I’m a Zebra

Relief isn’t a very common emotion after receiving the diagnosis of a life-long, painful disease, but that’s exactly what washed over me as I sat in the rheumatologist’s exam room. The doctor had just finished asking me a multitude of questions, all of which were answered with an unequivocal, “Yes.” He maneuvered my ankles and shoulders—almost marveling at how they were loosely “flying around”—before moving onto measuring the angles of my elbows and knees. Just before that he asked me to circle my wrist with my thumb and forefinger (they overlapped); fold four of my fingers over my thumb (it stuck out); and bend my thumb back to my wrist (it almost reached it). He said that he knew I had hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome by my history, but my meeting all the hypermobility physical criteria (I only had to meet four) cemented the diagnosis.

I was not surprised at all, but that wave of relief brought tears to my eyes. I never quite knew what was wrong with me, but I knew something was wrong…migraines starting at age eleven; frequent falls and injuries—to the point that I was named “Class Klutz” in high school, before it was removed as a “Senior Celebrity” category, because it was deemed too mean, leaving me only as Class Chatterbox (I wasn’t offended, I was injured all the time, so it made sense to me); dizzy spells to the point of fainting; racing heart and dizziness upon standing that became so debilitating, that my doctor at the time told me to keep saltines on my night table, so I could eat a couple before getting out of bed in the morning; knee caps that slipped out of place so easily, I had to wear patella straps during gym class to help them stay put; fogginess and forgetfulness that leaves me grasping for the right word in a conversation (a horrible thing if you’re a writer); temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ); and the big one…pain. These are just some of the symptoms. Literally every single thing I’ve had wrong with me over the years is part of the hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) constellation of symptoms.

The fifteen pounds I lost senior year in college? An outsize number of hEDS patients have eating disorders, thanks to stomach pain and food intolerances (this isn’t from Dr. Google, I discussed this with my new rheumatologist). My hearing loss? That’s another hEDS complication. The osteoporosis that has left me with the bones of an elderly woman at fifty-four and arthritis diagnosed at the ripe old age of twenty-nine? Yup, both hEDS, as well. When I worked at the weight room at UMass, the football strength training coach had me doing high weight leg presses and then lunges…my knee cap slid right up to my thigh and got stuck there. That was thanks to hEDS too. But, thankfully none of those things can kill you. I don’t know yet if I have any of the more dangerous subsets…like the kind that can kill you without notice, due to organ or blood vessel rupture. That’s just a bit terrifying, but I’m trying to put it out of my head until I get the results from the six tubes of blood the nurse drew.

And still, even with all that, relief washed over me. Tears threatened to spill over my lashes as Dr. A. explained to me that for decades my joints have been screaming pain signals at my brain, causing chron…c pain syndrome. I wasn’t tearing up with fear nor sadness that pain is a now definitely a long term fact of life for me—those tears were because someone finally understood how I feel and, perhaps more importantly, explained why I feel that way. He explained to me why even though I have a high tolerance for pain, even a hug can sometimes feel like ice picks, especially in my lower back and ribs. He took the time to talk to me about so many issues I’ve had and to assure me that I’m not crazy—I never have been. That was a gift.

Still…as I headed home after my appointment, those tears that were threatening to spill over my lashes turned into full-on ugly sobs. I literally bawled most of the long drive. I was crying over lost time. I was crying over all the times I was mad at myself for things that I now know weren’t my fault. I cried for my teenage self, to whom my orthopedist’s receptionist said, “You’re lucky you have a cute face, since your body’s a mess,” after yet another injury. (I do remember my brother comforting me with these words, “If you don’t get hurt, that just means you aren’t doing anything,” since a lot of my injuries were sustained during ice skating, which I loved so much, but had to give up at twenty-four.) I cried for the time that I wasted wondering what’s wrong with me… Why can’t I get it together like everyone else? Why do I sometimes feel like I’m glued to my couch, curled under a blanket, not wanting to move? Why can’t I remember the right word or why I walked in a room or what I was saying two seconds earlier?  Why do I feel like my legs are on fire when I climb more than a couple of flights of stairs? (The doctor explained that one—it’s deep bone pain from my joints overextending.)

I could have been kinder to myself. I could have stood up for myself over the years when doctors (or even people in my life) hinted that it could all be in my head. I could have been cutting myself some slack all these years. I could have certainly been more careful, saving myself a lot of pain (power washing the fence and patio is not a good move with hEDS—I was in a brace for months after that one last year). I could have done a lot of things if I got a diagnosis thirty years ago (which would have matched the average ten year wait for an EDS diagnosis) or even just ten years ago.

It shouldn’t be this hard to get diagnosed with a disease, even a rare one. All of the Ehlers-Danlos Syndomes (including hypermobile) are considered “zebra diseases” (hence the title of this essay). According to the Ehlers-Danlos Society website, “Medical students have been taught for decades that, ‘When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra.’ In other words, look for the more common and usual, not the surprising, diagnosis.” Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a surprising diagnosis for many doctors, but sometimes hoofbeats really do mean a zebra. But even when doctors suspect a zebra, most can’t diagnose it. I saw several doctors in the year and a half preceding my diagnosis who agreed that I had the symptoms and signs of hEDS, especially my amazing hematologist and internist, but couldn’t diagnose me, because they aren’t EDS specialists. The closest I got was the physician’s assistant at the orthopedic urgent care I went to this summer. She was stumped by my swollen and bruised ankle, until I mentioned Ehlers-Danlos. She immediately knew what caused the injury (hiking over uneven ground for two hours) and how to treat it (an ankle brace that’s changed my life).

To be fair, I had never even heard of EDS nor hEDS before my youngest son’s adolescent medicine doctor referred him to the geneticist and the cardiologist for it back in December 2020. I, like many moms would, immediately Googled it, because it’s scary hearing your child could have a rare disease, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it before his appointment. Reading the symptoms, a lightning bolt of recognition zipped through me. I recognized myself in everything. It was a long three month wait to see the geneticist and the genetic counselor. During the appointment, I shared my history as they briefly examined my son. They both said that he did not meet the criteria, but I probably did—though since I wasn’t the patient, they couldn’t diagnose me. I later learned that the medical genetics practice did not have an EDS specialist, so I’m not putting much faith in their assessment of my son. In fact, I’m fairly certain both of my younger boys have hEDS, and I will make sure that they don’t go forty plus years without a diagnosis. They’ll be seeing my rheumatologist in February. It could explain the stomach issues; anxiety; autism; ADHD; motor delays (including swallowing difficulties even now); hernias; an eating disorder (and on and on) that one or both of them have battled over the years.

Learning that this disease causes anxiety (and executive functioning issues and eating disorders) may just have the biggest beneficial affect on me mentally. I have always been filled with self-loathing when I think about how anxiety has ruined so many moments in my life, especially when I was younger. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties I often felt like I was dying. I’d sometimes glance around en route somewhere, looking for a hospital, in case I had to be rushed there. (That wasn’t entirely unrealistic—I had already fainted a few times and needed medical assistance.) I thought it was panic attacks, and I never really forgave myself for the times that feeling took me out of the moment. I remember worrying that I’d pass out at my son’s preschool graduation and at a family bat mitzvah or in little moments, like walking up the street to the stores pushing my kids’ double stroller. Now I know that those moments were likely dysautonomia, which I was also diagnosed with, as it goes along with hEDS. It causes: fast (or slow) heart rate; dizziness and/or vertigo; anxiety; shortness of breath and a host of other things that can mimic anxiety. I’ve also berated myself for my executive functioning deficiencies, withering my self-esteem and confidence that I can get things done. And of course, I’ve felt guilt about putting my loved ones through my eating disorder battle when I was in my early twenties, especially having lived through it with my son for so many years now. But, now I can forgive myself.

On that drive home my life suddenly made so much more sense. For over four decades it hasn’t made sense a lot of the time. And that was also why I was crying. But, I had enough of the pity party as I traveled down the Long Island Expressway just past dusk. “You’re a f*cking warrior,” I told myself. And then I said it again louder. I realized that I’m not weak. That pain doesn’t make you weak, but dealing with your joints “screaming pain signals at your brain” for decades does make you strong. I calmed down and took a deep breath. My tears dried. And then my playlist landed on Ryan Star’s Breathe… The lyrics to that song open my book of essays for a reason. Breathe. Just breathe. Let the life that you live be all that you need. I lost it again. That song makes me cry on a good day. (Here’s the video, if you need a good cry…or just want to hear an amazing, inspiring song.) But these were good tears. The song made me realize in that moment that the life that I live really is all that I need…even in all its imperfection (thinking about the possibility—no matter how small—that this could be a deadly subset of EDS certainly leads to an appreciation, as well).

And on the positive side, as bad as hEDS can be, there are things about it that I’m grateful for and that I wouldn’t change for anything (because let’s face it, I can be shallow…). For one thing, people who have hEDS look younger, because stretchy collagen doesn’t wrinkle as easily/quickly, and have smooth, velvety skin. People have always told me that I look at least ten years younger than I am, but as I slide into my mid-fifties, I don’t always believe it. Now that I know there’s a scientific reason for me to look younger, I actually find myself appreciating my face more and believing that perhaps I could pass for mid-forties, rather than AARP age. I also appreciate that thanks to hEDS, I have a “bendy” body. In college (and even after) I could put my leg way up high on the wall at the gym pre-workout and touch my nose to it, and I can still put my palms flat on the floor when I bend over. I can put my arms in a praying position behind my back, which I’ve decided must be some sort of yoga move. And I can touch my nose to my knees and grasp the soles of my feet when I’m sitting on the floor with my legs straight out. There’s something to be said for being able to fold oneself in half (like if I had to hide in a small space, I could do it). The one thing I can’t do is turn my head much. My neck is just a complete mess, but now that I know the cause, I’m hoping that physical therapy will actually help.

And that’s ultimately what I’m choosing to focus on—knowledge is power and with that power comes hope. And yes, I’m frustrated that it took over forty years and countless visits to specialists searching for answers to finally receive one, but I’m not going to waste another minute of precious time fretting about that. I can’t change the past, but I can embrace the future, imperfections and all. Life is imperfect and challenging and unpredictable for everyone…the best thing is to just live it and be grateful for what you do have, especially in this season of giving thanks.

Postscript: To be sure, it’s harder sharing the anxiety part of hEDS than the physical part with you, my readers. I know you’re all amazing and understanding, because I’ve become friends with many of you through my essays. You’ve reached out to me in my inbox and at community events. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful. But, it’s a particular type of vulnerability sharing something that you can’t control where it’s disseminated, but I want it to be shared. Maybe I can help someone else who doesn’t know what’s wrong seek help. I would not have found my doctor without the Facebook moms’ group from my town. Another mom reached out to me when I posted looking for an EDS doctor—she shared so many resources and the doctor who ultimately diagnosed me was on a list she sent me. I truly appreciate it, and I want to pay it forward.

Additional Resources:

What Are the Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Research Foundation

Post-Truth in the Suburbs

Police officers stand guard as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis

The rancorous divisiveness Donald Trump has wrought in the country at large is playing out in the microcosm of local Facebook “mom” groups, turning neighbor against neighbor. To be honest, it’s been like this for four years now—or more if you count the 2016 election—but it has reached a crescendo of animosity and vitriol in the days following the insurrection at the Capitol. I generally steer clear of political arguments in these groups. People are dug in on either side, and there is no convincing anyone of anything not in their circle of beliefs. Couple that with the post-truth era we are in and there’s an astonishing number of people living in a fact-free world who become furious when confronted with anything that is outside their preferred “alternative reality.” My town is no different. Too many people have believed the Big Lie (a propaganda technique that the Nazis used to great effect) that the election was stolen, and now they’re believing a second Big Lie. I had to break my rule about staying out of Facebook political arguments that are sparked by the clash of reality and the delusions spread by Trump and his allies. I had no choice…

One day after the horrifying violence at the Capitol a furious—absolutely apoplectic—mom posted that her child had to read a factual account of the insurrection and answer questions about it. She was so angry, because it began with the sentence, “A violent mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.” This is a fact. It’s indisputable. No matter…she raged that it did not mention, in her words, “that they were all Antifa!” Now, before anyone questions if it’s ethical for me to write about a post that is in a private group – it was a share of her original post, which was public. If your post’s privacy setting is “public” on Facebook, any fallout from your posts is on you and you alone. There should be no expectation of privacy. I would imagine, though that she did have an expectation of a conflict and was likely quite pleased that it indeed created a nasty, vitriol-spewing comment thread.

Back to why I joined in the carnage of that thread… The poster also said that she made sure that the school knew her displeasure. Several other people shared that they too had contacted the school, angry about a letter the superintendent sent out earlier in the day. That letter was measured and thoughtful and assured that children would be supported by extra mental health professionals who were brought in to assuage the fears that scenes of blood-thirsty rioters storming the seat of U.S. democracy may have engendered. It also mentioned that the social studies department had immediately prepared lessons that both explained the event and would have students “practicing skills to consume news and media reports on the event.” The district prides itself on producing savvy consumers of both news and social media—students who are thoughtful, engaged and empathetic and who know violence is never the answer. I was extremely grateful that my son’s history teacher extended the deadline to submit a test, so that they could delve into a discussion about the events of January 6th. They examined what sparked it, the repercussions, historical context and more. I heard some of the discussion, just by virtue of being in the same room, and it was really heartening. His teacher was presenting facts and they dove right into an intelligent, respectful and likely reassuring conversation. So, when I saw this person trashing the school district for allowing this, I felt the need to speak up. Here is my comment:

“I was so incredibly grateful that my son’s history teacher changed his planned lesson, so they could talk about what happened—an insurrection. They had a thoughtful, intelligent conversation full of facts, and were able to really get into how Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, coupled with the ‘Big Lie’ he and his allies have been telling, all culminated in the violence that left 5 dead. It was an assault on democracy, and it was also history (tragic history) in the making…it will be studied in text books. It was NOT antifa (which isn’t even an organization, but simply a belief system). The rioters were planning this out in the open. It was on Twitter and Parler. They were bragging about it on social media before, during and after. They gave interviews. Trump said, ‘We love you. You’re special.’ He would not have said that unless he thought they were his ‘patriots.’ Every single thing he said—including his marching orders to go to the Capitol—was followed. Rudy Giuliani urged, ‘Trial by combat!’ Don Jr. declared, ‘We’re coming for you, and we’ll have a good time doing it!’ They just couldn’t control the Frankenstein they created, so now it’s easier to blame someone else. Oh and the person wearing furs and horns is Jake Angelli, the ‘QAnon Shaman.’ He was photographed at BLM protests, because he was there as a counter-protester. I know the truth is difficult, but it’s important—now more than ever. And our children deserve to be taught a way to process these events without any bias.”

