V is for Virginia


Martha and I are extremely different. She is shy and soft spoken. I am not. She is blonde. I am a brunette. Martha is a Republican. I am not. She lives in Long Island. I live in Manhattan.
But we both lost our firefighter husbands on September 11th and have shared the secrets of our loss that forged a friendship as deep as it is unlikely.
For about ten years after our husbands died we vacationed with our kids together. Martha has three children. The oldest is the same age as my son, Aidan. Our travel styles are different too. Martha is adventurous. On a beach vacation she likes to scuba dive, snorkel, parasail, water ski and windsurf. I like to watch her from my beach chair.
Over the years we learned to take turns choosing destinations to accommodate our divergent needs. On the Spring break of 2004, it was Martha’s turn. She chose Bush Gardens in Virginia to satisfy her middle daughter Kelly’s desire for adventure and her youngest son Patrick’s obsession with animals. This would be combined with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg for her oldest son Sean who loved history. Aidan and I went along for the ride. Coincidentally, I had been to Colonial Williamsburg with my late husband Dave and his family who all shared a love of history. On that trip, I annoyed my in-laws by putting “Ye Olde” in front of every place we visited. We stayed at the Ye Olde Econolodge and ate at the Ye Olde Cracker Barrel.

On the morning of our trip, Martha arrived at my house in Staten Island early, her mini-van idling in the driveway as she sent her son Patrick, five years old to knock on my door. His face, a shrunken freckled version of his father’s, looked expectant as he hopped from one foot to the other. “I have to pee,” he said rushing past me and calling back “and my mother has a bladder infection.”
Aidan climbed into the van, thrilled to be watching a DVD in a car, something I never let him do. I cherished our “car talks” and refused to have them disrupted. For Martha though, having three energetic kids not only required DVD players, but an arsenal of juice boxes, Nintendos, Costco sized bags of potato chips, tissues, wipes and IPods. Watching Martha stick a tiny yellow straw into a juice box driving 80mph on the Jersey Turnpike was as masterful as any Cirque Du Soleil act I had seen.
When the kids were tuned out on headphones, Martha and I talked about the firefighters at our husband’s firehouse, how some had left, how others had gotten sick, how all of them had changed. There is something about a long car ride that opens one up in ways that don’t happen elsewhere. Martha cried when Yesterday from the Beatles played on her IPod. I cried when Yellow by ColdPlay played.
The combination of DC traffic and bladder pit stops made us arrive too late to visit Jamestown, the countries first English settlement, but not too late to visit the gift shop which stayed open a half hour longer. We let the kids loose in the narrow aisles filled with colonial hats, Jamestown keychains, quills and arrowheads. To avoid arguing, Martha insisted they all buy the same item. After a long debate, they decided to buy muskets.
As the tour buses departed, and the sun cast long shadows on the wide lawn in front, we let the kids run wild, shooting each other and collapsing dramatically to the ground.
Martha lay on her back, her thin dark blonde hair spreading out on the grass. “I dreamt about Tommy last night,” she said.
“I don’t like dreaming about Dave” I said, pulling at a thick blade of grass remembering dreams that were so vivid, I could practically smell the smoke on Dave’s denim shirt. When I awoke, I had to remind myself he was gone.
“It was so strange. He walked in the house like he had never left and I was panicked.” Martha began.
“What did Tommy say?”
“Nothing. He just stared at me. I screamed at him. Where have you been? What are you doing here?”
“Oh man,” I mumbled biting my lip.
“I felt bad for Joe,” she added. Joe was Martha’s boyfriend a detective who she met at a wedding. So many of the widows were dating, getting engaged and while I had a few relationships, I felt like I was pretending to be single. My heart had only lightly scabbed over while there’s seemed healed.
The kids were long shadows now, breathless in the fading light. Patrick ran toward us, his pale cheeks red.
“They keep shooting me!” Patrick whined.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do!” Martha said sitting up.
“We only shoot him when he whines” Aidan explained.
“Sounds like a good plan. You only shoot if someone whines. I’m hungryyyyyy,” I demonstrated. On cue, Patrick and Aidan shot me.
We ate at a local diner and checked into the Ye Old Comfort Inn situated on a strip of hotels.
“I’m not tireddd” Patrick whined as his brother shot him one last time before we all went to bed.
Martha knocked on my door the following morning at 6 am. Traveling with Martha was like being with Chevy Chase in a vacation movie. She was alone in her unbridled enthusiasm to get the day started as the rest of us dragged ourselves into the van yawning. I was not looking forward to Bush Gardens. I hated rides. When I was four, my father bribed me with a bag of Doritos to climb into a potato sack and descend a long plastic blue slide. I was so frightened I peed in fear, leaving a long wet streak on the slide and an abrasion on my ass that lasted for weeks.
“Lets go!” Martha chirped.
“I’m not doing anything until we go to a Ye Olde Starbucks.” I mumbled.
One Venti latte and three hundred dollars later, our group was in Scotland waiting on line for The Loch Ness monster roller coaster. I volunteered to take Patrick and Aidan to see the Clydesdale horses. Patrick wasn’t tall enough and Aidan inherited my fear of rides.
As the sun rose higher, it became unseasonably hot as we circled around to Ireland and France. By the time we arrived in Italy four hours later, I was sunburned and chafed, two giant scabs forming on the inside of my thighs.
“I want to go on the Pompeii ride!” Patrick whined. Sean, Kelly and Aidan shot him with their muskets.
“C’mon. Come with us,” Martha pleaded lining up with Patrick. “You haven’t done anything all day” she added.
“I ate a funnel cake,” I tried reluctantly joining them only because I was hot and wanted to sit down.
An acne riddled teenager summoned us into a fake log pulling the metal bar over us, Patrick’s head barely reaching the top. He was only five months old when Tommy was killed along with Dave and ten other men from Squad One.
“I’m scared,” I said as the flume creaked up a steep conveyer belt.
“You’ll be okay.” Patrick assured me patting my hand.
“I have to pee again,” Martha sighed.
When we reached the top, two giant doors swung open revealing a burning, lava-ridden, Italian town. I slid closer to Martha when a plaster column pretended to fall on us.
“This is bizarre,” I whispered to Martha as I felt my cheeks redden from the heat.
“Almost three thousand people died in Pompeii. They’ll probably have a 9-11 Coaster some day”
“That would never happen,” Martha insisted.
“That’s what the people of Pompeii thought,” I said as the doors flung open and our flume was catapulted straight down into a giant wave of water. The cold water hit the raw skin on the inside of my thighs, making me scream. It was a sound that Martha mistook for joy.
“See, I knew you’d like it,” she said laughing. I walked in a straddle toward the parking lot.
“What’s wrong with you?” Martha asked as I waddled toward the van. I pulled up my skirt and revealed the two round circles of what resembled raw hamburger meet.
“Jesus! We need to get you something!” she grimaced.
“It hurts,” I said, startling at the four musket shots behind me.
After a stop at CVS; Cranberry pills for Martha, Gold’s Medicated Powder for me, we headed back to our rooms. I moaned with relief as I shook the powder that fell like snow on my thighs.
The following morning, Martha let us sleep a whole hour later before piling us back in the van to drive to the Visitors center at Colonial Williamsburg. After another long line and more overpriced tickets we were shuffled into a movie theater to watch an outdated colorized movie called The Story of a Patriot. On the screen, overly made up men in white tights and pilgrim shoes spoke stilted dialogue about whether to align themselves with the British or the Revolutionaries. After 45 minutes, I convinced Martha to let me take a fidgety, bored Patrick to the bathroom.
Automated faucets had just been introduced and Patrick and I played with them watching the water magically turn on and off. Then we watched our skin flap like flags in the new Dyson hand dryers.
Ascending the wide carpeted stairway, I felt a wave of panic as I spotted crime tape encircling the movie theater, a half-dozen security guards and police officers looking grim. I quickened my pace toward the entrance squeezing Patrick’s hand.
“Ma’am. You can’t go in there.” A security guard said blocking us,
“My son is in there.” I stammered.
“I’m sorry ma’am. We have an emergency….” As I fumbled in my bag for my cell phone, Martha exited the theater doors laughing hysterically, her delicate hand cupped over her mouth.
“What’s going on?” She tried to answer but was laughing too hard.
“Your seat…” Martha began…”was covered with your powder and you left this trail…” She gasped for breath. “They think its Anthrax.”
Now my hand was cupped over my mouth. “You should tell them,” Martha added.
“NO! I said. “I can’t…” I stuttered pulling Patrick toward the shuttle busses waiting outside. “C’mon kids! Lets go!”
A short ride later, we arrived at Colonial Williamsburg, a 301acre living history recreation of an 18th century town. It was early spring and cherry blossoms bloomed fragile and pink down the main Street while yellow forsythia reached their yellowed arms out of every pocketed place. Memories of being here with Dave flooded in. As if reading my mind Martha said,
“Tom would have loved this.”
“I’m hungryyyyy,” Patrick whined followed by a spray of musket fire.
The restaurants were packed and so we bought boxed lunches and parked ourselves in the middle of a wide, green field in the center of town. The kids ran through the grass shooting each other. We watched laughing as dozens of other kids joined the battle, lining up on either side of us. Even a young fife and drum musician joined the fight.
“I told you we shouldn’t picnic on a battlefield,” I joked as Martha and I quickly moved to a safer spot as an endless stream of kids joined in with same overpriced muskets and coon caps.
After lunch, Martha agreed to take the kids to the arsenal, while I went to tour the George Wythe house alone. George was one of the most import men of the Revolution and the first law professor in the United States. A handsome African American was our tour guide and, a re-enactor who spoke as if a slave. “My master freed me and taught me how to read and write. Very rare for them days.”
When the tour was over, I walked down the stairs, the leaded windows thick, distorting the sunlight, as I heard the re-enactor say,
“I hope you enjoyed my story Missus,”. I turned back to see the actor was handsome with round brown eyes and strong muscles that strained the seams of his burlap slave shirt.
“That was great,” I answered smiling “I was curious though….” I continued as we exited the building toward a picket fence, “Do the re-enactors get paid well here?”. The slave stopped and smiled, his teeth white and his cheeks forming into dimples.
“Oh I don’t knows ‘bout dat. I jus’ pick’n un cotton over yonda” he said sounding like a character from To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I get it. You can’t break character or you’ll get in trouble right?” I asked, the crowd finally thinning.
“Yes’m missus” he said gesturing to me to follow him a little way down the path. When he saw the coast was clear, he leaned in and whispered. “We get $15.50 an hour plus benefits, paid vacation and a 401K.” He spoke like a well-trained Shakespearean actor.
“Wow. That’s great.” I whispered back.
“Are you an actress?” he asked.
“I was in my other life,” I said vaguely.
“Well, there’s a personnel office about five blocks that way or maybe I can tell you more about it over a drink later,” he said and I stared back at him, slowly realizing he was asking me out.
“I wish I could. I’m with a bunch of kids…on vacation” I said exhaling, wishing I could say yes.
“Another time then,” he said tipping his hat the way they do in old movies and then he walked away, falling back into character as some tourists approached for the next tour. “Alright Missus. I thank ya kindly for a comin’,” he said winking at me.
I walked quickly down the cobblestone street when realized I was late to meet Martha. A wave of excitement filled me. Something I hadn’t felt in years as I approached Martha breathless and smiling.
“How was it?” she asked as I bit my lip. “What?”
“I just got hit on by a slave,” I whispered and she laughed squeezing my hand as we gathered the kids for the shuttle bus home.

