My Favorite Job


There’s really nothing I like better than talking to a friend who is grieving. I wonder if that sounds strange. It has always been pleasurable for me, ever since I can remember. And I am so grateful that people often seek me out to talk to when they are in that state. Sometimes it’s people I don’t know. I can’t count the number of times I have sat down next to someone at a dinner for my husband’s work and found out minutes into the conversation that the person I’ve just met is grieving. I guess people can feel my willingness to talk about it and they just naturally share it with me. And maybe the frequency of that happening is just a coincidence. Maybe I’m just lucky.

Talking about grief is important to me because it’s something we all share. A point of connection. It’s like a club that everyone has to join at some point in life. And when I’m not in the middle of it, I can help someone who is. I can be a big solid tree limb to grab onto when the tsunami hits.

Everyone needs a lifeline sometimes. In fact, we all need a little lifeline every day. We need others to anchor us, get us out of destructive habits, help us remember to have faith in ourselves, and our situations. We all need at least a small branch to hang onto every day. But sometimes, we are so deep in our emotions, like when we’re grieving, or terrified of dying, or losing a relationship, in those times we need to reach out and ask.

Today I took a walk with a friend who recently lost someone. Walking is such a great way to approach grief because you don’t have to look at anyone if you don’t want to. It’s a way to make space and allow yourself to feel sad and also keep moving. And that’s really what grieving comes down to.

Toward the end of our walk I was reminding my friend, who is also a mother, to take care of herself. Just then we noticed a whole pile of white feathers on the ground. The site of some poor pigeon’s end. We gathered up a slew of them and I told her that I often see white pigeons on our street.

Years ago, when I was grieving my baby, a friend and mentor urged me to pay attention to the timing of things. I told my friend to make a little altar at home with the feathers and to keep her eye out for white pigeons and let them remind her to take breaks, to meditate for a few minutes when she needs to, or just remember the person who died.

There is no shame in asking for help. There is certainly no shame in giving it. I am so proud to call myself a healer. To know that doesn’t mean I’m special or different than anyone else. All it means is I am willing to walk down the scary dark alleys with people. I am willing to hang out in the windstorm and stick out my branch. I’m willing to look at anyone’s grief, to call it what it is (a natural process), to pick up a few feathers and toss a lifeline to whomever needs it.



July 27 1978

ansels tray

Another excerpt that got chopped from my book:



Too weak to write. I would like to die now.

Sue drops her pen onto the hard hospital mattress, the line just written reverberating. She wonders at how neutral she feels about dying now, compared to how worried she has been. There is a sense that everything is okay, and will be okay, forever. It has always been there, alongside or maybe underneath all the anxiety, but now it bubbles to the surface. She always knew it was the truth but had chosen instead to worry about things, and about time, a habit learned from her mother. Physical pain and emotional suffering were the big worries, and of course logistics. How would her husband get along? What will happen to the children’s scholarships? Her own games of fussing had provided a necessary distraction.

Sue sees herself falling in the kitchen, like a rerun on TV. Her greatest fear was being that helpless, that burdensome, and it infuriated her to have it realized. She felt like a whale, drowning on that kitchen floor. Her insistence on calling a car service was just her irrational fear of being that far gone. Then again, she couldn’t have planned it better. The fall had gotten her to the hospital, which is where she wants to be. Safe to die. She never wanted to die at home, with the kids around. Or Seth. Or anyone she loved. She feared them staring at a gray stiff body on the bed, her bloated belly taut. She wants a nurse for that scene.

She hopes she will die tonight. She lies with her eyes open, closed, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Her mind wanders off. It feels good to be rid of the anxiousness that has lived in her chest for as long as she can remember. It had grown worse over the last four years, her “battle” with cancer, which really did feel like a war of the worlds at times, obviously the culprit. Now that the fight is over the anxiety is gone. She senses it close by, wanting to get back in and have her worry about dying and what will happen after, but she’s not that weak. It’s all over now and she is ready. Her chest empty and light. The relentless pain that has been so busy eating away her life finally fading. The sun sinking into a watery horizon. The old hope for “improvement” that came to hold her life hostage finally snuffed out. The suffering that made the last weeks of living so intolerable has gradually spilled into pure exhaustion. The pen really is too heavy to hold. Her body feels something like a sponge, saturated, pure weight, absorbing the last bits of life and sinking, into the bed. Her prison home.

Her death sentence came in May when the cancer reached her liver, but it took a while for everyone, including Sue, to catch up. As her looming demise became clear to her, Seth and Jane, and even Kate, there was only the business of getting through each day. The tasks of brushing teeth and getting dressed became gargantuan chores. Two weeks ago she sat on the toilet, unable to lift up enough or bend over to wipe her self. Seth had to put on a raised toilet seat, which only worked for a few days before she needed a commode next to her bed. Sleeping pills and pain pills had to be crushed to get them down her swollen esophagus. She had blown up like a balloon.

She can hardly feel her body now. The days of worsening dysfunction just bad memories. Even the dull aches and sharp pains that have been her torture are losing their hold.

