I’ve just been cutting onions

Here we are, more than half way through November, and this is my first post in close to a year. I realized about November 3rd that I’d missed my annual tradition of at least *trying* to blog every day in the month of November.

Life has been very busy and very full. I have a new job that, even though it’s technically part time, has me constantly rushing to catch up. (I’m teaching a course as an adjunct, and basically building the course as I go along. The opportunity only came up a few weeks before the start of the semester. Plus I’m commuting into Boston 3 days a week. And I still have a bunch of research group and community commitments. It’s been a lot.) So when I remembered that I’d missed my NaBloPoMo tradition, I didn’t spare too many wistful thoughts.

But then today is a special day for this blog: Happy 15th birthday little blog! I’ve missed you, and hope we can catch up soon.

It was just this morning that I recognized the significance of today’s date for my blog. And then a little bit later in the morning remembered the other significance of this date. This was the date I lost a dear friend, 14 years ago today. This blog will always be a little bit tangled up with my memories of her, and the grief that sometimes still catches me unawares.

Just this Friday, I found myself thinking of her, through a funny meandering path of thoughts and memories. We have developed a family tradition of having pizza on Friday nights, and I put together a special one to deal with my difficult dietary constraints, and with a bunch of vegetables. (Because I like vegetables.) Theo was helping me prep for the pizza, and was cutting an onion. And as Theo struggled with the burning and watery eyes of cutting onion, I found myself singing the Flight of the Conchords song, “I’m not crying.” (And then I found myself thinking of Elizabeth, who I believe was the one who introduced me to that band.)

“I’m not crying No, I’m not crying. And if I am crying It’s not because of you It’s because I’m thinking about a friend of mine who you don’t know who is dying. That’s right, dying. These aren’t tears of sadness because you’re leaving me. I’ve just been cutting onions. I’m making a lasagna. For one.

So all of this is why, rather than getting my blog a cake (or reusing a photo of a cake), it felt more fitting to share some sliced onion.

lasting impressions and life goals

seagull shadow

In addition to being the 11th anniversary of my blog, yesterday also marked the 10th anniversary of a dear friend’s death.

My friend Elizabeth continues to be one of my personal heroes. She was an extraordinary person, but chose to live an ordinary life. Or at least what might appear from a distance to be an ordinary life. She didn’t seek fame or fortune, but valued the richness of her life, her friends, her family, and the many things in life that brought her joy. She was witty and insightful. She was warm and kind and incredibly supportive, but could show biting sense of humor. She cared deeply and passionately about the world, but also loved to let loose and get silly.

She died far too young, and I feel her loss still. There have been so many things over the past 10 years that I have wanted to share with her. To discuss, to celebrate, to lament.


I know that I am not the only one who continues to miss her. She had an impact on so many who knew and loved her. Her impact was not from any single great feat or action, but from the sum of countless moments of connection with others.

Her life was indeed extraordinary.

the cruellest month


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

There is a part of me that knows that every month bears its burden of sad anniversaries. There is good and bad to be found in each month. The scientist in me wants to graph the months, and the major events I have associated with each. Major illnesses and deaths, natural disasters, terrorist attacks on the one hand. Birthdays, holidays, wedding anniversaries, exciting trips on the other. I think a clustered bar chart of some sort would work just fine. Perhaps such a graph would show that each month was more or less the same.

Yet somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that the month of April would have a great big tall bar for the bad category, compared to the sorry little representation of happy events. Much of this would be due to April of last year. I have started writing out, in a level of detail that is both agonizing and cathartic, the hell that was April of last year. (I probably don’t need to share that here. I’m sure for someone else there would be far more agony than catharsis to read such a thing.) In short, the month was marked by, in rough order of appearance: impending death, sharing news of major illness with young children, sudden plans for travel, rearranging of work schedules, single parenting, fever, cancelled plans for fun activities, long drawn-out dying, pink eye, death, sharing the news of death with young children, poison ivy, memorial service, funeral, stomach bug, cancelled plans for fun activities, marathon bombing, Officious Dental Hygienist, shootings, explosions, manhunts, and cancelled plans for fun activities. Last April was a relentless series of grieving and petty grievances. And it was supposed to be a month marked by intense productivity for my research.

