Happy Breathe Day!

Happy Breatheday!

Happy Breatheday!


I used to say I was a Fish Biologist undergoing metamorphosis to an Author. I think it’s safe to say that in the past year I’ve completed my transformation. Now that my first book has taken wing, I can simply call myself Author.

In the past year, I’ve ditched my pajamas, donned make-up, and attended about thirty events from readings to book signings to book clubs—my personal favorite. I’ve spoken at conferences and been interviewed on the air and in print. Breathe went on a thirteen-stop blog tour and has 100 fabulous five-star reviews on Amazon where it was ranked Number One for Books on Dysfunctional Families and Number One on Kindle for Motherhood, Family, Women’s Personal Growth. It was selected by Aspire Magazine as one of the Top Ten Inspirational Books for March. With few exceptions, these things were all firsts for me. To find myself standing at a podium in front of a crowd of over 100 people was a far cry from the girl who once changed colleges to avoid taking public speaking! And I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it!

I’ve opened talks from coast to coast with the quotation, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” explaining how, for me, Breathe was that story. I wrote it to tell the tale of my sons and to help other people. I realized shortly into the past year that the most defining characteristic of Noah and Jonah’s lives used to be that they’d died. That was the extent of what most people knew or remembered about them. And then came Breathe. Now reader after reader meets them, most for the first time, and they hold them in their hearts and learn that they lived. Telling their story has shattered the silence of other untold stories.

The past year has been one of the most joyful and yet, like many things in life, it has also been bittersweet. Andy’s mom died in March and mine in September. My mom, who often admonished that I was wasting my writing talent, lived to see me publish my first book for which I’m grateful. They say that writing your story makes it two dimensional and reading it makes it three. Our moms live on in the pages of my book and every time I read their voices in a bookstore or a library is like bringing them back from the grave and into the room.

For all of you who’ve supported and encouraged me to live my dream, I thank you from the bottom of my gizzard. And if you don’t know what I mean by that, it’s time you Breathe-d! As with all of my children, I pray that Breathe will continue to march forth and make the world a better place. That it will help others and be treated kindly. And that it will live a long, long life.


Breathe Outtake 6: Housekeeping

Author’s Note: These outtakes are from my memoir, Breathe, as in lines or scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Enjoy!

Book of Noah, Chapter 8

On May 3 I was re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, High Tide in Tucson. I loved her essays and agreed with her political and environmental ethics. I would turn to this book again later in the year to re-read her essay, “Paradise Lost”, about a trip she’d taken to one of the Canary Islands where no cars are allowed. After Noah died, this would become the place I dreamed of retreating to—a place with no cars. Or tires.

I read another of her essays entitled “The Household Zen” about housekeeping, or the lack thereof, after which I recorded my thoughts in my journal. I wondered on paper, “Could I go without housekeeping? For how long? Who was I pleasing?” As I’d fallen into bed that night with everything in its place, all clean and tidy, I had to admit what a good feeling that was. “But,” I wrote, “how often do I scold the kids to clean up, creating stress for all of us with my “standards” of cleanliness and orderliness? Shouldn’t I live for the moment and focus on playing with them instead, the time for which always seemed lacking?”

Before bed, I’d watched the movie, Dead Man Walking. I reflected, “Crying at the pain and suffering people cause for each other, makes me want to hold my kids tighter and tell them how much I love them, not scold them for creating a mess. Sometimes it seems like I live in fear of losing them and act accordingly, conscious of their safety and relative danger almost continuously. Had an eye-opening dream this morning about Christiana being kidnapped that scared me to the bone. I know that’s no way to live, in fear of loss, but death traumatizes me still. So what should we play instead of cleaning? Kickball, baseball, basketball, cards, board games, swinging, walking, adventuring, feeding the ducks, teaching bike riding, or reading?

When I think back to my own childhood and my interaction with my parents, mostly I remember Maine, where there was no tv or other interruptions so we played games, swam, and fished as a family for three weeks out of the year. I remember Mimi reading, singing, playing the piano, and playing games with us throughout the year and also remember Mom as being busy cleaning or whatever. And I guess I’m usually busy, myself, doing similar things—keeping the house tidy, the laundry done, meals cooked, shopping, etc. But I don’t want my kids to remember me as always busy, never playing.”

I concluded, “Now it’s Sunday morning already. I give thanks for my many blessings, especially the four sleeping beauties and their snoring father downstairs on the couch. Today we’ll pray and we’ll play. Amen. Noah is soon to be one and moving all over. Pointing at everything these days and handing me things he collects off the floor! He’s active and exploring and mobile! Not walking yet, but soon come. So happy and such a love, still nursing and very attached to me. He’s crying now, so guess I need to wrap up.”


Breathe Outtake 5: Ants on the Melon

Author’s Note: These outtakes are from my memoir, Breathe, as in lines or scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Enjoy!


From Book of Noah, Chapter 6

January 1997

I was reading  Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems by Virginia Hamilton Adair and was amazed to learn that she’d published her first book when she was 82. And blind! She wrote, “you should write for enjoyment, deliberately, never for fame or notoriety and the inevitable change that might or might not bring.” I considered that good food for thought as I had my own goal of being an author tucked away in the back of my mind and was always looking for inspiration on the topic. There was hope for me yet!

