Tag Archives: cancer

Monday Musings: My Mother and My Daughter

Mom and meMy mother would be 102 years old today, which speaks to a) how very old I am, and b) how uncommonly old she was when she and my father had me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, when most couples in their early-forties were done having children. Mom always worried that she would be too old to be a good mother to me, whatever that might have meant. She shouldn’t have worried. She was a wonderful mother — caring, involved, just intrusive enough to make me feel loved without being so intrusive that I felt smothered.

I’ve written about her before in this space, touching on her intellect, her curiosity, her love of the arts, her passion for travel, her warmth and humor and beauty and wisdom. We lost her far too early, to a cancer that today’s patients tolerate with relative ease. My father, who worshipped her and shared over fifty years of his life with her, couldn’t survive long without her. Within fifteen months of her death, he was gone, too.

I miss them both every day, and think about them constantly. I have thought for many years that I was too young to lose both parents.

Okay, this is about to get a little strange . . . .

I am not a religious person, and even if I were, my faith does not believe in heaven or an afterlife. Rather, my faith focuses on this life, on doing good deeds and living honorably in our time on this earth.

But since losing our older daughter, I have come to think about such things somewhat differently. I still don’t put stock in notions of heaven and hell. I do choose to believe, though, that even after the body dies, the spirit lives on. Alex was too brilliant a light for a simple illness, no matter how virulent and cruel, to extinguish. For that matter, so were my mother and father; so was my brother.

And so, I choose to believe that Alex is with her grandmother and grandfather now. That my mom and dad, and also my brother Bill, are taking care of her, helping a too-young soul cope with whatever place they are in. Alex never really knew her Gram. She only knew Grampsie as a toddler. She and Uncle Bubba were incredibly close. But they are all family, and they are together now, loving one another, comforting one another.

I choose to imagine my mother reveling in the company of this grandchild she only met as an infant, getting to know the intelligent, confident, funny, powerful, courageous young woman she became. I can hear them laughing together. I can imagine them speaking of books and art, travel and good food. They shared so many interests — they would have so much to discuss! I expect they would poke some fun at me. I know Alex would speak glowingly to her — to all of them — of her amazing younger sister, whom neither of my parents ever met.

This is how I choose to mark Mom’s birthday this year. The thought comforts me, even as it stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

Happy birthday, Mom. Take care of Alex for us. I love you.

Happy New Year and a Musings Post Celebrating Grief (Yep!)

For years now, I have written New Year’s posts, often more than one per holiday. In December, I have often taken stock of the year that’s ending, evaluating my accomplishments, examining my disappointments, trying to make sense of an entire trip around the sun in 800 to 1,000 words. And then, early in January, I usually write another post, establishing goals and expressing hopes for the year to come.

For reasons that will be apparent to those who know me, I am reluctant to attempt any of that this year. The year that has just passed was the worst of my life, a year of tragic loss and emotional devastation. And the year now beginning? Honestly, I don’t know what to hope for, or what to expect. The truth is no full year is entirely good or bad. There were moments of joy and laughter in 2023, just as even the “best” years of my life have included intervals of sadness and anger and dissatisfaction. New Year’s is a convenient time to take stock, but our lives don’t divide into neat units according to the calendar.

So, why am I writing anything at all right now?

In part, I suppose, because I believe it is time for me to start blogging again. I don’t really feel like it. But I don’t feel like doing much of anything, and that is no way to live. I also have no intention of making every week’s post about despair and mourning, and so I guess I think there will be value in having to look beyond my immediate emotions for reasons to write and for subjects for my essays.

Today, though, with your indulgence, I will take the opportunity to write about grief. It’s been only a bit over two months since we lost our older daughter to cancer. We are still deep in the grieving process (to the degree that this can even be termed “a process”), and we will be for some time. I find it hard to imagine an end to this grief. Which is not to say that I don’t believe I can be happy ever again, or that I can’t laugh or enjoy life or take pleasure in family and friendships, hobbies and travel, the work that I love and the colleagues I treasure. Grief isn’t linear. As I have said before, having dealt with grief a fair amount in my life, I don’t believe it lends itself to division into convenient stages. Yes, it changes and evolves as we confront our emotions. Yes, it is tempered and softened by the passage of time. But it is different for each of us. And it changes with each loss we suffer.