July 27th, 1978 and she is finally at death’s door. Her mind no longer grabs aimlessly for something to do. The task of working things out. What else is it good for? She notices a new kind of freedom she’s never felt. A fresh feeling beyond being untethered. Was she always tied to something before? What people thought? Ideas of the world and what it’s all about?

She is somehow floating, disengaging from the bloated weight on the bed. She is not dead. She knows that. She has no idea how to look into the abyss. Where is it? Is this her last choice?

She loves her life, her family, her friends. Already it all seems far in the past. It hasn’t been an hour since Seth left but it feels like days since she looked at his face. Goodbye in his eyes even though he said he’d be back in the morning. Sue hopes she will die tonight, but she has no more control over her death than she had over her life.

Forty-five years old. It was a decent life, short, but she’s not a child. She accomplished every goal she had. She married the man she loved, had a big family, contributed to the community, was creative in her work. What else is there?

The mind in free fall, she starts to see faces. The odd look on the doorman’s as Seth wheeled her through the lobby this morning. Jane’s teary eyes as she kissed Sue’s head. Dr. Farley and the visit with him a month ago, after which he was on vacation until today. Funny how the doctor she trusted most had disappeared in the end. His absence made her need to see him before she died. She still isn’t sure why. Maybe she wanted to see the recognition on his face that the war was over, but it didn’t happen. Farley wanted to do an X-ray. He couldn’t acknowledge her choice to face her own death. She suspected he wasn’t used to it, but that he respected it. He never came back to the room. Maybe he will, but she doubts it. She imagines him talking to Seth after she’s gone, telling Seth things he hadn’t been able to before. Or maybe Farley will brush by him like a stranger. That seems unlikely but at this point Sue is beyond guessing other people’s behavior. It might have mattered to her before, but no longer. Everything has that lovely quality to it of being supremely perfect just as it is.

She’s satisfied that she got rid of a lot of her things. Her clothes are still hanging in the closet, very few of them any use to her recently. The darkroom is all put away in case someone wants it and she’s left only a few of her files in the bedroom. Beyond her jewelry box and her books and photo albums, which she assumes the kids will want, she has nothing.

The slideshow stops. I’m ready, her mind says. Who am I talking to? She has no idea. I guess if there is a God I’ll find out soon enough. She smiles at her own joke and considers the possibility of a soul. She sees her own face, clear as a photograph in her mind. Not the round fuzzy mask with the sunken eyes and hairless scalp in the mirror. Her face. The one that disappeared slowly. Her brown hair curly and cropped close to her head, her soft blue gray eyes, her straight nose and full lips, her high cheekbones and smooth skin. That face seems to possess an image of her soul, she thinks. “That’s me,” escapes from her dry lips and gently startles her. She thought she was only thinking and yet she just spoke out loud by mistake, as if waking from a half-dream.

If she is dozing then she might also be dying. She lets that possibility sink in and feels a cool shudder course through her as she drops into the black.

Radiation Treatment



I recently gutted the book I’ve been working on for five years and with that process comes the sometimes (not often) painful act of discarding scenes I’d grown quite attached to. It wasn’t how long I had worked on them or fought to keep them in the manuscript that made me reluctant to let go, it was something harder to quantify. The scenes that were hard to part with were the ones that held some mystery for me. The one that worked in ways I didn’t quite understand but knew were effective. The following is one such scene that I feel deserves some semblance of a life, now that it has been taken from its original home.



Radiation Treatment


“Today they will mark you up,” says the nurse as she has Sue lie down on the table and open her gown. Dr. Larkin comes back in the room with an assistant who holds a measuring tape against Sue’s bare skin. The assistant draws two large overlapping rectangles on Sue’s chest under Larkin’s careful direction. One rectangle is made with black marker, the other in red. She can feel the line go high up onto her neck and wonders how she will cover it up. A scarf perhaps, though she rarely wears them.

“Don’t let it wash off,” Larkin warns as she gets up off the table. “They need to stay for a month until the treatments are completed.” Marvelous, Sue thinks, a month of washing my hair in the sink.

On the way home, Sue spontaneously gets off the subway at Canal Street. She’s been wanting a little Rollei camera for some time—and there’s no rush to get home. On the subway she was reading a book written by a cancer survivor, her picture on the cover made her look healthy and vibrant, her brown hair lively and full against the bright blue backdrop. The writer advised living in the present, being grateful for each day and enjoying every minute. Sue agrees. Not always easy to do but it was enough to inspire her off the train.

Camera Barn is loud and full of men in black coats even though it’s hot inside. Finally, after several minutes standing at the glass counter trying to get someone’s attention, a man with a long grey beard nods at her. She asks to see the Rollei and he brings over two used cameras in good condition. Sue chooses the cheaper one, playing with the functions on it to be sure it’s working well. She likes the way the lens pushes back inside the body so that the whole thing fits neatly into a leather case no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

Outside she bounces down the crowded hot street as if it were a beautiful spring day. Her treatment is finally under way, her body feels healthy and she’s got a great little camera to try. As she descends back down into the subway headed for Brooklyn, she makes a promise to herself to continue with her photography, for as long as she can.

