November 15, 2010
“You have to collect one hundred ‘no’s for a single ‘yes’”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
November 15, 2010
“You have to collect one hundred ‘no’s for a single ‘yes’”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.
Here’s a story I call on again and again to give me perspective…
I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).
This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused solely on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.
But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.
The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.
So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.
Haunting Bombay is a…?
Literary ghost story. It is also a mystery and a love story. Some call it historical fiction. It’s set in 1960s India.
It was two weeks past my due date. My babies could hardly move anymore. It was just too tight inside. It must have been uncomfortable in there. My doctor was on vacation; so another one took his place. I saw him three days before my labor began and he said everything was great. I was two weeks overdue with enormous twins. There were two separate heartbeats in there, nice and strong, everyone alive and ready. He gestured with his hand for me to leave the room. I was told to go home and continue to wait. I wasn’t his patient. He was just covering for my doctor.
When my labor began, I was thrilled. I had been carrying the names in my wallet for two girls and two boys. This is the paper with the names from my wallet:
I was in the labor room alone with the nurse.
I’m having twins! I said, laughing.
I was so happy. I was so happy that I thought I would burst from happiness. Finally I would find out who my babies were.
In the delivery room with me were Victor, my Lamaze coach, the covering doctor and a nurse. There was another doctor in the room, but I did not notice him.
I pushed and I pushed and all the while I was puffing and I was laughing. I was so happy. My first baby was born and someone quietly said she was a girl.
That’s Lenore Emily! I was delighted!
No one spoke. There was no sound. The other doctor was working feverishly with Lenore Emily at the side of the room and then he ran out the door with her. She had never made a sound.
Where did he take her? I asked. Who was that doctor? I wasn’t worried, though. Everything was going to be so great!
No one answered me. No one said a word. Then I was having contractions again.
I pushed and I pushed and my second baby was born, but again, there was no sound. The doctor didn’t speak. Victor didn’t speak. No one looked at me.
Who is the baby? Is it a boy or a girl? I asked.
Still no one spoke to me. No one answered me. I was delivering afterbirth in total silence. Everyone in the room looked away from me. Finally, my Lamaze coach walked to my side.
Your second baby is a girl, but she is dead, she said, already walking away.
Her name is Margot Eliza! I shouted, and then a noise began low inside me and got louder and louder. It filled me up; it filled up the room.
A nurse brought Margot Eliza over to me all washed up and wrapped in a blanket. Her lips were a deep, dark red. Her skin was milk-white. She looked healthy and beautiful. She looked asleep. I was convinced she was alive, but no one was trying to bring her back to health. No oxygen. No commotion around her of doctors and nurses.
Why aren’t you trying to help her? I cried out, over and over.
The panic was growing inside me. I looked away from Margot Eliza’s perfect face. I thought of Lenore Emily. I screamed at Victor to go find her, to find out where she was, to make her be alive. He didn’t speak but I didn’t stop screaming. He left.
The doctor was sewing up my torn flesh. I couldn’t get up. I was alone with the doctor in the delivery room. He never said a word.
If it were true, if Margot Eliza were dead, then the doctors had to hurry to harvest her heart and her liver and her kidneys and her lungs and her corneas and her skin so that other babies could survive because of her! I begged the doctor to get more doctors to quickly do this. My entreaty was met with more silence.
I found out later that Margot Eliza had died before she was born. Her parts couldn’t be used to save other babies. Margot Eliza was more than dead. She was too dead.
Then I was in the recovery room. Victor came back to say that Lenore Emily was in the neonatal intensive care room. She needed blood. She had swallowed meconium. She couldn’t breathe. She was dead, but they brought her back. Victor looked broken inside. He was so quiet. Victor had to go home to the kids.
The nurse in the labor room had only heard one heartbeat, and it was weak. She hadn’t told me because I had been so happy, but she had called the neonatologist. That nurse and Dr. Cohen saved Lenore Emily’s life. Victor and the rest of the people in the delivery room already knew that one of my babies was dead. They already knew the other baby was in trouble. I was so happy, no one wanted to tell me. No one knew how to tell me. No one wanted to be the one to stab me in the heart.
Margot Eliza had her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck three times. Three times. Dr. Cohen knew he couldn’t bring Margot Eliza back to life. He was trained. He knew the difference between dead and too dead.
