A Good Bike Ride, a Better Life Lesson

Eli is my 5-year-old grandson. He is one of the best things about living life, along with my two grown daughters – the oldest a medical assistant and Eli’s mom and the youngest a junior in college.

I get to spend every Tuesday afternoon and evening with Eli. He is a great kid – like all grandkids are, I know. He is very intuitive and wise and pretty quick with a joke or a poignant line, too.

Last week it was warm and sunny when I picked Eli up at pre-school, so we got his bike and hopped on the Manhan Rail Trail and headed to the Family Dollar store for some whiffle balls and a basketball.

We got a good rubber ball to use with the basketball hoop as well as a Nerf sword, because we only have one sword at my house and that makes it hard to have a fair fight.

It was too nice to head home so we headed further down the bike path toward Eastworks, and when Eli got tired of riding, directly behind Eastworks, we played games, like sword ball, using the sword as a bat to hit the big ball. We are a resourceful team.

Then I noticed a path down to Lower Mill Pond, and we stowed the toys in the dollar store bag and headed down to the water, me holding brambles back so Eli could pass through unscathed. We were talking dramatic talk about adventures and blazing trails.

I imagined our little trek would offer Eli the kind of experience I used to have exploring Ephram’s Cove, near to my parents’ summer home on Lake Winnisquam. I wanted to walk along the stretch of shore we could see from the bike path and look for signs of life.

What we saw instead was a whole lot of trash – empty water bottles, soda bottles, take-out containers and even a pack of diaper wipes. They were floating and lying in the muck.

Ew,” I said to him. “Gross. Let’s go that way.” I pointed to a shore around the bend, thinking it must be cleaner over there, but in fact, it was worse. There was an abandoned makeshift campsite there, including a filthy sleeping bag, tarp and backpack.

Don’t step on anything,” I said.

At the other shoreline, Eli walked right up to the water’s edge. “Don’t step in the water,” I said. Too late. He is 5, after all. His size 11 boots were submerged. Looking down, I saw a floating hypodermic needle.

OK Eli,” I said. “We’re out of here.”

But before we left, there was one opportunity for a nature moment. We saw a tree gnawed narrow at the base and ready to topple.

What do you suppose did that Eli?” I asked.

Beavers!” he hollered.

I asked him to look for the beavers’ house, and he spotted the dam nearby. Then, we beat it out of there.

We walked around to the front of Eastworks, washed our hands in the bathroom and then gobbled down a couple of burgers and fries. Eli stuck a piece of dried ketchup over his eyebrow; it looked just like a scab, and he couldn’t wait to feign injury to his mother.

However yucky our little woods foray was, it did provide a good teaching opportunity. We talked a lot about littering and the “pack it in pack it out mantra.” I got the chance to say, “It’s really gross to leave your trash in the woods. You need to always remember to carry it until you get to a trash can.”

Ya,” Eli said. “Because nature is not a trash can, Grammy.”

Exactly.

Turning My Attention to Life

I stopped doing public readings from my memoir, Divine Renovations, last fall. It was a rather abrupt shift, since I’d been doing readings and signings at least three or four times a month since March 2013.

Suddenly, I just realized it was time to move away, to step forward.

Divine Renovations tells the story of meeting my late husband, Ed Godleski, and then losing him to metastatic lung cancer eight years later. It is a very personal story, a raw story, and my reason for putting it out there was to help people cope with grief because I found it so very difficult. It was also a story I felt compelled to tell because I loved Ed so much.

The book was difficult to publish, on a personal level, as it reveals that I left my first husband after meeting Ed; Ed was the catalyst that shook me out of a long-term depression and gave me forward momentum. The book also shows that in the months immediately following Ed’s death, I relied heavily on prescription medicine – and Nyquil – to cope.

It was mortifying to put that information out in to the world, but I am a journalist, and I believe in the truth. I believe in telling the whole story, and well, those truths are part of my story.

During a reading last September in a private home, with about eight women who were all members of a book group, I got the distinct impression that I was being judged by them. Maybe this is because one of the women said she didn’t like that I took medication while caring for my grandson.

