My sister finally died (for real)

My sister’s been dead to me for years, but last fall she decided to finally make it official. Funny, it wasn’t the decades of abusing crack and heroin that did her in after all. She slipped in the shower, broke her ribs, and came down with pneumonia in the hospital. (Like mother, like daughter, if you know the story.)

I was ready for the call; hell, I waited for it for, what — 23 years. Still, it hurt to hear my sweet niece tell me that her mom had died. The funeral was outside, graveside, underneath gnarled trees shedding fiery leaves on a glimmering fall day. It was painfully beautiful. There was a rabbi, a gaggle of old relatives, and a surprising number of more recent friends. My niece, Sarah, and her fiancé, Dan. Kim’s third child, Zack, with his adoptive family. An old black guy who sat in front, pouring his eyes out. Me, Geoff, and the kids, wide-eyed to be at their first funeral, for an aunt they barely even knew they had. A fresh hole in the family plot and a coffin on rollers.

Kim’s cousin Randi did the eulogy. She called me Chrissy. She talked about growing up with Kim in Baltimore, about the art projects she and Kim used to do with my mom. About sleepovers at their bubbie’s house, when Kim taught her to French kiss using pillows. She made us laugh, which I didn’t expect to do.

If I had done the eulogy, I’d have probably told the story of how Kim pierced my ears with a sewing needle when I was nine, overtop of her kitchen sink. I would have told how she dyed my hair blonde when I was eleven, and how it took me two agonizing years to grow it out. She was the one who taught me to shave my legs, the one who’d come get me for sister time and take me shmying at the secondhand shops, the one who’d ask me about my crushes, the one who’d always encourage me to be bold. I would have reflected on the good bits – how probably more than anyone else in my life before or since, Kim taught me to experiment with this life of mine. To try and see.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I would have talked about how heartbroken I was at sixteen, the day Kim came to tell my mom and me that she had just done heroin with her new boyfriend. The day we begged her to stay, but she left anyway. Forever. I wouldn’t have lied, like her cousin Randi did, and said that Kim was a good mom. She wasn’t. She bailed, to gradually worsening degrees, on all four of her kids. On all of us. Including herself.

I’m glad that I didn’t do the eulogy. I needed time to let myself feel, and it took me awhile. Now that I’ve had a few months, I’d like to go back and visit Kim’s grave. I’d talk to her, let her know that I’m glad to finally know where she is after all these years. I’d tell her I’m sorry that I shut her out. I’d tell her I wish we’d had the chance to turn things around while she was alive. I’d tell her I’ve missed her all this time. That I forgive her. That I love her still, despite everything.

Kim, circa 1979.

I used to have a cellar

I don’t want to freak you out, but there was a time that I used to store dead bodies down there.

Not just any bodies, don’t worry. And not so many, only three.

I live in an old house with a full-height cellar. In the last few years, we’ve had the basement waterproofed and finished. Now it’s colorful and neat, and you’d never suspect what it used to be like.

But that cellar was once dark, damp, and irrational. It held an ancient hulk of a furnace and a solitary toilet standing in one corner. Pipes snaked over the ceiling. Our cellar used to be frightening.

When we moved into this house, we brought the cremated remains of our first dog, Theo. We had trouble letting go, so we stashed his little wooden box in the cellar on the pantry shelf.

A few months later, my mom died, and we jokingly set her remains on the shelf next to Theo’s. Theo would guard her, we rationalized, until we could find the appropriate time to scatter their ashes.


Several months passed and I hired a company to clean out my mom’s storage locker. You know, the sort that Walt and Skyler used to store their cash. Late one afternoon, I got a call from the owner of the company.

“Ma’am, I have something important here,” I think the gentleman said.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Do you know Dorothy B–?”

“Yes, she was my grandmother,” I said, still not catching on.

“Well, ma’am, I have her remains here,” the owner cleared his throat uncomfortably.

Of course I laughed. It had been three months since my mom had died unexpectedly, and just three weeks since I had learned the horrible truth about Mike the used-car salesman. Of course Mike the used-car salesman had stashed my Bubbie’s remains in the storage locker and pocketed the cash that he was supposed to use to hire a boat and scatter her ashes. It was perfect and all I could do was laugh.

The nice gentleman from the estate liquidation company overnighted Bubbie’s ashes and I put her on the shelf with Theo and took to letting the laundry pile up.

When Mother’s Day finally rolled around again, we took a trip to the lake and set everyone free. Soon after that, we hired a basement contractor to hide the evidence.

Are you okay?

Just the other day, a faithful reader of mine asked me this question.

I didn’t answer him right away.  But I wanted to say no.

Are you okay? Well, yes, absolutely. I have all the trappings of happiness: Good health. A great husband, three healthy kids, a nice house. I have wonderful friends in real life. I have hobbies that I love. I get to take vacations to break up the winter. I have fulfilled my childhood dreams of marrying my best friend and owning an RV.

