Gratitude: A Guest Post by Madeline Sharples

November 19, 2012

I first met Madeline Sharples at a writing workshop at Esalen. I was immediately drawn to her calm, empathetic manner, her beauty, and her poems. We quickly learned that we shared some important life experiences – we were both grieving mothers and both of us were writing about our children.

Madeline’s memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, first appeared in hardback in 2010. It was recently reissued as an e-book and paperback by Dream of Things, a small press based near Chicago. Madeline is a tireless online journalist and blogger, and focuses her energies on raising awareness of mental illness and speaking out to prevent suicide. She is currently on a blog tour to promote her book and I am so pleased to host her reflections on gratitude.

Gratitude

by Madeline Sharples

The holiday season has begun and once again I view it as bittersweet. The holidays bring up too many reminders of my son Paul who died just three months shy of his 28th birthday in 1999. Since Paul was born on New Year’s Eve in 1971, the holidays are difficult for our family.

I also view the holiday season with gratitude. Besides my continued good health, the love and support of so many family members and friends, and my ability to live a productive life, that I can even think in terms of being grateful is a miracle. However, as bad as life was after Paul died, and as much as I continue to miss him, I have found out that with such a tragedy come unexpected gifts.

Paul’s death has made me a stronger person, physically and emotionally. It was as if I accomplished getting stronger through brute force. I met and interacted with people who had been through similar experiences; I took writing classes and workshops; I went back to work outside my home with my usual verve to compete on the job and to excel in my work; I embarked on a daily exercise program. I was obsessively persistent in dealing with my grief and becoming a productive person again.

I have reinvented myself as a poet and a creative writer. Four months after Paul died I found that poems just came spontaneously out of my pen. Though I write prose more than poetry, poetry is my love. My poetry writing has become my companion and my savior – something I can turn to at any time, or in any place.

I also wrote my book, Leaving the Hall Light On, with the goal of helping others who have experienced a loss like mine, I have a new writing career as a web journalist, and I’m busy writing a novel. I have been able to fulfill my life-long dream to work as a writer.

My husband and I have a stronger marriage probably because of a combination of my drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and Bob’s willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient, we gave each other a lot of space, and we respected each other. We supported each other so that we could grieve in our own ways. Plus, we’ve worked hard to stay healthy so that we can still travel and enjoy many diversions such as movies, theater, and opera and long walks at the beach near our home.

I have a terrific bond with my surviving son Ben and his new wife. Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a new mother-in-law. My son and his wife live close by and we spend quite a bit of time with them. That he and Marissa wanted to have their wedding in our family home meant so much to me. That created a very special bond between us and provided a very happy memory to replace the bad memories of the past years.

I’ve also embarked on a new mission in life – to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide, in hopes of saving lives through my writing and volunteer work. My next project is to offer the wonderful jazz music our son composed and performed as a CD to raise money for charities that share my mission. In this way, I’ll be able to perpetuate his memory and hopefully save the lives of people who suffer as Paul did.

With patience and hard work, I discovered I could go beyond surviving and actually thrive – and so these bittersweet holidays also fill my heart with gratitude that I have gone on to be a writer, a mother and wife, and a survivor.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0984631720/ref=sc_pgp__m_A1M6YBJMM98MZH_1?ie=UTF8&m=A1M6YBJMM98MZH&n=&s=&v=glance

The Look Challenge

October 18, 2012
A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as take...

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as taken from Walnut Creek (Panoramic made from a 14 image stitch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The premise is simple: find a passage in your manuscript or book that contains the word “look,” post it on your blog, and tag five other blogging writers to do the same. Seems to me like a great way to introduce readers to other writers, so I’m all in.”