U is for Underwear

It is true what they say about underwear. You should always have a good pair on just in case something happens. I was hit by a car at eleven years old and I was wearing bottom of the drawer, blown out elastic, period stained, faded white panties. As the EMT workers cut my brown Lee corduroys off, I didn’t care that my leg was facing the wrong direction, I was mortified to be wearing nasty skivvies.

After that, I put underwear on my Christmas list and wore a good pair every day including ones that were labeled for the days of the week. For me, underwear became the chicken soup for hole.   It was my inner strength in my undergarment.

I got pregnant in 1995. I tried to wear my own underwear for as long as possible. I would pull them up over my swelling belly until the elastic curled back like dry scotch tape. I finally bought a pair of overpriced maternity underwear in a boutique in Park Slope. They were bright green and sheer so that when I pulled them up over my belly it looked like I was covering a watermelon with a condom.

I hated them.

When I took them off at night they left a dark red line like the equator across my stomach. Then one morning as I watched my husband Dave getting dressed, I asked if I could try his underwear on. He looked at me quizzically but shrugged and handed over his white cotton Fruit of the Looms. As I slid them on, I heard a chorus of angels sing. It fit perfectly over my belly and was the softest cotton I had ever felt.

I loved them.

Dave handed me an unopened three pack, joking that he loved the idea of being in my pants, even when he was at work.

A month later, I was at a dinner party laughing at my own dirty joke when it felt like someone poured a pitcher of water in my lap. I squeezed hard as one would to hold in a pee, but the water kept coming.

“Um. I think I either peed myself or my water just broke.” I announced to everyone at the table.

Known as a leaky laugher, everyone insisted I peed myself. Not to mention it was a month before my due date. While I marveled at how absorbent Dave’s underwear was, the water kept coming. Our son was impatient. Even then.

After a week in the Neo Natal Intensive Care Unit, we finally brought Aidan home. I continued to wear Dave’s underwear. The thick cotton made me feel safe, padded my broken tailbone and held together my war torn vagina.

A few months later I was trying on a dress at Loehman’s in the group dressing room when I noticed other women staring at me, wondering, I’m sure, why my tighty whities had a penis hole. I hightailed it out of there and made my way to Victoria’s Secret. I can still see the slightly upturned sneer of the saleswoman when I asked her for something comfortable but sexy.

“All of our underwear is comfortable.”

“I haven’t really experienced that.”

“Perhaps you need a larger size?”

“That’s just more satin going up my ass,” I joked but her sneer expanded and she left, returning a moment later with three lacy G-strings. Dave loved them, but I found them painfully uncomfortable. I joked with my girlfriends that they should call them Z strings since they became wedged so far up your ass, I sometimes felt as if I could cough them out.

I settled for wearing cotton briefs.  They were like my life at that time,  comfortable and lived in. Meanwhile, Dave discovered what he called “the joy of boxers” and when Aidan potty trained, I bought him Thomas the Tank Engine Underoos. Aidan was so proud of them, he would drop his pants on Seventh Avenue to show passing strangers.

When Aidan was five, Dave was killed on our eighth wedding anniversary. I barely noticed what kind of underwear I wore and even wore the bottom of the drawer kind without a care. After countless funerals, flags, memorials, meetings, body parts, wakes, trips, tributes and bagpipes, my mother begged me to go to trauma therapy. Every Wednesday I took the R to 8th street to see an EMDR therapist named Jan. Jan told me to think about Ground Zero while I wore headphones that played soft piano music that moved from one ear to the other. When Jan and I weren’t doing EMDR, I regaled her with stories about my on-line dates.  She wrote vigorously on her yellow legal pad as I recounted my date with the four-foot actor, the stuttering oenophile and the bearded Science writer. I cried about disappointing dates because they made me miss Dave even more. I hated the way Jan tilted her head and asked, “What are the tears about?”

I distracted myself with on-line dating, spending countless hours tweezing, shaving, moisturizing, polishing, brushing, preening and hoping that that night’s date would be less disappointing than the last.  Since i hadn’t dated since I was sixteen, I found it surprising that I felt as insecure as I did then.  I tried on countless outfits, bemoaning my clothes and my aging body . I found it particularly challenging to pick what kind of underwear to wear. My G-strings seemed too expectant but granny panties were screamed that I was giving up. Cotton hip huggers were practical, but I decided on lacy bikinis that seemed like a happy medium between slut and celibate.

One Wednesday I arrived at Jan’s and as she left to get us some water,  I sank into her brown leather couch and felt a rip. I stood up quickly and peered between my legs and saw not just a small hole in my pants, but a giant tear that ran from one end of the seam to the other, like the prime meridian dividing the left half of my body with the right. I gasped as I remembered that not only did I have a second date with Jeff the book dealer after therapy, but that I was wearing bright pink lace underwear.

Jan returned with the water and sat down in her black chair, crossing her legs and setting her face to empathic mode.

“You look upset,” she said tilting her head with concern.

“I am.”

“Let’s talk about it,” she said, picking up her pad.

“Well”, I said removing the pillow to reveal my underwear that looked like a neon sign between my legs. She made no attempt to hide her shock and clapped her hand over her mouth.

“Oh my…”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a needle and thread or something?” I asked. Jan stood up and immediately started looking through the drawers of her desk mumbling to herself.   “Now I am sure I must have something.” Her blunt haircut obscured her face as she opened and closed each drawer saying. “I used to have this little sewing kit, but then I just renovated…”

“Even a safety pin or two would be great,” I tried.

“I had all that stuff.” she said. I watched the red digital numbers click to 6:10 as I tried to come up with a plan. I could tie my coat around my waist but it was bitterly cold. I could ignore it and give every pedestrian who walked behind me a good story to tell at dinner.

“Well here’s something” Jan said carefully. “Now, I don’t know if this is too weird for you…” Jan looked embarrassed as she lifted her head, her plastic moon shaped earrings swinging. “I have an extra pair of underwear. I keep them here for my period…you know.” I nodded vigorously in feminine commiseration. She pulled out the underwear under consideration. They were large, cotton and best of all, black.

“Perfect!” I said standing up.

“I hope this is okay” Jan said handing me the pair.

“Better than nothing” I said, heading to her small bathroom across the hall.

When we finally started the session, I tried not to let the fact that I was wearing her underwear distract me.

“Okay. Now. Tell me. You are having a second date with Jeff? ” She asked and I smiled.

“He’s very sweet,” I began, crossing my legs so she wouldn’t have to look at her own panties. “But he’s still living in the house he shares with his ex-wife.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like shit.”

“Then why did you agree to go on a second date with him?”

I paused looking for the right the answer.

“I like him. He’s easy to talk to and I feel like I can say anything and I haven’t really felt that way with anyone.”

An unexpected wave of sadness rose up and I was suddenly crying. Where the hell did that come from? The therapist watched me, her face concerned and patient.

“It’s okay to grieve,” she said finally. I wanted to hit her.

“I know,” I said grabbing a tissue off of the coffee table. “I just want to stop missing him.”

“What do you miss?” she asked and it felt like choosing a branch off an old, familiar tree.   Which branch should I talk about?

“I miss having my life witnessed by someone. I miss feeling loved and secure.” I thought briefly of Dave’s briefs and I smiled.

“Same time next week?” Jan said standing up abruptly. Our sessions always ended this way, like a bad edit in a movie.

“Okay…” I mumbled, handing her a check.

I was late for my date because I stopped to buy a pair of jeans at an overpriced shop on Greenwich where a tiny salesgirl translated the European sizes for me.

Jeff smiled when he saw me and ordered me a glass of his Cabernet.

“How are you?” he asked smiling. He had dimples and a square chin that reminded me of Dave.   I smiled back, hoisting my bag onto the empty chair next to me as I leaned in and whispered, “I’m wearing my therapist’s underwear.”


T is for Tasting Neon

If raising my son were a job, I would have quit when he turned sixteen. When people ask me how old he is I roll my eyes and say he just turned asshole.   The teen years have been so challenging, I find myself staring at photos of him as a toddler to remember that I still like him.

I know teenagers are supposed to be obnoxious. It is their job to shit in the nest in order to fly off on their own, but Aidan’s pile seems steamier and larger than most.

The only connection that has remained constant between us is our shared love of music.

My own love of music started young. While my friends were spending their allowance on lava lamps and Sassoon jeans, I spent mine on albums. I started playing guitar at seven and attended the High school of Performing Arts for bassoon, schlepping the twenty-three pound instrument to midtown every day from Staten Island. I received a music scholarship to college and even when I didn’t play anymore, music became the soundtrack of my days.

When I was pregnant, I played classical guitar every day, not because I was one of those Mozart moms that believed my child would end up a prodigy, but because it made me relax.

Never one to follow the straight line anywhere, Aidan was born a month early. My husband and I felt wholly unprepared and stared at each other each night when, at 6pm Aidan would scream so loud, I could see his uvula quivering in the back of his throat. The only thing that seem to calm him was music and so I would sink into our cheap Jennifer convertible and listen to Dave sing Danny Boy changing the words to Aidan boy.

By the time Aidan was cruising around the living room, it was clear he had inherited my love of music. He would stop at our giant 1984 speaker and bounce in time to the Gypsy Kings. His eyes would widen each time he heard music and his first attempts at talking sounded like song.   Since I lived in Park Slope, I took him to the heavily trademarked Music Together class where exhausted parents and caregivers would shake tambourines to the simple and catchy songs that would haunt my dreams for years.

On Aidan’s second day of Kindergarten, Aidan’s father was killed at the world Trade Center and for the first time, our world became quiet. Even though our home was filled with friends and family for months, I never put the stereo on and when Aidan asked me to sing Danny boy each night, I could only whisper the song for fear of crying in front of him.

A year later, we moved to Staten Island where the public school offered Aidan a violin. Within months he wanted to play the guitar too. I dug up my old Classical Martin and brought Aidan every week to a small music studio above a pizzeria where the smell of garlic mixed with the sounds of missed notes.