I was reading Uncle Wiggily’s Travels to my kids, one of my favorite childhood books, and I was also teaching them my favorite card game, Authors. When I was growing up, I’d imagined that some day I’d read all the books in Authors but I hadn’t done that yet. So many books, so little time.

Even if not on paper, I wrote stories in my head, especially when I couldn’t sleep. I wrote in my journal that I’d composed an entire essay in my head at 5 a.m. while trying to fall back asleep after nursing Noah. It was about the differences between your first and fourth babies and I noted that I would try to record it sometime. But I never did. Anyway, those differences would turn out to be much greater than I could have ever conceived in the wee hours of that glorious morning.


Breathe Outtake 4: “What Happened to Tom?”

Author’s Note: These outtakes are from my memoir, Breathe, as in lines or scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Enjoy!

Book of Noah, Chapter 6

Christmas 1996

One thing that disappoints me is receiving a holiday card with just a signature. Particularly if it’s from folks whom I haven’t seen in years. Call me the National Enquirer but my motive is genuine. I hang on to friendships and I’m truly interested in how people’s lives are progressing. I’ve made friends in so many walks of my life, some of whom I may never see again in person, but I still want to know about their marriages, births, and even deaths. I am curious about about their joys and their heartaches with equal measure. So I admit, unless it’s from a business, I’m always disappointed to receive a card with simply a signator. A photo is a little better. “What’s happening in your life,” I want to reply. “How’s the journey going?”

But the worst thing of all is to receive a card which is suddenly blank where one family member’s name used to be. This mystifies me completely. “What happened to Tom?” I want to scream. “Did he die? Did you divorce?” I don’t need a lot, but if a sympathy card is in order, I probably want to know?

Being my literary verbose self, I take every opportunity to exercise my passion. (Authors Note: which may have been a clear indication that I’d eventually become an author…) Every year I try to make my holiday letter both meaningful and engaging and to keep the spark of our friendships and connections alive. It’s important to me to be honest and not give some glorified accounting of our lives. Most years I haven’t sent cards out until long after the tree has left its trail of needles out the door. Andy and I both took to heart Jamaica’s national “Soon Come” attitude and we’ve never lost it. We are late for everything. But in the pile of bills and solicitations that emerge from a typical day at the mailbox, it always feels like a gift to see my name addressed by hand, regardless of when it arrives. Better late than never, I figure.

I began that year’s holiday letter with this poem:

Christmas 1996

’Tis one week before Christmas, but how can this be?
Madonna has already birthed her baby! (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)
So I guess it won’t matter if my cards are past due,
Blame four kids, a new puppy, and a week with the flu.
Not withstanding the fact that my husband has gone
To the coast to cut lumber from dusk until dawn. (I know, but it didn’t rhyme the other way…)
And Noah still wakes every night without fail,
Now the puppy has joined with an unending wail…
So add lack of sleep to my litany of reasons
For starting this project so late in the season.
The gifts have been bought for the most part, and, no,
They do not include a Tickle Me Elmo!
As for what’s on my mind, rest assured, you’re all there,
And your cards are arriving like breaths of fresh air!
For to me the “Top 10” of this season includes
All your tales of adventures and brief interludes.
And each day I await the mailman with glee,
In hopes of handwritten envelopes addressed to me (us),
While at night around midnight I get my “free time”,
To plug away slowly at this little rhyme.
Now I’m wondering how I’ll commit all our news
To succinct little sentences, words paired in twos…
I’ve indulged my creative side, now I will try
To get down to business ‘fore Fourth of July!

Mom called after receiving my letter. “Uncle Bernie said he loved your letter, as usual, and said what a great sense of humor you have.”

I was thinking about the phone call I’d recently had from my friend, Kasi, with the sad news that their puppy, Blue, was run over in front of their house on New Years Eve. Our new puppy, Dude, came from Kasi’s dogs, Mitzi and Dodger, so Blue was Dude’s sister. The only puppy they’d kept, she was a blue merle, like Mitzi, and was a striking dog with beautiful blue eyes. Kasi was really upset and I felt so bad for them. Mom had always counseled, “Keep your sense of humor,” and even though there was nothing funny about it, thinking of that blue-eyed puppy, I replied offhand, “Well, I guess I’ve had a lot of hardship to hone it.”

It’s somewhat interesting to think about one’s formation as a personality in retrospect. Growing up, I was a voracious reader and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in our house who read every magazine stuffed into our mailbox. I spent hours curled up on one end of our couch next to the end table where they piled up, devouring each issue season by season. American Girl magazine had me constantly worried about my personality as I took every “Your Personality” test they provided. They confused and confounded me as I tried to figure out what I was like. I circled the correct letters to determine my hair, skin, and body type and thought that my personality was just like those—fixed and measurable. Every month, I flipped first to my favorite Good Housekeeping column, “Can this Marriage be Saved?” although I was probably getting a little ahead of myself. I loved to sew and drew inspiration for my wardrobe from the glossy pages of Ladies Home Journal. And ever the family baker, I cut out recipes from them all and pasted them in a notebook. At age 14, I was probably the closest I’d ever be to the perfect Redbook wife!

