A Mirror, A Reflection


Listening to the voices of the dying is sacred. The unexpected side effect of this work is the equal and opposite desire for life that it creates in its wake.

When I step out of someone’s home, having just been a vessel for their words, I am elated to feel the drizzle on my face or to bundle my hair into a ponytail against the wind. It’s all precious. I shed private tears as I experience a small grief in saying goodbye to a family I’ve encountered so intimately, if only for a short time.




In the last few years, I’ve spent time interviewing hospice patients about their lives, writing down their answers, typing them, and giving the words back to them. Unlike other crafted writing, the words are unaltered to preserve the speaker’s voice. Their phrases fit the era they grew up in and still pepper their language. That’s part of the magic that will be passed down to their family.

My role is to ask questions and open long-closed doors. I imagine there might be some anxiety before my arrival. What will she ask? What the heck am I supposed to say? Will I be judged? What’s special about my story? I come with prompts, but rarely need more than a few questions. A single detail becomes the seed for a dozen stories, tales waiting to be shared.

Before I enter the patient’s home, I take a swig of water in my car. I place one hand on my belly and the other on my heart. I draw in a full breath and release it. The circuit is complete, and I am ready to leave my ego aside and enter someone else’s space. It’s the time I am the most me.

Once inside, I sit with pen and paper, as a stranger, and begin. “Where were you born?” The patient’s eyes usually find a spot on the floor as they recite dates and names. If needed, I ask for elaboration about their childhood home, inviting more description about where they slept, ate, and played. Their faces gradually turn upward until they’re looking into the corners of their minds for juicy details.

The act of telling personal stories is healing. Using their own words and oft-repeated phrases, they share the lens through which they see the world. They find grace in being heard, and in turn, I find purpose in listening.

On a follow-up visit, I share the typed draft of our last conversation. Without fail, men that I’ve interviewed will remark, “This is just a list of dates and facts.” Women won’t look at the draft until I’m gone. Either way, the next time I return the patient will begin to share a less varnished version of themselves with me. They tell me the hardest, most beautiful things.

I’ve heard about outbreaks of illness, home abortions, and lives cut short by war. People on oxygen who have few pleasures in life can talk for hours about their past. My hand and wrist will begin to cramp after I’ve written pages of notes, but I never stop writing. Their words are too important. I know that getting to the truth is essential.

This is my calling, to be a mirror for the pain, transcendent love, and everything in between.  My services are offered as a way to extend the healing beyond our visits, a way to pass along something tangible. Perhaps the stories couldn’t be shared before that day. Often, there is an audible sigh of relief in knowing formative experiences will educate their grandchildren and beyond.


I am there as much for the family as for the hospice patient. Their eyes tell me they are anticipating a greater loss. They are already missing who the patient was and who they were before their loved one’s long-term illness. Sometimes they miss their freedom and feel guilty about it. It may have been months since they were able to have a careless attitude about what to eat for dinner, yet they know they’ll miss these hard-won meals together soon, too.

As opposed to a sudden death, in these situations, expecting grief changes us before grief changes us. We prepare for the moment of death, for the memorial service, and then start to think about what our life will look like without them, and finally, what life will look like without us.

My visits may be the first glimpse at their grief reflected back to them.

Being the recorder of these stories, purposely entering a family’s shroud of grief, is a kind of midwifery that I would never have guessed I was suited for. In my regular life, I cry freely. It’s one of the ways I allow myself to feel emotions moving through me. I’m not embarrassed by my tears. They are my offering of sadness, gratitude, or laughter.

When I write the words of a dying person, however, this is not my time to react. Instead of gasping, I breathe purposefully. Rather than crying, I narrow my eyes as if focusing better on my notebook. I run my hands over the indentations my pen has left in the paper. Instead of filling the silences, I let silence take up as much space as it needs. I allow feelings, stillness, and acceptance, and therefore, so can they.


People often tell me they could never do this kind of service, but it doesn’t feel like work to me. It lifts me into a peaceful place by cutting away distractions and ruminating thoughts. I have no choice but to get clear on what’s important before I walk in the door to write someone’s story. I don’t want the visits to end and I can’t wait to meet new patients. I crave these interactions because they are sublimely human. It is the most direct way to see and feel truth.

Even though I’m an outsider in this process, I still feel the grief. Anyone who has lost a loved one will be hurtled back into that first ordeal of death with each subsequent loss. When my brother Paul died, it was the only death I had experienced personally. After that, the deaths of each family member, close friend, or patient whom I interviewed were echoes of that acute loss.

There was no warning when Paul died. It happened suddenly, and my family was plucked out of our day-to-day lives to travel to Texas for his funeral. Even though I’d had little time to gather my thoughts, I spoke at his service because words are important to me. Saying things, naming them, matters. When I stepped onto the dais, faced the church full of people and grabbed the pulpit, I hung on for dear life. I felt like I would shake apart and explode from the weight of it.

