Monthly Archives: January 2012

50/50, Flowers on Lizzie’s Grave and Calling Mom

The movie 50/50 explores, with great pathos and endearing humor, what happens when a 27-year old man named Adam finds out he has cancer.  His survival odds stand at 50%.  This movie pulls no punches.  It’s real.  Adam’s best friend Kyle uses Adam’s cancer as a pickup line, and yet Kyle is a true friend to Adam.  Adam’s artistic girlfriend cheats on Adam with this ridiculous “Jesus figure,” and Adam avoids returning his mother’s phone calls throughout the movie, right up until when he needs her.  And Adam develops a deep but not really inappropriate relationship with his therapist, who is even younger than he is.

But this is not a movie review.  This is about putting flowers on Lizzie’s grave every October.  And it’s about my third child, and why I so badly wanted to have him even against medical advice, and it’s about my first seizure, which I had at the age of 27.  And if I strip it down to its raw essentials, this is about my mother, and mourning for the phone calls I cannot make.

We moved to our current home when my eldest child was 10 months old.  Our second child was born a few months later, and we quickly became very close to the Recasners, who lived across the street from us.  Ann and Jim Recasner met when Ann was studying to become a nun, and they fell in love and raised two children.  The youngest child lived a couple of miles away, and her son, Conor, was Madeline’s age, and he spent time every day with his grandparents.  As the months wore on, and my baby Jim shivered against the cold winter air, I heard Ann talking about Lizzie’s Tree, and I asked her, “What is Lizzie’s tree?”  Ann didn’t respond right away, and then she gazed at me with her grey eyes and replied, “Our eldest daughter, Elizabeth, died from brain cancer when she was 8 years old.  The summer before she died, we realized that this was going to be her last summer, and that she would not last until Christmas.  So we planted her a Christmas tree, and we decorated it in July.  And she passed away in October.”

I shuffled my feet and searched for something meaningful to say.  I held baby Jim in my arms and kissed his head and then I looked Ann in the eye.  “I’m so sorry Ann.  I can only imagine,” and I stopped speaking because I was imaging losing one of my two children, and pinning all of my hopes on the remaining child.  Ann held her hands out to hold Baby Jim, and she smiled at him and replied, “It’s not the kind of thing you ever get over, but the pain recedes with time.”   I decided then that two children would not be enough, in case one ever left us.

Over the next couple of years, Ann and I grew closer.  She felt like a second mother to me.  And then Ann and Jim moved away, and this made me very sad.  When it was time to say goodbye, we both struggled not to cry, and I asked her if there was anything I could do for Lizzie.  She took a deep breath and replied, “The one request that Lizzie made of us was that each year, on the day she died, that we place a white rose on her grave.”  I nodded, and promised to do that, and we hugged and we both tried not to cry when we said goodbye, but even now I am crying and it’s been years since they left.  In fact, Madeline is Lizzie’s age now.

But the first time I visit Lizzie’s grave, Madeline was only three years old.  And I took her with me, and on the way there, we stopped and bought white roses at Giant, and then we drove the Honda Pilot to the little Catholic cemetery and I wore sunglasses and held Maddie’s hand while we visited Lizzie.  Maddie didn’t understand where Lizzie was, but she held my hand and helped me clear the weeds off Lizzie’s headstone, which read “Young and Promising Scholar,” and I hid my tears behind my dark sunglasses and thanked God for my own young and promising scholar.

In so many respects, I am lucky I even made it to see Lizzie’s grave.  I had my own life-threatening condition hit me at the age of 27.  My husband and I were staying at my parents’ vacation home in Maryland, and my parents were there too. I fell asleep. And then, a few hours later, some man was saying my name over and over again and I didn’t know who he was or where I was or what year it was; honestly, I didn’t even know who I was.  But the voice, well, I trusted it, and then I heard another voice, and I knew this voice.  It was my mother’s voice.  They told me that I’d had a seizure and we had to go to the hospital and I was shaking all over and I felt like I had died.  But I did not die.

And I thank God every night for giving me another day with my three children, and I ask him to please watch over me while I sleep.  But some things God cannot fix, and while I am at peace with this, it saddens me still that if I need her, I cannot call the woman who raised me.  It’s not that she is dead, and truly this is too complicated to go into here.  Suffice to say that I cannot call her, but if I could, like Adam in 50/50, I would.

Magic Pills, Lies and Children

If you could take a magic pill that would make it all better, would you?  Or if you could give your troubled, or autistic, or ADHD child a magic pill that would fix all her troubles, would you?  Would you wave a magic wand, pharmaceutical-based or otherwise, to smooth out the bumps in your child’s rocky ride?  Or do you wait, arms wide open, to catch him when he fails again?

