The messy best we can

I’ve never grieved before. Not like this.

I don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know where to start; I don’t know where it ends. We had so little warning. And this road map? It’s full of unnamed roads, dead ends.

We lost Alex in August. It happened so fast. My mother-in-law became sick, then rapidly sicker, and it was only weeks before we were forced to stare at the horrible truth: we had days together, not weeks. Not months. Certainly not years . . . the ones we’d planned to fill with kids’ dance recitals, long conversations, puzzles. Unbroken stretches of beach. Hot tea and cocoa at midnight. Sunshine.

It’s been inky-dark for six weeks now.

Grief has been a strange and unwelcome bedfellow. I’ve never lost someone so close to me—someone loved so dearly by everyone . . . especially my father-in-law, husband, children, and me.

We had no idea she was sick.

She had no idea she was sick.

When we finally heard it—cancer, after months of wrong and incomplete diagnoses, non-answers for her pain—I felt my stomach fall to my summer-scuffed toes. It was late June. And it was in her bones.

I cried for days. In the shower. On my lunch breaks. In my office. And I yelled. I punched my steering wheel alone in my car, after dropping my kids at summer camp, where I wouldn’t alarm my own shell-shocked husband. I stood in the kitchen and stirred pots of boxed mac and cheese with a spoon in one hand, crumpled tissues in the other. I dried my face each time my children ran in, sucking down the panic rising in my chest.

She was gone in just five weeks.

I’ve had time—so much time, really—to think about what made her so special. And the truth is that I couldn’t appreciate so much of what made her an outstanding mother until I became one myself. From the moment Oliver came crashing into the world, upending everything we knew and then some, I had her standing sentry—guiding us, laughing with us, crying with us. And cooking for us. Alex’s love language was gifts, and meals were part of her thoughtfulness. When all else failed (as it sometimes did), she fed us.

Nothing in my brain computes this loss. I’ve fretted endlessly about how to help my husband and children while feeling mired in despair myself. The kids—now 7 and 5—say little, afraid to set off more tears. I do let them see my grief, as all the experts share, but in slivers; I let them cry with me, encouraging them to share. We talk about the good times. We look at pictures.

There’s just so much I want to remember.

Remember her generosity. Her big laugh. Her way of making everyone feel comfortable and important in her presence. The genuine love she had for her family and friends—all of them. The way she took ordinary days and infused them with creativity, patience, and fun.

And she was all about action. I think of the time she painted our bedroom closet. When she rode with me to Spencer’s surgery (plus the realization that I, his wife, would be the one now receiving the surgeon’s call). The time she took the 3 a.m. feeding so Spence and I could sleep, giving us our first unbroken stretch of rest since Oliver came home from the NICU.

We loved all of the same things . . . and the same man. And Alex never seemed to question my presence at the side of her beloved only son. Now the mother of two dear children myself, I have a new appreciation for how hard that could have been.

Alex saw me at my absolute best and my frightening worst. And she never begrudged me any of it. She could absorb my pain, particularly the fear and exhaustion of new parenthood, without taking it personally. Even 360 miles away, Alex was never a guest in our home; she and my father-in-law are part of our home. Hearing her slippered feet on the stairs and whispered bedtime stories was a balm for my soul, too. I breathed easier, slept easier, when she was here.

I’d say I don’t know what we’re going to do without her, but I do: what we must. We’re going to keep moving. Appreciating the little things. Digging deep to feel grateful for the time we had with her—the love she inspired, and the love that continues still.

We’re going to do the messy best we can.

Book chat: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

The Fault In Our StarsSo I finished John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars on Sunday. I bought it last week in anticipation of a long weekend away as a “treat” to myself, insofar as a book about kids with cancer can be a “treat.”

Also, despite loving my Kindle for years now, I still feel weird paying for e-books? I mostly read review copies or freebies or library loans. I guess that’s a terrible thing to admit . . . I mean, it’s just that they’re digital. Yes, I do pay for plenty of things I cannot physically hold, but I guess I’m just crotchety and still struggling to grasp the concept of paying real money for things that feel un-real.

Anyway. Clearly a post for another day.

