On Sunday I saw Daughter No. 2 off to college. It was nuts. I mean, it wasn’t nuts — this wasn’t aberrant or unsettled behavior, and aside from the traffic heading into Manhattan, it wasn’t likely to incite violence — but on the other hand, it was nuts. These separations from my children always feel nuts. It felt nuts seeing Daughter No. 1 off to Ecuador for her gap year, nuts seeing her off to college 12 months later. For that matter, it was nuts seeing both of them, and their younger brother, too, off to pre-K. It was nuts kissing their moist heads, inhaling their fresh, intoxicating eau de enfant, and leaving them for the first time with a babysitter. It was nuts each time I left one of them in a crib and shut the door for the night. Nuts.

From the moment of spasmodically painful, downright sloppy and altogether ludicrous squirting-out that we call birth, we’re ripped in two by the seismic rupture that violently separates mothers from children. We spend nine months carrying them around, caring for their every need, feeling their every jolt of an elbow or heel inside us, and then: boom. They leave. It’s awful. And beautiful. And awful. And life-changing. And awful. And nuts.

Parental love is truly a form of madness. It changes everything. It alters your view of the world, your ordering of priorities, your reason for being, your definition of love, your willingness to fight and live and die for another human being, and your tolerance for Barney, sleeplessness, Barney, screaming, Barney, vomit, pee and shit. Not to mention your tolerance for getting vomited, peed and shat on. Simultaneously. On three and a half hours of sleep. While watching Barney. And loving every minute of it, even when you’re not.

The days of shit and Barney don’t seem so long ago. The tug of an infant at my breast, the scrape of a stroller against pavement, the scare of a burning forehead in the middle of the night: these aren’t memories. They’re presences — pressing, pulling, sensory realities with a weight and force that remind me, as if I could forget, that my love for my children is more solid and immutable than the aging frame that bore them.

Hugging my daughter goodbye on Sunday, I held her face in my hands as I hadn’t since she was tiny, and I marveled — as I so often do when I regard my kids — that a creature of such beauty entered the world through me. What if I’d refused to let her go, way back when? What if I’d shut the gate and barred her from passage? Would she still be stuck inside me?

I had to let her out. I had to let her leave me. I couldn’t make her stay.

But still. It’s nuts.





digressions (with cricket)

not my cricket. some guy named jack sparrow gets the credit for this one. (

a couple of public domain crickets i met on the internet

I have a cricket. Just one. It’s in my kitchen. No idea where. Its KRRRIP KRRRIP KRRRIPs emit from somewhere in or around the cabinets, or behind or under the stove, or maybe somewhere inside the radiator, unless it’s hiding under the sink. Originally it was in the basement, where I first heard it while doing laundry the other night. It shut up as soon as I walked over to the washing machine, as though it just noticed the intrusion and suddenly turned coy and shut the hell up. OH NOOOO, the cricket said to itself, I DON’T WANT THAT WEIRD LADY TO NOTICE ME.

I didn’t stop to wonder why a cricket was in my basement, because, first of all, crickets are always welcome here. I have a pro-cricket policy that goes back to my girlhood on a lake in rural Connecticut, and I suspect this liberal reputation of mine has trickled through the cricket population over the years. The other reason why I wasn’t surprised to find a cricket down there: because my basement is a lake. It’s so wet, I can actually swim in it.

I mean this. There are fish. Large ones; I have the teeth marks of an angry Northern Pike on my left ring finger to prove it. I even dock a boat down there, and not just some pathetic excuse for a dinghy, either. I mean a speed boat, the kind that growls and thud-thud-thuds over the waves. Sometimes, whenever I can rope one of my kids into taking the wheel, I water ski. You should see me jump the wake! Whoo-hooo! I’m telling you, I totally kick ass in that basement. And you know what else? Surrounding the lake down there is an entire nature preserve. With woods. A swamp, even. Wildflowers. Water birds. Stinging things. Bears. Bigfoot. A whole ecosystem.

So, no, finding a cricket there was not a shocker. I am not sure what induced the leggy stridulating insect-man to come upstairs, unless he was lonely and looking for some hot cricket mama, and yes, I just gender-assigned my cricket. No “it” for this big boy any longer, hubba hubba. Did you even know that the chirping crickets are generally male? See, I didn’t. Not until Google told me. Google tells me lots of things. You don’t know half of what Google tells me! Neither do I! That’s why I need Google! And that KRRRIPPING you hear is the sound of me digressing.