What more could you possibly ask for, you ask.

Well, I’m greedy. I’m not proud of that fact, but I do accept it about myself. I want it all. I only get to live once. I’m lucky, I’ll be the first to admit it. My life is good. I’ll spare you the details of how hard I’ve worked to get it that way. But now I want the bad with the good. I need to feel sadness, anger, and fear just as much as I need to feel joy, compassion, and calmness.

Why, you ask. Here’s the thing: Disequilibrium makes me creative. When I’m not okay, I write. When I’m not okay, I write like this, and this, and this. All of my best writing comes to me when I’m not okay, or when there is some disparity between where I am and where I want to be. Bridging the gulf makes me work harder, it makes me resourceful, and it makes me creative.

So what, you ask. Why seek difficulty? Why not just count your blessings? Why not go shut up and be a good little married mom? Why not be okay? Because I can’t. Because a year ago I came a little too close to losing my mind, and I glimpsed something while I was there on the edge. Because when you get a peek of something more than you expected in life, and when you’re me, you can’t just let that go. Because I want to feed myself to that transcendent gristmill and then write myself back together again. Because I want to live before I die. And if I chase death a little along the way? Even better.

Are you okay? Totally fucking not.


Copyright Jay Moore Photography
Copyright Jay Moore Photography

I’m a girl who runs. I’m a girl who runs on cool spring days straight to the lake and back. I’m a girl who runs in a fleece hoodie to angry boy-music.

Red wings flash from the right: No one ever dies.



Why do birds suddenly appear? 42 words for this year, Mom.

Do it! Do it!


nobody can save you but
you will be put again and again
into nearly impossible
they will attempt again and again
through subterfuge, guise and
to make you submit, quit and /or die quietly

nobody can save you but
and it will be easy enough to fail
so very easily
but don’t, don’t, don’t.
just watch them.
listen to them.
do you want to be like that?
a faceless, mindless, heartless
do you want to experience
death before death?

nobody can save you but
and you’re worth saving.
it’s a war not easily won
but if anything is worth winning then
this is it.

think about it.
think about saving your self.
your spiritual self.
your gut self.
your singing magical self and
your beautiful self.
save it.
don’t join the dead-in-spirit.

maintain your self
with humor and grace
and finally
if necessary
wager your self as you struggle,
damn the odds, damn
the price.

only you can save your

do it! do it!

then you’ll know exactly what
I am talking about.

–Charles Bukowski

Part of something bigger

Driving into town for my Saturday errands, I saw the white fleck of her dress long before I made out what it was. It was a lovely morning, one of those first spring days that prove you’re a survivor, and overnight the trees have transformed themselves from a black and gnarled mess into a lush watercolor. I had the windows rolled down and the blossoms were blowing in and at first I thought her dress was just a fallen branch leaning against the tree. What a shame, I thought, feeling regret for the tree as I drove nearer. From about fifty meters away, I made out her hair. It hung in long brown locks against the front of her dress where her head was slumped. Not a branch, a girl, I realized and pressed the gas pedal harder, lurching the last few meters. I jerked the steering wheel as I pulled off next to her and I jumped out of the car.

I dashed over to her and sure enough she was a real girl, not a branch of petals, although I did find petals in her hair and clinging to her dress. She had been tied to the tree with a pale rope, on which I found a few birds resting. I shooed them away. She was bound hands and legs to the tree, and she slumped forward so her chin rested on her chest. She was lovely.

I paused a moment before I touched her, not wanting to disturb her. She looked indescribably peaceful. Finally, I drew two fingers through her hair and pressed them to her neck to check for a pulse. Her skin was the same temperature as the air and I felt no movement.

I removed my hand and wanted to go for help. I found I couldn’t move. I stood rooted to the spot, staring at her, absorbing her. Time passed and finally I heard a car door slam behind me.

“Sir? Do you need some help, sir?” A kind voice said next to me. The woman was small, with short dark hair. She held a cell phone in her hand. “Sir, I’m calling for help right now,” she said earnestly. What a blessing she was, that woman. Who’s to say how long I would have stood there staring?

Even now, days later, I don’t know. I still can’t get that girl out of my mind. Just now she’s driving me to pick up a spool of jute at the hardware store and telling me to take it to the tree, now shedding its petals in favor of unfurling young electric green leaves. I don’t question. I press myself into her trunk and she ties me there with the rope.

When the kind woman finds me days later I can no longer hear her earnest voice. I’m inside the tree. I can only feel her dark eyes staring, rooted before me holding her useless cell phone and wondering what to do next.


My second submission for Tipsy Lit, on death and her limitations. I think death is contagious, what do you think?



Life and death

When Geoff’s grandma calls me, I never answer the phone.