The Fault In Our Stars has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a tearjerker, I suppose. Sometimes I crave a good cry and don’t mind a depressing novel; they can be quite beautiful, after all. Plus, this is penned by Green, Great Lord of the Book/Young Adult World, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He’s darn witty and insightful.

Also, I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012 . . . and yeah, he’s totally cute. Just feel that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that.

Anyway. (Man, I’m a mess today.) Back to the actual book, friends. I have lots of thoughts about it, but . . . they’re scattered, disjointed. I went into this novel knowing it had been hyped into oblivion but is also loved fiercely by many readers — I mean, it’s been rated more than 1 million times on Goodreads.

One. Million. Times.

It’s hard to pick up a book you’ve heard so much about without rampant expectations. Like, for example, I expected to cry — a lot. I mean, the basic plot? Two teenage cancer survivors meet at a support group and fall in love. You know something ain’t going to end well, right? Even the title suggests it.

To my shock, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers all this time — no small feat given its 2012 publication date. And the accompanying movie released in June, which I’m now exceptionally eager to see.

So I won’t ruin it for you, either. Trust me.

But back to my Feelings. I loved Augustus because yeah, I think we’re supposed to. Almost engineered to. He’s cool, thoughtful, romantic, sweet . . . all attributes I typically love in a dude. Gus is also wise beyond his years — something that comes with having stared down death, I suppose — and utterly devoted to Hazel, our narrator, who is herself living with a cancer that actively decimates her lungs. Hazel requires constant oxygen delivered via a tank, her breathing shadow, and Gus accepts this.

Gus accepts her. And not just because her chopped-off locks and quiet confidence remind him of actress Natalie Portman.

Green’s tome is a story of life and death. Of life after death, and living well in the face of impending death. Though we all know we’re mortal beings, some of us must confront that fact much earlier than others. It’s awful, but it’s the truth. The subject matter is understandably heavy, and even in its buoyant moments — those sparkly moments of first love, as light as the champagne the two share — it’s there. The gravity weighing them down, the illness with its claws sunk deep into them both.

And yet, they love. They are. They will be.

The portrayal of Hazel’s parents, who are themselves fighting the good fight along with their daughter, also felt realistic and heartbreaking. Ditto the experiences of Augustus’ parents and the extended Waters clan. Even the peripheral characters — Isaac, a fellow cancer survivor who loses his sight; Hazel’s best friend, Kaitlyn, a fashionable and free teen who serves as her tenuous and final remaining link to the “healthy” and unbound world — serve a purpose and occasionally provide comedic relief.

There is so much in The Fault In Our Stars that felt both beautifully clear and unbelievably obtuse. I fluctuated between getting lost in Green’s deep thoughts and feeling completely discomfited by them. Our young lovers are both enamored with a fictional book called An Imperial Affliction, and learning the fate of its various characters via its alcoholic author in Amsterdam becomes an obsession for them.

I got it, but I didn’t always get it.

Still. Did I like The Fault In Our Stars? Absolutely. I’ve thought of little else since finishing. It was sad, yes — but also many things in between. I cried a little, but not as I expected to — and the finale wasn’t what I’d anticipated, either . . . in a good way? I think. It splintered me, but I’m still standing.

Though Augustus is obsessed with leaving a lasting mark on the world, The Fault In Our Stars is a powerful reminder that though our time here is limited, the impact we make on others — even if it’s merely one other — is more important. Lasting.

Love can only ever lead to suffering, to separation . . . but it’s worth it.

It has to be.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Lunch With Buddha’ by Roland Merullo

New Yorker Otto Ringling is traveling cross-country with his kids on a devastating errand. Adrift and in mourning, Otto and his college-aged son and daughter join up with Otto’s sister, Cecelia, as well as her young daughter and husband: a charismatic, eccentric spiritual guru named Volya Rinpoche.

In Seattle, the group completes their sad task and prepares to head home — back east for the Ringlings; home to a North Dakota retreat for Cecelia, Rinpoche and Shelsa. Otto’s children will leave and scatter. He will retreat into his work as a food editor, trying to swallow around a hard lump of grief. Unable to turn his mind elsewhere, Otto’s wounds will fester. He will dwell. He will struggle from one day to the next, searching and alone.

