A New Lite-Brite

For the last eight weeks, I’ve been surprised at the similarities of two seemingly unrelated events. When the not so quiet whispers of lockdown began, I felt this surge of emotions at the onset of sudden change. It was intense and scary and yet familiar. But I couldn’t quite place it.

And then I started to remember the almost manic thoughts that propelled me out of bed to open the all the curtains and blinds immediately after waking up. I remembered the concentration required to count the scoops of coffee in the Mr. Coffee. More than once I had to dump the grounds back into the coffee can and start all over. These small steps in my routine after my son died propelled me from one minute to the next. These constants got me out of bed when otherwise, there really was no reason.

My son died suddenly in a swimming pool accident in 2010. He was not quite two years old. From the planning of the funeral and onto Shiva, turning to God felt natural. Picturing my son in a safe “heavenly” place instead of his grave gave me some comfort.

The pain was enormous. The pain was all-encompassing. But I never felt angry at God. If God had my son with him, as we were taught to believe in Hebrew school, then God and I needed to be BFF’s. But to this day, I still struggle with the question “Where is my child?”

My faith in God was the only direction that gave me hope. As my husband and I sat in temple every Friday night, it was felt like the closest we could get to our son. And we felt like God followed us home every Friday night. Actually, we felt like he followed us to the diner for a BLT and fries and then home. After the trauma of burying our son, we believed God would be ok with a bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

For two and a half years after Noah died, we came home to an empty apartment. No sign of our old family of three anywhere. But I still felt like God was with us. We talked and prayed and even negotiated with God as we went through heartbreaking and expensive fertility treatments. All I had left to negotiate with was my faith. I promised God if he would just give us another child again, I would…I wasn’t sure what I would do. But I just knew God was the only one listening.

When Miriam was born, we thanked our doctors as well as God. But as she grew, I struggled with what to teach her about this unexplainable concept. Suddenly, my BFF God seemed confusing and uncertain. When faced with explaining God to a small child, I froze.

One time I remember Miriam asking me about something in nature. I probably answered something like “Because that’s the way God made them.” Miriam hit back with an innocent, “God? Who’s God??”

I never mentioned God again. On purpose. And man, I felt terrible.

My source of comfort,

My unwavering BFF,

I had no idea what or how to tell my daughter about God.

She knew she celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas. She knew we were Jewish. And that her brother Noah in Heaven was Jewish too. Yup, Daddy is Jewish too. But she never asked what Jewish meant. And I had no idea how to tell her.

I was afraid of painting a picture of this benevolent guy in the sky. I didn’t want to present God as always watching over us because for a young child, that could sound creepy. But I realized I was more afraid of the questions of “why” than the questions of “who.” Because I had no answer to why her brother that she never knew died. Or why people get sick. Or why we are in the middle of this insane pandemic and she can’t go to school or have a playdate or go see her cousins or grandfather. I’ve explained about “The Germ” as we’re calling it because germ sounds cuter than virus. But explaining WHY would God let these things happen is my big dilemma.

But as the lockdown stretches on, I find myself looking for my BFF God again. He was there when it all fell apart. And when it all started to come back together again, it was as if He faded into the background with a smug smile.

As my young daughter misses her friends and teachers and swimming lessons and everything a seven-year-old should be doing right now, I continue working as an essential employee in a liquor store. My husband has lost his job and has taken on the home schooling. My back and feet ache. My nerves are shot, and my temper is short. Something has been missing.

I needed something to look forward to during the days all strung together by sadness and uncertainty. And like a lightbulb over my exhausted head, the answer was Shabbat. We would start lighting Shabbat candles. I would bring a tangible symbol of my old buddy God into our kitchen every Friday night. I had lofty goals of explaining Judaism and God and faith and again I found myself at a loss for words. Oh also, I didn’t even have candlesticks.

I started by placing an ad on a Judaica Buy/Sell Facebook page. “Looking for simple Shabbat candlesticks to begin teaching my daughter about Judaism and bringing back a long-lost tradition for me.” Within minutes, a Rabbi from Louisiana commented on my post. She would gladly send me candlesticks and candles. Just message her the address. And a week later, silver candlesticks and a box of candles arrived in the mail.

The first Friday was exciting. We talked about listening to our inner voices. We talked about finding ways to calm ourselves down when we get upset. We talked about how every week we take a break and think about all the good things that happened. We lit the candles and sang the blessings and shouted in each other’s faces “SHABBAT SHALOM!!”

The second Friday felt natural already. We talked about the squirrel that dug up our seeds we planted. He’s a jerk.

We talked about missing school as I glanced at her lunchbox just sitting there. Untouched for weeks. We talked about feeling sad. We talked about feeling angry. We talked about feeling upset. But we also talked about finding things to be happy about. And her list of happy things was thankfully longer than I expected.

On the third Friday, we talked about how we were feeling during this stressful time And it was as if my old friend God pulled up a chair at the table and just eased His way into the conversation. And in another lightbulb moment, I figured out how to explain faith in God to my daughter. And reboot my belief as well.