With all this magazine knowledge rolled up in my brain. I’d grown up and moved away from my house into adulthood. My mother always counseled, “Keep your sense of humor,” and I attributed a lot of my positive attitude to that. Because at that point in my life, I actually thought that I had endured my share of trials and tribulations. Which was true, to an extent. My grandparents had all died and I’d lost one uncle and two of my boyfriends as well as a handful of pets. In retrospect, those would seem like the glory years. Everything is relative.

As mom and I chatted, I watched my kids wrestling with Dude. I was pretty sure he was unaware that his sister had died and I wondered, if he knew, would he still be wagging his bobbed tail? What would he teach my kids about losing his sister, or was he already showing them the way? And me? What could Mitzi teach me about losing her blue-eyed puppy? All that I’d read, all that I’d done, had equipped me for life as I knew it. But from where I stood and in spite of it all, I was completely unprepared for how the year ahead was to unfold. When next I wrote a holiday letter, I’d struggle mightily with how on earth I should sign it.



Breathe Outtake 3: Sneaker Waves

Author’s Note: These outtakes are from my memoir, Breathe, as in lines or scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Enjoy!

Book of Noah, Chapter 4

After Thanksgiving, we rented a beach house in Waldport with our friends Dan and Alyce for a weekend. They drove down from Tacoma and we had fun climbing and playing on a huge driftwood teepee someone had made on the beach. “Say Cheese,” Dan instructed as he took our family Christmas photo for that year with Noah propped up in front of us in his backpack. He wore a handmade blue and white striped sweater with sailboats on it and it was to be the only holiday photo he’d ever be in.

Andy grew up on this ocean, but the Pacific is a much different ocean than its calm and shallow compatriot, the Atlantic. The Pacific is not the place to swim your summer days away. So Andy’s cold ocean did not hold his heart like the Atlantic held mine. Still, the Pacific is vast and wild in its tumultuous beauty. The beaches of the central Oregon coast are awesome for walking or watching seals or beach combing. “The Pacific is not user-friendly,” I used to say. It’s awesome to behold, but otherwise off-limits. The Atlantic washes up little pieces of wood we call driftwood, carrying them home to make cute little crafts with. The Pacific spits out entire trees and enormous logs end up lodged at the water’s edge. These logs are called rollers, because every year some unsuspecting person stands on one near the ocean’s edge and a wave comes in, rolling the log over on top of them and crushing them to death. It’s terrible. It’s tragic. And it happens every year, regardless.

The Pacific is deep and dangerous. It’s untrustworthy and you should never turn your back on it. Sneaker waves are a common feature of the Pacific. They’re unpredictable and come rolling in, quickly covering the dry sand and often washing people off the rocks to their death. Scientists once set up equipment on an Oregon beach to determine if there is any discernible pattern to these rogue waves. But while they stood watch, a sneaker wave snuck up on them and they were forced to run for the dunes, watching with hindsight as their equipment tumbled out to sea. Life can be sneaky like that too, I thought. You should never turn your back on that, either.


Breathe Outtakes, Peregrine Falcon Family

Book of Noah, Chapter One

In mid-May, Andy said, “Hey, I have a business trip to Tillamook tomorrow, want to come along?”

“I’d love to,” I said, making arrangements for Christiana and Micah to play with friends. The next day was a little overcast and rainy but we rejoiced anyway, driving off for a rare day with just the two of us, together. We headed west from Salem and north along the coast, stopping at Cape Meares, a scenic headland jutting out into the ocean. While Andy talked on the phone, I got out and wandered over to where a group of birders were peering into their giant telescopes. Their excitement was palpable. “Do you want to have a look,” one gentleman asked. His scope was fixed on a nest, which seemed impossibly perched into the sheer rock wall, hundreds of feet above the wild ocean. “See the female?” he said reverently in my ear. Sure enough, there in my view was the gray head and hooked beak of a peregrine falcon hovering over her chicks. “There are four fledglings,” he said as I counted them. My left hand was in my jacket pocket and with his words, I couldn’t help but place my palm on my own extended belly, giving my baby a reassuring rub. The powerful telescope erased the distance between us and I had a close-up view of the mother as she placed her beak over those of her ravenous chicks to feed them with what I knew she’d just regurgitated. Yummy, I thought, thankful I wouldn’t have to feed my own chick in this way.

I relinquished my use of the scope to the kind birder but stayed with the group as Andy joined us. Suddenly, a collective gasp filled the air. “It’s an in-flight transfer!” the birders said en masse. Oblivious to his enraptured audience, the smaller male came soaring in from the sea, clutching something in his talons and crying out to his mate, who left her chicks perched in their precarious nest to fly towards him. Then, as a treat to our wondering eyes, he released his catch into the air. It plummeted rapidly but the female adeptly swooped in below him and caught it in her own talons on the fly! The birders applauded, thrilled to check off this off their ornithological dream list. “It was probably a murre,” the kind birder informed. Cape Meares is home to one of the largest roosting colonies of common murres and peregrine falcons dine mostly on other birds, catching them in mid-air also.

“Wow, they eat their own for breakfast?” I said, not without a degree of horror.  Not having our own birding list, Andy and I nevertheless felt this rare treat as a blessing on us and a portent of positive things to come. The osprey family left us feeling serendipitous as we continued to enjoy our day together, unaware then that the next day Noah would be born, making us the proud parents of four chicks ourselves. As for the falcon’s dining preferences, well, that would come home to roost for us in the times to come.


