How Do We Set Boundaries in a Crisis?

gail & lanette in greenToday is my mother’s 72nd St. Patrick’s Day birthday. I spent the morning cutting fat off the corned beef I’m making her (why do the butchers hide it?) and rubbing down with Clorox wipes every surface we touch frequently on our ground floor: refrigerator and oven door handles, door knobs, cabinet and drawer pulls, toilet handle, light switches.

My mother was a little disappointed when we all agreed a week ago we wouldn’t go out, as she loves to be in a noisy bar full of revelers for her birthday, but each day since thengail laughing the news has gotten more forbidding, and by now the idea of going out to a restaurant is off the table altogether. At this point, we’re not even certain we ought to be getting together to celebrate in one of our homes.

I texted her today, “I hoped you would come here, just for a change of scenery, if nothing else.” She’s been homebound for more than a week. “ It’s no good for you to be inside 24-7,” I said.

“But that’s what they keep saying I should do,” my mom responded–so I guess we will be going to her place. And I hope even that isn’t harmful as my wife and daughter have been forced to continue showing up at their places of employment and exposing themselves to who knows what germs. The more news I read about how people without symptoms are infecting the largest numbers, the more terrifying a calculus this seems–but we are going, because leaving my mother isolated on her birthday doesn’t seem like a good solution, either.

My mom has been mostly wheelchair bound since her second failed back surgery more than a decade ago, but she’s maintained her independence with a series of accessible vans and motorized scooters. She moved here three years ago from Las Vegas, where she had lived for the previous 35 years, and now she lives just a mile from me and Renee in South Hadley.  Having her close is a comfort and a pleasure; I am learning to play bridge with her, love going to movies with her, appreciate her sympathetic ear and compassion, and just generally enjoy her company and fun-loving spirit.

mom & Kyle St Patty's birthday
My son in the last Facebook post he made for his Grandma’s birthday.

In Vegas, she had lots more of a community around her and went out all the time, playing bridge and mahjong, visiting with friends she made through her decades of living and working in Nevada. Since moving here, which she did in part because my son died and she wanted to be near me to be supportive but more because her own health was declining and she needed to be nearer to me so I could help her with daily living, she goes out much less frequently.  She increasingly asks that I drive her to appointments, as she is less and less willing to drive long distances … or in the dark …or in bad weather … or if she’s feeling anxious about driving alone or about being alone in her scooter as she goes from her car to her apartment, which is most of the time. This has been frustrating for us, as I want her to stay active and independent–and she feels she is only asking for what she really needs from me.

Perhaps in a leftover trigger reaction developed as I tried not to enable my drug-addicted son, I often struggle with figuring out how much of what I do for my mother is too much: which of my actions is enabling my mother to become less self-sufficient and more dependent, and which are simply necessary for me to do as a helpful, loving daughter?

Now, on top of all this, there is a national quarantine for Corona virus.  I am my mother’s only child (I had a younger sister, institutionalized most of her life for severe disabilities, who died in childhood), so if my mom needs help, it falls to me to find or provide it (and to my wife, who is also an only child with her own ailing mother who moved here from out of state a few years ago; her mom now lives in a nearby nursing home).

So I’ll throw this question out to all of you, dear readers: how do we know what is appropriate to give of ourselves and our time and energy during this crazy-making time? Should I give up hoping my mother can even try to be independent for now, recognizing that we are all going to be relying much more heavily on one another than we ever did before? Or should I keep trying to push her to manage her life (and her pain and her depression) by herself? Should I insist she shop for herself? Get herself to her own doctor’s appointments? Find her own therapist? Bring her van in for repairs on her own? Just asking these questions makes me sound heartless—yet a lifetime of my mother being overly reliant on me, treating me like the grown-up rather than the child, sometimes not getting things done unless I am pushing to make them happen, has made me unable to know where to draw my lines in the sand.

jamie photo bombs
My daughter photo-bombing me and my wife. Adding to my boundary questions: my daughter is about to move in with us.

My boundaries were already getting blurrier as my mother aged, and now I fear that coronavirus is going to make them disappear altogether.  I’m scared the kind of caretaking my mother could require (and will want me to provide whether she requires it or not) will make me feel that I am disappearing.

For today, I am happy that my mother having a birthday makes these choices easy: to make her favorite meal and buy her favorite cake, to enjoy her company this evening, to sing to her and celebrate her while dressed in our greenest finery—we will all enjoy this, my daughter, my wife and I.  st patty's day bday amberTogether we will miss my son’s daughter, shown here between me and her mom celebrating my mother’s birthday when she was still allowed to speak to us. And we will be grateful we have one another and have helped one another through the heartache of losing first Kyle, who died in 2016, and now Maggie, who hasn’t been permitted to see or speak to any of us since early 2019.