I thought I was respectful. Apparently, I was “delusional” and an evil Democrat for even trying to shatter the bubble of lies. There is zero evidence that the crowd was infiltrated by “ANTIFA” and BLM people—the second Big Lie—and that they were the murderous ones who did all the damage. Zero. In an article debunking Facebook posts saying that left-leaning activist, John Sullivan, incited the protest, Politifact states: “Those claiming antifa infiltrated or led the mob at the Capitol have provided no proof. The evidence of Trump supporters participating, however, is indisputable.” Much of that evidence comes from the Trump supporters themselves. They had been planning this for weeks out in the open.

A few days before the insurrection I said to my husband, “January 6th will be horrendous.” I had seen all the chatter on Twitter, and I knew it was going to be bad. If I, just a regular citizen, knew something terrible was about to go down, why weren’t Capitol police better prepared? Increasingly, evidence is pointing to a deliberate effort from the top (Trump and allies) to sabotage law enforcement’s ability to take a strong, impenetrable stand. National Guardsmen requested by DC’s Mayor Bowser were initially denied and Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, was not granted permission to send troops until nightfall. So, not only was there zero evidence of antifa leading the riots, there was plenty of evidence that a failure of leadership compounded the destruction. As I watched the horror unfold from my living room, I said to my son, “If this was a BLM protest, they would have been gassed and sprayed with rubber bullets already.” It’s a miracle there weren’t more casualties, and I pray that they are better prepared for any violence that may erupt between now and the inauguration.

There was also zero evidence of fraud in the election, that first Big Lie. Sixty plus lawsuits were thrown out. For God’s sake, the Supreme Court threw it out. The Justice Department said there was no evidence of fraud. The person in charge of ensuring the election was free and fair, Donald Trump’s own appointee, Christopher Krebs, said there was no evidence of fraud and that it was the most secure election in history. Even Mitch McConnell said to move on. There is no more partisan, evil, power-hungry person in government (besides Trump) than McConnell, and even he said there was no fraud. But…but Donald Trump said there was fraud, and that was all that mattered. How can it be that every other person is lying, except for the person who is known to be a…LIAR?

I am NOT saying that every person who voted for Trump feels this way. I have friends who voted for Trump, I have never cut ties with anyone for their political beliefs. But, I’m pretty sure most have accepted that he lost and moved on. It’s normal to be upset, even devastated, if your candidate loses. It’s unhealthy, not to mention dangerous, to continue to live in a fantasy that he was cheated, when all facts show otherwise. Likewise, believing that it was not Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, when all facts (and many, many tweets and Parler posts) show otherwise, strains credulity. And demanding that an entire school district bend to that fantasy is dangerous and unconscionable. That’s why I spoke up.

There were over fifty replies to my comment. Many of them were arguments among other people, in which I did not get involved. Some of them supported what I said, but more vilified me. My favorite insult was that I, and others who agreed with me, are “walking, talking Rachel Maddows and Don Lemons.” I was thinking, Hell yeah—I’m a walking, talking Rachel Maddow! (BTW, that sounds like he best doll ever.) I replied, “This isn’t the insult you think it is…Rachel Maddow graduated from Stanford and has a doctorate from Oxford University. I’d love to be a ‘walking, talking’ Rachel Maddow. And Don Lemon is intelligent, insightful and empathetic too.” That’s when I was informed that I’m “delusional” and that the people I admire, Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon, are “stupid.” In response, I simply pointed out that that accusation would be more forceful, if the commenter’s spelling, grammar and punctuation were correct. That did not go over well. She accused me of humiliating her because I’m Democrat and have “nothing else to say.” I’m a writer and a former English major. I correct everyone’s grammar. Just ask my husband. It’s annoying, yes—but has nothing to do with politics. I’m sharing all this, because I really tried to be respectful—the rudest I got was correcting spelling. But, that didn’t matter to the people vehemently arguing with me.

You know what does matter, though? The truth. The truth matters, and again, that’s why I decided to wade into the controversy when I usually steer clear. I honestly would rather they say that the Trump supporters had a right to riot, than that they insist that it wasn’t Trump supporters at all, but rather “evil leftists.” I wouldn’t agree with them AT ALL, but it’s their (misguided) opinion—rather than completely ignoring the simple facts and creating an alternative fantasy, in which there is no culpability for Trump and others who whipped the crowd into a frenzy. If it was a matter of opinion—that they had a right to do what they did—perhaps, just perhaps, one could argue why they did not in fact have the right to storm the Capitol on behalf of Trump. But, the sheer willful ignorance and complexity of mental gymnastics it takes to believe that the people attending Trump’s “Save America Rally” (the people whom he told to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” and “be strong”) were not in fact the people who then stormed the Capitol is astounding and a bit frightening. How can we have any hope of uniting when a chunk of people are living in a “post-truth” world where facts do not matter? One person even commented in all caps, “NO ONE KNOWS THE ACTUAL TRUTH AND WE PROBABLY NEVER WILL!!!!!” We know the truth, many just refuse to see it.

I spoke up on that thread, knowing there would be backlash, because I’m worried about all the people complaining to the superintendent about her duty to tell the truth. I’m worried that if enough people complain, perhaps the school district might begin walking on eggshells to please the loudest voices. I spoke up, because this disinformation could affect my child and his education. I don’t think that’s likely, but the thought of it makes me shudder. The thought of neighbor against neighbor makes me shudder, as well. It also makes me impossibly sad. Of all the damage that has been done in these past four years, perhaps this is among the worst. I know—the covid body count is far worse, but the death of civility and small-town friendliness is surely something to mourn. I wish I was surprised it got this bad, but I’m not.

I will admit, I cried when Hillary Clinton lost. As I wandered around the supermarket hollow-eyed a few days after the election, I ran into a friend who asked me if I was alright. I didn’t know how to answer. We just kind of nodded at each other and knew. Nothing would be the same again. I knew what Trump was like. I wrote a couple of open letters to him during the 2016 election: Dear Mr. Trump (about my Jewish son and his Muslim best friend) and Dear Mr. Trump Part 2 (about his despicable behavior during the debates) and an essay about The Ugly Election. Being from New York, I personally knew people who were stiffed by him. I knew that he was a racist, sued for discriminatory housing practices, and just a generally lewd creep. (I did not know about all the sexual assault allegations, but those didn’t surprise me. It only surprised and saddened me that people didn’t care.) To people outside of New York, though, he was the shiny new thing. He was the savior. He was the poor man’s vision of a rich, successful man, right down to his gold toilet. I worried that the worst would happen—that we’d never have another election, because he would install himself as a dictator. I wasn’t that far off. At least I wasn’t that far off regarding what he would try, even if he didn’t succeed. Yet…

The day of the election, I wrote The Moment of Truth. In it, I discussed that I had stopped blogging about politics after the 2016 election and that I stopped even posting on Facebook about it, with the exception of petitions for the environment and animal welfare. I knew that nothing I said would change anyone’s minds, and I didn’t want conflict. I also shared that I have never unfriended anyone over politics. I may have muted a few people, but no one I know in “real life.” I was shell shocked by some arguments I had gotten into with people I cared about. I was despondent over people, with whom I thought I was close, disconnecting from me on social media. I even published a novel, Feel No Evil, right before the election that explores the rancorous divide in our nation and how we can possibly move forward and heal. This is part of the blurb: “When the smoke clears and the dust settles in our turbulent times, we’ll need to move past our divisions and back into the hearts and arms of those we’ve always loved.” I really hope that happens. I really hope that the blinders of disinformation fall away. But until then, I will speak up.

The words of my cousin, the great Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, have been been my guide during the last very dark four years, and will continue to be: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men do nothing.” With actual Neo-Nazis storming the Capitol, including one wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt with the word “Staff” on the back, the time to do nothing (and say nothing) is long gone…

(For an explanation of all the hate symbols present at the insurrection read this Jewish Telegraph Agency article.)

The Moment of Truth

Photo Credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Before today is done, the final vote will be cast (though not counted), and I’m filled with existential dread—the kind that keeps you up late into the night and wakes you at the crack of dawn, anxiety pressing down on your chest, as you sit up gasping. It’s been this way for days, weeks even. The lead-up to the election has been particularly brutal, but I’ve been wracked with anxiety many times over the past four years. There have been so many assaults on our democracy, so much rending of the fabric of our nation and our humanity. And if you’ve been a regular in this space for some time, you know that I wrote about the election in 2016, and that I made my disdain for Donald Trump very clear. You can find those essays here, here and here, if you’d like a refresher or you haven’t read them. But, I haven’t written about this election yet. And I’ve been trying to figure out why…

Part of the reason is just simple logistics. I had a very full plate as election season heated up (I still do). I released my fifth book; I’ve been texting for the Biden – Harris campaign; and perhaps most importantly, I’ve adopted a new love after losing my beloved three-legged rescue, Scruffy in July. My last essay was in June in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. After that, Scruffy went downhill very quickly, and I wanted to spend whatever limited time I had with him, not on my laptop. Not long after he passed away, I decided to self-publish my book, Feel No Evil, because I wanted it out before the election, and traditional publishing would just take too long. And in September we brought home our new furry bundle of love, Mocha. Sweetest boy in the world, but he is a mischievous little guy and likes to get into (and try to eat) everything. So, I’m often running interference, scooping him up for kisses before he can get into trouble or try to steal food from our very chill senior girl. Finally, volunteering for the Biden – Harris campaign has been more urgent than an essay…but writing an essay can help sway the, I don’t know, maybe one undecided voter left at this point.

Because…let’s be real—hardly anyone is undecided. Everyone is firmly in their camps, absolutely convinced that their candidate is the right one and a loss will forever destroy our country. And this is probably the main reason why I haven’t written any essays about the election. Quite honestly, the past four years have been bruising in their divisiveness. I haven’t unfriended anyone nor unfollowed anyone due to political differences (at least not anyone I know personally), but I have been unfriended and unfollowed by Trump supporters with whom I’ve been close, and it disappointed and saddened me. I did “mute” a few people (no one I’ve known for very long or know in real life), but since you don’t know if someone mutes you, it seemed to me a pretty innocuous solution if I didn’t feel like seeing someone’s Q Anon posts.

I also stopped posting anything political on my Facebook profile, with the exception of petitions to oppose Trump’s gutting of animal protections. Animal welfare supersedes my reticence to share my political beliefs. And to me, that’s less about politics and more about kindness. But—and there is a but—I’m in lots of secret “resistance” groups, and I can post with impunity there. I ended up settling mostly in just one, because it’s populated with all people from my area, many of whom I know personally. It even inspired a bit of my novel.

I know that some people may accuse me of “living in a bubble,” but really, who isn’t living in a bubble in our hyper-partisan, rancorous times? You listen to what you want to hear. I switch between CNN and MSNBC. (I will fully admit that I have a huge girl-crush on Rachel Maddow; to me she’s as comforting as a bowl of mashed potatoes with lots of butter and milk. And she spoke so eloquently during my son’s UMass virtual graduation. It’s my alma mater too, so of course I feel a connection now…one sided as it may be. My dream is to have her read my book.) You will never catch me watching Fox News (unless Pete Buttigieg is on). And I’m sure I have friends and family who won’t switch off from Fox News. That’s why I stopped posting. It’s not worth the conflict.

But it’s Election Day, and I have to open my mouth. And in a nod to how difficult it was to write this essay, I will share that the line preceding this first said, “It’s forty-eight hours until election day,” then twenty-four, then twelve, and finally I’m finishing it Election Day morning, oops…Election Day afternoon—nothing like the last minute. But, I have a voice and a (very modest) platform. I need to use it. Of course my almost 5,200 followers on Twitter know exactly how I feel (and that number goes up and down on any given day). I let loose on there on a daily basis. I know I’m preaching to the choir on there, though. Like attracts like, and I have a pretty small percentage of followers whom I can actually sway with those 280 characters. So, why did I decide to speak out on here and why now?

The “Why now?” question is obvious. It’s now or never. The other question is a bit thornier, but I think it boils down to: if I don’t, will I regret staying quiet? Oh and there’s one more thing, spilling my thoughts onto the page (or into a blog post) usually helps with stuff like that existential dread I mentioned. So, here’s what I’m sharing…

If you haven’t voted yet, please vote. If you haven’t voted yet, and you’re somehow still on the fence about whom to support…please think about our better angels in this country. Think about what we are turning into; think about the division, the hate, the rhetoric that has been spewing out of the White House. Think about the Trump supporters who tried to run the Biden – Harris campaign bus off the road…and think about Trump’s response to that, “I love Texas!” This is not normal. The FBI is investigating the incident as an act of domestic terrorism, and Trump is lauding them.

It’s not normal, but it’s also not surprising. Trump is a master in the nefarious art of stochastic terrorism. His “Lock her up” and “Liberate Michigan” chants led to a white supremacist group’s plan to kidnap and murder Governor Gretchen Whitmer. And then he said that “maybe it wasn’t a problem” and that he saved her…his FBI saved her and she should thank him. His words inspired this plot. His invitation to the Proud Boys, a white supremacist hate group, to “Stand down and stand by” may very well wreak more havoc today and in the coming days.

