Category: Loss of a parent

When a Breakfast Sandwich is about Much More than Breakfast

Oddly, I stood in the cafeteria unsure about what I sure  be more surprised at; that the moment hit exactly the same way. Again. Or that I had the very same reaction to it, that I wanted to write it down. That I wanted to remember. That I needed to remember.

So, there I was again. Or, more to the point, there we were again.  Me and two little boys, Richard and Sam. (Not their real names) in the cafeteria at school. That’s when the universe hit me upside the head for a second time. But in this moment I reflected on the thumping reality of truth, and life. And wrote it down.

Anyway, back to the boys.

I had rushed into the south cafeteria at school, after dropping off Julia, furiously searching for some mental space to rest my mind before heading into work. My stomach growled. My head exploded. Then I heard the musical sound of a distinct speech pattern, the Queen English.  I froze. It was not only musical, it hit a note from way back. I turned. I search the sea of small, brunette, black and blond haired children. Until I found them, until I found Richard and Sam. It wasn’t such a surprise to see foreign-born children at  this school. It was a surprise to see these children at this school.

The last I saw of the boys, was a year ago last Christmas, my hands looped firmly around their mom’s shoulders. Christmas 2018 didn’t feel so Christmas-y. Roughly two years prior, when I asked their mom, while sipping a cup of morning coffee, how she was doing amazingly, shockingly stupefying, she told me the truth.

“Okay now , but later I’m having chemo.”

Admittedly, I was surprised at her candor but quickly fell into line. This wasn’t my first chemo convo.  One of my best and oldest friends from home had stared cancer down, and made it blink, twice, before the age of 50. I knew how to stand with a friend through this moment. I knew how to listen attentively when she gave the details of her care. I knew how to step back when she, or he, needed extra space during a cancer trial.  What I did not know was how to have that talk with another mom of small children.

“I’m glad you told me,” I said…”that way I can check on you.”

“That would be nice,” she said. We’d become fast friends. I dubbed her the Mom Warrior. A year later I learned just how much my game face would fail as things progressed.

“We’re moving back to England,” Mom W. said as we sat at the tiny tables in the caf. “I can’t get the medical treatment I need in America.”

I sat envying her duo citizen status, her fluidity, for a moment. Then an understanding bloomed. “You’re sure you can’t get the care here?”

She bellowed and said, “I’m sure. I’m a doctor.”

Another dumb mom moment. I’d never asked what Mom.W. did she did for a living. She always seemed so relaxed at school, so I assumed she was stay-at-home mom. I never assumed the cancer had kept her home bound.

“My family is there, and so is my husband’s. They can help us with the kids.”

“Well, that makes sense.” I knew on the days I didn’t see her sweeping through the halls at school, and a nanny led the boys to class, a round of chemo had taken my friend down.

She looked into the distance,  then back at me, and leveled her eyes into mine and said. “I’m probably going to die in London.”

I live in New York City where folks say and yell all kinds of shocking, deeply private, and plain old non-sense, at times, at the top of their lungs, any moment of the day and night. I’d never experienced such directness regarding one’s personal death. Her honesty was like a punch in the chest. So, while sitting in the too small kid chair, I began to cry like a baby.

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m just use to saying this. It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it. And as a family we do therapy,” Mom Warrior said.

I smeared the dampness from my eyes. “No, it’s not okay. None of this shit is okay.”I always felt bad when I cursed at school. But today wasn’t one of those days.

She peered into my eyes. They produced more puddles.

“Don’t worry, it’s not happening for a few months. And its still the holidays.”

As the weeks wound down to the Christmas break, I saw the Mom Warrior more and more at school. She told me of the wonderful support she’d found through Gilda’s Club, a non-profit started after the death of the comedian Gilda Radner, by her then husband Gene Wilder. I once worked near the Soho office, and walked past its red door often. But I never, ever went inside. She told me about making memory books for the kids and writing letters for when the boys were older.  I suggested that she go to places she loved and making videos, so the boys could see and hear her thoughts about vital landmarks.’ “That’s a great idea, I could do that in New York and London,” she said.