I received this invitation/challenge from my friend Madeline Sharples. Madeline’s book, Leaving the Hall Light On, is the tender and harrowing tale of her son Paul’s bipolar disorder and ultimate suicide. But more than that, it is the story of a woman’s courageous fight to not only survive but thrive after a life-shattering loss. To learn more, visit http://madeline40.blogspot.com

To meet the challenge, I randomly opened my book Swimming with Maya to page 210 and found this passage:

“Sprawling over a broad ridge, Oakmont Memorial Park has a direct view of Mt. Diablo. As I kneel above my daughter’s grave, I look at the jagged face of the mountain. It towers above the suburban valleys east of San Francisco, its saw-toothed outline a sharp, cobalt blue. Almost four thousand feet tall, and many miles around, this place was considered sacred by the native peoples who once lived at its base. I regard it with awe. To me, it is a temple of the gods, of doom, of wild horses – a mysterious place that swallowed my daughter in one sudden gulp.”

This passage leads from the narrator kneeling above her daughter’s grave at the cemetery to a fateful meeting with the man who received Maya’s donated heart, his wife, and their two children. Meeting Fernando and his family changed the course of my grief and my life. So in a way, the passage where I describe looking at Mt. Diablo leads to looking in a much larger sense. Looking at and examining the outcome of my decision to donate Maya’s organs and tissues at the moment she was declared brain dead.

I’ve written extensively about this in Swimming with Maya, and more recently in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, edited by Lee Gutkind. Organ donation and transplantation are miraculous and complicated. Instinctively, I was using “look” in the descriptive passage as a metaphor for the meeting to come when I would look into the eyes of the man whose chest held my daughter’s beating heart.

When Fernando drew me into an embrace, with my head resting against his chest, I heard the strong whomp. whomp of Maya’s heart. I was looking for my daughter that day. And I found her, but not in a way I could touch directly. Maya’s 19-year-old heart was keeping Fernando alive but as I held him I realized in a new, deeper way that Maya herself was never coming back. It was searing, heartrending, and inspiring. I found what I was looking for but not quite.

Because we are visual beings, we are always looking. But do we really see? In what ways does looking and seeing inform your writing and your life? Post a comment and let me know.

Can Cancer be Funny?

October 8, 2012

Hell, yes! Tig Notaro, interviewed today by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” proves you can laugh and cry instantaneously. In a now famous stand-up routine she delivered at an LA theater Largo, in early August just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro broke her cancer news in the opening lines of her monologue.

“Hi, welcome. Hello. I’ve got cancer. How’re you doing? I’ve got cancer.”

Audible gasps, uncomfortable titters, and downright belly laughs filled the room.  One woman broke into tears and Tig, not missing a beat, just kept saying. “It will be OK. You’ll be OK.”

It’s hard to explain why this is side splitting. You really have to listen to it. Its not so much what she says, but how she says it. Without a trace of complaint or self-pity. Notaro just puts it out there with vulnerability laced with irony in a way that makes you laugh and cry almost in the same moment.

And not just the fact that she has cancer – in both breasts. But that in the last four months she got a hideous bacterial disease, C Dif, that ravaged her intestines, then a week after she got out of the hospital her mother died. Completely unexpectedly and tragically. Then her girlfriend broke up with her. And three months later – boom – she has cancer.

She riffs on how God never gives us more than we can handle, one of the funniest parts of the bit, musing, “Really? God is insane.”

Louis CK, a friend and supporter of Tig’s, put the monologue on his website and you can do download it for $5. Best five dollars I ever spent.

Happily, Tig told Terry Gross that she only has a seven percent chance of a recurrence following her double mastectomy at Sloan Kettering hospital. She’s moving on with her life and her career, now more famous than ever because she took a huge risk and broke her cancer news onstage in real time to a group of (mostly) strangers.

I love so many things about this: humor in the face of death, resilience, trusting the creative process, being vulnerable and in the moment with a roomful of people you don’t know. Mostly I just love the way Tig talked straight to me on the download, just the way she talked straight to the people at Largo that night. And I love Louis CK for making this monologue available on his site and promoting his friend’s work.

Maybe our culture is really maturing in its attitudes about death. You think? When we can laugh about cancer, I say that’s progress. Swimming with Maya has little snippets of humor woven in, but it’s not what you’d call a funny book. Next time out, I’d like to to make readers laugh and wince at the same time.

Kudos to Tig Notaro. Long may she wave!