I can’t help but be reminded that it was also in April, back in 2010, that my nephew’s tumor was discovered, the start of an ordeal that brought on so much stress and worry for many long months and even a few years. The start, in fact, of some of the hardest times I have had in my adult life. (That was also the same month that I had my own run-in with poison ivy, too. It sounds like a small thing, but my doctor said it was the worst case she’d ever seen. I had blisters lasting for 5 weeks.)

April has a bad reputation for me.

So this year, I found that I was bracing myself for April to be another bad month. This is why I picked this month to blog every day. Making myself do something daily that I enjoy has helped get me through the sad anniversaries. Now, there are under 2 hours left of the month, and I think we have come out mostly unscathed. I say “mostly” because the month has not been great. There were some happy things, and some fun things, but also a few bad things of varying scales. I don’t even really want to get into it now. (Really, I don’t tend to think of myself as superstitious, but I find myself not wanting to jinx things. So it would seem that I am superstitious. Also tired.)

So, I bid good-bye to the cruellest month. Next month promises to be a full, and hopefully less thorny, one.

The thorns of April.

bracing for the flood

Once, when I was 16, I broke a nail in gym class. The class was divided into small groups of 3 or 4, and we were doing basketball drills. The ball had made contact with one of my long, carefully painted nails and snapped the tip right off. (It seems so alien to me now, that I had invested time into the appearance of my hands, but what can I say? I was 16.) I shrugged off the broken nail and kept going. Another girl in my group of 3 had noticed me dealing with the broken nail and said, “I’d cry if I had nails like that and one broke.” I laughed. Then, before I even realized it, the tears started flowing. To all appearances, I was crying because I’d broken a nail.

The girl who’d made the comment looked embarrassed for me. I was glad that third person in my group was my closest friend, but she too looked baffled and embarrassed for me. I couldn’t explain why I was crying. I know I was lovesick for a boy who had no interest in me, and that was the explanation I gave. But really, my life had just gone through some major upheaval. It was nothing too dire. My mother had recently remarried, and had moved to France to live with her new husband. I had opted to stay in California, and finish my junior year, before joining her in France. I moved into my best friend’s house to stay with her and her family for 2 months. My sister, who was 19, moved into an apartment of her own. While much that was going on was happy, it was a stressful time full of transitions. I hadn’t even realized that I’d had tension building up until I broke a nail.

The trouble with being strong through a stressful time is that my emotions don’t actually go away. I bottle them up until I have time to deal with them. That broken nail in high school was just one such instance. I have had other equally messy and embarrassing episodes, always a few weeks after some major stress.

The past month has been a trying one. I have dealt with one crisis or ordeal after the other and kept going, because there was still more that needed to be done. I have packed my grief away and have carried around crankiness instead. Now, though, the crises are letting up. The pressure from outside is easing, and I sense that my internal pressure is still high. I can’t help feeling that the flood is coming, just waiting for the right catalyst.

I just hope I won’t make too much of a spectacle of myself.

I am weary

The past few weeks have knocked the wind out of me. I hardly know where to begin, there is so much to say. The biggest news, at least for my family, was that John’s father died. It was not unexpected. It was not fast. It was also not easy.

Just over 2 weeks ago, we got the call that John’s father was not expected to survive the night. As you might imagine, there was much travel, and rearranging of plans. John was able to travel to New York to be with his parents for his father’s last few days. I stayed home with the kids. Things were complicated by Theo having a fever one day, then getting pink eye the next, which meant missed school for him, missed work time for me, and more trauma than I would have expected dealing with the medication. (This was Theo’s first sick visit to the doctor, which itself was remarkable.) Phoebe managed to pick up her first case of poison ivy, a bad one, including welts on her face around both eyes. This led to a doctor’s trip and missed school for her, too. Then there was the funeral. Phoebe ended up missing a whole week of school. This week is her school vacation. And did I mention the stomach bug that hit Phoebe Sunday night?

