Monthly Archives: July 2015

I heard every breath you took

When you were born, you slept in a bassinet next to my bed. I slept with my hand on your tiny back, making sure you didn’t stop breathing in the night.

When you were little, in your own room, I’d get up in the night, unable to sleep until I made sure you, your sisters, your brother, were breathing. I really did. Right up until you were all teenagers, and we moved to the house on the river.

When you were older and battling heroin, I listened for your breathing. Through the kitchen floor. I knew what to listen for. The ragged gasps of your respiratory system struggling. I’d race upstairs and breathe for you, hold you through the night and make sure you kept breathing. In and out. Heartbeat bumping. In and out. Sometimes you’d stop breathing, for a moment longer than you should have. I’d shake you. You’d draw in. In the morning, you were so sorry.

When you were clean all those years, I sometimes still listened, standing in the kitchen, beneath the floorboards of your room. I’d stand there and cry to hear the silence, or a little snore. I stopped listening, and started sleeping. Then you moved out into a life of your own, and I thought my days of listening were done.

I didn’t listen when you came home again. Those heartbending years were so far in the past. This was just a bout of depression, nothing we hadn’t handled before. We were already on it. You were coasting, you said, until it lifted.

You went silent.

You slept a lot.


But you were screaming and screaming, weren’t you. I didn’t know how to listen to this new kind of silence. In the frenzied chaos of those first days battling all that went on in your head, I knew what to see, to hear, to look for. But this? Not this. My guard was down. You’d made it through! But I forgot to never say never.

You went upstairs to bed, to die whether you meant it or not. I don’t know if you struggled to breathe, or simply stopped. I wasn’t listening anymore.

Now I see all too clearly. My failure. Ultimate, and complete. Irreversible. Hindsight is ever the cruelest of things. It shows me daily all the ways you were screaming for the help you didn’t get. It shows us all, now that there are no breaths left to listen for.


Filed under Family

Misunderstood, misrepresented, and maligned

Everyone has a story. Everyone. Even those society dismisses as just another fill-in-the-blank. They are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters.  They are fathers and mothers. Friends and lovers. They are someone’s joy, and heartbreak. Sometimes they make bad choices, or fall through the cracks. They become just another when we don’t know their stories; this is one of them.


Christofer DeFino was an off-the-charts brilliant, handsome young man. He was always ready to help out a friend, go above and beyond any expectation. He was one of five children, from a good family, a fairly traditional one. Dad worked a job that provided well for his family. Mom stayed home with the kids. Chris became an unofficial Girl Scout when his mother took on his sister’s Daisy troop, and the archery guy at Clatter Valley Day Camp for many years. He went to college, worked as a chemist in the up-and-coming field of medical marijuana—a field he was passionate about—sang karaoke whenever he got the chance, and hit the gym most every day. Everyone remembers his easy smile, his famous hugs, and that he never passed on by someone in need. Chris loved his girlfriend, his family, his friends, sushi, and chicken wings from TK’s. He had three goals in life, make a difference, get married, have kids.

And then there was the Chris few ever saw.

A freak accident at fifteen left him with a crippled leg, chronic pain, and PTSD. No, it is not just for veterans. In his head, a constant chaos of thoughts and feelings he couldn’t turn off. The cycle of surgeries, pain, anxiety and depression led to using painkillers, and when they became too expensive, heroin. He battled heroin for three years, and won with the help of a good doctor, a few good friends, the love of his family, and some heavy-duty anti-anxiety medication. He stayed clean for three years, got the anxiety under control, and felt like he was finally going to be ok. We all did.

In April, he got the job of his dreams, moved out of his childhood home, and was happier than he’d ever been in his life.  Come June 22, he was gone. Accidental overdose. It was three weeks from the time he realized the depression wasn’t going away to the day he died. Three weeks. It happened that fast.

When someone has cancer, no one says it’s their fault, that if they’d only been stronger, it wouldn’t have happened. If that same cancer patient goes into remission, then the illness returns three years later, no one passes them off as being weak or flawed or otherwise dismissible as “just another cancer patient.” And yet society does this to those suffering from these mental illnesses even doctors admit to being flummoxed by.

