's not that.

Later, after mentioning this to a friend, I remembered something else, a little takeaway from Freud and the Tibetan Bhuddists. Freud says that the elements of your dreams are all you. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that all the monstrous deities you battle after death, are illusions, that these are really battles with yourself. The abyss then, is not only within me. It is me. I am this abyss.

And this is what I must navigate in order to pass onward.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This corny song I wrote for Jesse.

I hate these corny songs
That make everybody cry
So I don’t have any excuse for this one
It’s just been so hard
since you’ve been gone--

So I try to see you near me
I try to feel you near me
I try to know you’re near me
I try to see you everywhere.

I was walking in the park
Last night and everywhere I looked
I saw a little bit of you
In every face that passed me by

I saw the children you could have had
I saw the child that you once were
I saw the father you’d have been
I saw you old, and slow and grey

And I could feel you near me
I could see you near me
I could hear you near me
And I
Saw you everywhere.

I went off the pills
And in my head I heard this song
And there’s so much I want to say
And hear from you, I’ll never hear you

But I
feel you near me
I feel you near me
And I
I see you everywhere.

I want to tell you
about your brother and your friends
They’re all doing well
And when I see them it’s a little gift
A gift from you, a bit of you.

That’s when we feel you near us
We feel you near us
And we
See you everywhere.

This last verse is hard
Too much like saying goodbye again
Feeling your heart stop
Under my hand

So I'll pretend you're near me
I'll pretend I hear you
I'll pretend you're near me
And I'll see you everywhere.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

We’ve lost another family member this week: Mr. Nomist's uncle passed away. He’s in Austin now with his cousins and aunt. They’re doing as can be expected. Uncle Kenny served in the Navy in World War II, then worked as one of the investigators during the Nuremberg trials. During his time there he adopted two German children from Nuremberg orphanages, brought them home and raised them to be good ol Texans. At any given family gathering you'd see Kenny in his tam o'shanter, a bagpiper in a kilt, and the rest of us circling with 'gars, beers, single malt, chili and queso. There were never many like Kenny, and the world is a smaller place without him.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Father's Day 2008

I found a picture of my father
from 1968
the year before he pulled over the car with all of us in it
on the side of the road somewhere in Michigan in July
the first VACANT sign he could find
he rented a room and piled us in, all five of us and two beds but most important a tv affixed to the wall above the cheap dresser so we could see
the giant leap for mankind.

In the photo he is thirty five; gazing into the soul of the lens as if he knew its depths
he didn't know
In eleven years he'd be dead
with me by his side begging him not to.

For Fathers' day I went out and bought a frame for that photo, black with a white matte, now he gazes at me with that same concentration, amused, disappointed a little, curious even now that he may have missed something deep in there. At nine o'clock
I watched two hours of NASA footage
Moon launches and landings like we never could have seen, from NASA's vault, my father's dream of a perfect Sunday night with us.
Astronauts and engineers together through life and fear and death and failure. And victory. And always a new abyss beyond that now plumbed.

Who could look away from Neil Armstrong, except to see my father transfixed as we were. Except to see the moon had not changed for the men now on it? Now, my father said, there really is a man in the moon.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Morality. Neurology. Nature.

Three admissions: I am a third generation nerd, (which isn't to say I am either ambitious or good at it). This takes my mind off losing Grandpa Milt. I ended up at the Neuro Morality lecture last night, part of the first World Science festival.

I don't know why I was expecting something a little more edgy. The audience was mostly retirees looking to keep their brains moving. I wanted to hear about the grammar and syntax of morality as articulated across species, culminating in its most complex form, ours (speciesist that i am) but was thwarted.But mostly what I got was philosophy and some pretty standard pre-DSM-IV psychology. Hume vs Kant, according to Antonio Damasio ought to be more properly expressed as Hume x Kant. Not an original argument in the social sciences.

When Marc Hauser trotted out the old "sex with a chicken in the privacy of your home" moral conundrum, protests broke out, and not for the sake of the chicken alone. Moderator Jon Meacham questioned Harvard's wisdom in his tenure.

