Category Archives: Remembering

afterglow

LTYM - Poster

LTYM poster at the entrance, as the audience arrived. 

LTYM - Ready, Set ...

Our words, waiting to be released into the world.

LTYM - Roses and quoteTwo dozen roses from The Husband (a.k.a. as my perfect guy) along with a lovely gift from the LTYM producers  ~ a framed quote from my essay, about love and differences and acceptance.
The meaning behind this at this particular time defies words right now. 


“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” 
~ Muriel Rukeyser, “Käthe Kollwitz” 


Sometimes in this life, you have the kind of experience when you can physically feel yourself being transformed.

When your heart becomes lighter while simultaneously overflowing, spilling over the brim.

When your perspective and understanding becomes a kaleidoscope, shifting your view of yourself and your world.

When you can almost see your words in the air, and you take a leap and ride.

All of that and so much more was Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh 2016.

So much more. 


On Friday night, I stood on a stage and told more than 400 people the most personal story of my life.

I told them I was born without a uterus.

I told them I didn’t get my period.

I told them this is called Mayer Rokitansky Kuster Hauser syndrome.

Here’s where I’d expected to write “and the room got completely quiet and still.” That’s not what happened.

Some people laughed.

They laughed.

Mind you, it wasn’t in a mean way, but nervously. Like when you laugh at an inappropriate time.

Onstage, I heard those laughs and for a moment I was terrified.

I thought, holy shit, what the fuck have I done?

And then I did the only thing I could do.


I told them how it felt, back then.

I told them about being 1 in 5,000 women with MRKH.

I told them about the shock, the tears, the denial, the wishing-away, the feelings of being like a freak, the hopelessness.

I told them all of this and how I thought all the plans I had for my life were over. I told them how I thought I was given MRKH because I would be a crappy mom and that maybe I was better off.

I told them about meeting someone who saw me for who I am. I told them about acceptance and being different and being loved despite those differences and the challenges that would lie ahead.

I told them about those challenges, about chemical pregnancies and depths of sadness.

I told them about the power and mystery of the science and faith that makes it possible to turn a handful of cells into two teenagers.

I told them this and the room got very, very still and quiet.

(Except for the knocking of my knees, which started about mid-way through my talk and which I was convinced could be heard echoing off the walls.)

I told them all this because Friday will be exactly 31 years since I learned I have MRKH and that’s a really long time to stay silent.

I told them this because I want — no, because I need — women and girls like the one in India who took her life because she couldn’t see a future post-MRKH to know she is seen and respected and loved.


After the show, many people came up to me, thanking me and letting me know of their similar journeys. A few moments before the show, our producers gathered our incredible, amazing cast together in the “green room” and told us that there would be someone out there who needed our words, our story.

Who needed to feel heard and to be seen.


Nearly 48 hours later, I am still running on the electricity that surged through the Lecture Hall on Friday night, powered by the incredible women onstage with me and the generosity and compassion from everyone in the audience. I’m so grateful for those who were part of this and the support from so many people in my life, here in Pittsburgh and those far away.

You know who you are. You know what you did to give me the courage and strength to do this.

You know.

When I say that Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh was — and is — a significant life event for me, I mean it like this:

I was one person before getting on that stage and a very different person after.

This isn’t hyperbole.  This is right up there with seeing our children for the first time and marrying The Husband.

It is a defining, specific moment. A life event in every sense.

There’s so much I still need to reflect, process, and write about from this experience.

So much more.

This is just the beginning.

LTYM Cast - Final Bow (2)

 

we could all die any day

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (65)

It’s been seven days since the news broke and I’m still listening to Prince at top volume in the car, still singing at the top of my lungs about doves crying and horses running free. I’ve exhausted my inventory of appropriate-for-work purple clothing.

My kids are perplexed at this behavior. “So, when did you become so crazy about Prince?” they half-sneer, their teenage mortification on full display.

