living and dying both

lake pic
Just a few days ago, I felt the old urge to call my husband. The fact that he died four and a half years ago didn’t factor in, and why should it? I wanted to talk to him, dammit! See, I had a bunch of nifty-cool ideas for book projects that I was considering, and I needed his advice. For a nanosecond I wanted to ring him up. For a nanosecond I thought I could. Then came the realization: BLOODY HELL! CHRIS IS DEAD!

This used to happen more often –a few times a week, then a few times month, then a few times a year. I don’t expect it will ever fade entirely, as I still bat off the occasional urge to call my sister Lucy, and she left us in 1992. Old habits die harder than people, apparently.

But this is how it works, right? If you know loss, and who doesn’t, you know that the dead never truly leave. I suppose this might classify as “denial” in the so-called stages of grief, which are, of course, a crock; anyone who believes that the bereaved can just cycle neatly and quietly through discrete chapters of mourning until they reach the all-powerful ACCEPTANCE has obviously never gone through the process themselves. Because it isn’t actually a process. It’s more of an H-bomb, and there is no acceptance. There’s only resignation. While I’m resigned to the fact that my husband is gone, I don’t accept it any more than I accept the deaths of the rest of my friends and family in the next world. They should be here! They should. They are. Don’t you dare tell me they aren’t.

Everyone I’ve ever lost is still here with me, and I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. I don’t mean some woooey-boooey conference of souls is hanging out in my attic, rattling chains. I mean that the dead are no less real to me now, no less present in this world, than they were when they were systematically sucking and expelling air. I see Chris everywhere in Albany. When I go to Boston, I see Lucy emerging from the mouth of the T.

Last weekend, on a visit to Connecticut, I saw her stretched and slathered in the sun near the lake where we grew up. I saw my father chatting with neighbors. I saw my pink-faced mother with a pair of garden shears. Later, venturing into the church where I was married, I walked up the aisle and saw them all: my parents, my sister, my husband, his parents, my best friend, my second mother. All of them gone, and all of them there. They were real. I felt their realness. And as I felt it, I gasped and fell to my knees, pressed by the weight of their presence and the burden of their deaths. In that moment, they were alive and dead, and alive and dead, and alive, alive, alive.

So yesterday was Good Friday, when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Tomorrow is Easter, when he rises again. Today is Holy Saturday, the Holy Limbo, the between-time that bends from darkness into light. At Easter Vigil Mass in just a few hours, Jesus will rise. He’ll live again, and I and my fellow Christians will rejoice.

We face this paradox all the time. Jesus dies, and then he rises again, and then he dies, and then he rises again – he’s always dying, always rising, always in the grief of the tomb and the joy of resurrection. It’s all happening at once, Good Friday and Easter both.

So it is with those we love: Always dying, always living. No one is ever truly gone. The past is present, and so are they. They’re with me right now. I’m sure of it. If only we could talk.

the long arms of a story

The other day, I learned that a story I told for “The Moth Radio Hour” — “The Weight of a Ring,” describing the aftermath of my husband’s suicide — will be included a collection to be published next year by Crown. I was, of course, blown away.

But I wasn’t just blown away by the glad tidings or what they might bring in the future. What clobbered me sideways was the reminder, yet again, that good can come of ill, that a happy revelation can emerge from a horror — not negating it, not diminishing it, but reaping from it some unforeseen and startling grace that prods us gently forward.

I was also struck, yet again, by the long arms of a story. Not just my story. Any story. Its reach goes on and on.

A day before I learned about “The Moth” collection, I received a tweet from a man in the UK who had just heard my tale on the BBC: “Thank you,” he zapped through the ether. “Of much help to a new and puzzled widower.” I’ve received other such responses, to both my story and my book, and each time I’ve come away with a heightened sense of gratitude and awe at the power of narrative.

It’s a strange thing, sharing so much of myself and my grief with the world — my darkest self, my deepest grief. When I dreamed of becoming a writer, I didn’t dream of this. I didn’t dream of a life writing memoirs of death. I didn’t dream I’d be torn to bits by loss and loss and more loss and then knit myself together, or try to, by braiding words into story and then bringing that story to others. But the urge to tell overtook me.

Telling didn’t make me seamless. It didn’t make me whole. I am as much a wreck as I ever was, in some ways more so. But telling heals, and not just me. I’m not sure I mean me at all. I’m not sure me matters, once a story is told. The author is just the helper, the conduit, the vessel that carries the elixir of narrative to those who need it most.

So if that widower in Britain feels a little less alone, then my grief has served some purpose. It almost doesn’t matter if I heal. I’ve helped him heal — and that, to me, is the miracle of a story. It just keeps moving, just keeps telling, just keeps pulling light out of darkness and good out of ill. Somehow, it grows. Its embrace moves ever outward.


