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Recent Work By Rachel Zients Schinderman

So here’s what happened.

I dropped Benjamin at camp up in Temescal Canyon.  Camp drop offs had been getting more and more difficult as he clung to me screaming that he didn’t want to go.  I would carry him in my arms, just able to get him around my 8 months pregnant belly.  I barely had the energy to hold him up.  Seeing him cry, knowing it was because he could probably feel his whole world about to change, left me utterly spent.

So I decided to treat myself to a little “me” time with a mani/pedi.

So off I went to the place I like on Main Street.  I had my eyebrows done, shaped my rather short nails and painted my toes pink, all as the chair massaged my whole body.  It was delightful.  And needed.

And then I stood up and my water broke.

I ran to the bathroom, unsure of what the gush was, then quickly ran out the door, still with the paper between my toes.

I called my husband.  I called my doctor.  I was panicked, but trying to remain calm.  I was only 34 weeks pregnant, not due for 6 more weeks.  At first my OB’s tests didn’t indicate it was my water breaking (perhaps the baby had punched my bladder she thought), but when it kept happening throughout the day, it was clear I would be admitted to the hospital that night.

This was supposed to be my easy pregnancy.  My easy delivery.  My completely different, nobody almost dies, birth.

When Benjamin was born, after I called my mother to tell her she’d had a grandson, I called her back and told her not to get too excited.  I wasn’t sure he was going to make it through the night.  Well he did and he flourished with hard work and I finally felt strong enough to do it again.

I had planned and researched how I wanted this delivery to go, determined that it would be different.  I weighed my options for having a VBAC (a natural delivery) vs. another C-section.  I wanted to experience labor and what everyone talks about, but mostly I was considering a VBAC because I didn’t want anything too similar to the first one.  I didn’t want to look around and feel like it was four years earlier and become full of terror.  I wanted this birth to be normal.

So, that was Tuesday.

I received steroid shots to develop the baby’s lungs and bags full of antibiotics through an IV to help ward off infection.

By Friday the doctors decided to take the baby out.  It was one day before the ten year anniversary of my first date with my husband, which seemed like a lovely way to mark it.

And so, I headed into the operating room.  After months of consideration, I opted for another C-section after deciding with my doctor that the possibility of fetal distress during labor would prove too much for me emotionally.  Upon entering the OR, I announced immediately to the anesthesiologist what I’d been through before and that I was delicate.

Last time, with Benjamin, it all happened so fast, I didn’t really know to be scared.  This time, though I was scared, though I knew that things go wrong, this time, somehow, I knew everything would be alright.  I just did.  Jay said the first thing out of my mouth was, “that was a piece of cake.”

And so on August 20th, 2010, Eli Isaiah Zients Schinderman was born.  And though they took him to the NICU because he was having some respiratory distress, I knew in my gut, he would be fine.  Just as I knew when I discovered I was pregnant with him, after having three miscarriages, that this pregnancy was going to take.  Mother’s intuition.

The next morning, Eli ripped out his intubation tube, announcing to the world that all 6 pounds 9 ounces of him was strong and totally fine.  Just as his mother knew he would be.

He stayed in the NICU for 4 days, but was able to leave with me when I was discharged, which was huge.  We’d had to leave Benjamin in the hospital.  Going home without your child is not a feeling I can even describe.  It is as if a piece of your life is on hold, living elsewhere, outside of you, leaving you leaking.

At first, the fallout from Benjamin’s trauma began to chip away at me.  Though it may not have been clear, I became completely depleted, filled only by worry.  But in the four years since I learned that, even though it is never quite as you imagined, that I can handle this motherhood thing.

We posed for a picture with the NICU nurses and doctors who cared for Eli and headed towards the exit.

I began to weep.

It took me completely by surprise.  It quieted the little voice I carry around that whispers reminders of that terrible day.  I was just so happy as I held Eli, healthy, and headed towards the sun outside, ready to bring him home, bring him to his brother, who himself had come so far from his own NICU stay.  Pure joy bubbled up and washed over the worry and fear, completely disarming me.

And so I wept, proud of my boys.

Inadvertently, I think I began my son’s interest in guns.

I didn’t mean to.  I didn’t even realize what I’d done until my husband commented that the cool Star Wars light saber I’d just bought our son could constitute as giving him his first weapon.

I was quieted by this parenting mistake.  I make them, as do all parents, often, and I hung my head in shame.  But I let him play with it anyway.  I was indulging his Star Wars interest and he very clearly knew that Star Wars was just pretend.  We then got a Star Wars Legos set but this time I took the Storm Troopers’ guns and put them back in the box.  But soon enough Benjamin was playing, shouting, “Blasters!”

This went on for a bit and actual guns never really made it into his play or even his vocabulary.  And I was pleased.  I’m not one of those extremist moms (he watches TV, he eats ice cream), but I decided early on that we would be a household free of gunplay.

But then the light saber led to pirate swords and then of course blasters and then to my utter sorrow, guns.

When Benjamin holds a stick or a plastic golf club and says, “GUNS!” there is usually a smile on his face.  He doesn’t seem to understand the complete terror a gun can bring.  And I don’t feel ready to explain to him the horror I felt when my best friend and I had a gun pulled on us when walking near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, even though the guy then put it down and started to laugh and headed off into the night.  My four year old does not need to understand that kind of fear.  But I feel I should explain to him why I say guns are bad.

I am stuck now between explaining it to him honestly or letting him continue with his four year old innocence.  I would prefer he not know about them and stay in his happy place.  But they are seeping in with or without my guidance.  It’s there when we read Babar and the hunter kills his mommy and Benjamin asks why.  It’s there when The Storm Troopers come raring in chasing Luke and Han.  It’s there as he plays cops and robbers.

Perhaps boys will just be boys.  Perhaps.

And I don’t want to hinder his imagination.  When he tells me he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I try to recognize that it is because he knows policemen help people, it is not because he wants to wield a gun.  His imagination is growing and merging with real, harsh events.  But he doesn’t need a push to get there.  He doesn’t need me buying him toys that behave as weapons.  One friend of mine was rightfully appalled that toy guns were given out in a birthday favor bag.  When guns and adult ideas come up, we can explain it to the best of our ability, but we don’t have to hand it to them with a bow on top.

My best friend, the same one who was there with me that scary night in Paris, recently told me about how her 3 year old son was at the playground and met an older boy.  There was a baby near by and at the older boy’s urging, her son and this boy began circling the baby and started chanting, “Let’s kill the baby!”  My friend was horrified and took her son home saying something simple like, “That’s not nice.”  Later, while cuddling in bed, he began chanting again.  “Kill!  Kill!”  She began to cry at these words coming from her little boy’s mouth and seeing his mother cry, then so did he.

As I look back on this story, I realize now I got a little “sanctimommy” on her and told her this was a perfect opportunity to talk to him about what kill and death mean, to discuss his feelings, that it was a missed parenting opportunity.  It was only once I retold the story to my husband, that he looked at me directly and said, “You would cry too.”  And he was right.

As our children discover new ideas, both good and bad, it is hard for us to keep up with how to broach the subject with them.  I wanted to be the all-explaining, patient, honest mother.  But some things are just so big, they are hard to explain to a child.  And I don’t want to say the wrong thing, like when I was discussing his grandfather’s death with him, I said something like, “Well, someday we’re all going to die.”  He looked at me with such fear and searching that though I was being honest I knew I had said too much and then just said, “Who wants ice cream?!!”

I am not sure what the answer is.  I don’t want to make guns and violence more attractive by making it completely off limits with no explanation as to why.

So when it happens again, perhaps I will follow my best friend’s lead, because seeing his own mother cry, might have been the best explanation her little boy could have been given.

I just found my old maternity bras in our garage.  I’d been down there before scouring for them, but between furniture, Benjamin’s old clothes, toys and books and who knows what else, it seemed they were gone for good.  Until, like a parting of the sea, Jay headed down to make a little space so we could maneuver through the chaos.  And while bringing down my suitcase after our recent babymoon trip to Hawaii, there they were, resting in perfect view, as if they were asking, “Where ya been?”

This may not seem monumental, but when you are growing a human person in your body and that said body is growing in every sort of direction on a daily basis, the bosoms need a little extra care.  It’s not just the boobies that are growing, but they are one of the first indicators of when my body is getting uncomfortable.  Well actually it’s my back that’s trying to hold them up that is feeling the pain.

I know they have an important job to do.  They are growing so that they can eventually feed our child.  I know this rationally and intellectually.  In fact, I know this about the whole experience of being pregnant.  I know that my body is growing and changing and getting bigger (even though I am eating relatively well) because it is not only housing our future child but growing and nurturing it. 

It’s beautiful actually. 

But it is hard to feel beautiful when your back hurts or your breasts are falling out on all sides or your thighs rub together chafing or when someone says in passing after seeing your belly, “No more doughnuts for you.”

It’s especially hard because not to toot my horn or anything, but I used to be rather adorable.  It’s been awhile since I have been incredibly adorable.  But I have turned a few heads in my day.  In fact, these very same breasts that are causing me such agita used to provide me with ample attention.  When I was about 22 and they were young and perky, I went to theater school.  I had this one teacher who used to say, “Lead with your tits!!”  He didn’t mean just me.  He meant everyone.  Own what you’ve got.  Enjoy it.  Make them stare.