Breathe Outtake 1: Pet Alligator

Author’s Note:

I’ll be posting outtakes from Breathe on my blog. These Outtakes are lines or scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Here’s the first installment for your reading pleasure:

“When we were growing up, the neighbor behind us had a pet alligator in his back yard,” Dad said. “We used to sit on the roof of our garage and throw rocks at it.” Dad only recently dropped this fascinating tidbit, which confounds me. Growing up with Dad, there were a lot of years when he didn’t say much. So why on earth he didn’t recount this particular bit of history over dinner one night or on some long boring car ride to enthrall his children, even capture their approval, is beyond me. He didn’t seem to feel particularly sorry, or that this might qualify for a visit from the SPCA. Maybe he thought that if we knew, we’d start begging for a pet alligator, too. “Every year, a bunch of men would come over, tie it up and relocate it to the basement for the winter,” he concluded. I can only imagine the thrilling tales of our ancestral lore that have been swept up with the broken glass and dust in the Irish pubs of yore.

rare bird

When my sons died, I realized that after you’ve buried your child, everything else in life should be easy. Whatever it is you formerly feared, from sky diving to public speaking, suddenly seem completely manageable. You’ve already done the very hardest thing. And, as you also learn when you’re reminded of the forever finality of death, there’s no time for doing these things like the present. My advice to bereaved parents, or anyone really, is to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do. Go and live the life you wanted your child to have. Why not? Time is ticking, whether you can hear it or not.

For me, one of those things was to tell the story of my sons, to write a book, which I’ve now done. But after the writing comes the equally difficult task of publishing. “Grief doesn’t sell,” was a common response I heard from the gatekeepers to the publishing world. And then, after the writing and publishing of a book comes the marketing, which is where I’m at right now, and which never really ends. One of the many challenges of selling a book about child loss is that people are afraid to read it and I wrote my story to help other people, so what good is it if nobody reads it? I think it goes without saying, that even though living and surviving these stories is the most difficult thing to do, the fact remains that selling them is not all that easy either. Burying your baby is every parent’s worst nightmare and it’s not something you ever want to imagine. In fact, you can’t even imagine it. Even after you’ve experienced the loss of one of your children, it’s still virtually impossible to fully imagine losing another of them. Your mind just can’t go there. Nor do you really want it to. Fortunately, there’s a shut-off valve called survival that stops you just short of insanity.

Books are some of my best friends and I’m never without a pile of them on my nightstand. I also have four piles stacked next to my nightstand. And the space designed for books under it? Packed. During this past holiday season, one of the books who’s spine kept staring at me as I lay in bed each night was rare bird. And I have to confess that even I, who have spent the last nine months trying to convince people that they shouldn’t be afraid to read my own book, was hesitant to pick it up. “Breathe is about a sad subject but it’s not a sad book,” I’ve said over and over again. “I believe that we read to inform our lives,” I’d tell my audience, sometimes telling them about the following story that was cut from my own manuscript.

“The last book I read before Noah died was The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. I never want to see that book again. It was about a boy who is kidnapped out from under his mother while she is busy checking into a hotel and how she completely falls apart in the aftermath of losing him, dragging the rest of her family down with her. I tried not to look for deeper meaning in the fact that I was reading that book instead of some sappy love story or non-fiction account of mountain climbing or sled-dog racing but it was hard not to. I learned from that book what not to do. I thought it a bit ironic and hopefully not an omen that I had read it. And I tried hard not to fall apart as a result.”

The point of this being that reading, even fiction, can prepare us for life. Probably the most common response I’ve had from my readers is that at first they were afraid to Breathe, and then they read it in two days. Or one. Or overnight. Or that it reminded them that there are books that need to be read in one sitting. Or that it made them miss their train. Or their bus stop. Or their subway stop. Or even how Breathe has led them back to their lost enjoyment of reading. This last thing is particularly sweet to me. And in light of my own passion for books and how I’ve struggled to “sell” this book to readers, every single one of these responses made me smile while silently shouting and fist pumping the air.

So after putting it off through the holidays, I began the new year by doing the very thing I’d been praying others would do—I read a book about every parent’s worst nightmare, including my own. I read rare bird. And I read it in two nights. And in those pages, I found myself. I found my own thoughts. I found my own words. I found my own fallibility. And I found my own strength. I am in the habit of reviewing every book I read on Goodreads but rare bird is not a book I can simply review before moving on to the next book in the pile. I’ve met many, many bereaved parents in my travels through the past 18 years since Noah died, but I’ve never read their books. I’ve never met Anna Whiston-Donaldson, although I’m sure I will some day, but I have, indeed, read her book. And her book spawned so many thoughts and ideas for me I could almost write a book about it. It would be a book about the absolute commonality of a mother’s grief. When I wrote Breathe, I never intended it to be a bereavement book and certainly not a guide to the dark underworld of grief. I intended Breathe to be for a much wider audience, for anyone and everyone. I wanted Breathe to read like any good creative non-fiction book because it was such a wild story. The book I’ve considered writing since reading rare bird would be that bereavement book I struggled so hard not to write. Because what I marveled at in reading rare bird were the common threads which were woven through our experiences.