But. Back to my virile little cricket. When I heard him, my first thought was OH NO! THE CRICKET IS UPSTAIRS!, followed by my second thought, AN INSECT HAS INVADED THE PRISTINE SANCTITY OF MY KITCHEN!, which was quickly replaced by my third thought, SINCE WHEN HAS MY KITCHEN BEEN PRISTINE?, which then gave way to my fourth thought, SINCE WHEN HAVE I BEEN ALL WUSSY ABOUT INSECTS?, soon to be supplanted by my fifth and final thought: AFTER ALL, I GREW UP IN KIND OF A BUGGY HOUSE. Which was true. Minus the “kind of.” Back in those happy halcyon days on old Lake Waramaug, insects invaded my childhood home on a fairly regular basis.

And not just insects. Animals, too. We used to hear squirrels in the attic, though we never ever ever saw them in the attic because we never ever ever went up there, not once, not in my entire childhood, and don’t bother asking why, because I DON’T KNOW. We also used to hear squirrels in the walls. Sometimes, after they died, we used to smell them in the walls. And not only that: my mother once accidentally threw her dentures into a mouse hole in the kitchen, never to retrieve them. This time, you’re allowed to ask: HOW DOES SOMEONE ACCIDENTALLY THROW DENTURES INTO A MOUSE HOLE? And I am allowed to answer: By losing your grip while scrubbing them clean at the kitchen sink, then lurching after your teeth in an effort to catch them but somehow sadly propelling them across the room at blazing speed.

So. Really. A cricket is no big deal. I welcome him. I speak his language. I Google his nomenclature (the family Gryllidae, and did you know that he chirps more rapidly as the temperature rises?). I sing his song. KRRRIPP.

robin williams, again: on ‘cowardice’ and compassion


I hadn’t planned on writing again about Robin Williams’ death (I hadn’t planned on it the first time), but each new suicide kicks up some dust from the old ones. And when Fox News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a coward, I almost choked.

Smith has since apologized. Good. He should have. Still, some points need to be made, here.

First: Williams wasn’t a coward. My husband wasn’t a coward. My sister wasn’t a coward. My dear friends who killed themselves weren’t cowards. They were good, loving, generous and sensitive people who battled demons so vicious and alienating that they believed they were better off dead.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say this again, I won’t stop staying this, ever: suicide never makes sense. Neither Williams’ misery nor the misery of those left behind can be explained by any worldly logic. But the hurt that his death afflicted on his loved ones doesn’t negate the agony he was in — God only knows for how long — or the compassion that it merits from us.

No, he wasn’t a coward. Cowards aren’t people in pain. Cowards aren’t people who face and fight a crushing urge to die. Cowards are people who make snap judgments out of fear. Who look down at those who suffer. Who fail to regard another person’s torment with anything but love.

Second: The pain that suicide inflicts on its survivors is beyond all human ken. So the natural human response is, inevitably: WTF? THAT couldn’t have happened, because THAT PERSON was loving and giving and good. THAT PERSON would not have grievously wounded his family and friends. THAT PERSON would never have given up on life. THAT PERSON wouldn’t do that.

Now, this word “do.” Hmmm. That’s a verb. Did you notice? It implies a subject, an agent, an actor in the broad sense. Someone must actively do suicide. It isn’t done to them. It never just happens. It involves an act. The problem with any act is that it suggests a choice; and the problem with suicide is that the act is so damned unconscionable, it causes so much damage, and it prompts so many powerful, elemental surges of bafflement and anger. How could it not?

And yet suicide is not a choice. Is it an act carried out in the depths of self-loathing? Yes. Is it a rational decision? No. My husband was so altered by depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety — so alien and muddled in his thinking — that he was, by the time he stood at the lip of that roof, taking those actions, an entirely different person. He was logically incapacitated by mental illness.

So, no, his suicide wasn’t a choice. It was an impulse followed in the dark of a fleeting moment after too many such fleeting moments. Had that impulse ended and the moment passed, he might still be here. It didn’t, so he isn’t, so I and all who loved him are left to parse the larger lessons from his death.

They’re the same lessons we’re parsing now in the wake of Robin Williams’.

Lesson number one: We need to talk about mental illness. We need to see it with clear eyes and a caring heart. We need to not run away from it because it frightens us or confuses us or cuts too close to home. We need to be brave and smart. We need to stare it in the face. We need to see it in others’ faces. We need to see it in our own.