But it is hard when they are staring and you don’t want such a constant gaze.  I don’t know why pregnancy invites people to feel comfortable to comment on your body.  And negatively at that.  I am already having a hard time of it.  I don’t need the little old lady at the bagel store asking me when I am due, and after I tell her she cocks her head funny taking in the size of my belly, and now knowing I have more than two months to go, says, “Sometimes doctors are wrong.”

So I’m big.

My husband keeps telling me he doesn’t think that I am so big.  And I actually believe him.  I believe he believes that.  This is why I married this man.  But regardless of other people’s responses, good or bad, sometimes I just feel a little displaced in my own body.  I am no longer completely in control, which I guess is a perfect allegory for motherhood.  I admit I am ready for it to be done. 

Except for one part.

I love to feel the baby move.  I love the kicks.  I love laying on our couch and Jay leans into my belly and says, ”Hi, this is your Daddy” and then my belly dances.  I love playing with Benjamin with his Elmo and Big Bird finger puppets.  He places one of them on my belly to see if the baby moves enough to knock it down.  Benjamin usually makes me laugh and the toy goes falling to the ground way before our experiment is complete.

This most likely will be my last pregnancy, so moments like those, I treasure.  But chafing thighs, not so much.

It is not just vanity, though admittedly that plays a part.  (I have been pregnant before and I know it will not just all fall off with great ease as it does for some women.)  It is about being comfortable, about having to move differently in your own body than you have always been used to.  It is a shift in how you know how to be.  That is why finding those specialty bras (and not having to buy new ones) in my garage was such a coup.

I am trying to own it, to show off my belly, to lead with my tits, as they say.  So I will hold my chin (or at this point chins) up high.  For those who want to know how much weight I’ve gained or look at me with judgment, just remember, I am a walking science experiment.  I am growing an actual person inside of me and then these ever growing bosoms will be able to feed that person.  That’s pretty cool.  So even though I haven’t actually had one doughnut through this entire pregnancy, maybe I’ll go reward myself with one now. 

Just before my son’s second birthday I took off on what I called a Mommie Moon. For me, this was a break, a reprieve, from my husband and my child. Now, my husband and child are fabulous. It was not them, per se, that I needed a break from – it was from motherhood. It was from the stress of raising my son in a way I had not planned, with trips to doctors and therapists, with worry, with grief. But now we were all getting stronger, finding our way, settling into our routine with our child who needed extra care and I knew that if I didn’t take this time for myself now then I never would. The topic of conversation lately had been having another baby and I knew I needed to do this before I did that.

And so Jay dropped me at the airport on my way to my solo adventure – a writer’s retreat in Guatemala of all places. I kissed him goodbye and then whispered in his ear, “When I come back we’ll make a baby.” It was a perfect movie scene, our last words as I traipsed inside, off to find strength – to eventually return a better me, a better us. As I stood in the bathroom of my lakefront room and threw away my birth control pills, it all felt very predestined and neat. We’d had so much struggle for the last two years and now we were better. Now, we were ready.

Even though we had talked about having another baby for awhile, even though I went to therapy for those who have had a traumatic birth but want to have another baby, to prepare my mind, my body, my womb, even through all of that, to be honest, I wasn’t sure. See, Jay and I, though I did not know how much until I stood in that bathroom by the lake, had been muddling through ourselves. I knew I would miss my son while I was away, but it was Jay that I longed for. It was Jay that I heard crying through the phone. It was Jay that I needed. And it took me by surprise. I knew that we had been through so much and had floated slightly away from each other and now I knew that we had not drowned. And I knew when we came back together, that we would add to our family, we would grow.

And so, it was decided. I was ready. We were ready. It was all planned.

A few months later I sat with my son in my lap swinging on a swing in Douglas Park and I immediately felt nauseous. Now, we swing like that all the time, but this feeling was new, different. Could it be? And it was! Later that day, I wrapped the test in wrapping paper and Benjamin put stickers all over it and we presented it to Jay as his Chanukah gift when he got home. Yay for us, I remember thinking.

But at the eight-week ultrasound, it was apparent even before the doctor said anything definitive.

I looked at the monitor and there was just a space in a little black hole. I kept hoping as she moved the wand that she would stumble upon our child hiding, but no. No heartbeat I heard her say. I must have turned pale because she told me to lean back. I held my husband’s hand and then buried my head in his shoulder.

“It’s called a missed miscarriage,” she said.Your body still thinks it is pregnant.”

“Are you sure?” I asked her too many times.

And she was.

I had gotten ahead of myself. I was trying out names, pricing double strollers, measuring my son’s room to fit another crib. At night when I put him into his pajamas, I’d lean in and ask him if he wanted a baby brother or sister, as if he had a say.

“Baby sister!!!” he’d say every time. Then he’d squeal the name he had decided for her.

I’d squeal it back and we’d both laugh. And I believed in that moment he had brought ‘her’ to us. In short, I was dancing with happiness.

Though one day while taking him for a walk I was overwhelmed by a really strong sense of sadness. I did not know why. It came from nowhere. I kept walking, hoping it would pass.

So I think perhaps I knew. Perhaps, even though my body still thought I was pregnant, at that moment when I was walking down the street stirred by sadness, my soul knew I was not.

The four days until my D&C on Tuesday seemed like an eternity. I wanted it done with and out of me, but I didn’t want anyone to take ‘her’ away from me yet.She’ was still mine.

There is something about miscarriage that makes people awkward and uncomfortable. It is secretive and hidden, as if it is shameful. It is not discussed as easily as other life disappointments. As one friend told me that weekend, it is the only death where you don’t get flowers.

When it is discussed, often people stumble and search for something helpful to say, like it was meant to be or there must have been something wrong. It was god’s way. And perhaps all those things are true, but I am here to say, the only thing worth saying is a simple I am so sorry.

Sunday, we headed to Malibu. Our son played in the sand. We rested on a blanket underneath the California winter sun. I leaned back, listening to the ocean and the sounds of my family playing around me. Instinctively, I placed my hands on my belly. Right then, we were a family, all four of us.

My son chased a dog, which happened to be named the same name he would squeal for the baby sister he wanted. My husband and I looked at each other. I smiled, thinking, this is a nice way for us to say goodbye.

Tuesday arrived, and so it was done. And it was just as awful as it should be.

And so soon enough we tried again. And soon enough I was pregnant. Yay. I was excited, but cautious. After all, friends were miscarrying all around me, like it was catching or something. I tried to do what I could to be supportive, picking friends up after D&C’s, listening as they cried, offering up my own story as solidarity. I remember being terrified to tell my best friend I was pregnant because she had just miscarried the month before. So I kept it a secret. But she and I were away for a girl’s weekend together with our sons and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore.

And like a good best friend, she was thrilled for me. And I was grateful when I woke up the next morning bleeding that she was with me and already knew. The only other relief was that this one happened naturally.

As did the third a few months later.

How silly that I thought We’ll have a baby when we are ready, how silly to think that I just had to get my mind settled. How silly that I thought just because I was invested enough to go to therapy that this would work. Just because I was ready, just because I loved my husband and wanted my child to have a sibling did not mean my body would cooperate or that the stars were aligned.

Before I miscarried that third time in less than the time it would take to have a pregnancy, the joy I had had when I found out I was pregnant 8 months earlier on that swing had been replaced by anxiety and dread. I knew it wouldn’t work. My belief had been diminished. And that was almost the worst part of all.

Eventually we headed to a fertility clinic. I felt bad every time I walked in there. I felt the failure of my body. I felt old, constantly reminded of my geriatric status, all of 38.

But still I gave myself shots until my stomach was black and blue, still I raced there almost daily, still I studied our bank statements looking to make this astronomically expensive option work.

But when my period arrived we decided to take a break.

I am sure we will return. I barely gave it a chance. Or perhaps we will adopt; that is a lovely option.

It’s hard not to blame yourself. It’s hard not to think, but this is the most natural thing in the world – people do it all the time. It’s hard not to take note of the months I would have been due as they pass. August. January. May.

It is not that I want a redo, though perhaps there is a little part of me that would like to have a pregnancy end with champagne and kisses and balloons and smiles, instead of NICU machines and terror. But there are no guarantees. It is not a given that all will go well if I have another baby, but what I know now is that I can handle it. What I know now is that motherhood is more than just the happy parts, more than just the moments you take pictures of and put out for all to see. In fact, I want another child because of what I have learned from my son. That little boy has shown me it is okay to believe and strive and to hope.

Perhaps it is selfish, but the joy Benjamin has given to me is like a drug. I want another fix.

This is not something I need.  I have what I need.  I have my husband.  I have my son.  This is something I want.  And I think it is okay to want things.  I think it is okay to try.  And I am not ready to cross into the other side of the things I dreamed about when I was a girl.