And when the day came to say “see you soon,”rather than good-bye, I hugged my friend tight about her shoulder, her brown hair cascade down over my forearms. I waved good-bye to the boys and spared them the embarrassing, public display of affection. As they moved down the hall, I found myself trailing the three of them, like an asteroid held by their orbit. I couldn’t believe God was letting this happen, letting them go.

Christmas came. I traveled to Michigan with Julia. This was the season my mother hasdstarted, what turned out to be, her final decline. And the more my mom slipped away, the more I texted my friend across the pond.

Days would pass before I received a response;  funny pics of Richard and Sam in their new home; pics of the Mom Warrior sitting in the cushy chemo chairs, wearing a big smile.

“Who smiles while having chemo?” I texted back.

“Did you notice that my shirt matches the chemo chair?!” she asked.

In February, I did a text check-in. And after a long stretch of silence Mom Warrior texted to say she’d just completed a three-week term in the hospital. “I nearly died,” she wrote.

Now she was back home.

So, I went back to work, and upped my prayers.  I believed. I believed with all my heart. Even as my mom died and left this earth. I refused to believe it would happen to my friend across the pond. The very unfairness of the thing was simply too much to consider. How could a mother of two boys under the age of ten leave this earth? I couldn’t hold it in my mind.

February came. We buried my mom.  Then I was buried in grief.

By the time May arrived, and the sun’s rays began to lengthen through the days, and the air began to warm, I raised myself from a flat position and moved off the sofa. My far-away-friend crossed my mind.  So, I sent a text.

I waited.

Nothing.

Then I received a text.

From her cell.

“It’s Jenine, it’s….”

It was the Mom Warrior’s husband, texting from her phone. As I read his words, I had to put the phone down unable to see his words.

She was gone.

An announcement had been made at school, but with Julia and her boys in the different classes in different grades, I never received word.

I’m a big believer in positive thinking.  So, when outcomes aren’t right. Or at least not the one I wanted, the acceptance of that reality is one big, jagged pill.

And that leads me back to that school cafeteria in early September, on that frantic morning when the gears of my mind were stuck on I can’t, and I won’t and hardness of a life that I’d worked so very hard to create; the bump and endless grind of single mom reality. And as I gathered my coffee and headed to the hot tables for food, I heard the sound. The sound of accented Queens’ English with a child’s lilt.

I searched around.

“Well, hello!” I said, eyes wide.

“Halloo, are you going to have our special sandwich?”

For two years, I made a big deal of enjoying the same, bagel, cream cheese and bacon, breakfast sandwich creation, dubbed the Sam Sandwich, with the boys.  But that day, I was on my third day of dodging carbs. But miraculously I’d seen seen Sam, the brown-eyed, beautiful boy.

“Absolutely, I’m having a Sam Sandwich!”

The Richard Breakfast Sandwich
The Famous Sam Sandwich

To hell with dodging carbs.

I gathered my items, sat down, and said to the two older women seated at the table beside them, “I used to have this sandwich with the boys and their mom.”

And the lady with the strawberry blonde bob, and ruby red eye glasses gave me a weak smile.

I only mentioned the Mom Warrior once, but I felt it was important. She was here too. I could feel her heart.

“The boys’ father thought it important to bring them back to this school,” the strawberry blond said with an equally potent English accent.

I could see the enormous gift of it all.  To uproot your family once to let your gravely ill wife be close to her family. Then pry those roots away again, to bring your kids back to a different kind of home. But a home, nonetheless. A gift for the boys. But it was me that sat down  in clover. Sat down with the knowledge that God puts us where we should be, to do the good we can.  Looking at the boys’ bright shining faces, I could see their mom, their dad, and my path toward a deeper gratitude. For community. For connection. Richard and Sam’s dad hadn’t made the choice to return to school with me in mind. But I received the gift anyway. Presents, or breakfast sandwiches are like that. You never know when a good one will  pop up.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have the Richard Sandwich,” the older boy said.

“What’s in that?”

“The same as the Sam Sandwich, just with sausages.”

I smiled. “You bet; I’ll be here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.