Category: Death

Down to Zero

In the weeks that have past, my mind has kept up a proper intake of words from Toni Morrison and Tara Westover, the words of other writers, but none that wanted to come out of me.

I’m relearning, yet again that the path is never straight. And at the start of the week of June 3rd, last, four days before the end of school, a text came in to remind me. I picked up the vibrating phone from the coffee table around 10:30 p.m. and I read the words through sleep crushed eyes.

Then I reread them.

My brain rebooted.

I blinked. Hard.

However, the copy read the same; a mom friend of mine, my very first new Mom friend at Julia’s school had lost her husband to a sudden heart attack.

He was 55.

After a series texts, followed up by a midnight phone call, I finished up by sending a text stating that she should “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” By that afternoon, around 1 p.m., Jackie identified something I could help her with:

“I’m sending you Noah’s obit, if you have time, please review it and get it back to me by 5 p.m.”

My girlfriend isn’t Jewish. Her husband was, which means, the funeral would be held, by tradition, the following day; forty-eight hours after Noah took his last breath.

I stared at the word doc icon attached to the email, as a deep rumbling fear, built and bounded up into my stomach.  I feared clicking the doc open, afraid I’d make a difficult time for someone I cared for, even more laborious.

I texted a friend to ask what to do. “I’m sure Jackie would understand why you couldn’t do it,” she replied. So ,the real challenge was, could I forgive myself.  Rising to this writing needed to be an act I could do for my friend during a supremely difficult time.

Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 3.32.44 PM
A fair representation of creative writing for me in  2019

I clicked on, the word doc, I peered at the first paragraph, on my computer screen.

SCHEINFELD-Dr. Noah Simeon, 55, of New York City, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on June 3rd, 2019. Beloved husband of Jacqueline Marie Didier. Devoted father to Maximilian and Thomas. Son of the late Ellen (Rothstein) and David Scheinfeld, brother to Joshua (Lizzie) and Moses (Rivka), as well as uncle to eleven nieces and nephews.

Then it hit me. The last real writing I’d done was for my mother’s obituary. Moreover, I would now reenter Obit Land. This work wasn’t just creative writing; this was service. Perhaps it could even be a little cathartic for me.

As the only writer in the group of five asked to review the details of a life, the value of making a  narrative smooth, I sought a specific truth. As I read through Noah’s achievements, Harvard Medical, Yale Law school, Columbia U. undergrad, I could feel the pull of the words on the page, not the labor of them. I felt a strong need to put thought, ideas, details, in the proper place, in the appropriate order, at least what I considered proper to be.

One of my mom’s favorite quotes is, “Nothing beats a try.” So, for my friend, I tried my very best to make her husband’s obit sing off the page before they lowered his remains into the ground. As a deleted, transposed and crafted new words, I felt like an epaulette shark, a creature that is a not only a capable swimmer it can use its fins, during low tides, like legs. My writing legs hurt from the long stretch to reach the good.

Nothing in death is wasted, so says science; fallen trees become nourishment for new growth in the forest; mushrooms spring from invisible microbe; roadkill becomes a feast for neighboring birds of prey. It seems death is providing a compost foundation to get me back to the thing I so love, writing. Maybe it’s the call to help a friend that also calls me back to life, in a way.

“Get busy living or get busy dying,” Red, Morgan Freedman’s character in Shawshank Redemption, announces once he decided to find his way out in the real world, instead of ending his own life.

Maybe those are the words the dead whispering to me. And they’ve sent hints. A few weeks back, while watching Jane Pauley, the host of CBS This Morning,  serve up a broadcast from Florence, I froze my tracks. Once I knew Florence intimately, every street, every café on both sides of the Arno River. Seeing my old friend, embraced by another, from the Pizza de Michelangelo, I wept small tears into my morning cappuccino.

“Mommy, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?” Julia asked, her little face full of concern.

I miss my friend.

“What friend, Mommy?

“Italy.”

Little Girl Blue

 

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday, under an evening sky of aquamarine set with a pearly China chip of moon set high, I headed to Barnes and Noble in Greenwich Village, in search of inspiration. Since late January, unless I was paid to do so, I haven’t written a word creatively.

The reason why? The passing of my mother.

Of course, I knew the experience would be difficult. What I didn’t count on was that shelved along with every other element of my existance would be my personal creative writing life, a connection that has held strong for more than a decade.