Magic pills and fairy wands frighten me.  I know the difference between right and wrong; I can discern real from imaginary.  Indubitably, I exist.  I am alive.  Of these things I am certain, and I say this soberly and seriously: as a parent, I do not want to offer my child a magic potion that will transform his existence into a kaleidoscopic fantasy.  I don’t want to feed him lies.  I do not want to alter his perceptions or protect her from seeing the real pain he is in when he bleeds.

And yet it hurts to watch her cry!  My daughter staggered off the bus today, as if carrying a 50-pound stone on her back.  She hugged me too long and too tight.  “What hurts you so?” I replied, as I hugged her too long and too tight in response.  Then she told me, “A boy, a patrol, sang this song to me on the bus, and he wouldn’t stop.  It went:

Girls go to Jupiter to get stupider

Boys go to college to get smarter.

I gritted my teeth.  “This is bullshit!”  I growled.  She nodded.  “It is bullshit.”  And I talked with her, and I gave her some advice, but I cannot fix it.  She must find her way through this one and I will watch and wait.

   A P.E. Teacher sent my youngest son into a dark hallway for a long timeout because he got over excited and stood, rather than sat, on his scooter.  How scared was he?  How lonely?  Why must this happen, these troubles and difficulties, day after day?  This sweet youngest child of mine suffers from ADHD.  His teachers complain about his behavior almost every day, and yet he tries, we try, so hard to help him behave better.  He’s a tiny, cute guy, not yet 6, and we’ve been advised to put him on Ritalin.  This is a magic drug, a potion, an automatic fix, and yet, and yet . . . I hesitate.  Magic pills and potions fix nothing, really, do they?

   Or do they?  The antidepressants I ingest let me live again; they fix all the busted circuitry in my brain and help me process feelings that for years were numbed out and buried.  The anti-seizure medication keeps me alive; without it, I suffer debilitating grand mal seizures that destroy my ability to write.  It would be self-destructive for me to stop taking either of these medications.

But what about my youngest son?  Or my daughter, who also suffers from ADHD?  Am I hurting them by not medicating them?  Or would I take away that very thing my mother took from me if I offered them Ritalin: an unvarnished, truthful glimpse of reality?  In altering their behavior, will I alter their reality as well?  Will the drugs change them?  Will Ritalin change their perception and experience of their world?  Is a medicated child with ADHD the same child?  And as parents, do we protect our offspring best by drugging them or is it better to let them navigate through rock-strewn fields and fall and bleed, only to rise again?

I do not know dear reader.  I do not know.  But I know I exist.  I know my children live.  And I know, oh yes I know, that my love for them is real.  Oh, how I know.  And tonight, this is enough.

Choking Toilets and Swallowed Marbles

Madeline ran downstairs to the dinner table.

“Mom, Dad: the toilet is making a weird sound, like it is choking!”

Travis and I looked at one another.

“What?”  I asked Maddie.

“You know,” she replied, moving her dirty blond hair out of her eyes.  “It made a choking sound, like when you eat too much food . . .”

In the background, Ben cleared his throat and simulated choking very accurately.

Travis swallowed a bite of chicken and cleared his throat.  “Children, has anyone put anything that has not passed through their body into the toilet?”  This may sound like a weird question, but three years ago, Ben destroyed the old toilet by shoving matchbox cars down the hole and replacing it cost several hundred dollars.

I inspected the children.  Madeline stood by Travis, arms akimbo, with her trademark 8-going on-28 know-it-all-smirk.  Then I gazed at sweet Jim, who thoughtfully studied his dark green piece of romaine.  I could tell they were innocent of toilet desecration.  Madeline pointed at Ben.  “Ask him,” she demanded.

Ben’s my youngest.  And to be honest, Ben had already had a bad day today.  He refused to get dressed for school; he would not complete his math during class (it was Jacqueline’s fault); and he kissed another kid on the school bus in the afternoon.  As the bus driver replied to me in a grumbling tone when I asked if he’d been a jerk on the bus: “Yes, he’s been a jerk.”

He sat in his chair and we all stared at him and he blurted out, “The other day, I swallowed a marble.”

I covered my mouth with my wrist to stifle the sobbing laughter.  Travis chewed on a light green piece of romaine and with iron strength, held his face in an impassive mask.  He knew I was silently laughing at Ben and at him, since he had once swallowed a straight pin.