I remember wondering what else she didn’t like about me.

The next reading was in Amherst with a group of widows and widowers who were gathered together by the bereavement counselor at Hospice of the Fisher Home. This was the most impactful reading I did out of all of them.

There was a woman in the group, who, like me, had known her husband only a short time, and she felt her grief was not as valid as that of the others in her group who’d been married to the same person for a lifetime.

“I hadn’t planned on reading this passage,” I told her before reading her a few paragraphs from the prologue of my book, in which I state that I think people don’t understand my grief because I knew Ed for such a short time. “But I want you to hear it.”

She sobbed while I read, and afterwards said, “That’s the first time I have felt understood. I feel like you wrote those words just for me.”

I read other passages of the book, and there was a profound and moving discussion with the members of this bereavement group. We all took turns weeping. They asked me many questions. They said I inspired them. They said seeing how healthy and happy I was made them know they were going to be okay.

This experience made me feel good about having written the book. Clearly, I had helped these people – perhaps only in those moments – but I helped them nevertheless.

I decided that was a good place to end my book tour with such a solid feeling of accomplishment. I wanted to protect myself from being judged, but I also wanted to protect myself from grief. Each time I did a reading, it delivered me back into my pain, and I wanted to remove myself from it.

Ed is still a daily part of my life. I always keep thoughts of him close, and I continue to promote the book online, where it’s available as an ebook. But I have officially joined life. I focus on my children, my grandson, my boyfriend, my work, and I am writing a second book – a love story that’s a work of fiction.

This blog will now be a place where I write about life – children, love, good health and those things that make us smile or laugh and otherwise inspire us.

I’m looking forward to engaging in life.

 

 

Reviewing a Colleague’s Work

Fred Contrada is a longtime reporter for The Republican of Springfield.

I know Fred because in the late 80s and early 90s, we were colleagues, working together at the newspaper in its Northampton bureau, searching for good stories and getting them out.

Fred was also a neighbor in Florence, Mass., where I lived until 2007, and for several years in the 90s, we were in a fiction writing workshop together.

Fred has a great nose for news. He’s a skeptical guy, and so he knows how to ask tough questions and dig deep. He has a no-nonsense approach to news. Fred’s fiction carries the same weight, and like news and real life, it is serious, sometimes harsh and raw.

I knew this from the work I read of his in the writing group. Fred was prolific, and whenever it was his turn to show us a finished piece or chapter, his work was clean, polished; it would always shock you out of your safety net. His protaganists were hikers on long, rugged and solitary journeys and misfits who tended to wander.

In the years since I moved away from Florence, Fred has self-published four major works. As soon as I learned that his good work was in book form – in February – I wanted one.

It was tough to choose from his available titles, but I picked “New Orleans Stories,” about a 20-something guy named Jack who lands in New Orleans hungry, fresh out of luck and with 50 cents to his name. Jack is one of Fred’s trademark wandering misfits, a guy who sleeps on a bare mattress and has a tendency to get so drunk he can’t think.

In the early chapters of this page-turner, Jack settles in to the French Quarter with the help of a preacher man named Haystack, who takes Jack in, but after Haystack proves to me more of a sexual predator than a man of spirit, Jack moves on and finds his own place, a quaint yellow cottage he rents for about 60 bucks a month.

While this book – and the image of the cottage on the cover of the book – really fueled the fire that has become my desire to travel and explore, it also put a damper on my need to visit New Orleans.

Jack is surrounded by other wandering misfits. There are prostitutes, jailbirds who get hired to work on a painting crew alongside him, transvestites who walk the streets, and a young teenaged woman Jack falls in love with. She has a toddler and seems like a young dear who could give Jack a family, but she too can’t be trusted; she turns out to be an abusive mother who coats her baby’s pacifier with whiskey to calm it down, and she has sex with another man in Jack’s bed.

Fred’s characters are multifaceted, victims of life’s oppression who don’t know how to move forward or get out of their own way.