God is that feeling of being ok. Even when things are far from being ok, God will be there with you. You can’t see him, but He is.  And when things don’t always turn out the way you wanted or hoped, God may not make much sense to you. When bad things happen, God may even seem not so sweet. But when all the dust settles, God will always show up at the kitchen table on a Friday night.

How I Caught Compassion Fatigue From Working In A Liquor Store

Three weeks after losing my only child in a swimming pool accident, I began working at a liquor store. It’s not where you’d expect a grieving mother to end up. I’d worked at a small Pennsylvania winery in my twenties, but there was a major difference between a gravel paved country winery and a highway liquor store in Northern New Jersey.

It was an attractive store filled with wooden wine racks. There was none of the fluorescent lighting normally seen in big liquor stores. This place felt different. Warm, friendly, and with great coworkers.

I felt safe to be “broken” there. I threw myself into studying regions, appellations, grape varietals, and all the stories behind the wines and whiskeys. The winemakers and distillers. Learning all this information kept my mind spinning with something other than the tortuous thoughts of my son’s death.

I quickly got to know the customers. I knew what they drank. And how quickly they drank it. As their visits became more frequent, my coworkers and I started to talk amongst ourselves about the downward spirals we were witnessing.

Customers would offer up unsolicited excuses for their frequent visits:

A sweet red-nosed grandmother would come in for her second pint of vodka within a few hours. It was always for penne in vodka sauce. She’d tell me her grandkids would always ask her to make it, practically every day. I’d jokingly tell her, “It’s ok. I get paid not to judge.”

There were lots of instances of “unexpected company” and forgotten needed “housewarming gifts” for those customers who made a second daily visit. I always kept my smile on my face. I always kept my words kind and comforting.

Along with the habitual drinkers, there were many who just loved wine. I greeted so many customers with hugs and kisses as I recommended new wines, getting to know their tastes and budgets. We got to know each other as people. I selectively shared the story of losing my son and they told me about their lives and families. It was a parade of human stories and I found most of them very interesting. And when I thankfully became pregnant two years after I began working there, my growing belly was a happy and humorous sight in a liquor store.

I began putting the pieces of my life back together slowly. Chasing pregnancy through multiple fertility treatments was finally successful. And when my daughter was born, healthy and perfect, small amounts of healing started to sneak into my brain, replacing the shock of losing it all in July of 2010.

Along with my husband, we felt like a family again. There were bittersweet smiles and hope slowly replaced fear and oppressive sadness. When my daughter was three months old, I went back to work in the liquor store that was my saving grace at my most broken time.

But things started to change. I spent more time on the cash register rather than on the sales floor. It was now a constant parade of hardcore alcoholics. Waiting outside the door for us to open and rushing in through the door a few minutes before we closed.

I gave them nicknames and turned them into amusing Facebook posts for my friends to read.

Fireball Guy came practically skipping into the store up to three times a day. He shouted an annoyingly joy filled HELLOOOOO as he put his cinnamon whiskey mini bottles and pints down on the counter.

Masturbation Pants Guy loaded up on cheap vodka and cranberry juice daily. Always breathing heavy, it looked like his drawstring pants fell off as soon as he walked in his front door.

Pocketful of Change Guy was always on an important phone call as he counted out his change in small piles for ninety-nine cent bottles of vodka. He’d be back in within an hour. He’d have more change and still be on an important phone call.

And there were moms. So many moms throwing little bottles into their purses or gym bags. The phrase of “There but for the grace of God, go I” ran through my head on a constant loop. Their drinking scared me. I developed a false sense of superiority while simultaneously wondering if all those little bottles actually had the answer to the undertones of sadness I felt daily. Because grief is non-linear and tricky as hell.

It was the same faces every day. And as much as I joked about getting paid not to judge, I judged. I judged hard. And that made me feel even worse.

I developed feelings I’m not proud of towards these customers. I became dismissive. I’d reached a limit as to what I could absorb. I wanted to just enjoy my second chance at motherhood while trying to come to terms with my own grief of losing my son. I didn’t want to be privy to this world of alcoholism. Or the sadness that came with it. I’d developed something called “compassion fatigue.”

I said to a coworker that this job has made me into a person I don’t like. She replied, “But you’re a very nice person in real life.”

I needed to change my mindset. After almost ten years at this job, I’d worked my way up to a good hourly wage. I still needed this job. How could I make it less toxic?

According to Psychology Today, compassion fatigue was mostly seen amongst health care workers and first responders. But with pictures and descriptions of the world’s traumas at the touch of our fingertips, compassion fatigue is spreading like an epidemic. I was feeling all the symptoms and going through all the stages before I even knew what the symptoms and stages actually were.

The defined stages of compassion fatigue in the workplace fit my experience to a tee.