“You know that’s really dangerous don’t you?  You could choke on that and die.”

Maddie chimed in.  “Yeah, Ben.”  The muscles in Jim’s temples moved as he chewed and I watched him eat.  Jim fascinates me.  He is so easy and never causes any trouble and even when the dinner table is in an uproar, he eats quietly and carefully and thinks about something else as he eats.

I held my laughter in, and with eyes closed from the effort, asked, “Why did you eat a marble?”  Ben waved his arm dramatically.  “I was playing with a marble in my mouth the other night, and then I fell asleep.”  Ben shrugged.  “And I swallowed it.”

“Ben,” Maddie cried, “You could have choked and died!”

“Yes, Ben,” agreed, Jim, “That was not a good idea.”

Ben was confused.  “Choking doesn’t have anything to do with dying.”

Travis and I spluttered and tried to explain it to him.  Maddie repeated whatever Travis said.  I closed my eyes and covered my mouth and repressed my sob-giggles.  Ben went on and explained, “I don’t know why I put it in my mouth.  It was something to do.”

Madeline repeated my response to that. “Well, next time play with it in your hands.”

I sighed.  “I guess we need to take away all the marbles.”

Jim put his fingers on a crouton and I gently shook my head.  He grinned guiltily and picked it up with his fork.

“Oh,” cried Ben, “Will you take away the marble machine too?”

I shrugged helplessly.  Travis shoved another bite of chicken into his mouth and Ben glared at Travis.  “Dad, why do you eat so fast?”

Dinner ended.  Hopefully there are no more missing marbles.

Sandusky’s Effect on Coaches and Teachers

Last night, I read an article written by Phil Taylor from Sports Illustrated called The Sandusky Effect, and like so many things written by ex-athletes and sportswriters regarding the Penn State scandal, it ignored the perspective of abused children.  See SI, January 9, 2012, at 80. Taylor does not exactly defend Sandusky as much as he complains that because of Sandusky’s alleged rape of a boy, Taylor is afraid to give the boys he coaches a ride home from practice.  Taylor complains that when his players “come out of a game, [he] wonder[s] if it’s o.k. to squeeze a shoulder as a sign of appreciation.  Why is it so important to squeeze a boy’s shoulder anyway?  How serious of a loss is this?

To Taylor, not being able to squeeze shoulders or give hugs represents a huge loss.  He writes, “One-on-one interaction between player and coach, innocent and valuable, is lost.”  Really?  I call bullshit.  Just because physical contact must be limited “to gestures like a high-five or a fist bump” does not mean that boys will not receive the mentoring and instruction they need or want from male authority figures.  What it does mean is that unsuspecting boys will not be fondled, abused and raped by men who wear the misleading outer garments of a trustworthy adult. It means that physical boundaries of boys and girls will be viewed as mattering.  Mattering greatly.

It strikes me as odd that Taylor bends over backwards to state that the “recent allegations against Sandusky . . . are still unproved,” as if there is any doubt (in a non-legal sense) that Sandusky sexually abused boys.  Taylor could have simply stated, for the purposes of journalistic integrity, that abuse was alleged.  Adding the words “Still unproven” indicates a snarky disbelief that anything “really happened” in the Penn State locker room.  He does add, almost reluctantly, that the “increased attention” resulting from the case has made parents more vigilant and abuse victims “more willing to come forward,” and categorizes these as “welcome developments.”

And then, after this barest hint of a genuflection to the cause of abuse victims, Taylor undermines it by whining, “what about the overwhelming majority of coaches, those of us who have no dark motives?”  In other words, what about me?  What about my needs as a coach and a father and an adult?  And this is exactly the mindset that leads pedophiles to attack boys and girls.  They need; they want; they take; they touch; they rape and through it all, they never stop to consider the victim’s welfare.

For years, sexual abuse victims had no voice.  And when victims did begin to speak out and share their stories, folks shunned the victims or attacked their credibility. “They just made it up,” or, “They want attention,” or, “Well, they were acting as adults, almost at least,” or, “What are we to think if one of these accusations comes out of the blue? It makes the innocent volunteers not want to volunteer,” or, “Why ruin someone’s reputation?”

I’m an adult now, with children of my own, and to Taylor and his ilk, I call bullshit.  If you coach or teach children, go right ahead and give them a hug if they need one.  This isn’t so much about your needs: it’s about what the children need.  But by all means, if hugging the children makes you frightened or uncomfortable, then don’t lay hands on them.  Problem solved.  Or if you need to talk with a child privately, leave the door open or chat in the corner of a gym in full view of everyone else.  Never talk to a child who is not related to you alone in a vehicle.  And if guidelines meant to protect the children you teach or coach annoy, frustrate or stymie you in your efforts as a teacher or a coach, then go find another avocation, because I’m thinking you don’t belong in this one.