In Breathe I write that we have names that describe us when we lose others, such as widow, widower, orphan, but that losing a child is so terrible, there is simply no word to describe it. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about for a long time now is somehow coming up with that word. Then we’d at least know what to call ourselves. One word that Anna writes about is “cleave”. Cleave is a verb that has two very different meanings. It can describe cutting or splitting something apart with a sharp instrument or, oddly enough, it can also mean the opposite—sticking to something like glue. It’s not a noun, but this to me describes how it is to be a bereaved parent. Your child has been sharply, painfully torn away from you, cleaved from you, and yet in so many ways, they are still a vital part of your being and so you clutch them, you cling to them, you cleave them to your heart. It’s a powerful word and a brilliant dichotomy. So, how about that? Cleaver sounds awful. But there’s something in there I haven’t yet named.

Anna’s Jack drowned and Noah was run over. Both Anna and I admit that grief can feel so much like shame because it feels like failure. I wrote, “As a parent you have failed at the most basic level. You have failed to protect your child from death, be it accidental or not. You couldn’t prevent those cancer cells from forming and you couldn’t prevent that vehicle from backing up. You ask the entire spectrum of whys and why nots and what ifs, and you beat yourself up endlessly until you come to understand that we are not in control of everything. In fact, we are not in control of anything, period. You would lay down your own life for your child. You would take his pain for your own, give anything and everything you have for him, including your place here on earth. But nobody asked you for your sacrifice; no one warned you that it was time to run outside and change places with him.” Both of us railed at the unfairness of losing them, and yet we also wondered how many times we’d actually saved them?

We both write about the “wake-up call”. When you face the unimaginable, losing your child, your own experience can serve as a “wake-up call” for others. Your loss can serve as a reminder of what they have not lost, a time to reexamine their own priorities. This is all well and good and yet, as much as we want our children to have mattered and to see that something, anything, good has come from their death, still, no parent wants to sacrifice their son so others can reorder their lives. It’s a nice outcome, but nobody would choose it. Would you? One of the many ironies which is not lost on bereaved parents is that while they are aching for their dead child, other children in our world are being abandoned, aborted, abused. It’s akin to watching others waste food when you are starving.

“When your child dies,” we both ask in our books, “who’s there for you?” Because we both came to the realization that sometimes, oftentimes, the friends and family in your life who you would expect to be there for you right now, while you struggle with this most critical of life’s crises, simply are not. Or can not. For whatever reason, reasons even they can’t or don’t articulate. But other folks, strangers even, come out of the woodwork to love and support you. They lift you up when you least expect it and it is amazing. It is the power of the holy spirit that lives and dwells among us. Indeed, relationships change after the death of your child, sometimes forever. The trick is to learn to be grateful for what we have and what we get and not focus on the things we don’t. I’ve tried to carry this along with me forever after the deaths of my sons and it’s a worthy goal for all of us, cleaved, bereaved, or otherwise. It is grace. And it isn’t easy.

One of the more obsessive things I experienced after Noah died was the pain I experienced daily from seeing the vehicle, the dreaded green Tahoe, that ran him over. So to read Anna describe her own everyday agony as she watched the two boys whom her son had been playing with when he drowned as they laughed and played together outside her house was very familiar to me. For both of us, seeing this car or these boys out our kitchen windows stopped us dead in our tracks as we tried to do the dishes or sip our coffee. These unwanted views were constant reminders of what we had lost and kept our fingers on the PTSD trigger that goes hand in hand with grief. Both exacerbated the pain we were trying to live through and move beyond. We both tried to cope, tried to find the grace to look beyond, and, ultimately, we both failed. Both of us eventually moved away. And when we did? We felt much better.

We each wrote about crying after we made love, a new thing. Both of us developed a hatred for math with our new family equations. Both of us are avid readers and read every book on death, grief, hope, forgiveness, and the meaning of life we could get our eyes and hands on. Both of us described how strange we suddenly felt, what it felt like to be “other” and that we began to feel like aliens. My thoughts on the subject were ultimately edited out, but in trying to describe how it felt in those first hours after the accident, after Noah was taken by life flight and we had to drive three hours to join him, I had written this:

“Outside of our deathly quiet van, it was a sunny summer day. We drove silently under the cloud of our thoughts like aliens newly arrived at this planet of sunshine. Our world had tilted so that even this road we had traveled so many, many times now carried us through an unfamiliar landscape. We passed happy families sitting down to Sunday dinners, blessing their food and giving thanks to God for their good fortune. We were becoming other, apart, and separate—like pod people whose sunshine has been eclipsed by a dusty morning driveway. We would never again feel the full effect of the sun’s rays through our new invisible pods—pods that prevented us from feeling but not from watching while others cavorted in the warmth we’d once relished when it had comforted our own skin.”

Both of us discovered that contrary to the five stages theory, grief is not linear. Translating strong emotions into words is not an easy task and to this end, I wrote the following four paragraphs, only one of which made it into my final manuscript. “They say there are five stages of grief but I did not find grief to be a linear progression of neat little stages. Indeed, this seems to be an idealistic simplification of an incredibly personal and chaotic process. I think it is a feeble attempt to rationalize the irrational on our part, reducing a maelstrom to a neat little step by step guide. Grief is an irrational and crazy thing. It makes you sick in every quadrant of your being: mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. And it arrives in waves and in circles, not in goose-stepping lines of progression. On some moments or days it hits from all sides simultaneously and lays you low; on others it eases up and maybe only makes your belly ache and your appetite disappear. Maybe you cry all day. Or maybe you can muster a smile when you feel like crying. Certainly you feel the five emotions she described, but you also feel many others, as in every other that there is.