The craving to write takes place inside my head, in a certain part of my brain. I’ve come to realize that all memories of my mother lives in a section of my brain, too. To descend there and think about my words, to organizing them, to shape them into something wonderful, can’t happen because a sour sadness is housed there, too

“Plumbers don’t get plumbers block, I don’t believe in writers’ block,” Susan Shapiro, a mentor and former professor of mine famously tells her newbie students.

And as far as advertising writing is concerned, Sue’s edit holds true. I write every day using with my advertising head. Creative writing? Nope, nada, nothing.

To shrink-a-fy myself, I’m having an emotional block to the work that draws the greater emotion. People who write creative nonfiction love to dig down deep, unearthing nuggets of truth about their world and where they fit into that reality. When we return to the surface, we share those valued insights for all, but especially for ourselves. I just don’t have it in me to grab a shove and start digging. Ironically, last year was my best year yet for published work, I birthed three pieces into the world. This year, I might be barren.

So, on that Wednesday, I entered the Barnes and Noble, as if it were a temple, seeking  a path of enlightenment, connection. I boarded the escalator and road its silvery steps up to the fourth floor to peruse some literary journals and poetry books. I’d hoped just by touching the printed materials, by reading some fine writing, I would reconnect and warmth to the idea of work. I  rushed over to the bid of journals, selected an issue of Tin House, and held my breath. The pages flipped by, lines of copy, black rivers of ink, and I felt nothing but the weight of the magazine.

Next, I grabbed The Paris Review another fine literary journal, and thumbed through the pages, Typically, seeing the published works of others, the bylines of friends, acquaintances or even just writers that I admired, produces inspiration, at times envy, and most certainly a thrill. But that day, only more numbness set into my mind.

Next, I wandered down the aisles set with neat stacks of books and settled on a book of poetry. My eyes landed on a page, on the curve of a line. I found a  five-dollar word where a two-dollar selection would’ve served better. My saliva soured. I grimaced. I tried to shake the offense loose. I could not.

I closed the book and headed back downstairs towards the exit. One floor after another passed, miles and miles of books, the published works, the efforts of others, culminated into a sea of colorful hardback and soft covers, books of mystery, strange works that were culminated by strangers, created by the strange of writing.

I strode out of the door into the cool of the evening under that crescent moon. I looked over the Manhattan scape, a view millions of people around the world would offer up a limb to experience, and could think of one thought: in five days my first Mother’s Day without my mother would detonate. The bad would become worse. And with that, the tears began to flow.

When I got home I wrote to one of my mentor’s, the essayist and  poet Molly Peacock and asked her what I should do. Molly’s response came quick.

“I laid down on the sofa after my mother’s death for days and couldn’t move. It seems that it’s a normal response to the loss of a parent. You’ve returned to non-verbal kind of a pre-baby state.”

I love Molly.

She can make anything sound cool and interesting. Even a chronic yet functional depression. So, I continue on my nonverbal track reading a lot, walking a lot, trying to out run the fact that I miss my mom and can’t escape that thought, and don’t want to think of much else.  And I don’t want to look into my soul and remember just how much I miss her. I don’t want to face the feeling of being an orphan, even at this age.

I descend into the subway and saw a small figure, slim and brown skin, holding a sign that read, “Hungry.” I kept walking, sliding my MetroCard into the slot, pushing my thighs against the turnstile, heading home. But something nags at me. The small nagging grows into a big nagging.  I stop. And turned around to look at the figure again. Man? Woman? I can’t say.

But what I did know was this, I couldn’t move past this human being. Something held me there to do what I could do. I fished into my purse and pulled out a few singles

“Excuse me, excuse me,” I say, working for attention.

Under the roar of the trains, the stumping of thousands of shoes, the figure doesn’t hear m.e

I studied the form dressed in a jogging suit, and a knit cap pulled down over the ears, fifteen feet away. “Hey! Excuse me,” I say waving my arms, with the cash in hand.

The figure turns, looks at me with wide eyes, then head towards me. She’s tinier than I thought. Like a child from a war-torn country. Or someone who came across the border under the cover of an inky black sky.

“Here,” I say, and pressed the bills into her palm.

“Thank you,” she says soft, her voice accented

“You’re welcome,” is what I said. But what I thought is this: “You are lost. And so, I’m I.  I’ve found a sister in the world. But we are still orphans.”