What I have learned most about grief is that it is good. Yep, you read that right. Grief is good.

Loss sucks. I would not wish on anyone the emotional pain I have experienced over the past few months — hell, the past three years (almost), since Alex’s cancer diagnosis. The crater in my life left by her death can never, ever be filled. But my grief speaks to the depth of my feelings for her. That crater is commensurate in size with the joy she brought me, the joy she brought all of us. We grieve because we have loved; we grieve because we remember. And while the ache of our grief dulls and lessens with time, we never stop grieving. Nor would we want to. Because we never want to let go of that love and we never want to forget.

Grief is catharsis. Grief reminds us that while our beloved is gone, we are still alive, which is what she would want. Alex would not want us to be crippled by our grief, but I can tell you with utmost confidence that if we didn’t grieve at all, she would be thoroughly pissed off. Grief helps us place in perspective the importance of the one we’ve lost, and it also allows us to shape the way our memories of her, our love for her, will influence the rest of our lives.

There was a great deal of talk after the pandemic about what our society’s “new normal” would look like. I am having similar conversations these days with my family and friends, as well as my therapist, trying to figure out what my new normal and that of my family will look like. Our lives will never be the same. How could they be? But we can decide what life without Alex will be like, and our grief can help us create that new reality.

What did I admire most about my daughter? Her courage. Her resilience. Her spirit and her determination, even before she got sick, to live her life with zeal and joy and curiosity. And already I know that I want to be more like her in the years I have left. What a gift! A legacy, born of love, honed by loss, given voice within my heart and mind by the memory of my darling girl.

Already, Nancy, Erin, and I have spent time together sharing our recollections, laughing at things she said and did, imagining what she might say in response to some new situation, or how she might respond to something in the news or on TV or in a song. She continues to be a presence for all of us, as she should. Someday, perhaps, Nancy and I will be grandparents, and if/when we are, Alex will be the stuff of legend for Erin’s kids. Tales of her exploits — her bravery, her wit, her intelligence, her beauty, and, yes, even her foibles — will be an essential element of their upbringing. And so she will live on.

No one wants to grieve. As I said, loss sucks. But our grief is something to be embraced, something that gives back even more than it takes.

I wish you a wonderful 2024, filled with love and laughter.

Checking In and Saying Thanks

It’s been a little over three weeks since Alex, our older daughter, lost her two and a half year battle with cancer. It feels like more. It feels like less.

We have had celebrations of her life in New York City and in our little home town in Tennessee. Both were crowded and loud and fun. Both were filled with laughter and tears, music and good food, and lots and lots of remembrances of our brilliant, funny, beautiful child. (Yes, she was 28. Still, she will always be our child, our first baby, our darling little girl.) We have been overwhelmed by the love shown us by friends and family near and distant. By the generosity — spiritual, emotional, material — of so many. Cards, gifts, flowers, food, phone calls, and texts. And yes, comments by the hundreds on social media posts. We are humbled and grateful beyond words for every expression of support and sympathy. Thank you a thousand times.

At this point, the celebrations of her life are over. Guests from out of town have left. Erin has gone back home. Nancy is starting to work again, and I am gearing up to do the same. We are, I suppose, stepping back into “normal” life. Except there is nothing normal about it, and in ways that truly matter, in ways that will remain with us for the rest of our lives, it will never really be normal at all, ever again.

How do we navigate this path? I honestly don’t know. It’s a terrible cliché, but I guess we do so one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time. In and out. Take a step. And breathe again. Rinse, repeat.

It’s a good thought, I suppose. It feels inadequate to the task. Already, in just these few weeks, I have reached for my phone more times than I can count, intending to text Alex, or check for a text from her. I want desperately to hear her voice, to know once again the music of her laughter, to ask her questions about her work, or the new restaurant she’s tried out most recently, or the music she currently has on looped-play. And each time, reality kicks me in the gut.

I watch TV and am shocked by the number of times some character, on-screen or off, is said to have cancer. There is no escaping it. We hear news of a celebrity passing away — cancer again. News of lost children assaults us from all corners of the globe, wars claiming their collateral toll, gun violence here in the States stealing more innocent young lives. These tidings were always awful to hear, but they were abstract in some way. Anonymous. Not anymore. Children are lost. Parents grieve. We are members of a club no parent wants to join.

Alex’s death hit so many people so hard, and in one sense that was a product of her amazing personality, her magnetism. But I am wise enough to understand that there is far more to it than that. The outpouring of love and grief from her friends comes in part from the simple truth that, for many of them, she is the first of their contemporaries to die. Tragedy has breached their generational line far too soon, and they are shell-shocked. The outpouring of love and grief from our friends comes in part from the recognition that this is every parent’s nightmare. Losing one’s child is unthinkable, unimaginable, unendurable. It happens, of course. Too often, actually. That club has more members than we ever knew. Several have reached out to me to say so, and to offer support and guidance. But for so many, our loss is a terrifying echo of their deepest unspoken fear.

Another truth: After Alex’s diagnosis in March of 2021, I found myself imagining the worst all the time. I couldn’t stop myself. Therapy helped some, but not completely. I lived with the constant dread of this ending, with the unrelenting awareness of the odds against her, of the near inevitability of her decline. Unimaginable? Hardly.

These days, I’m often asked, “How are you doing?” I don’t know how to answer. My emotions are in constant flux. At times I feel okay, and I can see a way forward. Other times I feel numb. And still others I am as fragile as spring ice. One wrong step and I’ll shatter. This is normal, I know. Grief is not linear. It can’t be prescribed, and while breaking it down into stages might appear to clarify the maelstrom of feelings raging around me, the construct strikes me as artificial and less than helpful. I know better than to be seduced by those moments when I feel as though I have a handle on my loss. I sense that I will get there eventually, but I’m not there yet, and won’t be for a long time. I also know better than to panic when I feel out of control. That will pass as well.

The numbness, though — that bothers me. I want to feel. I want to weep for my child or laugh at a golden memory. I want to feel pain and love and loss and connection, because those keep my vision of Alex fresh and present. Numbness threatens oblivion. Numbness makes the loss seem complete, irretrievable — and that I don’t want. Not ever. Better to cry every day for the rest of my life than lose my hold on these emotions.

And so I stumble onward, trying to figure it all out, hurting and remembering and loving most of all. I don’t know when I will post again. Soon, I hope. I believe writing this has helped, and I am certain I will have more to write in the days, weeks, and months to come. Thank you for reading. Thank you for your sympathy and friendship, and also for your continued patience and respect of our privacy as we attempt to find our way.

Hug those you love.

Alexis Jordan Berner-Coe, 1995-2023

Alexis J. Berner-CoeThis is the post I never wanted to write. The one I dreaded, the one that was, not so long ago, unthinkable, and, more recently, heartrendingly inevitable.

Our darling older daughter, Alexis Jordan Berner-Coe, has died, after a two and a half year battle with cancer. She was 28 years old.

How do I begin to tell you about her without seeming to be just a grieving father lionizing his lost child? She was extraordinary, but you would expect me to say as much. She was brilliant, but you’d expect me to say that, too. She was kind and generous, articulate and wise, courageous beyond belief and beautiful beyond words. What else could I possibly say? And yet it’s all so true.

She was charismatic. To know her was to want to be her friend, and this was true from the time she was little. She would meet a kid her age, say, on an airplane, or at a park, and within minutes they would be fast friends. Yeah, I know — proud dad. Well, consider this: When Alex was ten, we moved to Australia for a year while Nancy was on sabbatical. We moved there in August and a couple of weeks later she and her younger sister started attending a public elementary school in Wollongong. In December, Alex was elected student president of the school.

She was accomplished and driven and smart as a whip. Of course I would say so. But consider this: She attended NYU and graduated with honors. Not long after she graduated, she found a job with a sound production studio in New York, a company called One Thousand Birds. They hired her as an office assistant. Within six months, she had worked her way into a position as a producer. Three years later she was an Executive Producer and Director of Business Partnerships.

Strong, brave, resolute. Just words. But after Alex’s sophomore year in high school, she did an outdoor program that culminated in a summiting of Mount Rainier. Prior to the trip she had gotten new hiking boots, and we tried to warn her about the importance of breaking them in. But she was 16 and, well that’s really all I need to say, right? Her group leader later told us that in over decade of leading outdoor adventures like this one, he had never seen a worse case of blisters. Her feet were a bloody, ragged mess. But she never complained, never begged out of any activity, and never thought twice about completing the trek to the top of Rainier, some 14,000+ feet above sea level.

She wasn’t perfect. Far from it. She could be stubborn and prickly, self-centered and opinionated, sometimes aggressively so. But her imperfections were, to those of us who knew and loved her, part of her charm, part of what made her Alex, or ABC, as so many people called her.

She was passionate about music and books, movies and art. And she was an eager and adventuresome traveler. She spent half of her junior year in high school in Costa Rica at the Cloud Forest School. She traveled to Berlin for half of her sophomore year in college, and enjoyed being abroad so much that she spent all of her junior year in Madrid. In July of this year, while battling cancer and recovering from her latest treatments, she went to Europe for two weeks. She wasn’t back more than a week before she started making plans for her next trip.

Sadly, she never got to take it.

She faced cancer with the same wisdom, strength, and courage that she brought to every other part of her life. She was first diagnosed back in March 2021, but she had been sick for far longer and the cancer was advanced when at last it was discovered. She was scared, of course, but also resolute in her belief that she could beat the odds. She never allowed herself to identify as a cancer patient. She was, she insisted, the same person she had always been, except she happened to have cancer now. She didn’t give in to despair or self-pity or bitterness. She dealt with her treatments and side-effects with quiet dignity and an uncompromising determination to live on her own terms. She continued to work, to travel, to go to concerts, to see friends and throw parties. Losing her hair bothered her a lot, but she totally rocked her head scarves, which became A Thing. All of this to say that her vivaciousness was absolutely unquenchable.

Losing her leaves a gaping hole in our lives. Nancy, Erin, and I are shattered, especially Erin, who was Alex’s closest friend in the universe and who utterly adored her sister. But all of us know that Alex wouldn’t want us to become mired in our grief. She would want us to celebrate her life and to honor her by living with the same zest and verve she brought to this world during her too brief time here.

And so that is what we intend to do.

Be at peace, Sweetie. We love you to the moon and back.

Tuesday Musings (Yeah, I Know…): Another (Brief) Update

I’ve started this post several times, only to flame out after a few lines. The truth is, I have nothing I want to write. I am in New York again, staying with my older daughter, doing what I can to help her through this most difficult time. That includes little things — shopping for her, keeping the apartment clean, cooking, doing small repairs on stuff that’s been broken for too long — and bigger things, like taking her to the hospital for small procedures and scheduling appointments with various doctors (Nancy or Erin or I will be taking her to those as well).

And I am also here to sit and talk with her, to keep her company, to do whatever simple things I can to make her comfortable and allow her to focus on healing and coping.

She has remarkable doctors and remarkable friends. Her support system is wonderful.

And so is ours. Nancy, Erin, and I have been so grateful to the many caring, loving friends and relatives who have done what they can to ease our burden. And I so appreciate the support I feel and see on my social media feeds, in my email inbox, in my snail mail postal box.

I don’t know how much I will be posting in the days and weeks, to come. I want to maintain the blog, but I also know that my focus right now needs to be elsewhere. So, thank you in advance for your understanding. Trust that I am doing as well as I can. I am taking care of myself, even as I also minister to my child. I am seeking out the help I need when I need it.

Wishing you all the best. Hug those you love.

Wednesday Musings: (No, That’s Not a Typo) Let’s Spend a Flight Delay Together

I have little to say professionally this week, but I have been thinking a good deal about a great many things. So, I’m double-dipping on musings . . . .

On Monday of this week, after a busy weekend in Brooklyn visiting Alex, our older daughter, Nancy and I accompanied Alex back to Tennessee for some midweek events here honoring Nancy. Alex is still in pretty rough shape and could not have traveled alone.

We were flying out of Newark and were scheduled to leave at 2:30 for a nonstop flight back to Nashville. But even as we were driving to the airport, I could see thunderheads forming to the west, piling on top of one another, like hulking gray boulders in the sky. I figured we would be fortunate to get out on time. Hah! Little did I know . . . .

We boarded, taxied, stopped, waited, waited some more, waited a whole lot more. Eventually, we taxied back to the gate, and eventually after that, we were allowed to deplane into the terminal so that we could get food, use the restrooms, stretch our legs, etc. By now, it was 5:00. Again, Nancy and I were traveling with our daughter who has cancer, who is weakened by treatments and generally exhausted. This was already going to be a long, trying day for her. Now it was getting worse.

An hour passed. And then another. The storms finally moved through, leaving the sky fiery and gorgeous. We were allowed to board again, told we would finally be leaving. We taxied, stopped, waited. Again.

We took off at 8:30, six hours late, and by the time we arrived, got our luggage, got the car, situated Alex, and drove the 90 miles from Nashville Airport to our house, didn’t get home until close to midnight. Too long a day. Too tiring. Too stressful. And yet . . . .

We are fine. Alex was tired the next day and had some relatively minor, unexpected issues crop up. But we got through the day in good spirits and in good shape. This musings post, though, isn’t about us. Not really, at least.

You see, the storms that stopped our flight from leaving, grounded every flight out of Newark, indeed out of all three New York airports (and also out of Boston’s Logan and others across the Northeast). When we returned to the gate after our initial attempt to leave, we found the terminal packed with people, all of them in the same situation we were in. I went searching for food and wandered far and wide, trying to find the exact thing our poor girl wanted to eat.

Not once did I see anyone complaining. Nor did I see anyone being nasty or berating gate agents or losing their patience with the crowds of fellow passengers. People were smiling, laughing, striking up conversations with strangers, playing with their kids, talking to their travel companions. You never would have known that every one of them had been inconvenienced for hours.

As I said, this was Monday. September 11. And I was reminded of that terrible day twenty-two years ago, and of the days after, when New Yorkers and New Jerseyans and Washingtonians and Pennsylvanians drew together in the wake of tragedy, treating one another with kindness and courtesy, with compassion and humanity. This year’s September 11th was a far easier, gentler day. We were delayed; we weren’t confronted by evil. But the same spirit of cooperation and good humor suffused our experience.

I’ve lived in the Southeast for more than thirty years now. And still, when I tell people that I’m originally from New York, I am often told how unfriendly people are up there, or how fortunate I am to live among the welcoming communities of the South.

And in some ways I am fortunate. Nancy and I have had a wonderful life in our little blue corner of Tennessee.

But let’s be very clear: In my experience, New Yorkers are no less friendly than Tennesseans, they are no more prone to rudeness, they are no less considerate, they are no less community-minded. In many respects, they are MORE considerate of others, more accepting of people on their own terms, more inclined to go out of their way in service to the well-being of those around them. I have lived in New York and New England, California and the South. No region has a monopoly on courtesy. No region has a monopoly on ill-mannered boors.

And for those who believe the New York metro area is populated by unfriendly, unrefined jerks, think again. Need proof? Spend a flight delay among the region’s people.

Enjoy the rest of your week.

Monday Musings: Family Update

We are in New York this weekend — an impromptu trip to help our older daughter who is suffering through some rough side-effects after her most recent treatments. We are dealing with a lot right now. Her most of all. I won’t get into details, but I will say that the situation remains serious and difficult, and all of us — mom, dad, sister, patient — are struggling.

Through it all, our older daughter, Alex, has been remarkable. Remarkable. Courageous, wise, positive, resilient, matter-of-fact. I have been humbled by her strength and spirit again and again and again. And Erin, our younger daughter, has been amazing as well. She has been the rock on whom all of us have leaned. She, too, has been brave and brilliant, knowledgable (from her work in the health care field) and compassionate, a point of stability and also a constant source of humor and light.

I will resist my usual impulse when writing about my children, which is to deflect all credit for their amazing qualities toward their mom. Yes, they both remind me so much of her, and display so many of the attributes that drew me to Nancy years ago. But the truth is, I recognize myself in both girls as well. They are a blend of the two of us. Parenting them has been the great joy of our lives, and we have done a good job of it.

People write not-so-flattering things about Millennials and Gen Z-ers. It’s easy to find articles online and in papers about the shortcomings of the generations that have followed us older folks. I don’t see it. Alex’s friends — all of them her age or younger — have been incredible. They have offered her care, support, and companionship. They have taken her to appointments, cooked for her, picked up prescriptions for her. Back in 2021, when Alex began her first chemo treatment, and started to lose her hair, one of them drove down to Brooklyn from Maine so that she could get her head shaved as Alex was having hers done.

There is no greater point to all of this post. Not really. We as a family have been going through a hard time for two and a half years now, since Alex’s initial cancer diagnosis. We have had more than our share of setbacks and we honestly do not know what will happen ultimately. All of us want to be optimistic. All of us need to be realistic. Reconciling those two impulses isn’t always easy.

In the meantime, though, we are spending time together. We were in Colorado as a family in July. We are in NY with Alex now (Erin was here all week before we arrived, and Nancy was up here the week before that). When we leave tomorrow, Alex will come with us to Tennessee for a ceremony honoring Nancy’s service to the university there and unveiling her official portrait. After that, we’re not entirely sure, though we don’t think that Alex can be alone for the time being. So, at least one of us will fly back with her. Maybe both of us.

We do what needs to be done for the people we love, because love demands no less, because they deserve no less, because we know they would do the same for us.

Be kind to one another. Tell the people you love how you feel about them, how much you appreciate them. When you need help from others, ask for it. Just as you wouldn’t hesitate to come to the aid of those you love most, so they would not waver in their support for you.

Wishing you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: A Strange Post In Times Of Personal Struggle

This has not been the best week for my family and me. It was, actually, the sort of week that not so long ago would have convinced me to take a break from blogging at all, to say “I need some down time” and withdraw from the social media world.

I’m not going to do that. After the last time, I pledged to all of you — and to myself — that I wouldn’t do it again, and I intend to live by that pledge. The fact is, as a self-employed writer, I have the luxury of being able to slip away when I want to, to take as many mental health days or personal days or vacation days as I please. Put another way, I am spoiled rotten.

I look at Nancy, who is dealing with the same things I am, and who goes to work every day to complete projects and interact with people, and I marvel at her strength. I look at my younger daughter, who also faces the fear and grief as well as issues of her own, and who also goes to work each day, in the health care industry no less, being reminded constantly of our own family struggles, and I am amazed by her resilience and self-composure. I look at my older daughter, who lives in the center of the storm, coping with this cruel, relentless illness, and who still manages to live her best life, and I am humbled by her courage, her resolve, her spirit.

And I think of the rest of you, who face challenges of your own — emotional, physical, familial, socio-economic, cultural, and more. Obstacles are thrown in our paths every day. All of us face them. Few are as privileged as I am in terms of the freedom I have to grapple with them on my own terms. The fortitude I see around me on a daily basis blows my mind and inspires me to do better.

Yes, my family and I are working through a lot right now, and it’s not going the way we would like. But we have the resources we need to face our problems, and too many others in this country, in this world, don’t. We have friendships old and new that sustain us when things get rough, and too many others have to meet their challenges alone. We have one another to offer love and support, to share laughter and tears, and we are so fortunate in this respect, as well.

This is an odd post, I know. My apologies for that. In the past, this would have been a post in which I tried to explain, in vague terms, why I was stepping back from my blog and my various accounts. And since I DON’T intend to step back this time, I thought maybe it would make sense to explain how I came to that choice. And the short answer is, it’s because of the amazing people around me — family, friends, colleagues, fans, acquaintances. You all have given me a standard of strength and bravery to which to aspire.

So, I will continue to write and edit. I will continue to blog and comment. I will go about my regular routine as best I can given the circumstances. I am getting help. I am taking care of myself. I am taking steps to maintain and improve my emotional health. I am enjoying time with my newly-liberated-from-an-overwhelming-administrative-position spouse. I am chatting regularly with my beloved daughters. I am reaching out to friends and extended family. And we have some fun stuff planned for later in the summer, which will help in all sorts of ways.

If you are struggling right now, facing obstacles of your own that seem insurmountable, I wish you peace and strength, comfort and compassion. Life throws all manner of stuff our way and none of us is immune to its vagaries and difficulties. One of the hardest things for me is something I listed in the preceding paragraph — reaching out to people, to my support network. None of us likes to be that person, the one who always seems to call with terrible problems. And so we pull back, waiting until we feel better, believing on some level that we ought to be able to get through this stuff on our own. Asking for help takes courage, and too often I shy from it.

But the thing is, speaking now as a friend, a brother, a father, spouse, I NEVER mind when the people I love seek my help. I am always eager to lend love and support. And I know the people I rely on feel exactly the same way. In the end, I think it’s about pride, which is silly. I know this, and still I struggle. I’ll work on that, too.

Anyway, thanks for reading this. As I say, a strange post, but one I felt I needed to write.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Two Conversations With My Mom

Mom and meYesterday would have been my mother’s birthday — her 101st. I’ve written about her, and my dad, quit a bit in this space, though I haven’t written about my mother in a couple of years. She was smart and funny, classy and beautiful, quietly ambitious and deeply accomplished. She doted on her children and was, in turn, doted on by my father. She loved to travel and was passionate to the point of reverence about literature and the arts.

No one would ever accuse her of hands-off parenting. That wasn’t her thing. She was a constant and profound presence in the lives of my siblings and me. And yet, when I scour my mind for specific memories of her, I sometimes find them hard to gather. I’m not alone in this regard. My brother and I have discussed this at length and agree that she was, in a way, so constant, so engaged, that specifics give way to a sense of warm omnipresence.

But today, as I think of her, I find myself focusing on two phone conversations that took place rather late in her life and that have stuck with me over the years, for very, very different reasons.

The first took place when I was in graduate school. It was my second year — I’m sure of this, because I recall the project I was working on at the time. My mom loved that I was studying history, and I think she looked forward to me becoming a college professor. She never really approved of my decision to give up history for a career as a fantasy author, and she never saw any of my books in print, which I think would have won her over a bit. But I digress . . . .

She asked me about the project I was working on — a study of changing dynamics within the Democratic Party in the period between the landslide elections of 1964 (Lyndon Johnson) and 1972 (Richard Nixon) — and I told her about what I was learning, but also admitted there were elements of the story I was trying to tell that I had yet to figure out. She began to ask me questions, one after another, and eventually she pointed me to a crucial part of the narrative that I had been missing all along. I know — and knew then — it should have been obvious to me, but I think I was so immersed in the material, I just couldn’t see it.

But Mom did. She had such a nimble mind and was so good at synthesizing information and distilling it down to its most important elements. She was also a remarkable listener, and she liked nothing more than to speak with her children and help them deal with whatever was consuming them at the moment, whether it was a personal problem or an academic one. When I told her how helpful she’d been, and described for her how I could slot her insight into what I’d been writing, she was thrilled. I could hear her beaming. It was a wonderful moment.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years later and was pounded by her chemotherapy treatments. Her cancer spread despite the drugs and at one point she needed to have brain surgery to remove a tumor. Not long after, early in 1995, mom slipped into dementia. Conversations with her became next to impossible. That brilliant mind lost its power, its coherence. It was truly tragic. We lost her long before she died.

Except I got her back for one last conversation — the most important I’d ever had up to that point in my life. In May of 1995, Nancy gave birth to our first daughter — after a labor that lasted some forty-two hours. Grueling for Nancy, exhausting for both of us. I called my parents to let them know, figuring I would just speak with my Dad. But Mom got on the phone, too. And for five glorious minutes, she was back. Fully. Miraculously, She asked all the right questions — “How is Nancy?” “What’s the baby’s name?” “Did everything go smoothly?” “Is the baby beautiful?” — and said all the right things, telling me how much she looked forward to meeting Alex, how happy she was for both Nancy and me. I think she even was cogent enough to ask who was taking care of our dog.

I hadn’t had a conversation like that with my mother in months, and the truth is, I never had another one like it. But in that moment, on the most important day of my life thus far, she was there for me. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, since being there for my siblings and me was what she did best.

I miss her every day. I wish she had seen my books in print. I wish she’d had the opportunity to meet my girls — she would have adored them. I wish I could speak with her today, to get her input on plot lines and her opinions on the issues of the world. I wish I could hear her laugh and see her gorgeous smile. But I will content myself with my memories, and with that sense of loving omnipresence that suffuses all my thoughts of her.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Monday Musings: The Wisdom and Love of Friends and Family

Many years ago — decades, in fact — in a rare moment of precocious insight, I wrote the following in my journal:

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends to remind us of who we are.”