What happens in the weeks to come is my larger worry.  How are all of you dealing with being an adult child in the midst of the corona virus; how do you know where to draw your own lines? It is easy for me to fall into crisis mode even when there isn’t an emergency, to start feeling it is my job to keep everyone calm while herding them to safety. Now that we are facing an actual emergency, I need to figure out how to keep myself calm–and, especially, how to know that my mother being disappointed in me doesn’t mean I failed, as often, no matter what I do, she may feel disappointed in me for not doing more. But then again, maybe sometimes I do fail.  I welcome your thoughts.


Do We Need A Medium to Talk to Our Dead?

jamie kyle gail lanette

The three women who loved Kyle most went looking for him at a Theresa Caputo show a year and half after he died.

In February of 2018, my mother took me and my adult daughter to see Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo at a stadium show in Reading, PA. My mother paid $500 for our tickets and drove us five hours from our home in Western Massachusetts as part of a wildly extravagant effort to give me what she knew I wanted most — a chance to hear from my son, Kyle, who died of an overdose in September of 2016.

The 1800-seat arena was mostly sold out, filled to the rafters with Caputo fans and grieving family members all hoping they would be chosen for a live reading. As we arrived, I wondered how many of my fellow audience members felt, as I did, that this event was going to leave them deeply disappointed.

Before my son died, I gave almost no thought to life after death. I had lost many loved ones – my grandmother, a close uncle, my in-laws, several friends, even a younger sister in childhood – but I’d never wondered if they could see or hear me, nor what had become of them. The childhood fantasy I’d had that I was being watched over by my father, who had died at age 24 when I was an infant, had long since faded, right along with my imagining I could blink or wiggle my nose to make magic.

Then my 26-year-old, strappingly handsome son, who had danced with me at my wedding earlier in the month, was found dead of an overdose in a Best Western lobby bathroom.

My son had struggled with addiction for several years, but in 2016 his future looked hopeful. He’d graduated from a long-term recovery program, reunited with his daughter’s mother and fallen in love with his 2-year-old, Maggie, after missing most of her babyhood. Though he’d had a couple of relapses, we were relieved that he was finally acting as a father to his child. We’d all beamed to see him, sober and doting, cheering as his little girl sprinkled rose petals down our backyard aisle as my flower girl. When he relapsed the week after my wedding, it was a disappointing setback, but he immediately checked himself into detox, which seemed like progress.

Only his toddler seemed to sense what was coming. Though Maggie didn’t understand her father was an addict, she knew he’d been sick and had spent a few days in a hospital getting well. He came home promising he was fixed and wouldn’t be leaving again, but she was mysteriously inconsolable. She screamed hysterically at him that she knew he was about to leave her and never come back. He swore she was mistaken. He and Maggie’s mother, Amber, exchanged a look over Maggie’s head. Their toddler was saying things that gave them chills about how Kyle would soon be gone forever. They told me this story over video chat, Kyle asking with a nervous laugh: “What does she know that I don’t?” I found the story upsetting, but only because I worried about what Kyle’s relapses were doing to Maggie, not because I imagined her terror prescient.

During that video call, Kyle seemed excited about a new job he said he was starting on Monday, and he spoke by phone and video chat to several sober friends and family members throughout the weekend. Then, inexplicably – for all of us who are not addicts – he spent all day and night Monday shooting heroin and meth until he died early Tuesday morning.

My son’s death, unlike all the others I’d endured, caused me to develop an immediate, compelling interest in life after death.  I wrote a journal to him as if he were reading over my shoulder. I spoke out loud to him when I was alone. I and other close family members had several startling experiences in the weeks and, especially, first days after he died, and felt sure Kyle was there causing them. A few examples:

  • My ex-husband and I were at a park near the morgue. Our mood could not have been more grim, but I had a sudden feeling that Kyle wanted us to run around the green field. I felt silly saying so, but I heard myself suggest, out of the blue, “Maybe we should play kick the can,” a game I have never played and don’t know how to play. With that, I felt pushed to look harder at the pristine field and there I saw a single can lying in its middle: a green Monster energy drink our son habitually drank. “That was Kyle,” we said to each other, dazed but sure. And then we ran around making up Kick the Can rules, feeling his spirit with us, sharing an understanding that he’d wanted us to know he could see us.
  • When I was forced to say goodbye to my son’s body at the funeral home a day later, I tried to take his picture as he was laid out in the coffin. As soon as I had the focus set on his perfectly alive-looking face, with its slight stubble and protruding lower lip plump as if ready for kissing, my phone froze and turned itself off – and I said out loud, to Kyle, “Oh! You don’t want that to be an image I keep of you? Ok then.” I felt without doubt that Kyle had turned my phone off. When hours later my phone turned itself back on, the image I hadn’t had a chance to click of my son’s still face –laid out like a prince’s on a white satin pillow – that image appeared just long enough for me to see it, like a last goodbye, before it vanished from my phone forever.
  • At his memorial service a couple of days later, as I stood in a fog of grief at the podium, my phone tucked into my bra strap, staring out at our and Kyle’s lifetime of friends, I addressed Kyle first and said, “I don’t know if you can hear me – ” and was interrupted by my phone ringing – one, single ring. Everyone joined me in a relieved laugh when I said to the assembled, “I guess this is a reminder to turn off our cell phones.” But when I looked at my phone to see who had called, it was blank, showing no missed call. I said, “Oh, I guess that was Kyle letting me know he can hear me,” and saying that felt natural, not supernatural. My friends in the first rows nodded vigorously, glad I was believing.
  • Kyle’s father, Larry, who prior to Kyle’s death affirmatively did not believe in God, said he was driving alone and heard Kyle’s voice speak out loud so clearly it made him scream in the car. “Hey, Dad,” he said. “I’m OK.”
  • While we were sitting shiva, just as I was asking if anyone believed Kyle could hear us, one of my grandsons tossed a tiny, soft stuffed animal across the room. In a physics-defying arc, it hit a pull chain hanging from the ceiling fan, causing it to fly straight up and shattering the glass in the light so that it rained down all over the floor. At that point, we recognized a pattern: if we asked if Kyle could hear us, he answered.
  • The radiator in the room where his funeral photos were displayed froze while all the others in the house worked.