From the speech I had written on the hotel notepad, I read, “I’m the nosy one.” Everyone laughed because it was true, but also because the tension was unbearable. Humor was a way to approach the other harder things I needed to say.

Just as I usher families through the gateway into death using words, I walk myself through this process using words to transmute expansive emotions. The asking, the telling, and the recording, as well as the giving and the receiving, are all gentle ways of inviting grief in and befriending it, so when it inhabits our bodies for a time, it doesn’t feel alien. We trust it. In this way, grief sings its truth.





Jena Schwartz coached me through the writing and editing process of this piece. Thank you, Jena!!

Intrusion


Being a kid used to be synonymous with being carefree. That was never really true, of course. It’s just different now. Today being a kid means you worry about very specific things.

I leaned back in my office chair and slid the mouse over my inbox to start work for the day when I heard beating on the back door. It was Henry. He had gotten halfway to school and run back home in a panic.

I wrapped him up in my “you’re safe with me” hug and then looked into his face.

“I heard gunshots! Over there.” He pointed in the direction of the trees between our neighborhood and the school.

“It’s just construction noise.” The rat-tat-tat cut through the air just then, allowing me to nod and reassure him. “You’re safe. It’s okay.”

He pulled away from me with big eyes and started back toward the school. I watched him through the open doorway as he shuffled through the leaves across the lawn. He looked back to see if I was there.

When I closed the door again, I put my hands on my face and pushed out a breath instead of letting myself melt into a puddle. If my little boy just walked off into his fears, I could move ahead with my day, too.


This week they’ve been taking time each day to review intruder drill procedures at the elementary school. They talked about statistics. “It’s actually kids who usually….” Henry recalls at the dinner table on Monday. We all finish the sentence in our minds. His older sister talks about how all the teachers have wooden boards standing in the corner by the classroom doors at the high school. They are meant to slide under the knob, preventing an intruder from opening the door. “My art teacher drew cool designs on hers!” I nod and stuff more meatloaf into my mouth.

Tuesday Henry’s tone changed. His slumped posture and the way he throws his bag down after school mean his older brother and I give each other a sideways glance. We are now in eggshell mode. I am a master at managing eggshells. I hate eggshells. They are piecey and sticky when they shatter into a thousand jagged bits and hide in the cracks of things. I turn off my highly empathetic natural state and turn up the dial on detachment, simultaneously raising the levers on impartial facial expressions and voice evenness.

I don’t just ask Henry what’s wrong. I manufacture a calm greeting: “Hey, how was Library today?” This draws his focus from the impending meltdown.

“It was fine.”

I wait.

“Something really bad happened.” His eyes are wet now.

“What was it?” I remind myself to keep breathing and square my shoulders and hips, like a wrestler ready for his opponent.

Henry has anxiety. He also has ADHD-Inattentive Type, struggles with compulsive repetitive behaviors, and will likely be diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he’s older, like me. His anxiety leads, though. At school, he picks his fingers until they bleed, stares into space, quietly shreds paper and erasers under his desk, and looks frozen when he’s anxious.  Faced with fight, flight, or freeze mode, Henry’s nervous system opts for “freeze” in public settings.

We have language for his “fear thoughts” and his “smart thoughts.” We also talk about how he needs to use his “inner coach” to get “unstuck.” He tells me about how when he walked back into his regular classroom from his resource room that morning, the teacher was telling his classmates not to worry, that she would keep them safe from “his inappropriate behavior.” Henry’s fear thoughts made him assume that he was the topic of discussion.

“I thought they were all going to throw things at me.”

This is one of the things the children are taught. If an intruder gets into the classroom, they are supposed to fight back, throwing anything they can.

He had turned around and walked back to his resource room. He described his throat being full, his eyes stinging, and his stomach wiggly – all because he was trying not to cry. He assumed that he was not a safe person and that his teacher was having to comfort the class behind his back.

In reality, she was talking about someone else, a student in crisis who had behaved like some kids do when they’re in crisis. He had been removed to get help and the teacher was calming the other kids who had witnessed it all. To get this information, I needed to have Henry repeat the story, answer tons of questions, and then send a carefully worded email to his teacher. The last line was a plea that she respond as quickly as she could.

Luckily, the adults who work with Henry abide by his IEP. They understand his quirks. His teacher likely understood that our family’s evening had blown up and her words could soothe the situation. They did.

Wednesday brought fears that the child in crisis would become an intruder like Henry had been hearing about.

“What if he . . .?”

Wrestler stance, even voice:  “The adults at your school are really smart and they will keep you all safe. They’re watching your friend because he needs extra help right now.”

I could have said a lot more.  In truth, I trust the school staff. They are the kind of people I wish worked at every school. They are supported and well-trained. They, in turn, care for kids like they all matter, even when they behave badly. It is a balm to my wounded inner child to know that they will shower the child in crisis with care, safety, and consistency, probably preventing scarier, more dangerous outbursts in the future.

I hate eggshells. I hate the things that our kids face. I hate intruder drills.

I love the teachers who are doing their best. I love that when our kids grow up, they will almost surely look back on intruder drills as a horrific remnant of the past. They will build something new and better.