Admittedly some interesting conversation about what constitutes morality to a neuroscientist (or in Pat Churchland's case, a neurophilosopher). No one took up the contention that morality is just a bunch of stupid rules we've been saddled with; on the contrary, Pat proffered the opinion that morality is a subset of social behaviors; Tony threw in reward and punishment (he stepped back from that later), and Dan Dennett got closest to the traditional with the idea of "oughts." Marc countered that the brain distinguished moral decisions from others in some way (re-igniting the chicken controversy), accessing those "oughts" in choosing behaviors. Ultimately though, the group saw morality as a more fluid thing -- something akin to my argument that morality is a landscape, not a list.

Tony disgreed with Marc about the special nature of moral decisions: the brain doesn't know and doesn't need to know which decisions are "moral"; it just operates on moral decisions, like any other, reinforcing Pat's social-decision theory. To him morality springs from a universal primitive value: the management of life, survival of individual and group, and ought to be changeable as circumstances dictate. Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People came to mind: no good truth lasts more than say, 20 years.

The idea of needing God for morality to exist in an individual or society was pretty much laughed out of the auditorium by all. Pat offered examples of moral societies that didn't believe in gods at all (animists, Buddhists, ancestor worshippers etc), and went on to delineate animal societies and their rudimentary moralities (she favored birds in this, but found the moral nature of voles particularly intriguing-- apparently you can turn your formerly faithful male prairie voles promiscuous by adjusting vasopressin & its receptors in his tiny brain and end up with a de facto slutty male montane vole--must apply for NIMH grant to study this in governors).

That's not to say they didn't have nice things to say about religions, "a creative way of developing a [moral] system." That had mostly outlived their usefulness. Dennett gave the example of slavery, so popular in the old testament. It's not necessary to have religious revelations about slavery, Dennett pointed out, we can reason our way out, communally. He seems to believe there's a universal morality out there waiting to be reasoned toward; which feels so fin de siecle I almost want to pat him on the bald pate.

Meacham made a comment about reasoning vs. "irrational" emotion in moral choices, but Mark slapped him down (probably still mad about the tenure remark). Emotions, he said, play a significant role in moral psychology. They're not irrational. They fuel us to do adaptively reasonable things. Sometimes the reflexive adaptive behavior is no longer useful, but that doesn't mean they're irrational, just no longer necessary in an evolutionary sense.

Meacham also got a dig from Tony for all of science writing (which criticism rightly should have gone to say, a human nature columnist who will go unnamed herein): the catchy headlines are freaking lay folk out for no good reason. (I sensed a moral rule being invoked). It was a way of setting ground rules, I guess for the rest of this discussion.

Finally Damasio ponied up about psychopathy: there's an area of the prefrontal lobe that, if absent or dysfunctional at an early age, causes an inability to develop moral function. The child can reason, develop language, understand and follow rules, but cannot use emotional reasoning. The social emotions that govern moral action are not present.

What are the social emotions? Guilt, embarrassment, and shame are deployed, he says, when we detect a violation of a moral or aesthetic rule. We in essence punish ourselves, take corrective action, in relation to our social group to benefit ourselves and the group (in other words to reinforce the rule if nothing else). Contempt, disgust, or blaming of someone else for breaking a rule, is an emotional act that intends the other person to adjust their behavior. Compassion/empathy invokes the primary moral value (see above) and admiration, which he says has no precursor in nonhumans, means to manifest appreciation for another's moral deed, in order to reinforce it (I'll withhold my opinion here, but I'm no behaviorist).

The point however, is that when these social/moral emotions are missing, the person is in effect a psychopath (no one in the group is a psychologist, and they enjoyed poking fun at Carol Gilligan, so bear with me), but this structure's function alone does not explain, define or fully predict the phenomenon we'll call psychopathy. It's not that (as Gilligan's work may indicate to some readers) some hormone or other chemical like testosterone is over influencing behavior, or that some brain structure is different here or there: it's the interplay between the two under the control of the life of the individual over time, and the interactions are far too complicated for anyone in the sciences to say there's a "center" or a "chemical" that can be pinpointed as the seat of morality. In other words, said Tony, there's no such thing as nature vs. nurture.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Being an angel to an angel.