I was 2 when I fell down the stairs and landed on my head, biting my tongue. I can still feel my foot slip, still taste the blood in my mouth, still feel my mother’s arms embrace me on the living room floor.

That was the start. I just kept falling and breaking. The people I loved kept falling and breaking, too. My life’s lesson — just the one, and I seem to learn it over and over — is that I’ll always slip, I’ll never really manage anything with perfection, I’ll never come away from a project or a person and say “Well, I did that/him/her/them utter justice, I served that/him/her/them with unfiltered love and kindness.” I’ve written before about my lifelong struggle with chronic and incurable screw-up-ed-ness, the way I’ve always tried and failed and tried and failed and just kept trying, anyway.

But then, some weeks back, I stepped on my Chromebook. At first it worked just fine. Then the screen started to blank out until I wiggled it just right. Then it began to blank out more often, and the wiggling didn’t help any longer, and so I started bending it slightly to get it back. Then, one fateful evening, I bent it so hard it cracked, shooting a quiver of crooked arrows across the screen.

The thing was so unexpectedly lovely, and so totally and irretrievably broken, that I decided I wanted to see more. I grabbed the screen with both hands and bent it toward me, shattering it. The image that resulted was startling: two black tulips tilting toward the light, or in the wind. Immediately I saw in their fragmented, accidental beauty a metaphor for living: What breaks us can bring us to grace.

As a lover of God and science, I thought of the cosmos — the mad forces that made the universe and spin it ever outward, the entropy that leads it into chaos. Its beauty rests in its brokenness. As a Catholic, I thought of Christ — the savior who could only serve God’s purpose, and save God’s people, by breaking on the cross. His beauty rests in His brokenness.

Maybe ours does, too.

All of us are busted up, all falling and dying from birth. Gravity does a number on our bodies. Loss does a number on our hearts. We live in homes that crumble, love in ways that hurt. This is who we are and how we live, always hoping, often shattering, never sure. But there’s joy to be felt, if we’re patient. There’s beauty to be found, if we look.

we hold these truths


In the wake of last night’s “debate,” if that’s what we’re calling it, I would like to find some shared ground as Americans, as human beings, as children of parents, as parents of children and as possessors of common sense.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

1) NOBODY WANTS TO KNOW THE LENGTH OF THE CANDIDATES’ WILLIES. Nobody even wants to think about knowing the lengths of the candidates’ willies. The fear of potentially knowing this information makes many of us violently physically ill, and this violent physical illness does NOT put us in the mood to vote. It does the opposite. I am serious about this. NOBODY. WANTS. TO KNOW.

2) SHOUTING OVER EACH OTHER DOESN’T HELP US UNDERSTAND WHAT ANYONE’S SAYING. Instead it makes everyone unintelligible! It’s true! You want Americans to actually comprehend some point you’re trying to make? Well, then, you need to pipe down and take turns, people. Otherwise, what’s the point of a debate? Why not just stand there and spit? Hurl bowling balls at each other? Set each other’s hair on fire? (No. No. Don’t.)

3) NAME-CALLING IS CHILDISH. It also does absolutely nothing to advance any form of dialogue. And we are still, at this point, pretending that dialogue is the aim, unless we all secretly long to see the field of presidential aspirants scream NYAH-NYAH, then stick out their tongues and go pppllllllllllllllllllllllllllll. But at this point, maybe Bronx cheers would be an improvement.

4) NICENESS MATTERS. Didn’t our mamas and daddies raise us to say “please” and “thank you”? To not interrupt when someone else is talking? To be decent to other people? To not pick our noses in public and then wipe the goober on somebody else’s sleeve? Because we are almost at the goober-wiping stage of this election cycle, my friends. You know it’s true. It’s why you dread reading the news each morning. (As for whether one of the candidates consumed a booger off his lip last night, I’m not entering that fray. To me it looked like alpaca sweater fuzz.)

5) Returning to the matter of childishness, WE NEED THE CANDIDATES TO BEHAVE LIKE ADULTS. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked: BECAUSE WE NEED OUR CHIEF EXECUTIVE TO BE A GROWN-UP. Or at least, you know, a fairly mature 15-year-old. (Elect my son! He’d be great!) This is why the founders set the minimum age for the job at 35, not, say, 2, at which age President Thunder Pants might need occasional help with the potty.

I’m not even talking about The Hand On The Button and all that hairy-scary nuclear-apocalypse stuff. I’m just talking about having someone in office who won’t shove the other kids in the sandbox. No hair-pulling. No toy-grabbing. Take your turn at the swings.

What do you think? Can we all agree to these truths? There are only five of them, and they’re obvious enough. Or they should be.