Grief is like standing immobile in front of a whirling dervish. And in that cyclone is every emotion there ever was. And at any given moment one of those emotions will stick out its muscled arm and punch you in the stomach or the heart or wherever you might feel it most, splitting open old wounds like a professional boxer. Some days you see the strike coming and manage to receive only a glancing blow, and other times it catches you off guard, connecting suddenly and completely, and you find yourself in some strange dark place doubled over with pain, clutching your belly.

Grief stands with you on the shores of your ocean. Some days the sea before you is angry and turbulent. There are whitecaps on every horizon, the waves are huge and powerful, slamming into your body, knocking you down, tumbling you over and over, allowing you to emerge briefly, struggling to stand, gasping for air before being pummeled back to the murky depths of the bottom where your body is folded around itself like a fetus for protection and security and your face is rubbed raw. Your mouth opens to scream and is filled with gritty sand. Other days the waves are so small, lapping so gently at your ankles from a calm and serene sea. You are the personification of strength and tranquility as you stand firm and brave on the shore, casually picking the leftover sand from your teeth.

These grief-by-the-sea scenes change by the minute, by the hour, by the day. You are forced to live for the moment because every moment is an eternity and you can only manage to struggle through by taking them one breath at a time. Some are filled with such incredible beauty and joy that you want them to last for all eternity, cherishing each second, not rushing to move on to the next one. You are never quite sure what to expect so that all of it, every moment, is constantly, eternally, new.”

Both of us discovered that the days and weeks leading up to the dreaded firsts are actually worse than the day itself, as if you’ve already worked it out, so that by the time the day you’re dreading arrives, like the first anniversary (“crapiversary”, writes Anna) of your child’s death, you’re prepared, you’ve made your plan, and you’re somewhat at peace with it. Both of us read The Lovely Bones and railed at the mom’s decision to cut and run. In fact, I often cite that book, among others, as typical story lines involving a child’s death where the parents respond by making the tragedy even worse. I don’t think this is the norm. Most of us don’t have the option to turn to drugs or alcohol, have an affair, or otherwise quit our lives and up and leave. Nor would we abandon our other children. Why would you take a terrible situation and make it even worse?

When I was pitching and querying my story, I had to explain what set my tale apart from other books about child loss and I was led to understand that a book about losing two children was simply not enough. It wasn’t different enough. I had to have something original to say. For me, our family conflict was the drama that drove the plot and set my story apart. So my hat is off to Anna for simply writing a book about losing her son and finding a publisher who would publish it. Her angle is religion and faith, which is clearly a part of any book about death, and her publisher publishes Christian books. We both started our blogs in 2008 but she has a giant following and me? Not so much. Noah died in 1997, Jonah in 1998, and Jack, much more recently in 2011. Yet we both published our books in 2014, me in May, her in September. I was counseled to wait ten years to write my story whereas she has clearly been on a much faster track. I’ve read other books about death and grief that I felt were written way too soon, but I didn’t think this of hers. Breathe includes a lawsuit that didn’t conclude until 2002, and my family planning goals which happily concluded in 2004 so my storyline spans six years whereas hers is much shorter. It took me seven years to write and publish my book while she accomplished hers on a much faster track. All of this is to say, that if you’re considering writing your own story, lending your hand to shattering the silence that surrounds death, there are as many paths to publication as there are stories to tell. Personally, I’d like to prove the gate-keepers wrong. I believe that grief does sell.

Brevity has never been my strong suit but this is definitely the longest “book review” I’ve ever written. Burying your child informs everything you do for the rest of your life. You never get “over” it because it lives in every single cell of your body. This is what we have left of our children as we carry them to our graves. As the great gospel hymn goes, “Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away . . . when I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” In the meantime, birds of a feather do flock together and finding kindred spirits to breathe with like Anna, like rare bird, is like finding my flock.


Mary, Did You Know?

T-Rex meets Jesus

T-Rex meets Jesus

I am Metholic. My mom was Methodist, my dad, Catholic, and I was raised in both faiths. And so, for me, this is Christmas. As a Methodist, I’ve always loved singing the old hymns and there is no season that has inspired more tunes. This is the time of year for Silent Night and We Three Kings. What I appreciate most about the Catholic faith is the reverence for Mary. This is the season of Mary’s miraculous immaculate conception followed by the questionable pleasure of giving birth to our savior in a place where cattle were lowing. Because after riding for miles on a donkey, she and her hubby were welcomed to his home town by a No Vacancy sign at the Inn, neither reservations nor hospitals being options in vintage Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph look so serene in every creche scattered around my house right now, but I imagine there had to be one or two choice words between them for both of those events.