As time passed, such strange incidents happened less frequently, and my feeling that Kyle was with me faded. In the first months, if a scream rose in my mind, which it often did, “KYLE, WHERE ARE YOU??” I immediately felt his soothing energy around me, and a response in my mind: “I’m right here.” I now feel a much less definitive response if I wonder this – so I try my best not to.

Which may be why, when my mother gave me a birthday gift nearly 18 months after Kyle’s death of tickets to see Theresa Caputo: The Live Experience, I felt mostly dread. I was just starting to accept that my son was gone; I didn’t want to hope for a connection that I wasn’t going to feel.

During the first terrible year after Kyle’s death, I sometimes felt desperate to find a “reputable medium” (a phrase I would have silently scorned in my previous life), someone who could give me proof that Kyle could see or hear us. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t accept as “proof” our previous, eerie experiences  – but as time passed, I started discounting my own memories, assuming they were the product of my grief-addled imagination. I wanted proof, a professional to confirm for me that Kyle’s unique voice still existed in the universe. I wanted a stranger to tell us a story only Kyle would know, a secret we had between us that even I didn’t remember, a joke only Kyle would make.

I’m sure this is what every grieving skeptic wants, indisputable proof – and none of the “signs” I’d had previously could not be somehow explained away. Indeed, my atheist wife always has a scientific explanation for everything that feels like a spiritual communication (though she has wisely stopped sharing her explanations with me). After the shattered light fixture and broken radiator, she jokingly asked Kyle to please find less expensive ways to communicate, which was as close as she came to acting as if she believed.

When I started thinking about finding a medium, I did Google research first. There are websites that rank mediums’ reputability, and using these, I narrowed my search down to a couple of people within 100 miles of me. I sent emails and clicked the contact buttons on their websites — and never heard back.

A grief-friend – a mother whose son was rehab-friends with mine before tragically dying of an overdose four months before mine — said she would go with me to any medium I thought was “for real.” She was afraid she’d be crushed by not hearing anything convincing, and I agreed that was my worst fear also. But we didn’t have to worry, because no one I tried to reach ever responded. My mother wrote to Theresa Caputo’s website to ask for an individual reading, too, but we never heard from them, either.

My mother is a longtime fan of Theresa Caputo and her Long Island Medium show. After attending a medium’s presentation with me at our local library – one that seemed so fake it caused me to burst into tears – she purchased the Caputo show tickets because she didn’t want me wasting any more time on less authentic mediums. And I must admit that by the end of the Caputo show, I was convinced that she was either speaking to the dead or psychically pulling thoughts from her audience members’ minds. I can’t dream up any other explanation for the details she dredged up and the naked shock she drew from the open-mouthed mourners hearing her channel their loved ones. She was so confident about each message she was delivering that even if a person were shaking her head and saying, “No, nothing, I don’t know anything about that,” she would press on, insisting they think harder  – and in every case people suddenly discovered a startling connection.

In the most memorable reading of the night, she told someone who had lost a dear friend to gun violence and blamed himself that she could see “a bloody tattoo.” The man she was talking to, who was crying silently, kept shaking his head until finally the guy’s wife stood up and yelled at him, “Of course, you have that bloodline tattoo in honor of him.” And there it was, under his sleeve, on his forearm.

Caputo’s show began with a video opener of seemingly miraculous connections she had helped people make in previous shows and a request that we stand during the national anthem to honor the military families in the audience. Then Caputo herself came out, looking much smaller and prettier in person than she does on television. She had torn her ACL and came out limping in a plastic boot, her buff young physical trainer assisting her up stairs as she made him part of her ongoing schtick. She let us know she expected us all to feel moved and positive by the end of the show, whether we had a personal reading or not, because we were going to witness indisputable connections between the dead and the living.

“Tonight is about your loved ones validating they’re with you and don’t want you to feel guilty,” she said. The dead loved ones who spoke through her were going to do three things to persuade us they were real, she told us:

  • “They’re going to bring up old stuff that helps you remember good times you had together.
  • “They’re going to tell you stuff they’ve seen you do since they died to prove that they can still see and hear you.
  • “And they’re going to show you their authentic personality so you know it’s really them.”