Antidote to Intruder Drills


Running at top speed with the wind at your back
Dropping the candy cane on the floor, picking it up, and licking it again
Poets
Swinging as high as you can
Free, plentiful, and normalized mental healthcare
Your favorite movie
Hugging a friend who’s sad
Art
Puppies wrestling
Growing things in a garden
Dancing
Watching a little boy ride his bike down a hill
Novels
Hugs where you run to each other
Hugs where you’re already sitting close with your heads touching
Checking on the sweet old lady 3 houses down
Building something with your hands, even though you can buy it
The rush of fresh sweet air when you open windows for the first time in spring
Me
You
Us

500-word Flash Fiction

I'm stoking the fires of creativity by writing short stories while I edit (a.k.a. agonize over editing) my novel-in-progress.

The constraints of this story style are taken from a local writing contest a friend shared with me. The whole piece must be under 500 words including the title. It must include the following 6 words:

wait
cobble
status
intermittent
avocado
woven




Pretending

Maya couldn’t wait to get out of the apartment that morning. She cobbled together a breakfast of Lucky Charms and a leftover slice of bacon. She checked her phone, updated her status on Facebook to “feeling ready,” and jumped in her car.

She was early to the testing site, so she waited with a few other eager college applicants. It was late enough in the summer that the morning air was already warm. The intermittent buzz of dragonflies punctuated the hazy stillness over the lawn in front of the squatty red brick building.

A young man offered her a cigarette. She furrowed her brow in surprise. “I didn’t think people still 
smoked those things.”

“Whatever, I was just trying to be nice.” He took another drag off his cigarette and stared into the quad that was slowly filling with people.

Maya crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the ground. She hadn’t meant to come off so snappy. They were all just about to walk into one of the most important evaluations of their lives. She supposed everyone would be soothing themselves in a different way.

When the proctor unlocked the heavy metal doors leading into the testing room Maya was one of the first to enter. She chose one of the hundreds of dull avocado-green chairs and began rapping her pencil on the smooth tabletop attached to her seat. She was on the aisle furthest from the door believing this would provide the least distraction.

A young woman, perhaps with the same idea as Maya, approached the spot next to hers. She looked at Maya. Her eyes quickly darted to her pencil tapping. The woman flashed a sympathetic smile and chose a chair out of range of the tick-tick-ticking. Maya steadied her pencil by holding it with both hands and bit her bottom lip.

Maya’s brain went a little fuzzy. No, she thought. Not now, this is too important. Dropping her pencil on the tabletop she put her closed fists on either side of her head and gently rocked back and forth. She felt her face getting hot. She could only imagine what everyone thought of her-- decades older than them. Now she was freaking out. She couldn’t hold it together.

Her worst fear was coming true. Just like Frank had beaten into her over the last few years. “You aren’t worth anything.” She tried to slow down her breathing. She pushed away images of Frank’s gritted teeth and those terrifying moments just before he hit her. She unclenched her fists and slowly opened her eyes to find her pencil had rolled onto the floor. She bent down quickly to pick it up and when she straightened the walls of the room looked like they had been woven with shimmery fabric. Everything was going fuzzy again.

Three more intentional breaths and the walls were solid once more. She gripped her pencil with one hand, lifted her chin, and pretended that this was where she belonged.

Where Ideas Come From




Where ideas are born

This curiosity
Cleverly knit lies with a sense of purpose
These urges
These questions
A tug on the tether from my heart to the center of the universe
All the hope for a better future
Those soft creases inside a rosebud
That cesspool of confusion
This space between heaven and hell
Those scribbly notebooks in the cabinet
That thin shaft of light in a dark and moody woods
The need for relief
A current of stardust flowing over my head
Those invisible wounds
This worn cozy armchair
The knot of pain under my left shoulder blade
A damp spot of earth under a rock in the garden
That praying mantis perched on the hood of my car
This voice that whispers, “Just say one true thing.”

Who I am

I heard my older son telling his friend that his mom is a writer. It was a pivotal moment. I never told my son I’m a writer. He just sees me writing a lot. He hears me talking about symbols and storylines. He talks with me about cover art and helps me dream big.

My younger son thinks my job is to stay home and do whatever I want. I thought, “That is also true.” He sees me waiting for him at the door every day before and after school. He sees my office curtains closed and know that I need space. What I want is to take care of my family and write novels, so I teach myself things and write every day. To my younger son, it looks like I don’t “work.”

Aside from 53,000 loads of laundry and dishes per week, cleaning, supporting, shopping, home maintenance, etc. I don’t leave the house to go to a job every day. I also don’t get a paycheck every two weeks.

I’m playing the long game.



I’m investing time in my family and my writing. It will be one way that I'll earn money when my writing is polished enough to publish. Once I have a few novels, they will be permanent assets. They become part of my body of work. 

It’s difficult to sum up what it looks like to be a writer. It’s who I am. It is how I heal, view the world, and learn.