Jack, for instance, is by no means a freak. He is well-read and spends a good deal of his time reading books so heady I haven’t cracked their bindings, and he is a good and ethical man. But at the book’s end, he has gone nowhere. Fast.

There’s another fellow who is good and kind and so insecure he needs Jack to travel with him on a long and rather random trip to find a job that the guy doesn’t hold for very long. And there is Cat, a man who seems to think he is a cat; he refers to his hands as paws and tends to “meow” when asked a question.

I highly recommend New Orleans Stories – and any of Fred’s books. His characters are rich and alive, and they will force you to think and confront worlds very much outside your own.

Fred’s three other available titles are: Dorchester Ave, Trager Stories and The Trail. Dorchester Ave is available on amazon.com. To order the others, email Fred at fcontrada@comcast.net.

Fred continues to write for The Republican, and he has a column that runs every Thursday. You can find his journalistic work on MassLive.com.

 

Inspired by Author Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg has always been one of my favorite authors. Her books are so real and her characters feel like friends I have known forever.

In the past six months, I was lucky enough to find two Berg titles I’d never read before in used bookstores. They both focused around women who had lost their husbands.

“Home Safe” is a novel about a woman whose husband dies suddenly, and after her accountant lets her know her investments are almost a million dollars short of what she might have expected, she has to unravel the mystery of what her husband did with that money. This book also looks at the relationship Helen has with her daughter Tessa.

Berg’s “The Year of Pleasures” is about Bette Nolan, a children’s book author who upends her life after her husband dies of cancer, selling their brownstone in Boston for over a million dollars and moving to a small town near Chicago, Ill., to do she knows not what.

While it was hard to relate to the financial status of both of these women, who had security and money to spend – seeing as I lost my job four days before Ed died and had to struggle to figure out how I would save my house. But I related to them nonetheless.

I loved Helen’s innocence. She was also a writer, but of adult fiction, and she began to find herself by teaching writing in her grief. I did the same thing, leading writing workshops for senior citizens in the months after Ed died.

Helen also went head to head with a daughter she loves very much, and in the end came to terms with the fact that her daughter is an individual – separate from her, with her own thoughts and feelings. I have been on that journey as well.

It was “The Year of Pleasures” that touched me most deeply, though. I read it in February while on vacation in Florida, and as I lay on the beach, I had a series of epiphanies.

After Ed died, I remember each time I got in my car, I wanted to go on a journey. I wanted to get on the highway and drive and drive and plunk myself down somewhere. Anywhere. I think I saw it as a way to get away, but I didn’t do it because I knew I had to take myself – and my grief – with me, so there was no point.

But learning about Bette up and leaving made me realize there is still a part of me that feels a tug to be somewhere else, do something different, and so I began to pay attention to that. I realized I don’t want to spend just one week of the year in Florida, for instance. I want to spend a month there, to start, and eventually, I want to stay the whole winter.

Thanks to Berg and Bette, I have started dreaming of these things, and I’ve even made contact with a realtor in Florida.

Bette also dreams and schemes about setting up a shop just for women in this new town of hers, and she got me thinking again that I’d like to have a shop of my own. I’d like to sell the crafts I make along with things like book I like, eclectic items that make clever reuse of ordinary objects, and I’d like to host events for women and mother-daughter outings.

Berg got me fired up, and I am actively dreaming and making plans.

The first step on opening the shop was cleaning up the largest section of my basement two weeks ago to create a space in which I can make things. Now, I get to start the making part and then figure out how to sell my wares – and what else to sell.

Thank you Elizabeth Berg for giving me characters that help soothe me in my grief, characters who understand what it is to lose someone you love. And thank you for lighting a fire in my soul. You will take me to the next step in my coming alive.

Full of Gratitude for Life – Every Day

Note: This is the third of three parts of a piece about how losing her mother at 11 years old has shaped Lisa Marie Leary, a student at Westfield State University who is interning with Beetle Press this semester.

By Lisa Marie Leary

Losing my mom also came with questions that could never be answered.

One of the most difficult things to deal with after losing her was coming out as bisexual. I always regretted that I had not talked to her about it before she passed away, although my dad assured me that she would have loved me and accepted me.