On long road trips, I sang in the car to the classic rock stations in the passing towns. I would pay Aidan a dollar if he could guess the band in the first few chords. He was almost always right and used his money to buy CD’s.

By sixth grade, Aidan formed his first band “Tasting Neon”, a motley crew of eleven-year-olds from Mr. Morton’s homeroom. At 4pm every Wednesday they piled into Aidan’s room plugging in amps, banging drumsticks and looking for picks. I served Oreos and helped tune guitars but they seemed more interested in arguing about what their logo should look like.

“Hey guys! “ I said finally knocking on the door. “Why don’t you learn one song before you plan your tour?”

By spring of that year, they knew one third of “Paint it Black” before deciding to break up.

“How come?” I asked but Aidan just shrugged.

A few days later when I was picking Aidan up from school we passed Julia, the bassist from the band. She was tall for her age, with thin braids that hung like willow branches.

“Hey Aidan!” she said waving frantically offered a surly hello. I cringed remembering my own desperate attempts at getting boys to like me which mostly involved blue mascara and a curling iron.

“How come you’re not friends with Julia any more?” I asked when we climbed into my car, Aidan tossing his backpack into the backseat.

“I dunno,” he said and I sighed hoping Aidan wasn’t becoming one of those too cool guys that I dedicated endless pages of my diary to. The more emotionally distant the guy was, the more I seemed to like him.

That night when I was tucking Aidan into bed he said suddenly, “You know why I don’t like Julia anymore?”

“No.” I said pretending not to be curious.

“Cause she shoved her tongue down my throat and I almost threw up.”

“Did you tell her you didn’t like it?”


“You should tell her how you feel.” I suggested.

“Nah,” he said rolling over, pulling his Ugly Doll into his chest.

That summer, I began taking Aidan to concerts. We started at the band shell in Prospect Park and then progressed to Madison Square Garden, Radio City, the Beacon and the Bell House.   We fell in love with Jack White from the White Stripes, sang along to OKGO and laughed at Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords. I had to ban mid week concerts after Aidan failed a math quiz the day after we saw the “The Who” at the Izod Center. The math teacher at Brooklyn Friends said nothing when I stupidly explained why.

I bought Aidan an Ipod for his 13th birthday, the year he started to smell. I tried hard to avoid any Shakespearean pitfalls gently nudging Aidan toward adulthood in spite of my secret wish to cover him in bubble wrap.

I put on Crosby Stills and Nash when I taught him how to do his own laundry, the Smiths when I showed him how to make eggs and bacon and the Pixies when Aidan emptied the dishwasher, his face now hidden under a long curtain of hair.

In the secret solitude of the car, Aidan played me Led Belly blues followed by Jack White’s version. I, in turn, played the old blues song “You Need Love” that Led Zeppelin covered as “Whole Lotta Love”, a song I would turn up in the car until Aidan and I were screaming the chorus, our head’s bopping in time to John Bonham’s driving drumbeat.

I regaled Aidan with stories from the high school of Performing Arts where our orchestra played with Dizzy GIllespie at Carnegie Hall and with Zubin Mehta at Avery Fisher Hall. He was particularly intrigued with my concert adventures when I snuck into the The No Nukes Concert in Battery Bark and cut school to stand in front of the Dakota and light a candle for John Lennon.

Aidan’s rebellion started small at first. Wet towels dotted the floor and he left trails of socks around the house the way Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs. More often than not, the socks turned out to be mine, stretched and useless from the occupation of Aidan’s now sized fourteen feet. He left lights on all over the house and wrappers on the floor and I had to hide my Iphone headphones so he wouldn’t take them. He started staying up late, listening to music in his room that was now covered in Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix posters.

By eighth grade, Aidan’s hair began to curl, a slight mustache lined his upper lip and I found out I had breast cancer.   During radiation I dragged him to auditions for LaGuardia and Talent Unlimited where he played Heart-shaped box on my old guitar: I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black. My therapist insisted that it was normal and foretold that Aidan’s rebellion would be dramatic because of the closeness we shared.

For his fifteenth birthday, I took Aidan to see the Raconteurs at Terminal Five, a giant new venue on 56th street. The concert hall was standing room only and I quickly realized I had made a huge mistake. Not only was I too old for the young crowd but Aidan was too young. By the time the opening band came on, the place was packed, pot swirling in the beams of stage lights as Aidan and I were pushed toward the front by tattooed, bearded, twenty-somethings.

“I know what that smell is” Aidan said nervously tucking his hair behind his ear watching the fedoraed men around us with what I can only describe as awe. I cursed myself for having brought my son to the seventh ring of hell. Why accelerate this ride any faster than it was already going? I wanted him to experience his adolescence without the smoky haze of marijuana that I did. I am still famous at high school reunions for being the girl who made one of her bassoons into a bong.

It was music that saved me.

My first boyfriend took me to see Pharaoh Sanders at the Blue Note and Herbie Hancock at the Village Vanguard. I can still hear the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel and Elton John echoing across Central Park as wide and far away as the future.

By the time the Raconteurs walked out, Aidan and I were so close we could see the design on Jack White’s snakeskin boots. His playing mesmerized me, his skin so white I felt as if I could see right through him. He looked like Edward Scissorhands and played like Jimi Hendrix. Aidan was equally transfixed and as I watched his profile, so similar to his father’s, it took my breath away.

After about an hour, Aidan tugged on my shirt to show me that Jack White’s finger’s were bleeding from playing so long and hard. I couldn’t look away until I caught, in my periphery a glimpse of the bearded man next to me. His head was tilted back as if in ecstasy until I realized he was peeing on the floor.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I screamed, rousing him from his trance as he scrambled to put his appendage away.

‘I didn’t want to lose my spot” the man slurred, his hat shadowing his face.

“That’s disgusting,” I hissed.

As I moved away from the spreading puddle, I noticed Aidan was no longer next to me. He had moved back few rows, pretending not to know me.

It was our last concert together.

Halfway through freshman year of high school, Aidan cut his hair, took down his Nirvana posters and his feet grew so large, I had to special order his shoes.

“You could float Cubans here in that shoebox.” I joked but he didn’t think I was funny anymore and he didn’t like my music anymore either.

Now when I played Joni Mitchell at dinner he rolled his eyes.

“They should play this to people on death row.”

A weird tension lodged itself between us. He wore his headphones in the car and spent hours staring into the mirror, taking showers and murdering people on video games.

By sophomore year, Aidan was listening to what he called underground hip-hop music. In the morning he greeted me with a “What up”, his pants slung so low, he walked the way he did as a toddler with a full diaper.

He liked to rap and he spent hours making up rhymes slicing the air with his hands.

“You don’t know how to show to me

I’m cutting rhymes like a vasectomy,

Next to me…”

He started coming home late from Union Square Park where he participated in rap offs and announced that he was finally not embarrassed to live on Staten Island because Wu-Tang Clan formed here. On a rare school morning, he’d play me something he liked, sticking one of his headphones into my ear.

“I call her thunder thighs with the fatty swolla

Only mess with high rollers, do what daddy told her

No matter the city she with me to do the thang-thang

Work in the coochie, hooptie chitty chitty bang bang

“That’s very sexist,” I mumbled, handing back the headphone.

“It’s part of the language of rap,” Aidan said.

“I like the beat” I said carefully, but Aidan wanted to argue. Next to playing guitar and rapping, it was his favorite thing to do.

“But that’s the language of the hood. It’s not derogatory, it’s mimicking the culture of the rappers before them.”

“But there are great rappers out there that don’t have to insult women to make their point. It’s promoting a stereotype,” I countered. We argue until I am rendered silent out of sheer exhaustion.

In the car he continues to play me Notorious B.I.G, Earl Sweatshirt and MF Doom. I like some of the songs, especially the ones with samples of old cartoons and songs from my past.

In Junior year, Aidan got a girlfriend and started making beats on his computer. He even sold some of them to rappers and used the money to buy lamb gyros off of food trucks in Chelsea who knew him by name.  “Aidan, where have you been? Lamb over rice? “

When I went to clean out the last of his toys, Legos and star wars figurines he had been collecting since he was four, I found a bong and empty bags of pot. I called my sister and she laughed at my panic saying, “we were way worse and oh, if you find a vaporizer, I need one of those.”

By Aidan’s senior year, my hair turned completely white and I started taking Xanax.  Aidan’s eyes drooped from fatigue and pot smoking and swarms of friends arrived on the weekends, filling my foyer with giant shoes, the music so loud the windows shook in their frames. For Christmas he wanted an album and a turntable and I had to show him how to put the needle on the grooves in between songs.

I went to endless meetings with his teachers, his tutors and therapists. We spoke in a secret language of letters: ADHD, SAT, PTSD, ACT and GAD. By the time Spring Break came, I took him to JFK to go to DR.

Aidan was taking off his giant sneakers to put in a box on the security line when an angry looking airport employee sidled over looking at Aidan’s sweatshirt.  I felt my back tense.

“You man. You into MF Doom?”

“Yeah, he’s dope.”

You see the Beef Rapp?”

“Yeah, that was mad good, but track 5 on Doomsday is sick.”

“Yeah yo, check that Vinca Rosea sample…”

They went on and on this way, speaking a language I no longer understood, a language that I hope will help him fly away from me… or at least get us expedited through security.

S is for Speech


Welcome families, friends, teachers and staff and most importantly students.

Congratulations on making it to your graduation.

I am honored to deliver your commencement address today even though next to my algebra regents, this is one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had.

I know I am supposed to impart wisdom, inspire you and give you sage advice.

My first recommendation is that you never agree to do a commencement speech. This has not been easy, but you are high school graduates now so you know all about hard assignments.

I should probably say life is going to be full of chirping birds and warm chocolate chip cookies, and life can have certainly have those moments, but at other times it feels like a lot of homework. There are always things we have to do that, well, suck: paying axes, dental work, sitting in traffic.

But what if I suggested to you that instead of approaching life as a long endless list of things to accomplish and take care of, that we look at life like a ride on Coney Island; fun, thrilling, possibly broken, but best of all, unexpected.

When I was young, I didn’t like surprises. I had my life all planned out. I was going to be a musician.  I got my first guitar when at seven years old. I attended the High School of Performing Arts (now called LaGuardia) for the bassoon and since I played such a weird instrument, my teachers said I could get into any college on a full scholarship.   I was ready. I could see myself in the Philharmonic traveling the world.

Then a week before my college auditions were to start, I was running to catch the subway and I slipped. My leg slid out from under me, bounced against the subwaycar and then got caught in the small space between the platform and the subway.

I was dragged the length of the platform.

Someone pulled me out, some guardian angel that I didn’t get to thank, and amazingly I survived. The firefighters, the EMS workers, the nurses, the doctors, all told me how lucky I was.

I didn’t feel very lucky at all.