Maya’s 40th Birthday

October 4, 2012

Maya had a vibrant smile, a ready laugh, and spark of mischief in her deep brown eyes. She challenged life as well as loved it – and she was the same with me, racing from hugs to arguments. If she had lived, today would have been her 40th birthday. She lived life fast and fully. Maya left this world six months shy of turning 20 years old, still a teenager, always and forever a daredevil.

Life accretes slowly, wearing away our rough edges year by year. I’ll never know what kinds of life lessons might have changed Maya, yet I believe nothing fate threw at her could have eradicated her vivacious humor or penchant for risk – only death accomplished that.

This birthday brings up the “what ifs” in torrents. Who would Maya be now?

When I turned 40, I had an unruly teenager about to turn 16 and a more placid and easygoing 8-year-old.  Two daughters anchored my life, but I’ve remained husbandless for the last two decades. Would Maya have a family? Would she be happily married? An actress, as she (and I) had planned? Or, would she have derailed along the way?

Maya was focused and ambitious, but with a self-destructive streak. She was kind and generous but could also be selfish and cutting, her razor sharp wit used as a weapon to demolish her opponent. Fiercely loved by her family and friends, she had been abandoned by her biological father following our divorce, a loss she never got over. Always popular and the life of the party, she constantly sought to prove that she was worthy of the attention she won with her beauty and her brains.

It was this need to prove herself – to test every limit and take every dare –that led to the accident that took her life. She rode a horse bareback with no proper equipment and was unlucky enough to be thrown and land directly on her head in a field in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, so far from help that a fatal coma resulted.

But what if she had landed on her rump or shoulder, and gotten up and walked away that April afternoon? Would the close call have tempered her daredevil ways?

As her mother, I live with the echoes of these unanswered questions.

Of course, I want to believe that at 40 she’d be a happy, productive woman, living the life she dreamed was possible, using her prodigious artistic and intellectual gifts. But I’m not sure her life journey would have been smooth, given her character. What I do know, is that her sister Meghan and I would have stood with her, and that our extended network of kin would have been a bulwark in the tough times. Maya was resilient, but she turned the old saying on its head: What could have made her stronger killed her instead.

Every year on October 4, I celebrate my amazing daughter. Today, I’ll go to the cemetery, place new flowers, and polish her headstone as usual. I’ll wish her a special Happy 40th Birthday and wonder extra hard what it would be like if she was here to drink a toast to her brief, wondrous life.

The eyes of Christina Taylor Green

January 18, 2011

Last year in this country more than 6,500 grieving families said yes to organ donation. For 2011 we know many thousands more will give the gift of life. Among them: the family of Christina Taylor Green, the youngest person to lose her life in the Tuscon shootings. Only nine when she was killed, Christina came to see her congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she wanted to learn more about how government works. As President Obama said in his eulogy for the victims, Christina saw the world with the innocence and hope of a child.

Thanks to Christina’s parents’ decision to donate, two other children have had their sight restored. John Green, Christina’s father, says the knowledge that Christina’s corneas were able to help other children in need has been a great comfort to the family. Donation is a powerful act of generosity that affects donor families as profoundly as the recipients of their gifts.

When the unimaginable happens – a child dies – families who are able to donate can find a powerful sense of meaning even in the most senseless or tragic death. Knowing that something positive has come from your loss changes the course of grief. That’s been my experience in the wake of my daughter Maya’s death almost 19 years ago. In our case, because she was in an irreversible coma and declared brain dead, Maya was able to donate solid organs as well as tissue (including her corneas) and bone. Ultimately, our gift saved the lives of four people, restored sight for two, and may have helped upwards of 50 people with bone and tissue grafts.

Maya lives in our memories. She also continues her physical existence through the many people helped by our gift. I have been fortunate to meet two of those people – the man who received Maya’s heart, Fernando, and the woman who received her liver, Patti. Over the years, knowing Patti and Fernando has brought comfort, inspiration, and a very special bond of friendship. Both of these extraordinary people had young families at the time of their transplants in 1992. In my darkest hours, knowing that those children could still grow up with their parents soothed my heart.