There is no saying why some people with cancer get treatment and beat it, while others with the same cancer, getting the same treatment, don’t. Sometimes, a person suffering depression or any other label-of-the-masses mental illness gets treatment, gets well, and manages to live a productive life. Sometimes, they don’t. It’s not their fault. They didn’t ask for it. And yet the stigma is undeniable. They’re told to smile, feel better. What does a handsome, intelligent, well-off, twenty-five year old have to be sad about? The choices they make are desperate ones, because not only does no one understand, no one seems to want to.

I write this today as a battle cry, mixed in with motherly love. Drugs, alcohol, reckless behavior of any kind is a symptom of something more, something bigger, and something no one wants to know about. It’s easier to dismiss them as addicts, their actions as irresponsible decisions made of their own free wills. When someone suffers from this kind of mental chaos, turning off becomes the only way to get some relief. No one chooses heroin for fun. No one gets fall-down drunk on a daily basis because it’s what kids do. No one races their car at a hundred miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic simply because they like the adrenaline rush. Look behind their curtains. See what’s really going on.

We did look behind our son’s curtain. We knew what was going on. And we thought we were addressing it as we had in the past. Chris didn’t make it. Why? We’ll never have real answers, but one thing is certain—the mental health issue is still horribly misunderstood, misrepresented, and sadly maligned.

No one could have fought harder than Chris. His courage and strength in the face of all his pain faltered, and in that faltering, he made a terrible decision. One that cost him, and those who love him, his life. We can eradicate heroin from society, jail every dealer who ever dealt, but until we learn more about anxiety and depression, especially in our young people so obviously at risk, we’re going to keep losing them to their own brand of helping themselves.

Because the dark pit they’re desperately trying not to fall into is that terrifying.


Filed under Family

Lizard dreaming

I stood atop a tall pine, upon the very highest branch;

The place where a star would go

On a Christmas tree.

Needles rustled in the wind

that tossed me gently back and forth, but I

held my balance. In my hand, a string.

Attached to the string, a lizard.

I turned slow circles, trying to teach it how to fly

It lifted its face to the wind.

I let fall the string.


I heard you whistle yesterday. Sharp,

abrupt, one shrill blast like you used to do;

Breath forced between teeth, tongue, lips.  Wind

in a lizard’s face as it tries to fly.


High atop that pine tree, standing in that place

a Christmas star would go, I had no idea

how to get down to the ground again.

The lizard was gone. Flown or fallen.

Free, or dead and just as free.

The wind gently tossed. How do I get down?

And I laughed, because I already knew how.

So simple. Even a lizard

could figure it out.

All I had to do was wake up.


Filed under poetry

Never Trust A Thesaurus

The thesaurus is an integral part of a writer’s toolbox. Whether it’s the one programmed into our computers, online, or a book on our desks, we need them like we need water, air, and chocolate…and cats. But they are not to be trusted. They are, after all, tools, not sentient beings who can judge which nuance of smell we actually want when looking up the word. Not only is getting the right nuance important, it’s interesting to know how such a nuance came into being.

So let’s take a few alternates for the word, smell as it pertains to the function and perception of the olfactory organs in our noses. Aroma, reek, fragrance, odor, scent, stench, bouquet, perfume, stink. All of these words come up as alternates for smell, but each one has a slightly different definition. Using a word effectively, whether striking that exact imagery, or purposely turning it on its head, means knowing that definition.

Latin cognates:

aroma: generally a pleasant smell, easily distinguished and equally pervasive, spreading around its source.

odor: a clearly recognizable smell, normally issuing from a single source, as often pleasant as unpleasant.

French cognates:

fragrance: a pleasant, sweet, delicate smell

scent: a distinctive smell that can be pleasant or unpleasant; also refers to the trail left by the characteristic smell of an animal.

perfume: a pleasant smell, more intense than a fragrance; also, a smell so strong that it becomes overwhelming.

bouquet: a delicate smell, often pertaining to wine.