We see this attitude frequently, The Husband and I, whenever we give off any indication that we are … well, human.  The eye-rolls when we kiss goodbye in the morning for a few seconds longer than usual with a sly slip of tongue or when we dance in the kitchen when our wedding song shuffles into queue on Spotify. To our offspring, we have no life besides folding laundry and cooking dinner, and despite our assurances to the contrary, we never did. And we certainly have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager. Never were we caught up in the adolescent maelstrom of emotions and hormones and young jungle love.

My attempts at explaining my sudden Prince obsession fall flat with my kids.  Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a passionate Prince fan, I have an appreciation of his music and his artistry.  And, like all of us who came of age in the mid-’80s, Prince’s music is an indelible part of the mixtape of my life.

Which is why, like everyone else, I was shocked upon hearing Prince had died.  Thursday was a surreal day; I wasn’t feeling well and took a sick day from work. By mid-afternoon, I felt well enough to pick up my son from school for a previously-scheduled doctor’s appointment. We were early, for once, with enough time to stop home so I could throw dinner in the crockpot.

“I texted you,” my husband said, greeting me as we walked in the house.  “Prince is dead. Flu-like symptoms, they’re saying.”

I stopped in my tracks.  If anyone knows how possible it is to drop dead of the flu in one’s prime, it’s my family. In 1985, my dad was a relatively healthy father of two teenagers when he got the flu.  Unbeknownst to any of us, the virus was silently and quickly attacking his heart and at 44, he became fourth in line on the transplant list at Philadelphia’s best hospital for when your heart breaks. He died several hours later, having been sick for less than a week.

We could all die any day. 

The aftermath of my father’s death ushered in several confusing and sad years for me.  In college, it was easy to party like it was 1999 because that represented a life we couldn’t fathom from our dorm rooms — Christ, we would be goddamned geriatrics when we turned the century, forty fucking years old.  It felt impossible, far in the future. We made a solemn, beer-buzzed pact: no matter what happened in this life, we’d be together on New Year’s Eve 1999, dancing our lives away.

We weren’t, of course. We became scattered and unknown to each other. Close friends we thought would be in our lives forever went missing, our long conversations now silent.  Instead of partying like it was 1999, we became adults, on edge and hunkered down with emergency cash from the ATM, cases of water and canned goods and duct tape, backups of our financial lives at the ready for Y2K, a moniker that could have been ripped from a Prince album.

Now on this side of 1999, in this strange year when nostalgia becomes more and more clouded with sadness and when we face our own medical crises and wonder just how much of our time and minds are left, our own Judgment Day feels closer than ever. Prince was right; two thousand zero zero really did mean we would be out of time or damn close to it.

I can’t convey all this to my wiser-than-their-years kids when they ask why I’m blasting Prince’s Little Red Corvette in my decidedly uncool red Chevy HHR as I shuttle them around town.  And part of me doesn’t want to.

Let them believe they have all the time in the world.

 

sunday salon/currently … random thoughts from this week

Sunday Salon banner

A few scattershot thoughts for this week’s Salon:

This weekend marks five years since my first visit to the ‘Burgh, according to Facebook’s “On this Day” feature  — something I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with these days.  This is not a happy milestone. So much has changed in these five years, most of it not for the better. We came here with so much hope and optimism and promise, all of which is gone now.  I think I need to stop these mental trips down Memory Lane because they seem to perpetuate a cycle of “what if?” and “we shouldn’t have.” It’s easy to second-guess decisions made in the past when the future is so uncertain, isn’t it?

Madison Holleran’s story is a reminder that it’s OK not to be OK.  Everyone is fighting a hard battle, even those who appear to have perfect lives on social media and in real life.

Life has gotten in the way of reading (and, to some extent, blogging) so there’s not much to share on that front. And when I do sit down to read, I can’t concentrate on anything and nothing is holding my interest. Shorter works seem to help — essays, some poetry, short stories, back issues of The New Yorker.