Then she said something that my mother and I found disturbing: “The dead are living life through us so they want us to laugh and have a good time.” We hope Kyle has something better to do than just watch us live — though that does sound like a sad but fitting punishment for someone who threw his life away … which I know is not supportive of the addiction-as-a-disease model, but I digress…

Theresa is a Vegas-style entertainer — a talented comedian, a heavily accented character with extra-long nails and tall wigs and an easy patter that draws many laughs – and she’s as good at that part of her performance as she is at talking to the dead. Before starting her readings, she did a pitch for her fan club, whose members are eligible for lower-cost tickets to future shows. There is no way to watch all this without suspecting she is exploiting the desperation of grieving families – but after watching her in action, I believe she is also a skilled medium, someone who clearly possesses a gift, and I imagine she justifies her ticket prices by knowing she is, in fact, offering comfort to everyone who comes to her shows. This doesn’t make me feel any less silly about the money my mother paid to help us learn something we should already have known.

Which brings me to Theresa’s main act: talking to audience members and their invisible ghosts, a camera crew following her into the crowd to hand out mikes and turn people around so their conversations could be broadcast on the jumbo Tron.

Theresa claimed that sometimes one ghost spoke for many. She said some messages we heard could be for many of us and this seemed to apply when her first reading was to a mourning sister. With my daughter listening intently beside me, I took notes that read, “Dead brother wants sister to know he takes responsibility for his own death, there’s nothing she could have done, he remembers all she did and doesn’t want her to feel guilty.” This both sounds like a message to my daughter and also like it could be about anyone, but in the moment, Caputo shared many personal details that made this universal message personal to the particular sister she was addressing.

Caputo went on to speak to about a dozen audience members individually, offering personal details that made people gasp and cover their mouths and cry out and say, “Oh my god, that’s him.” Among the highlights:

  • “He’s sorry he complained the food you gave him was cold,” she says to a widow whose husband had been a complainer. The whole family, including the widow, laughs and cries simultaneously. “He appreciated you and wants you to take that trip you’re thinking about.”
  • “You keep seeing shadows flying by you?” she asks a young woman who’d lost her husband. “Or you see lights moving out of the corner of your eye that are making you think you’re going crazy?” The woman nods, amazed. “Well he wants you to know that’s really him, not your wishful thinking. So when you turn your head because you think you see something quick, that’s him.”
  • “She says to tell you, ‘That butterfly is a beautiful tribute to me; I love it, Mom.’” This is said to a stunned woman who then raises her sleeve to show the butterfly tattoo she had inscribed to her child.
  • “Did you have a tree and bench dedicated to him?” she asks a family. They all gasp, eyes wide, say yes. “Now see, how could I possibly know that?” she asks. “You think everyone in here dedicated a tree and a bench? Well, he sees that and he appreciates it. He wants you to know he knows you did that.”
  • “Are you wearing her earrings tonight?” she asks someone. The woman’s hand flies to her ear, she nods, shocked. “She says they look great on you.”
  • “You’re mad she didn’t wear her seatbelt; you think that’s why she died. But look, this woman over here is mad her sister couldn’t get out of her seatbelt when she died. They are both here together to tell you it was just their time, nothing could have been done.” (Whenever two or more people stood to the same prompts or cues, Caputo insisted this was not a coincidence, that spirits were joining forces to communicate a similar message, using one another’s stories to amplify the stories of others.)
  • To a whole family mourning their patriarch: “He says it’s ok for you to sell off some of the land to save the rest; he knows you promised to take care of the land, and you’ve done a great job, but he understands you’re out of options, and he’d rather you keep some of it then lose the whole thing trying to keep it all.” Members of the family nodded vigorously or wept, hugely relieved.
  • In the middle of a reading with a woman whose skeptical husband, Justin, had been dragged there so the woman could try to connect with her dead mother, Theresa said, “I’m getting a name, and I don’t usually get names. Elizabeth?” The woman’s hand flew to her mouth. “Yes!” she screamed, “that’s my mother’s name!” Theresa laughed and said, “How’s that for you, Justin?”

Caputo told us at the beginning of the night that we would leave knowing we’d witnessed communication from the dead, and she was right; every interaction she had with individual members of her audience – about a dozen of them — did seem miraculous, to the point that I almost didn’t mind that I didn’t hear directly from Kyle. I was reminded throughout the show that if others were experiencing these communications from the grave, we could too. If any dead loved ones can speak, then ours can speak to us, too – and he has.

There was a moment when Theresa said something about “the numbers 9 and 6 – or the months September and June,” which are the months of my children’s birthdays. My daughter started to raise her hand and then stopped and let someone else respond to that cue. “Nah,” she said, “I don’t need for her to help me talk to Kyle.” So perhaps that cue was for us, perhaps not, but either way the show accomplished what my mother intended, reminding me that Kyle has been speaking to us, and we don’t need to pay for expensive tickets to know he exists as spirit in our lives. All we have to do to know he’s still with us is to believe – which, ironically, given how my son’s struggle with faith often interfered with his recovery, is also all he would have had to do to live.