Not only did I miss my auditions, my Senior trip, my Senior dance, well a lot of things. It is in these moments when we are angry, disappointed and sad that we feel like life is ruined and there is nothing else… but the reality is, there is always something else.

You might not be able to see it in those moments. In fact, it is most probably, you won’t. What we can’t see is what my Jewish grandmother called beshert. It’s Yiddish for a serendipitous event like “at first I was upset that I missed the bus, but then that bus broke down for two hours.”

Before the accident, I had applied to one state college on Long Island and so I had no choice but to go there.

I was miserable.

I couldn’t play music. My life was not going the way I planned. I felt sorry for myself and found it difficult to enjoy school.

Slowly, I settled in. I studied photography, English literature and jewelry making. I met and fell in love with a sculpture major who lived upstairs in my dorm. The following year, I transferred to the college I originally wanted to go to. I took writing classes and became a photographer for the school paper. I had no idea what I was doing or even what my life was going to be.

One of my assignments was to shoot an audition for an improv comedy group. The people auditioning were given the names of two careers then had to create a short improvisation from it.

I was intrigued.

Something clicked inside of me.   The Buddhists call it destiny, Catholics call it God’s will, yogis call it inner wisdom, my mother called it your gut. I call it my inner Yoda. It is the voice inside of me that knows what I am supposed to be doing, who knows what my beshert or my fate should be.

I asked the people auditioning if I could audition too. I got on stage and they yelled out “Bell hop” and a “farmer.” I picked up two imaginary bags and said “Where do you want these pigs?”

I never picked up my camera again.

I studied improvisation, theater and writing.   I learned how to say yes and, how to listen well how to trust people and most of all, I learned that I could make people laugh. It was amazing to finally discover my gift.

You all have one.

Whether you go to college or not, whatever your path is, all of you have a gift to share with the world. So take out your ear buds and listen to your inner Yoda. Hear what your destiny is. Look up from your cell phones and be the students of life even if you don’t know what it all means yet. In fact, take your time to figure it out. Try everything.  I have written plays and sketches, run a not for profit, taught nursery school, driven a cab, done stand up comedy, waitressed, cleaned houses, taught gymnastics, worked in politics, guest starred in a band, dressed up as a cockroach for a children’s theater, been a receptionist at a law firm, a tour guide, performed in one woman shows, taught theater and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

For some of you, the choice will be easy. You will decide what you want and go for it.   You will know your goals and achieve them. For most of us it will be winding path. Trust that your Inner Yoda will lead you where you are supposed to be.

Remember that sculpture major I met in Freshman year? Well, he became a firefighter and my husband and then the father to our son Aidan who is a year older than you are now. I spent seventeen amazing years with my husband before he was killed on September 11, saving people in the twin towers.

Talk about a difficult assignment.

Not only was my path diverted, but it completely changed course. There were numerous times I wanted to get off the ride for good. Yet, out of the darkness, people demonstrated amazing acts of kindness to my son and I. People sent us cards, flags, quilts and letters. Children taped their allowances to the bottom of their drawings. My neighbors left lasagnas and dinners on our stoop for over a year.  My deep grief was met with such profound love I had no choice but to listen to my inner Yoda who said, “Keep going. Keep going. I did.

My friends, my son and my humor became the life preserver that floated me to the other side. All of you here today have life preservers of your own in your family, your friends, your talent. Surround yourself with people who let you be who you are, who are proud of who you are and what you do.   Get rid of the ones who don’t. Yoda will tell you who.

Even though I was a comedienne and actress when my husband died, I ended up writing a memoir about our lives and what happened. It was well reviewed and was a best seller for a minute. Who knew? The truth is we don’t know even when we most want to. It is good to have goals and ambitions, but it’s equally good to trust that your path might not be a straight line to what you planned. It makes the world fill with endless possibilities. Who knew my path would lead me here, in front of you all today.

Before my husband died, I was making my living as a free-lance writer for Martha Stewart magazine.

I remember one particularly difficult assignment. I was pulling my hair out trying to find the right words, to write well. I always joke that being a writer is like having a paper due for the rest of your life. I was so stressed out about it that during the night, Dave, my late husband taped a quote onto the wall next to my desk. It read, “Don’t take the trip, if you can’t enjoy the ride.”

So graduates, enjoy the ride of your lives.  I hope it is long, happy and successful and that when I am older than I am now, that you will give me your seat.

Thank you.







R is for Roach

One of my first jobs after college was working at a Children’s Theater. My sister and I auditioned together by singing “Our House” by Crosby Stills and Nash in two-part harmony. We were asked a series of questions and we were cast in their new show, “Bugs and Other Insects” that was to be performed on weekends at the museum and tour through the Public Schools during the week.

As rehearsals began, I realized my sister was cast in every scene as “the boy” or “the girl” which basically required her to wear a baseball cap backwards. I, on the other hand, had to wear cumbersome costumes as I played a cockroach, an ant and a bumblebee. The cockroach costume was particularly elaborate requiring me to wear brown tights, a huge vinyl shell on my back, six giant legs strapped to my stomach and a beanie that resembled a brown yarmulke with two long antennae pointing out of the top.

Every scene was pretty much the same. The boy or girl, meaning my sister, would go up to the bug, meaning me, and ask questions. I can still see my sister wide-eyed and sincere as I stood dressed as a giant cockroach singing a song about being an exoskeleton.

Since I had taken theater in college, I found it important to implement what I had learned and gave each bug I played a character and elaborate history. For the cockroach I imagined him like Frank Sinatra singing to his brat pack. I held a microphone and swayed back and forth pretending I was in a powder blue tuxedo and not an itchy brown costume as I sang as loud as I could:

“You feel with your hands and I feel with my antennae
You smell with your nose and I smell with my mouth”

Every time I started singing, my sister’s sincere face would suddenly contort as she tried to repress laughter.

“You hear with your ears and I hear with my knees,” I sang, my voice cracking as I started laughing again, which would make my sister get hysterical too. We have always been this way, cursed with church giggles everywhere from funerals to well, church.

At first, the director of the show was patient. He let my sister and I try to collect ourselves over and over and begin again. My sister took long, deep breaths and fanned her face but as soon as I started singing, we would lose it all over again.

By our fourth rehearsal, I laughed so hard I was sure I was going to pee in my costume. I ran out of the rehearsal toward the bathroom, removing my shell as I ran, the urge to urinate becoming more powerful as I neared the door. Why is that? I wondered my hand almost on the knob when I heard a familiar voice, “Marian. Marian!”

I turned and stood frozen in shock when I saw Damon, my first boyfriend standing in the hall in front of an open door where a meeting was obviously in progress. A group of people sitting around a conference desk were staring out at me, my human legs crossed, my cockroach legs stretching practically across the hall.

“Damon!” I said in shock, embarrassed and flooded with a thousand memories of my first love from high school. We met in my freshman year at the School of Performing Arts and I can still remember the flutter in my stomach when he would approach me in band, his saxophone draped around his neck. We dated for over three years and we were known as “the couple”, always hand in hand, always together.

I had heard from my mother that he married one of my friends and moved to Staten Island. He had had a child and the marriage ended. He had gone through a difficult divorce but landed a good job at a museum, the museum I happen to be performing in.

“What are you doing here?” he asked smiling as I tried to straighten my beanie.

“Well, I’m a roach,” I said laughing nervously. “I’m in a show.”

“That costume is hilarious!” he said smiling. He was still strikingly handsome with a long straight nose and a sideways smile.

“Umm…I really need to pee….” I said stupidly, desperate to get away. Even though I had fallen in love with someone else, a man I would later marry, I often thought nostalgically about Damon. He took me to see Jazz all over Manhattan and we slept on his roof in his Tribeca loft on hot summer nights. He did graffiti and played Tenor sax and loved Fellini movies. It was the Manhattan of Woody Allen movies and I loved every second of it.

“Sure. I’m in a meeting now anyway. I just had to see if I saw what I thought I saw…my ex running through the halls of my job in a roach costume.”

“Happens all the time,” I said laughing nervously. .

“Great to see you Marian,” he said hugging me awkwardly smashing the legs protruding from my stomach.

By the time, I made it back to the rehearsal room, the director informed me that he and my sister had decided that she should leave the show.

“I can’t be on stage with you,” she said shaking her head.

I couldn’t help feeling disappointed but I knew it was true. When it came to keeping it together, we sucked. I had imagined my sister and I performing in schools all over the city together maybe even starting our own children’s theater but that was not to be. I had imagined too, the moment I would see Damon again. I would be wearing my favorite jeans my hair would look perfect and I would be holding Dave’s hand the way I often did.

I never imagined standing in a dingy hall, dressed as a cockroach, my shell half off, but life rarely happens the way we see it in our minds.

I saw Damon once more, a few years later. I had married Dave by then and we had recently given birth to a beautiful boy. Dave and I drove out often from Park Slope to visit my parents on Staten Island. It was a wet, cold weekend and I pulled my thin coat around Aidan who was asleep in the Bjorn on my chest. I hadn’t showered in days. I was exhausted and happy.  We climbed up the back porch steps and into the kitchen where Damon was standing shirtless, sanding my parents cabinets.

“Hey Marian!” He said turning, his muscled torso just as I had remembered.

“Hey.” I said nervously. I introduced him to Dave. They chatted for a while as I proceeded upstairs to put Aidan in his crib and scold my parents for not telling me they hired my ex boyfriend to redo their cabinets.

Dave was glad to have finally met the first boyfriend I had talked about for years. He knew, as I did, that while Damon was my first dip into love, Dave was the deep ocean of it. He liked him.

Four years later Dave would be killed at the twin towers on our eighth wedding anniversary.

Damon sent me a condolence card, one he had made himself with roses on the front. On the inside it read, “Life never goes the way you plan,”


Q is for Quest

Once upon a time on the Isle of Staten, there lived a fair Maid named Marian. They called her Maid Marian not because she cleaned well. She didn’t. Nay, I think it was fair to say Maid Marian loathed taking a rag to counter as much as dental work and so paid another fair maid a goodly sum to do it for her. Alas, Marian was called Maid because she was single. Since her Prince had passed the people of the kingdom, especially her mother, wanted her to find a new love.
Their concern grew such that an angry mob gathered in the tavern. Well, not angry really, more like a slightly annoyed mob. Their clothes were tattered, their teeth crooked and their hair in desperate need of brushing. The barkeep and the wench served the crowd beakers of ale and mead and soon they were calm. Some even put down their pitchforks and blew out their torches.
When it seemed everyone had settled in, Marian’s best friend, Bruce of Chelsea stepped forward. As always he was wearing his best finery including breeches from Marc Jacobs. He unraveled a lengthy scroll and cleared his throat. Having done voiceovers, his booming tenor traveled well across the crowd.