This week I finished two things: Season 4 of “House of Cards” (amazing, as always … I looovvvved this season and out of respect to those who haven’t finished watching, I’m not going to say another word!) and Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now edited by Ann Imig. The latter is an anthology of stories shared during previous Listen to Your Mother shows in various cities.

Last weekend was the first rehearsal for Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh 2016 and the first time hearing everyone else’s stories. This show is going to be incredible. The bravery and courage of these women is astounding. Listen to Your Mother cast bios are starting to appear. Meet two of my fabulous co-stars, Erin Hare and Kerry Neville.  (You’ve gotten your tickets to the show, yes?)

The Husband and The Girl went to Disney on Ice last weekend. This is an annual Daddy-Daughter tradition for them, one that started when The Girl was 3. She’s now 14, and we weren’t sure if she felt she’d outgrown this particular event.  As it turned out, this year she wanted to go more than ever.  “After Thanksgiving [when The Husband nearly died], I wasn’t sure whether we would still be able to do this,” she said.

Went to the dentist on Friday afternoon and I only have one cavity! This has not happened since … well, never. To put this in perspective, I had three cavities in one tooth WHEN I WAS THREE YEARS OLD. (And I wasn’t a kid who ate a lot of candy, either.)  The dentist saying that I had one cavity that should be filled ASAP before it requires a root canal/crown was one of the highlights of my week. I’m serious.

Friday was Pittsburgh’s 200th birthday and apparently one of the most pressing civic issues is the lack of high-end cosmetics available in Downtown Pittsburgh. This is a travesty, I tell you. The deprivation is palpable. I fear for the ability of our city to exist for another 200 years if this deplorable injustice doesn’t get rectified soon. Mayor Peduto, please get our city’s best and brightest on this issue, immediately.

Our daffodils started blooming on Thursday, just in time for the cold and snow on this First Day of Spring. They always arrive at the perfect time and they always disappear too quickly. Hopefully they’ll last a little while because they’re such a needed pick-me-up this week.Daffodils - 3-16-2016

 

finish line

Clouds - Pittsburgh 12-2-2015One of my college friends died suddenly last night.

Amidst the maelstrom of emotions still swirling since The Husband’s medical situation on Thanksgiving, this loss has me shaken. There are too many similarities. The timing of this. It’s too close.

We hadn’t been in touch for years but that’s the thing with our college — it doesn’t matter if you last spoke to someone yesterday or 25 years ago.  We were there at a time when our school was small enough to know everyone. You became family.

I kept up with him through his twin brother.  After all, if you knew one twin, you knew the other. They were inseparable, always together. They were legendary on a campus where we were so close-knit, connected like family. We all felt like they were our brothers. They just had that way about them.

And now? Well, now it’s impossible to think of a world where they’re not together, confusing the hell out of everyone because they looked and acted so much alike. Jokesters.  Always ready with a smile, a laugh.

They were cross-country runners and in a way, that’s what makes this such a shock. Because it doesn’t seem possible that someone with that kind of endurance, who was a champion competitor, could be taken so quickly and unexpectedly.

Somewhere, there’s a picture of both of them in my high school yearbook, in the background during an invitational meet that my school hosted every autumn.  We would discover this coincidence a few years later. There we are, my friend said, pointing out himself and his brother in grainy black and white. A snapshot in time.

My memories of that time can sometimes seem like that.  An image, a moment, a visage of what we were and hoped to be. A random capture, like the photo I snapped today of the changing clouds that greeted me upon leaving work at the end of this heavy day. A burst of yellow light, a streak of pink. A feathery wisp.

More and more often, that’s what this life seems to be like sometimes.  Fleeting. A flash and a blur. Our finish line around the corner, always just out of sight.

sunday salon: so, today we’re gonna party like it’s blog post #1,999

The Sunday Salon

Indulge me, my friends, if I seem more nostalgic than usual today, which I am.  Undoubtedly, this is the result of seeing too many Facebook photos of high school and college friends schlepping the equivalent of several Bed, Bath and Beyond stores into dorms that only merely resemble the SINGLE room that I moved into WITH TWO OTHER ROOMMATES nearly three million decades ago.