These were the weeks that I was supposed to be working intensively to make a last push to try to finish my degree. Time is limited before my subject pool, the BU undergrads, is taken away by finals and the end of the term. I have now lost 2 full weeks of work time. The only day that was not taken up by sick kids or travel or memorial services and time with extended family was one that I spent shopping for something to wear to the funeral.

My days are eaten up. My energy is eaten up. My motivation and momentum for my research have all but left the building. I have been trying to push through, in the windows of time that open up here and there.

But next comes a terrorist attack in Boston, and the wind is knocked out of me again. I was not there, but I am shocked and grieving. 3 dead and over 170 injured in a blast at Copley Square, a place I know well. The news that one of the dead was a child of 8 hit hard. The news that another was a BU grad student hit hard again. The realization that my friends and family from far away might be worried about my family hit me again. We could have been there.

I am steady in times of crisis. Strong and reliable, I keep pushing through. I know that I have to keep going until the crisis time is over. But I am strained and drained. I am edgy and touchy. I am slipping.

This is not the worst crisis I can imagine. This is not even the worst crisis I or my family have lived through. I remind myself every day how lucky I am to have John and my children here with me, safe and (largely) healthy. My mother and my sister and her family are safe and well. I have financial stability, a home, and wonderful friends. I am very, very lucky. But I admit that I am tired, and I just wish I could have a few days to catch my breath. At this point, I’d settle for one.

The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death

One of the things that often strikes us, after someone’s death, is that we have to make a shift in how we speak of that person. It suddenly becomes an error to say “he loves popcorn.” Indpendent of the subject’s history of affinity for popcorn, there is that crossover point between loving popcorn, and having loved popcorn. Survivors undergo a transition where they find themselves using the wrong tense, and self-correcting. The realization that we have erred nags at our minds like the red ink marks of a high school English teacher urging consistency in an essay.

Then there is the loss of conjunction. For years, you go to visit Grammy and Grampa. The conjunction and serves to join two noun phrases [Grammy]NP and [Grampa]NP into a single noun phrase. That noun phrase can then serve in a variety of grammatical functions: subject, with nominative case ([Grammy and Grampa]NP called), or various object positions, with accusative (Let’s visit [Grammy and Grampa]NP), or genitive case (We need to remember to bring that book to [Grammy and Grampa]NP‘s house.) With the absence of one referent, the conjoined noun phrase loses both the conjunction and the second noun phrase. It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.

With this loss of the conjunction, too, comes a shift from the plural to the singular, which of course brings its own implications for subject-verb agreement. In the present tense, English requires a different verb inflection for most third person singular subjects than for plural ones. Grammy and Grampa love it when we visit must change to Grammy loves it when we visit, with the inflectional affix -s added to the verb to reflect that singularity. This, of course, reminds us once more that there is only one of the two members of that former conjoined phrase whose actions, affinities and attributes will, by and large, be discussed using the present tense.

We mustn’t forget, though, that we can hold onto the present tense, and even the future; A whole host of constructions are available to us by keeping Grampa in object positions. I miss Grampa. It’s okay to be sad about Grampa. We will hold onto Grampa’s memory.

Too close to home.

Today marks one month after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Below are some of the things that I wrote in the days following. I revisited this post several times over a couple of weeks, editing to update the time references, but ultimately still felt too raw each time to post. One month later, I am ready to try again.

It’s probably for the best for me that I learned the news in stages. The first reports I heard of Friday’s shooting were that there were several people injured. I saw murmurings on Facebook late morning, and the links I followed had no more information. I saw that photo, the one that seems to be everywhere, of young kids being walked away. Some with their eyes closed, some obviously crying. I quickly looked away, feeling pangs from seeing the troubled faces, and went about my business. From what I’d read, there had only been injuries. I had things to do to get ready for our planned weekend trip to my in-laws’.