A week later she goes back to the hospital for her first treatment. When she arrives back home late in the afternoon, no one is there. Sue moves around the apartment, the doors echoing against the silence when she moves from one room to the next. She considers calling Seth at the office, perhaps catching him before he leaves to tell him how she panicked during the radiation but thinks better of it. Opportunities to be alone are rare and she wants to enjoy her time. She prepares a simple dinner of leftovers and with the earlier promise in mind, sets up the darkroom.

She opens a cabinet and takes out chemicals and trays, clearing space for them in the utility room that doubles as a laundry and storage area. She has to put away a pile of Kate’s clothes before she can pull out the enlarger. She opens her binder of negatives and looks over the contact sheets with the magnifier. There are pictures of Annie, taken at the beach, a portrait of Shep she’d made him pose for, and some fairly abstract images of stones and seaweed. Her eye is drawn to a crab she had photographed in the sand. The claws sharply focused and the body a blur.

When all the chemicals are poured into the trays and the sink is set up for rinsing and the drying rack is plugged in she turns out the lights. The black reminds her of the void she experienced under the radiation machine. What is she really afraid of? Death has never scared her before but on the table the fear was terrible. She turns on the enlarger to set up the easel where the paper will go, the square of white like the irradiated rectangles on her chest. She stares down at the light considering how it oxidizes silver into grays and blacks to make a satisfying image, marveling at the power of it to change things. She carefully places the negative into the metal holder, lifts the lever that opens the enlarger and slips the plate in. When she closes it the room darkens enough for an image, upside down and backwards, the whites black and the blacks white to appear.



I’m not sure what happened. I know I was frustrated and in a hurry. I wanted to finish taping up the tarp I was fitting to our trampoline. I was tired and hot, and like a child had worked myself up into a frenzy to get it done when I ran out of tape. I was getting off the trampoline to fetch another roll when something went wrong. The crate I was using as a step spun away from me, I slipped off the trampoline and fell a full four feet, the dry grass rising in a spin to meet my face and my back slamming against the hard edge of the crate.

I lay on the drought-dry-as-cement dirt in the backyard and yelled my husband’s name.

I didn’t even try to move. I knew I couldn’t. My daughter came out to investigate. “Get Daddy!” I yelled and next thing he was hurtling down the steps and racing toward me. “I’m okay!” I yelled out. “I just can’t get up.”

I have never hurt myself this badly before. I’m too cautious. I play it safe, always have, and maybe I’ve been lucky too. But the only other serious injury I have sustained was a broken foot. That wasn’t as bad because it was one bone with a small fracture. Enough to warrant a cast and crutches, but at least it was all in one spot.

This time I bruised several ribs and countless muscles in my back and side which makes many things hard to do. Sleeping, standing, reaching, walking and sitting were all suddenly painful and difficult tasks. Driving was out, and so was laughing and, God forbid, coughing. Even burping hurt. It was awful. But my husband did everything as I laid in bed and took the time to heal. He kept telling me, you’ll get better, and I did. It will take weeks, maybe longer to heal completely, but after four days of rest I’m back to doing most things.

The timing is interesting. I always assign meaning to events like this. Especially when there’s no one but myself to blame. I tell myself, “this is actually a good thing!” and in many ways I believe that’s true.

Every part of the body is symbolic and the back, for me, is history. What’s behind me. My past. I have been housing some very old pain in my back muscles since I was in my twenties. I’ve tried stretching and massage and both help a lot, but if I really wanted to heal my back I would need to get serious about Yoga and have regular massage therapy. No, I have not done either.

This injury ignited all those tight muscles on my right side and then added a bunch more for good measure. The mild back pain I have suffered for years was suddenly in-my-face debilitating, along with a lot of new pain, but I knew I had it coming. I mean, here I am, putting more and more energy into getting my book out into the world, the book that tells the story of that old pain, the pain I’ve been carrying all my adult life and I’ve basically stomped on it with all my weight, all hundred and thirty pounds of me, landing on it hard. And I added a bunch of new muscles and threw in some ribs to get pounded on too, because life isn’t that neat and confined and if you’re going to get serious and stomp on old pain, you’re going to make some new injuries. All of it shows me how to live, how to jump off the trampoline with my eyes open and be ready to land on my feet, or fall and get hurt again, maybe even mangle myself worse next time. I know I’ll survive, and that it’s worth it to get this story out, let myself be seen, and set me, but more importantly my history, free.


How To Be Successful


The modern light-filled entrance on First Avenue was impressive. I pulled hard on the smooth silver bar and the large glass door opened so easily it threw me off balance. Luckily I righted myself and entered Belleview hospital on my feet.

When I was a kid Bellevue was known as a decrepit hospital, so the new entrance looked to me like a high priced facelift on the aging brick complex that eats up three New York City blocks between 26th and 29th streets in Manhattan.