For whatever reason, there seems to be more than the usual number of these photos – of which I am not complaining, except for the fact that they are making me feel So. Fucking. Old.

Learning
Coincidentally (or not so much) I’ve discovered the world of MOOCs (massive online open courses) – which, yes, I know have been around for quite some time now. As I tend to do with every new shiny toy I come across, I’ve been going a little overboard signing myself up for free online courses. I’m currently enrolled in four such classes and a few others starting later this fall.

This weekend, I’m trying to finish up Literature of the English Country House which was offered through the University of Sheffield in the UK (and which ended earlier this month) and Childhood in the Digital Age through The Open University, which ends this week. I’m enjoying the former more; we’re dipping into excerpts from Jane Austen, Dickens and Oscar Wilde and looking at the houses that inspired their work.

My newest course is Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction, taught by Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia. This just started but already seems intense in a way that I love; at 8 weeks long and with a lot of readings, it feels like a literature course I would have taken in college.

Reflecting
I don’t need a therapist to tell me that these indulgences are no coincidence, given my mental rewinding of the videotape of my own glory days. Without getting into details that I’m not allowed to write about publicly, suffice it to say that there has been a great deal of reflection in our house lately about choices we’ve made or didn’t make, paths we pursued and those left untrodden.

It could also be the new start that is the school year itself; my kids start 8th grade this week. I am extremely conscious that their own “real world” paths of college or what have you are only five years away. It is the most infinitesimal sliver of time, I know this, but sometimes it seems as if there is a chasm between here and there.

Celebrating
A week ago, this blog celebrated its 7th anniversary. Today’s post happens to be a milestone, too: it’s blog post #1,999. Two thousand posts seems like something to celebrate and I feel like I should be commemorating this. I’ve been kicking around an idea in my mind and the 2,000th post might be a good time to announce it. Stay tuned.

Reading and Reviewing
Not too much to report on the reading front this week. I breezed through The Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity by Carrie Bloomston. (I’m thisclose to reaching my goal for the library’s adult summer reading program, so I needed something relatively short.) It’s part motivation, part how-to/workbook, and part inspiration for jump-starting your “little spark” of creativity. I also finished True Stories, Well Told which I mentioned in last week’s Salon post.

The Picture of Dorian GrayStill listening to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I have less than 100 pages left, so this will likely be finished up this week. I’m reading a new YA novel for a review I’m doing for Cleaver Magazine, and another review was just accepted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is scheduled to appear next Sunday.

Creating
Speaking of creating, we’re looking into ways of re-configuring our basement family room/game room area. This is a ridiculously underutilized space in our house.  My overflowing bookshelves live there, my even messier scrapbooking table is there, and aside from the kids going downstairs to watch TV every once in awhile, the entire space is really a glorified storage unit. It would be an interior designer’s dream, seriously. We’re looking into how best to expand the home office space by adding a desk and bookshelves for The Husband.

It seems as if there is a lot going on … and I guess there is. Right now, though, I’m savoring this quiet, late summer day on the deck with one of the most picture-perfect days that Pittsburgh has to offer, while trying not to live too much in the distant past or the uncertain future, but right here, in these small but monumental moments.

write the hell out of this life

Daffodil in rain

When it came to writing, Ryan Mooney was among the best.

I wrote about my friend Ryan here, a few days ago in the midst of the unknowing. There are some answers now with the finality that his death brings, but the big question of why will linger always in the chasm that remains with this loss.

Maybe if I had paid more attention to what I didn’t see. Maybe if I had somehow known to reach out at precisely the right moment.

I am not the only one haunted by the what-if’s. I am not the only one who will always wonder why.