1. Enthusiasm- I was committed and excited in the beginning. I felt like I made a difference

2. Irritability-Mocking, inappropriate humor, and avoiding customers

3. Withdrawal-No pride in my work. Unmotivated, full of complaints

4. Quitting-Depressed, frustrated, and even angry. Impatient and disgusted

This job had become an uncomfortable mix of painfully real life for others while dealing with the evolution of my own grief. Balancing my own emotions while seeing others in a daily downward spiral became hard work. Along with the actual job of stocking shelves and bagging bottles, I became a sponge for so much sadness and dysfunction.

Friends would tell me “it’s just a job” or “shut off the feelings when you’re there.” I know there are more intensely emotional jobs than working in a liquor store. My admiration for healthcare workers and first responders is monumental. But in the age of self-care and the importance of mental health awareness, we all have our limitations.

After recognizing compassion fatigue, I needed to start making some healthy decisions to help me cope, while still earning my paycheck. I never expected to be pondering my life’s balance at the cash register of a liquor store. And certainly not on the cashier side.

I took a month off. I put some distance between me and them. I surrounded myself with the people that mattered. Every day, I made sure I understood that I cannot save the world. I gave myself permission to be broken again.

Even though I had the happy ending of having my daughter, losing a child never leaves you whole. And my empty spots need to be guarded with all the energy I can gather.

Saving With Grace

“Mommy, did you know the hardest thing about being a superhero is that you can’t always save everybody?”

“That is very true, honeypie,” I respond to my seven-year-old daughter. She’s learning life lessons from a Spiderman video. She was quoting directly from whatever pensive incarnation of Spiderman she’s into currently. I’m good with that.

On New Year’s Day, my husband left for work early in the morning. When he got to his job, about ten minutes later, he called me.

“Don’t freak out but… there’s a cat at the end of the driveway who may need help.”

I grab a big cardboard box and one of our good towels and race down the stairs of our two-family house. I look around under leaves and see nothing. I’m hoping the cat has run off since my husband made the distress call. But as I turn to go back upstairs with my box and good towel, I see him. A tail is peeking out from a big fuzzy body.

I start speaking to him in that high-pitched voice we use for animals. “Hiiiiiiii! Are you ok, little guyyyyyy?”

And then I notice his tail is striped. And he’s bigger than a cat. And as I watch his body go up and down with breaths, I move him gently to see his face.

I text my husband:

THAT’S NOT A CAT. THAT’S A RACCOON!!

He had no visible injuries. I check all his paws and his body looked fine. I like to think he was happy to see me and just accepting of the help I was there to give. I called the police to ask for the animal control number. But I didn’t want them to just take him away and euthanize him. I wanted to give him a chance to rest and recover from whatever trauma had occurred. I got him into the box and covered him with the towel. He was still breathing steadily as he curled into a resting position.

I went down to check on him every hour, hoping the box would be empty. I was hoping he had run off and felt well enough to go back to doing what raccoons do. But he was still there in that big cardboard box under one of our good towels.

We have four good towels. They’re gigantic and the color of Dijon mustard. I could’ve grabbed one of our more tattered or stained towels. But I wanted this poor animal to have whatever comfort I could provide for him. Even if that comfort was just a cardboard box and a soft towel.

After a few hours of our raccoon’s shallow breathing, I called the animal control number. The lady at the other end asked me what had happened so far that morning. She said she’d be there in about thirty-five minutes. My daughter and I waited by the front door for the white van that came exactly thirty-five minutes later.  

The young woman was gentle with our not so little raccoon. She said they would take him back to the wildlife rehab and see what they could do for him. If they couldn’t save him, they would “make their decision” as she glanced towards my young daughter standing there in pajamas and a rainbow patterned coat. The young woman didn’t know she really didn’t have to censor herself for Miriam. We openly talk about death and illness. And like Spiderman says, even a superhero can’t save everybody all the time.

It can be a tricky balancing game. The sad stuff. The uncertain stuff. The times when even the adults don’t have the answers.

I told Miriam we won’t be able to find out what happens to our raccoon. But we decided we’d make up the ending to this story. We both decided that our raccoon just needed a little rest and a visit to the vet. And then he’d be able to go back to the woods feeling much better.

And whether or not that’s what happens to our little friend, we did our part. We showed him kindness and compassion. We hoped for the best that he’d have jumped out of his box. And when that didn’t seem like it was going to happen, we called for help.

Because sometimes that’s all you can do. Accept the situation and ask for help. And as my daughter grows up, I want her to know that things don’t always turn out the way you hope. And that’s ok too.

The Darker Side Of Talk Like A Pirate Day

“Talk Like A Pirate Day” artwork for our kitchen art gallery

September 19th is one of those modern silly calendar days known as “Talk Like A Pirate Day.” A flyer was sent home the day before encouraging kids to dress like a pirate. Bandana, eye patch, hat…whatever you have laying around. Costumes are never a problem for our family. My husband used to dress up for a living as a kid’s entertainer. We’ve got everything in the attic closet. Pirates, Mad Scientists, Wizards, Safari Guys, Clown, Magician, and Fez Guy (not really a thing, Hal just really likes wearing his Fez)

Miriam wore an authentic leather pirate hat to school with a blue bandana and a small stuffed monkey in a pirate costume on her shoulder. She saw her friend, Jackson, on the way to school wearing a yellow sash and pirate tunic. “Mommy, I’m kind of excited for this!”