It may take a miracle for me to have another baby, but if I have learned anything from being a mother to my son, my son who entered this world with one foot towards the exit, my son who showed me how to not only survive but to thrive, it is that hope is necessary, to believe in the future is sustenance. He showed me through his own example that I believe in miracles. And maybe we as a family are only allowed one miracle, and if that is all we are given then we are the truly lucky ones.  And I will keep trying for another, because maybe, just maybe, miracles are catching too.

 

Writer’s note: Since writing this piece and performing it in the Los Angeles show Expressing Motherhood, I am happy to report I am expecting my second child in September 2010.

I am in a bit of a mood.  Or as my husband calls it – I am having a time.  I have suddenly gotten quite cross with him, giving looks and huffing noticeably.  The problem, though, has nothing to do with him.

It’s Sunday, which means it is Open House Day.  Open House Day usually starts out with such high hopes for me, girly anticipation of new and better closets and wonders to discover behind each welcome mat.  But after searching for a house to buy for almost three years now (three years!!), you would think that I would not be so Pollyanna about it, not so hopeful, not starting the day at such a high, so as to be not so crushed by the end of it.  And the reason I think I get so irritated by my husband is that he starts the process off rather realistic, borderline pessimistic, so he is never as disappointed by it all as I am.  He recovers quickly.  And that irks me.

I really want a house.  I really want a yard where I can throw my son a big birthday party.  The mom in me wants to buy curtains and keep a tidy home that is ours, that will serve as the other character in the stories of our children’s childhood.

I grew up in an apartment building in New York City.  I loved it.  I rode my bike though our hallways and went on adventures up and down our elevator.  I didn’t know anything else.  I didn’t know that children played outside until their parents called them in.  And now that I know it, I want it.  It seems so adult.  It’s the thing to do.  I think the truth is, my son might not know anything different, just like me on West End Ave, where fun was when the mailman let me help him.  But if I’m honest, I want a yard for the ease of having my son just run around in the back so I know exactly where he is and don’t have to schlep him to the park constantly.  I want laundry at my fingertips, not down a flight of stairs and a pocket full of quarters.  I want to paint a room or scratch a floor and not worry what someone else might say.  In short, I want to be a grown up.

And though I am desperate to move, I actually love our neighborhood and love where we live.  I love that there is a park down the street, Whole Foods around the corner.  I love my son’s school and Brian and his crew at N.Y. Bagel Deli.  I love that when I walk into to the dry cleaners, I don’t have to give my name.  I even love our rental apartment that I so desperately want to shed.  In short, I feel a part of this community, but I am willing to leave it to have a house.  (But within reason, this is why we have not fled for the cheaper suburbs.  We want what we want but in the areas we want.  Is that actually soooo much to ask?  Perhaps it is.  Sigh.)

The first house we bid on and didn’t get, felt like we proposed with too puny a ring.  I remember driving by it, like stalking an old boyfriend, tears in my eyes, slumped at the wheel, wondering if it knew that I truly loved it more and that it should have picked me.  I even imagined a scheme where my husband, an Executive Recruiter, would find the new owner of the house of a fabulous job, in let’s say Seattle, and we’d swoop in, ready to take the house off their hands.   But eventually I moved on and we got involved with several others who broke our hearts as well, like the private sale where we were told it was ours if we wanted it and we weren’t even sure we wanted it, but like the charming guy who woos you into bed with promises that you are made for each other, we bid.  Then the sellers changed their minds, and it kind of felt like they went back to their wife.  There were a few others where we were again outbid, including one where they tore the whole thing down and started over and I mourned for my little house that wasn’t. 

And then we actually got a house.  We were the ones breaking everyone’s hearts.  We were the ones the other bidders were cursing.  We’d won.

And after all of that, we changed our minds.  It needed more work than we originally thought, like we’d met the perfect guy but his plumbing didn’t work.

I know I am more desperate for a move because I am pregnant and nesting is taking over for me.  I am suddenly consumed by the mess in our garage or finding the perfect bookshelf to handle all the toys and books.  But I don’t want to buy new things yet because they may not fit in the mythical house we may buy – perhaps even this coming Sunday – and so my world feels a little topsy turvy.

Having a house means being a grown up to me, but perhaps the adult thing to do would be to realize we are in a good place and in no rush (my husband’s point of view, urgh) and to calm down just a tad.

But I know that next Sunday will arrive, and I will continue to search for our one true love, all the while trying not to annoy my actual one true love. 

 When Dan Zanes came to Los Angeles, my world almost fell apart.

I didn’t even know who Dan Zanes was until I had my son.  But I was soon schooled that he is the hippest kids musician around.  And he was coming to town for a concert. 

I spent the day with my son.  Now, granted I spend almost every day with my son.  But some days are different.  Some days, you take a step back and remind yourself to remember this. This moment right here.  This is why it is OK that I am always tired.  This is why I don’t work anymore.  This.

Benjamin and I had that kind of day recently.  It was nothing big and special, nothing monumental.  Nothing that was even Facebook status worthy.  But some days you can’t imagine how you are not incredibly grateful every day that you get to hang out and raise your child.

But not every day is like that.

Some days, you are vomited on in quick succession about five times (let’s call that Monday).  Some days your child wakes up at 4:45 in the morning declaring it is light out and time to get up (Tuesday and then also Thursday).  But some days, like Wednesday, you head down to The California Science Center and The Space Museum just next door and you shoot rockets and look at satellites and watch all of the older kids in their matching T-shirts in their camp groups and you can’t imagine how some day you won’t be the one to take him to do all the cool things he likes to do.  And you’re glad he is only three and clings to you and loves you in that exhausting 24-hour kind of way.  And you briefly get sad and protective thinking of him older in one of those T-shirts roaming through the world or at least this museum without you, but then you think of him giggling in the corner with his friends and sitting in The Space Museum’s helicopter with a girl he likes and you get excited for him.  Soon, in your mind, he is married with kids, a doctor, perhaps in a small practice, who does a lot of charity work.

But none of that is why the day was so special for me, though all of that was nice.  It was one simple little moment.  We got lunch at The McDonald’s at the museum (no lectures please, probably only his second visit to McDonald’s) and we got a Happy Meal and I watched him eat French fries.  And it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

 

He ate them with pure joy.  We sat together in this big hall full of loud strangers, my child and I, and enjoyed the quiet connection between us.  The fries weren’t even that good actually.  I ate one and thought I remembered those being better, but for him, they were a delight, a treat.  And for me, sitting there with him, together, as he ate a meal I ate as a child as well, was lovely.

Eating those fries with him reminded me of my father.  My father died when I was four and my own memories of him are few, if any.  My mother tells a story about how he ate French fries.  He would take a very long thin one and bite in the middle and then stack the two pieces on top of each other and then bite in the middle again, repeating the whole process until there was no more fry.  When he did this it made my mother laugh.  When she told me this story, it made me laugh.  I don’t know why.  It’s not particularly funny or clever.  But the visual of it, for me as a child, was something I could physically do to try to imitate who he was, how he was.  And I ate fries like that for years.

I sat there with my child eating French fries, knowing I never really got to eat French fries with my dad and I was surprisingly not sad.  I was filled with love for my son and for me and for us and felt lucky that we had each other.

He will not remember that day.  He is just three.  Childhood memories before the age of four are limited.  I know.  But hopefully these moments of being together will provide him with a quiet confidence.  I know they have for me.

Sometimes it is just a flash, just a moment, like that one, that reminds me to take stock, to look around, to adjust what needs fixing and to accept and feel proud for what I may have done right.  I am not perfect.  I do not always enjoy the day to day of being a stay-at-home mom. I admit that even on that day at the science center I may have hurried him along from activity to activity because I was bored.  But he and I have created a bond and every now and then, like at a museum’s McDonald’s surrounded by a sea of campers, it announces itself grandly and quite simply knocks my socks off.

My mother holds me in her arms under a tree – or so the story goes, I am too young to remember on my own – and explains that daddy is broken and has to go to heaven. In heaven he’ll be fixed, she says. If he comes back here, he’ll still be broken, that would be bad, and we wouldn’t want that, right? I guess I agree to keep daddy in heaven because that’s where he stays. I really wouldn’t want him to be broken. I mean, I don’t think I would. At least he’d be here though. No, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Not really.

He is buried. I don’t know where. Then he is gone. We leave town, move to New York City and soon everything is different.

I grow up and go to school. I go to camp and take dance lessons. I read books and play in the park. My mother remarries and we have a new family. Somewhere in between she writes a book about our loss called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. It allows people to ask us questions and it allows us to give advice. We’ve moved on quite nicely, we are told. We agree. We are fine.

I don’t know when I realize there might be a tangible access to him, a grave. He is in New Jersey I learn, B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, to be exact, just over the river, near Newark. I wonder if I can see him from my balcony.

Visiting him never seems like an easy option. My mother is always full of excuses. The roads are confusing. We don’t have a car. Next year. Maybe.

Somehow, when I am old enough to drive, I round up a car and rally my mother and we are off. We may float over the Hudson for all I know. I have no memory of that day before standing in the rain in front of his grave.