A few years after Maya died, I imagined what it might be like for the two people who had received her corneas to be looking at the world through her eyes. Learning about Christina’s gift of sight brought back the feelings that inspired that poem. Here it is.

New Eyes

1.

The red squirrel darts across a pine branch,

pauses, flicks its tail this way, then that.

The December day is clear and fine.

I describe this to you,

although I don’t know if squirrels

or weather interest you.

Why tell you about your sister

or Christmas,

the clothes I still keep under my bed?

As if speech could stitch the living to the dead.

We are here, you see.  Our eyes still

wander over the everyday,

gulping it down.

2.

I imagine the gloved hands

of a surgeon, a touch

delicate as snow;

Stainless steel carving

sight out of you

grafting it to new eyes.

When she came to

did her eyes leap

to catch the world

as it ran at her?

Or, looking in

a borrowed window,

do strangers fall into the dark of you?

3.

The Hebrew word for heaven

means “another place.”

Daughter, I think of you

in alternate space,

a membrane so thin

I could reach across

our worlds running side by side,

invisible tracks, a delicious passing

or the squirrel’s flick of tail,

first on your side, then on mine.

Lazy Girl’s Healthy Turkey Pick-up

January 2, 2011

With a nod to my grandmother Eleanor Cotton who used to use turkey leftovers to create a yummy dish known in our family as “Turkey Pick-up,” I created a new healthier version. Grandma used stuffing for her version. I’ve substituted brown rice and added sauteed crimini mushrooms. Plus a dusting of shaved parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs on top. Delish! Vegans or vegetarians could substitute Tofurkey and leave out the cheese.

Ingredient list:

2 cups brown rice cooked (follow instructions on the bag)

leftover turkey cut into cubes

1/2 onion diced

6 – 8 crimini mushrooms sliced

1 c. Whole Foods mushroom gravy and/or turkey gravy

1 tbs parmesan cheese

1 tbs breadcrumbs

salt and pepper and thyme to taste

How to assemble:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a casserole dish with canola spray or use olive oil, if preferred. Spoon in a layer of turkey cubes, cover with a layer of brown rice and season to taste. Saute mushrooms and onions in butter or olive oil until carmelized. Spoon mixture over rice. Pour gravy (or other type of sauce if you are a vegetarian) over mixture. Top with cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until bubbly and browned on top.

Serving suggestions:

I added my homemade cranberry sauce with orange peel, pecans, and cinammon. This adds a bit of tang and sweetness to the dish. In addition, a leafy green veggie like swiss chard is a great accompaniment. Or try a salad made with apples, goat cheese or feta cheese, and pecans with a homemade vinaigrette dressing. Easy and delicious.

Happy New Year and good eating to all!

New poem

December 27, 2010

Hieroglyphs

for Meghan

I bob and weave in the winter-laden street

retracing the hill I climbed each night

to bring on labor.

When I step back and squint

I see the rooms that sheltered us

exposed to raw December.

Pale and clammy, our house has shrunk.

The siding’s gone shabby,

dark blue shutters an afterthought.

Or have I grown Gulliver-like?

Decades ago a hot August day swallowed me whole.

The midwife coxed me open

to admit your blue face

expelling you into light.

Breath flew into the room.

The porch I thought was huge

sits ten feet from a Lilliputian street

not wide enough for two cars to pass

without scraping paint.

I see the neighbor’s drilled holes in his walls,

dun-colored polka dots for blown-in cellulose.

Good, I think. Someone is keeping things up.

Insulation works on memory too.

Our tiny bodies in motion in a past that abides

in the town where we left it.

12.27.2010

When children die

October 22, 2010

In the last 24 hours I have learned of two families who recently lost young children – their tragedies came at me out of the blue.  I find myself wishing I could sit with the parents and listen to their stories. Since my 19-year-old daughter died suddenly in 1992, I’ve learned many things. One is how sorrow can hollow you out and make space for a new life, one you might never choose for yourself, but one where you miraculously reweave what was torn apart. The other is that telling our stories is a profoundly healing act. And these two things are inextricably linked. It was through telling my story over and over – writing it down and rewriting it again and again – that I learned to live with Maya’s death.