September 19th is also Noahs’s birthday. He would’ve turned eleven this year. For my new readers, Noah died a few weeks shy of his 2nd birthday in a swimming pool accident. It’s so odd, to celebrate a birthday of someone who is no longer here. It’s almost like his death day is easier to get through. The finality of it. His birthday magnifies the loss. That “what could’ve been.”

I don’t spend much time thinking about what he would’ve been like at this age. Maybe it’s just too painful. Maybe it’s too abstract and confusing. I think I’m still working on understanding that he isn’t here anymore. And besides, there’s this six year old little girl name Miriam Phoenix staring me in the face 24/7. She is the shiniest thing I have ever laid eyes upon.

Her smile is nearly constant. Her curiosity, her willingness, her odd accurate statements about obscure sea creatures that I secretly fact check on my phone. She is 99% accurate 99% of the time. Bias aside, she is the most interesting person I know.

On September 19th, Hal got a giant cookie cake and wrote Happy Birthday Noah on it. I scrambled for a candle when I got home from work and we told Miriam to close her eyes. She had wanted a cake for her brother’s birthday. She actually asked if she cold give out goodie bags to her class. I told her that was a very nice thought but we didn’t have the supplies for that. Besides, (Warning: Ahoy Matey, Dark Humor Ahead!) I don’t think goody bags from her dead brother would be a good idea.

We cried and sang Happy Birthday and ate the cookie cake with cold milk. We told her how happy we were that she was our daughter and that Noah picked her out especially for us. This is daily unchartered territory. There is no treasure map guiding our pirate ship. Besides, what would the treasure be? Maybe peace of mind? Impossible. The only treasure we have is Miriam.

I don’t often watch videos of Noah. Video is too hard. Too confusing to process still, too everything… But that night, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” ended with me watching a video of Hal tickling Noah on our bed. Noah was laying on the same blue comforter that I was now under. It was all so disorienting. All of it. The comforter. Noah’s laugh. Noah’s eyes when he looked directly into the camera as I filmed them playing. But I couldn’t look away.

September 20th, went along as any other day. But it’s like I was hungover. Not from cookie cake. Not from alcohol. But from trying to pretend. Trying to be as shiny as Miriam is every day. I was exhausted. Bordering on numb.

I’m so aware of this sadness that permeates our lives. I want it to be as normalized and positive as possible for Miriam. For bereaved parents, with children still to raise joyfully, it’s unchartered territory. Like that pirate ship sailing around looking to interfere in some unsuspecting sailor’s life. Those pirates will take their valuables, shake them up, and scare the hell out of them. I guess we got pirated of our life back in 2010.

So we are sailing again with Miriam. The irony of all these water analogies does not go unnoticed. We don’t know what the best way to keep Noah alive in our family. We are figuring that out every single day. We do know that making sure Miriam knows how loved and wanted and treasured she is the TOP PRIORITY.

Miriam will sometimes see us cry. Or be sad or overwhelmed with emotions. It is impossible and unhealthy for us to hide that fact. But she will see our smiles wider than ever thought. Those crazy-making juxtapositions of emotions. Maybe it’s good she learns early on that emotions don’t always make sense. And we can’t always control them either.

Like that snarled smiling mouth silently saying “Arghhhh” on her construction paper pirate hanging in our kitchen art gallery, we can smile through almost anything now. Whether we should or not…it’s all unchartered territory and always will be.

What to Wear When Visiting the Cemetery After Eating All the Ice Cream

The patterns were so mismatched that they looked intentional. So bad, it was good. A simple skirt and tank top. Floral patterns swirling over my body. Nobody would see me there in my depression uniform. Maybe a grounds worker. Maybe another cemetery visitor. It mattered so little what I wore to the cemetery that it began to matter a lot. I applied three quick spritzes of my mother’s perfume. The bottle of Lanvin Arpege was at least fifteen years old. It seemed to dissipate within seconds.  

Minutes before getting dressed, I’d eaten all the ice cream in the freezer right out of the half gallon container. I put whipped cream and chocolate syrup on it too. This handheld, fully disposable sundae tasted like nothing and everything at the same time. If someone would’ve ripped it out of my hands while I was eating it, I would’ve just let them take it away. I’d offer no resistance. It mattered so little. But I kept eating it until it was gone.

The urge to visit the cemetery came over me like a sudden burst of energy. Not the kind of energy from the sugar overload I was inhaling. It was a burst of emotional energy. Something I hadn’t had in a long time. I felt a push to go to where my son was buried. To go back to that day. Those days. To see how it felt nine years later.

I felt a push to go back to where my mother was buried just three months before my son. I wanted to see if she would whisper anything differently to me at her grave. Because I hear her whisper to me everywhere I go.

I looked around our apartment for something to bring. I looked through my daughter’s toys. I looked through my things. I took a Ziploc bag out of the drawer and filled it with acorns we’d collected from the tree that overlooks our little wooden deck. We’d been cracking acorns at the kitchen table the day before. My daughter wanted to see what was on the inside of an acorn. She’s fascinated with what’s on the inside of everything.