I hope you are able to talk to your lost loved one without an intermediary. I hope you don’t feel the need to pay good money to attend an entertaining stadium show full of jokes from the dead. The odds of you being chosen for a personalized reading in a crowd that size are extremely slim, so I hope you don’t need to be in that kind of crowd to know that there is life after death. But if you are plagued with doubts and want “proof” that communication from the afterlife is real, a Theresa Caputo show might be just the ticket.

#addiction #overdose #theresacaputo #overdosedeath #believe #grief #medium #grievingmother #lostson #talkingtothedead

I’m freaking out a little!

This is me the last time I was writing for teachers — about 15 years ago.

I just started an MFA residency today – and I am terrified of failing and not fitting in, but also I am floating a little outside myself watching in amazement as I move among the other students in this beautiful winter-retreat lodge where we are staying for the week. I lucked out and got my own room, which I am extremely excited about, as I was dreading bunking with 25-year-olds – though now that I’m up here on a different floor all alone there is a tiny part of me that thinks, “Aw, it would have been fun and helped me make friends faster if I had to share a room with some of the other women. But the greater part of me is definitely happy to be up here alone.”

It has been my adult-lifetime dream to get an MFA, to have someone push me to get my writing done, to coach and encourage me, to help me keep my storylines moving, to introduce and expose me to agents and other authors. Now that I’m here, I’m afraid of multiple things:

  • First, I’m afraid this program won’t actually push or coach me or help me get published – that either I misunderstood what MFA programs do or that this is an especially awful one. (I’m praying that is not the case and am conscious of a terrible habit I have of putting people, places and things down if I’m scared of them. So I want to be careful I don’t start telling myself I’m above it all, and this program sucks, just so I can feel better about my own failures as a writer.)
  • I’m also scared I won’t get any writing done and will fail – and they just announced that multiple students have not done their work for three or more semesters, and they’re changing their policy so that students have to hand in work before they can move on to the next semester, or they can only be one semester behind, or something like that. As Stephanie, the program director, said to everyone assembled at the (delicious) dinner, “You’re all paying a lot of money to not get your writing done, and we feel we can’t let that go on for years.” So this tells me that whatever coaching they do, it’s not universally effective…
  • And I’m scared I’ll be disliked by these kids and or by the teachers and program director, that in the kids’ case I’ll make them nervous just by virtue of being old (I don’t feel old, but I understand someone in her 50s will seem old to them; I’m older than or the same age as many of their parents, I’m sure.) And that in the teachers’ or administrator’s case they’ll feel… threatened by me. The way some (mostly women) do, even though I don’t always understand why. For example, the administrator could read this blog and think I am saying the program is terrible, which I am not! I am saying I don’t know and my fears are running rampant.

OK, that’s enough expression of my fears; I don’t want to give them more space in my head than they deserve. What I really am is excited that no matter what this program does or offers, I have an opportunity here to focus on my writing with some kind of guidance, with someone watching and waiting for me to do the next chapter (or whatever it is), and that is thrilling. I do feel a make-or-break sense about this, in terms of my ability to feel like a “real” writer, that if I can’t finish and publish a book while I’m here, it’s never going to happen. And I am excited that my writing will be homework, which will give me permission to tell people I’m busy writing and feel OK about that.

I’m gonna go now and read through my colleague’s workshop materials and make notes so I have encouraging things to say to them when we start workshopping our submissions together tomorrow afternoon. And if I have time after that, I’m going to edit my poetry manuscript so it feels ready to send out. That will be my first project here that I will work on with my mentor, who is a poet, whom I haven’t met yet as she’s not arriving until tomorrow morning. My daughter Jamie took the past couple of months reading over my manuscript and offering lots of fantastic editing suggestions and encouraging remarks, so I’m going to try to incorporate those and cut some of the poems so the book is the right length (75-80 pages instead of the 98 it is now).

Wish me luck. I mean that literally; feel free to share your good wishes in my comments. If you’re reading this on Facebook, please don’t comment there, because I haven’t gone on in weeks except to look for birthdays for a calendar I was making, and I’m hoping to keep it that way.

Also, here’s a photo from our first-ever Christmas Night Salon, which I plan to make an annual event. We had so much fun! This is a picture of the Jamies (my daughter and a friend from high school, Jamie Sharken) with their incredible shrinking mothers, me and my new friend Joanne.


Gratitude for Our Week in the Woods

I spent last week with my 16-year-old grandson, Julian, and a group of Sierra Club volunteers in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont – and while I’m sorry to say we did not have quite as transformative a time as I’d dreamed we would (despite how much I enjoyed being with my grandson and the other volunteers), I am still discovering unexpected benefits days after I got home. Overall, our week in the woods seems to have been well worth the triggering of my anopheliphobia*

I took my biological children on a volunteer vacation a dozen years ago, when they were 16 and 14, and we all found the experience life-changing and inspiring. We helped build a house in the Dominican Republic with a youthful Habitat for Humanity team of mostly

Our young work crew and the kids who came to play every day in the D.R.