All sorts of elderly people, young parents with small children, heavy slow movers and hyper young men in polyester business suits were flowing in and out of the many glass doors along with me. A big ramp that curved around fed us all into the sprawling lobby that seemed to have a cafeteria of some kind, maybe it was a café, at the far end and otherwise was a large empty space with hallways and elevators funneling off of it to different areas of the hospital. There were color-coded letters to guide you, and by looking at a large directory stationed in the center of the floor I determined I needed to follow the E in a green circle for what I was after: The Department of Personal Property.

I followed the green circle E signs, one after the next, through large rooms and odd passageways far less impressive than the renovated entrance. Eventually they led me to a long dingy hallway at the end of which was a window with three people stationed behind it like a post office or bank. Over each window was a sign. Two of them read “Metro Cards” and one said “Personal Property.”

There was a rope line with stanchions but no one waiting except for a woman with a stroller and two children, who didn’t look as if she was ready. She was getting something out of her purse for the toddler so I stepped around her to stand at the front of the line.

The older black woman beneath the Personal Property window said, “Can I help you?”

I was armed with a piece of paper that had taken three days of relentless pursuit to obtain. I pulled it out and said, “I am here to pick up my uncle’s belongings.”

My uncle is eighty-three years old, just a year older than my mother would be. If she were still alive, she would have been standing at the window instead of me. When her brother ended up in the ICU, I had flown in from California to try and sort out what might be the end of his life.

The letter in my hand was my golden ticket. It consisted of just a few typed lines with a long crooked pen mark across half of it, which was my uncle’s recent attempt at a signature.

When I first arrived in NY, I went the hospital to see my uncle and found his condition was poor. He couldn’t talk and was barely awake. Two weeks earlier he had fallen in his apartment, been taken to the hospital by ambulance, and been found to have pneumonia. He was recovering from that at a rehab center/nursing home when he had a heart attack and was resuscitated. Now he had a feeding tube up his nose, a ventilator attached through a trach in his throat, and many other tubes and monitors I couldn’t understand.

I stayed with my Dad and stepmother in Brooklyn, but I was determined to keep them out of it. I knew they felt responsible but at ninety-one and eighty-three, they really are too old to be taking care of anyone but themselves. After talking with them we decided my objective was simply to get into his apartment, find his will and hopefully his Living Will.

I went to my uncle’s building determined to talk my way in. I had no idea his little apartment was part of a huge coop complex that is corporate owned and operated, and that the rules in place are steel door tight. No one gets in. The head of security made it clear I would need Power of Attorney, which no one has for my uncle, or guardianship, which requires a court date. I begged her to consider my situation: A loyal homeowner was in the ICU and needed his healthcare documents. We didn’t know of anyone who had keys to his place. Finally she agreed that a notarized letter from him, granting me permission, would do.

Meanwhile it occurred to me that my uncle might have had his keys with him when the ambulance took him to the hospital. How else would they have locked the door? I guess someone from the building could have been there, like a security guard, but I had a feeling that since he was taken to the hospital after a fall, and not something more dramatic, that he would have grabbed his wallet and his keys.

The nurses I asked at Lenox Hill hospital said his chart stated that he arrived with nothing. I had to verify that fact by tracking down the security department and they confirmed that there was nothing of his in their possession. I spent the rest of my second day in NY calling the other three hospitals, in reverse order of his arrival to each of them, trying to find his wallet and keys. It took one entire day to negotiate each institution’s particular bureaucracy, find the right department, the right person to talk to, and leave messages for people who never called back. I was a pit bull going after the information by being obnoxious and persistent, until I finally reached the right people. Of the four hospitals I had to call, Bellevue’s phone system was the worst. The computer would hang up on me every time I tried to get to the Personal Property Department. Eventually I got around the problem by insisting people transfer me directly and got to the right person and her answer was music to my ears. “Yes, we have his belongings.”

“Hallelujah!” I said on the other end.

“But I can’t just give them to you. You’re going to need a notarized letter granting you permission to pick up his things before you come down here.”

“Can you tell me what you have?”


“Getting a letter from him is going to be very difficult. I don’t want to spend a day doing that to find out all you have is some clothing.”

“It’s not clothes,” she said. “It’s valuables. But that’s all I got to say.”

As soon as she said valuables I felt a blooming in my chest, a rush of relief. Valuables. It had to be his wallet and his keys.

My uncle’s life was a mystery to me at that point. He lives, or lived, a very quiet and solitary existence in his one bedroom coop in Chelsea. All I knew was that when I visited him a few months ago, I asked if he had a will and he said yes.

My uncle never had children and outlived his wife by forty years, so his list of living relatives is short. It’s just his half-sister, my Dad, and my three siblings. None of us are close to him. None of us ever spoke to him regularly. He was agreeable, always happy and never complained. We worried as he aged and developed diabetes and gained weight, but that was about all we did.