Unless . . .

Life and its detours — an endless circle of paths and sanctuaries. Tasked with driving a recently-purchased old truck back to North Dakota, Otto joins Rinpoche on a road trip that will transport them from one coast to the Midwest — through a series of byways, spiritual and physical, that will change them both.

Roland Merullo’s Lunch With Buddha is lyrical, thought-provoking, exquisite. I knew I was in for a treat from the first page, basking in the rich language, and Merullo’s novel is truly a joy for the senses.

Narrator Otto is the perfect mix of skeptic and believer. Hanging with Rinpoche, a revered holy man with an unending philosophical appreciation for life, is enough to change anyone — but Otto doesn’t have accept it. Still smarting from a recent tragedy, he’s not always in the mood for Rinpoche’s musings and non sequiturs — but knows his brother-in-law means well. Traveling together from Washington to North Dakota in a rickety old vehicle allows the pair plenty of chats on life, love and what comes next. And for Otto, a foodie and family man, these chats transcend the simple road trip. (And by the way — how much do I love road trips? This one was great.)

Rinpoche himself is a true character. Enigmatic and fascinated by the strange habits of Americans, his observations — in broken English — reflect U.S. culture through a very unique prism. I loved the questions he asks Otto about the American way of doing things, and his devotion to Cecelia and Shelsa is very sweet. He’s someone completely comfortable in his skin — a man who doesn’t think of vanity, selfishness, cruelty. Regardless of one’s religion, Rinpoche’s thought-provoking prompts and explanations are fascinating.

There’s so much to love about Lunch With Buddha, a review book I accepted with some trepidation. I was worried I wouldn’t connect with the characters, would find the religious aspects too preachy, wouldn’t relate to Otto and his sad quest. I hadn’t read the first in Merullo’s series, Breakfast With Buddha, and worried I’d miss something by starting with the second book. But something about the description tugged at me — and despite its length, I was completely drawn into Rinpoche and Otto’s tale. No previous knowledge of the Ringling family necessary.

The story’s first-person narration clinched it for me. As Rinpoche and Otto meandered across state lines, meeting others who would teach lessons along the way, I felt like I’d wedged myself into the yurt they were supposed to share or hitched a ride in the back of the cab. Their journey is just that: a journey. One with a destination, yes, but also one without. One that continues long after we’ve closed the book.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0984834575 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Whole Latte Life’ by Joanne DeMaio

When Sara Beth Riley leaves a note for her best friend in New York City, she’s reached a precipice: do something to change the stagnant, painful way her life has changed or . . . well, there is no “or.”

After her mother’s untimely death, Sara Beth flounders in the wake of her loss and ruined dreams. Once planning to open an antiques shop together, Sara Beth doesn’t know how to press on without her mom’s encouragement and support. She also doesn’t plan to get pregnant again in her late thirties, just as her two oldest daughters are becoming strong and independent, nor to find herself at a crossroads in her comfortable, well-worn marriage.

But everything changes. Away on a girls’ weekend with Rachel, her longtime best friend, Sara Beth hatches a crazy plan: to simply walk away from her chaos and grief, from her uncertainty and anger and desperation, for a few blissful days. She leaves a note explaining the circumstances to Rachel and begs for understanding, asking her not to contact Tom, her husband, and not to upset her family. Sara Beth will be fine, she reassures; she just needs some time to herself.

Thus begins Joanne DeMaio’s Whole Latte Life, an interesting look at one woman’s attempt to redefine her life. A wife and busy mother, a harried woman with a stack of unrealized dreams, it’s hard not to sympathize with Sara Beth. Having an infant son in her forties has certainly changed the trajectory of her life, and her mother’s death has completely derailed her. Once content with Tom and their two girls, their family of five has forced her to reexamine everything. And when she realizes it’s time to do something drastic, she goes whole hog.