I drove fifteen minutes down the highway that was starting to crawl with Jersey shore traffic. It was Friday. As I turn into the cemetery entrance, I lower my radio, but I don’t turn it off all the way. I drive slowly as I pass through the old Russian section. The gravestones are crowded together with their fancy fonts of Russian and Hebrew.

I keep driving towards the very back of the cemetery, passing rusted street signs with the names Mt. Hebron, Dinah, and Ruth. I make a right onto Mt. Moriah and drive until I see my mother’s pink speckled granite gravestone sticking out amongst the grey stones and green grass.

Before I even get out of my car, the dragonflies appear. They’re big and bold and flying in pairs. I feel my anxiety flying around with them. The fear of the new emotions that a cemetery visit may bring is overwhelming. Seemingly unmanageable. But I’m surprised to find the opposite feels true right now. No new emotions. Just a calm. I feel a peaceful acceptance of my loss. My daily guilt is strangely soothed here. It’s okay to be sad here. Because this place is all about black and white. Living or dead. No grey areas.

The dashboard says ninety-one degrees outside. I empty the Ziploc bag of acorns into my hat and get out of the car. Noah’s gravestone seems smaller. I rearrange all the toys that have been brought here over the years. I stand up the robots. I line up the cars. I try to make it orderly. Because it’s all so out of order. I pull some weeds that have popped up through the white stones.

I tell him I brought him some acorns. I place three on top of his stone. I tell him I’ll be right back. I’m going to see Grandma. I count the steps. Thirteen steps from my son to my mother. I wanted to be sure of the number so I did it again. Thirteen.

I can hear the hum of the highway traffic. It sounds like running water and I’m listening closely for any messages the din might have for me. I expect something magical to happen. Some visual or aural hallucination. But it doesn’t.

I leave acorns for my mother too. I weed her red stones. I know she wanted me to stop. It‘s too hot, she’d say. It’s not necessary, she’d say.

There was a fresh grave a few steps away from Noah. The marker said the burial took place five days ago. I thought about the mourners looking around to see what company their loved one would be keeping.

I started to relax into the visit. I wandered through the gravestones reading the names and tributes. And then I noticed a stone I’d never seen on my handful of visits. It was a little girl. Just her name and dates.

I thought about her parents immediately. I pictured them huddled together at her grave as she was buried and all the excruciating pain that comes with that. I wanted to know about how they fared after. How the death of their baby girl affected them. I wanted to share that experience with them.

I’ve been questioning myself lately. Wondering if all this writing about Noah and death and life after losing a child is self-indulgent. Or monotonous. But when I saw this little girl’s grave, I knew none of those things were true. Because I clung to every word I could read from another grieving parent. I needed to read what it was like for them one year out, five years out, ten years out…I needed to not feel alone in this. I needed to know I could survive this. I needed to know what it would be like.

As much as Noah changed shape that day into wherever we go when we die, I changed shape that day too. I needed to know what to expect because as much as I wished we could just get a “do-over”, life doesn’t work that way. Even when you try to fake it, it doesn’t last for long. My new reality comes back to punch me hard.

Before I leave the cemetery, I look back and stare at this untouched spot of green grass where I will be buried one day. It’s a freeing view. No matter what I share or don’t share, no matter what I write about or don’t write about, I will end up here. No one knows when or how.

We recently spent the afternoon at the Liberty Science Center. It’s a huge museum and planetarium with four floors of kids and parents. I watched Miriam as she played in a younger kid’s area with all sorts of hands-on fun for ages five and under. Miriam loves little kids and I love watching her natural maternal qualities come through. I never take my eyes off Miriam. This place is big. And crowded. And bad things happen. I know that firsthand. And even though I don’t want to live on the edge all the time, it’s just how my brain has been rewired…how I’ve changed shape.

As Miriam collects balls in a basket with a sweet little girl around four years old, I make smiling eye contact with the father as he watches them play too. A little girl no more than fourteen or fifteen months walks past me in that newish walker fast trot. Arms up in the air with a “look at me!” grin on her face. With one eye I watch for a parent to be following behind. There’s no one. I listen for a parent to yell a name and run after her. No one yells for her. I watch her walk right past other parents and parked strollers and employees. No one is stopping her. She’s now in the cavernous center of the building and hangs a left out of my site.

I’m instantly torn between just watching my own child and going after this baby. My heart races and I go after the baby. I quickly scoop her up after everyone she passed by assumed she was with someone. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t fight me. I race back into the kid area, visually locate Miriam, and then start asking loudly “Whose baby is this!?” No one responds. I break into a cold sweat, my heart races, the pictures in my mind start flashing of so many things.

I go to a group of adults sitting on the floor of the play area, kids swirling around them.

“Do you know who she belongs to?! Is she yours?”  

Finally, a young woman answered, “Not really. She’s my sister’s. Why?”

“BECAUSE SHE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLANETARIUM!!”