The next morning I Googled mobile notary public and up popped Christopher Santucci, on the upper west side. I called and he agreed to meet me at the hospital. I told him my uncle couldn’t talk and didn’t have any identification with him. He said it was fine, that he just needed my uncle to make an x on the paper, and two nurses who could identify him. We made plans to meet that afternoon.

When I got to the ICU my uncle was better, more awake than the day before, but still sedated. I wasn’t sure he would be able to sign something. I tried talking to him, explaining what I was trying to do without making him anxious or stressed. He agreed to give me permission to get his belongings from Bellevue and to go to his apartment. But I didn’t think he would be able to stay awake to sign his x. I canceled the notary, hoping my uncle would be better the next day.

In the morning I went uptown early and was pleased to find my uncle more awake. I called the notary who said he had other appointments but would try to make it. I called another mobile notary service as a back up and they said something that scared me. “We don’t do that. If your uncle can’t speak we can’t notarize anything for him. It’s a liability issue.”

I had a terrible sinking feeling. All the obstacles I had overcome meant nothing if I couldn’t get the letters signed. Suddenly defeat seemed sure. My aunt had said, “They’re never going to let you into his apartment,” and I had bristled at her pessimism. But maybe she was right. Maybe this was impossible. I could hear my stepmother telling everyone how I had tried, “bless her heart,” but failed to achieve anything. I could hear myself on the plane ride home, wondering what I was thinking.

But I had too much momentum and too much at stake to give up. I called Christopher back and he said he could come at 11.


I looked at my uncle and he smiled his big bright smile. He was looking pretty good despite the stubble getting long on his chin, and all the tubes and machines pumping everything in and out of him.

I explained the two letters again: One for the hospital and one for the building. I asked if he wanted to practice signing his name, but he shook his head no.

Christopher arrived and I pulled out my two typed up letters and walked over to the bed.

“I need you to sing here okay?”

I put the pen in my uncle’s hand but he couldn’t hold onto it. He was frustrated. I felt victory slipping away again. Christopher said all he needed was an X but what if he couldn’t do that? He grimaced and gripped the pen and scrawled his crooked line like it was the declaration of independence. It seemed to have taken all his strength and after both letters were signed, he collapsed back into his pillows.

Christopher asked two nurses to witness and confirm his identity. One had no problem doing it but the second nurse wasn’t sure. She was worried about liability issues, but Christopher had a way about him. He put her at ease. “It’s nothing sweetheart,” he said, “You’re just saying you know who he is, all right?”

And she signed.

So when I slid my driver’s license and the letter for Bellevue under the glass partition it was with great satisfaction and trepidation. At the hospital, I noticed a tan line where a watch should have been on my uncle’s wrist, and it occurred to me that the “valuables” might just be his watch and some cash from his pocket.

The woman took the letter and my ID and told me to have a seat. I sat next to a large man who needed my help when it was time for him to stand. He was big and it took all my strength to get him up. I stood holding him until he was steady on his feet.

The line behind the rope and the stanchions had grown to ten people in just a few moments. I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten there when I did and lucky to have found Christopher, the best notary in Manhattan.

When she came back the woman had a manila envelope with my uncle’s name printed across the front. My heart started pounding. She opened the envelope and pulled out an inventory list, and then a plastic zip lock bag. I practically fainted. It was his wallet and his keys.

I soared out of the gargantuan building and made my way back across town to his apartment. I knew he would be so happy to have those two things back. I knew they would make him feel a sense of security, which he needed and deserved. And I knew they would get me into his apartment and I would find his will and we would all rest easier. I stopped in a little Japanese restaurant to celebrate my success. As I slurped miso soup I realized I had never felt more gratified before. There was something about helping someone else, but also how hard it had seemed, how bad the odds, that it made winning incredible. I’ve never played on a team but this was what I imagined winning a big game might feel like. I had set a goal, and I had achieved it, and that is the key to success.

My Version of Faith

Bird on Sill

I believe in certain things. Myself. My writing. And I also believe that sometimes, if I am willing to step onto that ledge over the ice cold lake and dive, I will be rewarded.

It was a little crazy to go to a writer’s conference in Virginia, an event I’d never been to and at which I wouldn’t know a soul. But I’d never been to a writer’s conference before so I had no idea what to expect beyond meeting a lot of writers.

Now, flying home after absorbing what felt like a year’s worth of knowledge in three days, I feel like a genius. It was more than worth every penny I spent (not much) and every ounce of energy it required (a lot). I went with a damn good attitude and the goal of meeting agents who would tell it to me straight: Is my book even marketable? I told myself, that if it was clear no one was interested in the book, I would self-publish it as an e-book and start the next one.

I left LA at 4 in the morning and used Uber for the first time to get to the airport. My driver, who looked scary in his profile pic turned out to be so super sweet that it didn’t bother me when he pulled over on the freeway to check under the hood. He still got me there ahead of schedule.

Two smooth flights later I landed on the east coast. My Uber driver in Richmond wore a goatee as wide and thick as a wool hat. It was striped gray and made him appear to be part skunk. He was so excited that I came from LA he practically jumped out of his seat to list Richmond’s fabulous eateries and attributes.