We lost Milt last night. His last words to me (on Friday) were "You're an angel." Because he found out I had been hitting his morphine button for him every 10 minutes for 4 hours when the nurse didn't show up. He'd been in pain all morning and no one had helped him except one of his sons had put a pillow under his lower back to ease that, but as soon as he left, the attendants pulled it out and wouldn't put it back. They said they'd bring him pain meds and never came back. When I got there at 430, they'd left the button dangling on the floor instead of where he could reach it, and his hands were too swollen to press the call button. Oh, and his vocal chords were removed a few years ago, so he couldn't tell them over the speaker what he needed.

I realized last night after his youngest called us to give us the news, that I had never had a chance to thank him for putting Jesse's little brother in his will (he had told me years ago that he wasn't going to and I said that was fine with us as long as he kept hanging out with us, because all we cared about was his company). He gave him 25% of his upper west side co-op. I'm astonished. I guess I didn't want him to think that's why I was going up there every day.

It's been a tough few weeks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day Two

Yesterday I thought Milt had just entered the hospital that morning, since that's when we got the call from his son, my ex-step brother-in-law. But he's been there since Saturday. I felt a little irked that no one had called me sooner, but that's how it is with ex-step-families, I guess. He'd already moved from a regular, semi-private room to a pre-ICU room, with ICU-style monitors and a nurse right there in the room 24 hours a day. He told us that in the semi-private room, he'd suffered from some kind of panic attack. He couldn't catch his breath, and the nurses didn't respond to his panic button. So he lay there gasping, he said, drowning. "I never want to go through that experience again," he told us, and he meant it literally.

This room has an expansive view of the East River, which is more a benefit to his visitors since Milt's bed, though right near the window, faces toward the city he's lived in for the last 6 decades.

Milt was glad to see us, and pretty perky considering. He rubbed his unshaven face and apologized. The razor, he said, was too heavy. I'd offer to give him a shave today, but I've never done that for another person in my life. You'd think the nurses would know how to do this. Milt's voice is gone, all he can do is whisper, but we're used to this. He lost a good deal of his vocal cords to cancer a few years ago. When the nurse leans over him to fuss with his catheter, he says/whispers, "isn't she beautiful" to me. She smiles shyly. Later he tells me, "see, that's how I get extra attention." I think she's on to him, though.

Talking wears him out, but he can't stop when we're there. He tells us about a book he read in the library of his apartment complex. I want to figure out who the author is (Sarah somebody, he says), and get him one of her works he hasn't read yet. Only I'm not sure which ones he's read. He tells me he's in love with her writing style. Detective novels. The detective is Jewish, but didn't know he was (because of an adoption mixup). I'm sure I can find it all but maybe not in time. I'd like to be able to read him the next one in the series. So he won't have to talk.

He was having trouble lifting his spoon, too, so I fed him his dinner. Hated the fish. Loved the cherry jello. I promised to come back today to feed him jello again. It's a pleasure to find a way to help him, after all the kindnesses he's shown me in the last 30 years.

My son and husband leave to let Milt rest. He motions me toward him and tells me when -- if -- he ever leaves this place, I have to go to his apartment with him immediately, because he has something to give me. "It's not a fortune," he says. Just what he's put away in cash for my son, and the two step-grandkids who live in upstate New York. The three of them are his late wife's only grandchildren, and of them, only Jody is her blood relative. But for Milt, they are all his, too. It throws me for a second, though. Haven't they told him he's not getting out of here? I tell him, don't worry, I'm sure one of the boys (his sons) can do it.

"Oh no," he says. "I don't want them to know I have that kind of cash lying around."