Since getting the devastating news earlier this week, I’ve tried – to no avail – to find some Facebook conversations Ryan and I shared, probably a year or so ago. The fluidity of time is a bitch to the psyche; in an online world where everything remains for posterity, the messages we exchanged seem to be gone, vanished – yet I remember them and I will treasure the heartfelt connection they held. We’ve all been in that dark place of betrayal by people who we loved and who we thought loved us.  In our emails back then, I wanted Ryan to understand that I knew exactly where he had been at that low point.

I only wish that I knew where he was in this most recent emotional place.

Most of our all-too-few conversations, though, were about writing. Nearly four years ago, I decided to attend a meeting of the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. It was about 45 minutes from my home and I didn’t know anyone there. I could count on one hand the number of people I knew in Pittsburgh (and that included my husband and two kids). I didn’t have anyone here – besides The Husband – who I would characterize as a friend. All I knew was that, in this new town of mine, more than 325 miles away from Philadelphia and everyone and everything that was familiar to me, I needed to connect with people who appreciated good writing and were dedicated to creating it.

There were some very good writers in the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. Still are. But right away, Ryan stood out to me and several of our peers.  I can’t remember the first piece of his that I read, but I knew immediately he was tremendously talented and a unique voice with incredible potential.  I could see that out of some deep pain came some of the funniest, daring, and amazingly real writing I’d ever read. He was serious about his writing and it showed.

Since his passing, I’ve become friendly with one of Ryan’s friends from the online writing community, LitReactor. Holly captured Ryan’s writing so well with this words in her post, “Gone But Never Forgotten”:

Ryan guarded himself with the fortress of his stories. His narrative was gritty and raw—a badge of honor having survived years of addiction and depression. He protected the chasm of his heart with characters that were as complex as he was. Ryan’s unabashed personality and unflinching honesty about his life revealed itself in every story he crafted. But nestled within sentences was a vulnerability, a tenderness that lived in the marrow of the skeleton of his plots. Ryan’s need for acceptance lived within the viscera of immaculate mechanics and tendons of run-on sentences he loved to use, yet his yearning for self-acceptance was an ending that would never reach fruition. Like an eclipse, such self-doubt shadowed Ryan’s limitless potential as a writer and often obscured his ability to see the effect his writing had on those fortunate enough to read his work.

Ryan was among those who I trusted to provide feedback on my current work-in-progress, a story that I’ve described as being one that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Currently a novel, it might become a memoir or a collection of linked stories. Ryan knew how deeply personal this story was to me, how potentially controversial, and he treated it with the utmost respect, providing such helpful critiques.

Like Holly, I’ve been thinking also about what words Ryan and I would have shared if we’d had the chance to have another conversation about writing. Out of nowhere, a phrase came to me the other day. An urgent whisper, perhaps.

Write the hell out of this life.

Maybe it’s original, maybe it’s not. Whatever it is, I’d like to think it is some sort of lesson that can be taken from Ryan’s life and his approach to the written word. Because that’s exactly what he did, in every sense. He wrote the hell out of life by writing hard. He put in the time and did the work. He was committed. And with his passing, I think he would expect – no, demand – that his writer friends do the same. To re-commit to our work. To be as good as we possibly can be. And most importantly, to be that friend that others may not always know they need. Perhaps that’s the takeaway I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s part of the solace I need.

Because like so many others,I am heartbroken that Ryan’s story ended the way it did. I’m angry and devastated that we’ll never learn what the next chapter held. He had so much more to give. Speaking for myself, I had so much more to learn from him and so much more feedback I would have loved to have had from him, one of the best critics I knew.

In the wake of his death, I give you “Hardboiled Hell,” one of Ryan’s short stories. It’s classic Ryan, full of edge and the sly wordplay those of us who were privileged to read his work loved and knew so well, and which delighted and surprised us, again and again and again. I hope you will take a minute to read it and think about it. (It’s not quite what it might seem.)