30-somethings. We were surrounded each day by adorable Dominican children who excitedly welcomed us to read, draw, or play ball games with

My son Kyle juggling.

them whenever we took a break from the hard, hot work we were doing mixing cement or laying masonry blocks. For dinners, we walked to simple, local restaurants and ate til we were bursting, our bodies hungry for more fuel to compensate for the extreme labor we were doing during the day; sometimes we went dancing afterward to local music.

There was a kind of crazy amount of dancing on that volunteer trip! But dancing seemed out of the question on our Sierra Club trip.

At night, we slept in an extremely low-budget motel that nevertheless featured an ancient air conditioner, flushing toilet and weak shower in each room. When we needed anything, townspeople were beyond gracious, giving us rides, bargaining in Spanish to get us better prices, thanking us for being there. We were struck most by the extreme warmth of the Dominican people and by their ability to find happiness in any circumstance. I know none of us ever viewed our own privilege the same way again.

I would have loved to take my grandson on a similar adventure, but I haven’t worked outside the home for two years now. Driving to Vermont to work with the Sierra Club cost less than a quarter of what it would have cost for us to help Habitat build a home in another country (yet still ate up a third of all the savings I had left, a worry for another column). Besides, I love being in nature, and I thought the act of giving our time and muscle to help make forestry improvements would feel rewarding in its own way. Most of all, I was excited to spend a week camping with my grandson, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half.

julian grinning at phone
Julian last time I saw him.


Julian now — he’s almost as tall as Renee (and towers over me, obviously).

The time with Julian exceeded my hopes; what a treasure he is! He’s grown up into a thoughtful, handsome young man with hopes of becoming a math teacher, his voice now deep and his upper lip dusted in downy dark hair. We played lots of games together—Mastermind, Battleship, and Cribbage—allowing him to show off his quick logic and img_1389execution of strategy with masterful, winning displays. Though I’d always thought of him as shy, he readily participated in all the ice-breaker and team-building exercises and made us laugh with the humor in his answers. He was the youngest person there by 37 years and I was the next youngest, at 53, by at least another 10, but he was always happy to participate in the group meals and activities. He jumped up to help the cook fetch water from a far-off pump without anyone even asking, and he threw himself into our work assignments with energy and no complaints. (He even learned to make chili! Parents needing dinner made, take note.)

I loved most when we climbed into the tent at night and lay side by side talking into the dark; Julian’s a good listener who absorbs and contemplates, sometimes coming up with insights into earlier conversations days later, surprising me with his depth.

Kalyn and Julian — lucky to discover our tent site had Wifi.

As with all three of my grandchildren, I’ve known this boy since the moment he was born, as I stood by Amy’s and Brian’s sides in the delivery room. I’ve watched as he was doted on by my tween children as a toddler, disneygroupespecially during our family trip to Disney World when he was three. I saw him gain courage as he moved from scared kindergartner to “talented and gifted” student. I worried when he struggled to make friends when he first moved to South Carolina, then was reassured to see him with a good friend group in junior high. At 13, he read poetry at my wedding — and then three weeks later read another poem at my son’s funeral; he was a quiet comfort to me during  the worst of my mourning.

My about-to-be wife helping with ring-bearing duties.

And this year I’ve been overjoyed seeing how happy he and his beautiful girlfriend are with one another; he was looking forward to going to church with her and her family the morning after he flew home. I basically couldn’t be prouder of him and am so grateful to him and his parents that I had this week to get to know his new, more adult self better.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, the work we were asked to do—removing plastic tubing from a mountain side, pulling photo-toxic weeds from a forest entrance, stripping paint from picnic tables that needed repainting, hanging camping site numbers on posts—felt like busy work rather than an invaluable contribution. The weeds we pulled were ubiquitous on every road side, so our pulling them for eight hours felt like it couldn’t possibly matter (though I understand we were helping to keep them from spreading past that one entrance deeper into the forest). I couldn’t shake the suspicion that if we weren’t doing the work, someone else would do it – or it would go undone, which didn’t feel like it would much matter. Also, our fellow volunteers were all over 60 (the cook was nearly 80!) and needed early bedtimes, so we enjoyed only brief nighttime activities (and were chided  the night we stayed up a little later to make our own campfire). We also had to volunteer for two shifts of helping the cook, an unexpected task that cut into our already limited down time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“If only we could be greeted by some cheering Dominican kids,”  Julian deadpanned after hearing about my previous volunteer trip, “maybe we would feel this work was meaningful, too.”