She didn’t even get up off the floor. She simply called to the little girl and said to come here. The little girl happily waddled over. I never got to see the mother. Maybe her reaction was just as emotional as mine. Maybe it wasn’t.

It was the lack of alarm that shook me. It wasn’t the fact that someone lost sight of their child. Because I’m far from able to judge anyone as I live out my life in judgement. And kids are fast. But I wanted to tell these people that kids don’t always come back. Everyone assumed she was being watched. Myself included.

I continued to watch Miriam playing as I held back tears unsuccessfully. My heart was pounding. I’ve changed shape.

Unexpected Multiplication

We picked out two females. The mostly white one with a tan head was quickly named LouWho. The other, with her perfect bands of white and grey, was now called Tina. And home we all went.

We entered Petco as a family of three humans and two felines. We left with the addition of two guinea pigs. Or so we thought.

We’d had two female pigs when Noah was little. They were named Naomi and Esther. Black, white and tan sisters squeaking in our living room. Noah would say “piggies!” when he heard them and we’d lift him up to feed them treats. I was so busy with him all day long that I can’t say I really got to know those piggies. They outlived Noah by about five or six years. After he was gone, I always thought of them as Noah’s pigs. I did love them, though.

I found Esther one morning after she had died in her sleep. But Naomi held on for another year or so. And when I just happened to see her heavy breathing in the purple cage, I took her out and held her as she poetically died in my hands.

About a month and a half ago, I brought the big purple cage down from the attic and hosed it off outside. I hand washed the ceramic food bowls. I could hear Noah’s voice saying “piggies” while the water ran. The sound of running water plays tricks on me sometimes and I always listen closely for what I might hear. 

We created a home for our new pigs and in they went to explore the grass hut and new fluff. Through the cage, they went nose to nose with their new cat friends. It’s good to bring new life into a family. Shake up the dynamic and see how much more love can be multiplied.

Speaking of multiplying…

We noticed LouWho was always a little larger than Tina. We were told they were both about three months old. Tina was the spry one with more personality. LouWho seemed shy. Maybe even preoccupied is the right word.

So bigger and bigger and bigger LouWho became while Tina stayed the same. Was it possible? Somewhere along the way, in her three short months of pig life, did she meet a smooth-talking male pig? Did they Netflix and Chill? Did pig nature take its course?

My husband took some pictures of LouWho and showed them to a very nice girl named Mary at Petco. Judging by the photos, Mary thought it was indeed possible. It’s not common, but somewhere before the pigs are divided by sex, LouWho met her Tom Jones. Her Ryan Gosling. Her Bradley Cooper. Whoever the rat bastard was, she succumbed to his charms and we were now expecting.

We watched her belly undulate occasionally and I started posting about our impending births on Facebook. We prepared ourselves with birthing videos. I really started to think it would never happen. LouWho probably thought the same.

But this past Friday night, as I was cleaning up in the kitchen and Miriam was setting up her stuffed animals in the living room to look like a movie theatre, I noticed Tina acting strangely. Repeatedly lurching back and forth, almost as if she had a hairball, she got my attention. Underneath the Polynesian hut, LouWho WAS GIVING BIRTH!!!!!!! Two babies had already come out and a third was on the way.

It was amazing. And bloody. And yucky. But amazing. There was a white one, a black one, and a stripey one. What a “bonus gift with purchase” we received.

So we now have a cage of five piggies and we have some decisions to make. First, we need to determine their sexes. Because, unless we want another miracle of birth moment, they must be separated. Then we need to decide on homes for them. We can’t keep all of them.

The same day the piggies were born, I’d gotten some bad news. A writing gig with a nice steady paycheck abruptly ended. Through no fault of mine, the execs just decided to put it on hold for now. I was shocked and upset but I didn’t panic. As I called my husband to tell him, the words “we’ve been through worse” always find their way into conversations like this.

When bad news of varying degrees comes through our lives, each time they leapfrog off each other. Each one giving us some coping skills. But each one, more importantly, gives us hope. Hope that good news will come soon. That yes, bad things certainly happen in an instant. But good things can happen quickly and unexpectedly, too.

Have faith in that leapfrog game of constantly moving forward.

So, I’m hustling for work again and listening to our pigs squeak in the kitchen. The babies are all nursing and preliminary peeks at their privates indicate we may have a litter of all boys! So, these little squeakers won’t be with us for long.

I’ll deep breathe through anxiety while feeding them dandelion leaves and alfalfa hay.

I’ll hopefully have some new assignments very soon.

I’ll think back to all the times I thought I’d reached an impenetrable roadblock…

To all the games of leapfrog I’ve played and will play.

Snapped But Not Broken

A strong rainstorm came through last night. It all happened so fast. I was at work. My husband didn’t have enough time to move my sunflower plants out of the way of the strong wind on our little deck.

When the rain stopped, he went outside and stood the plastic jack o’ lantern planter back up. Though none of them have blossomed yet, that had been the tallest sunflower plant of them all.