Beau Gestes and Bald Barbies

There is yet another controversy about Barbie dolls, and usually I tune these out.  I will say it now in the interests of disclosing my filter: I detest Barbie.  This has never been a popular point of view and because my animus is personal and arises from the sad story of my childhood, when folks argue about the role Barbie dolls play in the growth of the American girl, I usually tighten my jaw and run in the other direction.  The popularity of the “Bald Barbie” cause is one that I will not ignore.

The thinking behind the adherents of the need for Bald Barbies is that a girl with cancer needs a bald doll to make her feel better about her appearance.  Somehow, a hairless doll, even a hairless unhealthy-looking doll, will improve the mindset of a little girl ravaged by cancer.  In the words of Mary Tyler Mom, who lost a daughter to cancer, this is an idea that lacks persuasive force:

Barbie is an icon of unattainable and unhealthy ideals of beauty and she  becoming a plastic symbol now preaching acceptance of young girls like my   daughter made my stomach turn. [1]

In other words, merely making Barbie bald, while not altering her appearance in a manner that addresses Barbie’s unattainable and unhealthy ideal of beauty begs the question of why a girl with cancer would benefit from owning any Barbie doll, and not simply a bald one.

The bald Barbie movement also ignores the fundamental issue plaguing children with cancer: death.  That’s right.   A bald but beautiful Barbie doll will not prevent a little girl from dying young, and a dead child clutching a lifeless bald Barbie doll is, so tragically, still a dead child.  Mary Tyler Mom explains:

YES, children with cancer need acceptance and support, but I stand firm that they need research more.  Dolls are great . . . But one in five of the girls diagnosed with cancer will die.  

Do we really want to waste $20 on another Barbie doll?  Dramatic gestures resonate with the better angels who reside inside of us.  Yet isn’t this bald Barbie campaign a mere beau geste, or a gesture noble in form but meaningless in substance?  Purchasing a bald doll may show solidarity with children suffering from cancer, but what does it really do for children dying of cancer?  It reminds me of Lance Armstrong’s yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets, but at least proceeds from the yellow bracelets went to fund cancer research.[2]  How about these bald Barbies?  Aside from “forever clog[ging] our landfills,” what purpose do they serve?[3]

Instead of trying to make Barbie serve as some sort of better role model to girls with cancer, how about if we come up with a campaign that sidesteps Barbie’s vapid, frozen stare completely?  If we honestly want to defeat the scourge of childhood cancer, and we mean what we say, then let us open our checkbooks and scrawl an amount on it.  Sign the check.  And send that check to a foundation that funds scientific research without allowing Mattel to skim precious dollars off the top.  It may not be a beau geste from the standpoint of public relations.  But it will be a beautiful gesture nonetheless.

[1] Mary Tyler Mom, “Social Media 101: My Barbie Mea Culpa,” 1/14/12.

[2] See

[3] Id.

Letters of Gratitude Unsent

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank you, but I don’t really know how I can.  At least I can share my gratitude here and hope that in some way, some day, I can thank you.  How do we thank people when their job is to take care of us?  How can we repay someone when the bill has already been paid but the amount written on the check feels so fucking inadequate?  My heart is full of this beautiful but bittersweet thing called gratitude, and it hurts not to be able to share it.

Perhaps we all feel close to our therapists, but you’re not the only therapist I’ve seen professionally, or known.  But this isn’t about how close I feel to my therapist.  I consciously have tried not to make you into a mother figure, and although you have comforted me many times when I was sad, we’ve also laughed together a lot.  And we have thought together, which works for me.

I don’t know how different you are from most other therapists, but I do know that you answer all of my damn calls and e-mails.  When I felt bad about calling you so much, you told me that it was your job to worry about your boundaries.  I know a lot of therapists wouldn’t have taken all of those calls on their emergency line that I’ve made over the last couple of years.  I know that you have made a difference in my life.  You have helped piece me back together even as you have sat beside me and helped me sort through the puzzle that is my past.

You helped me when I ran away the first time.  Hell, you took my call when I was hiding in the bathroom in some hotel somewhere, and you said just the right thing to calm me down.  That night, you heard me and let me know you cared about me.  Maybe this is what all therapists do . . . I don’t know.  All I know is that it is what you did to help me. I called you other times, always desperate. Many times I have been desperate, and some of those times I called you, and more times I did not, but felt safe knowing that I could reach out to you.  You made a difference every time you took that call and even on days when I didn’t make that call.