Which means he doesn't realize that they won't be getting mad at him for things like that ever again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Saying goodbye to Grandpa Milt

Grandpa Milt has just entered the hospital for the last time. We've known this day would come. He was diagnosed with lung cancer around the same time Jesse relapsed with leukemia. But the last time I saw Milt was at his 90th birthday a couple of weeks ago. He was still getting around on his own, no oxygen tank yet, no cane: we danced together to Beyond the Sea, then the belly dancer cut in and did something with a sword balanced on her head. Women were always one-upping each other around him.

Milt's not our blood relative; he was my late ex-husband's stepfather. So when people ask us how we're related, it can be difficult to explain. We usually settled on ex-step-in-laws, with a laugh. He was the only grandpa my kids really knew: he took them fishing, and taught them how to build wooden toys and paint them. He smoked cigars from Ya Mother's Cigar Store. He had a summer place that he'd renovated and maintained himself, on a lake, with a paddle ball court and a dock and a row boat, and a little tool shop out back. His other hobby, besides being an unrepentant flirt, was restoring antique clocks. So you'd be napping in the summer place, a fire crackling softly in the iron stove and suddenly you're jerked awake by every possible clock sound known to man. That is, if you forgot to stop the pendulums of the two dozen or so active antiques he had on the walls. And the grandfather clock. And the cuckoos in the dining room.

He's a real Jewish farm boy: brought up near Liberty New York on a sprawling few hundred acres, back when folks still traveled by horse and cart up there. He joined the Navy to see the world, and ended up in Indianapolis during WWII, right when my dad was busy growing up just 40 miles SW of town. They could easily have crossed paths more than once.

He once asked my youngest sister to run away with him to Spain. Another time, he asked out an entire table of Southern ladies moored at our friends' Turkish place on the Upper West Side. They each gave him a kiss. We used to take him to dinner about once a month, for the pure joy of seeing a man in his eighties who lived harder than most men half his age.

He's a Commie even now. If you were sitting with him, over at the hospital right now, and brought it up, I guarantee you he'd enjoy nothing more than arguing with you about it. His wife was the daughter of one of the office holders of the CWP.

I'm glad he gets to check out with all his faculties intact. It feels more like we're losing him, this way, but at least he gets to wring these last moments out of life. I'm going to head up there in a few hours to send him off with the rest of his family. My ex-step-in-laws. I'm glad they understand how much he means to us.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Secrets, mysteries, embarrassing crap

The first time I lost Jesse was when I left his dad. I don't think Jesse ever really forgave me for that, even when he found out why I left. I don't mean that there was any secret, just that his dad finally started treating Jesse the way he'd treated me. I didn't know what was wrong with his father. I just knew I couldn't tolerate it any more. Nothing I said or did changed anything. I never knew, when I came home back then, who would be there: was it the nice Jaimie, the loving one? Or the jealous, angry, irrational one who believed that the only reason offices existed was so people could cheat. Who would berate me for not getting a full time job when he refused to work, then berated me for being gone at work when I should be home with the kids. Of course he still wasn't working. I could go on with the litany. Throwing a chair at me. Throwing newspapers, whatever was handy. Shaking me so hard my contacts flew out and bruises in the shape of his fingertips formed on my arms. If I showed them to him, he'd laugh and say I bruised too easy.

And yet, when I decided to leave, I didn't believe he'd use the boys against me.

Years later, when he was 18 and his father had disowned him for no real cause, Jesse told me I should have sucked it up and stayed, because I was a mother and that was my job. I wonder if he ever realized what he was saying. I tried to explain. I tried to apologize for all the stupid things I did wrong when I was trying to escape with him and his brother, and failed. Failed him. But all he wanted was for me to say I was wrong to leave his dad, and I could never say that. I told him so. I wish that had been enough for both of us. A beginning of forgiveness. All I've wished for since is his forgiveness. Can the dead forgive?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cherished threads