Hear ye, Hear ye. On this date in the year two thousandth and a four the realm of Marian’s friends and family, having thus witnessed and heard endless complaints about the opposite sex. We do hereby decree and insist that our fairest Marian embark on a Quest to find a man who doesn’t suck. It will take great feats of bravery, strength and fortitude as she searches all the land and the World Wide Web to find true love again. But we trust the fair maiden is most beloved and therefore will eventually find a man worthy of her affection.”
The pretty mellow mob burst into applause as the maiden felt her cheeks flush and the crowd silence to hear her speak. She stepped up to the podium.
Greetings good gents and ladies. Verily, it is so. A goodly length of time has passed and I know henceforth I must honor your quest. It is not that I don’t want true love, but time has made my corset tight and my hair turn gray and I fear I might not attract a worthy suitor for your bequest.
“Get a good photo for your profile!” One lad bellowed.
“Lie about your age!” shouted another.
By my troth noble friends, I cannot lie to my suitors. Nay, I will but only betroth that who is honest and true and wants to meet someone his own age.”

Robust laughter rose from the now tipsy mob. Sir Bruce stepped forward and kissed the fair maiden on her brow. “Tis true, Men are dogs” he said. The maiden sighed and bid her friend and the crowd adieu. Thoughts swirled about her noggin as she arrived home. She couldn’t wait to loosen her corset and climb into her royal bed, but sleep would not befall her. She often struggled this way. She took deep breaths, she counted, she read her Holy Grail and even took Ambien and yet, nothing would let her sleep, perchance to dream. “Ay, there’s the rub” she thought to herself.
The morn did come, sooner than the fair maiden liked, her eyes were puffy, her raven colored curls tangled in knots. The maiden sighed in the mirror thinking, “Who will want me?”
Still, she was good to her word and promise and with a cup of French Roast and her MacBook Pro, she took on her first challenge; filling out her profile on AreYeOkCupid?
The first question immediately confused the poor maiden. “Are ye looking for a partner, lover or soul mate?” She did not like the choices and so clicked “other” and wrote, A knight in shining armor of course!
When she completed her first task she sought the counsel of her sister and Bruce to upload a photo and they settled on one that was recent without highlighting the wrinkles on her forehead, the fine hair on her upper lip and her droopy left eye. They evaluated her essay and her sister sighed and said, “Thou art demanding in what ye expects of a good man. Would you not accept anyone but a knight?” The Maiden shrugged and giggled and when they left, she gratefully took to her bed, certain that a good morrow would come. Her dreams were filled with hope and men who on bent knee asked “shall I compare thee to a summers day?”

Alas, there were no such suitors on AreYeOkayCupid? Or even on Matcheth.com. In fact, there were dozens of paramours who looked like scoundrels and fools often bedecked in sunglasses and baseball hats. Some gents bore no garb at all, flexing muscles in front of a mirror. When the maiden did find a suitor quite handsome, she wondered why there was a female hand resting on the lad’s shoulder, a wench clearly edited out of the picture.

In spite of this, Marian was determined to complete her quest and attempted to respond to the wayward scribes that often called her lovely and fair but clearly didn’t read her profile. Other suitors claimed to have slain dragons or be great philosophers and scholars even though they wrote poorly. “You pretty. I kill Dragon once. I like meet you sometime. Give me cell.”

The brave and gallant maiden was undeterred and continued her search over hill and dale, journeying across the land of Manhattan to the County of Kings. Yes, even Queens. And whilst she met many a kind noblemen, there were obstacles the poor princess could not overcome.

Sir Talksalot regaled her with details of his impending divorce including the fact that he still dwelled in the basement apartment of the castle he shared with his ex. She attended a feast with Prince Wandering Eye who drank so much grog he could barely walk and pinched a wench’s bottom right in front of the Maid. The Court Jester was entertaining at a beer Garden in Williamsburg until she realized when he slid off his stool that he was less than five feet tall. Renaldo hailed from the The Isle of Long and refused to eat at a French bistro insisting that the French were dirty. There was The Marquis Du monotone, Lord Lisp and the handsome knight of Princes Bay who neglected to mention that he was afflicted with scurvy. There was hope when a Noble Kent from Dumbo swept the Fair Maiden off her feet grateful that she had completed her Quest until he texted her that he was just looking for friends.
Then Join Facebook” Maid Marian texted back. She was beginning to lose faith in her ability to attract a prince. Dare she say it, she was beginning to doubt the unfairer sex in general and she was lonely. While she was not exiled to her castle like her BFF Rapunzel, she felt alone at parties where there were many a knight, all taken by maidens and princesses. What was wrong with her?
For seven long years, the Maiden roamed the land to find her one true love. She met writers and buskers, life coaches and firefighters, professors, lawyers and even an embalmer. There were tall knights and short knights, long knights and even blind knights. There were black knights and Spanish knights, old nights and boogie knights.

Still, no one captured her heart.

Each night she returned to the castle alone wondering where for art thou Romeo? While most men liked big Quests, the maiden didn’t. She had grown weary. She decided to delete her profile and face the angry mob defeated. Then, just as she was about to click the button she noticed a tall, handsome Prince who hailed from the dominion of Indianapolis. He was an eloquent scribe and a gallant Nobleman so she agreed to meet him in a small, drafty diner in the realm of Wall Street. He noted her request for shining armor and a knight on horseback and confessed that he preferred to walk. “To reduce my carbon footprint,” he said. The maiden found him easy to banter with. He was shy, but charming, kind and smart but still there was the matter of the horse and lack of armor.

She agreed to meet him for a second date in the Bay of Ridge where upon he professed,“Thou art very pretty.” He wrapped his long fingers in hers and boldly kissed her. “Ye art quite handsome yourself,” she thought, but still the armor and white horse thing was difficult to overlook considering she had traveled so far, through Hill and Dale and Bob and Jake.

And while she went on another date, then another, and another, the maiden convinced herself he could certainly not be the one. He was too tall, chewed too loudly; he talked in his sleep and had no horse or castle.

Still, his gentleness, his tenderness, his maturity and his utmost devotion to the maiden made her fall in love. Nay, it was not a big balcony scene stealing kind of love like her buddy Juliet, but look where she ended up and the Maiden was tired of drama. She often felt jealous of princess Cinderella, but she had a dysfunctional childhood that she carried into her marriage so how good could it really be? Then there was Belle who had a rocking wedding with the Beast. Maid Marian was impressed that Belle could overlook all the beasts’ imperfections; particularly the hair. The Maiden realized that perhaps Belle could see beyond such trivial things and and stare deep into someone’s heart.
Besides, Maid Marian knew she wasn’t getting any fairer and she was tired of traipsing across the empire in her too tight corset.

She returned home and gathered the angry Mob. They had cleaned up nicely since she last saw them.  Gone were the dirty faces, the pitchforks and torches. Some fine wenches even had some lovely handbags. Thanks to a recent chemical peel, Bruce looked especially handsome as he unfurled a long proclamation and spoke into the microphone:
Hear ye, Hear ye, The Fair Maid Marian has, at long last returned from her Quest!”

The crowd cheered.

“BUT she was not successful!”

The crowd moaned in disappointment.

But do NOT DESPAIR FAIR CITIZENS!!! Maid Marian knows there are plenty of fish in the sea, stars in the galaxy, chips in the bag…

“WE GET IT!” the crowd roared.

Marian, shocked that she had somehow forgotten to tell Bruce grabbed the microphone from his manicured hand.

Actually, I did meet someone.” The fair Maiden told the crowd. They grew so silent you could hear a torch drop.

The gay best friend looked back at Marian.

“Does he know how to joust?” a voice yelled.

No. No he doesn’t.”

“Is he good with a sword?” screamed another.

Not really.

“Does he have a large castle?” hollered a third.

“Prithee, I beg you to listen. I have traveled long and far to honor your request and I have learned, Nay, I know now, there is no knight in shining armor.”

The crowd gasped and mumbled inaudibly.

Every knight has a chink in their chainmail. Some are dishonest, some are nasal, a good many of them have no hair. But is it not what is in their hearts that is truly important? He is an excellent lover, a devoted friend, and a kind soul. Perhaps we don’t live Happily Ever After in a castle, but just live.”
And with that, the crowd grew so angry, they chased the poor princess all the way back to her castle, where she pulled up her drawbridge and climbed into her royal bed, her new beaux beside her.
The handsome gent pulled the maiden toward him stared at her with his fetching blue eyes. She felt safe for he was as comfortable as her favorite cotton shirt. He professed his love and she professed hers and while they could not gallop off on his white horse into the sunset, they could live simply and contentedly ever after.

P is for Personal Day


When I was in grammar and middle school, my parents would occasionally allow me to skip school for what we affectionately called a “personal day”.  These special occasions allowed me rare and memorable alone time with each parent.

Personal days with my mother involved a cultural outing in Manhattan. We saw Picassos at the MOMA, Red Groom at the Marlboro Gallery and Calder at the Whitney. Days with my father were spontaneous adventures to Coney Island, Yonkers Raceway, pool halls and dark, dingy Dim Sum restaurants in Chinatown.

While I wanted to give my son Aidan personal days too, the death of my husband when he was five postponed everything.    The year after he died, I bought a drafty carriage house on Staten Island hoping that being closer to my parents  and the bucolic setting would help us feel better.

The quiet house, set back in a large patch of woods unnerved me.   At night, every creak and sound convinced me that someone was breaking in to further ruin my life.  I slept with Dave’s knife tucked under the mattress, wide-eyed and alone.  I put on a good face for Aidan who began waking up at night too. He was convinced there were monsters on the roof.  After five nights, I  grabbed my pillow and joined him in his bed where the sound of chestnuts falling and rolling off our roof, did in fact sound like monsters, or at the very least, someone bowling.

In spite of my concerns about creating some future complex of Shakespearean proportions, I began letting Aidan sleep in my bed.  It was quieter in my room and I never slept anyway.   My doctor thought my severe insomnia was 9-11 related, but the truth is, I stopped sleeping  the moment Aidan was born.    It was as if some primitive trigger had been pulled and each night, I was as alert as a lioness on the African plains.  Most nights I obsessed about things, my list scrolled across my sleepless mind like a ticker tape: Remember to sign that permission slip for Aidan’s teacher, I have to type the agenda for the medical examiner’s meeting tomorrow,  meet with the staff, pick up  Aidan, make sure he does his homework while we wait for the guitar lesson. During the guitar lesson make sure you return all those phone calls, make a list, don’t forget the e-mails, dinner, bath, laundry, bills, cleaning.  It was the same each night, but watching Aidan sleep calmed me, his face soft in the muted light, his eyelashes fluttering as if being blown by a breeze.

One morning we woke up two hours late, the light sneaking in under the edges of the shade.