Many of Donald Trump’s supporters, or at least the most voiciferous ones, are taking heed of his words and are already intimidating voters. They have snarled traffic, bringing it to a standstill—like in New York and New Jersey—in mostly Democratic areas, making it more difficult to go to the polls. All of this is third-world nation, dictator-type stuff. And it’s a slippery slope. If Trump gets another four years, how long before he employs more shadow militia to pellet peaceful protesters with rubber bullets again? I would guess the answer is days, if not hours. Look at the peaceful march to the polls that ended with children being doused with pepper spray. There is too much at stake in this election to sit it out or even to vote third party. This could be our last free and fair election (and my fingers and toes are crossed that this one will actually be free and fair).

And I know as a straight, white woman I don’t have as much at stake if Trump wins again as many others. Yes, I have a laundry list of pre-existing conditions from asthma to Hashimoto’s to Factor XI Definciency (Hemophilia C), among others. I’m old enough to remember when pre-existing conditions caused me to go into debt when I was a young, single music journalist paying for my own healthcare. My youngest son also has a list of pre-existing conditions a mile long. And my other boys have some things too that could be blocks to them getting insurance, should protections be done away with. But, that is just a tiny part of why I am so distraught at the thought of a Trump presidency. The bigger picture is everything else we as a nation stand to lose if those who are marginalized are demonized, as well.

I worry about my black and brown friends; my LGBTQ family and friends (and especially those who fall into both groups); I worry incessantly about the 545 children torn from their families, traumatized and stranded at the border. I worry about disabled folks and Trump’s constant mocking of them. I worry about my son who is on the autism spectrum (Aspergers) and also has Tourette’s (plus all those other pre-existing conditions I mentioned). I worry about climate change and the world we will leave our children, since it’s already burning and slammed with ferocious storms, and the current occupant thinks climate change is a hoax. Speaking of denying science, I worry about how much worse covid will get with no plan, except to fire one of the world’s foremost infectious disease experts and hope for herd immunity. I worry about our brave troops, disparaged by Trump as “suckers and losers.” I worry about civility and discourse. I just worry.

So…that’s why I’m asking if you didn’t vote yet, and you think your vote doesn’t matter; if you think a vote for a third party is sending “a message” to the Dems; or if you’ve run Joe Biden and Kamala Harris through a purity grinder and found them lacking—put the good of the country first, I’m begging you. Let’s get this country back on track. Let’s be who we know we are…kind, inclusive, optimistic and way better united, than divided. Thank you. And if you’ve already cast your vote for compassion, thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is our moment of truth. Let’s make the most of it, before it’s too late.

Less Than

Less than. Those two words keep going through my head. All the injustice in this world is predicated upon someone looking at another person and thinking that other person is less than…less worthy of happiness than others; less worthy of civil liberties than others; less worthy of safety than others; less worthy of even taking a breath than others.

George Floyd’s senseless murder broke my heart, but so did Ahmaud Arbery’s; so did Freddie Gray’s; so did Breonna Taylor’s; so did Eric Garner’s; so did Trayvon Martin’s (especially as the mom of hoodie wearing teenage boys), and on and on…an endless list. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police brutality and racial injustice was met with derision, with Donald Trump calling him a “son of a bitch” to the cheers of his rabid base. Kaepernick’s career was ruined, because the issues that simple act illuminated were uncomfortable to contemplate. People just wanted their football without a side of social commentary on grave injustices. It was too easy for too many people to look away—too easy to think of him as a “privileged brat” who should just take his money and simply entertain. But, maybe if that knee on the field wasn’t ignored and condemned, there wouldn’t have been a knee on George Floyd’s neck for far longer than it took to extinguish his life.

That act by Derek Chauvin caught on camera forced the people who had been looking away to retrain their gaze on the black experience. It forced people to wake up. You can’t watch that video and think it’s anything but sheer brutality. I reflexively thought in the first split second I saw it, If you’re witnessing a murder, why didn’t anyone call the police? Before the heartrending reality that it was the police sunk in…calling would have done nothing. Now we must retrain our gaze again on all the other injustices that have been going on for centuries. We must understand that there is no such thing as “very fine people on both sides,” as Trump said after the Charlottesville white supremacist riots. There is evil and there is not evil.

Normally as a writer I think in shades of gray. Pure evil characters or pure good characters are never as interesting as those who fall in the middle shades of gray. The characters in my next book, Feel No Evil, all have good and bad traits. But in the case of racial injustice, there is evil and there isn’t. If you perpetuate it, you’re evil. If you fight against it, you’re good. But then there’s a third category—and that’s neither perpetuating it nor standing up against it. That’s the people who may think, “How horrible,” but never open their mouths. Well guess what? They fall on the evil side too. The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who spent his life fighting evil, was my grandfather’s first cousin. He said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” It’s time for good men and women to speak up and be loud. If you turn away, if you clutch your pearls, yet don’t speak up, you’re allowing evil to flourish.

And to be clear, I don’t think all police officers are evil. We’ve all seen the photos of police officers kneeling along with protesters and other scenes of solidarity. My brother-in-law was an NYPD police officer for over two decades. Most only want to help. But, even one depraved officer is too much. Even one officer who keeps his knee on the neck of a man crying out that he can’t breathe, crying out for his dead mother, is too much. Even one chokehold, like that used on Eric Garner, is too much. Even one child gunned down for playing with a toy gun, like Tamir Rice, is too much. And the list goes on and on.

And it’s not just police officers…there are the McMichaels and the George Zimmermanns of the world who will always look at people of color and think less than; think, I can do whatever I want. These people feel justified in committing murder. But they are the ones who are less than…they are less than the dirt those innocent souls they extinguished are buried under.

I’m writing this at 4:00 am. I can’t sleep, because I’m 99.8 percent sure that I broke my ankle earlier today, and the pain is pretty excruciating. Too excruciating to sleep. I feel bad even mentioning this with all the pain in the world right now—psychic and physical—I’m just explaining my mindset (and any typos or rambling). I was on Twitter at around 3:15 am waiting for the Tylenol to kick in, so I could perhaps finally sleep, when I read Yvette Nicole Brown’s tweet thread about her friend who witnessed non-black agitators in Los Angeles smashing a police car while black protesters yelled at her to stop. I started to cry, because even this protest is being ripped away and turned into a weapon against those who have already suffered so much. So, I decided spilling my feelings into the WordPress app on my phone might not make for the best essay I’ve ever written (I’ve never even written an essay on the app), but if enough people read it, it might be the most important. Sometimes you just need to do that—write when it hits you, even if it’s not polished or perfect and then just press publish without a million rereads. And you just hope the message gets through.

And this is the message: white people need to stand with our black brothers and sisters and link metaphorical arms. We need to speak up and understand that George Floyd’s murder was the tipping point for these latest protests, not the first spark—far from it. It should be safe to jog while black; sleep in your bedroom; go birding; buy a pack of Skittles and on and on. And we need to understand that there’s more to the destruction and violence than meets the eye and those looking to inflame a race war are very likely the ones behind the most heinous acts. And most importantly, we need to not look away and stay quiet when there are heinous acts of injustice and racism…or evil will flourish.

An extra: This song by Ryan Star was written about Eric Garner, but applies to George Floyd. Give it a listen: Boy

The Strongest Pillar


This was taken when I dropped Drew off at the start of senior year.

Right now I was supposed to be packing up a rental minivan with four days worth of luggage and snacks for me and my younger boys and my husband and heading across town to pick up my mom for the trip up to Amherst, MA for my oldest son’s graduation. We planned on staying in a small and very overpriced room at a mediocre hotel, five of us crammed into two double beds and a cot from tonight (Thursday) through Sunday. But I was incredibly excited at the prospect, despite any discomfort squeezing five of us into a room with one bathroom and clearly not enough beds. I would be willing to sleep on the floor for such a momentous occasion.

I had booked a more spacious suite over a year ago, but it was twenty minutes away from the University of Massachusetts without traffic, which meant on graduation weekend, it would be roughly two hours. I wasn’t too worried being late for the large graduation at the football stadium on Friday afternoon—no names would be called, no diplomas would be handed out—in fact, my son told me he wasn’t even planning on attending. I was, though and hoped to talk him into it. And I knew we could get out of the hotel by 2:00 p.m. giving us two hours to get to campus and into our seats, even if they were in the nosebleeds.

I was, however, consumed with anxiety that we’d be late for the smaller College of Engineering graduation on Saturday morning. Doors for that one were set to open at 8:30 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. ceremony.  With five of us getting ready (the suite still only had one bathroom) I knew it would be a monumental and anxiety-provoking, if not Sisyphean, task to get out the door by 7:00 a.m. My son would be walking on stage for that one. Shaking hands. Smiling for the camera. I thought the most important thing in the world would be to get a seat in the cavernous Recreation Center close enough to see my son’s face, close enough to snap photos…and I worried incessantly that I wouldn’t (and yes, I’m aware this screams “just right OCD”). That was why in late February when my husband checked on a whim to see if there were any cancelations at a hotel less than five minutes from the campus and actually got a room, I was thrilled. I relaxed and just looked forward to the weekend. I was even able to snag a reservation for a much coveted table at a popular restaurant in town after trying and failing to book one at any restaurant for weeks. I guessed that another cancelation was at play and was grateful. Little did I know that the most impactful cancelation was just a few short weeks away…the cancelation (or hopefully postponement) of an in-person graduation due to COVID-19.

Since my son, Drew, committed to UMass in 2016, I’ve dreamed of seeing him walk across the stage in his cap and gown, earning his degree from the same university I earned mine from thirty years earlier. Of course, my son worked way harder for his Engineering degree than I did for my English degree. Even back in the late eighties, everyone knew Engineering was the hardest major on campus. Even with the harder course load, he was a more successful student by far. I was put on academic probation sophomore year after earning a 1.89 for the fall semester. In my defense, I briefly pursued an Exercise Science degree, which involved math and, of course, science—I excelled at neither, in fact I was woefully inadequate. I failed “calculus for poets,” as it was colloquially called back then—the easiest of calculus classes. And I earned a much less than stellar D in human anatomy. To be fair, I also took all of my finals with a fractured right elbow, and I’m right-handed. Admittedly, my jaunts to The Pub on Thursday nights and then the after-parties that followed nights spent on the dance floor didn’t help, especially when I had a quiz in human anatomy every Friday morning. And while I brought my grades up more than enough to get off of probation spring semester when I pivoted back to English, I had to take a class during the winter session my senior year to graduate on time.

Drew is a social kid to be sure with tons of friends and many nights out, but he balanced it way better than I did and made Dean’s List pretty much every semester. He was even awarded Engineering scholarships as a reward for all of his hard work. In his junior year he was invited to apply to the Civil Engineering Accelerated Masters Program, because he had taken enough extra credits and did well enough to have three classes to put towards his masters before even earning his undergraduate degree. He was accepted, but decided to work first and was offered a great job in his field, which he starts next month. None of this is lessened by the fact that he won’t get to physically walk across a stage to receive his diploma on Saturday morning.

I’m beyond proud of him with or without the pomp and circumstance of an in-person graduation, which leads me to wonder why I was so anxious about everything being perfect. Why did I worry so much about sitting right up front? Why did I worry about everything—from my outfits (I bought a dress several months ago for the Engineering graduation and reception and spent lots of time thinking about what to wear for the football stadium graduation) to where we’d celebrate after? No matter where I sat; no matter what I wore; no matter where we ate…I would have been proud and thrilled. I am proud and thrilled.

This pandemic has taught me that a lot of my anxieties are completely meaningless. It’s taught me that the essence of the moment is the only thing that matters, not all the noise that surrounds it—the perfect outfit, the perfect table at the perfect restaurant, the perfect seat so I can get the perfect shot. Life isn’t perfect. And as awful as COVID-19 has been, the lesson to appreciate every single moment, perfection be damned, is a powerful one for which I’m grateful.

So…I’m grateful that even though I’m not driving up to Amherst with my family today like we planned, I am driving up with just my husband tomorrow (fingers crossed—I feel like in this world, you can never consider anything a definite). We will pick up a few pizzas (if Drew and his roommates want them) and a celebratory cake (if we can find one) and drop it at my Drew’s house…all while socially distancing and wearing masks. I don’t know if we’ll get to watch the fifteen minute streaming virtual graduation with Drew, but if I get to see him on this most momentous day, even for just a short time—I will be grateful. And if we’re watching graduation from his driveway, sitting in our car, I’ll still revel in the moment of his accomplishment, because that moment is really the only thing that matters, and I couldn’t be more proud.

And congratulations to all of the UMass Class of 2020! This is your moment, and even if it’s not what you pictured, be proud. You will have quite a story to tell your kids and grandkids. You will be the most resilient graduating class ever. From this Class of 1990 alumna to the Class of 2020, I applaud all of you and send you my best wishes. You will be the architects of a future that no one has been able to imagine yet. You will be flexible and creative. You will take things in stride. You will be compassionate. These are all gifts, and all of us who have gone before should heed the lessons you are all learning. Go forth to a bright future and be amazing. I know my son will be no less than that, and I know this experience will be just one pillar in the scaffolding of his future, but it will be a strong one.

Post Script: I did start this at around 1:30 p.m., the time I was supposed to be packing up my car to leave (see the opening sentence), but it took me until almost 11:00 p.m. to finish (and then it took me another hour to think of a title).  And I will admit – when I just reread that last paragraph I cried. My writing makes a lot of people cry, but it doesn’t always make me cry. I’m just feeling very emotional and bittersweet on the eve of my eldest son’s college graduation… I remember exactly how I felt on the eve of my graduation from UMass (it helps that I wrote about it in a novel I was working on at the time and found those pages a few years ago). I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I feel a little like that now, even if I’m not the one graduating… I will miss being a UMass mom terribly. I will miss having an excuse to go to one of my favorite places in the world. I’ll miss the amazing DC food. I’ll miss seeing the campus pond every spring as life bursts forth after and cold and dormant winter. But I’m grateful that I’m still a UMass alumna, and I will go back again…


These are photos from after Drew’s kindergarten graduation and after his college graduation (we made it up there!)…different times, just as much love and pride.

Feel No Evil Sneak Peek


This is a sneak peek of my upcoming novel, Feel No Evil. Feel No Evil dives deep into the many gray areas in life and the transformative power of forgiveness. It asks the question, could you forgive a person who did the unforgivable? What if your life literally depended on it? Can a person change? Can good people do bad things and bad people do things? A page-turning, addictive, dark, and yet hopeful, tale – perfect for the age of #MeToo – Feel No Evil will stay with the reader long after the last page. (I know there are a few other sneak peeks of this novel floating around on here, from 2014 through 2017, but none have this temporary cover I created.) 