A bit after noon, I talked to John. I don’t remember why I called him. Probably something about our trip. He asked if I knew about the shooting in Connecticut. I said I did, but as we spoke I realized that I didn’t really know. He mentioned that the town was one we’d recently driven through, and even stopped for dinner. A pretty town with a little river running through it that we had both admired. I hadn’t made the connection, hadn’t retained the name of the town. We got of the phone and I went back to my laptop, and learned more.

With every update, the news only worsened.

On Saturday morning I woke up in the uncomfortable monstrosity of a fold-out bed at my in-laws’, and I understood my body’s achiness. But my eyes were sore, too, with the soreness that I get when I have been crying. Instantly I remembered why I had been crying, and the tears and the heaviness in my heart began once more.

I can’t count the number of times I cried that week, especially over that weekend. At the same time, I was careful to hide my grief from Phoebe and Theo. I’d cry in the bathroom. Or in the car by myself. I felt glad that my recent cold would mean that my red eyes and nose would be unremarkable. I felt glad that I am liberal with my hugs and physical affection, so being held tight by Mommy is nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t think that they could feel how deep my need was for those hugs.

That Sunday, we drove home from my in-laws’, but took a different route. Our usual route, the one that we take every month or so, goes right through Newtown on Route 84. We were concerned that there would be heavier traffic along the route, especially with the planned visit from the President that night. It felt right, too, to give them that extra space. But my thoughts and heart were there, and my eyes watched Sandy Hook on the map.

There have been other mass shootings, recently and in past years. Other tragedies. I have grieved many times before for those I’ve never met. But in my life as it is now, this feels like the worst possible tragedy. I can’t even begin to make sense of it. I can only compare my feelings to grief to the loss I’ve felt when someone close to me died, and to the shock I felt after September 11th.

I think of those parents in that little New England town, a town like my own in many ways, who sent their kids off to school that morning just as I had, never dreaming how the day would end. How could they? It was unimaginable. It should have been unimaginable.

Innocent people. Teachers. School administrators. The death of any one of them would have been felt as a great loss for the school and the community.

But children. Twenty little children. The loss is immeasurable.

First graders.

The same age as my Phoebe.

A week later, I felt the tension of grief ease, with a mixture of relief and guilt. I found myself laughing more and crying less. But I know that for those other parents, family members and friends, the healing will be a much slower process. I have lived through grief, the ordinary grief of losing a loved one, and it still can knock the wind out of me many months or years later. I use this familiar grief as an inadequate yardstick to measure the grief I imagine those others to be living through, and to have ahead of them.

I have felt so many strong emotions these past weeks. Horror. Anger. Immense gratitude that it was not my town, that my own children are safe.

I’ve sensed that there are those around the country and around the world who feel that enough energy has been spent on this tragedy, that we need to move forward and focus on change. But this is one of those events that has changed me. Like many the world over, I’ve still needed to process and to grieve.

the bittersweetness of pants

P.S. And if you think we’re not bringing a present, you’re on crack.
P.P.S. Did I ever tell you that I think “crack” is the second funniest word in the English language, after, of course, “pants”?
         -From an email from my friend Elizabeth, February, 2007

I have a confession to make. Pants has not always been my favorite funny word. In fact, I first borrowed pants from a friend. When I started this blog, two years ago today, pants was just another funny word to me, one of many. Subordinate to squid and banana, which topped my own internal hierarchy of funny words.

When I wrote my first pants post, in the earliest days of this blog, I wrote this:

A friend of mine considers pants to be the funniest word of the English language.

That friend was my dear friend Elizabeth, who at the time was in the midst of a 2-year-long struggle with cancer.

Elizabeth was very supportive of my blog. She told me that she read it regularly, that she found it funny. It was nice to know that she was reading, and it made me feel like I was more a part of her life than I had been in recent years. Elizabeth was an ideal reader for the craziness that is my blog. She loved lists, too, and liked to put things in order. She was a collector, too, of books. And movies and music. And she laughed at my jokes.