I was alone in the recovery room. My brain was spinning. I no longer knew what was true and what wasn’t. A nurse came in the room. She asked me if I would like to see my baby. I jumped from the bed, but she said I couldn’t go into the neonatal intensive care room. She took out a Polaroid picture and gave it to me. Part of Lenore Emily’s head was shaved and an IV was inserted in her head. She was in an incubator. She was getting oxygen. Tubes came in and out of her everywhere. This is the picture.
I asked the nurse if Lenore Emily could survive. She looked so frail. The nurse said that she probably would. She needed O negative blood, but the hospital had run out of it. They had sent for more. The nurse said that the oxygen was helping her to breathe. I wish I knew this nurse’s name. I still hope to find out. She knew how to speak to the grieving. She was an angel.
Your other baby was beautiful, she said.
She was exactly like this one, she said.
I asked if they were identical, because no one had told me, no one had spoken to me.
She said that they were perfectly identical.
I asked if I could see Margot Eliza.
I asked if I could touch her.
I asked if I could hold her.
Not right now, she said.
My father and my mother came into the room. My father was in a three-piece suit and his tie was held with a gleaming silver tie clip; there were silver cuff links on his cuffs and his black shoes were shined. Tears were pooling in his eyes. There was nothing he could say, but he had dressed formally to show respect for the dead. My mother spoke.
You see, Irene Marie, I was RIGHT to not buy that double stroller you wanted, wasn’t I? You just had to have it ready, didn’t you? You didn’t even think of the inconvenience for me, did you? I would have wasted all that money and then I would have had to go to all the trouble of trying to return it!
The keening began again; it arose unbidden from deep inside me. It increased in intensity, permeating my cells, suffusing the room. My father took my mother by the arm. He took her away from me. He knew she was poison.
Victor returned. I had no sense of time. There was a knock at the door. A woman came in with a clipboard. She had red lipstick on and she had a huge smile on her face.
I was right! Everything was a mistake! My babies are fine!
She walked over to me in the bed and handed me the clipboard. I just need your signature, she said. She was smiling. I looked down. It was a death certificate. I threw the clipboard across the room. The keening began inside me again, penetrating my muscles and my fat and my sinews and my organs. It emerged into the room, pervading the atoms in the air, pushing forcibly at the walls and the ceiling and the floor.
Victor picked up the clipboard and signed the death certificate. He moved so slowly, as though he were moving under water.
She asked if we would be having a funeral.
Victor said no, not a funeral. It would be too depressing.
Just take care of it, he said, quietly.
I told Victor that Lenore’s middle name had to be changed to Margot.
Victor looked at me and spoke.
We were never going to have twins.
This never happened.
We have a daughter.
We won’t speak of it again.
Then he had to go home to the kids.
He never spoke of it again.
Everyone grieves in his own way.
I understood what had happened. My middle is Marie. Victor’s is Michael. Sara’s is Miriam. Lonny’s is Misha. Timothy’s is Maxwell. One of my babies died and the other was born dead because the middle names I gave them did not start with the letter M. I killed one of my babies and almost killed the other with my thoughtlessness. Both my babies would be alive if only I had given them middle names beginning with M. The guilt was paralyzing.
I wanted a funeral. I called the nurse.
I said that I needed to hold my baby.
I said that I needed to have a funeral.
I needed a headstone.
It’s too late, she said, she’s gone.
I understand that she is dead, I said,
but I need to hold her.
I’m sorry, she said, your baby has already been cremated.
They were very efficient. No time for second thoughts. No one had ever once asked me what I wanted.
They took care of it.
Someone had taken her little body with her paper white skin and her blood red lips and her perfect sleeping face down the back elevator to the basement incinerator. Someone had slid her immaculate little body into the furnace where the fire was already burning with gangrenous feet and cancerous tumors. Her flawless little body was consumed in the fire of medical detritus, and I had never even touched her. I had never even held her.
They could give me no ashes to bury.
There is really nothing left when you burn up a newborn, she informed me, they are so small.
Margot Eliza was the big one; she weighed close to eight pounds. Lenore Margot was slightly smaller. She was born first. She was dead and then she came back to life because I changed her name. She was safe now. My live baby had a safe name. Her middle name began with M.