When your child dies, the world ends. It literally stops. You don’t believe you can ever be part of ordinary life again. And for a while you can’t. I was as close to insane as I ever want to be for the first two years after Maya died. I sat in therapy sessions and grief support groups and Compassionate Friends meetings wondering how I would be able to draw another breath, let alone heal and move on with my life. The sight of a blond head moving through a crowd made me search frantically for my missing child. For years. I simply could not believe she was gone forever. I tried to imagine how I could live the rest of my life without Maya, and back then I couldn’t see a way forward. Now I’ve lived through the grief and told the story and I know it is possible to survive. I wrote my way to recovery, making the unreal real.

When I hear of a mother or father who has lost a child I want to sit down next to them in a quiet place. I want to extend comfort and hope even when there is none, even when each moment seems so fathomless, and the loss a bottomless pit you can never climb out of. Every bereaved parent travels this road in his or her own way. At our support group meetings we used to say that there is a word for a child who loses its parents – an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who loses a child. In our culture, we don’t like to imagine what the death of a child feels like because it triggers all of our worst fears. I understand why we shy away from such a profound loss and yet I wish that grieving parents found more support in their daily lives.

Swimming with Maya is my attempt to extend that support. I can’t sit side by side with every grieving parent who may read my book, but I hope somehow that it brings comfort, and shows how it is possible to survive and ultimately live a new kind of life. I’ve also learned much from parents who have never lost a child and yet who choose to read the book. They say it’s taught them to treasure the ordinary moments with their children, and to be more present even in difficult times. This makes me deeply happy.

The children in my life now – my granddaughter Lucia, my neighbors Lily, Edim, and Logan, my great nieces and nephews, the children of my colleagues, even children in supermarkets and on airplanes whom I will never know – remind me that life goes on. There are always children to love in this world, spunky, unpredictable, lively little characters. Whether they are ours or not, we can honor their lives and the struggles and joys of their parents through the stories we listen to and the stories we tell.

In hot water

May 9, 2010

Up to my chin in 105 degree water,  suphur pricked my nostrils as I bobbed in velvety fluid.  I felt as if I had returned to childhood when play and exploration were the focus of my days. My flip flops slapped the wooden deck as I padded from the mineral baths to an Adirondack chair to bask in the sun. Heaven!

Billed as “a sanctuary for the self,” Wilbur Hot Springs is that – and much more. Nestled in a secluded valley of the California Coastal Range on the banks of a sulphur creek, this healing spa has been welcoming visitors since the 1860s. After two days of soaking in the hot mineral pools, hiking in the lush valleys and meadows, and cooking in Wilbur’s amazing communal kitchen I returned to Oakland more relaxed than I could have imagined.

View from the hill above Wilbur Hot Springs

I unplugged completely. No TV, no computer, no cell phone, and no obligations.  Like most humans in the developed world, I spend way too much time in front of screens. I believe this literally narrows my view of the world. Watching the constellations wheel across the night sky, coming face to face with a deer and her fawn, gazing at a hillside studded with brilliant blue lupine, wandering along the creek bed as it wound through the meadow – all this, and hot pools too!

But the kitchen – oh my heavens – a communal mish mash of gourmands and inveterate snackers eddying around admiring each other’s eats. Picture an old farm kitchen with a massive stove and a huge hanging pot rack and every kitchen tool immaginable, except a microwave or a toaster. Now picture it filled with people in bathrobes, sarongs, sweatpants – and even one guy in a kilt – all cooking up a storm. The smells could knock you to your knees. One guy produced a gorgeous plate of tapas and then proceeded to cook pork loin in apple and onions. People were in there roasting chickens and whipping up risotto – it was as far from summer camp as you could get – even though the coreographed chaos was remarkably similar. Miraculously, we danced around each other, but there were no collisions.

I owe this experience to my dear friend Karen Hester who suggested we go and kindly made the reservation. Karen is my “go to” pal for all varieties of fun from ping-pong matches to long hikes to spur of the moment concert tickets. A community organizer and event planner, Karen not only knows how to have a good time, she knows how to relax. I was more than happy to follow in Karen’s wake, although I confess when she went out birdwatching at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, I opted for tea and toast instead.