Then, on the first day of high school, I met a girl who would become my best friend, and who I would slowly fall in love with over the course of a year. I’m left always wondering what my mom would think of her if they had the chance to meet.

My life has become separated into two categories: people who knew my mom and people who didn’t. I still have two very close friends from before she passed, but the rest of my friends know nothing of her beyond my detailed stories.

Whenever I lose another person in my life, I think of what my dad told me when my mom passed. He said, “It made me think of my mom. I missed her, and she was the one I wanted to talk to about it.” But she had passed about three years prior.

My dad was absolutely right. When my friend Mary passed away in March 2012, it was my mom I wanted to talk to, despite her never having met Mary. I cried for both of them the moment I found out about Mary, and often, when my sadness about one resurfaces, my sadness about the other isn’t far behind.

My life has also become about waiting for funerals. A part of me is startlingly aware that anyone in my life could die at any moment, made worse by the large number of people I have lost.

In addition to my mom and Mary,  I’ve also lost an aunt, a great-grandmother and a grandmother. It felt like every other month I was writing memorial Facebook statuses.

Sometimes it feels as though Peyton Sawyer, a television character who also lost her mother, is right when she says, “Everyone always leaves.”

My worst fear is not failing out of college or having someone discover a secret; it’s losing someone else that I love. I can’t name someone I am close to whose funeral I haven’t imagined.

When I don’t hear from my dad for an unusually long period of time, part of me is absolutely convinced that he is dead. I am attracted to stories about death, because characters and people who have experienced this kind of loss are bound to understand me. I’m always ready to cry along with them and a part of me is crying for my own losses as I do.

That’s not to say that acknowledging that life isn’t permanent is always negative. Almost all of the time, it is positive encouragement for me. I know that I could lose the people in my life, so I appreciate them.

When I graduated from high school, I wrote over 20 letters to all the people for whom I had “unsaid feelings,” including friends but also acquaintances and people I disliked.

I’ll be the first person to put aside homework to spend time with a friend or family member, and people can expect me to try my hardest to show up at events they plan.

The phrase goes: “live like you are dying,” and I’m not perfect at it, but I certainly do think about it at least once every day. It has made me vastly more grateful, the kind of person who has a jar filled with at least one good thing about every day in 2014.

People tell me I’m empathetic, caring, honest, optimistic and as close to being stress-free as they have ever seen, but it wasn’t always this way.

I owe the best decisions of my life to losing my mom – including the decision I make every morning to make the best out of whatever happens that day.

 

Inspired to Write Down the Pain

Note: This is the second of three parts of a piece about how losing her mother at 11 years old has shaped Lisa Marie Leary, a student at Westfield State University who is interning with Beetle Press this semester.

By Lisa Marie Leary

Growing up, I always knew my parents were my biggest supporters. That didn’t change when my mom passed when I was 11.

I felt a strong need to honor my connection to them – particularly my connection to my mom – and so, in seventh grade, armed with a notebook and many pens, I started a journey of writing about the year after her passing.

I had always been a writer, but my short fictional children’s books lacked substance and dedication. My mom spent many hours of her life listening to my stories, rubbing my back as I created characters for her.

I wrote for six months and ended up with a type-written, 365-page account of my life in 2004-2005, starting with the day that she passed and ending with my first visit to Camp Angel Wings, a camp for children who have lost someone close to them. I called my novel An Angel’s Wings.

My dad encouraged me to print the book out at a local free “book-creating” program that met weekly. Every other participant had created short picture books. The supervisor of the club was so impressed with my work that she passed on my book to the mayor of my hometown, Fall River.

The mayor met with me and gave me a citation for my work. The book was dedicated, of course, to my mom.

The experience prompted me to keep writing. I haven’t stopped working on writing fiction since, and occasionally, I write poetry.

I don’t know if I would have started writing as much as I did, or with as much passion, if it weren’t for losing my mom. I also don’t know if I would have had the same energy and commitment to this work without the support and love of my dad.