“I’m going to be late for school!” Aidan yelled. I sat up panicked, the list echoing in my head, but then I stopped, exhaled and turned to Aidan who had already jumped out of bed.

“Actually, we’re going to take a personal day.”

“Is that private?” Aidan asked.

We took the ferry and then the 1 train to the Museum of Natural History, a place I have not visited for many years. I still remember reading Catcher in the Rye in High school and feeling oddly connected to Holden Caufield when he said of the museum:  “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was.  Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.”  In the turmoil of my new life, I craved things that remain unchanged.

Aidan chose the gems exhibit where giant sparkling crystals glowed. In the asteroid room, he pretended that we had landed on another planet. I diligently looked shocked, staring open mouthed at the giant stone.  When Aidan grew bored of our game, we strolled to the Africa exhibit where Aidan found the hall of monkeys.

“I love monkeys,” he said, staring at the glass cases.

“That’s why I call you my monkey.” I said smiling at a tamarind with a white cottony head.

“They look so real!” Aidan said amazed.

“They are real sweetie,”

I immediately regretted what I said when Aidan looked at me as if I killed off the species myself.

“See, this guy Teddy Roosevelt….he killed them so he could show them to people” I babbled. Aidan was not convinced.  “He just killed one of everything so people could see what they looked like and appreciate them.”

“Why didn’t he just open a zoo?” Aidan asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You’re right. It is weird. I guess, back then, hunting was popular. Like Pokeman.”

“I hate Pokeman and it’s mean to kill animals. Look! He killed a baby!” Aidan yelled as he pointed to a baby spider monkey clutching its mother.  “Why did you take me to a stuffed zoo?” he asked incredulously.

“It’s a Natural History museum,”

“It’s a STUFFED ZOO,” he repeated. An overweight security guard eyed us and cleared his throat.

“Lets go to the IMAX movie!  It’s about elephants!” I said. “You love elephants.”

“I remember like an elephant,” Aidan said quoting the many times Aidan brought up events I had long forgotten.

The IMAX screen was enormous, a perfect size for the mammoth pachyderm. Aidan and I sat back in the comfortable seats and watched the pack of elephants, cooing at the lovable baby elephants at the end of the line, their trunks curled around their mother’s tail. I watched Aidan’s profile as he laughed at the baby, teasing his mother with his trunk.

Then, the music shifted and the sound of the narrator’s voice became more serious. “The pack is desperate to find water for if they don’t, they will most certainly die.” The camera followed the baby elephant as it faltered, weakened by hunger and thirst. Distressed, the mother urged the baby to continue on, even pushing him from behind.  Deeply communal, the other elephants joined her in a moving effort to keep the baby elephant going. The violins swelled making it obvious the baby couldn’t move and would most certainly die.   I cried watching the mother elephant rock back and forth having to make the Sophie’s choice to continue with the herd or remain with her baby.

“I want to go home” Aidan said as the baby elephant collapsed to its knees, the herd disappearing into a cloud of dust.  I guided Aidan out of the darkened theater, past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and out onto the street.  Aidan’s hand was clammy and warm as I walked us back toward the subway. “Why did the mother leave him?” he asked after a long silence.

“She had no choice. She had to leave or she would die too.” I said.  “Its nature, sweetie.”  I stopped then realizing Aidan was crying. “Oh sweetie.” I said squatting down to hug him, his head dropping heavily onto my shoulder.

“I want to go to school tomorrow!” Aidan wailed and I sighed.

“Okay.” I said kissing his head.  I stood up and we continued, Aidan wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

“You know, if I were a mommy elephant…” I said “I would stay with you.”

Aidan looked up at me, his eyes wide and brown.


“Really,” I said with confidence, because I knew I would.



O is for Oncologist

I met my oncologist as a cartoon in the graphic memoir, Cancer Vixen.  In the cartoon version, Dr. Paula Klein is blonde and glamorous and wears Manolo Blahnik heels with her white lab coat.  In person, Paula is dirty blonde and wears flats.  Every three months, I visit Paula and go through the rituals required of breast cancer.  

(See letter M)

“Hi how are you?”  I always say.

“How do you think I am? I work in a Cancer Center.”  She always answers.

I like her brusqueness because it is easy to see the softness inside, a half open oyster.  The forced cheeriness some employees have at the center feels oddly out of synch in the serious world of Cancer.  Dr. Klein is always in a rush and records her notes in a device mounted on the wall speaking so fast she sounds like a disclaimer for medication:

“I’m with Marian Fontana who had a 1.5 millimeter, intraductal carcinoma and estrogen positive cancer in the left breast that was treated with a lumpectomy, a re-incision.  When was your re-incision?”


“August of 2009 which was followed by a course of six weeks of radiation therapy starting in. …when did you start?


When she is done recording, she gives a breast exam, her fingers disappearing into the flesh of my breasts.

“How’s your dating going? You still with the life coach?”

“No. He was a loner. ”

“What do you know about life being alone all the time?”

“Exactly.  I have a date tonight though.”

“Good. He nice?”

“He seems nice on the phone.”

“Good. You’re good. Everything’s good”

After my visit, I meet my date at Odeon in Tribeca where a balding, muscular man named Sam sits smiling.  After he greets me with a wet kiss on the cheek, he tells me he has an eleven-year-old daughter, that he just lost his job a week before and that he hadn’t been to Tribeca since 9-11.

“I was running uptown with my daughter in my arms” he says.   It is a bit early for the 9-11 story, but I listen quietly reaching for a slice of bread.  “You were at the doctors today?”  he asks and I look up startled by his psychic abilities until I realize, I had exposed the cotton and Band-Aid from having my blood drawn when I reached for the bread.

“Yeah. A check up,” I say, pulling my shirt down.

“Who’s your doctor?”  he asks.

“Paula Klein.”

“You have cancer?

“How do you know that?”

“I went to Jewish day Camp with Paula.”

“Small world,” I say, trying not to look mortified.

“Lets call her and tell her we’re on a date.

“No that’s o-“

He is already on his cell phone scrolling through his numbers.

“This is so crazy!” he says, finding the number.   “Hey Paula! It’s me, Sam. You’re never going to guess who I’m sitting having dinner with.  Nope….  Nope. .. Nope…Marian Fontana.”

Since Paula is world renowned, there is often long waits at see her. To me, this is like being stuck in traffic. If you only have a short time left on the planet, you don’t want to spend it in a waiting room. To distract myself, I bring a book and by my third visit, I have befriended another avid reader named Anita with auburn hair in a bob.  We talk animatedly about books and start to make our appointments on the same day so we can exchange paperbacks we have finished and loved.

On my next visit, Anita looks puffy and is wearing a blonde wig. “Did Paula ask you to join her study?”  she asks.

“No. What is it?”

“Something about why women gain weight when they are diagnosed.”

“They don’t need a study for that.  You eat it all because who wants to die on a diet?”

“True. Maybe it’s for stage 3 patients or something. ”

“Yeah, maybe,” I say feeling guilty for my joke, but Anita doesn’t seem to notice and hands me The Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert.   “A bit meandering, but I finally finished it,” she says.

I give her Lit by Mary Karr.

A few months later, I visit the cancer center only to discover it has been taken over by Beth Israel Hospital.  Originally run by St. Vincent’s, the security guard tells me he is lucky they kept the Cancer Center open at all.  Dozens of his friends at Saint Vincent Hospital lost their jobs.

I feel like a child of divorce. Everything looks and feels different and yet is the same.

In the waiting room, I am thrilled to see Anita, her hair growing back, thick and auburn.  She strokes her hair when she sees me.

“You look beautiful!” I say.

She gives me a new book, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, but I have forgotten her book and in truth, never read it.  I have been unable to pay attention to books lately.

Paula’s office looks the same except for a resident who sits at her desk, taking notes.

“Where’s Paula?” I ask.

“She’ll be in soon,” the resident says explaining that Beth Israel is a teaching hospital now.  She flips open my chart.

“So you had a 1.5 centimeter intraductal carcinoma,” she says.

“That’s right.”

“Any history of breast cancer in the family?”


Her face twists and she is silent for an uncomfortable length of time, flipping back and forth between two pages.

“Why didn’t you have chemo?” she asks.

I feel my heart race.  Why is she asking this? During the course of my treatment the idea of chemo frightened me more than dying itself.  I was scared of my body running down, my hair falling out and the world staring in pity at my bald, swollen head.

“I would prefer to talk to Dr. Klein about this,” I tell the resident.  In a few moments, Paula appears looking harried and tired.

“How are you?” I ask.

“How do you think I am? I work in a Cancer Center.”

She turns the recording device on looking back and forth from me to the resident, speaking faster than ever.

“I’m with Marian Fontana who had a 1.5 millimeter, intraductal carcinoma and estrogen positive cancer in the left breast that was treated with a lumpectomy, a re-incision in…”

“August, 2009” The resident says.

“She has some side effects to her Tamoxifen including leg cramps. Are you still having leg cramps?”


“Write that down,” she tells the resident.

“In October…” she continues. “What a minute….” Her face shifts as she pushes the glasses up her nose.  “Why didn’t we do chemo on you?”

“We didn’t need to. My oncotype number was low.”

My sister and I were waiting in the small examining room.  There was a quilt on the wall in a frame, made by a family member of someone who had died.  The nurse came in, her crocs squeaking on the tile floor.  “No chemo” she announced casually.   My hand clamped over my mouth to hold in the scream, but the tears fell fast and quick, relief itself rolling down.

“You’re oncotype number is high. We should have done chemo,” Paula says shaking her head.  I have never seen Paula worried.  Serious but never worried.   The oncotype test is performed on early stage breast cancer patients to determine their chance of reoccurrence.   The lower the number, the better your chances of survival.  0-17 means low risk, 18-30 means medium, 30 to higher…

My number is 6 and in the cancer world that is as good as winning the lottery.

“It says on your chart 26.”

“I have that too. “ the resident says.

“We have to take your ovaries out right away,” Paula says looking panicked.

“It’s a six, Paula.  Can you call the genetic company please?”

“We have it on both charts,” she says shaking her head wondering I imagine, how she could have missed it. “I’ll be right back,” she says, the resident practically running out behind her.

I take out my appointment book and look at my sloppy handwriting scratching in my life in small boxes.  I could have my ovaries out on Wednesday, but then I wouldn’t make Aidan’s Parent-Teacher conference the next day…”

Dr. Klein returns in a few minutes exhaling hard.

“Oh thank God it was a six.”

Within minutes she examines my breasts, rolling her fingers across and under.  “So, are you still seeing Sam?” she asks.

“I broke up with him last week.”


“He collected sneakers you know. Ugly ones.”

“That’s why you broke up with him?”

“No. He never told me his daughter lived upstairs.”

“He was always weird,” she says.

Six months later, I am back at Paula’s.  This time there are three residents in the room. They are all Indian with smooth skin and bright lipstick.

