Category Archives: Family
I first stepped foot onto this property a little more than fifteen years ago. It was dusk. There was no driveway. Just an undeveloped two acres of wildflowers, forest, and the river. Thrills ran up the back of my neck, prickled my brain. “This is where I’m going to die.”
Beside me, Chris said, “So am I.”
He was eleven. All that was to come was still years away, not even a momentary consideration of a path on our horizon. I laughed. “I sure hope you’re not still living with us by then!”
I don’t remember exactly his response, but he said something about it being his house by then. We were moving into this new adventure, into this dream come true–a log home on the river, in the woodsy mountains, in this town we love–with every expectation of those in the prime of life with nothing but more good stuff coming our way.
Things don’t always turn out the way we anticipate. The weight of this house and all its echoes rests so heavily on me now.
ambivalent: n. in psychology, ambivalence is defined as the mental disharmony or disconnect a person feels when having both positive and negative reactions regarding the same individual, situation, or object.
This is what I am. I want to leave here so badly, leave behind this shattered dream, this too big house, the expense, the echoes of all the good and bad that happened here. But the thought of leaving rips me apart. How can I leave this beautiful piece of land, this house I dreamed of all my life? How can I leave Chris’ tree, the roof he built, the splatters on the wall from the chemical explosion that stunk up my house for days? How can I stay with those things, and not feel the weight of them forever? I want to go. I want to stay.
We need to go.
This house is too big. The property, too much. With Frank possibly retiring, our expenses need to narrow down to what we need, while still having some semblance of the life we’ve worked so hard to live. I WANT small. Cozy. A place just mine and his. No echoes of kids’ laughter in the rafters, or bangs in the night that meant catastrophe had fallen…again. I know this is right. And yet…
Ambivalence at its most visceral. It hurts. And it’s heavy. And I need to let it go. I know that underneath all the churning in my gut, my heart, my brain. In writing this, all that churning makes the computer screen blur and my flying fingers skip keys.
I know it’s right.
I know it’s right.
It’s time for a new adventure. We just have to take that leap.
Saint Anthony. That’s what I call my late-father-in-law whenever my husband waxes poetic about his wonderful dad. He was a good man, he had a good heart. He could also be an ass of epic proportions. He didn’t believe in sparing the rod, or spoiling the child. “Love them while their sleeping” was one of his catch phrases, whenever I hugged my children in his presence. He was also a raging misogynist.
But he visited every Sunday, and brought the kids donuts or lollipops. Jamie and Scottie were his grandchildren from day one. I loved him. We all did.
Just like I don’t downplay my brilliance or deny my less than stellar traits, neither will I do so for my beloved dead. Loving a person means doing so because of and despite their many quirks.
But today? I’m going to deify my beloved dead just a little bit, because it’s so very easy to remember the turmoil, and the sorrow they caused.
I see Brian every time I look at our GrandWilliam. The swing of his hair. The dimple in his chin. I know Will looks just like his daddy at that age, but I see what I see. I imagine the child Brian was, because I raised his son and now watch our grandson sometimes wander sometimes rage through his days. Sensitive. Sweet. Prone to indecision. Affectionate. I remember this Brian so well, and lovingly.
I know Chris’ facets, better than most. Today, I’m not dwelling on the chaos, but the calm. He was just so brilliant. A chemistry savant (not my words, but I agree.) He could discuss complex medications and how they work, why and why not, without ever having studied. Just show him the compounds, and in his head they created themselves the way composers see music.
He had a spark, that something that made him stand out in a crowd, and not just because he was 6’1″, built like a god, and gorgeous. It was in his smile, his charm, his great big heart. There was one time, during his bouncer days, an extremely drunk patron causing a ruckus had to be escorted out. Somehow, he wiggled lose and chomped down on Chris’ thigh so hard he ripped through his jeans and drew blood. The other bouncers called out for him to punch him in the face to get him off, but Chris didn’t. He didn’t want to hurt him.
He. Didn’t. Want. To. Hurt. Him.