It is very odd, almost creepy, to see your own name on a headstone. ZIENTS. There it is. I am not used to sharing my name with others. I am the only Zients in my immediate family since my mother remarried. It is one of the reasons I love going to dinner with my grandfather. “Ah, Mr. Zients, right this way. Your table is ready.” I love the sound of it. It makes me feel special to share his name, our special bond. But seeing our name like this makes me pause. I know that my father died, obviously. But there it is on a tombstone above some grass with his casket and remains of a suit below. He is all alone too. No one by his side. My grandmother is there, true, but she is just a little too far, a little too out of reach. To his left and to his right are empty plots. At least I know my grandfather will fill the space next to my grandmother. I do not know if I, or my remarried mother, will do the same for my father.

My mother has brought a candle that she and my father purchased together many years ago. My mother is the overly-sentimental-keeper-of-unnecessary-nostalgia type. I usually find this irksome, but right now I love her for it. We light the candle at the base of his grave, and my mother strolls away so I can meet my father.

“Hello,” I begin. “I just graduated college. A real big girl. I’m doing great.” I lie.

“Stanley, my stepfather, you know Mommie’s husband, well, he adopted me,” I explain, half expecting lightning and thunder to strike me down as I do. “Grandpa said it was okay. It’s a good thing, actually, but still, if it bothers you, I’m sorry.”

It begins to rain a little bit harder. I begin my goodbye, imagining, as I am prone to do, that I am not just talking to some wet grass off the New Jersey Turnpike and that he can actually hear me. As I do, the candle goes out. Damn rain I think to myself, ruining my moment. I turn to my mother and complain, “the candle went out.” She walks over to join me and it goes back on. Hand to God, it goes back on.

For a brief moment I am jealous that he chose to show himself as my mother approached. Was he talking to me or to her? Why couldn’t he have been clearer? I want to think it was to me, or even to us, but what if it was just to her. It did go back on when she walked over. Nothing changed as I stood there, except that it went out. He hates me. It’s quite clear. I am not important enough to overcome the rain. It’s true.

This is stupid. The candle went back on. It is magical actually. He was talking to us. Yes, he was talking to us. That is tremendous, really quite spectacular, a sign from above, if you think about it.

My mother and I hug and cry and declare it lovely. Lovely indeed. This is what we call beautiful we discuss, and we decide it is the most beautiful day ever in the history of ever. We leave the cemetery and head back to New York, and I feel worthy of being alive.

We drive, maybe in silence. I’m sure there are no words that would be right. No words to express what I now know, that my father up on the slant of the hill above my grandmother and the other to-be-filled spots is king of the cemetery. He reigns there, all powerful. And he’s watching out for me. I love that. I smile and feel comfortable (or at least as comfortable as I can) leaving him behind.

I drop my mother off, loving her just a little bit more and race to the East Side to pick up my friend Jennie. I had it perfectly planned before the day even started. I was going to spend the morning in New Jersey with my mother and would still have enough time to make it out to Long Island in the afternoon for Sam’s funeral. When I planned it, it almost seemed appropriate to do them both on the same day.

Jennie had called a couple of days earlier to tell me Sam had died.

Sam Mazlow was one of three brothers who owned Mazlow’s, the restaurant where Jennie and I had worked for several summers out on Fire Island. We’d started as busgirls and worked our way up, all the way to waitresses. Mazlow’s was our life for four months out of the year and now one of them had died.

“Of course, I’ll be there,” I explained as she told me about the service. I thought about our summers and the trouble we got into and the safe haven that Mazlow’s and their whole family served for us. I knew them well, even though I hadn’t worked there for a while. Paying my respects all the way out in Long Island, it was the least I could do. What a shame, really. He was too young. It’s really quite a shame. I made a note to bring my mother’s book.

I pick up Jennie and all her curly hair and head out of town for the second time that day. I want to tell her about the brush with the other side that I have just miraculously experienced in New Jersey. But it is a somber day and so is she, so I soften the story and just present the facts, leaving out all the grandness and glory. She is supportive and interested, but only as far as she can go. She could never fully understand. It was just between the three of us, a mother, a father and their daughter.

We drive, again in silence and my mind wanders, loving the concept of just the three of us – a mother, a father and their daughter. Mommie, Daddy and Me. I bathe in it for awhile because it is so foreign.

I don’t think anyone meant to dismiss me as a full-fledged family member, on either side. But that’s how it feels. I was too strong of a memory to be fully embraced by my father’s family and too weak of a presence at nine, when I met my new one, to demand my own niche. Even my grandfather, whom I adore, drunkenly referred to me in a toast at his 75th birthday party as a walking reminder of his dead son. It is not pleasant to think you trail grief from room to room at family functions. So I smile and mind my place and don’t make waves and hope it will adjust itself. But when the candle relit, I knew I was worth more than that. He was telling me he hadn’t dismissed me.

He should know I’ve never dismissed him. I wonder about him all the time. I picture him wooing my mother through the streets of Florence, Italy and finally proposing on the Ponte Vechio. I watch and rewatch his broadcasting videos and think about what else he could have accomplished. I know he would have been a huge, huge star. I check behind doors when I am home alone convinced there is someone there, a constant presence, a watchful eye that always makes me question my behavior before I am about to do something naughty.

I have imagined he hadn’t really died. It was all a ruse. He’d been wandering the streets with amnesia actually. And only, when the gods intervened, convinced I could handle it, and it was time for us to know each other properly, he’d walk back into my life and all would be explained. I’d take him by the hand and say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”

Or he’d pick me up from ballet one day before my mother had arrived and explain he was really a secret agent and the world had needed him and that was that and I needed to understand. I’d tell him I did. He’d say, “Good girl” and we’d grab my leg warmers and off through the back door on some adventures together.

I still see him in strangers on the street. I am constantly told people see him in me.

My head spins at the cosmic importance placed on the day, but as we head out of Queens I suddenly decide my father is an asshole, a real prick. Good riddance. Then I scramble for forgiveness and cry out to erase those thoughts from my stupid, stupid head.

What could he have possibly been thinking that day? Was it a hit on the head, a chemical imbalance or, waiting for me as well, an all encompassing “crazy” gene? Did my then four-year-old self flash before his eyes as he placed the noose around his neck? Did that image make him pause from what he was about to do for a moment, even just a second?

I spin recklessly out of control in my head as Jennie studies the map. Then the goddamn car begins to spittle and fiddle, and soon we are on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The car is smoking and it is still raining, and this isn’t how I planned it at all. And how the hell did the candle relight? And now, above everything else, we’re going to be late.

A nice man stops and helps us. He brings us to a mechanic who says he can fix it, easy. We wait and get donuts as he does. Jennie is silly. She must think something’s wrong. She reminds me to breathe.

We finally arrive at the memorial drenched and stressed, but otherwise intact. The Mazlows, Carl, Renny, little Renny, they all just keep coming. More family from all nooks and crannies, from everywhere. I spot Erica, Sam’s widow, who smiles as she greets everyone who comes her way. I stop my approach and quietly judge her. How can she possibly be smiling at a time like this? That isn’t proper. We mingle and make our hellos and then there’s Ryann, Sam’s daughter, who is beautiful, all brown big eyes who embodies all that’s wonderful about being seventeen. I offer her my years of survivor wisdom and take her address to send her my mother’s book, which I have stupidly forgotten.

“It’s hard,“ I tell her.But it will pass. Really, I swear. Look at me. I turned out just fine.“ I smile all knowingly.

We hug and she says thank you like I have just whispered a secret in her ear that her father is really just outside.

When I get home I am all too aware that I have lied to Ryann. Why would I lie to her? She’s so pretty. Did I even know I’d lied? No. I meant it. I did. But because of me, she now expects an easy road ahead. What a dreadful, awful person I am. But I didn’t know what to say. I had to say something. I had to. That’s my job. I’m good at it. Or at least I was. What will I do now? Will I run away? Keep crying? Call her up and tell her it really sucks, like a film that wraps around your entire being or a stench that never washes away? Will I pretend? Pretend I even know what’s wrong?

I am jealous of Ryann with her big sprawling family. At least she knew her father. Like those whiny girls in gym class who complained about their parents’ divorces and only getting to see their dads on weekends. I wanted to punch them in the face and scream, “At least you have a father, you stupid little things.“

I want to tell myself to shut up, but only crazy people do that. And then I get it. I’m right on schedule. Today’s the day, the day I’ve been dreading, but secretly knew would arrive. The day I become broken. Well isn’t that perfect. It is my destiny, obviously. My father went crazy, and, according to my mother did not show signs until his early twenties. Well, here we go. Dammit.

The wind rattles the cheap windows in my fourth floor walk up and the pink paint continues to peel. I light a cigarette, my new dreadful habit, and put on my overly appropriate new favorite song, Joan Osbourne’s Crazy Baby and collapse on my bed.

My bed, which I just shared with Alex, the bartender from work, whom I don’t even like. He’s kind of an asshole. But I was bored and declared it French night and he could keep up when I ordered en francais and that’s all it took and then we were here. There are studies that say girls without fathers tend to be either prudish or promiscuous. I had always leaned towards prudish, but recently, I don’t know why, with the likes of Alex, Steve, Barney, Robert, I am single-handedly trying to prove the prosmiscuous studies right. I’m disgusting.