So, I wrote this post as a Mother’s Day remembrance. Then, after the passing pop a few weeks, it slipped into a difference sort of Memorial Day piece, in my mind, Now, after a long weekend and I still didn’t get the damn this posted, I’m just pushing publish. This mourning has me so weighted down, it’s serious reserve just to point and click.  To send something out in the world.

On Losing Aretha and Finding Myself

For me, music has always resonated deeper than just a collection of notes and tones. As the daughter of a Detroit record shop owner during the age of Motown, it would seem destiny. What I couldn’t count on was the rite of passage that would mark the alteration of that relationship.

Aretha Franklin was the Frida Kahlo of music. ARTHEA_headshotLike the great Mexican painter, she put her blood into her work.  In a 1998
PBS American Masters documentary, a studio musician that worked with Ms. Franklin revealed that, as she recorded tracks, sometimes, Aretha wept. But as a brown-skin girl, growing up in my Westside Detroit home, Aretha Franklin was just a lady I, on occasion, saw in church, in the first pew, a fairly common sight.

In fact, “I’m the lady next door,” is how Ms. Franklin described herself to Gwen Ifill during a 2015 PBS interview. Ifill scoffed and smiled. I chuckled and nodded. During my growing up years, she was Clarence and Edward’s mom, the two suited-up boys my brothers and I sat beside in Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist church. By the early 1970s Aretha Franklin’s musical star had super nova-ed. Still, I remained a clueless kid and she remained the enviable Preacher’s daughter. Her father, Rev. C. L Franklin was the bigger draw. He pastored with a booming voice that welded so much bass, my family and I could hear his sermons from our West Philadelphia home, across the street. In fact, my dad typically slipped out of donning a Sunday suit and joining us by informing my mom, “Annie, I can hear the talk from the sofa.”

I don’t recall of Ms. Franklin ever joined the choir. I do recall liking the choir. One Sunday morning, parked in the pew beside my mom, my crinolines scratched against my thighs I deflected the itch my bouncing my leg to the beat.

“This isn’t music to dance by,” she chided and pressed my leg still with the flat of her palm.

I finally understood what my mom meant, in 1972. Throngs of fans gathered at outside the brick walled church to soak in the secular songs Aretha practiced before recording her gospel album, Amazing Grace. Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 3.09.45 PMMy mom, dad and two brothers perched of the gray concrete steps of our home, held to the hymns. As the organ music and her alto voice throbbed in my chest, the thought dawned that Ms. Franklin was more than Clarence and Edward’s mom, she belonged to something greater, she was something greater.

When I reached my teens, I had begun to hold up in my bedroom, studying life at the altar of Prince, Earth Wind and Fire, of course, Aretha. My mom made sure her music was on steady rotation in our home. But as I managed the stress of attending Cass Tech, a competitive college preparatory school, the world of dating and terminal acne, I heard the song Think, and its powerful refrain R-E-S-P-E-C-T, anew.

During college I moved to New York City to study art from Kahlo to Kandinsky, at Parsons School of Design. I took Aretha with me, first on cassette tape, and later on CDs. I held church, far from home, with a recording of Amazing Grace, the very music I first experienced from my parent’s porch.

By the age of 25, I figured out what Aretha meant when she sang, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Later, her track Ain’t No waycounseled me in how to handle the break-up. The energy behind vowels and consonants seemed to slip around me and explain the mysteries and limits of relationships.

Around that time, I flew back to Detroit for a family event. Before I returned to Manhattan I headed to church. By some miracle, in the first pew, once more sat Ms. Franklin. Halfway through the sermon, the call to the altar came. “Would those in need of an additional blessing please step forward.”

I stood up, slipped out of the pew, and headed down the red carpet. As I closed in on the end of the cue, as the parishioners headed to the left, up the steps to the altar, I tucked in close to the edge of the first pew. There was The Queen, clad in a beaded dress, classic church hat and cleavage.

“Excuse me, Ms. Franklin just want to thank you for all your work. My mom played your music to me as a child. But, as a woman, I finally understand what you’re singing about.”

She smiled and nodded her head, once.

I floated back to my place in the pew.

Young girls need role models. And as the mother of a young girl that goal is mine every day. But Aretha Franklin was much more. She was therapist. Confessor. Healer. My parents guided me down the road of adulthood. But Aretha Franklin translated all the bumps, pot holes and dead ends. Aretha told me what my mother couldn’t. That sometimes men fall short. Sometimes they take the women they love with them. Sometimes it was up to you to find your way back on to the road, wheels straight and drive on.

Aretha Franklin showed women how to be brave. I, for one, sweated it out when the announcement came that she would fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti singing the classical aria, Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy telecast. I feared Black Girl Magic wouldn’t stretch quite that far. Two bars in, I decided that was the last time I’d doubted the magic. Or Aretha.

“I’ve been crying like a baby,” the text from my friend Julie read, “Got the news about Aretha.” It was the first of many from my black female friends. As the world mourned the Queen of Soul, women and in particular African-American women, mourned the loss of something greater. Aretha helped us as much as the poetry of Maya Angelou, the afro of Angela Davis, and the sight of Michelle Obama’s image in the National Portrait Gallery. She taught us how to stand proud in our own skin when no one else seemed to care. Because we knew, no matter where Aretha was, she was with us on what mattered. Now she’s gone. And I still have to figure out how to do it for Julia.

More than a week ago, on August 31st, I mourned and celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin with the world. It’s a rite of passage to bury your elders. But even as a mother who manages a mortgage, I don’t feel ready for this adulthood. But I know it’s come. I suppose that’s when you know the baton has been passed to you. When you’re no longer afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you stop looking to songs for those answers. I still enjoy the richness of music. But I look more now to the lives of women rather than just the songs they sang to guide me. Remembering that Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and that sometimes the wheels move slow, but our accolades, in time, come. That with her amazing career she still managed to have a family. That Aretha Franklin left the world with 80 million dollars banked, without the IRS on her heels like many, many artists, are great fact to start telling Julia now.

#Aretha Franklin

# The Queen of Soul

Mommy’s Magical Mystery Tour

 

“You haven’t written anything on your blog in a long time,” Renita said through the Memorial Day heat.

“Been trying to fit it in, but I’ve been busy,” I said then ran through my lists of must-dos-and-get-it-dones: Julia’s chess tournaments, Julia’s first grade graduation, Julia’s ballet and tennis classes, every Saturday, all the moving parts of my single mommy hamster wheel.

Since Julia I and were only in Detroit for the long weekend, Renita got right to the point, something she’s done since we were in the 5th grade:

“I was thinking that you can write about how your mom and Julia are getting older, at the same time, in different ways…and how, at this point in your life… you’re watching those two things happen at once.”

It’s always funny when non-writers give writing prompts. Sometimes I discount them, into the-been-done-seen-it-before category. But more often than not, some ideas work their way back into my brain, like a great old tune I can’t keep off rotation spin.

And so, it did. And so, I did.

At the moment I stand at the intersection of lack and overflow, of a mother who is shutting down her vocabulary, paired with a daughter ripping the throttle open up on hers, each coming by it from her nature. Yet when I spot people in their nineties still chatting away and cruising through Central Park, in movie lines, at Trader Joe’s, seniors with more than ten years on my mom, I slam into the unfairness of it all. But when I think of my friends that have already lost their mothers, some before my friends reached adulthood, one that lost her mom and her step mom to cancer, all before my girlfriend reached the age of 25, then my pity-party-whine-a-thon shuts down. Sometimes, to ease the sadness in my heart of my mostly silent mom, I allow the wave of words that spring from Julia the moment she opens her eyes, carry me.

*

“Do you know when I go to sleep away camp, that’ll be the longest time we’ve ever been apart?” Julia said as we slid stacks of clothes into her purple roller case at crack of dawn Saturday morning.

Sure, I’d thought of it. I just wasn’t sure she thought of it.

“Yeah, that’s true Jules, but I’ll be here when you get back. Plus, you are going to have a ton of fun at camp.”

For the final month leading up to this milestone Julia quizzed me on my kid camp experienced. I told her about the marshmallow roasting, the bellicose singing that took place on overnight hikes, of seeing a darken sky so jammed with stars my eyes darted around in wonder identify constellations, patterns, beauty unseen in the city of Detroit.

Julia nodded and then said. “Okay, so what did you do on the second day?”

As I gathered the last of Julia’s things she bounced some much off the walls, so hard, I had to banish her from the apartment. “Go downstairs and wait for RPs parents, wait with the doorman!”

She happily bolted. If allowed she would have run all the way to Connecticut. By the time I came downstairs hauling one last pair of swim goggles, water shoes, and an errant backpack, the sea green SUV was packed tight with luggage, kids and RP’s parents. One space left for me. I tucked in. And we took off for I-95.