The next day they put me in a room with another, empty bed. My real doctor visited. He was sorry. Sorry didn’t help. The room filled with flowers. The smell of the flowers made me feel sick. It was the smell of death. Flowers kept arriving: flowers in vases, arrangements of flowers, and flowers in pots. Flowers of death overflowed the room. The windowsill was cramped with flowers. Flowers spilled out onto the nurses’ station.
I got a roommate. The woman behind the curtain was on the phone complaining bitterly. She had another boy. She didn’t want a boy. She wanted a girl. She told all her visitors how unlucky she was, how devastated she was. She had only wanted a girl.
I thought of ways to kill her. I could smother her with a pillow as she slept. I could stab her with the butter knife from the food tray. I wanted to kill her, but I didn’t do it. I was too tired. I went home instead.
I had three little children at home and Lenore Margot in my arms, but I was no longer in my body. I was on the ceiling. I watched from the ceiling.
My body virtually never put Lenore Margot down. It had to protect her. My body was doing a good job. It nursed Lenore Margot and sang to her and played with my other children. It was a good mother. It read to my children. It helped the children with their homework. It was a good wife. It made wonderful dinners from scratch every night. It slept with my husband.
I watched from the ceiling to make sure that my body did everything right. We had dinner parties every other weekend. My body prepared course after course of gourmet food. I watched from the ceiling as my body’s hands folded the napkins a different way each time. It used the good dishes. It prepared it all while carrying Lenore Margot. It served it all while carrying Lenore Margot. It never put flowers on the table. My body did not disappoint me. It continued to function well, while I lived on the ceiling.
One day a friend came over.
How are you, really? she asked.
I returned to my body and I said,
I want to die.
She had to leave; she forgot that she had an appointment.
I went back to the ceiling.
In my dreams Margot ages along with Lenore. She is always just out of reach. She is silent. In my dreams, Margot now has tattoos of beautiful birds on her milk-white skin, birds in every color, birds landing, birds taking off. Quiet birds. Margot dyes her hair dark now. Her lips remain red. She is thin and beautiful. She is silent. She stands at the edge of the door. She doesn’t come closer, but she is interested. She watches Lenore and me quietly, in my dreams. I talk to her, but she doesn’t answer although she looks right at me. So far, for twenty-nine years she visits me at night. So far, for twenty-nine years she has not spoken a single word.
June 04, 2009
You always hear that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” But sometimes, he’s really fucking obvious.
Two years ago, I completed graduate school and continued working on a book that I drafted during my MFA program. I worked part-time at the University of New Hampshire, where I got my degree, and took on freelance writing gigs to pay my bills.
But when my “writing life” laxed and became my “cleaning the house and hanging out with grad school friends” life, my wife gave me a not-so-subtle nudge:
Get a job.
So I started searching—half-heartedly at first. My wife had a steady paycheck, and I was a writer and a teacher, so I was used to having a meager income. My motivation was low. There was no job-fire burning at my feet.
But one day I went to pay my month’s bills, and the checkbook cookie jar was empty.
The flames began licking. Something had ignited my search.
I plunged in and began a serious job quest then, networking with current and former colleagues, posting my resume on Monster, checking the newspaper, and clicking my way through online job sites like Craigslist, WhisperJobs, Boston.com, Mediabistro, and awpwriter.org.
Over the course of more months than I care to confess, I landed multiple interviews—three of which led me to the coveted second interview. After all three second interviews, I was convinced: They loved me! This job is mine! My boss at the time even told me that he had gotten a reference call from one potential workplace, and from the way they raved about me, he was certain they’d be calling shortly to offer me the post.
One by one, though, the HR specialists called me (or, in one case, only sent an email) to inform me that it was such a pleasure meeting me, but they had decided to offer the position to another candidate.
In the first double-interview strike-out, I was one of four final candidates. In the second, I was one of three finalists. And in the third: You guessed it. One of two. Only one other person stood between me and an income, and that other person beat me to it.
I was shattered. Why was I always falling short? What was it about me that made a company, upon closer inspection, turn their noses up and say, “Nah. Throw this one back. She’s not what we were looking for.”
Traditional job searching was a bust. Plain old praying (which I did a lot of) had gotten me nowhere. So I turned to witchcraft, consulting what I now refer to as the “voodoo witch mat” to divine my future.