Part One

April 2014

 2:21. 2:22. 2:23. All I could see were the digital numbers of the clock. All I could hear was his menacing voice, “Is it going to be hard or soft?” All I could say was, “Please stop. Please don’t.” See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. They forgot feel no evil. All I could feel were his hands pushing down on my shoulders and the searing pain ripping through my core.

I close the journal—the flowers on its cover faded; the paper almost silk-like from age. It has been over twenty years—twenty-one years, to be exact—since I wrote those words. I wish that they were fiction from a long ago college creative writing class, but they aren’t—they’re real and every year on the anniversary of my assault I pull out that journal and read that entry. After I read it, I put the journal back in my old leather briefcase on top of my closet and drink a glass of wine. It’s my way of marking the anniversary and moving forward. My husband, Caleb, keeps our kids downstairs or even takes them out for a slice of pizza or ice cream, so I can read it alone, in peace. So I can shed a tear or two.

I know that it might seem odd for a forty-one year old woman to still think about something that happened so long ago, but if you’ve ever been assaulted, you know that the fact of what happened never really goes away. It just sits like a rotten little bit of food in the back of the refrigerator. The smell will eventually take over the whole thing if you ignore it, so every year I pay attention to it—I take out that rotten bit of food, throw it in the symbolic garbage and try not to think about it, until it starts festering again a year later. It’s an odd ritual, to be sure, but one that works for me or at least it did work, until this year.

It’s a cruel joke being raped on Tax Day—for at least a few months before commercials always reminded me that the day is coming. “Don’t forget, April fifteenth is right around the corner,” a voice would ominously intone. It was always everywhere, warning people of the day of doom. It’s not as much anymore with extensions and early filing, but for me it’s still the lead up to reading that passage. I know I’ll pull down the briefcase; I know I’ll open it to the same page; and I know that I’ll put it back and lock down any thoughts of that April fifteenth so many years ago for another twelve months. But as I put back the briefcase, I know that this year is different. This year I might not be able to lock it down. This year, the person who destroyed my life, Vin Merdone, just popped up on Facebook as “someone I might know” three days before April fifteenth, and I realized that while he damn near ruined my life, his life just went on as happy as could be.

With morbid curiosity I had clicked through his profile pictures. There were pictures of him smiling on a beach; swimming with dolphins; lazing on a lounge; emerging from a pool; and one that looked to be from several years earlier of him holding up a beer, no doubt saying “cheers” to the person taking the picture. He looked happy and tan—and, quite honestly, had a slight menace about him, muscles bulging beneath the tattoos covering his arms—in all of them. The worst photo by far was the one of him kneeling next to a large shark lying in a pool of blood. The smile on his face was broad and satisfied, a cruel glint in his eye. I quickly moved on, the knot in my stomach tightening. One glance at his About told me that he now makes Miami his home. It didn’t look like he had a wife and kids, thankfully, but it did look like he was living a dream life—wealth and luxury abounded in all the photos, leaving me envious and angry in equal measure.

And the shock of seeing his face after all these years cut right through me—sure, he was older, but the set of his jaw remained, the curl of lip was the same. He still had a full head of hair—slicked back in most photos, giving him a look of smarmy intensity. When I clicked on our mutual friend, shock morphed into anger. The thought that my old friend, Sean, the friend who introduced us that fateful night, the friend who apologized so profusely and swore up and down that he didn’t know Vin was violent, the friend I thought I loved was still friends with this person, even on Facebook, filled me with a feeling I couldn’t quite name—rage, surprise, despair. Or perhaps it was all of those rolled into one.

I quickly “unfriended” Sean and started to block Vin. Only I couldn’t. It was like passing a car crash on the highway—I just had to look at it. I had to try to make sense of the man he is now, so maybe I could understand the boy he was then. Staring at his grinning face, I once again berated myself for only filing an anonymous police report—one that went on his record, but didn’t get him arrested.

Even worse, looking at those pictures, I spun back to that night. I had been drinking—I always admitted that, but I would never agree that drinking made me a victim, that anything other than violence made me a victim. Sean was hosting a party in his dorm room, and Vin was there. After we talked for most of the party, Vin asked me to take a walk. Up until that point in my life, my sophomore year in college, I had only encountered people with good intentions. Even the drunk guys who hit on me at parties, took a “no” in stride and moved on to the next girl. If I did go home with someone, they too took my “no” in stride and were content to just fool around a bit, before I went back to my dorm room. I had never slept with anyone at college, and I was proud of my ability to stand my ground. That all changed on an early spring night when I was twenty years old…

Home ~ A Short Story

Home (1)


A Prequel to A New Life 


Staring out the window above the kitchen sink, I absentmindedly swirl a pale yellow sponge around one of the heavy saucepans my husband, Zach, and I had received from my sister as a wedding gift. Outside our next door neighbor, Joey, is dismantling his motorcycle, his warm breath smoky puffs in the cold, dusky air. His grease streaked hands move quickly under the cycle’s silver belly.

That’s how close our walls are to his—I can see the grease on his hands and his left cheek, making a river through the stubble. Hell, I can even see the flash of turquoise underwear through the shredded seat of his Levi’s. “Spitting distance,” as my grandmother would say, shaking her head, whenever she spoke of the tenements in Brooklyn. “Spitting distance,” my mother said as she stood in this very spot helping me dry dishes when she and my father visited last month.

“You didn’t grow up in a place like this,” she sniffed. “Why would you move here?”

I didn’t really have an answer for her, but to be fair we were not discussing a bad neighborhood. Working class, yes—but very close knit. People watch out for each other. Vans line the street with names like Charlie’s Handyman Service detailed on the side. Just kissing Boston, the gentle waves of the bay spill up on the sand at the end of our block, and the only looting our neighborhood ever sees is summer sea shell hunting. On warm nights the heavy seaweed and salt air wraps around everything; a scent I miss terribly the moment it leaves.

When my parents came to visit us, I tried to picture how my mother felt the first time my grandparents took the Ford Tempest out for a ride to the suburbs. Marrying a dentist was the biggest coup ever accomplished on my mother’s side of the family. The Kleins talked about it for years. “Can you believe Naomi married such a catch?” they whispered at Passover when I was a little girl. “So handsome, he looks like Gregory Peck.”

My mother simply smiled and drank it all in. She didn’t need a good job. All she really needed to do was keep a nice house. And, she did. I don’t think I realized at the time, though I wish I had, that this was a huge job in itself—harder than most others. Every Friday when I swung through the door from school, the floors shined and the furniture gleamed. The smell of challah baking and chicken soup simmering layered over Lemon Fresh Pine Sol assaulted my senses. My mouth watered and my stomach grumbled.

For years, I thought that was what moms did. They were there when you walked in, waiting with a plate of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches cut in neat quarters. I learned the reality when I started going to my friend’s houses, the latch-key kids, as they were called. We sat on the floor in their family rooms and ate popcorn, kernels flying all over, getting stuck in the shag carpet. We played tug of war with Barbie dolls, their heads popping off and rolling under the couch.

One day, riding home from my friend’s house in our shiny black, state-of-the-art, Cadillac, I asked my mother, “Why are you there when I get home from school? None of my friends’ moms are home.”

“And, a lot of your friends’ fathers aren’t home—ever. Do you think that has something to do with it, Grace? Their mothers have to work. I don’t. Be grateful.”

I stared out the window at the streaking Christmas lights, while I played with the electric buttons on the side of the seat. It slid back and forth, up and down; still a novelty to me. Her answer had seemed good enough at the time, but my mother kept talking.

“You and your sisters are my priority. My job is being there for you at all times.  Understand?”

“What do you do while we’re at school?” I asked, hoping that she’d admit to a glamorous secret lifestyle—private investigator solving crimes between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. or maybe fashion designer, clothing the world’s most fabulous women in her free time. I waited for her answer, chewing lightly on my thumbnail.

“Well,” she began slowly. The streetlights and full moon cast an ethereal glow on my mother’s face. Her frosted baby pink lipstick twinkled like crushed diamonds as she spoke. With her perfectly feathered honey blonde hair just skimming her shoulders and creamy skin, her beauty shone through the banality of her words. “I clean. I don’t want our house to be a pigsty, and sometimes you kids leave it that way. I iron. I even iron your pajamas and your father’s underwear. Did you ever notice the perfect creases in your Barbie clothes? I iron those too. Things just have to be taken care of.”

 To be sure, every time I got sick in school, my mother picked me up within ten minutes, and it took seven to get there. She always brought cakes shaped like bunny rabbits and teddy bears into class for my birthday. And the house was sparkling clean—maybe not neat with three girls strewing our stuff about—but white glove, not a speck of dust clean. Dinner was always waiting on the table, and I was bathed and ready for bed before sitting down to watch the Brady Bunch or Happy Days.

Once I entered high school my fantasies of my mother’s secret life became more pedestrian. I pictured her kicking off her wedge heeled slippers, and settling in with a trashy novel and a box of Mallomars as soon as the door shut behind us. She always maintained that the most indulgent she ever got though, was coffee with our next door neighbor, Barb, who moved out from Brooklyn only two months after my parents.

My mother simply focused on us, with her projects growing ever grander, from ironing our Barbie clothes to planning our weddings. I never imagined myself planning an elaborate wedding. And the closer I got to thirty years old, the more ridiculous the idea of a huge wedding seemed. Why spend thousands of dollars on one night, when you could go to Europe, buy tons of camera equipment, open a studio, buy a house?

 I couldn’t really come up with a good answer for that question, but once engaged, I was swept away with the current. My mother barely came up for air when I told her.            “Grace, we have so much to talk about,” she practically yelled into the phone. “I can’t wait to hear all the details. And dresses—we’ll start looking right away. We’ll have to go into Brooklyn to Kleinfeld’s. We can go to Great Neck. There are tons of bridal boutiques there.”

“Sounds good, Mom,”

“I can’t wait to see you in an elegant gown. You were born for that. You know I named you for Grace Kelly, right?”

“Yes, I know, Mom. And I’m always grateful for that…”

“I knew you would grow up to be a princess just like she was. Now, you get to be a princess for a day,” she sighed. “Your grandmother was so upset with me when I told her your name. She said, ‘What kind of a Jewish baby is named Grace?’ But, one look at your face, and I knew if fit you—those already intelligent, crystal blue eyes staring up at me. Even your hair was a corn silk blonde when you were born. It didn’t turn that rich chestnut you have until you were older.”

“Thanks, Mom.” My mother always told me that with my “rich chestnut curls” and blue eyes, I should be a model. I tried to explain that I was a bit height challenged—at five feet. She wouldn’t hear of it. “So, you’ll be a petite model. What, do all models have to be giraffes? You’re gorgeous.” She even submitted photos of me to a local modeling agency when I was seventeen, though I tried to talk her out of it. They invited me to come for an in-person meeting and were a bit surprised to see a much smaller girl than my mother had led them to believe. I asked her why in the world she said I was five foot seven inches on the form. She explained she just wanted to get me in the door—then they’d see how pretty I was and not care about my height. Needless to say, I didn’t get any jobs.

“You know, I also named you Grace because you were my miracle baby, coming so long after your sisters. It was God’s grace that brought you to me,” I know we were only on the phone, but I was pretty sure my mom teared up a little, before she composed herself. “Ooh, I almost forgot, we’ll go to Fortunoff’s to look at china. So, when are you coming in? This week maybe?”

“Mom,” I said as gently as possible. “You know I have to work.  Maybe next weekend.”

“You know, Grace,” my mother began. “You said that when you got engaged you would move from Boston back to New York to plan the wedding. Your sisters and I had a great time planning their weddings—almost every night we sat at the kitchen table working on all the details. Plus, you’re only working at a temp job.”

She was right, my sisters did sit around the kitchen table for hours brainstorming on the perfect appetizer and whether to use lace tablecloths or damask. But they were twenty-three and twenty-four years old when they married.  It didn’t matter to my mother that I was twenty-nine years old, almost thirty.  In my family, you lived at home until marriage. You woke up each morning in a safe haven, your towels nicely folded in ice cream layers of pistachio, peach and vanilla.

Though I had roots attaching me to New York, my heart pulled me away and at twenty-three years old, I packed my car with toiletries and clothes, stuffed animals and photo albums, as my sisters watched, babies balanced on their hips, their eyes sad. “Here take this with you for the ride,” my sister, Paula, said as she pressed a bag with a Yodel and chips, a juice box, and a package of stationary into my hands. “Make sure you keep in touch. There are some stamps in there too. And you need to put on some weight, so make sure you eat the snacks.”

“Thank you. But, I promise my weight is fine,” I answered, and five hours later I was moving into my own apartment in Boston. The relationship that lured me there—with my college boyfriend, Michael—ended only a few months after I arrived, when we realized that distance wasn’t as great a threat to our relationship as proximity. Or rather he realized and dumped me over the phone.

My mother assumed that I would move back as soon as Michael and I ended, but I had already fallen in love with the city and with living on my own. I did try to return, though. I came home for two weeks when I was in between jobs—sort of a trial run. I tried to ease the tug of war between roots and independence that tormented me. I visited with my nieces, played Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. I sat on the floor with my sisters dressing Barbie dolls in capri-pants and sweater sets from the sixties (my sisters’ childhood doll clothes), and psychedelic striped caftans (my seventies contribution to Barbie’s wardrobe). Rather than cleaning up the mess my nieces made, we matched handbags to tiny shoes and perched miniature pillbox hats on perfectly sculpted blond heads.

That night I folded laundry with my mother, the two of us coming together like some sort of dance to match the ends of a sheet. The scent of Mountain Meadow dryer sheets rose between us in a puff. “Is it so bad being home?” she asked quietly.