So far I felt the Gods that control weather and traffic and getting mixed up with nice people were smiling on me.

So I was not surprised when I arrived at my Airbnb that my sweet young host showed me (with horror) bits and pieces of a pigeon’s carcass on her windowsill.

I had to laugh. Dead birds are usually a sign that I’m in the right place. I know that might sound weird but ever since my husband and I had a still birth and I started writing about it, and dead baby birds were littering my front porch, dead birds have become my personal totem. God knows I am fascinated with writing about death, illness and the sadness that is bound to follow those events. And birds are my obsession. So when I see a dead bird, it’s a tip off from the powers that be that I am on the right track and something good will come of whatever I am up to.

Boy was I right.

I met agents. I made friends with writers. I got tipsy with self-published goddesses. And I learned more than I ever dreamed about writing and publishing.

I got feedback on my book and after a handful of people all said the same thing I knew it was true: I have to kill off one of my main characters.

Now a week ago this would have terrified me. But today I feel empowered. I have written the book I needed to write for me. I have gotten all the therapy I ever needed from telling that story. So it’s okay with me if I have to mangle that baby into a new one until she can walk onto the shelves of the great bookstore in the clouds.

The bird is gone. Eaten by another bigger bird. And my book is going to be rewritten, one more time.

Where You Live: Part 2

hand hold

Where you live now is fifty blocks north of your apartment with the thirsty cockroaches. This place is squeaky clean and germ infested. The nurse’s shoes squeal against the slick floors, the elevator dings a sweet high note against the clatter of electronic beeps from the machines around your bed and the sirens howling down the avenues outside.

“It’s nice to see you,” I say.

I hold your swollen hand. Rub your puffed up feet. You want out of the bed you’re tied to. You shimmy your legs to the edge so they begin to fall but are held by the tight sheets and straps.

“You can’t get out,” I say. “They won’t let you out of this bed.” You have a tube in your throat and another in your nose. There’s a catheter where I can’t see and an IV in your arm. There are monitors surrounding your bed so they can read all your vitals on a big screen. There’s a machine under the bed that sighs once in while, squeezing your legs so the blood doesn’t pool up.

Your face is different then it was back in June when I saw you at home. The white stubble is longer, the bumped up skin and sores that look like forever more noticeable under these fluorescent lights. You look tired. Weary of the incessant care and attention.

You never did talk much. I’ve said that. So it’s ironic now that you can’t, that your lips move constantly. All the words you never spoke noiselessly escape you in a long string of not words; not sounds; only shapes formed on tongue. I watch carefully, trying to decipher the code but it’s no use.

I ask them if there’s a lip reader and they say no, almost laughing, like I’m crazy. Why not? There must be lots of cases like this one where they put a hole in the throat and the wind can’t get to the vocal cords. Maybe I can hire a professional lip reader. That must exist.

I hire a Notary who comes to your hospital home. I need you to sign something that says I can go into your apartment. You struggle to hold the pen. You make a face and I wonder if you know what you are doing until I realize the grimace is pure effort, and you heroically scribble long lines down the page.


I pretend I’m you. I open the front door to the building, open your mailbox stuffed tight with a month’s worth. I have a shopping bag in my purse for it all. I am so smart.

I put the key in your front door and it opens to where you live. Your face on the floor, behind glass. A chair on its side. A tube of toothpaste, papers, trash. I clean up. Imagine the EMT guys trying to get you on a stretcher in a hurry. It all makes sense.

In your bathroom a pair of soiled underwear on the floor. I find a garbage bag and toss them. In your kitchen a sink full of dead roaches get washed down the drain. On your desk the clothes you were wearing when they took you lie hastily discarded. I fold them up. I make the bed. I sweep more dead roaches into the trash. I order your desks. Look through your closets.

Your clothes are folded in your drawers and neatly hung. Your bank statements and tax returns all live in neat folders, clearly marked. I pick up your glasses, your watch, wondering if you want them. I look through your Rolodex and calendar. Like my nine year old, you use a ruler to cross off each day with a perfect X.

I sit in a chair stained brown. I open the drawers of your desk. I’m looking for your health care proxy, your will, and I find everything. All the records of your life in a neat stack. Birth certificate. Marriage certificate. Death certificate for your wife. Prepaid funeral arrangements so you can be next to her. Long lists you typed up of every employer, every school, every significant moment of your life. On your wall you have your birth certificate framed next to your diploma and a Good Samaritan award. Everything recorded, like history should be.

In the closet I find a coin collection. I remember when you gave up stamps and gave the collection to me because I was the only one who showed interest, which I lost fast. Maybe a year I did it. I loved the colorful ones, and the ones that went together to form a bigger picture. But most of them were dull and pointless. Thick notebooks full of little scraps of plain sticky paper.

I look for the rest of your stuff but there is nothing. You lived simply.  You were a photographer during the Korean war. You laid in the belly of a plane taking large format aerial photographs. I talked to you about it years ago, when I was a photographer too. But where are all the photographs you showed me back then?