Lesson number two: We need to choose, with absolute conviction, to live. Sanity is too tenuous in this world, pain is too prevalent, to take too lightly the possibility that any of us could break. Even if Williams didn’t rationally choose death, we must rationally choose life in the aftermath. We must do what we can to keep ourselves sane and grounded on this beautiful mess of rock and air and water. We must treat each day as a gift and give in return. We must promise to make choices with the highest possible yield of love, for love, in the end, is the only real buffer against the spasms and agonies that befall us.

Anyone who reaches the ledge of suicide is past all reason. Because of that, we need to step away from it now. We need to profess to each other a commitment to living now. We need to promise now not to kill ourselves — and must act, however we’re able, against the encroaching blackness.

We need to make those choices when we can, so we never reach the moment when we can’t.

robin williams: only the love makes sense

Like a lot of people, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide on Facebook. And when I did, I dropped my phone onto the kitchen counter and wept. Really wept. The first words out of my mouth were directed at him: You didn’t just do that to your wife and kids. The second were prayers for them, because my kids and I know. We know how it feels to be on the receiving end — of the pain, and of the prayers. One was hell. The other was not quite heaven, but an earth where at least we felt ourselves carried by love. God has many hands, I often said in the months following my husband’s fatal leap.

No one knows what to say after a suicide. Some people, too afraid to say the wrong thing, say nothing. If we can’t find reason or meaning or some lenitive hope behind a death, how can we console in its aftermath? How can we say anything that soothes, relieves, explains?

We can’t. You can’t. There’s nothing that soothes or finds reason after a suicide. There is none. All there can be, all anyone can ever express to the grieving and each other, is love. All we can do is promise to love one another better in the brief time we have.

Here’s what you should say to suicide survivors: anything. Here’s what it means to them: everything. Here’s the best explanation for their loss: nothing. There is no explaining either the act of suicide or the anguish that leads someone to commit it. If we could understand one, we could understand the other; instead, all we can do is parse the turns and tragedies in a person’s life, the drugs or depression or dalliances with all the wrong psych meds or snake oils or habits of self-abasement, and even then, we don’t have an explanation. We only have a narrative.

All the baffled postings on Facebook reflect this horror in the face of cosmic unreason and embattled faith. And indeed we should be baffled. Indeed there should be horror: suicide should never be treated lightly. How could Robin Williams, a brilliant, explosively insightful, comic-genius man-child who brought joy to so many for so long, have done this to himself and his loved ones? Expect everyone everywhere, every online gossip site and supermarket rag, to dig deep into the causes. Maybe we’ll learn there was an obvious trigger. Maybe we won’t.

Either way, Williams’ death will never make sense — just as my husband’s death will never make sense, just as no suicide will ever make sense. Not in this world. For suicide is a violation of all that we know to be true: that life is precious; that love prevails; that parents will put their children first; that light and joy and hope are stronger, infinitely so, than darkness and despair.

No. It will never make sense. It shouldn’t.

What does make sense: the love that surrounds Williams’ family now and in the long months ahead of them. That’s the love that will prevail. That’s the light that conquers. And they’ll emerge from that darkness. They will. They will.


imageToday I’d like to talk toilets. Seriously. You okay with that? Not feeling squeamish? Good. Also, please don’t expect any death, snot or philosophizing today. No grief or profundity looms in the paragraphs ahead. What does lie ahead: flushing. And by that I mean not the neighborhood in Queens, of which I am a fan (having been born in said borough and thus qualifying as a NATIVE NEW YORKER, please note caps), but the habit of sluicing human excrement down the tubes.

At issue today is not the usual, old-fangled, do-it-your-durned-self species of toilet, in which one surveys one’s product in the bowl for a moment of quiet and considered reflection before sending it off with a merry wave into the Realm of Unseen Sewage, but the new-fangled, automated, let-the-damned-stupid-machine-do-it variety, introduced some years back into heavily trafficked public restrooms.

A random woman I met in one such restroom once told me in stern tones that she worked in the industry (there’s an industry?) and attended a conference (there are conferences?) and could confirm that automatic toilets were, in fact, invented by men (there are men?). Which I sort of already knew. Because EVERY WOMAN IN CREATION already knew it, having based this knowledge on the maddeningly masculine malfunctioning of said toilets.