The voodoo witch mat was a purchase I made at a Wicca shop in Salem during Halloween. This black velvet mat, roughly 8” x 8”, promised to answer my questions with responses like, “Yes,” “No,” and “Ask Again” when I concentrated on a question and swung a pendulum over the mat. In the end, the pendulum would settle on a single answer. It’s like a witch’s Magic 8 Ball. (However, after I brought this talisman into the house, a mirror in an unoccupied room mysteriously shattered, and objects began propelling themselves from shelves, which is where the “voodoo” part of the name comes in.)
When I focused my energy and asked the voodoo witch mat about my career status, it assured me that by Christmas 2008, I would have a full-time job.
Like a magical-thinking fool, I believed it. Because the witch mat said so. And because I was desperate.
December: Christmas comes and goes. No job.
January: I plunge into despair, spending my days sunk down inside my bathtub beneath a frothy white mountain of bubbles, wondering if I’ll ever be able to crawl out of my accumulating debt. The pages of multiple books become rippled from the heat of the tub: stories that I grip with damp hands, my skin turning pruney as I cling to the hope of escape through fiction.
February: I realize that January sucked. I was a moping mess. And that was not fun. So I decide to start doing healthy things for myself, and to begin checking off some of the To-Do boxes that have blinked blankly at me for eons.
One of those things: go to church. With the exception of occasional holidays with my parents and in-laws, I hadn’t been to church in almost five years. My soul was hungry. I had been feeling selfish and lost, absorbed in being sorry for myself over not having full-time work. I thought that perhaps church would help me find my center again.
(My other option, if church didn’t work out, was yoga. However, I’m not flexible, and in a hot room where I’d be bending over and twisting an out-of-shape body in all manner of unflattering positions, the possibilities for making an ass of myself seemed to outweigh any perceived benefits.)
So I found myself a little gay-friendly house of worship—the First Universalist Church of Salem—and I went to church. After the service, a lovely woman named Sally greeted me and ushered me towards tables of cookies, fresh fruit, and coffee. Sally introduced me to other parishioners (do non-Catholics use that term?) and discovered that I was job searching.
Without me even asking, Sally became my new job networker. After each service, Sally told my story to the people she introduced me to during coffee hour: This is Laura. She lives in Salem and she’s a writer, and she’s looking for a job. Do you know of anyone looking for a writer?
On the third Sunday, a woman at my coffee-and-cookie table mentioned that the U.S. Census Bureau was hiring census takers in Salem and Beverly. It was only a temporary position, and it wasn’t at all in my career field, but it supposedly paid well.
That was all I needed to hear.
On the designated day, I went to the YMCA in Salem and took a pre-qualification test for the job. During the testing session, the census representative told us that there were also management jobs posted online. As soon as I got home, I checked out the website, 2010censusjobs.gov, and lo and behold, I found two jobs for which I knew I was qualified. “Partnership Specialist” was the title of one.
I applied for the position. Three hours after my interview, and after my fourth “They loved me! I totally have the job!” engagement, I was finally offered a job.
When I heard the news, I did a dance in my sister’s architecture office. I called my wife. I called my mom. I texted my friends. The debt-vice that had been gripping my chest was loosened.
On my train ride home from Boston, I was mentally ripping up all of my other job applications and cover letters, and telling everyone who hadn’t hired me to suck it.
And then I was struck by how I got the job in the first place:
I heard about the position only because I went to church.
Some people believe that all things happen for a reason. They think that we are given obstacles to teach us lessons that we might not otherwise learn, and thus, any suffering we encounter along the way is both valuable and essential for our growth.
As I pay down my debt with the salary from my new job, I sometimes console myself with that notion that this all happened for a reason: That I searched for a job for two years because the right one was waiting for me. That I met now-close friends at UNH who would’ve never come into my life, had I left my part-time university job sooner. That I gained a deep appreciation for structured work time and an understanding that spending every day in one’s pajamas is NOT an ideal way to live one’s life.
On my self-disparaging days, I simply believe that I was lazy, and that I didn’t search hard enough.
But my Evangelical mother would simply say, “You should’ve gone to church sooner.”
Just in case Mom’s right: If you’re one of the tens of millions of people looking for a job during the worst economy in recent history, maybe it’s time you paid a visit to one of your local houses of worship.
Even if you don’t get a job out of it, at the very least, they usually have good snacks.