But my very favorite part of this season arrives as an epiphany in January—the Magi. These three kings from the Orient heard news of the baby’s birth and went galloping off on their camels to find him. They rode westward following the star of wonder with the words of an angel ringing in their ears, “You will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Their names were wonderful. Caspar. Melchior. Balthazar. I’ve never know anyone who traversed over a fountain, but these guys did. They also rode over fields, moors, and mountains in their determined quest for Bethlehem and the first baby shower ever recorded. And they did so bearing exotic gifts. They brought gold to crown him again, this forever King who was still only a baby. And frankincense befitting a deity to perfume his, well, stable. And then there was the myrrh. Myrrh is a bitter perfume used in a tomb to cover the smell of rotting flesh, a perfume reminiscent of a life of gathering gloom according to the lyrics. And as if that’s not dismal enough, we croon, “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” This baby will die. These wise men are not in denial about that. And this myrrh will be tucked in with him when he does. So this present was versatile indeed, serving in equal parts as both a welcome and parting gift. There may have been more useful or politically correct items for a newborn like, say, a rattle or some diapers, but Mary was never reported to complain.

They say that we are made of the same stuff as the star that guided those Magi with its royal beauty bright. This stardust includes the nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies. Indeed, all organic matter here on Earth containing carbon is purported to have originated in the stars. Yet, Lord knows, we rarely even take notice of these celestial bodies. Let’s face it, we probably couldn’t follow them to find milk at the nearest 7-Eleven if our breakfast depended on it. The angels spread the news that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior and the shepherds and the Magi confirmed this. But Mary, true to form, said nothing. She sat quietly in the hay with her newborn son and pondered these things in her heart. For me, a mother who has given birth seven times and who has buried two sons, my eyes are drawn to Mary. While heaven and nature sang, shepherds shouted her birth announcement and wise men traveled from the east to adore the newborn King, I want to kneel down beside her and ask the new mother, “Mary, did you know?” Soon the decree of Herod would issue forth and every mother’s son in Bethlehem would be slaughtered in hopes of eliminating this one. While so much commotion was being made by others, I want to lean in and whisper, “Mary, did you care?” Or, like me, did you simply want to wrap your arms around your tiny son and keep him a baby forever?


Shooting the Messenger

Did I mention that I hate the telephone? In my house, it’s a well known fact that even if I’m sitting right next to the phone when it rings, I usually won’t answer it. Unless I know who the caller is and I need to talk with them right now for some reason, like last week when we ran out of oil and the house was cooling rapidly. Ordinarily, I figure if it’s important, they’ll leave a message and I can call them back at my leisure, which probably means while I’m driving. Not that I think that other people sit around making themselves available in case the phone should ring, but I’m kind of task oriented and typically I’m in the middle of something and don’t want to be interrupted until I’m finished.

I have never really liked talking on the phone. When I was growing up, like every other school-aged child in America, I dutifully memorized my phone number along with my address. And even though I’m wont to remember most any other number, including my own age, I still remember that our phone number in Mystic, CT a half century ago was 536-9427. I’m a visual learner, so part of the reason I remember this number is that in my mind’s eye, I can clearly see it written on the round white plastic-covered disc that was in the center of every phone in America back in the 1960’s. For me, that phone of memory is a heavy, black one that sat on the shelf beneath our downstairs window. Like most phones way back then, it had a rotary dial and I can still hear the soft click, followed by a swishing sound that it made in my ear as each of the seven numbers were dialed. The receiver was heavy enough to dissuade long conversations and we never dialed 10 numbers. No area code was ever needed as long distance calls were not an option, at least not for me, anyway. We also had a wall phone in our kitchen which had an unwieldy padded contraption screwed to the handle that allowed my Mom to talk while making dinner or whatever with the phone resting on her shoulder. Wish I had a photo of that original “hands-free” invention right now.

When I was in the third grade, we moved to a dead-end street in RI, across from which was a long driveway that led to the phone company. There were two detached garages outside their office and one day, one of us discovered that one of them contained a mountain of old phones. In those days, kids hated to be indoors. We stripped off our school or church clothes as soon as we got home and happily changed into our play clothes, spending all of our waking moments outside. Do kids even have play clothes anymore? Unless we were called in to dinner, our curfew was when the streetlights came on. We explored every corner of our neighborhood—no stone went unturned, no tadpole uncollected. Once the telephone graveyard was unearthed, we all became amateur archaeologists. In the evenings and on weekends when the office was closed, we could be found rolling the garage door up just enough to squeeze under. With butterflies in our stomachs, we spent hours exploring that phone-filled garage, unearthing phone after phone from the tangled heap which rose up to the rooftop in the back. The phones had been tossed into their final resting place unceremoniously and, clearly, they were unwanted—by the phone company that is, not by us. We wanted them all. My most memorable find was a bright orange number, much like our own black one, meant to rest on a countertop and perhaps double as a weapon. I brought it home and used it as a hotline for awhile in our playroom. Eventually, my Mom started wondering about our phone stash and made us return them all. This was the 70’s and I forget what new innovation in phones was happening just then, perhaps the switch from rotary dial to push button. Whatever it was, it’s ancient technology, given the complexity required to reach out and touch someone these days.

When I think of Mom and the telephone, I can clearly picture her chatting away in our kitchen, which is where she spent a lot of her time. That phone was aqua and the cord was long, coiled and could stretch as far as the dining room windows and out on the back deck, which was my spot of choice to chat if I needed privacy. Mom would talk on the phone as she cooked or washed the dishes and one day she had just put a frying pan with oil on the stove to heat for frying stew beef when the phone rang. Unlike me, she was never one to let a ringing phone go unanswered and rushed over to do just that. I was at the kitchen table doing my homework and can’t remember who called or what was so important but Mom forgot all about that oil and the next thing we knew, flames were shooting up from the stew pot on the stove! I yelled and Mom rushed over, grabbed the pot, dropped it in the sink and then, yes, turned on the water. I hope you know that you never put water on a grease fire but in the heat of that moment, Mom apparently forgot every bit of her Girl Scout training. We had a window behind the sink and when the water hit that boiling oil, the flames shot up even higher, catching the curtains on fire. Fortunately, Mom panicked, yanking the curtains down where they landed on the flames and smothered the whole mess. So, I think it’s fair to say that the phone was very important to Mom.