Old English/Germanic cognates:

stench: a strong, foul, sickening smell; always used negatively.

stink:  a strong, sharp, and highly unpleasant smell.

reek: a strong, offensive smell

Obvious differences, right? But look closer at where these words came from. Do you notice anything else?

English was a tri-lingual language. It grew up Saxon/French/Latin. Words used in the sciences can usually be traced back to Latin. Words used in the arts, culinary and otherwise, are usually borrowed from French. The meaner language of the commoner usually derives from the Germanic branch of the family. There was a hierarchy back when England was speaking three languages, the Latin being the high speech of scholars, French being the language of the royal court and higher society, and English being the language of commoners. Note the nuances of the above words–is there not a “higher” meaning to the French and Latin cognates? Even the word smell itself, the most common of all the above, is Old English (perhaps Old Dutch) in nature.

Would you, as an English speaker, say, “I love the aroma of coffee,” or, “I love the smell of coffee”? Most times, we’d say smell, because saying aroma seems almost pretentious. As writers however, we get to play around with words. The old man’s fragrance can be the stuff of legends, because that’s taking the actual meaning and poking a little fun. And while we generally  wouldn’t say we love the aroma of coffee, we might write that the coffee’s aroma permeated the bakery.

Such fun, words.


Filed under Writing is Life

Summer 2015

The thorn in my thumb hurts

Like the drag on a cigarette, nicotine

prickling, the protest of clean lungs, like

a needle in a vein


Who is she, this mother of ghosts?

Collector of their stories, teller of their tales?

I thought she was gone so long ago, but she

was only waiting to be needed again.

She is needed.

She is here.

She is vulnerable and in that vulnerability, powerful.

She is silent, but she speaks.

She speaks.

She’s speaking now.


Filed under poetry

Passive construction is not the enemy

(This post had been scheduled to post on June 23. I rescheduled it for now because this is still a writing blog, and I’m still a writer.)

In 1918, William Strunk, a professor at Cornell wrote the original Elements of Style. At the time, it was little more than a pamphlet, privately published in 1919, then by Harcourt in 1920. EB White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) had been a student of Strunk’s, and expanded upon his old prof’s work. In 1959, Macmillan published the Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, we are all familiar with today.

Strunk and White–those paragons of all things grammar, had a lot of great things to say. They also had a lot of opinion and personal preference down as fact. One of them was the absolute mandate that we eradicate passive voice from all written work. Writers are taught to always choose the stronger verb, and that is a good, basic rule. Many of us do it instinctively without ever really knowing why we do so, why it sounds better. But knowing why always makes it easier. Alors…

She was running down the street.

She ran down the street.

That’s the difference we often think of when we think passive vs active. Really, that’s the difference between the past progressive and the past. But we all know that “was” denotes passive, and it’s often true. If there’s nothing after the progressive form, then it’s not necessary to use it. But-:

She was running down the street when the meteor hit her.

Would you write–She ran down the street when the meteor hit her? No, you wouldn’t. It’s awkward. See? How about this one:

She ran  slowly down the street.

She jogged down the street.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with either, but the first is passive and telly, while the second is stronger, and always preferred by readers, writers, and editors alike. But then there’s this kind of passive voice:

She kissed him.

She gave him a kiss.

They say completely different things, and this is what is meant by “sometimes passive voice is ok.” It’s never saying we should use the progressive willy-nilly, or an adverb when a stronger verb is available. Using the more passive phrasing is right when it changes the meaning of a sentence. In the first, it’s an open-ended thing. She kissed him. It might have been long and sensual, short and sweet. Those three words open the door wide, and context will give the reader the clues needed to decide what, exactly, they mean. It’s powerful, and infinite, and open to interpretation.

She gave him a kiss. What do you “see?” You get that it was a peck, done and over with. Context will show if it was reluctantly done, or innocently, coyly, seductively. But it was one kiss. Done and over. Let’s expand just a little.

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. He opened his mouth, to speak or shout or wail. She kissed him. The tension in his body eased. “Don’t go,” she said. And he didn’t.