No, wait, it’s not what you think. I love Geoff’s grandma. For simplicity, let’s call her Grandma. Grandma is everything that my Bubbie wasn’t. She’s loving, kind, friendly, funny. She’s delightful. I’ve felt close to her since Geoff and I started dating. Honestly, she inspires me with the way that she loves her kids, grandkids, even her husband. She’s a great role model, and I’ve told her so.

But something about her scares me.

Grandma is pushing ninety. She’s been in good but not perfect health for the last ten years or so. About seven years ago, Grandma and Grandpop were in a car accident that left them each with various ailments. Still, they hang in there, and they are always, without fail, happy to hear from us and ready to welcome us for a visit. They both adore the kids. Grandma still gets down on the floor to play with them.

A couple of years ago I started shutting her out.

We were at her house for a visit, and Grandma started to feel dizzy. She went up to her bedroom to lie down and a little while later she called me upstairs. Me, not Geoff, not Grandpa, not even her own grown daughter. I found her lying on the bed next to her blood pressure machine. Her blood pressure was too high, she told me. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, and she asked me to stay with her. I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and put my other hand on her shoulder. We took deep breaths together.

I was scared.

I told her that she would be alright, and after about half an hour her blood pressure returned to normal. The next day she paid a visit to the doctor. She made a quick recovery and the rest of our visit was just fine. You’d never have known anything had happened.

But I did.

When I was sitting with Grandma up in her room, I had the strangest feeling. With my hands on her and us breathing together, I felt like I was giving her some kind of a transfusion. A life transfusion. I could feel the energy passing between us, even though I didn’t understand it. In the moment, I could only think in dichotomies. If I was giving her life, then she must be giving me death in return. I didn’t want death. I still don’t.

From then on, things were different between us.

When she calls, I don’t answer. I tell Geoff to call her back. I still love her, and we visit. The kids send her artwork. Still, I’ve been stingy with her. I haven’t let her hear my voice, I haven’t given her any more life. I’ve closed myself, as if life were a special gift of mine and death a curse of hers, rather than both being realities that we share.

I’ve been wrong.

I hope that I can find the courage to be open with her again. I hope that I can do the small things that she requests as she gets closer to the end of her life. I hope that she will trust me to help her.

Maybe I had it right all along

We visited her at the nursing home just a few days before she died. I was 25, yet I remember it so clearly. Geoff drove, and my aunt stayed back because there wasn’t enough room in the car.

Bubbie had sent instructions, of course: Bring Hershey bars. We stopped at Rite Aid on the way, but they were out, so I picked M&Ms instead. The nursing home was in a small, tidy building with a garden in front. The bright, colorful lobby felt almost cheerful. As we moved past the entrance into the patient area, we said hello to the patients lining the hall in their wheelchairs. Some responded but some were sleeping, their minds elsewhere. The intense smell of pee and beeping machines reminded us of illness and imminent death.

Bubbie waited for us, sitting in her wheelchair just inside the door to her room. I don’t remember why, but she couldn’t talk. Perhaps it was an effect of her recent stroke, maybe her voice escaped her body ahead of time. Nevertheless, I remember her mumbling for Rose Ann, my aunt, incoherently. My mom explained that my aunt had stayed back at the house. Bubbie also asked for my uncle, Norman; Norman who was her favorite child, who deceived her so coldly in the end, my uncle, who had fled back to his home across the country just days earlier.

So Bubbie made due with just us four – my mom, her sketchy but well-meaning husband, Geoff, and me. We kept our visit upbeat, chatting and laughing the whole time. Bubbie eyed us as though she wasn’t quite sure who we were. But maybe she was just angry at us, at me. I handed her M&Ms one by one from the package, hoping that my last-ditch effort would make her love me in the end. Who knows if it worked? She accepted the candy like a child, but still her face stayed as locked up as always.

Here’s the thing about having a grandmother who hates you, or one who at least withholds her affection for you even in the face of your own attempts at loving her: You learn how to handle others’ disapproval. You learn that you can’t ever control someone else’s emotions, even when you try. You learn how to seek your own approval from within yourself before seeking it from others, even from your family.

When you see your grandmother reject your achievements and reward your sister’s failures and illnesses, you learn that not everything is as it seems. No, sometimes love is hate and hate is love. When all that your grandmother offers you is anger and hatred, you learn that sometimes emotions are their opposite. You accept the paradoxical, the impossible, the ambiguous.

When your grandmother serves you a big plate of rocks instead of cookies, and when you are a good girl like I was, you eat up those rocks, smile, and pretend they are cookies. You just accept it. And years later, you might find yourself, as an adult, in a tough situation. You might one day feel broken down in some way, challenged. If you really focus on what’s going on inside you, you’ll feel those rocks still in your belly after so much time, and you’ll know for certain that everything is going to be fine.

If I could go back to that day in the nursing home with my Bubbie, I would thank her for always knowing how much I was capable of, for demanding the most from me, and accepting nothing. My Bubbie always made me work harder.

It looks like I have a secret admirer! Thanks to whomever nominated me for this awesome linkup.

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