“No, it’s not,” I answered, because it really wasn’t. But, I didn’t tell my mother about all the summers I spent sitting underneath the big maple tree in our backyard, drinking sticky sweet lemonade, reading romance novels. At fifteen, the future unfolded in my mind as limitless as the cool green world above me. Staring at the lush canopy of leaves, sunset colors filtering through, anything seemed possible—even leaving home. I felt bigger than the suburb we lived in. Something called me away—and it wasn’t just a doomed relationship.

On my last night I stopped for a moment on my way to the kitchen for a snack, sinking onto the window seat in the living room. In the backyard the big old maple, stark against the sky, cast a shadowy tangle of branches reaching out across the moonlit snow. A chill whispered down my spine as I remained mesmerized, my snack forgotten.

Walking up the stairs after, I gingerly skipped the third step, knowing it would creak. I moved through the darkness into my childhood bedroom. Glancing around one last time at the dolls and books lining the shelves, I knew my decision was made. I was filled with a momentary sadness, until I realized that a part of me would always be in that room, in that house, even if I never returned for good.

My mother sighed audibly over the phone. “Well? You did say you would move back here. We really miss you. Once you get married, you’ll probably never come back.” Another sigh.

“I promise, I’ll come back regularly.”

“I hope so, Barb’s son moved away and they see him maybe every few months. But remember, they always say, ‘A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.’ No matter what, this will always be your home.”

“I know that, believe me. And I miss you all too. But, I said I would move home over five years ago when I was dating Michael. I could stand to be away from him for a whole year—Zach I can’t. Don’t worry, I’ll come home a lot to plan things,” I assured her. And I did.

It seemed every other weekend there was another detail to be tended to. Even with the typical stresses and my initial hesitancy to simply embrace all things bridal, the year flew by in whirl of silk and lace, roses and crystal. Days melted into days, and before I knew it, it was September, and I was on a plane bound for the Caribbean, a diamond band winking back at me.

And then, before I knew it, I was a wife—four months into it and not at all sure if I’m doing it right. Sometimes, I even longed to be a fiancée again with flower girl dresses and canapés to distract me. I had listened with disdain when my friends talked about the post honeymoon letdown. “You’re not special anymore,” they explained. “Before you’re the bride—the center of attention. Everyone wants to know about the plans. After you’re just a wife—just like everybody else.”

Not me, I thought. I don’t care about getting married; I just care about being married. You obviously married the wrong guy. But, I was wrong; you didn’t have to marry the wrong person to feel disoriented. In fact, feeling like you’re letting down the right person is even worse than being let down yourself.

I look down at my fingers, prunelike, still clutching the saucepan. Lost in my thoughts and anxieties, I finish rinsing it and pull a soft celery green and white dish cloth from the narrow drawer beneath the sink. I look back up through the window. Joey waves at me and winks. I smile weakly as I finish drying the pot and turn around to inspect my kitchen.

Aside from our wedding and shower gifts—the nice dishes and stemware in the glass front cabinets and fancy appliances on the counter top, some still with plastic wrap on them—my kitchen looks disheveled. Unpacked boxes are still beneath the breakfast nook months after we moved in. A slight smear of mayo glosses the counter. It doesn’t look like the kitchens in Modern Bride—all white and shiny, the happy couple peering contentedly into a bowl of colorful pasta, and it kind of breaks my heart.

I put the pot in the cabinet below the chipped white stove and walk into the dining room. I’ve never really been domestic—when I lived on my own, I dined on soup or tuna fish sandwiches for dinner—but I thought marriage would somehow magically transform me. I’d suddenly become one of those women in the magazines at the dentist’s office—spotless house, dinner on the table. Instead, the dining room table groans under a mountain of mail and the laundry basket overflows.

Now that I’ve conjured the ghosts of my mother’s accomplishments during my childhood, my failure to get our apartment just right looms even more real and painful. Maybe that was what my mother meant by, “You didn’t grow up in a place like this.”

My sisters somehow managed to get it right. They married young, had babies young. They stayed home and whipped up gourmet meals and baked artfully frosted cakes. Perfectly placed baskets of potpourri dotted the landscape of their homes. I felt as if they belonged to some secret society, that they kept me out of—like the WWB club they formed, We Wear Bras. I was banished to be the sole member of the IBTC—Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a name my sisters gleefully discovered, then scrawled in red marker on a sheet of paper they taped to my bedroom door.

Even my friends seem to know secrets that I don’t. Real artwork hangs on their walls; their couches match and the crystal dishes on their coffee tables always hold a tempting assortment of candies. They all work, but whenever I call, they’re taking dinner off the stove or putting the baby to sleep. I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe Zach would have been happier with one of them. I’m not afraid of my husband leaving me for a younger, prettier or sexier woman, only a neater one.

Zach does his share. He sometimes does my share too—folding my laundry, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me to take for lunch. And each time he does something like that, I feel a wave of guilt wash over me, thinking, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I take care of him or even myself? Then, I chastise myself for such retro thinking—why is it my job? I have a job, too.

The temp agency called me with the job two weeks after we returned from our honeymoon. “We’ve got a great position for you, Grace,” the rep said in between cracks of gum. “It’s even in your field. You’re the photographer, right?”

“It’s a photography job?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah, at Sure Shot over in the mall.”

“Isn’t that the one where they do boudoir photo?” I asked hesitantly.

 “Yeah, have you tried it? It’s so cool. My boyfriend gave me a sitting for my birthday. He has one of me in a pink nightie, with my hair all fancy, hanging right over his bed.”

“That’s too much information,” I wanted to say, but I just took down the start time and promised to show up for work the next morning. When I arrived, I was promptly shown to the reception area. It was a paycheck, I reasoned each time I answered the phone—a paycheck that was about a quarter of the one Zach received as an engineer.

After about a week, I got up the nerve to tell my boss, Mr. Richards, that I majored in photography and actually had quite a good eye, at least according to my professors. I told him that I had even worked as a photojournalist. I didn’t tell him that it was only for a few months for a local shoppers’ guide. It wasn’t entirely a lie—I did have freelance photos in some other local publications.

“You got a good eye?” he asked gruffly.

“I’d like to think so,” I answered as calmly as I could.

“Great! I have a project for you, but you’ll have to do it at home. Someone needs to answer the phones and greet the customers.”

“That would be wonderful,” I gushed and eagerly took home a disc with the day’s pictures on it. I spent most nights in front of the computer in our small guest room using a photography program to mutate scanned images with the click of a mouse. I made brown eyes green and wrinkles disappear on Sure Shot’s saggiest clients.

“Are they ever going to pay you for doing this extra work at home?” Zach had asked me the night before. “Are you ever going to take care of Grace?”

“Maybe they’ll like my work and move me up from receptionist—maybe they’ll even hire me permanently,” I argued. Of course Zach was right, I should have gotten paid for all the projects I tackled. When Mr. Richards offered me the extra work I assumed it meant extra pay. After getting my next paycheck and finding it was the same measly amount, I vowed to ask him about it, but I never got up the nerve.

“Is that what you want? What happened to galleries? The cover of Life magazine?” Zach challenged.

“Well, that’s not at all practical, now is it? Not when we’re trying to save money for a house. And no, this isn’t what I want, but maybe it will pay a little more than temping. And then at least I’d be doing something somewhat creative.” I swallowed hard. My art welled up in me so strongly at times that I felt like I might crack wide open if I didn’t start interpreting life through a camera lens again.

“You could find a better opportunity, if you looked a little harder—if you had more faith in yourself,” Zach insisted. “Call up some local newspapers. Put together a portfolio of your best work. I just don’t want to see you wasting your talent on giving old ladies high tech face lifts.”

I couldn’t argue with him, one of the reasons I fell in love with Zach was because he believed in me. He understood that I saw beauty where others did not. I saw it in crumpled potato chip bags, bright turquoise and yellow, contrasted with deep, inky black pavement. I saw it in a dead leaf curled on the grass. I knew that he was right. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry. It’s not for me, it’s for you,” Zach shook his head, and walked out, leaving me to tighten the double chin of Mary Hendricks, a matronly woman draped in leopard print silk.

“Tell them to make me look beautiful,” Mrs. Hendricks had said, as she lowered herself onto a red molded plastic chair in our small waiting area. “It’s for my husband—an anniversary gift, thirty-eight years. I wanted to do something special.”

I promised I would do my best as I buzzed one of our Glamour Enhancers. That was the first term I learned on the job. “Never call them beauticians or cosmetologists,” Mr. Richards explained. “We have an image.”

Mrs. Hendricks waved to me as she headed behind the curtain for her transformation. In thirty-eight years will I be trying to make myself beautiful for Zach? I wondered. We hadn’t even made it to thirty-eight weeks and last night when Zach confronted me I was in my tattered pink sweatshirt and faded flowered pajama pants by 8:30, just like I am every night, my hair in a loose ponytail, strands falling around my face. I had rubbed my eyes, saved the image and sunk onto the bed behind me for a quick nap. The flowered quilt from my childhood bedroom was so soft and smelled like a summer night. I instantly fell into a dreamless sleep.

Now, I keep replaying the argument that seemingly innocuous nap sparked, a constant loop in my head as I move out of the kitchen and into the dining room. It changed the climate of our home less than twenty-four hours ago. Picking up a pile of mail to sort through, I still feel like a failure.

 “I’m sick of being your maid,” Zach had announced, dropping the green laundry basket on the floor with a thud. The sound jolted me awake. I rubbed my eyes, still groggy, as he continued, “Here’s your underwear and bras and stuff. I took them off the drying rack in the bathtub.” Zach shook his head angrily. “You just keep moving the rack out of the tub so you can shower, and then putting it back in. The stuff has been dry for two days.”

  “I’ll put it away. I promise.”

 “That’s what you said last night. You know, I can’t do everything. Pay the bills, do the laundry. I washed both the kitchen and bathroom floors tonight.”

“Did I ask you to wash the floors? No, you chose to do that, so don’t blame me,” I countered. “I cooked dinner tonight. I make the bed every day. It wouldn’t get made if it weren’t for me.” I paused, anger and shame welling up in me in equal measure. “It’s not like I sit around on my ass eating bon bons, watching soap operas all day. You’ve already criticized my job, now this. What’s next?”

 “I did not criticize your job. I just said that you should have faith in yourself to pursue your goals. And I offered to help with dinner, but you said, ‘No, I hardly ever cook dinner for you, let me do this.’ So, I didn’t help.” Zach breathed out angrily. “I had no idea that chicken and pasta was such an exhausting thing to prepare. You fell asleep for over an hour with the computer on. I thought you had work to do.” Zach’s disgust hung heavy in the air, almost pressing down on me.

“I fell asleep, oh the horror. Look, I know you somehow have this endless supply of energy. You come home whirl around doing everything without even giving me a chance. I was exhausted. I needed a nap before working some more. I’ll fold the laundry right now.” I picked up the basket and carried it into the bedroom. Dumped on our bed it was simply a silky tangle of cream, white and blush.

Zach followed me in and stood with his arms crossed, silent, as I began folding. I looked up at him; then quickly back down, carefully folding my bras the way my mother had taught me, cup to cup, straps tucked under. Usually I just put them in the drawer unfolded, but it seemed important to get it right at that moment.

“Maybe you should have married someone else, someone less domestically challenged,” I bit my words off sharply, never looking up.

“When are you going to stop worrying you’re not good enough,” Zach asked, his voice flat.

“When are you going to stop making me feel like I’m not good enough?” There, I threw out the question.

Zach slid out of the room in silence. I folded six pairs of underwear and two bras, before his answer drifted from the other room, “I’m not going to lie.”

I inspected our white comforter, smoothing it down with my hand. I never noticed the yellow stitching circling the center of the tufts. Why yellow for a white comforter? I wondered. What do you say when you find out that the person you have vowed your life to thinks you’re not good enough? I didn’t know the answer to that question, so I simply remained silent the rest of the night.

I finish flipping through the mail and simply throw it all into the recycle bin, tearing off the addresses first. Credit card offers, magazine offers, flyers, glossy catalogs filled with things I don’t need and can’t afford—I didn’t even read any of it. I move into the laundry nook in the kitchen and load the washing machine, layering Zach’s Levi’s over my sweatpants, over his sweatshirt, over my flannel pajamas in a loose circle, clear blue zig zags of detergent in between all, the Mountain Meadow scent wafting up, reminding me of my childhood. Warm / cold. Heavy duty. I pull the knob out and listen to the water rush into the tub. I glance at my watch. 5:36 pm. I’ve been home from work for less than an hour, yet I still feel I should have done more.

I decide to make a list of all the things I’ve done during off-work hours since returning from our honeymoon. Fed all of the hungry neighborhood cats—every day. Listened to the twelve year old girl upstairs whenever she came to my door with problems in school or with her parents. Took care of our pet hamster, Hamlet—fed and held him every day. Talked to the lonely elderly woman up the street, even when there were other things to be done. Still temping. Haven’t thrown out old papers and magazines. Haven’t cooked anything from gift subscription of Bon Apetit. Grown distant from husband I love very much.

I looked over the list and continued writing, What if I my best qualities turn out to be that I feed stray animals and nurture wayward souls? What if I never make any money, never figure out how to keep the house right—cook meals. Or, what if trying to be all things leaves me a blubbering idiot or a total bitch or a psycho or just a mess of stress illnesses? What of it then???

I put the pen down and step out onto our front stoop, breathing in the sharp, cold air. It feels like cut glass in my lungs. I inhale and exhale slowly, watching the tiny clouds of breath dissipate before glancing at the street. The sound of a car door closing shatters the silence. I see the lavender cone of floral paper wrapping Zach’s apology before I even see him moving through the darkness. He climbs the steps slowly, looking up at me.

“I just stepped out here for some air,” I say quietly, crossing my arms in front of me and rubbing my shoulders to keep warm. “I didn’t know you were home.”

Without a word, Zach leans into me and kisses me—slowly, tentatively at first, then hungrier, almost crushing the flowers between us. My hands fall to my sides. He steps back and starts to speak, then stops and hands me the flowers.

I peer over the paper. “Osiana roses. How’d you know which ones to get? Didn’t you tell me you can never remember my favorite flower?” My voice is laced with skepticism, when it should be heavy with gratitude.