Insert she gave him a kiss, instead. Yeah, doesn’t work so well in this context, does it. Now try this one:

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. She wasn’t ready, even if the tension in him proved his need. She gave him a kiss. “Good night,” she said. and ducked inside.

Insert “she kissed him.” Well, it works better than the other flip, but it doesn’t say it completely. She kissed him could have been longer, maybe with a little French action going on. But she gave him a kiss is the nervous peck easily envisioned. No guessing. Not up for interpretation. Sometimes, it’s what we need.

I tend to be more prescriptive* in my writing. The descriptive** route will often date a piece of work, make it less identifiable to readers a decade down the line. The same holds true with prescriptive grammar, because grammar rules change, and what we consider proper grammar now won’t be in a hundred years. Like split infinitives. Don’t get me started. You might be surprised to see which way I lean on those.


*prescriptive grammar: A set of norms or rules governing how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is actually used. 

**descriptive: An objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language.


Filed under Grammar

Of signs and comfort

This isn’t going to turn into a tribute site for my son. Promise. Modesty is for Suckers is a writer’s blog, not a grieving mother’s blog, but I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. I keep no secrets. I hold nothing back. And this is now part of my life. It’s going to be reflected in my writing. Thirty years after my first husband’s death, he still makes it into everything I write. This will be no different. Nothing’s going to stop it, even if I try.

I am a writer. Those of you who claim the same know that we think differently. It’s our job to make characters, their worlds and their circumstances, believable. We notice things others don’t, because in those tiny details, our stories not only come to life, they dive to depths a reader might not actively notice, but will absorb all the same.

During these harrowing days, I’m still noticing. I’m not looking for signs from my son that he’s near, and maybe that’s why he’s been so blatant about nudging me. It wasn’t just finding his door open the day after it all happened, when I know my husband had purposefully shut it the night before, or his cat being in there and refusing to come out. It wasn’t just the little black squirrel at the feeder when I’ve never seen one before or since. It’s not all the people sending me messages about spotting deer and having an overwhelming feeling of him. It’s not my friend showing up with a gift for me, a little turtle with the words, “One Day At A Time” on it’s back–she had no idea his nickname for me was Turtle. It’s not even the tapping on my shoulder through the shower curtain yesterday, or waking up this morning to find last night’s locked door wide open to the new day. Coincidence? Chris? As I said in my last post, whatever it is, so be it. I’ll choose to believe what I wish.

Aside from the poem I wrote about in my prior post, there was one undeniable message that I think you’d have to have been here to truly believe. I’ll do my best, but I’m still kind of stunned and trying to find a scientific explanation for what happened.

Chris’ girlfriend spent the night with us a few nights ago, and mentioned that it upset her to see his door closed. My son was always freaky about keeping his door closed, even when he was little. He didn’t like the cats in his room (maybe because Gyro peed on his bed twice when we first got him!) It was just his thing. But I agreed with his girlfriend. I didn’t want the door closed either. So upstairs I went, armed with one of those rubber, wedge doorstops. I jammed it under the door, tested it to make sure it would stay, and got to work writing in my loft.

Hours later, the door gently closed. Not a slam, just softly. There really wasn’t a breeze, but I hadn’t been paying attention. I opened the door up again, but found that the rubber stopper wasn’t there. It hadn’t wriggled free. It hadn’t been pushed with the door as it closed. The damn thing was all the way across the room, as if kicked, and in the opposite direction of what it would have been had the wind closed the door. I tried every which way to get it to do it again, but there’s just no physical way the stopper could have ended up where it was, especially given that the door gently closed, not slammed.

I said, “Fine, Chris. I’ll leave the door closed for now, but only for now.”

His room is mostly empty. We kept a few things. I don’t want to erase him from this house, but I can’t bear leaving things as if he’s still here, either. I’m not going to see that smile, hear him call me Turtle, get wrapped up in one of those big hugs of his, but I feel him whether I like it or not. He’s going to make sure of it. And I’m so glad.



Filed under Family