I've got some of the conversations sorted out, between Jesse and various friends. I know, it's not really right to peer into his relationships this way. But it comforts me, and while I apologize to any of you who texted him in the last six months of his life, I want you to know that you make me love him and see him better through your exchanges. I won't post the convos, but just want to say that I feel I know each of you better, too, and that if ever you need it, I'm here to talk or just shoot the breeze. You know where he lived, you can find me there any time. It would give me a lot of comfort to meet each of you, to know how your lives are going, your stories about Jesse, or just to hear the voices of the people who loved him. I feel that Jesse has given each of you a terrible and important gift, in the process of his life and death. I hope you each learn how to bear it, and learn from it, and I hope you all lean on each other when you need to, as you navigate your lives. And if there is anything I can do to make the burden a little easier, the grace more apparent, please. You'd be helping me, too.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Lately I've been moving Jesse's text messages off his old phone and onto my email. I try to keep the received and sent ones in order, so I can see the conversation form as I forward each line of dialog. It feels very intimate and distant at the same time, like archeology, maybe. As if I can almost see him passing by the places where he no longer is.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Yesterday, I read an article in the Science Times by Hariet Brown, about her daughters' brushes with severe, life-threatening illnesses. It wasn't a terrible article, but the second line nearly drove me to distraction: "But there is another [sorrow] that approaches [that of losin g a child], and that, paradoxically, is grief averted — the grief of the narrow escape when a child comes close to death but survives." The rest of the article goes on to describe her experience and that of other parents who've had strong emotional reactions after their children were desperately ill-- even though the children had all recovered.

At first I felt pity for Ms. Brown because I know it's terribly painful to go through such a traumatic experience, I understand it, I was there with my son’s first round of leukemia. I think it’s important to light this landscape of parental suffering so that others who experience it can realize they are not alone.

I don't like the emotional math: no one can say x is equivalent to y type of suffering, you can't be precise about what each of us feel. And I shouldn't apply it here, myself. But this is exactly what Brown is doing in saying that grief about near-death approaches the grief of losing a child forever. Are you kidding me? You who have faced near-loss wake up every morning and see your child alive. Mine dies again every morning, when I wake up and he is gone. I don't doubt that there are many people all over the world who suffer more than I do, who have been through more, seen worse, lost more: but I'm not the one saying my grief approaches theirs. I wouldn't dare.

I struggled for the last 24 hours over how to cope with Ms. Brown’s article. Should I graciously say nothing, or respond for my own sake, out of my own pain? Which choice would help me put away the anxiety and anger I felt? What would my son have done? I want to embrace Ms. Brown’s suffering as others have mine. But Dear God! I would do anything on earth to be in her shoes rather than mine. Just for a day, an hour. Five minutes. I hope Ms. Brown and her friends who have been through near-loss of their children seek help for their emotional pain. But I can’t imagine that belittling mine could help her in the least, and it has affected me more deeply than I imagined it might.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What it takes.

If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving forward.


Life is totally about losing everything.
--Michael Tyson

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sunny Hills in Springtime

Spring is a little sad to me, even when I convince myself that Jesse is still in my heart, enjoying it with me. I try to walk through at least one sunny park a day, and really listen to the birds singing and children laughing in the playground. It almost works, except for that one special laugh I will never hear again.

Yesterday was Jesse's grandfather Milt's 90th birthday party. He has inoperable lung cancer, has had it for over a year now, but he still gets around ok. We danced together to Beyond the Sea (one of my favorite songs, he whispered to me), not long before the belly dancer showed up to wriggle and dip and get Milt's youngest great granddaughters out on the floor, awed by spangles, trying to approximate her hips. The party was at his sons' art gallery, and all the extended family, and quite a few friends showed up, some of whom I hadn't seen in decades. I've stayed close to my ex's family, mostly because they're kind and supportive, and don't ask too much of me. What I give is given gladly, without thought. That's how I want to be in the world, and they give me the gift of fulfilling that vision of myself.

My own grandfather was dying of lung cancer 25 years ago, at home on his farm. My mom tells me that one afternoon the family was gathered there, grandpa in an easy chair, watching my little sister teach a younger cousin how to play marbles on the rug. She'd learned this, as had we all, from Grandpa when she was a tiny thing. Grandpa turned to my mom and nodded toward the girls. My sister, his granddaughter, teaching his great granddaughter a game he had taught her. That's what life is all about, he said.