It feels good to close the door. I left your place tidy. I swept. I sorted all the mail into neat stacks. Wiped down the folders covered in roach scum.


It feels good to go back up town and put your wallet and keys in your hand. You are pleased, but unsure what to do. I explain the hospital will hold them for you, for when you get out. We both wonder about that.

It feels good to put the words in your mouth I know are there. To verify your wish to die if it gets too hard. You have thank you written all over your face. Yes I know. I also know it feels good to do things for people who can’t. We don’t get that many chances. And I have you to thank for this one.

Where You Live: Part 1


There are cockroaches in the bathroom, drinking from water droplets in the sink. A brownish crust around the edge of the hot water faucet is taking over. The linoleum floor with the faded squares of orange is worn through to the floorboards at the threshold. You must have a habit of taking a heavier step every time you enter, or something. The light switch has a thin layer of gray built up around a smooth cream colored halo close to the toggle and I can see your hairy finger reaching for it in the dark, night after night.

The smell of rotting takeout that pervades the kitchen makes its way through the living area, down the hall and into this tiny washroom. Or maybe it comes right through the wall. I wash my hands in the sink, ignoring the roaches and wipe them on a towel so threadbare my fingers go through.

I peek down the hallway to your bedroom. I’m curious. There is a desktop computer with papers piled beside it and a newspaper on the chair. So you do read. You keep up with the world in some way. I imagine a young person (but who?) coming to the apartment to set it up for you, explain how to use it and ask you what you’d like to do. I wonder what you told them.

I go back to the living room where you sit on the seat of your walker and my girls sit on your grey with dirt couch. They look at me a little uneasily having eaten all the donuts we brought for you and not knowing how to behave in this foreign world of yours. I think the last time I brought them to your apartment was seven or eight years ago when Frances was still a baby and Grace was four or five. Neither of them remember.

I sit down across from you at your little dining table. You grin at me with your arms folded across the top bar of your walker. You’ve lost weight. Like a slightly deflated beach ball rather than the one that was filled to bursting last time.

“It’s nice to see you,” I say, even though I think it might be the second or third time I’ve uttered those exact words since we arrived fifteen minutes ago. I can’t think of anything else and the questions I told myself I would ask are sitting in my belly like black coffee in an empty stomach.

You nod in agreement, squeezing your eyes shut while a big smile stretches across your face. This is your preferred method of giving an affirmative answer, so it comes as some surprise when you open your mouth, strings of saliva in the corners, your voice rough and wet sounding and say, “Its nice to see you too!”

Your eyes sparkle against the bumpy pale skin that surrounds them. Little growths have sprung up over the years the way they do. Also hair. A patch of fine black ones grace the top of your cheek bone, a different breed than the white stubble around your chin.

Your voice is deep and uneven as a gravel road. It’s immediately reassuring, attached to memories stretching back to my own birth. It’s not like Dad’s voice or my mother’s or my grandfather’s. It’s all yours. Familiar and from the past.

“The problem with your uncle is he doesn’t talk!” said your nosy neighbor on the phone. She looks after you, calls my father when the paramedics come because you’ve fallen again, and let’s us know when she’s concerned.

Your lack of interest in complying with what most would call normal levels of conversation is only a problem for the rest of us. But your neighbor is right. It is a problem.


Order and Solitude

Empty House

It wasn’t that easy to go straight back to the house after dropping my kids off at school on Friday morning. I felt a familiar pull telling me I should celebrate this incredible gift of an unplanned weekend all to myself. Instead of going home to write, I should go grab a nice pastry and a fancy coffee drink. Maybe call a friend. Take a hike and wallow in the vista of time in front of me. Three and a half days.

My husband was already out of town when my kids were invited to go away with friends who would pick them up from school. As soon as I dropped them off I had nothing to do. They had packed their own bags the night before and I had kissed them good-bye and said see you Monday afternoon.

And it was only Friday morning.

But I did. I went home. I opened the door and the cool breeze of air conditioning wrapped around me. I set my purse on the floor and went straight to my husband’s espresso machine and made a latte. I stared at the clothes on the floor, the shoes in the corners, the disheveled books on the counters and tables and dishes in the sink and asked myself how I really wanted to spend this precious time. Would I clean up? Or just get to work? Should I pile my dishes on top of the girls’ breakfast plates? I went into the bedroom and my crumpled sheets bothered me. Again: How shall I spend my time? Shall I write, or clean first?

I went to the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet I considered my options. It seemed obvious that I should put all my energy into writing. I was a third of the way through a final edit on my manuscript and I could easily finish it in three days. Maybe even two. Shit, with all this time and nothing else grabbing for my attention I might be able to pull it off in one damn day.

If I was really going to shift out of the chaos of normal life, ignore my to do lists for three days, and let the house go; if I was really going to only read and edit and eat and sleep when I had to, then I definitely needed to meditate first.