This morning was overcast so Karen and I sat in front of the oil heater and played scrabble, filling the board with neat stacks of letters – plenty of the double and tripple score variety. Karen whupped my behind, as usual, while giving me kudos for my best word play – “quieted” being one, since using a Q is a major achievement on a lazy Sunday morning.

Karen and Eleanor at Wilbur Hot Springs

We played and chatted and watched people breakfast on waffles and scrambled eggs. One guy from Calgary – I swear this is true – spent 45 minutes cutting up fruit. He sliced strawberries with slow precision, and then pitted and sliced cherries, topping this ballet of fruit with creamy yogurt and granola. When I commented on his creation he explained that he was from Canada where there was still snow on the ground so fresh fruit was a novelty to be savored.

Mellow and soggy, we bundled into the car at 2:30 this afternoon and began our journey home, singing along to Kate Wolf and Laura Nyro so that the green hillsides whizzed by. Suddenly, we were crossing the Carquinez bridge and the refineries in Richmond came into view. But in my mind’s eye, I could picture the Japanese style gate leading into the hot pools, and my skin still smelled of sulphur. Even at 70 miles per hour, my body clock was set to s-l-o-w.

Gate leading to hot pools

Take a walk, save a life

May 3, 2010

Everyone seems to tap friends for money to cure AIDS, leukemia, or breast cancer – or in my case, cystic fibrosis.  Lately, I’ve been raising funds to support a walk-a-thon sponsored by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Why CF? Because my 22-month-old neighbor Lily has it.

When I come  home from work, if Lily is playing outside with her mom, Lara, she blows me kisses with her chubby little fingers. She runs at me as if on the verge of falling she’s so eager to see and do everything. Like a magpie, she loves any shiny object I happen to be wearing. She has blonde flyaway hair and a plastic tea set she points to excitedly any time I come to visit.

I love Lily!

When Lara told me that Lily had CF, I bit back tears. “I’m so sorry,” I said. Words would never be enough. I was determined to do something.

CF is a cruel killer. Typically, its victims are young. Over time, mucus builds up in the lungs causing infections that are ultimately fatal. The defective gene that is responsible for CF can also affect digestion and cause the pancreas to malfunction.

I knew one family that lost two daughters to this disease, one in her teens, the other in her early twenties. They are buried side by side not far from my daughter Maya at Oakmont Cemetary. Maya died of an accidental fall from a horse, not CF, but once you have lost a child you realize – deep in your bones – it doesn’t matter how your child dies. What matters is finding a way to survive  and be there for your other kids if you’re lucky enough to have any. Eventually, I rebuilt my life. But I hate the idea of  other parents having to join the fraternity – or of children dying before they have a chance at a full life.

That’s how I found myself with a white T-shirt displaying an iron-on decal saying “Team Lily” emblazoned on the middle of my chest walking along the San Francisco Bay with a ragtag group of friends and neighbors last Saturday morning. Our team wasn’t the biggest – we couldn’t match Team Genentech – but we weren’t the smallest either. In the group photo, about 40 of us crowd together behind a row of strollers and dogs at East Beach in Crissy Field. We set off on our three-mile walk in high spirits, quickly separated by the hundreds of other walkers, and dozens of strollers, wagons, and canines that promenaded up to Fort Point in a colorful and unruly mass.

Lots of teams were named after kids that parents are desperately hoping will be saved. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, funded by the generousity of walkers and their supporters, has already helped to find treatments that can extend life into young adulthood – age 37, on average. I’m sorry. That’s just not good enough. I want Lily to live to be an old lady – one that dusts off her plastic tea set and brings it out to play with her grandchildren. I want her laugh to last longer than three decades. I want to see her run into her future as confidently as she runs up the sidewalk toward me with mischief written all over her face.

Last I checked, “Team Lily” had raised more than $7,000. Multiply that by the dozens of other teams at the “Great Strides” event and you’ve got a serious investment in hope, in healthy kids, and in parents who can breathe a little easier knowing that they are not alone in this fight.


%d bloggers like this: