The White Tiger

There are things which have been taken from the earth. Species extinct, clean waters defiled, shorelines eroded, ice caps melted. These things may never return. Still, I can wake up in the morning and see the sun coming up, though always it is the earth which has been moving. There is what is gone, what has remained, and what will likely be destroyed at some time.

In 2012, at the end of October, flood water entered my house during a storm. This shattered a certain sense of security I had been accustomed to. I had lived my life without fear of water gushing in, of cars floating and residual mud soaking my belongings. Yet, this is a time in my memory where I snuggled two small children against me. They slept close to me the first night, in a twin bed at the home of relatives, as the water came in and lifted the floor boards in the living room. They giggled as we wandered Park Slope for a few days, before we could go home. We picked up leaves and stones for our “nature box”. We went out for donuts and spoke to strangers about our displacement. We returned home, to clean and dry things and figure out what to do next. I would trade anything to return to those days, because Susanna was here and had not died yet.

About a week before Superstorm Sandy, I dreamt of a grey cloud which turned into a white tiger in the sky. This tiger said to me, “Don’t worry, help is on the way”. In retrospect, the tiger did not manifest the way I wanted it to. I wanted it to be an exclusively auspicious omen, not one involving a natural disaster. Yet, help did come eventually. No one was able to stop the flood from entering, but I was never alone and was frequently offered kindness. Strangers knocked on the door to bring us things, for months to come. Help was on the way and help had always been there.

If I have learned one thing during the past four and a half years, it is that having bad things happen does not make me different from other people. It makes me the same. We either lose everyone or leave everyone, life here is temporary and loss hurts. I am no longer free to ignore this, nor do I want to.  I will never understand how someone so wonderful, genuine and selfless can die and not be here anymore. I have lost someone whose presence was immeasurable. But there is a lot that cannot be taken by misfortune. Love and the memories that go with it, those cannot be. I carry Susanna with me, this I know.

storm photo tigers (2)




The salt marsh across the street from the park was overgrown today. Plush, shaggy and sodden. I decided to take a lap around while out walking in the rain. I was calling it a “mist” in my imagination, planning to use this word if anyone questioned my being out, but it was raining. I needed the walk more than I needed to be dry or to appear sensible.

The path dribbles off to the side in a few places, providing spotty benches for couples or cyclists to sit and look at the marsh. This path is not a circle, it wavers, rises and dips over hills, and even provides forks in the road where you must decide which way to go.

I have walked through here many times, but this was the first during which the opulent overgrowth completely obstructed the view of the gravel path. I was surprised by this but felt drawn in, as if I had been invited by some unseen force to be here. I put one foot in front of the other and used my memory to direct me, because I could see nothing but the rich grasses and a little piece of foot path right in front of me. This made me think of my coursework about teaching the visually impaired. If one is congenitally blind, there is no knowledge of what something looks like so navigation is all about using the other senses. If one is adventitiously blind, memory of sight can provide a roadmap of how to move. I was following blindly but this territory was not new to me. The long grasses reached all the open places in my trench coat and brushed water across my legs. This was the most spectacular walk I have been on for some time.

I listened for cicadas and katydids, the sounds that remind me of being a kid going back to school in early September. A couple of years ago I wrote this haiku:


Cicada season

Crying outside the closed door

Only one comes out.


By some standards, I know, haiku is supposed to be about nature. Me, a school door, picking up one child instead of two. I believe this pain has brought me to a place better understood by the cicadas and the deep grass than by any human means. Nature, and nature only, can swallow loss and put it in perspective. One cicada does not live long, but the song of cicadas will be there for the long run.

It is a rough time of year, September. There is no longer time to clean my house or ponder or just be. Susanna is not here to go to school and add to the list of stationary supplies I need to pick up. Susanna is not here to pick out new clothes. Susanna is not here to cheer me up. Susanna is not here. I feel full of cement. I feel full of toxins. I feel full of tears. There may be any number of things to complain about or to deal with, but nothing compares to her absence.



Samsara, Nirvana and Cosmic Mishegoss

Samsara. I am not a scholar of eastern religions, but I know that samsara is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This is a cycle you want to complete so you can get out of here, this world of suffering. I want this completion. I want to use the rest of my time here gainfully, so I can complete my mission. I do not want to keep coming back here to lose the people I love anymore. There is love and beauty here but from what I understand there is even more of that when you get to nirvana. I can not know how many lifetimes I have left but I want to move it along.

This has been a long and confusing week to end a long and confusing summer, one characterized by things I did not expect. I feel trapped in a cosmic mishegoss, to be honest. Spell check does not recognize that word, it is a Yiddish word my sister said recently that she likes to use. But I mean I am upside down, backwards and do not have the energy to rectify my position.

In agricultural societies, summer ends with the promise of the harvest. Work coming to fruition with bushelfuls of whatever you planted. I await this as I await cooler, drier and less odiferous Brooklyn air. I have asked the universe for help and I believe help will be coming, in its own time.

In these days of photographing children on their first day of school and showing these photographs to the whole world, I choose not to do so. I have a living child I am terribly proud of. As all children starting back to school, he is approaching adulthood at an earth- shattering speed. He is preparing to enter the magnificent and horrifying world of being a grown person, with all of that living ahead of him. I do celebrate this.

I do not want to take his picture because (in addition to the fact that he does not like to be photographed) I still look at him through my camera lens and see a brother who is missing a sister. I can not create a picture without a gaping hole in it. This image does not go away, it just gets more complex and harder to explain. If Susanna were here, she would look so strange next to her brother. I have no pictures of her any older than five, but I absolutely feel like she was here five minutes ago. Hard to explain. But I do not want that type of picture without her in it.

When we were visiting family in Cape Cod recently, we saw a little girl in an ice cream parlor who, my son and I agreed, looked like Susanna. She was carrying a bottle of glittery nail polish. I wished that she could have been Susanna and we could have taken her home with us. This would not make sense, but my heart does not observe time and logic the same way we are expected to here on this earth plane.

That little girl, with the bottle of nail polish, was with a few other curly headed children and a couple of fathers. I noticed that she wanted gummy bears on top of her ice cream, but this was denied. “No, we are not getting toppings, just a nice big scoop of ice cream”, explained the rational father. There is nothing wrong with this, not allowing some extra thing for whatever reason such as expense, sugar and chemical content, or risking a stomach ache. Yet I inwardly wanted to intervene and tell that father that life is short and there should be gummy bears. I sometimes want to scream into the world that today might be the last day you can give your child a one hundredth hug, or some candy, or a trip to the playground after dark. This may be the last day you will hear that cranky preteen yell at you and blame you for something you do not understand, so maybe you should let that go and apologize blindly. Most of the time, children grow up. But in my cosmic mishegoss, one of mine did not and this will always affect my viewpoint.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I do know this: when I can choose to allow my own suffering, when I give up on outrunning the tears that fill up inside and make me feel like I am drowning, I start to feel like my suffering is not mine alone. I feel not just my lonely pain but the pain of the other parents who are not sending their child to school this week. The mother and father who wanted a child so badly but lost their children to miscarriage. The family that has no child to send, because the child they lost was their only child, or they lost more than one. Maybe someone’s child is in the hospital fighting a disease. The situations and the tears are endless. But when I open myself up enough to know I am not the only one who hurts, this seems to make room for some of the tearful joy and sweetness to creep back too, ever so slowly.

When I head back to work to be a teacher again, I will bring Susanna’s pink plaid backpack, the one with the little suitcase tag on which she had written her name. I have done this every year. The backpack is showing signs of wear, so I bring it for a week or so then revert to my own. I do this because I miss her. I do this because Susanna loved her school, her daycare center. She called it the best school in the world and told me she never wanted to go to another one. She never did. I carry it and I remember that my daughter was here, she existed, and she woke up cheerfully every day eager to be kind to her friends and learn to write letters and numbers. If we all lived as well as she did, we would not have much karma to deal with at all. I miss you so much, Susanna, my beautiful baby, and wish you were here. I will see you again. Peace.

A Ghost Story

Before we lived here our house had grown wild. We do not know all the details. From what I understand, there was a span of time when no one lived here.  There had been some attempts at restoration, and some repairs made in the living room, first floor bedroom and bath. It was obvious, however, that no heat had pumped through during some New York winters since we discovered multiple holes in the steam pipes and chunks of coarse, crumbled metal where the boiler had disintegrated. We did not know anyone to ask how long the abandonment had lasted other than the stray cats in the backyard, who did not welcome us.

After the minimal initial repairs and arduous mortgage approval, we moved in to make it our own. The first night, Susanna in utero and my son approaching his first birthday, we slept on a mattress in that first- floor bedroom. We had moved from one neighborhood over, walking distance. This new neighborhood had pieces of open, star spattered sky. Somehow the air was cooler. Somehow this house had become our destiny. On our first Thanksgiving, we were awakened to a surprise parade going right by our house, including Sesame Street characters and a marching band. A unique neighborhood tradition we could not have foreseen.

There was first a restoration of the kitchen, which had a big hole in the floor where the refrigerator and washer/dryer needed to go. This preceded the biggest part of the makeover by about a year. The crux was when S.O. decided to use his adequate savings to tear off the roof and siding and rebuild the entire second floor. Rented dumpsters filled with scads of house flesh. Worn brown outer walls were replaced with pale blue vinyl. By now, Susanna had arrived and grown old enough to complain that she wanted a pink house. The most exhilarating point was when I arrived home from work one day to see many extra workmen using compressors to grind and tear into everything that needed to go. This preceded coming home to a house so transformed it seemed a new one. The house was rebuilt, thoroughly almost to the bone, but there was destiny yet to meet.

During Superstorm Sandy there was the flood water which rose up under a full moon at high tide, to reach far enough to unexpectedly wash in. Afterward we scrubbed away mud and replaced tainted flooring and sheetrock. I greeted a new sadness, a mistrust of the universe and would have thought it a low point. I was disheveled and looked at videos posted of those floodwaters sometimes and cried. My two small children noticed and would ask that I not watch the flood anymore.

Two years later, Susanna’s brain aneurysm ballooned and ruptured. There were no signs of this, no symptoms. I am writing about that night these days. That occurrence, my discovering what had happened to my daughter when I saw her face, in the living room, that is a crucial turning point in my life. I wonder if my wild house absorbed the shock and pain, whether some of it will speak from inside the walls when we no longer live here. I wonder if that pain was so great that it will outlive me.

If walls can soak up emotions and experiences, my family and I have contributed much to layer upon the veneer. There will be the giggles and mirth of two happy small children playing and watching cartoons. There will be the courageous and energetic laughter of a young man who has learned to live well in honor of his sister, so much work that a child should not need to face. There will be a love and romance which repeatedly transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and an unthinkable common tragedy. There will be more than the anguished cries of three people in pain, but that will be here. I can not erase it or scrub it off, so I will honor it as a most important part of our history.

There is no point in the story of my house where I was alone. Nor when my small family was alone. There were the workmen who painstakingly took the house apart and replaced its body. There were the people in the marching band who paraded by our house that Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving since. There were all the people who came that night, the crucial night, to help revive Susanna and get her to the hospital. And the people who came to stay and try to soothe us when she did not come home. I am convinced that we come here not just as a part of one tribe but a multitude of tribes. There are the great many humans we can see, plus the great many other discarnate we cannot. There are the connections we make with the rest of the world plus all those which happen beyond our understanding.  Just as Susanna’s story did not end after the five short years she was a resident of this wild house, my story does not end here either. There is more to be lived and more to be revealed. Peace.

Grief Sandwich

subway photoI have been watching “The Perfect Storm” today. Not the finest cinema, but I love to watch water and especially waves on film. I do not swim, and have not often been in the ocean, but looking at it makes me feel things that I know are eternal. Colder than cold, bigger than the biggest things. I am crying as the fishermen die. I imagine a next scene where they wake up in another room as if nothing has happened. They are still wearing their fishing gear, perhaps, but any cuts, injuries or illnesses have been healed. They joyously compare notes on dying and reunite with countless loved ones. Honestly, I think it is like that.

My mother is dying. We all are at some time, but she is ninety and has advanced dementia. Her death is approaching. She was calling me at times until a couple of weeks ago, without knowing who I was. After picking up I would hear her usual cheerful “hello”, and I experienced the sound of that as precious testimony to her soul still being here. Somehow, and I do not completely understand this, I have felt as if I am talking to a very young baby who has just been born into my family. Her voice sounds prescient and her existence seems miraculous. We are all evidence of a magnificent force, but we do not remember this most of the time. Also, I cannot understand why my mother is experiencing this illness. It hurts me. I do not know why anyone suffers in this way, confused and alone and afraid. It is not fair.

It is different for the sick and elderly to die than for a young child to die. Susanna was perfect, healthy and joyous. No one knew that she was going to leave so suddenly. When an old person has been suffering and lost her independence, we say death is a blessing. When a family loses a child, we say this is a tragedy and nothing is ever the same. These are big truths.

This summer I am feeling like I am the center of a grief sandwich. My mother, my daughter, me in the middle. I am going to survive both, and I need to live. I dare say that there have been some moments during the last couple of years, as my mother began to undeniably slip away, that I felt jealous of her for being able to leave soon. I long so much to reach out to my little girl, touch her and hold her and speak to her. My mother, also, has a baby on the other side, a little boy, my older brother. I imagine that after losing him she may have envied the dying as well. I am so happy for her that she will see him. I know with everything I have that there is reunion.

One time I had a dream that I was sitting at a table talking to some people who had crossed over. I do not remember who they were. One of them said, “I love being on this side, because it is much easier to help people from over here”. I do not know if everyone becomes so selfless, maybe we need to choose that like we do when we are here alive. My mother was a nurse for many decades in her community. She worked often on weekends to care for those who were old and sick and difficult to be around. (My older sister does the same thing. As did many of my ancestors, according to a spirit medium I spoke to, but that story is for another day). This is her turn now, to be cared for. But I do not think any acts of love and kindness are lost, they somehow get absorbed into the ethers with all the other love. And eventually love comes back. Peace.




Freedom and Trepidation

It feels like this: You have been living in a wire cage for months. You have a bowl of food and a bottle of water, which seem to replenish themselves, and a decent bed. You can see through the bars, contemplating the things outside. Thinking of all the things you might do “out there”. You wonder about the choices existing in the freedom of time/space, as you complacently (or not) perform your daily routines, knowing that one day, late in June, the door will be open, and you will be free for TWO MONTHS plus a few days. You know that, most likely, this freedom will expire in September and you will return to the same place, same bowl, bottle, bed. But will you have changed? Will you be happier and better able to cope?

Summer for a teacher who is, to borrow a phrase from an adjunct professor I once knew, “untethered”, begins with trepidation. For me, just like one summer a couple of years ago, it is also beginning with vertigo. No sooner had I walked out the door on the last day of school when my head began spinning so to speak. I went to sleep early and sick. There are a few issues to consider here, but one is that the free time to come has scared me a bit.

Everyone has an inner life, and a past which is not completely dealt with. My inner world waits for me. Susanna, by the way, is there. She is there somewhere always but in the free summertime I can hear her more clearly.

I relaxed yesterday, hoping to heal my dizzy woes, and turned on a Netflix movie called “Brain on Fire”. The protagonist was named Susanna(h). With an H. I watched Chloe Grace Moretz portray her, a likeable young lady, and relished hearing everyone say this name. I became lost in the idea of an alternative story, as I sometimes do. A story about my Susanna living her life to become twenty one, to grow up and graduate from school and have a job and all, to have a woman’s body, and then be stricken with a brain illness. A tragedy, but with more years for me to be with her. If she had to die, at least could it happen later?

Other times, I imagine writing another story. Susanna has had her brain aneurysm and is cognitively and physically impaired, not able to speak again, living in a wheelchair. But she is happy and smiles when I tell her I love her, and she lives longer than me. This is something else that might have happened. Of course, I wonder too what would be if my daughter did not get sick at all. This, unfortunately, though what I want, is something I cannot see anymore. Frankly, imagining that hurts too much. I can see up to the horizon beyond my wire cage, but not the majestic mountains beyond there, where I am with her. That will have to wait.

So, I kept watching and saw Susannah with an H suffer, her parents not getting answers about what was wrong. Then, I saw the smiles as healing became possible, and Susannah with an H got better and used her memoir to help others (a true story, worth knowing about). I cried the tears I had been storing up and wanting to release as soon as this June approached its end. I cried because my Susanna did not get better, she died, after less than a day of anyone being aware that she was sick. When I have fewer obligations, I let these kinds of tears out and I think they will always grow back. There is no end to this, nothing makes it better.

I cried also for this young woman who healed and noted that she had become stronger. You know what? I have done that too. I have done it for me and for my Susanna, the one without an H, but the one who walks with me every day and survives in my heart. I made it through a school year and this year I did not feel too anxious to get out of bed in the morning, even once. I talked about a future and began to prepare for one. I did my job and earned my pay. I lived a little, played the flute, read and wrote some and took care of myself and my family. I am unequivocally still here. I cry for this too, because I did not know if I could make it this far, but here I am. No longer dizzy this morning. I miss you Susanna, but I know you are with me, and that you and I will continue until we are completely free. I will see you on the pinnacles, and every step along the way.


A Greenwood Cemetery Story

greenwood photo“When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”    -Maira Kalman

The air does not feel the same at a cemetery as it does at a park or other green space. Whether you have a somber purpose to be there or happen to be walking by on a peripheral sidewalk, the atmosphere is quieter and your mind attentive to where you are. Even if the stones are hundreds of years old, there is no escaping mortality when you can see graves. You not only smell the purposed earth, but you are aware of the possibility of your own return to it.

Yesterday was the third time I visited historic Greenwood Cemetery. The first time was April 30, 2014, when I stood next to my mother and tried to shelter her from the driving rain as my five- year old daughter Susanna’s body was buried in a grave with her paternal grandmother. I do not remember when I swore that I would never again visit this place. It may have been on that day, but more likely was during the following months during which it dawned on me that this unthinkable nightmare had indeed happened. I built my resolve on my belief that Susanna was with me in spirit (which I do believe) but moreover, inwardly, I felt that acknowledging her grave would be like giving up. I refused for my daughter to become a headstone, erasing her and relegating her to the same past as, say, the revolutionary war heroes I studied in my New England elementary school. We visited their resting place to make gravestone rubbings with large black crayons on rice paper.

I remained firm on my avoidance until now, although I agreed on one occasion to join my significant other to visit on Susanna’s birthday in January of 2016. I spent only a moment outside of the car, doubled over in grief and got back in to weep, avoiding the heaviness in the cold air. This strengthened my vow to stay away.

Despite my resolution to never do so, I have come a long way in accepting Susanna’s death. There will never be a moment when I do not wish she could be here, erasing what happened. There will never be a day where I will not wonder what we would be doing together or wonder what kind of spectacular woman she would have become. But I do acknowledge that the person whose body Susanna’s spirit inhabited is gone, just as we all will be when the time comes. I made the decision to go to Greenwood Cemetery because I did not want fear and denial to keep me from any place. I also had begun to wonder if there might indeed be some peace there.

I am not from Brooklyn originally but have made various parts of it my home for nearly twenty years. This is why the one bus and two subway trips were a snap. I needed to make this pilgrimage alone, on foot. My first two hazy visits to Greenwood did not entail me going to Susanna’s spot alone, nor remembering at all how to find it. I had read the map on the internet and knew the section and numbers, but these are not marked. I walked up the sometimes steep, picturesque foothills, feeling some sadness and a hollow drop in my stomach. There are peaceful names like “Lake Road” and “Magnolia Trail”. Remarkably, though, I felt no resistance to being there. Above all, I marveled at the miracle of healing that has happened within me. Grief has changed me permanently, but I believe always in life and purpose and the universe’s ability to heal, especially when you ask for it. Things are not perfect and never will be, but somehow, I have survived.

I followed the map on my phone and found the right section. I could not remember where to look for the grave. For some reason, I remembered standing on a hill at the burial, but this did not make sense. I called S.O. to ask for help, but we sometimes struggle with our language barrier over the phone. I wondered if I would have to go home without having reached Susanna. I wanted some supernatural assistance, which would have seemed fitting. An inner voice, a fluttering red breasted robin. I asked my mother-in law and Susanna for help from beyond. Help arrived in the form of a groundskeeper driving by, who absolutely could help me. I do live in the physical world among the living, after all.

I scouted out some trees that I will inquire about adopting in Susanna’s memory, which was part of this mission. As I left, I thought about the reality of choosing a pink flowering tree, which I am leaning toward. In the years to come, I would need to visit during this season when Susanna left, or I would miss the beautiful but transient blooms. I think I am okay with this. This cemetery is peaceful. Quiet, uncrowded and an acceptable place to grieve and cry and exist in more than one world. I think the first time I was there, in the rain with my mother, I remember standing on top of a hill (there is no hill) because I needed to picture myself detached from the exact spot, elevated and removed. From there, I watched my partner weep right into the rainy grave, but I was not ready to be there. Not yet.

S.O. has returned, at times, to visit Susanna and his mom, on holidays when it feels right to him. We have figured out how to grieve both together and in our own universes. Each time he has brought home loaves of bread baked the way he likes it, airy inside with hard crust, and told us they were from Susanna. I stopped at the bakery and bought some bread. I headed home to my loved ones, including the amazing son who has been able to stay here with me. I continue to be the mother of two children, who has been broken but is still here, here to tell this tale. There is more to life than life. Thank you, Susanna, for coming here for as long as you could. I love you forever.