Even at the time, I understood that I had, without any intention of doing so, stumbled upon some deep wisdom of my own. Because add to “the wisdom and love of friends” the words “and family,” and you have precisely the experience I have just enjoyed.

I have recently returned from an extended journey east and north, and I am feeling stronger than I have in some time, in large part because of the friends and family I encountered along the way. The trip began with Nancy and me attending a university event in Richmond, where she was the guest of honor and featured speaker. Seeing her excel at her job, watching her move among strangers with ease and poise, listening to her deliver remarks with the aplomb of a seasoned pro, brings me such joy and makes me so proud I can hardly find words to express the emotion. And so the trip began, as do all things in my life, with her, with us.

From there, as many of you already know, I went on to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, which was well-run and professionally fulfilling. The highlights of the weekend, though, were the two evenings I spent hanging out with Edmund Schubert and John Hartness. Both nights, we talked business, we talked craft and market, we spoke of family, of life and friendships, we just shot the shit for hours. It was amazing.

I have spent too, too long, in my own head, dealing with uncertainties, with anxieties, with fear and grief, with my own emotional health issues as well as with the challenges life throws at so many of us. It wasn’t that these evenings with my friends made me forget all that other stuff. Rather, it was that these two amazing friends and I made room in our interactions for all that each of us is going through right now. We commiserated and supported, even as we also laughed and spoke of other things.

And that was a harbinger of the entire trip.

David and daughter AlexFrom Virginia Beach, I went to Brooklyn, where I spent two evenings with my older daughter. She looks beautiful, seems great, has a ton of energy, and was her normal, playful, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, slightly acerbic self. Seeing her, having such amazing time with her, was reassuring to say the least.

I also spent an afternoon with two old friends from my high school and college years. We are, all of us, changed. How could we not be? But our affection for one another remains, as does our ability to joke and laugh one minute, and then shift gears into matters weighty and significant the next. Seeing them was a rare treat, one I have missed these many years.

I drove from Brooklyn to central New York State, where I stayed with my brother Jim, and his wife, Karen. They are two of Nancy and my favorite people in the world. Jim is my birdwatching partner and guru, not to mention my oldest and dearest friend in the world outside of Nancy and my girls. Karen, his wife of 35 years, is brilliant, witty, articulate, passionate about her work, and so much fun. She and I share affinities for good Scotch and teasing Jim. While I was there, we were joined for dinner one night by Jim and Karen’s daughter, Rachel, who is as terrific as her parents.

And while in the Albany area, I also saw my wonderful friends Alan and Karen. Alan was (along with our friend, Amy — more on her in a moment) my closest friend in college, my musical partner (also along with Amy), and my housemate. In the nearly forty years since college, he (and Karen, and Amy and her husband, Paul) has remained as caring and constant a friend as anyone could want.

I started home on Friday, driving into the wind and rain of Ian, and I stayed that night in the Charlottesville area with Amy and Paul. We drank Manhattans and ate pasta, they showed me photos from their son’s recent wedding, and we talked deep into the night. Or as deep as we of advanced middle age are capable of these days. Which is to say, not really that late at all. But it was a great evening.

The next day, I arrived home.

My trip lasted twelve days, and pretty much every one of them brought me to someone I care about, someone who knows and understands me, someone whose wisdom and love made for a special day or evening.

I am back home now, and I feel restored in some way. Yes, the anxieties and difficulties persist. Life continues to throw stuff in our paths, and much of what Nancy and I have struggled with for the past year and a half will continue to challenge us for a long time to come. But I feel more connected to where I come from, to the person I have long known myself to be. I am reminded that there is more to me than fear and sadness and struggle. There is strength as well, and worth and humor and, most important, the love of people I respect and admire.

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends and family to remind us of who we are.”

Yes, maybe there is something trite to the thought. But at 22, when I wrote it, it felt like a valuable insight. And three and a half decades later, it still carries the weight of truth.

Have a great week.