Alaina Leary is my intern this semester with Beetle Press. She has been helping me with dozens of writing projects, and about a month ago, she wrote a series of blogs about the death of her mother, who suffered a seizure 10 years ago, when Alaina was 11.
Alaina wrote a book about this experience when she was 12. I asked her if I could read it, and she brought me a typewritten manuscript that is just shy of 400 pages. She does good work for me. Her blogs were resonant, but I wasn’t sure what to expect in a book-length piece written by a grieving pre-adolescent.
What I learned was that Alaina’s wisdom would blow my mind.
It amazes me how well someone so young captured her pain – and her healing – in a way that is incredibly poignant, full of crystal-clear moments of awareness, pain and reflection. So I have to tell you about it, even though it is dipping back into the grief realm.
I think it’s okay, though, because Alaina’s book ends on a note that is full of life and learning and longing to move forward and be strong. She and her book are symbols of hope.
Alaina’s parents were separated when her mother died. She lived with her mom in Malden, Mass., and her father lived in Fall River. So, after Patty Leary passed away, Alaina not only had to suffer through the transition of living without her mother, she also had to move to her father’s hometown, settle in a house that wasn’t so familiar, in a new school where she had no friends.
A pretty daunting task at 11.
Alaina writes in a way that is not self-pitying, though, but matter of fact. She shows us her new home, her school, the kids she is meeting, and she raises up in bas relief the moments that were life-changing: When she made her first new friend. When she discovered old voice mails from her mom on her cell phone. And this pivotal one: when she slipped a teacher a note – folded time after time into a small little square – that showed a series of drawings of her sad, sad face.
This moment was important because it led to Alaina getting assigned a counselor who helped her begin to sort through her loss and loneliness. I was so proud she was able to make herself heard.
Another critical moment in the book, also told in a way that is sharp, crystal clear and well-paced, is Alaina’s discovery of her mother’s journal, in which Patty Leary wrote about her own grief upon losing her sister, Alaina’s auntie.
Alaina tried to decipher her mother’s messages, which at first felt overwhelming and adult, so she couldn’t quite make sense of the meaning. She felt her mother’s loss deeply, and she felt empathy for her mother.
The most stunning moment in this book written by a 12-year-old, for me, was the moment when Alaina hid that journal under a pile of blankets, “because, without the weight on it, I was afraid it might come after me, begging me to read it.”
Alaina does eventually sort out the gifts her mother articulated as coming through the loss of her sister. She understands her mother’s journal entry as a message that it is okay to be happy and strong, to be alive. She becomes resilient as well as brave and funny and smart.
I was also grateful to read about Alaina’s father, an honest, hard-working cab driver who kept meticulous to-do lists and was a wordsmith who made up word games and challenges for his daughter.
It is her father who brings Alaina full circle in her healing. He signs her up for a summer camp that is focused on grief. He created a space that was safe enough for Alaina to go to him with her sadness and ask him to tell stories of when he and her mother dated. He hung around their home sketches that Alaina made of her mother.
One outward sign of Alaina’s healing was that she got reassigned in school into the class for “smart kids.”
She tells her new teacher she will show up first thing for her “shift” in the smart class and hopes she will get paid in As. “You will have to earn them,” the teacher tells her, to which Alaina replies, “I will. You have my word.”
Alaina is still earning As, with this book and with the other writing she has done in school and for me. She is wise and intelligent and as tender and compassionate as they come.
As she says at the end of the book, when we can clearly see she has not only survived but is thriving, “All this time, I thought to myself, I have been in a dark room searching for light. All I had to do was open the door!”
I am working with Alaina to see if we can get her book published. It would be a gem in the young adult market. I hope one day you can read it.