If you’re a woman, you don’t need me to explain this for you. If you’re a man, you do. Let’s put it in simple terms. The toilets are designed to conserve water, right? And improve hygiene, right? Minimize contact with germs, icky bits, grossness in general, all that stuff? Yes? No! They do no such things! This is what they do instead: Squander water! Maximize contact with germs! And why is that, you ask? Because WOMEN’S PLUMBING AND ARCHITECTURE DO NOT RESPOND WELL TO BEING RUSHED. In fact, THEY ARE INCAPABLE OF BEING RUSHED. In addition, they involve LOTS OF FANCY AND REPETITIVE MOVEMENT that might be misinterpreted, at least by the automatic toilet, as a session-ending flourish of some sort. And then? When the session is, in fact, finally over? The toilet refuses to flush until the woman leans over and presses the little germy button.

Do you need me to spell this out for you? I hope not. Even my tolerance for scatology isn’t that extreme. But let’s put it this way: Recently, while visiting an airport restroom, an automatic toilet of my acquaintance FLUSHED SIX TIMES before I was done. Seriously.

This was not the automatic toilet pictured above, which I encountered in Chicago and which was SO excessively automatic and prissily hell-bent on keeping my anatomy icky-bits-free that it actually boasted an auto-hygienic-magical-seat-wrapping system. Like, you just waved a hand in front of its All-Seeing Public Toilet Eye, and it lickety-split spread a pristine new sheet of plastic over the toilet seat for your fanny’s enjoyment. Seriously.

Look, when it comes to public toilets, my needs are not complicated. I would like to have access to a fair number of stalls — a goodly number, more than the number of equivalent facilities provided men, precisely because of those aforementioned, time-consuming FANCY AND REPETITIVE MOVEMENTS. (And because, you know, women have smaller bladders. I’m just saying.) Also, I would like to have access to toilets that are 1) cleaned on a regular basis; 2) equipped with toilet paper; and 3) accompanied by sinks that are similarly equipped with soap. These are my needs.

Otherwise, I don’t give a shit. Pun intended. Seriously.

a second life

I have a question I always ask phlebotomists, and I always get the same response.

As the hospital worker tightens that rubber snake around my arm, swabs my popping vein with alcohol and preps the needle for insertion, I ask: Who faints more in your experience, men or women? And the phlebotomist replies, “men.” And then we discuss the reason this is so. And the pair of us always stop short of saying, Well, if women fainted at the sight of blood, they’d be unconscious for several days at a stretch on a monthly basis! And wouldn’t that suck! HA HA HA HA HA!

Friday morning, I was having a routine (non-scary) blood draw. The phlebotomist was a lovely young Indian woman with a kind and comprehending face. As she strapped and swabbed and prepped, I asked my usual question, and she answered the usual way. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn toward the profound.

In a jokey mood, I said: Women can’t be squeamish, can’t we?

The phlebotomist smiled knowingly, then slid the needle into my arm, inserting a vial.

I added: What with childbirth, and everything. There’s no passing out, or we’re in trouble!

She smiled again. “We are lucky,” she said. “When we give birth, when we have a child, we have a second life.”

A second life? I hadn’t thought of it that way, I said. But you’re right. Our lives expand when we give birth.

“Not just our own life any longer. When we have a child, we have a second.”

Swapping out the full vial for an empty one, she added: “We have many lives. Sister, mother, wife, daughter.” And again: “We are lucky.”

And sitting there in a large teaching hospital, tourniquet on my arm, red stuff spilling into a little plastic tube, I almost wept. I didn’t. But almost.

I know what you mean, I said. I have so many lives. With each new person I love, I have another life.

She nodded. I kept talking. I couldn’t shut up.

I have three kids, I said. My husband died a few years ago, but my life didn’t stop. I didn’t stop. Because I had my children’s lives, too. Not just mine. Theirs. And everyone else I love, too. It just keeps going. It just keeps growing.

She slipped out the needle. Whipped a piece of gauze into the crook of my arm. Taped it over.

I watched her, thinking about the gift of loving another person. Each instance of love, whether it yields a baby or a bond of friendship or a quiet act of charity, takes us out of ourselves. It gives us something better, something bigger, than just those endlessly navel-gazing disconsolate selves. It gives us others, their ways of seeing and feeling and being, and we learn to see and feel and be with them. And that’s the best and only rebuttal to death and its scruffy wayward cousin, fear of living.

“Always, new life,” the phlebotomist said.