“Make sure you go back far enough. Hers was very far back,” she instructs them as they take turns examining my breasts..

“This is like a lesbian porno.” I joke.  The residents giggle but Paula is distracted.

She lifts my arm and frowns.   “Looks like we have secondary lymphedema based on the coloring of the skin.”

“What?” I ask peeking at my underarm glistening with sweat and as black as country sky.

I laugh hard.

“What?” Paul asks trying not to smirk.   I shake my head, laughing too hard to answer.  “It’s a new shirt, right?”

I nod and now the residents are giggling too.  One of them hands me a tissue.  “I just bought it at TJ Maxx.”

“That’s funny,” Paula says without laughing.

“How are you?” I ask, forgetting our usual banter.

“How do you think I am? I work in a Cancer center,” she lifts my other arm.

“I didn’t see Anita today,” I say.

“I can’t share patient information.”  Paula says, her voice cracking.   The Indian girls are frozen, staring off like sculptures and after a long silence, Paula finally says,    “They found her dead over the weekend in her apartment,” adding  “I’m not supposed to tell you.”

I bite my lip and nod, pulling my bag to my chest. A Short History of Women was weighing it down. I had finally remembered to return it. I never read it and don’t think I ever will.





N is for Nuptials


N is for Nuptial

When my late husband and I got engaged, Dave announced he wanted to get married in a Catholic Church.   Since Dave and I never went to church and agreed that religion seemed like an excuse for people to boss other people around, I was surprised.  Even more shocking was that he insisted on a full nuptial mass, the Roman Catholic equivalent of the director’s cut.  I shuddered at the thought of my friends traveling from far and near to sit, stand and kneel for over two hours.

“What about my gay friends?” I asked.

“We’ll invite them!” Dave said cheerily.  I conjectured that Dave’s insistence was based on pleasing our mothers.   Both of our mothers were devout Catholics, attended Catholic schools and considered being nuns in their younger years.

Since marriage is about compromise, I relented, but on the condition that I could take control of the reception that would include a Cajun band, a fish fry and a carrot wedding cake.

He agreed.

Now, I am sure my Catholic readers are shaking their heads in dismay and you’re right. I am a terrible Catholic.  I can’t help it.  For someone like me, who has the attention span of a tired toddler, I find church painfully boring and always have.   Listening to a monotone priest with a lisp rattle on about how I am going to burn in hell is pure torture.  If I were Pope, (which obviously I couldn’t be), I would require mandatory story telling classes, acting classes and diction classes for all my priests.   I would have them work with playwrights to perfect their homilies and teach them how to smile and spice up the communion.  I am sure attendance would increase.

In order for Dave and I to qualify to be married in a Catholic Church, we had to attend  “Pre-Cana” classes.  By the time Dave realized this, we were too late to register for classes in Manhattan and had no choice but to attend a weekend retreat upstate.

“I’d rather gouge my eyes out,” I told Dave.

“Like St Lucy,” he mused.

“You’re not funny,” I pouted

“It’ll be fun.” He said pulling me to his broad chest.

“Only if I get to pick our song, make the seating arrangements and choose our honeymoon

“Deal.”  He agreed.

On a humid Friday in August 1996, Dave and I drove up to Croton-on-Hudson for our Pre Cana retreat.  We were singing loud to U2 with the windows down when Dave suddenly got serious.

“What?” I asked.

“I really need you to be on your best behavior this weekend.”

“I always am!” I said unconvincingly.

I am irreverent, inappropriate, and impudent and a lot of other “I” words.

I can’t help it.

I was born that way.  My mother loves to tell the story of how she dressed me up for Easter and took me to St Patrick’s in Manhattan when I was three years old.   Somehow I had managed to crawl under all of the pews and make my way to the front where I stood directly under the pulpit, facing the congregation and imitated the priest. My mother only realized when she heard everyone laughing.

“I’ll try to be good,” I said.  “But seriously, since when did you get so churchy?”

“I’m not. I just…” he stopped pressing his lips together, his thick eyebrows furrowing.  “I feel really lucky and I just feel like God has something to do with it.”

“Well that’s cool,” I said.  “I think that too.”

“I keep Psalm 23 in my firehouse locker because I just..It makes me feel like he’s with me.”

“I don’t think I know it.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, 
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”

“I do know that one. It’s beautiful.  It’s like he is responsible for your happiness.”


In the late afternoon, we pulled into a circular driveway where a large cinderblock building sat on a bucolic hillside.   The sun cast long shadows on the lawn where a few people mingled.

“Oh God,” I couldn’t help say.

“Exactly,” Dave said, leaning in for a kiss.

The lobby was large and pale yellow with an inordinate amount of bulletin boards and a statue of Mary in the corner.  A giant desk dominated the entrance where a woman sat, her blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.

“Welcome! Welcome!” she said.  She smiled, revealing crooked teeth that stood in stark contrast to her smooth white skin and blue eyes.

“My name’s Jill and I’m one half of your host couple,” she said handing us red folders with crosses on them.   From a side room, a man entered.  He was tan, with thick blonde curls that made him look like a 70’s porn star.  I erased the thought from my head and squeezed Dave’s hand. “…And this is my husband Dan. My other half.”  Dan smiled and reached across to shake Dave’s hand. His teeth were equally bad making me wonder if perhaps there was a lack of dentistry in town.  I just as quickly felt guilty for thinking negative thoughts about a couple that seemed perfectly nice and volunteered to teach us how to be married.

“Let me show you where our dormitory is,” Jill said gesturing for me to follow her to the back of the lobby.  I turned back to see Dave being led a different way.

“Did you guys have a long drive?” she asked, her sandals echoing as they flapped in the cold stairwell.

“Brooklyn,” I said as she opened a door to a long hallway that led to a large, square room lined with two rows of cots.    Minus the giant portrait of Cardinal O’Connor on the wall, the room looked exactly like a room “Madeleine” would sleep in.  “In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.”

“Well that’s not too long of a drive.” Jill said cheerily.  “This’ll be your cot.” She said gesturing to a bed in the middle covered in an itchy woolen blanket.  Noticing my expression she continued.   “I know it’s hard to be separated from your fiancé but I’m sure you know the Catholic Church deems premarital sex as a sin.”

My thoughts were like pinballs of all the retorts I could make, of the sarcastic responses, the snide comments, but I simply said “I did hear that once.”

After dinner, about eight couples sat in a room where an affable looking priest with a red face and easy smile introduced himself as Father John.  He told us he would be leading the exercises over the weekend and that Jill and Dan were his assistants,  “The “example couple” he said smiling at the two dentally challenged blondes.  “With a lot of love and a lot of talent,” he continued as Jill took out a guitar and positioned it on her lap.

“Oh no…” I whispered and Dave bit his lip to keep from smiling.

Jill tilted her head and started singing.

“Jesus died for everyone

            Jesus didn’t die because it was fun.”

Now I was the one biting my lip hard to keep from laughing.  I have always struggled to stifle giggles in churches, schools, concerts, and funeral homes.  It is a curse and as Jill sang her heart out, staring at me, I squirmed and used my technique of thinking of something sad so as not to laugh.   Dave squeezed my hand hard and I saw his shoulders bouncing and was shocked that he too struggling to keep from laughing.

“Think of something sad,” I whispered as I closed my eyes and imagined my sister was gone forever.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  An overweight librarian from New Jersey was snoring loudly and the Buddhist from the Upper West Side in the corner kept rolling over, making her cot squeak.     The room was dark, but when my eyes finally adjusted I could feel Cardinal O’Connor staring at me, judging me, feeling superior.

The following morning the eight couples gathered on the lawn in front of the center.  It was a hot day and we clustered in the shade of a sycamore fig tree whose finger like roots stretched across the lawn.   Father John led writing exercises, “the thing I love about my partner is….”

That was easy.  Dave doodled next to each of his answers.

a)    Her humor

b)   Her beauty

c)    Her smile

d)   Everything.

“If your partner found out they were pregnant you would…”

I wrote,  “…Say DAVE! Congratulations! You are a special because you are the first man to have a baby!  Yes!  That’s a whole new twist on the Immaculate Conception and I for one, am very excited!  I don’t have to fear childbirth, I can decide what we watch on TV, make a better salary and even become president! Who Hoooo!

As Dave read my entry he chuckled, his dimples flaring. Father John passed   “Laughter is an important part of marriage,” he said smiling at us.

“We do a lot of that,” Dave assured him.

“What Saint is that?” Father John asked pointing to the silver necklace Dave wore.

“St Florian,” Dave fingered the medallion with his thick fingers.

“Patron Saint of Firefighters,” the priest said.  “God bless you,” he said continuing on.

I slept well that night.  The woman from New Jersey had gone home.  It turned out she didn’t know her fiancé as well as she had thought and they decided they needed more time before committing to marriage.  In the dormitory, as she packed her bag, her eyes red from crying she said, “There were only two things on the list of things he loved about me.”

The following morning after breakfast, we reconvened in the meeting room where Father John played a video about Family Planning.

“NFP” the voice over said, as a couple walked hand and hand down an empty beach.   “Now that you have made your marriage vows, you can engage in Natural Family Planning.”

“Oh God,” I whispered rolling my eyes. Dave stared ahead as a woman appeared squinting at an empty calendar. “A woman’s menstrual cycle is anywhere from 26 to 32 days long” the voice over said.    The woman on the television circled a day on the calendar. “Circle the day of your period as day 1, then mark the same day of the week, one week later, as Day 8 and circle it. Count forward to Day 19 and circle it.  For these twelve days (days 8 through 19), abstain from all sexual intercourse, if you wish to avoid conception.”

“12 days of the month?” Dave whispered.

“NFP. It stands for no freakin’ pussy for two weeks of every month,” I whispered back.

“Think sad things. Think sad things.” Dave said trying not to laugh.

On September 11th, 1993 on a crystal blue-sky day, Dave and I were married at St Peters church on Staten Island. My Jewish father walked me down the aisle and kissed me on the cheek as he gave me away.

“You’re standing on my train,” I whispered to my dad.

“What?” he asked wondering why I wasn’t moving.

“You’re standing on my train,” I whispered louder.

“Get off her dress,” my sister said from the altar.

The priest spoke eloquently reading Psalms Dave carefully chose including his favorite, 23.   My father recited a poem and my friend sang a Roberta Flack song while my sister played the flute.  “And I knew our joy would fill the earth and last till the end of time, my love”

When Dave died exactly eight years later, there was a lot of talk of God. I was in churches every day for funerals and I thought often of our Pre-Cana weekend, how I learned that Dave’s favorite bird was a hawk, that he wanted to visit every National Park in the country, that he wanted three kids, two years apart.