I often wrote things with her in mind. Sometimes expressly to cheer her up. Sometimes avoiding serious topics because I knew that she would prefer to be cheered.

Elizabeth didn’t really talk with me much about her illness. Every once in a while, though, she would pass along news of bad test results, and ask for distractions. My means of cheering her would be to post some silliness on my blog. Typically such silliness would involve pants.

As time went by, I took the pants for my own. I put on the pants and ran in them, as it were. Or ran with them. I’ve gotten much enjoyment from playing with my pants, and from sharing pants with others who get amusement from them.

But there will always be that bittersweetness associated with pants. I’ll never forget whose pants they were in the first place.

I am glad that you can find Elizabeth’s own voice running through my blog. She left comments here and there. And she once even let me post an anecdote of hers, which I called “many thanks for all the pants.”

It’s been quite startling how much she touched my life, though I’d seen her less frequently in the last few years.

In the 12 years of our friendship, we shared many things. We shared a deep love of books, and of reading. We met working at the bookstore, where we worked together for maybe 2 or 3 years. We were shopping buddies, occasionally for marathon outlet expeditions and more often on used bookstore binges. We loved to talk about movies and music and many other things, as well.

I find myself reminded of her by so many things in my daily life. References to movies that she loved, or that we saw together. Or the books that we both loved, or hated. The songs that she put on a mix tape for me. Songs that we sang along with. Artists that she introduced me to. My bookshelves, our DVD collection, our iTunes library are all packed with things that I associate with Elizabeth. I can’t read or see a reference to Pride and Prejudice, one of her favorite books, without thinking of her.

She was the friend who went shopping with me for my wedding dress, and helped me choose items for our registry. So it turns out that my kitchen, too, is filled with everyday items that sometimes remind me of my friend.

It is not too surprising, then, I have thought of Elizabeth every day this past year. It was many weeks before I could think of her without crying. Months, even. And still even lately there are thoughts that catch me by surprise, and the tears well up before I realize.

I think of her family. Her parents. Her husband. I imagine how awful their grief must continue to be. I think of her two beautiful and vibrant daughters, whose faces and laughter remind me of Elizabeth. I think of how terrible it must have been for Elizabeth to know that she wouldn’t get to see them grow up.

I have tried to write this post many times over the past year, but have always given up. The memories are still too raw, the grief too fresh.

This day, Novemeber 16th, will always be a bittersweet day.

It so happens that today is the anniversary of the day I started this blog, something that has enriched my life for the past 2 years. It has been an outlet for my creativity and silliness, and a means of making connections and building friendships at a time when I have otherwise felt isolated from the outside world.

It is also the anniversary of one of the saddest days of my adult life, as Elizabeth died a year ago today.

Let it be known that the word pants will always remind me of Elizabeth. I will forever treasure her sense of humor, her wit, and her friendship.

Many thanks for all the pants.


Even though I had some things in mind, I’m really too tired to post much of anything creative. I’ve been staying up too late again, and perhaps pushing myself a bit hard. And I have some more work I’ve committed to doing tonight, if I can manage to keep my eyes open.

But I’ve been wanting to say some thank yous.

I really appreciate all the comments that people have left recently, especially on the posts where I have been writing about my grief. People have offered wise advice and shoulders to cry on, and I have been very touched by the sympathy and empathy. I have wanted to respond to each comment, but I have been feeling emotionally drained. I may yet manage to reply, but if I don’t, please know that I have read and valued those comments.

And for others of you who have read and thought sympathetic thoughts, I thank you, too.

I have also been very fortunate to have support from other friends and my family. I’m someone who likes to feel like I’m there to help others in times of need, and it’s been very heartwarming to know that people are there for me, too. I sometimes stubbornly like to think of myself as self-sufficient, but I know that my strength comes in large part from the support of those who care about me.

As you might expect, I am still working through my grief. But it has been very comforting to me to know that I don’t need to work through this alone.