Over the past weeks, I’ve tied them up gently for some support as they grew taller. Kitchen twine, sticks and random pieces of wood I’ve found. I’m no master gardener, that’s the truth.

This morning, in the post storm daylight, I went outside and checked on my badass plants.

I call them that because, despite their misfit planters, and haphazardly tossed seeds, they’re still growing.

Despite getting knocked down in some sudden rain storms, they’re still growing.

But two previously strong shoots had been snapped. Bent badly, but not totally snapped off. I resisted the urge to cut them off completely.

I’m just going to watch them and see what happens. Will they still bloom?

Will they remember how bent they were?

Will they remember the sudden storm?

Will they blossom even brighter because of it?

My poor little bent shoots. Will they recover?

And Then They Handed Me The Microphone…

I realized I’d never used a handheld microphone before. Well, actually, that’s not true. Because there’s karaoke, you know. This was a different event. I looked down at my death grip and couldn’t seem to get comfortable with the microphone. I pulled it away from my face as I sniffled. Because nobody should have to hear my sniffles magnified and echoing throughout the James Ward Mansion last Thursday night.

I was asked to speak by the Westfield Area YMCA. They asked if I’d be willing to share how the YMCA has affected our lives as a recipient of their scholarship program. It was my pleasure to support their fundraising efforts by sharing our story of how life can just kick your ass. No matter your best laid plans; despite how hard you work at it all; sometimes you simply need to ask for help. And there should be no shame in that.

Like a great tv show has it spin-offs, the night left me with so many more stories shared with me after I spoke. For all that the YMCA has done for our family, this night was a gift to me. Some new special friends I’ve made and some incredible brief connections. I’ll write more about them soon. There were many hugs and confessions of struggles and loss shared with me in that beautiful mansion. How even in this affluent area with people who seemingly have it all, appearances can be deceiving.

But in the mean time, below is my speech. You’ll have to imagine the magnified sniffles as you read. And sorry you’re not able to enjoy the amazing appetizers passed around during the night. I’m still thinking about that lobster macaroni & cheese in a tiny paper cone.

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“All in a split second, our lives were changed. On July 10, 2010, my son Noah drowned in a swimming pool. He was a few weeks shy of two years old.

It was the first day we’d started moving boxes. My mother had died 3 months earlier. We were moving into my father’s house to save money and keep him company. I was in the kitchen for a few minutes. There were no closed doors. I was maybe twenty feet away from where Noah was playing with his Elmo toy camera. I could hear him pressing the button and Elmo saying “Great Shot!” and “Say Cheese!!” My husband was unloading boxes in the garage with my father.

The French doors to the backyard led to the in-ground pool. Noah had silently opened a door I didn’t think he could or ever would. Silently. When I went back into that room he was gone. I figured he was playing hide ‘n seek. I went looking in the house while my husband and father went looking outside. A few seconds later I heard a scream followed by a splash. My husband jumped in, my father called 911 and I stood in the kitchen in shock.

I underestimated Noah that day. He was such a good boy. No more curious than any toddler his age. In fact, maybe he was even a little more cautious. Just that very morning, my father and I talked about how attached Noah was to me.

I say these things because for any parent who thinks “my child would never…” well, I thought the very same thing. I thought this could never happen to us.  

We found ourselves in a tornado of grief. My husband needed to take time off from work. I threw myself into a new job that I loved but didn’t pay very well. I’d been a stay at home mom for two years. Noah was our only child. Our tragedy affected us emotionally, physically, and financially.

I was now forty-two-years-old and we found ourselves desperate to have a family again. As a good friend put it “Losing Noah cannot be the end of our story.” The world of fertility treatments is not for the faint of heart. Emotionally and financially draining, we sold anything we had left of value to pay for 4 fertility cycles.  And finally, on December 26, 2012, Miriam Phoenix was born. We named her Phoenix for the rebirth of our family. We had so little left, yet we now had everything back again. We had a child.

When she was five years old, the Garwood Branch of the YMCA became Miriam’s first summer camp experience. We loved the diversity and the “family feel” to everyone who worked there. We weren’t ready to introduce swimming to Miriam’s world. Emotionally, it’s a very sensitive issue of course. With the financial assistance of the Y, we were able to introduce Miriam to wonderful new set of friends, teachers, and counselors. And once she began kindergarten, again with the scholarship fund assistance, Miriam truly can’t wait to get on the school bus with Miss Megan everyday to go to aftercare. Even if I could pick her up early, she wouldn’t come!

As we began the conversation of this year’s summer camp, the pool and swimming became unavoidable. Not only has the Y been generous with financial assistance, the compassion we’ve been shown is truly unrivaled. We were offered private lessons early on when we joined the Y. To ease not only Miriam into a pool for the first time, but also to ease me back into a pool for the first time since that day in 2010. And while we weren’t ready to begin the lessons, Bonnie, Susan, Patti, and Sharon always reminded us that the offer still stood. The words “when you are ready” are perhaps the kindest words bereaved parents can hear. Because this grief is forever. And we go day by day.