You’ve taught me a lot of tools that I use every day.  For example, when I want to hurt myself, and just the other day I felt sad and crazy like that, I thought of what you would say, and I laid down on my bedroom floor and waited for the moment to pass.  And it did.  And by the way: you trusted me to sort things like that out on my own when you just as easily could have insisted that I get my ass to a hospital or urged me to get myself committed.  You were never irresponsible with me, but you trusted me, and in turn, I grew stronger and learned to trust myself too.

You said that after 30 years of practice, your work was more like an art than a science.  I see that in how you’ve worked with me.  Yes, you follow a process, but you also follow my cues.  And make no mistake: you’ve done excellent work with me.  Like an artist using just the right brush strokes, you have brought the right mix of laughter, advice, listening, and whatever the hell else you use to help fix me.

I think you know how grateful I am.  I hope you do.  Even if you’re “just doing your job,” or following the therapeutic process, you’ve done great work with me.  Is the job you’ve done with me objectively measurable?  Maybe not.  Maybe, however, it is.  I do know that I am 160 pages into a novel that I could not have written 2 years ago.  Depressed people don’t write novels.  They lie on the floor and wait for the pain to pass.  Or they pull it together for their family’s sake and ache and hurt and pray that one day, they will feel like living again.  I am living and thriving and writing and while I have a ways to go yet before I am fully recovered, I am on the road to being healthy.  And honestly, I could not have done it without you.
If I could, I would, somehow, someday, thank you.


    I was 12.  And if you would have been there in the house I lived in, you would have thought a beloved pet or relative had died or the Baltimore Orioles had lost the 7th game of the World Series from the hysterical yelling and carrying on inside the kitchen.  No one died.  No team lost.  In my mom’s mind, however, something much worse occurred.  I killed my hair.  I committed hairy-kiri on my golden locks.

I hadn’t set out to destroy my tresses that December morning.  When I grabbed the sharpest scissors I could find, I truly lacked ritualistic or murderous intent.  To be honest, I have no idea why I waged a war of incompetent and savage attrition on that head of hair.  I suppose I was just bored.  Maybe an uncontrollable creative impulse seized hold of me; perhaps, given my hard rock inclinations, I wanted to look more like Pat Benatar and Joan Jett.

All I know is that I started cutting and never looked back until the deed was done.  Unfortunately, I didn’t look forward while I snipped away either.  Preposterously enough, as my mother would explain soon enough, I cut my hair blindly, without pausing to check my progress in any mirrors until I was satisfied with my efforts.  Only then did I lay my cutting edges on the sink and examine my efforts in a mirror. It looked fine to me.  I stared at a chubby blob with an uneven scissors cut and nodded at my handiwork.  And I jogged off to play outside until my parents got home from work.

Mom pulled into the driveway and almost crashed the car into the flowerpots nestled up against the garage.  The car door hadn’t opened yet but I could hear her loud and clear.  I ran up the street and hid, hoping her anger would blow over by dinnertime.  It did not.  I’m telling you, that broad was still crying two hours later about my destructive streak.

“Why did you do this El,” she yelled at me.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?  How could you not know?  Did you forget that the Christmas party is in one week?  Do you realize how embarrassing this will be for me?”

“No.  I don’t know.”

“This is a disaster,” she exclaimed dramatically.  “You realize what this means don’t you?”

“I have short hair now?”

She glared at me and frantically searched through her maroon address book.  “We must get you an emergency hair appointment.  We just can’t have you going to the Christmas party looking like that.”

I smirked guiltily.  That made her mad.  And I smirked even more.  I didn’t mean to smirk.  It’s sort of like how a dog wags his tail after he pees on the carpet.  He is so sorry and wishes he hadn’t peed on the carpet but it had really seemed like a good idea at the time.  I hadn’t really intended to commit hairy-kiri.  Sometimes a head of hair just has it coming.  And God help you if it’s your hair that needs it.

Michele the hairdresser grimaced when I traipsed into her store.  She shook her head and sighed and my Mom wiped away her tears and begged for a miracle.  God must have been busy that afternoon.  I ended up with a buzz cut.   Michele shaved my head to make everything even.  This was the first and last time I practiced self-hurt on my hair.   All of this has me thinking that maybe my hair, which is almost down to my butt now, is really in need of trimming.  Never say never, right?

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