But now the farm is sold, the family scattered, my grandfather, and even my father gone. Their graves on the same site, a sunny hill overlooking the town of Connersville, where they were both born. Right now it'll be windy and a bit damp, the first pale new grass and leaves barely grown enough to shiver in the cold breeze. A lonely place.

They say the pain eases. That one day we can visit our dead without tears. I'm not sure I'll ever get there, I still cry when I think about that hill, the graves. The sun on the grass. My grandmother with them now, her funeral marred by a family feud that ultimately means nothing, except money in the pockets of lawyers. Money and anger and loneliness and loss. But they can't seem to stop themselves, what's left of my father's generation, a few members of my own. Even God has been dragged into it: which priest should say her mass, which Church should see her catafalque. Angry even today, bitter over where she was celebrated, where she was taken from God to darkness. She
asked only that the Prayer for Peace be read, and that the priest ask our family to let her death finally unite them. Even this last plea has fallen on deaf ears. The feud has worsened, I can't even bring myself to see them now. Yesterday was the anniversary of her death at age 99, a few short years ago. Today would have been her birthday.

Picking something to have faith in, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is a painful, terrifying thing. But we have to, don't we?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


St Patrick's day. It always starts on say, Thursday or Friday, with the decidedly and not-so-decidedly Irish looking tourists crowding the doors of the trains because they're scared it'll take off without them and leave them forever stranded on the grimy platform without benefit of priest.

By yesterday, every red head wears a green hat, the atmosphere is a cross between carnival midway and national disaster area, all bright colors, happy faces, vomit, cops and helicopters. I stand on the corner waiting for the light, thinking, why don't I wear green anymore? I don't go out and drink McSorley's and sing "Lady in Red" at the top of my lungs while a tableful of college boys shout "POST TIME!" and slam back another mug. Maybe because real Irish folk don't, really, anyway. They're too busy taking over the dotcom business, while American Irish desperately celebrate the land their ancestors fled in fear of starvation and disease.

Well, not to bring you down, or blame anyone for partying on a Monday, or taking over 5th Avenue on a workday. If anything, I'd like more of the last two items. New Orleans has had Mardi Gras for centuries, and it doesn't show any sign of losing strength. The whole Carnivale ethos began during the plagues. Per ardua, cogito sumere potum alterum.

I work near the parade route so it wasn't surprising to see maybe twenty girls in Celtic outfits with masses of clip-on curls and Riverdance shoes heading out the lobby doors as I headed in. And later, at lunch, the high fur hats and kilts and knee socks and bagpipes had pretty much taken over the Deuce.

But there were other colors being worn yesterday, mostly saffron yellow, blue and red. With lions, their paws holding a flaming jewel aloft. I happened to know what I was looking at even before the the flags unfurled, but why I felt a swell of pride, I cannot tell. I'm not Tibetan.


At the Rubin , here in NY, the museum provides magnifying lenses so patrons can see the minute details of each piece, tiny gods and goddesses locked in sexual embrace, prostrate humans worshipping or being crushed at their feet, all swirling around the greater gods and consorts who rule the panel. But there's more than an exhibition of Himalayan spiritual art. On a middle floor, there's a live Tibetan artist in residence at work on a large landscape mural, as likely to have the Rolling Stones on the speakers as sitar. His name is Pema Tinzin. He grew up in northern India, and learned under several masters over decades of apprenticeship, and how he's considered a master of the style. His astonishing use of detail even in such a large work speaks not only to the aesthetic of the Tibetan school, but to Pema's mind: he had been a medical student in college, and left to become a painter.