Miriam will be attending summer camp again at the YMCA again this summer. And a few weeks from tonight, we’ve decided we are ready. With the compassionate and generous offer from the YMCA, Miriam will begin swim lessons. I will be there with her, facing my fears, celebrating resilience, and honoring the memory of our son, Noah.

And none of that would be possible without the emotional and financial assistance of the Y. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s not always easy to ask for help and support, but the kindness we’ve been shown at the Y is truly a rainbow at the end of our storm.”

Banana Cat Came To Work Today.

When I told Miriam she couldn’t bring Banana Cat to school with her today, she was understandably sad. So we struck a deal. I told her I’d bring Banana Cat to work with me instead. I’d take photos of who Banana Cat met and what she did. Miriam was excited for Banana Cat’s adventure.

While it may have been an ordinary day for me, Banana Cat added some joy to everyone she met today. I had a piece of my little girl with me all day. And Banana Cat got to spend some time in a liquor store. She’ll never be the same.

The Food That Made Me

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I’ve been doing more cooking in my time away from work. As I look down at my hands as they chop and mix and stir and scoop, I think about my mother. Our hands are identical. And I remember the food that made me. The weird combinations. The standard weekly suppers (we never called it dinner) and the special occasion foods. The smells, the presentation, the tastes and textures. All of it has become a comfort to me as I recharge and repair my soul and drop out for a little bit. I’m now my mother’s daughter, more than ever.

Pizza With Tunafish

Friday nights were for pizza and tunafish. I would make the tunafish and prepare the iceberg lettuce leaves on a plate while my mother or father went to pick up the pizza a few blocks away at Two Tony’s Pizza. The pizza was always plain and the craziest the tunafish ever got was onion and garlic powder. We’d make little roll-ups of tunafish and lettuce and then eat the pizza. Before lettuce boats were a no-carb and trendy form of food delivery, that oval orange kitchen table is where the action was. We don’t order pizza very often nowadays, but when we do…I’m that little tunafish mixing girl all over again.

Spaghetti With Salmon Pancakes

Canned salmon mixed with matzah meal and pan fried in an inch of vegetable oil. The fried fish smell was unmistakable, combined with the garlic and onion laden spaghetti sauce. My mother’s hands always smelled of these powdered ingredients as she instinctually checked our foreheads and cheeks for temperatures throughout the day. I made salmon pancakes last week. I baked them in the oven with a healthy spritz of cooking spray. And I ate them alongside Miriam and her spaghetti. When she asked me what I was eating, I strategically told her it was “a different kind of pancake.” She ask to try and I gave her a healthy forkful, trying to hide my excitement at her curiosity. Her review? “Tastes kinda good but also kinda disgusting.” I thanked her for trying and went back to this sense memory of a meal, feeling a soft pat on my back from my mother.

Stuffing 

My mother’s stuffing was the stuff(ing) of dreams. I was the crusher. A big stainless steel bowl with a hand crushed sleeve of saltines and a whole box of corn flakes, crushed but not pulverized. Onions, cooked in the frying pan until crispy and blackened, eggs, and the ever present vegetable oil were added and I mixed it all with a giant spoon. The raw stuffing was fantastic and often my mother threw caution to the wind as we enjoyed the raw egg mixture together. It was the 70’s and life was simple.

Mishmosh

Mishmosh night was when my mother was a little extra frazzled with us four kids. All cooked in one pan with easy ingredients, only now do I realize why mishmosh night was said with breathless relief when we asked our mother “what’s for supper?” Chopped beef, a can of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, frozen peas, frozen corn, chopped onions, and healthy dose of garlic and onion powder. Minute Rice was expertly prepared as the base and supper was served.

Chocolate Pudding 

Is there anything better than chocolate pudding? How those little rectangular boxes turned into that bowl of pudding was sorcery in my mind. My mother had an electric hand mixer, but these past few weeks, I’ve used a simple wire whisk. The aggressive whisking motion makes my shoulder hurt. But the pudding begins to thicken and turn the most perfect shade of brown. I could hear my mother yelling for me to come lick the electric beaters. What  a selfless invitation, I thought to myself, as I licked my wire whisk.

There was matzah brei on Saturday mornings and French Toast on Sundays. Polaner All-Fruit jelly was the game changer with French Toast. It felt fancy. And the pineapple Polaner jelly was often used on Breyer’s chocolate ice cream. Trust me. Try it.

There was meatloaf so dense, it stood up and walked right into my mouth. Covered in ketchup, my meatloaf now is airier, made of turkey and eggs. There was chicken soup with matzah balls. There was way too much dill and celery, but with every spoonful I engineered around the seaweed as I called it, the matzah balls made up for it all. She would shout from the kitchen as she spooned out each bowl of soup…”How many balls??” All of us kids giggled over our mother saying “balls” and I wished to myself I could have just a bowl full of balls with a little soup added in. Because more is more when it comes to matzah balls.

And those foods that made us will always bring us right back to those moments. All the weird combinations, all the edible family secrets, all the flavors and smells that have brought us to our complicated adult lives. And that’s precisely when those memories are the strongest.