I am a failure, a fraud from the “put together” life I’ve led.

I call my mother and quietly tell her I need help. I am grateful she does not judge and we agree to call a therapist in the morning. Anticipating my next worry, she assures me that she and Stanley will pay for it. And so it is done. I’ve staved it off for today anyway.

I smoke my Parliament Lights, unsure of what has just happened. The stereo wails and I sit and wait, aware of every sound. My hand shakes holding the cigarette, as I think about the simplicity of a candle and some rain and of him up on the hill alone. I search for a moment of calm inside my little apartment, because I know that crazy swirls in the wind right outside my door. And I’m pretty sure it’s looking for another way in.

 

When the police arrive at my Bat Mitzvah, I know the whole special day thing is kind of a wash.

It seems the “Marks,” as in Feingold and Lubell, had taken the personalized soda glasses filled with jellybeans, that my mother and I had so diligently prepared, and decided it was a good idea to sneak out onto an unused balcony at the hotel with said jellybeans and pummel arriving guests. I stand there with the gnawing knowledge this could not be good for me socially and watch as the boys in blue saunter into the Sheraton’s banquet parlor. This is my first adult life lesson as a newly anointed woman. Just when you think things can’t get any worse…

It starts out promising enough. Young girl on the brink of womanhood embarks on a religious tradition that will educate her about her culture and past, energize and bond her family, and set a path for a monumental and well-prepared future. It had all the makings of special.

Hebrew school isn’t anything my mother ever pushed. It is just the two of us, us two girls, since my father died. We are independent, worldly, and quite sophisticated, most recently having returned from a whirlwind trip through the Greek Isles, from Knossos to Santorini. Demanding I have a knowledge of Ashkenazi versus Sephardic is a little too traditional for my mother at the time. We are the reformed of the Reform, which means we live on the Upper West Side and enjoy Annie Hall.

My mother grew up in quite an observant home, lighting candles every Shabbat, being married in a synagogue, eating brisket weekly. But when it came time for her daughter’s religious upbringing, choice was what mattered most. And what matters most to me is I think lighting Hanukah candles with pot holders on our heads is a little silly. Not my thing.

But then Laura Silverstone had to go and sign up at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I know we can walk to and from Hebrew school every Monday and Wednesday. I like Laura a lot, ever since we were at Seder together and I stumbled across a word I did not know while reading aloud from the Haggadah and we conferred and together decided it was pronounced syn-o-goo-gy. She is cool, so it must be cool, and besides, she said, at our Bat Mitzvahs, we’d probably get a lot of money.

So I am in. I learn a whole new alphabet and pretty soon don’t need vowels. Our rabbi goes on Live at Five and debates with Mayor Koch or Al Sharpton. Our teacher was in the Israeli army. She would wax poetic about the art of holding an Uzi. And wouldn’t you know it, Hebrew school turns out to be cool.

I find myself wandering through the halls of the temple, awed by its beauty, feeling a sense of belonging and a strange pride. As I do, I smile, knowing I carry a biblical name. Rachel. Sister of Leah. Wife of Jacob. Mother of Joseph. Died in childbirth. Tragedy. That should have been a clue.

It is decided that following my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, immediate family will be invited to traipse across the street from the temple to lunch at Tavern on the Green, followed by a big party for kids with a D.J. and all the fixings later that night. This requires two outfits. I decide on a cream-colored Esprit sweater dress for day and a bright, white lace dress with a little swish to it for the night. It is to be a very simple affair, despite Tavern on the Green on the roster.

But throughout all of it, we try not to let the celebration take center stage over the serious reasons for the ritual. At our temple we are encouraged to participate in twinning, a process where we are jointly Bat or Bar Mitzvahed for a Russian Jew, since, in those days, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion. I write my twin Maria often, chronicling the planning of the party, the classes to prepare, and the rowdy Spin-the-Bottle parties that are taking place. But my letters are always returned to me. No matter. I know and God knows.

And then the invitations are sent. This is where the trouble begins.

My Aunt Debbie and Uncle David are at the top of the guest list. Debbie works at Bloomingdale’s as a buyer. Because of her I got to model in some of their fashion shows. Under flashing lights and pounding music I made my way down the runway in a blue blazer and matching kilt, a red beret, and Mary Janes. I hit my mark, all eyes on me, held my head up high and turned perfectly on cue. Rumor had it Bette Davis was in the audience that night, though I didn’t know who she was, but I heard she was famous, so that’s cool. The whole thing had been a blast and that shining moment up on stage – “All About Rachel” – was how I always felt when Debbie was around.

Her husband, David, my mother’s brother, is also all neon and highlighted for me. David plays the guitar and is really good at it, and is driving a cab until he gets to be a rock star. Each November the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving he wakes me up at two in the morning and drags me all groggy and sleepy to 77th and Columbus where they prepare the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is our annual ritual. He manages in those wee hours to make me feel as if we are the only two people in all of New York City to have ever seen such a thing. The night, the holiday, Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, even the Big Bird balloon – it is all ours. Our little secret.

Debbie and David, I adore them both. Problem is, they don’t adore each other anymore. They decide to divorce right before my Bat Mitzvah, and my mother and I make the unwise decision of inviting Debbie without clearing it with David.

Oy.

Somewhere in here aliens must snatch my mother and uncle’s appropriate genes and the flood gates open for a battle. All sibling issues never dealt with for many decades come pouring out and vomit all over my Bat Mitzvah. They stomp their feet. They whisper behind each other’s backs. They shout in each other’s faces. They rehash old wounds and carve out new ones. All conversations deal with how wretched the other is and my mother must only see little David heads everywhere she looks for how often even the simplest activity turns into a diatribe against ungrateful, not-as-accomplished, must-be-crazy-with-jealousy-younger-brothers!

When I dare to inquire about something else, say a photographer for my special day, my mother mumbles something about, “Why don’t we ask David?” Defeated with the weight of all unhappy thirteen-year-olds on my shoulders, I answer a simple, “Never mind.” Subsequently, I have no photographs of my Bat Mitzvah other than a few pictures of me in my sweater and lace dresses standing against a bare wall in my living room.

My grandmother sits at our dining room table too sad to control her battling children. My mother “loses” her glasses, which are actually on her head, for the third time that day. She is also about to accuse someone, anyone, of eating her bagel, which she herself has just finished. I sit there across from my grandmother as if I am watching a show – in cahoots with her as the only normal people left in the world.

How I wish I were my Russian twin! Standing in the snow barefoot, wearing a babushka, waiting hours for bread would probably be easier than this. I wonder then if I could ship my family off to Siberia as opposed to listening to them squabble over who gets to lunch at Tavern on the Green.

In my head I am a hysterical mess equaling my mother’s antics of screaming and shouting. Hello! Thirteen-year-old girl here! Brink of womanhood, not just there yet. Still a child. No breasts, nothing! Here we are planning my becoming-an-adult event and there’s not one among us! You’re my role models? You’re my blueprint for the future? I’ve searched far and wide and the answer to all of this mishigas is for you all to keep it from me. Keep me sheltered! I know it’s not very cosmopolitan, but LIE!!!!

And they do.

On the day of the Bat-Mitzvah they are all happy faces and smiles for everyone else’s benefit. This is the day everyone acts all gracious and friendly. This is the day they protect me from the ills of family battles. This is the day, but not the six months leading up to it.

David and Debbie are even late to lunch, since they’d run off giggling after the ceremony to get me a gift together. So now I am monumentally confused, momentarily thrilled, and most likely permanently scarred.

So I try to go with it and enjoy the day. Maybe this is my gift from God for being such a good girl through the whole ordeal. But then the D.J. at the party that night has to go and play some “dance games.” He instructs us all that “the Bat Mitzvah girl” (that’s me) will dance solo with the guy/guys of her choice. Every time the music stops I have to pick someone new to dance with. Has the D.J. no concept of 13? Can he not see the this-is-my-side, that-is-their-side dynamics of the room?

I start off easily enough with my stepfather, and, when the music stops, and all eyes are on my next choice, I miraculously find myself next to Laura’s dad, Mr. Silverstone. He and I cut a rug as I worry about the dwindling adult male population I have to choose from. Then, like the parting of the seas, I spot my grandmother’s boyfriend, who is literally named Moses, and I feel safe, for I know David is out there somewhere, too.

There is no way I am asking a boy from my school to dance. Not after I followed Mark Lubell around at last month’s Friday night school fling reminding him that he said he’d dance with me, only to hear another song start and end and only to see him continue to duck me. I grow worried for I am about to reenter stepfather territory and the D.J. is making waves about the rules of the game and all eyes are on me and then there seems to be a hubbub on the other side of the room. And that’s when the heat shows up.

I close my eyes in the middle of the dance floor to escape from the mess of the hall. I take a deep breath, not wanting to watch the police scold my mother for the jellybean hail making its debut in midtown, and quietly pray to myself that everyone will just go home and we can start all over again tomorrow.

Dear God,

If by chance a freak time zone accident shall occur and the early-to-mid part of 1985 needs to be rewound and therefore redone, please know this is what I would like to happen. Take notes and pay careful attention.

There will be no fighting; in fact no such word even exists. I will sing my haftorah portion with a voice that is a combination of Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon and Madonna. Maria and her family in Russia can worship as they please. Everyone at school, camp, and the neighborhood will want to come, for I am the most popular girl for miles, and they will all want to dance with me. The New York Times will start a new Bat Mitzvah announcement section due to my popularity and I will be the first to grace its pages. McDonald’s fries and Burger King burgers, cotton candy, and Lucky Charms will be served and my mother will not complain about it. There will be pictures taken. Lots of them. The D.J. will not speak, not once. He will only spin records.

And God, if none of that is quite doable or requires too much planning, I’ll just take that my mom and uncle still like each other and also that my uncle and aunt like each other, too. And if that’s not possible and I can only ask for one thing, I’ll take that my father is there. (I know that requires rewinding all the way back to 1975, but I’m up for it.)

Anyway, thank you God for listening. Looking forward to getting to know you better. All the best, newly adulted and hoping to do you proud, Rachel. Sister of no one. Daughter of Jeff and Eileen. Wife and mother of as yet to be determined.

P.S. No jellybeans.

He has this terrible habit of tracking me down right before my birthday.

“Hello,” he offers up in that sing song sort of way he has when I pick up the phone. And I huff and puff, determined that his ex-boyfriend shenanigans are not to be forgotten! But pretty soon he has me laughing or tells me about a book I would like. “I’ll lend it to you.” In person, I wonder?

I drift off, curious as to how he looks now. I heard his hair was long, almost shaggy, which I think ridiculous, and I smile. Then, somewhere before “I told you not to call me,” we make plans, to lend a book, to catch up, to let him properly take me out to celebrate my birth.

I pick him up at his office, quickly reminded of how much I had hated his job and yet how it had once thrilled me. I remember as I sit there waiting in the big, scary atrium of business suits and fancy cars, how he’d rolled off me one night to get the phone, how he’d turned back and said he had to go out, to his boss’ house, to a party, that I, now in a lowered tone, couldn’t come. And I pretended not to care, to understand. I stayed in his bed over a series of nights, wanting to be what he’d come home to, asking, “Just call if it’s late. But have fun!” I wished him well for the things he wouldn’t bring me to.  Staring up through the darkness, there in his bed, I was hopeful that every noise from the street was his truck pulling in from the night.

He’d finally arrive and I’d have the “audacity” to say, “You don’t think 2 a.m. constitutes as late?” He’d pause and sigh and have a faint genuine moment of truth. “I don’t think I can do this,” he’d whisper.

I’d roll over, not knowing what it was we had decided, but still there in his bed, not demanding he take me home. He’d off to some trip the next day, some business that very much needed to be done. And when he’d return, we wouldn’t speak of it. We’d just continue, barely able to say what we were wanting, just calling each other less and less, hurting more and more for about a year or so until he was squiring some new girl around town.

Then he saunters in, all tall and exactly the same and I hope there are lots of people standing there in the atrium to witness our reunion, to see him greeting me. We behave ever so properly and discuss our dining options, deciding on a place, acting as if we’d just seen each other some recent summer day.

“Same car,” he says matter of factly as we are on our way. I answer, “Yes,” very aware of every word as I struggle with the radio button that I know by heart, surprised he doesn’t ask to drive.

We take our seats after a few hellos to other patrons, and I feel on equal footing because I know people too.

I sip my lemonade, which he orders for me, worried that the next forty minutes will be the same. I look at him and think, “Oh, that’s right, you’re kind of boring.” And I feel happy we aren’t together. But then he leans in, only for me to hear, and tells me how he found his eighth grade English teacher’s phone number, called her and thanked her for his education, for the things he was able to accomplish. He tells me how she cried. I excuse myself and hurry to the bathroom, almost crying myself, for the story is too lovely to be ignored, and I am furious that he suddenly isn’t boring.

I return and we eat our salads, and slowly a giggle emerges. We talk of Vonnegut and bad movies and trips we have taken, and pretty soon I forget the speech I am practicing in my head, of how we can only be friends, if that, of how I know now that that was not a way to be treated, of how I’m very much on track if you haven’t noticed.

But he doesn’t give me the chance. He doesn’t ask for me back. (That won’t come for another week or so – late and drunk in some diner somewhere. It’s always late and drunk in some diner somewhere.) He tells me he is too embarrassed to ask for another chance, that he knows he’s used up his chances, that he’s sorry.

I melt just a little more than is good for me, convinced that maybe once he really did love me.

With that conversation out of the way, he feels permission to pick at my salad. I let him, enjoying the reach across the table and he asks me what he’s been waiting to all day, “Seeing anyone?”

“No one special. A writer,” I say, angry that I hadn’t lied, hadn’t claimed to be riotously happy, nearing nuptials actually. He pauses and inquires some more, but I won’t budge. Then he waits for me to return the question, but I won’t. I know who she is. She’s why I’m not her. I get momentarily flustered thinking of her, even though I’d heard they’d broken up, and talk of the two or three (or four or five actually) other writers there’ve been this year. Then I push my salad away.

“Happy Birthday,” he finally offers.

“Oh yeah,” I say. “To you, too. You know, I think you find me right around my birthday so you can butter me up by the time it’s your birthday in a few days,” I pretend to scold.

He laughs, denies it, but with a glint of “you caught me” in his eyes.

And I remember his eyes and stare just a little too long.

“I’m having a party actually. A birthday party. Friday,” he says, as he pays the check. “I’d like you to come.”

I hem and haw and say, “Lunch was probably enough,” even though I make a mental note of the time and place. I seem miraculously to forget about how he’d had his birthday party anyway a few years back. I had been rushed to the hospital earlier that day with a ruptured ovarian cyst and recuperated in bed alone as he drunkenly turned thirty.

“Thank you. It was good to see you,” he says in his most genuine tone as we head back to his office. “Friday?” he tries again.

“Probably not,” I say, suddenly remembering those last years.

“What is it you want?” he inquires almost hurt.

“You know. House, husband, baby, dog.”

“Oh.”

“Hanging out with you just postpones those things,” I say, feeling momentarily powerful with my zinger of truth.

“Not necessarily,” he sheepishly musters as he slowly glances away, not aware, or maybe all too aware, of how cruel his flicker of hope is to me.

I drop him off, anxious for him to get out of the car and then missing him as soon as he’s gone. I drive off not wanting to watch him walk away from me.

I head over to the writer’s house. “Hi, I’m around the corner,” I call. I enter his apartment very determined to have a good time. I let him touch me. Kiss me. We end up on the hallway floor, not worthy of a bed or a couch. And just a second after the moment where we go too far, where seeking companionship turns to utter isolation – I rise and make some excuse and hurry home, leaving him there on the hardwood floor, promising nothing’s wrong, I’ll call you later behind an almost believable smile.

I drive almost in a daze not sure how I make it home or what is wrong.

I shower like Lady Macbeth and scare the bejesus out of my friend when she calls, not realizing as I answer the phone that I am heaving and wailing. She races over and listens to me rant about my day, about how I violated myself, by my actions. How dirty I am substituting one man for another. “If I had a therapist it wouldn’t be lost on them that both men have the same name,” I say attempting levity. She takes that as a cue to suggest therapy. I dismiss it, knowing she is right.

I calm down and think I look pretty when I cry. She agrees with me, pointing out how green my eyes are. I should cry more often, she instructs. “Not a problem,” I respond. Then we both laugh.

“I’ll take you out for your birthday, just the girls,” she offers. And for the first time all day, I smile and think, “Oh, yes, lovely.”

“Friday? How’s Friday?” she offers as she tears into planning a grand fete.

And I shrink back and calmly say, “I can’t Friday. I’m busy. Friday, I have plans.”

Suicide and I have a relationship.

I would not say we are friends, but we go way back.

Way back to that day in 1975 when I was four years old and my father took the rope of a robe and tied it around his neck.

It’s the relationship I just can’t shake. It’s always there.

It was there when my mother moved us, not just from the house he died in, but the state.

It was there when I slept in my mother’s bed next to her for several years. She would buy me colorful new bedding hoping to lure me back to my room, but the sheets went unused.

It was there as I sat in our back room watching videos of my father over and over until the tape wore out and his image went missing.

It was there when each new school year I secretly hoped he hadn’t really died and had just lost his memory roaming the world aimlessly. He’d be my new math teacher and during attendance he’d see me and snap out of it.

It was there when my mother made me take down a photograph of him from my bedroom. And wouldn’t explain why.

It was there when I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s features. And there when my mother would tell me to stop making a certain face, so closely resembling him in that moment, upsetting her with just my smile.

It was there as I saw her huddled on our couch reading, alone.

It was there as I asked my friends each night on the phone if they were really my friends. Did they think I was funny? Pretty? Smart?

It was there when as I grew older I kissed more boys than I should have. And there when I excused those boys who turned out to be liars or cheats, and let them back into my bed.

It was there when I worried, at the end of my own rope, if it was my time now. The words would whisper from deep within and I knew that these same words spoke to him. I thought about following the sounds.

It was there when my grandfather after a few Grey Goose and tonics would grow quiet and sigh, “stupid kid” under his breath, but loud enough for me feel each word.

It was there as I traveled from place to place seeking out information. I went looking for his thesis at his college, now my college. I got his autopsy report and held it in my hands. I had dinner with his friend and felt jealous at his memories of him.

It was there when I got married and he didn’t walk me down the aisle.

It was there when I made my husband promise that if we had a son we would not name him after him. I did not want to chance being sad each and every time I called after my child.

It was there as thirty years later I found myself in a Survivors After Suicide group therapy meeting pleading and hoping to no longer be so burdened by his action.

It was there when I swore I did not want it to be there any more.

I was more than just the girl whose father killed himself.

It was there when determined to do good work I signed up to be a grief counselor. I cried as I toured the facility for the little four year old girl that I was that did not have a place like that. And it was there when I sat during the first day’s training and knew I would quit. I had a secret. I was two months pregnant and there in that moment I realized I was no longer interested in being so enmeshed with death, with suicide. I wanted to concentrate on this new life, not the one that I had never really known.

It was there when my son was born in an emergency, dire situation. “No. Why me?” I thought. “I have already had my tragedy.”

It was there when as my son got stronger, I realized I too had great strength from many years of practice.

It was there when we named our son after each of our grandfathers. And it was there, but by my invitation, when we gave him my father’s Hebrew name, needing to connect them. I needed to honor him.

I am determined to share with my son how my father lived. That includes how he died. But it will no longer be the first and only information about him.

My father was charming.

He made people laugh for a living.

He proposed to my mother in Italy.

He struggled with his weight.

And he killed himself.

My son will know these things.

My father’s baby picture hangs on my son’s bedroom wall along with all of his other grandparents’ baby pictures. Each night, I tell my son how much they love him. I have come to refer to my father as Grandpa Daddy. He holds equal weight each night with the other grandparents. But when I scan the pictures, it is Grandpa Daddy who my son most resembles.

Sometimes I get sad as I say our goodnights and place my son in his crib.

I am sad that they will not know each other. Sad that he is just a photograph to him.

I am sad that I never really got to know him, except through other people’s memories.

I am sad that he died, but not as sad for how he died.

There in that moment, after thirty years of hard work, how he died does not seem as important.

It does not go away. It is always there.

But now more like just a little bit over there.

Not right here.

I got my hair cut and then my grandfather died. 

I knew one had nothing to do with the other, but for some reason, for months after, I was unable to cut my hair.  I wore my hair mostly in a ponytail or crumpled atop my head, but there was no hiding the split ends, its drab dullness.  Sometimes I just let it fall where it may, flapping and resting wildly on my shoulders. 

My grandfather would never have let his hair get into such a state.  He was a classy guy.  Always impeccably groomed.  He could pair stripes and plaid and pull it off with grand ease.  Sometimes he wore funny ties, ladies lounging in martini glasses and that kind of thing, but it was never cheesy – just pure sass.  Even in the hospital when he had been ill a couple of years ago, hooked up to machines, stripped of his beautiful clothes, his only wardrobe a hospital gown and sheet, I couldn’t help but notice that his nails were perfectly manicured, freshly buffed.  He was sleek and elegant, unique but classy.  He had been in retail, head of Gimbels, back in the day when Gimbels meant something.  So he knew about appearance. 

I have never been that way.  Askew is a word my friends would use to describe my style.  Cute, funky, but never completely without a wrinkle or a rip.  I do what I can to not be a walking disaster.  My hair is usually something that while not blown, curled, teased, set or held together by product, is usually trimmed and neat.  That much I have been able to do.  But since that Sunday, many months before, the color was fading, the gray was showing and my hair bands were snapping at all the extra use.

Before that last haircut, my hair was finally getting longer, growing out after I had chopped it one day.  But it was just kind of falling there.  My baby fine hair didn’t swing and flow as I wished it would.  So I called up my stylist, Moses, to see if he could fit me in.  It would be layers.  All over.  They would add depth, movement.  Drama.  I loved it.  And so did the people I saw that night.  “Best haircut you’ve ever had,” I recall someone saying.

Then my Aunt called.  My grandfather was in the hospital.  Something had happened the night before.  I was assured I didn’t need to rush home.  I live in Los Angeles.  He was in New Jersey.  I asked my Aunt to tell him that I loved him.

I get the sequence wrong, but he fell into a coma, I was looking into flights and then the phone rang.  I didn’t answer it.  I made my husband get it.  I knew.  A moment earlier I had felt it pass through me.  Jay handed me the phone and I heard my Aunt say, “This is the phone call.”  I had dreaded this moment, but had been anticipating it.  He was in his nineties.  He’d been in the hospital before.  But he had always pulled through.  I didn’t really believe the call would ever come.

I fell deep into the couch, heaving and suffering, digging into its yellow color as if bad news did not exist within its cushions. 

We went to New Jersey, to the funeral.  I shook as we approached the cemetery, then stood frozen.  Two graves I could handle, but this now made it three.  I made it into the building with my family, his friends.  I actually felt pretty in my black wrap dress and new haircut as I greeted my family.  The prettiness provided me with a strength. 

There is something about funerals.  Something about the ritual and the routine.  There is a reason we travel 3,000 miles to hug our family and eat food together.  There is a reason.

Later, in the confines of my bedroom in my mother’s house, I turned to my husband as we prepared for bed.  “Let’s make a baby,” I whispered to him.  It felt mostly like a plea.  “Let’s make a baby,” I said again.  “And name it Bernie, boy or girl, okay?”

He took me in his arms and took me to bed and agreed, never divulging the truth that we both knew, that I was on the pill and baby making would not be easy.  But I needed to believe that in that instant I could create life on a wish and a demand.

I returned home and went about my routine.  I was in a fog but no one would know unless they asked.  I hid it well.  And fairly soon after my return, they stopped asking. 

There is a certain amount of grieving to be done for grandparents.  They were old.  It was expected.  Glad to have known him so long.  It wasn’t a parent.  I repeated these beliefs over and over until I myself started to spout their truths.  And then eventually I just stopped talking about it.  But in my car alone, I cried.  The streets would just pass by me as I drove, bright lights and other people going about their days.  And then I would arrive at others’ doors and I was fine.  See, I thought I knew about grief.  I was a child of death, after my father died when I was four.  I should know how to handle this.  My grandfather’s death had halted me but I felt I could not show it, so it showed in my hair.

My hair.  My wild mane defied how I seemed: together, rigid almost.  But my unkempt disarray actually defined how I felt: distressed, discouraged, stalled.  The mirror spoke a truth only I knew.  I felt I carried a secret everyone around me should know, but one I felt compelled to keep to myself.  Or maybe they all knew.  I did look a mess.  And yet I was unable to do anything about it.  Whenever I called Moses he was never there and I took that as a sign that I should not get my hair cut.  My grandfather’s death had stalled me so that I could not even make an appointment for the future.  If Moses was not there right then, there would be no haircut.

I have never taken hair that seriously.  I was never locked into a look.  I’d cut bangs on a whim, highlight with no worries or chop off my hair when a boy had made me cry.  There was a certain freedom to changing it up.  What’s the harm?  It’ll grow back.  It’s just hair, I reasoned.  Hair bounces back.  It is the only part of your body that you can change without any serious consequences.  It was something I knew completely.  But then at that moment, I knew nothing.

What is it that I fear will happen?  Will someone else die?  I don’t have that much power I remind myself.  If I go for a hair cut my mother’s plane will not crash, my grandmother will not die.  I know that rationally.  But what if I did have that kind of power?  What if this was the time my powers were turned on.  One action causes another action.  Coincidence is actually consequence.  Or what if it were pure coincidence and it happened again? 

But separate from that, hair carries our past.  My grandfather’s in there.  He’s in my DNA.  I had this hair when I knew him.  The hair on my head was created by his side.  And I am not ready to part with it.  It is my tangible access.  At times I just want to shave it all off, be done with it.  But mostly I just want to keep as much of it with me for as long as I can.

I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror.  Staring back at me with my hair falling where it may, I saw a different girl.  My hair had reached a certain length and wave at that moment that I looked earthy.  It struck me.  It was the first time for a while that I could remember thinking I was pretty.  And it had nothing to do with the mop on my head.  Possibly it wasn’t my hair that had been weighing me down, but me.  And maybe just maybe, that part of me was waking up.

I went to see Moses. 

I told him straight away about my hair, my grandfather and my phobia.  He greeted me with a sound in his voice of someone else who had gone through a recent loss.  I knew his grandmother had recently died.  He got it.  He did not judge.  It was perfectly reasonable to think if you cut your hair someone would die.

He wouldn’t cut much off he assured me.  Just clean it up, make me presentable.  Maybe fiddle with the color a little?

“Okay,” I said.  I needed to trust him.  I needed to just follow along.  I needed to know that I could do this.  The Police’s King Of Pain played above.

Then, he asked how he died.  That surprised me.  To tell the story.  Most people hear grandfather.  92.  Dead.  And they don’t need to know how.  It was hard to tell.  “Dehydrated…coma…cardiac arrest.”  I was unsure I even had it right.  But it also felt good.  Real.  I don’t know if I thanked him for asking but I meant to.

He continued to cut my hair, layers around my face. 

The world did not end.                                                       

My cell phone did not blare with bad news. 

He colored it to give the brown some unity and then lightened the top pieces that fell by my eyes.  He said he wouldn’t even charge me for the highlights. 

I made it through this part.  I took a deep breath as he twirled me into the mirror’s view.  My hair rested on the floor.  I rose up in the seat, lighter, as he revealed the streaks of blond racing across my head. 

That’s better.

I thought the story would end when he started cutting.  I wanted to feel all better.  I wanted it all to lift up and be done with.  I wanted to leave it on the floor with the hair being swept away.  As I looked in the mirror, I knew that was not the case.  The grief and the hair were two different things.  But I also knew as I gazed upon myself, with my new lovely hair that brought out my eyes, that I was in there somewhere.

 

I sit in my white Reem Acra duchess satin gown in a room on the second floor of The Metropolitan Club with everyone I know just downstairs waiting for me, the bride.

Down those great big stairs is Jay, my future husband.  My mother flutters about.  I am sure waiters are about to trip and spill green apple martinis all over me and ruin 13 months of planning.  I take a breath. 

My father is not by my side, not here to give me away.  He is dead.  A suicide when I was four.  This is the fact of my life I expect people to know about me instantly.  My defining layer.

Then there is Stanley, sitting right next to me, our knees almost touching, like a protector from errant waiters, his tuxedo jacket almost like a superhero’s cape.  He was once my step-father, now my adopted father.  I still feel a little like a liar, like alarms will blare and the truth police will arrive when I refer to him as my “father” though.

I first met Stanley when I was about nine at Kennedy airport.  He came to pick us up after a trip.  There he was down the long hallway along with everyone else’s someone special.  My mother seemed to know him as evidenced by the hugs and kisses.  But I was unsure.  I couldn’t sleep in my mother’s bed anymore.  He encouraged me to make my own friends and not hover by my mother’s side.  I found him suspicious.

Now twenty three years later here we are at my wedding.  This man by my side.

Is it okay to admit that I recognize how important a father is at a daughter’s wedding?  Is it okay to admit I still mourn for a man I barely knew?  Is it okay to admit I still expect him to show up?

“This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” I say to Stanley.  My voice cracks and I can feel the tears.  I feel as if I am the only person to have ever done such a thing before.  He looks at me as if, perhaps, I may just be the first bride ever. 

 

When Jay and I went for our marriage license, I had all the proper papers with me.  Passport.  Birth Certificates.  Driver’s license.  We filled out all the forms.  I was overwhelmed and surprised that there was a space for my new name.  New name?  That is the hardest part of all.  No one in my family when I was growing up had my name, since my mother remarried.  I want my children to share my name, that means taking Jay’s, giving up my father’s.  I didn’t know I had to do it then.  I thought I could think about it, ease into it.

I had thought about changing my name once before.  Stanley and I sat in some judge’s chambers finalizing the adoption.  I was about 19.  I wanted to speak up, declare I wanted his name.  I wanted to please him so, but something kept me quiet. 

“Don’t do it then, just leave it,” Jay said.

I filled the space in the form.  Rachel Schinderman.  I took it as an option.  I hated that part of it.  A claiming of.  But was I upset because I wouldn’t be claimed as my father’s anymore?  My father who I go out of my way to remember and to celebrate.  My father who left me.

I handed over all of my papers.  The woman was perplexed when she saw I had two men listed under father.  I handed her both birth certificates.  I was issued a new one after the adoption with Stanley’s name.  She looked at me as if no other person had ever come before her window with such a situation.  I found that impossible.  She went deep within her area and conferred with others.  They looked over at me with that’s her in their eyes. 

She came back and declared, as if she were the ultimate authority in New York State, that since I had the same name as one of them, Jeffrey Zients, that that was who would be listed.  Fine.

She turned to her computer.  “How do you spell Jeffrey?”

“J-e-f-f…”  Was it an e or an r, Jeffrey or Jeffery.  I picked up the birth certificate to check.  “J-e-f-f-r-e-y.”

Jay took my hand.  He could see that I was upset, that I didn’t know off the top of my head how to spell my father’s name with no uncertainty.

Even at the City Clerk’s Office, he was with me.  I tried to shake him off.  As we waited in the next line, I leaned into Jay’s arm.  I was so sorry I was crying.  This was a happy time.


My mother, Stanley and I take our place in the hall before the stairs, the stairs I have worried about for almost a year.  The club’s coordinator gets the go-ahead on his walkie-talkie and signals us to go.  The string quartet below begins to play Over The Rainbow.  We come into view for all below to see. 

My dress is more difficult to manage than I had thought.  My mother holds my arm securely.  We are already almost halfway down.  Stanley isn’t holding me, just standing by my side and grasping the railing on the other.  He won’t even come near me.  I must have been too vocal about not making me trip down the stairs – or is he just moving from spot to spot, playing this role, making his way through?  Is he my “father,” getting to walk me down the aisle because he pays for the wedding?  What does this mean to him?

“I need you to hold me,” I whisper in his ear. 

He looks surprised at my request for help, as if to say all you had to do was ask, like he didn’t want to intrude on me.  He takes my arm solidly in his and we continue down even further.

I kiss my parents and Jay greets them.  As I let them go and take my place next to Jay, I am suddenly calm, even giggly.

Jay turns to me and makes his promises, his vows.  I hear bits.  Pieces.  I can feel my body curl in, taking him and the moment into me.

Then I make my vows to him.  “…And when I need to cry, as I sometimes do, you never say, ‘just get over it.’”

I see the rabbi lean back, surprised by the thought, taking it in.

I dab my tears and we smile at each other, grasping the other’s hand.  Hard part’s over.

Jay steps on the glass.  We kiss.  And everyone yells, “Mazel Tov!”  Then we hurry back down the aisle together, married.

I am thirty-two, almost eight months into being thirty-two.  My father was thirty-two, just over seven months when he died.  I have made it past the length of his life.  This is a good way to mark it.

When we all settle and sit at our tables, Stanley rises and heads to the microphone.  I sit up a little higher in my chair, ready for this moment, a father’s toast to a daughter.  I really get one.  Will this actually count as a father’s toast?  I don’t know what he will say.  A stepfather’s?  I hope it is more than just “Welcome and please have a good time.”

“First of all, thank you very much for coming here tonight and simply joining us.”  Adopted father’s?  “I think there is just a bit of a void that should be addressed and I would like to address it.  And I would like to say a few words on behalf of someone who is not here tonight.  And I guess I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m really speaking directly to Rachel.”

I look for my mother.  Her face reads stunned.  She didn’t know this is what he was going to do.  I look back for Stanley in the center of the big dance floor, holding the microphone, tiny in his tuxedo.  I remind myself to pay great attention.  Do not get lost to the emotion.  Is this really what he’s doing?

“I would like to say a few words for Jeff Zients.”

Yes, it is and I couldn’t have imagined it, couldn’t have dared to dream it.  I didn’t know it was just what I wanted.

“I think if Jeff Zients were here, he would tell Rachel certain things.  I think he would tell Rachel that he marvels at how a four year old has developed and turned into a wonderful, truly wonderful young human being.  And Rachel is marvelous, I think Jeff would say in many ways, not the least of which I think is her respect for tradition, for family, and, maybe most of all, her respect for respect itself.  And I think Jeff would tell Rachel he loves her very much because of that.”

Hearing his name, Jeff, over and over, is a sound that is strange but lovely.  I can feel it enter me each time.

“I think, however, most of all, what Jeff would say is that I love you because you are my daughter and you will always be my daughter and for eternity you will be my daughter…I think Jeff would have said those things, and if I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, it is not too late for it to be said appropriately.  For myself, I think I would only like to say one thing, if in fact what I believe Jeff would have said, he would have said, ‘Rachel my love, he is speaking for me also.’  We love you.  Thank you.”

There is a silence in the air.  I go straight to Stanley, hug him and am at a loss.  This is more than I ever could have imagined.  A true fatherly moment.  I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by Stanley.  But I wear my father’s death as a badge, a shield.  Have I kept him at an arm’s length?  Fatherless is how I identify myself.

 

There is always a little broken place.  That little broken place reminds me that such events do not go away all wrapped up pretty in a box, but rather need tending to, and when tended to properly, they sleep and rest and allow you to tend to other things.

I know my history will not all be gone after today, but I do not care.  I have a husband.  A mother.  A father.  High above in this ballroom that puts us dancing on the same level as the tips of the trees in Central Park, we dance jumping high off the ground, up toward the sky, through the tall city buildings, into the night.  Pounding and thumping the dance floor each time we come back down. 

Jump!  Jump!   

Then up again we go, up, up we jump. 

Jump!  Jump! 

Jumping for joy.

For on this day I became one man’s wife and another man’s daughter.