He and I had a very different relationship before my mom passed. Although we were always close, I saw him as the “strict one” and my mom as the one with her head and heart in the clouds.

After her passing, I saw a new side of my dad and our relationship. Every Sunday, he would sit down with me to talk about my mom in our little “therapy sessions,” as we call them now.

After my book was finished, he and I took turns reading chapters aloud to one another. I remember that while he was reading one of the scenes in the memoir where I am surveying my empty house after my mom’s death, my dad began to cry.

Before my mom’s death, I identified her as my best friend; she was television’s Lorelai to my Rory Gilmore.

Afterward, my dad slowly became like a Lorelai to me as we grew a uniquely honest and witty relationship, filled with inside jokes and long-car-ride stories, that has only grown to this day.

I called my mom “Mama Chicken” as a kid, and now I call my dad “Old Man” and “Dad Biscuit,” as he is identified in my cell phone.

Even though I’m a college junior, my Dad Bisquit contact is the most used in my list, hands down.

Here’s the excerpt from my book that moved my dad to tears as he read it to me aloud:

Mama, where are you when I truly need you? Dead, which is why I’m crying in the first place. This seems like a never-ending cycle of sadness. You die, I cry, and when I cry I need you to make me feel better, but you’re dead, which is why I’m crying anyway.

 

Shaped by Loss and a Mother’s Love

I have been writing about grief now for several years, focusing on other people as much as I can. I think it’s helpful to have many perspectives on grief because everyone’s experience is different.

As part of my work in running my business, (www.beetlepress.com), I supervise interns from Westfield State University, and this semester, my intern is Lisa Marie Leary of Fall River. She is a junior, and she is exceptionally bright, but also incredibly intuitive and wise for someone who is poised to turn 21 in a matter of weeks.

She looks like a flower child with her long, straight purple hair and her short lacey skirts. But she is no part of flighty. She knows herself well, and she has both academic and emotional intelligence.

Lisa Marie lost her mother when she was 11 years old. I wanted to give her the opportunity to blog about how that loss has shaped her, and I wanted readers to have the opportunity to hear from this amazing young lady. Over the next three weeks, Lisa Marie will tell you her insightful and powerful story.

Here is the first excerpt.

By Lisa Marie Leary

I’ve never liked the word grief. To me, it just doesn’t describe the experience of losing someone that you love – that moment when you realize that they are gone forever.

There really is no word for it, but I like “melancholy.” In the book Because of Winn-Dixie, which was one of my favorite books as a child, a young girl describes missing her mom as “melancholy.” In that book, her mother left the family when she was just a baby, and I found that I could relate to that feeling after my mom passed away when I was 11 years old.

I’ve found that there are just as many expectations and truths about how people will grieve as there are actual, genuine feelings that come. The first expectation was a truth for me: You will be bone-achingly sad when the person dies. I felt this way when my mom died, but before and since then, I have also lost aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and a close friend.

I did not always feel the kind of life-changing loss and complete sadness, and sometimes I felt guilty for that. That’s the thing about grief, about melancholy: it is messy, and it doesn’t always feel the way you expect it to.

Another expectation that wasn’t true for me is that you will be sensitive about your loss, tender in that place. This is true every once in a while, but a vast majority of the time, I don’t need people to tiptoe around my feelings.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want people to censor “your mom” jokes. I enjoy being asked about my mom, and I don’t think that we should stop talking about someone when they die.

I think that often the hardest part for people to understand is that losing my mom has changed me—and it affects everything that I do and every decision that I make—but it isn’t necessarily always in a sad way. I’m not at home every afternoon writing poetry about death and crying over last Mother’s Day, although I have done both at times.

A lot of the time, I’m grateful for how my life has turned out. This was especially hard for me to admit at first, but a lot of beauty has come from losing my mom. I remember the moment that I realized it, when I was looking through a bag of her things.

I found a binder of her miscellaneous writings. Inside was her hand-copied The Beatitudes, which is a list of what good can come from a loss. It felt like she was telling me that it was okay to be happy with what my life was becoming.