I held a Memorial for Dave on his birthday in the same church where we had our son baptized four years earlier. Father Bartley presided over the mass. He was a family friend and shared Dave’s Birthday.  The service was long, beautiful and profound. My dad read a poem, the same friend from our wedding sang  “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and Dave’s mom read Psalm 23:

“….Surely your goodness and love will follow me
 all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord



M is for Mammaries

I like my boobs.

I used to hate them.

When I was ten, my breasts started to grow at an alarming pace.  While my friend’s sported small nubs under white t-shirts, my breasts swelled in time lapse photography. I was an avid gymnast and was deeply perplexed how my top heavy center of gravity was effecting me. I slipped off the beam, slid off the uneven parallel bars and fell over the vault, angry at my new breasts for shattering my dream of becoming the next Nadia Comanici.  By the time I was in 9th grade, I was a 36 B and was forced to buy a real bra.  My mom took me to JC Penney’s and showed me how to bend over and pour my breasts into the cups “like pouring water into a pitcher. ”

The boys noticed my bra and relentlessly teased me calling my breasts sweater meat, melons, tatas, Dairy Pillows, head lights, knockers, hood ornaments and funbags. In Ms Rosenthal’s class they snapped my bra straps from behind and called my bra over the shoulder boulder holders, tit slingers and flopper stoppers.

I hated my bra like a younger sibling and it was the first thing I took off when I got home.

It still is.

By the time I was in High School I was a 36 C and I had discovered hairspray and boys.  Every guy I met talked to my breasts and so I learned to hide them like a secret weapon under large men’s shirts, overalls and trench coats.  But I liked the power they had and by the time I got to college, I began to love my breasts.

My sexuality was in full bloom and my nipples became so sensitive I had to wear padded bras to keep from getting aroused in Anthropology class. I was a dog in heat.  In my freshman year I met and fell in love with a handsome art major in my dorm.  I modeled for him and he sketched my body. He made a sculpture of my torso from a  fallen tree, his gray eyes squinting as he worked.

We married ten years later and our only child was born a month early, two weeks before my 30th birthday.  The labor was long and painful and that evening as Dave and I spooned together on the small hospital bed, an Indian doctor entered, turning on the lights.  We squinted at him, delirious and annoyed.

“The baby is belly lellow and the billy luben is belly high,” he said.

“What did he say?”   I rubbed my eyes and squinted at Dave.

“Something about Billy,” Dave shrugged, blinking repeatedly to wake up.  A nurse was called in to translate that our son was jaundiced from an undeveloped liver. Dave and I took the elevator to see our tiny baby in the world’s smallest tanning booth.  Bright lights shone down on his yellow, see thru skin and slept in a black sleep mask.   He would be there for a week. I had wanted to breast feed so the nurses told me to pump at home and bring the bottles in.

Leaving the hospital with an empty car seat in the back, made my breast’s ache.  When I arrived home, I took out the fancy Medela pump my friends gave me, signing the card, “From, Your breast friends”.   The pump looked scarily bovine with two giant plastic cups and small tubes leading into a bottle.  It made lots of noise but I couldn’t get it to work.  I tried again and again.  As the hours passed, my breasts became as big as overblown balloons.  Dave tried to help me and we positioned the cups in different ways, reading the instructions over and over again.  “This is harder than assembling Ikea furniture,” Dave mumbled.  We finally gave up and went to bed.  In the middle of the night, I woke up in a puddle of breast milk.  While Dave changed the sheets, I tried the pump again, mooing when he came in to help but after four drops in the bottle, I gave up.

By the next morning, my breasts were so big I could practically put my chin on them.  At the hospital, a Jamaican nurse with dreadlocks, and huge teeth, greeted me, staring at my shirt.

” Oh Dahlin’.. You didn’t pump your breasts?”

“I couldn’t do it!” I said whining like a child as she took my hand and pulled me into a small empty room.  I sniffled as I watched her take two small diapers and run them under hot water.

“Take off your shirt and bra darlin’,” she commanded ringing out the diapers, steam rising up from them in curly vapors. She placed the two diapers on my breasts like she was hanging out laundry and abruptly left the room mumbling,  “Dis’ll make you feel betta.  I’ll be right back.”

My veins that were blue and stretched started to relax and I felt my skin loosen.  When I closed my eyes, I could feel the milk inside me flowing, moving forward into my body and the odd sensation of something falling.

“How you feelin’?” she asked returning with an industrialized version of the pump I had at home

“It feels weird, like something’s happening.”

“Dat’s your millk lettin’ down,” the nurse said.

She showed me how to turn on the pump, how to get a good seal with the plastic cups and how to hold my body so the milk would flow. It was strange watching my own nipples go back and forth, but I filled up two bottles in five minutes.

I wanted to kiss her.

When we finally brought Aidan home from the hospital, he woke up every hour to eat.  The family bed we had learned about in our progressive birthing class in Park Slope didn’t work and so I fed Aidan in a small Kennedy rocker I bought at a stoop sale for 20 dollars.  As the nights and days merged into a fuzzy, sleepless blur I became an expert at breastfeeding.  I loved the deep quiet night where the only sound were the squeaks and slurps coming from Aidan, his long fingers opening and closing around mine like a starfish.

Once, when I was driving with my parents on vacation, my father was teasing me as he often did.   I said nothing but intermittently squirted my dad with breast milk from the back seat.

“What was that?” he said wiping his head as if a bird somehow landed inside the car and shit on him.  This went on for miles until my mother turned around and caught me. “Marian! That is so inappropriate.”

After I finished breastfeeding, my boobs were so big I had to wear two sports bras to exercise.  Unlike the scoop and clasp technique my mom taught me when I was ten years old, putting on a sports bra felt like climbing into a condom.   After the struggle of getting the bra on, my nipples would have to be realigned so as not to give the appearance of being cross-eyed.  I hated seeing myself in aerobics, my nipples crammed into my bra looking in opposite directions.

After my husband was killed on 9-11, I lost twenty pounds and with it my large breasts.  This felt fitting since everything was different from what I’d known.  On the first anniversary of 9-11, I was mildly shocked when one of my widow friends didn’t join us at Ground Zero and got breast implants instead. “I just want to be knocked out and wake up with a new life,” she said.  I didn’t blame her.  The harsh reality of having to date again after twenty years, sent us all to plastic surgeons.  I met with an older Jewish doctor who examined me like a critical parent,. “Do your wrinkles bother you?” he asked.

“Not until now,” I giggled nervously, a habit I have when I am uncomfortable.

You’re stomach is not that big, but we could do a leetle tuck.” And of course there were my breasts.   He thought they could use a lift and described in great, nauseating detail how it was done.  He explained the process of taking off the nipples that sounded like removing the top half of an Oreo. I imagined the doctor in his scrubs accidentally dropping my nipple, the pink nub sliding under the operating table.

The widow’s breasts came out perfect.  Once, when three of us went down to Mexico we found ourselves on a beach where the women went topless.  I loved sunbathing topless and always marveled at the variety of sizes and shapes of breasts that seemed as infinite as fish in the ocean, until breast implants of course.  When the widow took off her shirt, they didn’t flop to the side like mine, they pointed due north in perfect pink peaks.  Still, I passed on the plastic surgery hopeful that if Dave loved me the way I was, perhaps someone else could.

I still love my breasts.

I take care of them.

I get mammograms.

Every year, I step into the white lab with the giant machines. Every year, the same bored Puerto Rican woman in green scrubs tells me to remove my gown.  She puts a strip of pink stickers around my nipples like they were prize-winning pigs.

“Lean in, turn a little bit more, turn a little bit to the left,” She pushes me against the machine, she raises my arm, she makes me hold a pole and arch back like some demented stripper and when I am in the most uncomfortable position possible she says “Don’t move” and she turns a medieval knob that flattens out my breast between two plastic plates like a skin panini.

“Don’t breathe” the technicians says which is of course all I want to do and when I can hear my own heart beat in my ears and am convinced my breast is going to rip off my chest, she presses the magic button that releases my breast.  It is as satisfying as milk letting down.

Then we do it again. Two more times. Then she does the whole thing on the other side.

When I am done, I turn back and look at the room.

“You forget something?” the technician asks.

”Yeah, I actually think my breast might still be on there.”

She doesn’t laugh.

She never does.

A few years ago, they asked me to come back in for a biopsy.  I was in a different room, with different technicians and the needle was so large, it looked like a prop from a horror film. “Can you take a little fat from my stomach while you’re in there?” I joked.

They didn’t laugh either.

The following week they called to tell me I had cancer.  I was driving on the LIE at the time, my son in the front seat. We were on our way to vacation on Fire Island.  I didn’t pull over.  I had worked too hard to convince my son life was going to be normal and good.  I couldn’t stop now.  But I was crying so hard I could barely see and Aidan, now nine, asked “What’s wrong? Who was that?”

When we got to Fire Island, it rained the entire week and it was so cold we wore every piece of clothing we packed.  Thankfully, my sister, her husband and two little girls were with us and did a great job of distracting Aidan while I made countless phone calls.  The service was spotty and I had to stand in the outdoor shower with an umbrella to call my doctor, a brusque woman who seemed almost excited by the news.

“I had another 911 widow who had breast cancer. “ she said.  “I think it’s from the dust at the site but of course I can’t prove that.” Her voice went in and out, as if she was on a boat on the ocean.  “You just get the surgery, you get the reconstruction, you get the chemo and then you get back to your life,” she said ticking off a grocery list.

“Is that what the widow did?” I asked.


“Did she survive?”

The call dropped.

The cancer was in its earliest stages and I went to three different surgeons who had varying opinions of what to do with the lump in my left breast.  Two doctors wanted to take the breast off, but I decided on the third, a young woman who was known as “a breast conservationist” a term that made me imagine people with homemade signs staging a protest. “Save the boobs!” And I wanted desperately to keep mine.

At the St. Vincent’s Cancer Center on 15th street, the staff was fascinated by my tumor that was so far back it couldn’t be palpated.  They took this as a challenge and every time I came for an appointment, doctors, oncologists, surgeons, residents and interns took turns poking and rolling my breasts, their brows furrowed in concentration, determined to find it. “ I haven’t seen this much action since high school!”  I joked.

They didn’t laugh.

After a lumpectomy, a re-incision and six weeks of radiation, I was as good as new. Being close to losing something, makes you love it even more and I now I love my breasts more than ever, scars and all.

Every six months I go back to the cancer center to be examined by my oncologist, a world renowned breast cancer specialist who wears thick plastic glasses and Manolo Blahnik heels.

“How are you?” I always ask.

“How do you think I am? I work in a cancer center.”  She always replies.

I make endless jokes but she doesn’t laugh.  The breast cancer people are a tough crowd, but I make jokes anyway, yelling after my oncologist as she walks out of the room.

“Thanks for the mammaries.”