Often when I meditate I get a very clear picture of what I need to do and this was no exception. I saw my empty house. I saw the beauty inherent in fending only for myself. And I saw order and cleanliness. I saw clear counters, an empty sink and a neatly made bed.

Ahhhhh order. My long lost friend!

When I was finished with the mind clearing I made myself a simple breakfast of toast with butter and jam, washed the dishes and wiped the counters, put in a load of laundry and made my bed. It was already eleven by the time I sat down to work, but I didn’t get up again, except to stretch, until it was getting dark out and I was getting hungry.

I opened the fridge and pulled out cheese, leftover greens and a beer. I ate, lay on the bed and read until I was falling asleep. In the morning I woke up early, and started writing. When I got hungry I made food. When I got bored I made tea to keep my hands and mouth busy and kept on writing. A friend called to invite me to dinner. I worked up until the last possible moment before it was time to leave, enjoyed a delicious meal and great conversation, talked about writing and came home and went to bed. The next day I woke up early and told myself, if I got all the way through the second section, I would reward myself with a swim.

For three solid days I worked. I kept my house clean and put away everything I used when I was finished with it. The bed was always made which kept me from crawling back into it. I had my choice of spots and moved like a cat from room to room, settling in to different positions, always straightening the pillows on the chair or the couch, putting everything back in order when I changed to a new one.

It took all three and a half days but I finished the edit. I enjoyed every minute of my time. I enjoyed the peace and the focus it allowed me to stay in the story the entire time. It was an amazing gift that I will not soon forget.



A Proper Burial


My nine year old discovered a dead mourning dove just as I was starting to make dinner. I called to my husband, “Can you please take care of the dead bird on the lawn?”

His snarky reply was, “but you’re the one who deals with dead things in this family!”

I sighed and washed the garlic off my fingers. Fine. I’ll just put it in the trash. No need for ceremony. It’s not like it was a pet.

I walked out the front door and the grey lump stood out immediately on the brown grass, perhaps a fellow drought victim. Its head was tucked under the wing, the way they do when they sleep, but it was clearly gone, looking deflated lying on its side, like a popped balloon.

I didn’t touch it. Mom always said not to touch dead birds because they could carry disease. It didn’t look sickly but it was too far from the window to make sense as a suicide. Maybe it just fell from the sky.

Sigh. I couldn’t just put it in the trash. Everyone deserves a proper burial and it wouldn’t be that hard. The ground was soft after the hard rain we got earlier in the week, and dinner could wait.

I walked down our long driveway to the back of the yard to scout a spot that wasn’t already taken by my old cat, Jane and the two (or was it three?) various species of birds buried in my little graveyard. Death does seem to follow me around. When I was grieving our stillborn daughter Keirnan, I would find dead things all the time. There were house finches nesting in the eves of our Spanish tiled roof and little baby birds that never made it out of their eggs were landing on our doorstep regularly. Just before publishing my book about her, we went to visit family up north. When I took a walk by myself I counted five dead deer in different spots alongside the road.

My eighty-something uncle is in the hospital on life-support. He has lived alone for most of his life, though he was married at one time. His wife, like his sister, died young of cancer. When I visited him this summer he struck me as terminally happy, leaning forward from the seat of his walker and grinning at me while I talked. He doesn’t say much. Hums to himself when he walks, pushing the walker in front of him and says yes by blinking the long lashes above his eyes. When he does speak his voice is rough from being used so seldom. We brought donuts but he didn’t have any. He consumed me and my daughters with his eyes.

I am bracing myself for his death and it occurs to me that he would want a proper burial. I don’t really know. We never talked about it and no one knows what is in his will. We don’t know if he has many friends left. But though I spied a computer in his bedroom, he lives like someone for whom the world is not marching forward. Modestly and without making much of a footprint. Perhaps he wants to be cremated, his ashes sprinkled somewhere without a funeral at all.

It felt good to dig my little spade into the earth. I had to jab it hard to get through the tough roots from my neighbor’s tree and get down deep enough for the bird to rest in peace. I upgraded to the larger spade and dug deeper, telling myself through tears that everyone deserves a proper burial, not some half-assed shallow grave.

I know I feel guilty for not visiting my uncle more over the course of his life. I feel badly not knowing what he wants us to do and wishing I had pressed the issue when I saw him last. I cried as I dug, wishing death wasn’t so hard to bear, adding another soul to my odd little cemetery, hidden in the back of the property, where no one will see the little unmarked graves.

I carried the big spade with me back to the front of the house and rolled the bird onto it with a stick. It was lighter than air and its eyes had gone white. I stared at it as I walked back down the long drive, then spoke. “Here we are processing, little bird.”

I laid him or her down into the hole and told it, “Here we are putting your body to rest so your soul can rise up.”

It doesn’t really get easier. When you’re young death is shocking and makes seismic shifts in your perspective. But as a middle aged person it’s still hard to let go, watch someone suffer, say good-bye. I can kid myself that I’m used it, a pro who likes to talk about death and grief so much that I can handle anything. I probably can. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I don’t fall apart in the shower or weep with a shovel in my hand.