The Saturday we visited him, he seemed more preoccupied with the oppression he was receiving from the art scholars who curate the museum, but that's understandable. Nobody wants to dwell forever on destruction, on loss, even when it's everything you know. Pema's subversive method of undermining the academics' power trip is sublime, the hallmark, to my mind, of the oppressed: a direct appeal in an indirect fashion. Instead of fighting any further with them about what constitutes Tibetan art and why, he's teaching art classes at local and out of state universities and design schools. They can no longer tell him that they know more about his own people's art than he does, because, by virtue of the courses he teaches, he's now as much a respected expert in the field as they are. So he uses the classroom to put forward what he knows in decades of studying and practicing Tibetan painting, and the museum will have to play catch-up. I don't think he has much problem convincing art students that museums don't understand art.

If you want to take a class with him, I think his next stop is Oberlin, Ohio.


So maybe I'm lurching slowly toward a belief in something better, farther down the line. I don't know. I guess it's like a ouija board, the future. If you keep thinking about what you want it to say, you're still going to get an answer. Just maybe not the right one.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My favorite birthday present. Ever.

From Jesse's brother:

Dear Mommie,

I think you knew you’d get something at least a little special for your birthday. If you didn’t then you need more confidence in your ability to raise children. Most of my development has been under your parental rule and I have everything to thank you for. I guess that means I’m really confident with how awesome I am, but I’m equally thankful for awesome you are. There is nothing in this world I need to thank more than you for my success. That brings me to how sorry I am I wasn’t even a little bit better for you. I should be a lot more proactive with work around the house, maybe since you look 30 I think you can do chores for me like you’re 30. I won’t promise you improvement but I’ll definitely have these thoughts in my mind the next time you ask me to do something for you.

You are an amazing mom and a great person, and you need to hear that from me. I know I criticize a lot, but that’s one of YOUR traits. ;-) I should be telling you how I’m never embarrassed to bring some friends to my house because of how clean it is (mostly you, a little Dan) and how cool my mom is. I can brag to my friends that my mom lets me out late all the time because she knows I’m not doing drugs or anything, and she trusts me. I also brag about my scholarship, which I have you to thank for. I also have you to thank for advising me to go to Hunter College, instead of City College. That’s a decision that I’m glad we made. Being only 15 minutes away from school is better than anything, I can walk there in an hour if I wanted to, but the train ride is so much easier than what it would have been at City College. Thank you so much mom.

I guess even past what “mistakes” I think you’ve made, I’ve still been something of a Momma’s boy to you still. That’s because of how many good decisions you’ve made, decisions that even a teenage boy can agree with. You were always willing to defend your punishment, that’s one of the key reasons I learned from them. If you had said “Because I said so” I would have done the exact same thing again. That’s another thing I can brag about, you teach teachers how to deal with kids because you know how to be a good parent. You’ve been better than any parent I’ve met and that is important to my confidence in coming to you with a problem. Problems like M****, school, etc. You were always ready to pause or mute TV just to talk to me and that was really important. You even kept that secret of mine when Jesse, Grace, Chelsea and I snuck out at camp with Dad one day, and we saw a skunk and got driven back to camp. Thanks for that too.

I didn’t originally intend for this letter to be one big thank you but I guess in turned out that way. It’s something you deserve though, and I wish I could have built up the incentive to do it before your birthday. I think I’m going to email it to you while you’re at work, so I can giggle a little bit knowing you cried in front of your co-workers.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My big Five Oh

You'd expect to feel depressed about reaching 50, but I don't. I've been planning my party, looking forward to seeing all my friends, wondering what Mr. Nomist is planning behind my back. I've been excited. Every time I tell someone it's going to be my 50th, they don't seem to believe me. Cool, even if they're lying through their teeth.

Last week I finally got to exchange emails with Jesse's former girlfriend. It took a lot of weight off me to talk about him, about what was going on with him that last year, and to find out, fortuitously, that he'd always remembered my birthday, even when he was too stubborn to call. He always made a big deal about birthdays, she said. I don't know why that made me happy, but it worked. Maybe remembering all the birthday parties when he was little, how much I loved working out a theme, baking and decorating the cake, assembling his friends. His birthday was May 11 so it was almost always a good day for a party in the park. Sometimes, it fell on Mother's Day, and when it happened while he was in school, he called me and scolded me for not calling him first to wish him a happy birthday. Funny kid. I'd called him on Friday to do that, because I never knew when he'd answer his cell.