Our camping and working conditions were the greatest challenge. We shared a tiny tent that let water soak in the sides and sop our sleeping bags the night it poured rain. There were no sinks, no showers and no flushing toilets for at least 30 miles. Our central campsite was beside a swampy bog infested with mosquitoes, prompting me to cover myself head to toe in a spacesuit-like mosquito-netting outfit that left me sweaty, grouchy and challenged in bringing food or water to my net-covered mouth. Our work sites were in equally deep-woods areas, and I couldn’t understand how some of the volunteers walked around with their faces exposed when my own face was surrounded the entire day by whining insects trying (unsuccessfully, thank god) to get past my netting. (Julian refused to wear the screen suit I bought him and spent much of his time slapping mosquitoes between his palms when they flew around his face; his knees still got eaten alive, though, poor kid.) The meals felt a bit like a survival-of-the-fittest test, as there was never quite enough food to go around, so if you didn’t grab your share early, you were likely to find the main course and side dishes mostly  gone. And there was very little down time built into the trip for journaling, reading, or thinking.

We got to enjoy our day alone at the lake after all.

There were no group campfires except the one I arranged at our site. When I planned to take Julian for a lake outing on our day off, I was told we had to stay in groups of three for safety purposes, even on our time off, though I could find no mention of this rule in any of the materials we were given. (This wound up not being enforced but left us worried for the first half of the trip that we would never be allowed to spend time alone.) Our group leader, though well-intentioned, was a bit pedantic. When he ordered me to “Get to bed early!” when announcing breakfast would be served two and a half hours before we were starting our volunteer work the next day, I had to bite my tongue so as not to set an argumentative example for my humble, polite, deferential grandson.

No one wants to be the complainer on a volunteer trip, so I tried to follow Julian’s no-negativity example and enjoy our new friendships with the other volunteers. Among them was a Vietnam vet with MS who told me vets suffer from that disease and ALS at much higher rates than the civilian population (who knew?); a retired nurse who is working to save chimney swifts as their habitat is destroyed in her local community; a couple, a retired teacher and still-practicing professional pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, who have no cell phones but have camped all over the country and were doing their eighth service trip; our 78-year-old cook, who flew in from Chicago to make the trip possible after the previous cook had to drop out; and the only other woman who wore a screen around her head most of the time–yet was on her 24th Sierra Club service trip. (!) img_1392.jpgThey were all people with rich lives who were using their vacation time and dollars to save the environment and improve life for campers and forest creatures, and Julian and I felt inspired just being in their company. Which, now that the trip is over and I am not struggling against bug bites, rain and hunger, means maybe we deserve to feel a little good about what we accomplished there, as well.

As with most endeavors to make change, our little efforts seem like a plink in the bucket, but knowing we contributed to the 27,000 hours of volunteer service provided by the Sierra Club around the world each year feels pretty good. (Click here for more information about Sierra Club volunteer vacations or here for an overview of our trip specifically. )

Possibly promising “outdoor ecstasy” in the event name may have been overselling the experience just a bit, but the long-term benefits are still hitting me. Last night when I took the dog out to pee in my quiet backyard, I heard all kinds of hooting sounds and peepers chorusing and stood listening for several minutes, amazed I’d never noticed all the animals teeming and calling in the grass and trees right near my home. Being in the woods for a week with people who cared about those animals, who could identify which kinds of birds and frogs and chipmunks were singing and calling, people who paid attention to what kind of trees and plants were growing around us, heightened my own perception of the natural world. I feel opened up to nature in a subtle but deeper way for having spent a week with true nature lovers — even if there was no dancing.

Julian, I’m not sure you had quite the college-essay-level experience we fantasized before we went, but you gave me a great week of fun and restored my faith in myself as a grandma at a time when I really needed it. Even though you are in the bloom of first love and your summer vacation had just begun, you didn’t hesitate to say yes to my offer to drop everything and come on this trip, and that was remarkable in itself. I was grateful to feel the love I’ve poured into you all your life flowing right back at me, something I found extra special coming from a 16-year-old boy. Thank you for being such a sweet, unspoiled kid – and for all the ways you inspire me. I look forward to seeing you again later this summer when I go have my experience (whatever we decide it will be) with your brother, Logan. Your parents should be very proud of both of you.


* anopheliphobia is a fear of itch-inducing insect bites.


