Posts Tagged ‘Swimming with Maya’

New Website and Blogs – please visit!

January 28, 2013

DSC_0292-Eleanor_ppSwimming with Maya is now available as an eBook and paperback. To learn more, visit my new website, www.eleanorvincent.com where you will find both of my blogs. I’m renaming this blog “That’s The Way Life Lives,” a saying of Maya’s when she was five years old. The focus will be on how grief and other life challenges make us stronger. My other blog, “The Cat Came Back,” humorous true tales of my two orange tabby cats, will be hosted on my new site as well.

Please visit, comment and follow the blogs, give my author page on Facebook a thumbs up, or otherwise get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you. Here is a direct link to the “That’s the Way Life Lives” blog:

http://www.eleanorvincent.com/category/thats_the_way_life_lives/

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Ten Quotes

January 2, 2013

My publisher asked me to identify ten quotes from Swimming with Maya for promotional blurbs. OK, I thought to myself, how hard can that be?

But I delayed, blaming it on the demands of the holidays. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I sat down with a hardback copy of my book and began reading.Maya Book Cover

Swimming with Maya is a crisis memoir that plumbs deeply the intense shock, grief, and anger that followed in the wake of my daughter’s accidental death. What I wrote in those pages about events now twenty-years-old continues to move and amaze me.

I read page after page, tears streaming down my cheeks, putting colored paperclips on passages so raw they take me right back to the afternoon Maya died and I made the decision to donate her organs and tissues to people in need.

The last third of the book is about how I healed my grief. Those stories – how I wrote my way, slowly and haltingly, to acceptance, worked out long buried family patterns in therapy, sought out people who inspired me, including the man who received my daughter’s heart – are the light that draws me as a reader.  Of course, I know how the story turns out.  Yet there are moments I’ve forgotten and reading about them makes the experiences alive and fresh again.

Here’s one from Chapter 3: “Maya’s chest rises and falls. The ventilator hisses, the computers beep, fiber optic cable snakes into her skull. I never knew love could be so big, that it could expand to allow even this. I have a premonition of lifelong grief rolling toward me, but I know that, once again, I am being asked to give my daughter her freedom.”

maya-19-bday-004

That was the moment I realized I had no right, nor any power, to hold my daughter here. I had to let her go. I gave in to her coma and ultimate death because they were hers not mine, a destiny I could never have imagined. That moment of surrender marked me for life.

This was not an easy book to write, nor is it easy to read.

So why read it? Is there something to be learned in these pages that is valuable enough to offset the pain?

I believe we read to experience life vividly. Good writing puts us inside the mind and heart of the writer, creating a world we can inhabit, a safe space to vicariously experience another’s life.

Swimming with Maya is vital testimony about how losses can be healed. It was worth writing.  I hope you find it worth reading. A paperback and eBook version will be available early in February from Dream of Things press at http://dreamofthings.com or you can visit the  Amazon website today at http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-With-Maya-Mothers-Discovery/dp/1931868344 for the hardback version.

Post Christmas

December 26, 2012
christmas paint

christmas paint (Photo credit: cassie_bedfordgolf)

Just as I vow no more sugar shall pass my lips, I realize I have Harry and David pears that are ripening and will soon turn to mush.  Fruit sugar is okay, right? Well, plus a little red wine, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Voila! Poached pears.

Once the pressure of organizing the celebration passes, there is a lovely “time out of time” in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Just the right time to make poached pears and do a little writing.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a great piece in the New Yorker’s Page-Turner column called “Posthumous” in which he recounts the great South African writer Nadine Gordimer advising a young writer to “write posthumously,” in other words without concern for what people think, the latest literary fashion, or money. Pretend you’re dead so you can free yourself to say what you really think.

So this is my week to play possum, hole up by the Christmas tree, and return to the world of words. Being quiet and apart from the real world is essential to the craft of writing. Yet, it’s the very thing I often find most difficult to do. If being a hermit – or a writer – were easy, everyone would do it.

The fine balance I keep aiming for is to be in the world but not of it. In it, but not excessively. In it, but still available to my own thoughts and wish for poached pears. As my publisher, Dream of Things press in the person of writer Mike O’Mary, prepares to relaunch my memoir Swimming with Maya as an eBook and paperback, the balance I’m talking about will be challenged.

It is difficult – some would say impossible – to promote a book and write at the same time.  I’m taking steps to ensure that I can, including meeting with my writing group to set goals specifically for writing early in January, signing up for an Amherst method writing workshop in February and March, and rededicating myself to writing first thing in the morning several times a week. It would be great if I could do it daily, but I’m a realist, and I know there are mornings when exercising or meditating first thing will take priority.

Living takes priority. So, as Eugenides advises, we can play dead in order to advance our art, but in the end, guess what, we’re still here. Those poached pears are still calling. The cats still need food and vet visits. And you will be seeing me at the office.

Enjoy this “time out of time” and celebrate the dawn of 2013. May it be a year filled with balance, quietude, good words, and equally good food. In other words, life.

The Why Question

December 18, 2012
Question Mark

Question Mark (Photo credit: auntiepauline)

Their smiles kill me.  A six year old’s gap-tooth grin flashes on the TV screen and I sob. As a grieving parent with 20 years of experience – and believe me, grief is a job – I mourn knowing there’s always more in the bank of tears. The mass killing in Newtown deposited a payload.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” one blogger posted, quoting Voltaire.  At this moment, America is writing an epic of sorrow.

“Just wait for the funerals. Our heartbreak has just begun,” I told a friend who was crying outside the grocery store.

What can anyone possibly say to families in Newtown, Connecticut whose children will not be there to open presents on Christmas morning? For the rest of their lives, at every family gathering, there will always be a missing person.

Will tougher gun control laws or increased access to mental health services – or any of the dozens of other things we might do – bring them comfort? I hope so. But nothing we do or say will bring back their sons and daughters.

My 19-year-old daughter Maya died not because anyone willfully harmed her, thank God, but because of the confluence of bad luck and bad judgment. For years, the question why looped through my brain.  Why did Maya get on a horse bareback? Why did she end up with a devastating brain injury instead of a sprained ankle or broken arm? Why didn’t I teach her to be more careful? Why wasn’t the horse fenced or tethered? The litany is endless.

” Why” is the Big Kahuna in our search for meaning. In the wake of the mass killings in Newtown, the why question will take center stage. Even when we’ve plumbed the motives of the shooter in excruciating detail, we will never know for certain why he went on a murderous rampage aimed at six-year-olds.

After Maya died, a friend gave me this button: “Clinical studies show there are no answers.” Finally, I let go of asking why. But it took years.

“What” is a far better question. What will we do now as a society to protect our children? What can I do to comfort others and myself? What will bring more love and compassion into this world? Searching for those answers might actually lead to change and healing.

Our president asks, “Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”

I hope and pray our answer is “Hell, no!” Let’s channel our energies into finding practical, loving steps forward.

Tears are, indeed, the language of grief. But that language, when we listen with care, can ultimately lead to a commitment to do better by ourselves and our kids.

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.

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.

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.


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