“I knew what they looked like from our wedding, from the pictures, and I wanted to get your favorites. I went to three different florists before I found these.” He shakes his head slowly. “I am so sorry, Grace.  I had no right to say the things I said…no right.”

“You told me I’m not good enough for you. How could you say that? How could you think that and still spend the rest of your life with me? Still face me every day? How?”

“I didn’t mean that. I should’ve said, I’ve been keeping my feelings bottled up, and I can’t do it anymore.  I don’t want you to feel inferior, I just want us to share the load.” The guilt I feel right now knowing that Zach thinks I don’t share the load is crushing me, but I stay silent. “My intention was to figure out a way to change things, and the conversation just deteriorated. What can I say to show you how sorry I am?”

What can I say to show how hurt I am?  How stunned? How ashamed? What would the good wife say? “I forgive you,” I whisper, a stone in my throat choking me.

“No, I won’t accept your forgiveness yet,” Zach says softly. “Be a little harder on me.”

I turn to the door and open it. The warmth hits my face, and makes me want to weep. Somehow, it was easier freezing my emotions in the bitter January night than in the warmth of our apartment. I step inside and Zach is right behind me, turning me around to face him. “Let it go,” he whispers. “Tell me.”

I let my head fall to his shoulder, his starched collar scratching my cheek. I don’t want to cry, but the stone rolls around my throat, down into my chest, then back up again.  The tears spill over my lashes. “You’re right. You hurt me. You made me question myself, when I should have been questioning you. Wondering why you would say something so hurtful. Why you would doubt me when you just pledged your unconditional love four short months ago.” I sigh. “Do you even remember our wedding ceremony? You were wrong last night, and I’m glad you know it.”

“I do know it,” Zach says quietly. “I do know it,” louder and more urgently.

“Good,” I pull away from him and walk into the kitchen, not bothering to turn and see if he follows. I reach up into the cabinet and take down one of the cut crystal vases that stand like sparkly soldiers on the shelf. As I carefully unwrap the roses and spread them out on the paper, Zach comes up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist, kissing my neck. “I love you,” he says into my hair.

“Can you hand me the scissors? They’re right in the drawer,” my tone is flat, belying the jubilation dancing in my stomach. As the stone slowly dissolves in my throat, I kick out the perfect wife lurking in the corners of my mind. “Adios,” I whisper under my breath.

“Are we good now?” Zach asks as he hands me the scissors.

I snip the stems of a few roses and arrange them in the vase before answering him. I turn to Zach as he stares at me expectantly, hope and a tinge of sadness reflected in his soulful dark chocolate eyes. “Yeah, we’re good,” I answer, and finally I believe it.

~ The End ~

Read A New Life for Kindle, out now from The Wild Rose Press.

Here’s another free short story: Girls’ Night Out

Girls’ Night Out – A Short Story


We are gathered, six of us, around a small, scarred table at The Cantina—one of those Mexican restaurants that promises an exotic foray into a foreign culture, but take away the chili pepper lights and maraca shaking waiters, and it’s just another mall eatery. This table was probably meant for two, but most of us arrived late, and we just keep pulling over more chairs until we’re elbow to elbow. The margaritas are flowing. A platter of quesadillas, the oozing orange cheese congealing, sits mostly uneaten.

“You know Rick cheated on you, right?” my friend, Brooke, asks this, slurring her words ever so slightly. I shake my head no quickly, completely blindsided. The lights at The Cantina are low and I can’t quite tell if her face wears a mask of sympathy or simply disgust at my ignorance. “Oops, sorry,” Brooke covers her mouth with her hand dramatically. “I was sure you knew,” she continues. “He was a bouncer. He slept with all the waitresses. Sorry.”

“Wait, you were a waitress. Does that mean you slept with him too?” I try to get my mind around this new fact and just can’t. Then, I try to figure out how the conversation landed here. I can’t find the thread, so I wonder if Brooke has been saving this tidbit since we met at Mommy and Me five years ago and realized that we went to the same university, and she knew my ex-boyfriend. At least I realized it then—maybe she knew who I was all along. The other woman always knows the girlfriend or wife.

“It was almost twenty years ago. Why do you care?” Brooke shrugs her shoulders, noncommittal.

The other side conversations have stopped. Nothing else is this interesting. Birth control. Boy toys. Botox. The three Bs that have made up the majority of our conversation fall away. We are in our forties, or for a couple of us just close enough to taste forty, and these are the topics—not who hooked up with a bouncer at the after-hours party—but here we are, talking about the stuff of our twenties.

Everyone leans in. Maybe they’re waiting for me to launch myself over the table and throttle Brooke. Maybe they’re waiting for me to burst into tears. Only one of these women, Sara, is close enough to know the truth about me, the rest just tell me they think I live a charmed life. Size three jeans, handsome husband and two cute kids—a girl and a boy, six and four. The kids are well behaved in public, always, as is the husband. I love my kids, but they morph at home, running around like lunatics, pinching and poking each other, screaming and crying.

My husband, Luke, acts like a belligerent ass half the time, muttering, “Jesus Christ,” or “Give me a freakin’ break,” under his breath at the smallest request. The rest of the time he tells me I’m hot and he’s so lucky to have me. Luckily we still have good sex, but it’s quality over quantity and sometimes I feel like he only loves me when I’m naked. Does he love my brain or just my body? A question I grapple with regularly. So now everyone, except Sara, leans in, wondering what this person with her life completely under control will do.

Maybe if I were drunk, I would start a fight. That’s why I don’t drink anymore. I was a bad drunk, crying or yelling, saying inappropriate things, finding inappropriate men to ease my pain after Rick and I broke up. But even with Rick I drank a lot, enough that he asked me to stop—enough that perhaps it broke us up. Maybe I did know subconsciously that he was cheating on me. Maybe she’s right. “I think that was before we dated seriously,” I tell Brooke. “I was twenty-one when we started dating—that was only eighteen years ago. You already graduated and left, right?”

“I stayed on to get my MBA, remember?” I think she has a smirk, but I can’t tell. I wish I had a flashlight to shine right in her face, like a deer caught in headlights.

This really shouldn’t bother me, but it does. “You know,” I say slowly, “We actually dated into my mid-twenties. I thought I was going to marry him. So even though it seems like it was so long ago, that relationship affected the whole trajectory of my life. I moved to another state to be with him and gave up all the career opportunities I would have had if I moved into Manhattan like all my friends. Or, I could have just lived at home and commuted into the city like I did every summer during school. The garment district isn’t in New Hampshire—it’s here. I could have returned to my summer apprentice job and even gotten paid. Who knows, I could have had my own label right now, instead of just working part-time at a fancy-schmancy boutique whose clientele I’d like to slap upside the head.” I know this is a wildly optimistic and possibly arrogant, not to mention rude, statement, but I don’t care. Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t dropped everything for Rick?

“I gave it all up, because Rick said, ‘I can’t live without you. Move here.’ The night he asked me to stay, he actually led me onto an airfield near his apartment, blindfolded. We had sex on the wing of an airplane!” I know I’m a bit too loud. I glance around and continue, quieter now, “I had told him that was my fantasy. He whispered, ‘Stay, I’ll make all your fantasies come true.’ So, was I a total loser to believe him when he did stuff like that? Well, was I?”

“He was pretty inventive, wasn’t he?” Brooke has a dreamy look on her face.

I start to get out of my chair. I am going to throttle her. Sara puts her hand on my arm and discreetly guides me back down. “If you didn’t move to New Hampshire, you wouldn’t have met Luke. You wouldn’t have the kids you have,” she offers. Before I can object and say we would have met somehow, before I can say we had mutual friends, before I can even say he came to New York on business—we might have met on the subway—she continues, “And, maybe you wouldn’t have moved back to Long Island when you did and where you—did, and you wouldn’t have your fabulous friends. But, I understand why you feel bad. This is someone you trusted and it makes you feel like your whole sense of judgment must be screwed up. And I think Brooke needs to lay off the margaritas.”

Kim pipes up, “You had sex on the wing of an airplane? Are you kidding me? How the heck did you pull that off?”

“It was a little prop plane. It wasn’t all that difficult.”

“Still, you just have the best luck with men—I mean, first a guy who would do that. So what if he may or may not have cheated. You were young. And now, you’re married to Luke who just so obviously adores you—we’ve all seen the way he looks at you. Plus, he’s gorgeous.”

“Yes, my life is perfect,” I sigh, and I’m sure no one knows if I’m serious or not. I don’t even know if I’m serious or not.

Sara is the one who knows the real me. The frustrations. The fact that I really thought I would have my own label and be the darling of the fashion mags by the time I was rounding the bend to forty. She always comes up with encouragement or just the right advice. The irony is that though she’s offering me support, we are out for her tonight. We are supposed to be here to cheer her up. Her husband is dying, slowly and sadly, and there’s not much she can do about it, but hold his hand. He’s not dying tonight, but he probably has only six or seven months to live, and it’s killing her too. Brain tumors do that—they kill the caretaker too.

We used to complain about our husbands to each other all the time. He does this, he does that. “That was BTI,” she said once, explaining why all the little things she used to complain about didn’t annoy her anymore. When I asked what BTI meant, she answered, “Before Terminal Illness.” It became our catch phrase for any petty thing that we should just let slide. So, when my husband lets out an audible sigh when I ask if he can take over my turn in Candy Land so I can pee, I say to myself “BTI,” and try to forgive him. He’s a great dad; he just likes to be a great dad when he doesn’t have e-mails to answer or a football game to watch. It’s not like a mom, who has to be on call 24/7. I can’t complain about him though, not when Sara tells me her husband cries because he misses the kids already, because he knows time is slipping away. She cries because she knows he’s slipping away.

“I’m losing him,” she whispered to me on the way here. I picked her up, so she could get drunk. So she could forget for just a moment. Or at least try to forget.

But here I am commanding the entire table’s attention for a soap opera that happened almost two decades ago. Kim is right—even if Brooke slept with my boyfriend, so what? At least she didn’t sleep with my husband. I hope. “So,” I say brightly, turning away from Brooke. “Tell us about the boy toy your friend has, Liz.”

Everybody leans in again. Good, the attention is off of me. “Well, he’s so hot, he even gets me going. And you know my husband is usually the only one who does it for me.” A barely audible groan rises from the table.

The other day Sara asked me, “Did you know Liz married the guy who made her crazy—the one whom she had hot sex with and worried if he was cheating on her? She’s still obsessed with him. You aren’t supposed to marry that guy. That’s the guy you get over and then marry the sensible one. You can’t live your life worrying.” Apparently Liz does though. She regularly slips her nanny an extra twenty to stay late while she follows her husband when he goes to the gym. To the best of our knowledge, she’s never caught him doing anything, but she still follows him anyway.

“Blonde. Green eyes. Nice muscles. Great ass,” Liz sighs.

“How old is he?” I ask.

When she answers, “forty-seven,” we let out a collective, “What?”

“Well, that was cold water in my face,” says Kim. “A boy toy is supposed to be twenty-nine. Who needs someone your own age or even older as a boy toy?  Speaking of boy toys, I have a confession.”

“So,” Brooke begins again, without any regard to the fact that we are all on the edge of our seats waiting to live vicariously through the only single one among us. “Are you really upset with me?”

“Do you ever shut up?” Eve asks. She’s been quiet the whole night, but now her voice raises above the din of margarita fueled voices around us. “Seriously, just shut up. I have an eight week old. I’m nursing. I’m dry as the Sahara. I haven’t had sex in, oh I don’t know, forever, because apparently my mountainous belly was a turn off to my dear husband, even though I was horny. But, the thought of a penis going into my shredded dainty bits now makes me want to faint. So, I want to hear the story about Kim’s boy toy and I want to hear it now. It may be the closest I’ll get to sex in a while.”

“Are you drunk?” Brooke asks disdainfully.

“Most likely, but I’m going to pump and dump after, so don’t worry about it. Jane drove me, so don’t worry about that either.” She turns to Kim and commands, “Speak and make it juicy.”

“Oh, I don’t know. The moment has passed.” We all glare at Brooke. “Please, tell us the story,” begs Sara. “I haven’t had sex in ages either and since I’ll be a widow, I don’t know when I will again.”

“Okay, now the moment really has passed,” Kim says quietly. “The whole thing is too sad. I can’t talk about frivolous things.”

“Come on, it was just a bit of self-deprecating humor. There’s a chance that the chemo will shrink the tumor enough so that they can operate. It’s a waiting game now. So, I need things to distract me while I wait. I need to hear about boy toys. I need to remember that people are living, because it seems like it’s been so long since I have.” Sara checks her phone. “Okay, I haven’t gotten a call. Rob’s mother is still there. Unlike some of the nurses, I know his mother will call me if he’s in pain or has a seizure, so I have at least this moment to relax and try to forget. So, tell us. Please. Before my phone rings and Jane has to chauffeur me and Eve home.”

“Are you sure?  It won’t make you feel bad hearing about the naughty divorcee and the pool boy? Well not exactly the pool boy—my pool is a foot deep and has Anna and Elsa from Frozen on it.”

“Please, Brooke just shared that she slept with Jane’s college sweetheart, it can’t be worse than that.” I kick Sara under the table, but she just smirks.

“Okay, so I was walking my dog and you know that old colonial that looks like a frat house dropped in the middle of suburbia—with all the guys hanging out drinking beer and playing basketball in the driveway every weekend? Well, I was walking Shelby by it and all of a sudden one of them whistles, and I hear the other one say, ‘Hey, it’s the MILF.’ I was kind of embarrassed, but kind of ridiculously thrilled at the same time. And yes, I knew I should have been offended, but I wasn’t. They see me walking the dog with my kids all the time. I never knew they thought I was a MILF. I have to say though, I’m glad they waited until I was alone to say it!”

“Do you think I’m a MILF?” interrupts Liz. “Because what if Todd finds a MILF? He’s a DILF. Is there such a thing as a DILF? I need to be a MILF. Do you think I should get lasered again?  It really makes my skin glow.”

“You’re fine, Liz,” I assure her, a bit annoyed. I think everyone else is too. “Why don’t we let Kim finish her story,” I want to keep the conversation flowing away from Brooke and Rick and my disastrous sense of judgment. Every dip in the conversation, my mind spins back to a vision of them tangled naked in the sheets. I’m so glad I didn’t eat the quesadillas or they would be all over the table right now. As much as I’d like to believe that I can just brush the whole thing off, I can’t—not yet, at least.

“You know, this is just too embarrassing, I can’t go on. I’m not really a MILF. Not even close,” Kim protests. “Just leave the rest to your imaginations.”

“Come on,” pleads Eve. “I’m going to be up at 3:00 am needing something to think about. Help me out here.”

“I certainly need something to cheer me up,” says Sara. “Do it as a public service for us.”

“Okay,” Kim relents. “One of the guys caught up with me, all shirtless and sweaty. He asked what kind of dog Shelby is. I answered shelter mutt. He started going on about how he loves animals and has rescued three dogs and might rescue another. I thought he was going to ask me for a donation or something, but he says, ‘Can I take you out sometime?’ I told him I was probably old enough to be, maybe not his mother, but at least an aunt.”

“You look amazing,” Eve interjects. “I’m not surprised a twenty-one year old would want you.”

“Not twenty-one. That would be icky. He’s twenty-eight…I mean, he’s still a decade younger, but that’s not that bad. And get this, after I said I’m too old, he says “I like older women—they’re more experienced.’ I nearly fainted. No one says things like that to me.”

“You must have gotten on your naughty divorcee vibe,” I volunteer.

“Don’t know what it was and I didn’t care. I told him I’d go out with him. Then he offers to walk with me. The kids were with their dad, so I thought, What the hell. I deserve a little something.”

Liz leans in, “So, then what happens?”

Even Brooke is interested, seemingly forgetting her intent to dredge up the past. “Yeah, tell us. Did you sleep with him?”

Kim glances over her shoulder at the empty table behind us, then to each side, before she continues. “We get back to my house and sit on the porch swing. He’s so sweet, he leans over and kisses me, slow and gentle…then my cell rings. It’s my ex. Hannah threw up all over his white couch and could I please come get both kids, since Maddy saw her and was retching too. Even though nothing came out, he didn’t want to ‘take a chance.’ Son-of-a-bitch. It’s like he knew.”

“So, that’s it?” Sara asks, her voice ribboned with disappointment.

“That’s it,” Kim shrugs and throws her palms up. “It was the most tender physical touch I’d had in years. My ex was of the ‘why kiss when you can watch sports center over her shoulder’ school. At least it let me know that I’m still alive and desirable. Plus, he took my number.”

“Well, good for you,” I say.

“Yeah, good for you, Kim,” Eve says. “I’m a little jealous. I’ll never be a MILF. My own husband doesn’t even want anything to do with me. I swear I can see the disgust on Mike’s face when he looks at me naked. It’s gotten so, that I get undressed in the bathroom and come out covered head to toe in flannel pajamas, even though I’m roasting.”

“Eve, you’re beautiful,” I assure her. “I mean—your eyes, they’re gorgeous, such a striking green. And I think we all agree that you have the best hair.” Everyone nods.

“Yeah, I wish I had such a gorgeous honey blonde. You don’t even color it, do you?” asks Sara.

“Guys, do you hear yourselves? Thank you for the compliments, but it’s my eyes and hair—you glossed right over the fact that I’m fifty pounds overweight and look like I’m still pregnant. And I have these ridiculous chipmunk cheeks.” Eve pokes at her face, frowning.

“Eve, just stop being so hard on yourself,” I demand. “I see a beautiful woman who just created a life. That’s pretty amazing. We’ve all been there.”

“Jane, you don’t have to—I love you for trying to make me feel better, but it’s fine. I was just venting. You all look so amazing. And Kim gets called a MILF, and I just feel like I’ll never get back to where I was.”

“Eve, it took me a year to get back in shape after Maddy, and I was chasing a toddler,” Kim says. “It was even longer after Hannah. You’re eight weeks out from giving birth. And this is your first kid. Nine months up and nine months down. Remember that.”

“He’s my first and last. I’ll be forty-one next month. I just ran out of time. Getting married at thirty-nine kind of does that. Plus, I’m not quite sure Mike will ever even want to have sex again.”

“Plenty of women have babies in their forties,” pipes up Liz. “In fact, I was going to wait to say something, because it’s still early…” she pauses for effect while an anticipatory gasp ripples around the table. “But… I’m pregnant—ten weeks!”

“Holy crap—was it an accident?” asks Brooke, before quickly adding, “I mean congratulations!”

“Yes congratulations, Liz! That’s amazing news.”

“Thanks, Jane.” Liz just glares at Brooke.

Sara, Kim and Eve add their well wishes, before Liz shares, “You know, we were talking about having a fourth kid. I really wanted to try for a boy for Todd. He’s wanted one for so long—I felt kind of bad I hadn’t given him one.”

“You know the father determines the sex of the child, right?” asks Sara a bit exasperated. “That’s just basic biology.” She has no patience for Liz’s adulation of Todd. Her he can do no wrong attitude. She even told us once that if she did catch him cheating, she’d forgive him and try to be a better wife. It was a miracle Sara bit her tongue on that one.

“Actually, it’s genetics. And yes, I know,” snaps Liz. “You know what I mean. I love him, and I wanted him to get the boy he always wanted.”

“How do you know you’ll have a boy?” asks Kim. “Will he be happy with a girl?”

“Oh, I know for sure. We did sex selection. Worth every penny.”

I think Sara’s about to spray her drink over the table, but she swallows, eyes watering slightly.

“Not surprising,” mutters Brooke.

“Why do you have to be such a bitch,” asks Liz. “Why can’t you be happy for one second for someone else? Why are you such a miserable person? You’ve been hanging onto that little bit about Jane’s ex for years, because I remember you telling me before I introduced you at Mommy and Me that you knew her boyfriend from college.”

“I knew it! I knew you knew all along. Why’d you keep it to yourself? Were you waiting for the moment it would have the most impact—when we were all together and rapt. That’s happened before, though. So why now?”

“I don’t know. I just felt you should know, and I had kept it to myself for long enough.”

I’m so angry, but I realize in a flash that I’ll never know why Brooke chose that moment. And all of the sudden, I honestly don’t care. Yes, it felt like a knife to the heart at first. And yes, I can’t unsee the vision of them tangled in the sheets way back when. But when I really think about it, Rick was a lifetime ago, and even though my life with Luke isn’t always perfect, it’s mine, and I do love him. Sure, we have those everyday grievances that having small children breed, but we also have those moments—quiet moments after they’re sleeping when we collapse on the couch. He’ll rub my tired feet, and then cover me with a soft blanket when I fall asleep.

I need to appreciate the life I have a little more, rather than dwelling on something I can’t change in the past. And Sara is right, everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t move to New Hampshire for Rick, and we didn’t break up when we did, I wouldn’t have my kids and Luke… I wouldn’t have these crazy ladies around the table—my chosen family, warts and all, even Brooke. “Okay, I really need to get going now,” I announce. “I turn into a pumpkin at midnight. Is that okay with you guys?” I turn to Eve and Sara.

They both nod enthusiastically. “I need to pump and dump before my boobs explode,” Eve says, pointing to her chest. “These bad boys are rock heavy.”

“That’s it?” Brooke asks. “You’re not going to say anything about my dropping this bombshell after knowing for so many years? I actually feel kind of bad now. Maybe I should have kept it to myself.”

“That’s not you, Brooke. You live for the drama and you picked a dramatic moment. I get it. And I’m over it. Just don’t sleep with Luke. Okay?”

“You know I love you, Jane. I’d never sleep with your husband. Maybe Liz’s husband…” We all see the wink and get the joke, except for Liz. An angry flush creeps up her neck to her cheeks.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Brooke?”

“Well lots of things, I’m sure. But, it was a joke, Liz. Chill.”

“Not a very funny one.”

“Okay, on that note, we’re leaving.” I motion to Eve and Sara.

“Yes, please—let’s go. I want to get back to Rob,” Sara says, rising from her chair. “It seems like every minute is so precious now, I feel guilty being away for this long. I’m sure he’s sleeping, but sometimes I just watch him sleep and think, ‘He may be gone soon.’ I won’t be able to look at his face anymore. I’ve looked at it for thirteen years. Then, poof it will be gone.”

We are all silent. I notice one fat tear slowly rolling down Sara’s cheek. None of us have seen her cry. She’s usually the shoulder the rest of us cry on. I put my arm around her. “I’m here for you,” I say simply. I glance around the table—my chosen family. “We’re all here for you.” It’s not much, but it’s the truth.

Becoming My Mother

911My mom called the Jones Beach State Police on me when I was seventeen years old. Maybe on me isn’t the correct term…more like about me. I was mortified. My boyfriend, Seth, and I had fallen asleep at the after-prom celebration on Gilgo Beach, a remote Long Island strand of sand on the Atlantic Ocean that you may have heard of thanks to the multitude of bodies that were sadly found there. Back then it was not known as a homicide dumping ground, but was simply the place we headed to for a bonfire (and probably beers, though I never drank in high school; too terrified of getting caught). My mother had called all the other parents to see if their kids were home. Everyone else had returned sometime before dawn, but Seth and I slumbered peacefully until arriving fishermen woke us up. (After I got over the embarrassment of my mom calling all of my friends’ houses and then the police, it did make for a good story…especially once I was an adult.)

This was before we all were attached to cell phones, of course. My mom could not track me on “Find My Friends.” She could not call me to see if I was okay, or if I was “dead in a ditch somewhere,” the imagery most often invoked if I didn’t get home on time. Of course, as a parent I understand the fear now, and the impetus to call the authorities. You see, I have officially turned into my mother. You know all the times your parents would say, “Just wait until your child does this to you.” Well, that may have been the only time I warranted that…and let me tell you, karma is a bitch.

I may have overreacted recently. I may have panicked just a bit unnecessarily when I called the police to check on my son in the lot where he parks for school (which is not on school grounds, but in a community park down the street and across a main road). But, let me give some background before you judge for yourself. Just walk a bit in my shoes, and then you can decide if I’m being too hard on myself…

Right after dropping his brother at school and parking the car, my son texted me that he hadn’t taken his anxiety medication for two days (turns out it was really three). That is a long time to skip anxiety meds. Stopping that medication for that long, without tapering is incredibly dangerous, both for the physical side effects (“brain zaps;” dizziness; headaches; tingling; weakness; general illness and more) and the fact that if one does not take very much needed anxiety meds, anxiety goes through the roof, making it harder to take those much needed meds, creating a vicious cycle. And of course, anxiety induced behaviors—like self-harming—that are tamped down by the medication can rear their ugly heads, even if they are not usually present.

I also knew that my son, who battles emetophobia and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, hadn’t been eating enough, because I had found his uneaten lunch in his backpack from the day before. And I noticed after he left for school that morning that his breakfast was unfinished, as well. He had told me that he made another sandwich when he got home the day before, but I didn’t see him do that, so I couldn’t be sure it was true. So, now that you have the background on what made me panic; here’s the story…

My oldest son had been battling a health crisis (Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss—a very scary condition) for the preceding week and a half. And I was getting ready to drive into Manhattan to NYU Langone Health Center to take him to see neurotologist—a specialty I had never even heard of before my crash course in hearing disorders. So, I was already stressed. My husband was out of town, and the morning was hectic. I answered my son’s first few texts about his medication, but because I was rushing to get ready, I did not answer his last text, stating that he wanted to come home. I didn’t even see it until twenty minutes after it arrived. I texted back immediately that I would call the school and say that he needed to leave to take his medication.

When I didn’t receive a reply, I checked my son’s location and saw that he was still in the parking lot. I texted again, asking why he never went to school, as he was quite late at that point. My first thought was that he simply left his phone in the car and was actually in school. When I received an alert on my phone that he was absent from second period, I panicked. I asked the attendance secretary if a security guard could go to the park to check on my son.

Instead of a security guard, my son’s amazing guidance counselor and assistant principal went to check themselves. I called my son twice and texted him three more times saying that if I didn’t hear back, I would call the police. First text said five minutes, and I’d call. Second text said three minutes, and I’d call. No answer. My oldest son even said he’d go to the park with me, and he’s normally the least alarmist person I know. So, the fact that he was worried enough to insist on going with me, convinced me that I was not overreacting. That was when I texted, I’m calling the police now and dialed 911.

Before this episode, I had called 911 about my kids three times, all well over a decade ago. The first time, my oldest, who was a bit shy of three, locked his eight month old brother in my bedroom. The baby was in his crib, but he was crying, gasping and “crowing,” thanks to a breathing disorder, and I didn’t know how to get into my room. We had been living in the house for less than a year, and I didn’t even realize my bedroom door had a lock on it! (Before you judge that, I was a young mother of a toddler and an infant—I was too tired to need to use a lock for anything.) The police came and broke into the room, at which point, my son had already cried himself to sleep and was breathing normally.

A little less than two years later, the same son who was locked in the room locked himself in my car. I had buckled him in his car seat, threw my keys on the front seat, and turned to close the garage door. In that split second, he locked the doors from inside. To this day, I don’t know how he reached the lock while buckled in his car seat in the back. It wasn’t roasting hot, but it certainly wasn’t cool. I think a neighbor managed to break into the car before the police got there.

The third time my youngest son was two years old, and he had what seemed to be a seizure. He stared into space for a few moments and then his eyes rolled back in his head. He kind of flopped in my arms. Again, by the time help arrived he was fine, playing with wrapping paper rolls on the floor, since I had been wrapping Chanukah presents when it happened. He had a skull fracture at a day old (you can read about that in Forgiving Myself), and I’m sure I panicked that it was some residual damage that was rearing its ugly head. It was a decade later, almost exactly, before he started doing the “eyes rolling into the back of his head” thing again. The doctor said it was a tic.

So all of those times, even though my kids were fine by the time the police or ambulance arrived, were warranted. I was not embarrassed. This time, I was embarrassed beyond belief, especially since the final time I tried calling my son while we were on the way to the park, he answered his phone, with, “I’m okay. I’m okay.” I answered, “Why the #*&! didn’t you answer my calls and texts then?” I never curse at my kids or in front of my kids, even though at twenty, eighteen and fourteen they have heard it all before—that was the first time. I was thrilled he was okay, but not very happy he didn’t answer his phone, and he didn’t go to school. The reason: he was so tired, he decided to take a nap in the car.

I hung up and called 911 again to cancel the first call. They canceled the ambulance, but apparently the police still had to go. They obviously had to question my son, but according to him they said it was “ridiculous.” I don’t know if they were talking about his nap or my call…most likely my call. But, I never in a million years thought that my son would think, “Hmm, maybe instead of going to school, I’ll take a nap.”

After the furor calmed down, I sent a lengthy email to the guidance counselor and the vice principal apologizing for any inconvenience I caused in making them go to the park. They each graciously replied that being proactive is important, and it is a priority for them, as well. They even erased my son’s cuts from that day. A week later my son’s therapist concurred that it was smart to call, because he really could have passed out from Zoloft withdrawal symptoms. That made me feel better, but the whole episode shed a light on my tendency to worry about the worst possible outcome of any situation, mostly when it comes to my kids’ safety: I hear sirens when they are out driving, I check Find My Friends to make sure the car is moving. My youngest son doesn’t come home on the bus, and was not supposed to stay late and is not answering his phone, because it’s dead (which I know when I can’t find his location)…he’s definitely been abducted walking home and the abductor took his phone and turned it off. (My mom may have put this thought in my head when I couldn’t get in touch with him once when she was with me, but I’m pretty sure it was there already…the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) You get the picture—I don’t need to keep giving examples of my neuroses.

So, there you have it—have I turned into my mom? Probably. But, the good thing is that now, two weeks later, I can laugh about it. And I think it will turn into family lore, much like the Jones Beach story did. And the story gets better, which will only add to it’s patina as it ages, and perhaps my son shares it with his own children…

Just two days after the “incident,” my son won the prestigious “Principal’s Award” at Senior Awards Night. The principal explained to the audience of family and friends and to the students on the stage with him that he chose nine students out of three-hundred and sixty-three for his personal award. It was the last award of the night, and my son had just texted me from the stage that he thought it was a mistake that he was invited, because he hadn’t received an award, and the night was just about over.

As soon as the principal explained the award though, I knew the invite was no mistake. The principal said that he specifically chose students who have persevered under tough circumstances and still show up at school every day ready to learn and take advantage of all the school has to offer. He added that the students he chose are especially kind and make others feel good about themselves. This describes Joshua perfectly (and explains why it never occurred to me that he would nap in his car, instead of going to school). After the crowd dissipated and the last congratulations were doled out, we sought out his amazing principal to thank him. I took a photo of my son with him, and we told him how much he appreciated the generous award. He said he was so happy to give it to him, but without missing a beat added, “Please just don’t nap in your car anymore.” And that makes for a way better story than my Jones Beach one.

An Open Book

openbookI ran into a friend at the salon the other day and she mentioned to the hair colorist we share that my life is an “open book.” I laughed and agreed, but when I thought about it a bit later…I realized, it’s really not completely open. Yes, I share the difficulties of parenting children battling mental illness and disordered eating (really two sides of the same coin), but I haven’t been completely open about myself, and my own battles with anxiety. I know, I’ve shared my eating disorder battle in Hungry. But, I have never owned this truth…

After my youngest son, Aidan’s, therapy session several months ago, his therapist asked to speak with me alone for a moment. As she closed the door, I thought perhaps she would offer some insight into Aidan that she didn’t feel he was ready to hear…instead, she offered insight into me. She is the sweetest person and hesitated for a moment before speaking. When she did, she spoke quietly. “I believe you have OCD, as well. I’ll try to treat you both, because it will help him too.” I breathed out a sigh of relief. That was all? I had known that for almost a decade. When my middle son, Joshua was diagnosed at the age of eight, I finally had a name for my own torment.

It started when I was twenty-seven years old, right after I had an anaphylactic reaction to an antibiotic. It felt like my brain chemistry changed, leaving me with waves of dizziness and anxiety while I sat at my desk at work. Some of that could be attributed to the sulfite allergy I developed after the anaphylactic reaction (and the sulfite-laden tuna or turkey sandwich I would down at lunch, but I can clearly remember my first actual obsessive compulsive moment (for me, it was only the obsessive part, a subset of OCD).

I was waiting for my then-boyfriend (future husband), Jeff, to come out of a rest stop on our way from Boston to visit my family on Long Island. I remember thinking, If I drive away, he’ll be stuck here at a rest stop in Connecticut. For some reason, the fact that I even thought that completely freaked me out. It didn’t matter that I would never act on it…I knew that I must be a horrible person. Why would I even entertain the though of leaving my boyfriend, whom I loved, in Connecticut? It never crossed my mind that thoughts like that flit through people’s heads all the time, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll follow through on it…nor did it mean that I would either. It never even occurred to me that perhaps the reason that popped into my head was that it seemed to me that he was dragging his feet to get engaged after we had been together for over two years already (and I knew my mom would ask me if he was going to “shit or get off the pot” when we arrived for our visit).

That one episode snowballed into continuing invasive thoughts and worries for the next four or five months. I’d have panic attacks, worrying that I was a bad person. I’d feel like I was living my life in a fog. I went back to my therapist from a few years earlier when I was battling the eating disorder, and she told me that I was simply giving my thoughts too much power. I knew she was right. And then…it all disappeared. Around the time we got engaged (not a coincidence, I’m sure), the fear and crazy thoughts just evaporated. I felt myself again. I relished planning my wedding and honeymoon. Four months before our wedding we moved into a charming apartment in a hundred year old house, with a window seat, front porch and fire place with beautiful mantle…all the things I dreamed of in a first home. I was happy.

At my wedding, though I had chest pains and was short of breath while dancing the hora. I panicked that I’d have a heart attack at my wedding (now I know that it was an asthma attack). On my honeymoon I got stabbed by a cactus, and my leg swelled up. I was sure that it was poisonous. My health worries took over my worries that I was a psycho. The background to that: my sister fell ill on her honeymoon and ended up having heart and brain surgery not long after. I’m sure subconsciously, I thought of that. But, here’s the thing – the health worries weren’t so bad, because they made me realize how much I appreciated everything I had. You only worry about losing what’s important when you have something important to lose.

There were even times that I’d be out, and I’d pay attention to where the nearest hospital was, in case I needed to be rushed there. And here’s the background on that: I did have to get rushed to the hospital not long after we returned from our honeymoon, because I didn’t eat enough during the day, and fainted while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I had an inner ear infection, almost constant vertigo, and couldn’t bring myself to eat. Even after that cleared up (6 weeks later), I still felt very sick.

Looking back on that time, I understand why I felt like that – it was one part psychological yes, but it was also a big part physical. My sister had been diagnosed with cancer (psychological), and there was a tiny gas leak in my apartment from the stove the entire year we lived there (physical). We found out the day we moved out. It wasn’t enough to kill us, and my husband wasn’t affected at all, but it was enough to plague me with headaches, dizziness and fatigue. I weighed about ninety pounds, which didn’t help matters at all.  I still remember a lot of happy moments, though.

And moving out of that beloved apartment (gas leak and all), actually ushered in a new stretch of bliss. I felt better, even though I had a car accident that left me with neck pain and forced me to quit a job I loved. I got pregnant, and I LOVED it. I did not have anxiety. I relished every moment. My next pregnancy was plagued by anxiety and to this day, I wonder if that’s why my oldest does not battle mental illness, but his brothers do – the cortisol coursing through my veins and into the placentas of his younger brothers leaving them with lifelong issues.

The next two decades unspooled with moments of joy and moments of darkness. I have risen above anxiety, and I have let it cripple me in my head…though outwardly, I don’t think anyone could tell (aside from a trained professional, like my son’s therapist). The OCD (or rather “Pure O”) has reared its ugly head in various forms. It was worse post-partum, especially whenever I dropped a feeding. I could go into all the details, but that would entail thousands and thousands of words…that may work for a book, but not a blog post. When I started taking inhaled steroids for asthma, it spiked again. I have tapered myself down to every other day, against the advice of my asthma doctor, simply to save my sanity.

So, what type of OCD do I have now? Well, there’s the one that led my son’s therapist to diagnose me…I don’t eat without cleaning my hands, and I always have hand sanitizer with me. That habit started when I was thirty-five, and had a seemingly endless case of strep. My doctor told me that I must never eat without cleaning my hands, after I admitted that a week before getting sick I ate a slice of pizza at a gymnastics birthday party and did not wash my hands first. He said, “All you need is to do that once and a week later, you’ll have strep.” Then he suggested I get my tonsils out. No, thank you…hand sanitizer became my constant companion. I also wash my hands for twenty to thirty seconds when I’m home before I eat or unload the dishwasher. But, to be honest, while that may annoy others (like my husband), it doesn’t really affect me that much.

The one that affects me the most is probably what I call “clothing OCD” (and no, I don’t think that’s an official term…it’s probably a subset of “just right” OCD). I often feel as if I’m wearing the wrong thing (and therefore, people may judge me). I have had that worry for as long as I remember, but it was not as overwhelming as it is now…and I blame that on social media. Usually, I feel okay in what I’m wearing until later on when I look at photos and decide I look “hippy” (as in wide hips, not as in a flower-child…); or maybe my hair is a mess; or perhaps my shirt is bunched up in a weird way.

Sometimes, I’ll realize in looking at photos that my cleavage was a bit too, um…cleavagey (not a word, I know). I’m very short and wear a D or DD, everything that fits in the chest ends up being low-cut. I try to fix it by wearing camisoles under everything to cover up what a low neckline doesn’t, but sometimes they slip down, and I don’t realize until I look at a photo. If it’s a date night, I don’t really care, but if it’s a school event that I looked busty at…let’s just say I’ll be wracked by anxiety that I looked like a fifty-one year old tart. Not very becoming…

Sometimes, my anxiety comes from my feeling under-dressed for an event or even over-dressed. I tell myself that blending in means that my unique self will never shine, but OCD (or maybe it’s more social anxiety) doesn’t care. For instance, the last night of a work trip with my husband in the Bahamas there was an awards banquet. I had one outfit left – two skinny ribbed tanks layered (black over white), a silky, black wrap miniskirt with a white blooms splashed across it and a three-quarter sleeve plain, black bolero sweater. I wore black and gold interwoven flat sandals to finish the outfit (because I can’t wear heels). Sounds pretty cute, right? Only, I was horrified when I showed up and most of the women were in gowns or at least cocktail dresses. The dress code for evening events was listed as resort casual. Where gowns fit in a resort casual dress code, I have no idea. That didn’t make it better.

I still remember the outfit, because I while I had fun that night (Matchbox Twenty was the entertainment for the private concert…of course I had a blast), afterward I ruminated over what people must have thought of me dressing so casually. (No one probably thought twice – they were all too busy having fun.) The next day I bought a pretty, floral, strapless maxi dress on the beach before we left and wished that I had seen it the day before. I came home and a few days later bought a beautiful, pink silk wrap dress on sale and wondered why I didn’t hit the store I found it at before taking off for the beach.

And this is the crux of my “clothing OCD” and what separates it from the run of the mill anxiety many people have about how they look in photos on social media. (Who hasn’t been quick to click “untag,” praying none of your friends have seen a post yet, upon discovering an unflattering photo in which you’re tagged? I would guess only people without social media or those with amazing self-confidence, whom I admire more than I can say…) I ruminate. I think about what else I could have worn that would have looked better. I zoom in on photos of myself, picking apart my appearance.

This is not normal, and I’m not proud of it. It’s especially not normal, because I weigh less than one hundred pounds. Or at least I do again now. Over the winter I put on some weight after fracturing both feet a few months apart (I’m still in a surgical shoe after stepping down from a boot) and having complications after surgery that left me prone on the couch for weeks. (In the past month I have discovered health conditions that led to both of those things, but that’s another blog post…)

During that time, I was hypercritical of my appearance in Facebook photos that others posted of me. I was sure I looked fat. Mind you, I gained five pounds and weighed about one hundred and two to one hundred and three pounds in most of them. Typing this out, I know how stupid it sounds. But, five pounds when you’re not even five feet tall feels like a lot. And, I’m ashamed to admit this, but lately I have found myself thinking, I’ve been under a ton of stress, but at least I’m back to my regular weight. Again, not normal.

My son, Joshua, who has spent a lot of time in eating disorder programs, both residential and outpatient of varying degrees, told me that I sound anorexic or at least like I have body dysmorphic disorder. To which he adds that “All girls are like that.” I don’t disagree with him about myself. I know I’m not anorexic at all. I don’t limit my calorie intake, that’s not how I lost weight. I just don’t have as much of an appetite when I’m stressed, so I naturally lose weight. I eat a Greek yogurt or a bowl of cereal for dinner a few nights a week when I make my kids something that I don’t like or can’t eat due to allergies. I’m not starving myself. I’ll still eat ice cream, but maybe just a spoonful or two on a graham cracker sandwich, rather than a half cup, when I’m stressed. I’ve also been going up an down my stairs A LOT, trying to catch up on the laundry that swelled during my injuries and post-surgery rest.

The body dysmorphic thing…that’s probably true. I tried on a dress while shopping with my mom. I told her it made me look “hippy.” She told me I was crazy and should buy it. So, I did. I figure that’s a step in the right direction. If I can wear it and not zoom in on a photo of myself and decide that she was wrong…now, that will be a victory.

We all have something…and I decided that it was not fair for me to share my kids’ issues and not my own, simply because it’s scary peering into the dark corners of your psyche and then spilling out what you find onto the page for everyone to read. But, if I’m going to wear the mantle of being an “open book” as a writer and a person…I need to earn it.


Postscript: It took me about four days to write this. A big part of that was a health crisis my son has been having that I’ve been focused on, but when he’s been out, I’ve been working on it, and it still took me a long time…I’ll admit it’s nerve wracking to post it, now that it’s finally done. But, if you’re reading this, I got over that and hit “publish.” Thank you for taking the time to read this longer than usual essay…