As I re-read his story again a few nights ago, I was struck by the reference to the song “Meet Me In Heaven” by Johnny Cash and written by Roseanne Cash.I don’t know the song, so of course I turned to Google and found this:

We saw houses falling from the sky
Where the mountains lean down to the sand
We saw blackbirds circling ’round an old castle keep
And I stood on the cliff and held your hand
We walked troubles brooding wind swept hills
And we loved and we laughed the pain away
At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
[Chorus] Can’t be sure of how’s it’s going to be
When we walk into the light across the bar
But I’ll know you and you’ll know me
Out there beyond the stars
We’ve seen the secret things revealed by God
And we heard what the angels had to say
Should you go first, or if you follow me
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
Living in a mansion on the streets of gold
At the corner of Grace and Rapture Way
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday

See you there, my friend.

With heartfelt thanks to Holly Bella Toschi for permission to share her words and to Ryan’s mom for allowing me to share her son with you.

The Sum of My Parts

Mothers Day 2015 - Be Brave

We live – yes, we do – in a reality show culture. One that demands, seduces, cajoles us into telling our secrets for the world’s consumption and criticism.

There’s a vulnerability in doing this, absolutely. Sometimes the entire story is not ours to tell; sometimes people are still alive or too young to understand; sometimes the words of those we once loved haunt us (sometimes you tell people too much, Melissa; you need to learn sometimes you don’t need to share everything with the world); sometimes dusty contracts and unspoken agreements make us hesitant.

We know all this, we live with all this, and so it is often too easy to stay silent, to not hit publish, to go quietly about our lives, albeit with a reminder here and there: a medical professional who asks a common question, the colleague who is just making conversation about do you have kids, that gaggle of moms in the playgroup who relish in rehashing pregnancy details you know nothing about. Even those instances don’t bother you anymore because you’ve learned how to smile and adopt a version of the truth. It’s not that we forget, but rather it’s more of a feeling that we’ve put that away. We’ve dealt with that; we’ve gotten the therapy; we’ve moved emotionally to a much brighter place which – hell, look at that – might even feel like something called …

Acceptance.

Until you read the words from someone who sounds like you, way back then, in May 1985 and in the days, months, years, decades after. Someone probably much younger than you and most likely a teen who is just finding out, who is questioning, struggling, hurting like hell. You’ve lived what she is living because you, like her, are also 1 in 5,000 women with this (MRKH, an abbreviation for Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser Syndrome) and without that (a uterus). You have something to offer, a perspective to share, a glimpse of a life that – I promise you, girlfriend, I pinky-swear to you – is not defined by one missing part.

Because we are not the sum of our parts.

This thing that looks like acceptance has not come to me easily or overnight, because as we all know, acceptance rarely shows up gift-wrapped at the door. For most of us, it is the sum of many things.

Experiences.

People.

Time.

It is true that I am not a numbers person except for dates.  I remember so many of them, and those tend to be the ones I respect and honor and measure the distance between here and there. They are mile markers, rest stops on this journey of life which leads me to reflections and blog posts like this one that beg the question of what I’m called to do with this, what it all means, where it will lead.

Sharing this through the writing – a memoir that says what you need to say and also protects others, perhaps? – is something that feels possible (there’s even a working title) yet there’s a holding back perhaps for reasons I don’t know or understand. It is scary as hell and it is easy to tell yourself to wait for the right publication, the perfect time, to listen to the ghosts – sometimes you tell people too much, Melissa; you need to learn sometimes you don’t need to share everything with the world – to live in the what-if’s and the maybes instead of the hell, yes. There’s a sense of not wanting to give it all away at once and certainly not for free; yet at the same time, I believe we are given what we have to help others and to connect amidst the risks that will always be there and the internal chorus of what will they think. This business of life is too damn short, and the timing will never, ever seem right. We would not be here, would not have what we have – these kids, this strength, each other – if others did not take a risk and do exactly that.

I believe in having no regrets, in living out loud, and celebrating our truth. Some days that is easier than others, but it is in the doing that gives us our power, adding up piece by piece to reveal our greatest strengths.

Photo above is of a Bravelet, my Mother’s Day 2015 gift to myself and which benefits the amazing work of the Beautiful You MRKH Foundation.