Mom loved April Fools jokes and was never happier than when we shuffled into the kitchen for breakfast, bleary-eyed and still thinking it was March, and promptly fell for her “look at the fill-in-the-random-animal!” jokes. As we grew older and wiser, we rarely believed there was a cardinal waiting at the kitchen window for our viewing pleasure or a squirrel on our back deck back eating acorns every April 1. And we began to fight back. Mom had a friend who was notorious for calling and talking for no less than 2 hours, ever. In the words of my British friend, “She’d make your ear bleed.” The best, and longest, April Fools joke I ever successfully pulled was telling Mom that this woman had called and needed her to call back—right now. It was important! I completely cracked myself up with that one as Mom shot me nasty looks over the receiver for the next hour or two.

The 1980’s found me in the Peace Corps living in Christiana—a central, mountainous town in Jamaica—where the only means of communicating back home was either a letter, which was typically a fragile blue sheet of airmail stationery, or the rare, maybe once a month or so, phone call home. Initially, nobody I knew had a phone in the Peace Corps so my only option for phoning home was to walk the mile or so into town on Sunday night and take my place at the end of a very long line of Jamaicans waiting for the one public telephone booth, which maybe used to be a booth but wasn’t really one any more as it no longer had four walls and it certainly wasn’t private. Once one person managed to get ahold of the international operator, which wasn’t easy to do, they would make their call and then pass the phone to the next person who would give their number and so on and so forth on down the line. And in this way, as long as somebody was home in RI to answer, I was able to chat for a little while. Everyone waiting in line listened to my end of the conversation, doubly so since I was the only white person and therefore the subject of endless intrigue. They monitored my time relentlessly, letting me know in no uncertain terms when it was time for me to say goodbye and hand the phone off to the next person. As time went by, we became friendly with the Chins who owned the market and sometimes they would let us use their phone instead. This entailed sitting in the dark, dusty back room of their store at a desk piled high with all kinds of stuff and chatting to Mom while staring at a jar of scorpions preserved in some kind of clear liquid which sat on a shelf just above eye level. So, it was really a toss-up. Either way, phoning home was no picnic.

Once I started having babies in the 90’s and they grew into walking, talking kids, there was no such thing as an uninterrupted phone conversation ever again, serving to increase my distaste for the phone even more. If I found myself suddenly all alone at some random time of day with my kids quietly occupied elsewhere and had the notion to dial the phone, inevitably, one of them would come running with some kind of emergency or another. And even if nothing was urgent, they all materialized out of nowhere, regardless, needing something right now. By then, we had mobile phones but if I walked away, they followed me. If I locked myself in the bathroom, they banged on the door. One day I had just stumbled in the kitchen door with my arms full of groceries and kids falling all around me noisily while, unbeknownst to me, the phone had rang and Micah had answered. He stood by my side amidst the chaos saying, “Mom!” and I finally turned and answered not pleasantly, “What?!” “Phone’s for you, it’s some lady from the church,” he said, handing me my embarassment. This did not serve to improve my feelings about the phone.

By the time I had four children, that had not changed. But perhaps the most defining moment of my relationship with the telephone took place on August 10, 1997, the day my son, Noah, died. After the accident, after the life flight, after they’d removed our son from life support, after life as we knew it had ended, the trained hospital professionals asked, “Do you need to call anyone?” And before I could answer, I found myself seated at a desk with a phone receiver in my hand dialing one of the few numbers I knew by heart. “Mom,” I said, inhaling sharply, “Noah is dead.”

In spite of that horrific call, I have never, ever called my Mom enough for her liking. And every time I did call, the first words out of her mouth were some snide remark along the lines of “Well, what a surprise, stranger,” followed by, “How come you never call me?” Even though never is a long, long time. It got so that every time I called, I braced myself. I tried deflecting, ignoring, and moving the conversation along, but she was relentless. If I reminded her that the phone worked both ways, she insisted she couldn’t call me because she never knew when I wasn’t busy. Even though I always reminded her that if I was busy, I’d simply call her back. It became tiresome to start every conversation fielding her criticism, but, still, I did call, usually in my car, usually once a week on one of several nights I drive Bella the half hour to or from dance.

Mom died in September. And now her cell phone has landed in the hands of Dad, who had previously only ever answered the phone to say, “Here’s Mom.” I still often call on dance nights. But when I call him, I sometimes still get Mom. It’s shocking. Mom’s voice hits my ear saying, “You have reached the cell phone of Carol Moore. Please leave a message and I’ll call you back.” Mom has become the person she accused me of being and the irony is not lost on me. Sometimes I have to hang up when I hear her voice as tears spring to my eyes. Sometimes I’m simply rendered speechless and can’t utter a single word. Her voice stabs my heart with accusation. Her words reside in the chamber of my regrets. She is never, ever going to call me back.