It reminds me of when he played soccer, as a little, little boy. If the ball came to him but someone on the opposing team wanted it, he stepped aside and let him have it. His coach thought it was the sweetest thing. Like when he walked his little sister to her classroom every day, and gave her a kiss before she went in. All four teachers in that hall would stand outside their rooms just to watch.
He befriended every misfit, defended the picked on, patiently and competently taught others when they just didn’t understand. He shared his brilliance, not to show off, but because he loved to share what he knew, and see that spark when someone else understood, too.
Chris was insatiable. (Grace’s word, and the perfect one for him.) No matter what he did, he did it completely. Obsessively. Until he’d mastered whatever it was he did. If he loved you, he loved you entirely and without boundary. When he took up hunting, bowyering, chemistry, growing marijuana, beading, bodybuilding–he had to have all the right tools down to the smallest chisel or brush. All or nothing. That was Chris.
There is a negative side to everything. Both of these beloved dead ended up just that–dead, and way too young. I always thought Brian was too wild for this world, and Chris was too brilliant. Both of them were extremely sensitive souls who hurt as big as they lived.
I don’t deify the dead, as a rule, but once in a while, it feels nice. Necessary. And right.
(Feel free to deify your beloved dead. I’d love to know them.)
On the beach with my brother, talking in social debate as we do, he posed a series of questions concerning how much of a person has to remain for love to continue. A debilitating accident–do you still love him? Of course. No arms, no legs? Don’t be silly. More debilitating events–being mauled by a bear and such, and now he’s just a head, kept talking and feeling and thinking by science–do you still? Yes, absolutely. More misfortune; he’s just a brain, hooked up to a computer that lets him communicate and think and love. My answer is the same–yes, yes, yes.
Okay, my brother says, now the brain has deteriorated, and the entire essence of the man I love is put onto a flash-drive. He can still communicate with me. I can carry him around, plug him into this device or that, and we can talk, reminisce, experience, love. Do I still love him? Yes! But, he asks, do you love the flash drive?
I pause. Good question. I answer with a hesitant but definite, yes. He poses his final question–The flash drive is corrupted. You can no longer communicate. The essence is still in there, but no longer accessible to you. Now do you love the flash drive?
No, I had to admit. I don’t love the flash drive. I said it better on the beach, and wish I could remember my words, but the essence was: Once the vessel no longer services the being, the vessel becomes obsolete. I don’t love the flash drive that no longer houses my love.
This is what I love about conversations with my little brother; we rarely agree, but we always find some common ground (though he’s stubborn and doesn’t think I see his point of view. I always do. Seeing his point and agreeing with it are entirely different things.) Because we don’t agree, I think about the things we discuss long after we’ve parted ways. I pondered this conversation, on and off, the rest of the day. While still on the beach, my brother sleeping in the sun about ten feet to my left, I texted him the above words about the vessel and the being. “Thoughts are forming. I’m going to write something about this.”
After losing arms and legs and body, in bear attacks and horrendous events, the basic question, for me, was this–do I love the physical vessel once it is no longer servicing the person I love. Husband, parent, child, sibling, friend? No. I don’t. How could I bury a husband? Cremate a son? If I still held attachment to the vessel that once housed them. But do I love them still? Every minute of every day.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what my brother was getting at. It was more rhetorical, about how much of a person can one lose and still remain “in love” with that person. But, like I said, conversations with him always make me think, and this conversation was like a firecracker under my chair.
As all things do, these days, it comes back to Chris. His vessel was no longer serving him. It became obsolete. It was never the physical son I loved, but the being he is. The essence he will always be, no matter what form that essence takes. I will forever mourn the loss of his smile, his hugs, all the things he never got to do, that life was so hard for him. So painful. These are the physical things that matter for such a short time in the span of forever. I know that. I’ve always known. But this conversation with my brother brought it into sharper focus. It made me cry in every way there is to cry, right there on the beach.
I have no words for this. I tried to find them, to set them down, to find some meaning, some emotion, some anything. And I can’t. Not about this. I live it every day. It’s not like there’s anything new this day of days. The significance is surprisingly small, in the scheme of things.
Two years. Only two. So many more to come, just like these.
Dollbaby Week is always the first week in May. It has been so for fifteen years. Fifteen years. It’s hard to believe that first trip to Bald Head Island was in 2002. There are ten of us now, sometimes eleven. Only two of us from that original week still head to the beach every year, and two more from year two. Some dolls have only been coming a couple of years. Some five, six, seven…it doesn’t matter. Once a doll, always a doll.
The week is sublime, restorative, and full. We count the days down starting the minute we leave the beach (347 days as I write this,) and yet we’re ready to go home when it’s over. Being together is all the more cherished because our time is brief.
2015 was the first time I went to Virginia Beach in many, many years that I didn’t go with my heart in my throat. Things were all-around good. We’d survived addiction’s turmoil as a family, and had come out a bit scarred but definitely on the other side. Chris was out on his own, working a job he loved, doing well, it seemed. The cycle of chaos that typically poised to spiral out of control every spring wasn’t hanging over my head. I went to Virginia Beach secure in the knowledge no doom would fall while I was gone.
I was wrong. Only I didn’t know it.
It had been building, but Mother’s Day 2015 started Christofer’s last downward spiral that ended–finally, completely–on Father’s Day. These “holidays” will never pass without that knowledge, those thoughts. I came home from Virginia Beach this year, last year, facing Mother’s Day, and the countdown to my son’s last days. I hope, in time, it isn’t as raw; I know it will never be blissfully, bittersweetly overlooked.
I have never been a huge fan of Mother’s Day. I’m a mother. I have a mother. My daughter is a mother. How does one celebrate Mother’s Day without disappointing someone, right? Forgoing the day was not a huge sacrifice for me to begin with. Now, I’m glad to ignore it completely. It doesn’t change the bookended countdown, or the knowledge of it, but it does remove some of the emphasis. My kids celebrate me every day, with phone calls and texts and messages on Facebook. I don’t need a day to know I’m loved.
Now I sit here at my desk, absorbing Dollbaby Week in my mind, my heart, while trying to be at peace with the rest that comes at me this time of year. Leaving it all here on this page helps me do that, even while it makes it seem as if I need consoling, or a Xanax. I don’t. Honest. It’s because I have a place to put it all that I don’t. It makes me wonder how people who don’t write (or paint or make music…) manage to uncrowd their heads, unburden their hearts.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties,
we build up the world’s great cities.
And out of a fabulous story,
we fashion an empire’s glory.
One man, with a dream, at pleasure
shall go forth and conquer a crown.
And three, with a new song’s measure
can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying,
in the buried past of the Earth,
built Nineveh with our sighing
and Babel itself with our mirth.
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
to the old of the New World’s worth.
For each age is a dream that is dying,
or one that is coming to birth.
I used to dream of my late husband, Brian, on a regular basis, like a standing date kept. It always happened in the same setting–Goffle Brook Park in Hawthorne, NJ. We’d sit at a picnic table there, and catch up. He’d ask about the kids, about me, the family. Chit-chat, always pleasant.
Three years of dreaming him back into my world; and then I met Frank. I still dreamed him, but less often. Still the same, pleasant visit. Every time. And then I became pregnant with Christofer.
We met in Goffle Brook Park that last time, as always. I felt, more than saw, someone standing behind him. Brian was slightly uncomfortable. He looked at me, a little sheepish, and said, “Are you good now?”
“I am.” I remember smiling, and taking his hand across the table. “What about you?” I asked. “Are you good?”
He nodded and, one hand holding mine, he reached out the other and brought forth a young lady. All I remember about her was she had long, dark hair. Like his mom’s. Like Jamie’s. Whoever she was, she brought him happiness, and peace.
Memory is a funny thing. Unreliable, but absolute. This dream is as clear to me now as it was years and years ago, but who’s to say how accurate, how many embellishments or subtractions have been made over time? It’s what I remember. At the end of it all, it’s the content, not the detail, that matters most. He came to me, made sure I was finally okay, and moved on.
I miss him every. Single. Day.
I am not one for Heaven and Hell. Though I’m not arrogant enough to state any absolutes concerning what there is, or isn’t, after Death, I’m not a believer in one Almighty Being. Death is as big a mystery as Life, and I don’t have the mental capacity to unravel that mystery. I know what I know. I feel what I feel. And whether Brian used to visit me in some ethereal form or it was my brain pulling him back to that picnic table in Hawthorne, I felt him. He was there.
It has been 28 years since the last time I dreamed that so-real presence of him. Though I’m not 100% sold on any form of Afterlife, my leanings bend towards that karmic notion of learning lessons, moving on, coming back to learn those lessons still left. And now I have a new ghost visiting me in dreams. So imagine how surprised I was to find myself sitting across the table from Brian again, the other night, in a dream still so clear I can see his smile.
It wasn’t Goffle Brook Park this time, but the Train Station in New Milford, where I have held book signings, birthday parties, and baby showers. He flopped into the chair opposite me, slightly out of breath.
“What are you doing here?” I hugged him across the table. The happiness, it fills me even now.
I don’t remember his response, but it led to me saying, “Wow, I thought you were already back. It’s been so long. I’ve looked for you.”
“Nah,” Brian said. “I’m just not ready yet.”
There are dreams, and then there are visitations. There’s no denying which one is which. Not all dreams of Brian were visits from him, just like all dreams of Chris aren’t. But when they are there–conjured from my brain or in some ethereal form–they are THERE. Brian was with me, the other night, and knowing he is where Chris is makes me happy in ways I can’t quite articulate.
I had to immortalize my dream, here on this page, though I don’t imagine I’ll forget it any more than I’ve forgotten that one 28 years ago. Maybe, when I’m old and memories jumble, I’ll remember these dream-memories as awake-events. They’ll wend and weave around one another, bringing together those who could not have otherwise met. I like that idea, quite a lot, actually. All my beloved-beyonds are stored in the same place, why not let them dance?
What a great birthday. I saw both my girls, their lovely men, my grandbabies. I spoke to my son out in Portland, my parents, my siblings. Frankie D and I went to NYC with dear friends. Dinner was had–oh, my, was it had. I got to see Beauty and the Beast, and enjoyed it completely. LaFou (Josh Gad) was my favorite character, though Daniel Evans (DAVID!!! for those who watch Legion) and Emma Watson were fabulous. The whole cast was. Nice little changes made it new.
And then there were all the amazing, lovely, deeply appreciated messages on Facebook. I read every one, and hopefully responded to them all. You do me the honor, I can do no less than thank you.
There were also tears, for the one always missing, of course. There are always tears. They don’t ruin the good times, though. I’m learning to let them co-exist.
So thank you, everyone, for not just making my birthday fabulous, but my everything. Some lament social media, cyberworld, claiming it’s cold and dangerous and insincere. It can be, sure, but it is what you make it, what you allow it to be. For me, it’s just grand.
That nursery rhyme has been bumping about my head since touching down in Newark Airport yesterday. It was an amazing trip. I got to spend a lot of time with my younger brother and his wife (something I’ve never done) as well as my parents, older brother, and his husband, Jon (who I spend way more time with throughout the year.) Spain, France, Italy–it was beyond fabulous, a bit of a whirlwind, and unforgettable.
Viking does it right. The ship was gorgeous, lots to do without being all glitzy and “Las Vegas.”First class all the way. I highly recommend the line, and will take another cruise with them in a heartbeat. Food–A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. And plentiful.
I’m not going to recount day by day in great detail, just in recap. Barcelona is a gorgeous city I wish I’d had more time in. I saw some Gaudi, though not the Sagrada Familia Cathedral (I know, I know–insane!) As will become apparent as I recap, there’s only so much one can do in a day, timewise and energywise.
Toulon’s hightlight was actually a side trip to the little seaside village of Cassis. During the summer, it hops with tourists of all kinds, but this is pre-season and we got to walk around without the mobs. What a beautiful little city!
We went to a wine tasting (the area is known for its whites,) had coffee at a sidewalk cafe, ate candy, and then went on a scenic boat tour through the Calanques. Kind of like fjiords.
Corsica was like nothing I anticipated. As I learned, it’s actually part of the Alps, and until about 1936, the people lived up in the mountains like any other alpine community. The sea brought bad things like invaders and illness, so they kept to the interior. I wish we’d gotten to see some of that way of life, but the coast was gorgeous.
Firenze (how can I ever think of it as Florence again??) how I wish I’d had more time! But this was about getting the flavor, not the whole mouthful. Just being there was so…immersive. I felt the antiquity, the culture. Of course, there is David, but there are also many more masterpieces the Medici family left to the city of Firenze, under the condition they not only stay in the city, but remain visible to all. (Seen below: Rape of the Sabine Women, Perseus, and Hercules.)
Pisa, I was told, is the leaning tower and nothing more. WRONG! I could have stayed there many hours. We did the obligatory, “Hold up the tower!” pic.
Rome–it’s nothing like New York City, and everything like it. Busy, busy, busy. Shopping. People of all nations everywhere you look. Yet ancient. Wow. There’s no way to quite describe it. You’ve seen my pics, along with a gazillion pics of the Coloseum, the Forum, etc. Instead, I’ll tell you about the last night Frank and I had, alone, in Rome. Magical, actually, but we said so many times, “I wish they were here!” We had dinner in (supposedly) the birthplace of fetuccini Alfredo, and spent a few hours just meandering the almost catacomb-like streets of shops and shops and shops. A good way to spend our last night in Italy.
It’s out of order, but I saved Villefranche for last because it was my favorite stop, and totally NOT on the itinerary. When we got to Monaco, the high winds wouldn’t allow us to dock on that side of the peninsula, so we went around back and docked outside of Villefranche, France. I could have spent a week in this little seaside village with tons of history, a few little shops, and a pebbled beach. THIS is my speed. I appreciate the big cities for their culture and importance, but give me “little” any day. It’s just as old, and feels way more “real.”
We had lunch in a great place overlooking the Mediterranean, saw the Old City, walked along the seaside, sat on the beach, and drank coffee sitting on a couch set up on the sea wall. I had Viennese coffee. Mmmm….It was a magical day. (Mark and Elaine did get to Monaco. It was an option I decided not to take, and am very glad.)
Thus ends my European adventure. We had so much fun sightseeing and playing blackjack at the electronic tables during happy hour. Food and food and food. I hope we do this again, one day. Europe twice in a year is a bit much (first world problems, I know–poor me.) Spending time with Michael and Jon, Mark and Elaine, Mom and Dad was the best part of all.
And, of course, my Frankie D.
I’m usually much more present in this space. A lot has been happening; a lot more is due to happen soon, and ongoing. The novel currently going by, The Pen was picked up by Rachel Kahan at William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins.) I’m ridiculously happy and a little starstruck. I’ve been around the block a few times, but this is a new block with new people, and I imagine a new experience. Time will tell, and then I’ll tell you.
In a couple of weeks, I’m off to Europe with my parents, my brothers and their spouses. And Frankie D, of course. When I get home, edits from my editor will be waiting for me, so that’s actually something to look forward to leaving Rome for. Heroically Lost is nearly finished, first draft. Beloved Agent Janna will be sending feedback on our second round for Entangled soonish, and another new story with another new set of characters is already banging at my brain-doors. As my daughter, Jamie, has said–I poop books. I hope that’s always so.
And today is Christofer’s birthday.
Thunk, right in the middle of all the excitement, there it is. Of course, it’s no surprise. It didn’t sneak up on me. As it usually happens, there was a week of threatened rumbling on my horizon, but nothing to fear. Just a storm. Another storm. It would pass.
The anticipatory tension was worse than the event, to be honest. I’ve been okay. Not without tears, but okay. He was born today. Eleven hours of labor. The only time I gave birth without surgical intervention. And then I got to keep him for twenty-five years. A loaner. Part of me always knew he would be. I’d been telling myself from day one, with Chris, once he was gone, he was going to be gone. I never thought it would be quite so literal, but, there you have it.
Today marks one of the happiest days of my life; the day my second son was born. He was the linking piece in two families blended into one. He was loved. So loved. He still is. How, then, can I lament this day in any way?
I can’t say happy birthday. It just doesn’t feel right. Instead, I’ll offer him a smile instead of tears, and tell him his Turtle loves him so much.