Two and half hours later, I settled Julia into her bunk, tucking the sheets and blanket on to her bed with the help of the camp counselor.

Julia, was already embroiled in a game of Go Fish.

CARDS

I stood in awe of knowing that through the recommendation of my friends I had made a good choice for my daughter. This would be her best summer ever. We said our good-byes. I hugged Julia tight. From the corner of my cracked eye, I saw three small heads, one in braids, one blonde, one brown curled, pulling a Sheryl Sandburg, leaning in, heavy. As my arms unfolded and released my daughter, a small hand reached in and grabbed Julia’s wrist.

“C’mon Julia we’ll show you the woods!”

And the threesome vanished.

I skipped down the steps of the bunk, took a right turn through the woods and headed down the paved path, sending a text to RPs mom along the way.

“All done, headed to the car.” I felt good leaving Julia in a place where she’d already made friends, where it was so green and lush.

TREES

As the road sloped down, I admired the light though a thick stand of trees. I heard a small voice rise up behind me, “Mommmmmyyyyyy….”
I froze. I turned. There was my spud of a girl, gaining on me.

“Mommmmmyyyyyy….,” she yelled with a mix of longing and love.

“Hey, Julia!”

She ran up, arms and braids flying. “Mommy, why are you still here?”
I let out a snort from shock and hilarity, then said, “Jules, I’m walking as fast as I can back to the car.”

“Okay,” she said and skipped off.

As I neared the parking lot I met a couple that described pealing their kid off them to leave, I felt doubly grateful for my happy girl.

And that gratitude would extend further, 45 minutes later into our drive back to the city, on the outskirts of New Canaan, on a sleepy road, when RPs Dad’s car malfunctioned. I won’t go into the details here. I’ll want to do a deeper dive on this event later. But suffice to say that when the tow truck driver later surmised that it was a “Good thing we weren’t going 65 miles an hour when it happened because you guys would have flipped over,” his words held whole heap of weight.

That night, even after servings of medicinal wine, I dreamt about how the whole thing could’ve gone bad in so many ways. At breakfast, I dined with the ghost of that event, too.

“Not your time,” my friend Joi texted.

But what I heard in my head was Julia’s words:

“Mommy, why are you still here?”

Sure, raising Julia to adulthood is high on the list. And I need to get my daughter ready for school on a different level of work next semester. But beyond sending writing projects out into the world that I’ve hung on to, I know there’s other stuff that I need to tend to. But what?

Since that transformative experience on the Merritt Parkway I’ve made it my mission to catch up with old friends. I’ve been to Brooklyn twice in one week which is a record for me. I’ve had extraordinarily good time reconnecting, even running into an old friend I haven’t seen in three years, randomly, in a restaurant, while on a catch-up dinner. I haven’t eaten out this much in my own town, since like, never.

But I know it’s time to focus.

“Mommy, why are you still here?”

All I can think of to do is listen.

Mostly I hear silence. It reminds me of my mom. She seems attentive some days and some days not. But she’s still here, her mission complete. For more than 25 years in the Detroit Public School System her goal was to free as many Special Ed. Kids as she could through attentive, focused education, to get them back into mainstream classrooms. She filed her retirement papers three times. And twice new parents came to her classroom and begged her to wait until their kid passed through her classroom.

“We hear your goal is to get kids back into regular classrooms.”

And twice my mom pulled those papers back.

“You can’t save all those kids,” my dad told her again and again over, at times, tense dinner table discussions.

My mom’s response was always the same, “Well, John I’m going to save as many as I can.”

And she did.

My friend Jenny had a take on the stating of things: “Your mom did everything she wanted to do and saw that you and your brothers, and your kids are in a good place. Now maybe she just wants to eat what she wants and talk when she wants. She’s done so much for all of you.”

I heard Jenny all the way from Boston. And her edict will have to do because it gives me something else to think about other than hoe much I miss the sound of my mother’s voice. Now maybe I just need to listen. Then move my feet in the right direction. Whatever the heck that direction is.

Plenty of single moms have made, culture-altering achievements: J K Rollings created the character Harry Potter entertaining and delighting the world. Bette Nesmith Graham invented liquid paper saving typist tons of time and making herself wealthy enough to fund other single moms and artist. (If you haven’t read her bio check out at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/obituaries/bette-nesmith-graham-liquid-paper.html

I just hope God doesn’t tell me to move to India and open up a writing school for girls or something, at least not until Julia’s in college. Her school is just too good for us to leave just now.