My walk to work this morning felt light and sunny. It's my birthday. I could feel Jesse near me, a kind of forgiving, encouraging sense. Be happy, and I was. When I get to the park, I picture Jesse walking Laser, his dog, reveling in the warm weather, things starting to grow, the movement of people around him. I know he can hear me now. I'm so sorry, I tell him. And then I want to cry. I don't know why I can't move past that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I have integrity, he's a stubborn ass

Teddy bears have integrity, but so do pit vipers. We like to think it's a good quality, and that we ourselves have it. In that sense it's not a very useful concept, since most of us are fully capable of convincing ourselves of pretty much anything, including imaginary virtues.

Integrity, to me, includes applying the same standards to yourself that you do to others, that is, the opposite of hypocrisy. But that takes insight, and there are plenty of people who fall within the teddy bear/pit viper definition of integrity who don't really have much in the way of insight. That is, you can trust them to be themselves at all times; and to stick with their principles under fire, even if you don't agree with their choices.

It's hard to consider integrity a virtue unless it's driven by some kind of internal governor. So if I were to say unironically who I thought had integrity, it's going to be based on my perception of what constitutes their internal governor (that set of principles which drives them) but also to some extent, what my judgment is of those principles. So I can be wrong on two levels: both in what I think drives this person, and in my judgment of those drivers. Well, I can also be wrong about how they live up to those drivers. If I leave my judgment out of it (as if one really can), I can define integrity a little more loosely. I like to call it the Ordell Robbie theory:

You can't trust Melanie but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Freud warns us not to love, he says
it doesn't pay off who betrays us but
those we love, whose death injures us most

we don't think this way in youth that's how you know you are still young do you think whose bed you will hover over in dreams?
What graves we will haunt before and

after our passing

and why
Why do the dead always speak so slowly?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My personal stations of the cross

January 16th- he went into the ER. They realized it was a relapse of leukemia, but the local cancer center didn't want to admit him right away. He told them he'd be dead by the time they got through their waiting list. He called his doctor in Chicago, who pulled some strings and got him in. Once there, he couldn't call out from their intake to reach me. They gave him a bone marrow biopsy without painkillers. Not even darvon, because they didn't want to wait the 20 minutes it would take for the darvon to hit.

January 17th: I can finally see him. He's ok. We talk about how soon he can get out and get back to law school. I bring his text books. During the next 10 days, his younger brother and I get tested for donating bone marrow. We try to figure out how long he'll be stuck there. We're all in good spirits. We've beat this before. Every time he gets a headache, they rush him down for an MRI. He jokes about this.

January 27th, I wake up in his hospital room. I start realizing I have a cold, and will have to stop coming for a couple of days. I'm worried about it: he's been taking medications that cause him to hallucinate, he's too tired to study. He asks me to call his student advisor to see if he can attend classes via the Internet from his hospital room.

January 28th, We talk on the phone. Friends have been seeing him. He reassures me he's fine, don't come up till I'm well, it'd be terrible if he caught it because of his immune system. Don't worry, he says. He has a friend coming over on Monday.

January 29th. I'm awakened by a frantic phone call from the nurse. It takes me a few seconds to realize why she's so upset. I'm at the hospital with his brother before they wheel him out of the room. Medically induced coma. Brain hemorrhage. We're here, Jesse, I call to him. I believe he can hear me somehow. Neurological ICU. I don't leave his side for the next 9 days. They put shunts in his head to try to alleviate the pressure, but you can see from the monitors that his arteries shoot off geysers of blood in there, exploding his brain, slowly pushing it into non-existence.

February 8th. It's too late. He's gone. They pull the plug. They don't want me there when he stops breathing, but I'm just on the other side of the curtain, holding his foot. I don't want him to be alone when he crosses over. Even though I know he hasn't really been there for days.

He was only 22. I lost my firstborn son. And with that lost my fear of dying. Because he has gone before me, how could I be afraid?