Advice for When Your Child Dies of An Overdose

  1. Don’t look for what you could have done differently, though of course this will be your mind’s number one ocmy feministcupation now. Find and practice a trick to refocus yourself – perhaps breathing deeply in, then out. If you can stop searching for how you could have saved your child for more than a minute at a time, consider yourself ahead.
  2. Make self-care your #1 job. Daily yoga will make you stretch your body once a day, which is better than nothing. Make better-than-nothing your new aspirational standard.
  3. Ask for what you need. Your friends and family will never be more willing than they are right now to help you. Don’t feel guilty asking. Whether you ask or not, they’ll all stop waiting on you in a few weeks or months, so you may as well get some needs met now.
  4. Believe any signs that suggest your child is contacting you from the great beyond. No matter what faith you possessed or didn’t before, now is the time for a full suspension of disbelief. Lights flickering? That’s your child. Cardinal outside your window? Thank your child for visiting. Who cares if it’s real? Refer back to better-than-nothing.
  5. Let yourself cry, out loud with messy tears, anywhere and everywhere. Tell strangers your child died; show them his picture. This will help others keep their own petty problems in perspective – or, sometimes, it will help you connect with someone else who’s been there.
  6. Write to your child’s friends, thanking them disproportionately for any role they played in your child’s happiness. These people are the last ones who will ever remember your child with you, and you’ll want to keep in touch with them.
  7. Bury your face in your child’s old shirts searching for his scent. Keep tucked away any clothes that still smell of him. (Thank his girlfriend for leaving you a bottle of his cologne for desperate moments.) Go through his journals, emails, Facebook and Messenger apps and save every word he ever wrote. These are the last words he’ll ever write; maybe someday you’ll feel strong enough to read through them. Make photo and word scrapbooks of his life. Refer back to #1.
  8. Keep a grief journal and read books and websites about grief. It helps to see how many others have suffered this and other terrible losses and survived. Avoid websites of hopeless misery where other mothers swear it never gets better. It does. Really.
  9. Forgive yourself for your brain fog, your shakiness, your forgetfulness, your vomiting, your panic attacks, your flashes of rage at innocent bystanders. Let yourself use marijuana as medicine – alcohol, too, if you can be moderate and not get maudlin on it. Don’t worry about if you’ll always be this much of a mess. You won’t be, but you don’t need to figure out a schedule for your recovery now.
  10. Eventually, start reading a bit about Post-Traumatic Growth. Your child’s death has changed you forever. Someday you’ll get to decide if that change made you more bitter and shrunken or more compassionate and open-hearted… But don’t rush it; you will need to be bitter and shrunken for a while before you get to the growth that’s being forced upon you.
  11. Punch in the face anyone who tells you that “everything happens for a reason,” “you’ll be with them soon,” “God has a plan but we don’t get to know what it is,” or “your child is in a better place now.” If you don’t approve of violence, just tell those who say these things that they must be sad their child is still alive instead of in that better place they’re so excited about.
  12. If your child left behind a child, don’t contemplate your grandchildren with terror in your heart. Remember your grandchild is an individual not cursed to repeat your child’s fate. Don’t waste your grandchildren’s lives worrying they’re doomed. Remember how much of the last years of your child’s life you wasted, overcome as you were by terror and despair, and do your best to enjoy each precious moment with each precious loved one left alive in your life.


#addiction #overdose #overdosedeath #believe #grief #grievingmother #lostson #copingwithgrief #copingwithloss #mysonisdead #advice #adviceforgrievers

Another Year in the Books


Here is a shot of Kyle on Santa’s lap when he was 4 and of his daughter, Maggie, when she was.

Here’s Maggie surrounded by her immediate family in South Hadley:057

I see that it’s been nearly a year since I posted here, and reading through my blog made me want to take a moment to report on how much better I’m feeling. This year, in which I was able to be at home not working for an income, helping my family settle in and eventually turning to writing full-time, was a true gift — but I was often so busy living it that I didn’t make time to write about it, so here’s a run-down:

Amber and Maggie moved here from Southern California in late December of 2017 and now have their own apartment in our town. My daughter Jamie moved here from Oregon and found an apartment in Northampton. And my mother seems finally settled in her third apartment, this one in South Hadley.  There have been some adjustment pains, as you might imagine, but overall I think we are doing beautifully well.

Over the summer, spurred on by my daughter asking what I was doing with my life, I started submitting my poetry in earnest. This has been a disheartening process, but I’ve had some successes. Three of the 27 places to which I submitted accepted my poetry for publication, and one of the places I applied for a fellowship gave me one, so I got to spend a week in December doing nothing but writing. I worked on memoir poems and scrapbooks of my mothering life and then came home, where I haven’t written a word until now.  But I’m getting back to it now, and that’s what matters.



The only year I will ever be twice the age
of both my children, the living and the dead

What in your life is calling you,
when all the noise is silenced,
the meetings adjourned,
the lists laid aside,
and the wild iris blooms
by itself in the dark forest.
What still pulls on your soul?
— Rumi

Today I am 52 —
I have spun around the sun
as many times
as there are weeks in each year
and twice as many as my son,
who loved spinning until
he fell down, ever will.

The Mayans marked eras in calendar
rounds of 52 years, each year’s end
opening a portal to the underworld.
I’ve eagerly straddled that divide,
but in math, 52’s an untouchable
number, never the sum of its divisors,
so today I was forced to choose

To start my next era, to embrace
having survived as many years
as there are playing cards in a deck,
laps in the British Grand Prix,
white keys on the piano, upper
and lowercase letters in our alphabet, and
pickups in a game that brings you to your knees.

52 is the atomic number of tellurium,
a rare, shimmering crystal elementally
more precious than platinum.
Discovering my worth at 52,
I’ve gotten rid of the jokers
so I can play with a full deck
the hand I’ve been dealt.

Here among the living, I will be double
my daughter’s age for just this one year,
old enough to know such coincidences
won’t come twice,
we’ll only get so many invitations to the table,
so many chances to turn a bad deal
into a hand we can play. At 52, I’m all in.


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