But this is not just Sara Beth’s story. Recently widowed and newly forty herself, Rachel’s world changes after agreeing to give Sara Beth a “free” weekend in New York. It comes at a cost, of course; Sara Beth’s family does learn of her “stepping out” — and the reaction isn’t positive. That’s where my beef with the story comes in: her husband goes nuts. After the worry of where she is subsides, Tom completely overreacts. I agree that Sara Beth could have, you know, simply asked for a weekend away to do what she wanted. She didn’t need to ditch Rachel and go completely off the grid. Tom might have thrown a fit about it, I guess, but the guy seemed pretty jerky to me.

Gah, yes — Tom was a jerk. It’s really just hitting me now, reflecting back, but I physically recoiled after Sara Beth reunited with the Riley clan and Tom goes on this tirade about how their family home is now his house, and she’s basically a guest after “abandoning” them. I’m sorry — what? Because she turned her cell phone off for a few days on a prearranged weekend away, Sara Beth has now “walked away” from their family? It just seemed . . . ludicrous. After enjoying a relatively drama-free relationship for however many years, Tom is shunning his wife and kicking her out of the house?

I kept trying to remember these overblown reactions and suffocating atmosphere were exactly what caused Sara Beth to go on her personal odyssey, but it was hard to imagine anyone actually acting that way. I know I’m not a married mother of three and it certainly wasn’t good that Sara Beth disappeared on Rachel, but she’s really the only person I felt was entitled to her anger. And Rachel wasn’t even that mad! She met a cute cop in New York and the wheels of the heart got a’ spinnin’ again! So what was Tom all fired up about? Obviously way more than Sara Beth not answering her phone for a few days. And that’s the real issue, of course.

Whole Latte Life worked best for me as a moving exploration of maternal love. Sara Beth’s mom is very much alive through DeMaio’s eloquent prose, and the grief surrounding her loss was palpable. When she begins writing emails to her mother in an attempt to somehow maintain a connection with her, I got tears in my eyes. Sara Beth’s connection to her mom was instrumental in the relationship she hoped to forge with her own young daughters, but her grieving — huge, dark — overshadowed everything. Sara Beth was obviously just a woman deeply hurting, and she really needed a hug. And some counseling. Did I agree with her actions throughout the story? No, not at all. But I didn’t agree with anyone else’s, either. It was just a complicated situation.

Women’s fiction fans and those who enjoy family dynamics, explorations of motherhood and the extreme bond of female friendships will find plenty to enjoy in Whole Latte Life. Though I was often frustrated with the characters, especially Tom, I read this one quickly and felt invested in Sara Beth’s journey. I wanted her to find solace in reinvention and gain the peace she was desperately seeking.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451648537 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist in exchange for my honest review

Blue skies

I wrote an entire post for today, grappling with some of The Big Questions I’ve had on my mind lately. It was scheduled to post this morning. That post was very cathartic, cobbling together my thoughts on life and death. Everything shifted into focus once I’d typed it out.

But then I did something strange, something I rarely do: I made it private. I changed it to “draft” and let it burrow quietly into my blog dashboard, to be seen — and remembered — by me alone. I usually have no difficulty bearing my soul . . . and, to be frank, I sort of enjoy it. Writing is the way I typically come to terms with what I’m experiencing. Writing about everything that has happened of late was a huge relief to me, especially as I’ve stopped writing in a journal.

The relief was in the writing, though. Not in the posting. Not in the validating. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, and I’m not seeking praise or comfort. I didn’t want to bring a total downer of a post into the world.

I simply wanted to record what I was thinking and make sense of it by stringing together sentences — just as I always do. And though I’m pleased with how I expressed my foggy thoughts, I’m remembering a resolution I’ve made to myself: to keep some things to myself. Some things for me. For my family and friends. For my boyfriend. Not to bear my soul repeatedly in every a newspaper column or blog post.

I’m being obtuse, I know — and I’m sorry. I’ve felt so strange and out of sorts lately. I’ve barely been reading, have been focusing just on work — but I know that time will march forward now, taking us with it. That everything will be all right.

Blue skies will be here again.

Snowmen, computers and our beloved uncle

My uncle loved to golf.

One of my earliest memories of spending time at his house, a mere two-minute drive away, featured a plastic golf set. He’d purchased one so my sister and I would have something to play with when we came to visit. Though I don’t have an athletic bone in my body, Uncle Phil patiently showed us the ins and outs of a good swing — and then left us to our own devices. He didn’t micro-manage the process.

Winters always brought us to Uncle Phil and Aunt Jacki’s, where a tantalizingly-large hill perched in their backyard. After getting permission, my parents, sister and I would schlep over with our sleds and saucers (like on “Christmas Vacation”!) and spend hours sailing up and down the battered grass. As a parting “thank you” gift, we’d usually build a snowman in Uncle Phil’s front yard. On one memorable occasion, we drove by days later to find our creation had collapsed. When we laughingly confronted Uncle Phil, asking if he’d pushed it over, he denied it. And he never did ‘fess up.

Uncle Phil was diagnosed with cancer about three years ago. Though we worried we’d lose him several times, he fought bravely and was strong until the end. My uncle’s faith was very strong, and I know he’s with God today. Despite our sadness, we’re grateful he is at peace.

I’ll always remember my uncle for his jokes and our love of photography, something he shared with Mom, Spencer and me. He had frequent conversations about the latest gear with my boyfriend, and it was fun to see him so excited about a new lens or camera body. When Spencer and I would talk about plans, Uncle Phil always had a great restaurant recommendation or weekend getaway spot. He loved food and traveling, another shared passion.

Uncle Phil loved to learn and was fascinated by new technology, around which he based his long career. The IT expert and tech guru in our clan, Uncle Phil was always there to set up a new router or printer. I remember him coming over when we bought our first desktop in 1995 or 1996. He explained “The World Wide Web” to my parents, who then explained it to Katie and me. Things weren’t too plug-and-play back then, so Uncle Phil had to make everything jive from scratch. To a kid yet to develop any computer savvy, it was like conjuring magic.

His faith guided him through his journey, and I’m grateful we were able to see him in his final days. We’ll all miss him very much.

The right words

For someone who spends her days buried in books and writing, I pride myself on having “the right words.” Need help choosing an obscure adjective? No problem. Have a quandary regarding syntax or punctuation? I got you. Editing is a point of pride, and I love nothing more than sitting down to craft the perfect sentence.

But sometimes, there are no words. No words that I know.

A good friend’s brother-in-law was killed in a sudden, senseless and violent act this weekend in Philadelphia. Since we learned of his passing on Sunday, my head has felt fuzzy. Kevin seemed like such a wonderful, funny and caring man. He was my partner in her wedding party just four months ago; I can still feel the solidness of his arm when I placed my hand in the crook of his elbow. He was 23.

After a long and hard-fought battle, my great uncle is entering the final stages of cancer. A bright and caring man with an illustrious history, my grandfather’s little brother means so much to our family. Up until recently, I always thought Something Would Happen. Modern medicine would pull through after all. But I know some things cannot be healed. We’re going to see him today.

I don’t have the right words for these occasions. I feel so sad about Kevin; I feel so sad about Uncle Phil. I feel sad about each in their own, distinct way, and grief is a strange and funny beast. We have long days yet to come, I know, and I’m bracing myself for them. But it’s hard to know how to react. Or how to think or feel.

I don’t have the right words for my dear, dear friend. My heart breaks for Kevin, for Erin, for her husband’s family. If you have a moment today to think a good thought, please send it to them. I’m sending everything my own tender heart can muster.

And I know it’s not about “the right words.” Writing Erin after hearing that news was a terrible, terrible thing. I don’t have the right words for my uncle, for my own family — but sometimes, I think, it’s not about words. It’s about presence. It must be about showing love by showing up.

I can show up.

I will show up.


If anyone has any information that may help find Kevin Kless’ killers in Philadelphia, please step forward. A reward of more than $15,000 is now being offered for any information that could lead to bringing justice for his grieving family. I can’t express how surreal it is to see Kevin’s face on ABC News, but I hope the exposure drives home to someone out there how important it is to come forward. If you were in or around Philadelphia and might have been at or near the scene in the wee hours of Saturday morning, please speak to detectives. It only takes one small tip — however insignificant it may seem to you — to help solve this case. Thank you.