Tag Archives: tough times

Beneath the dust and love

by Tessa Meyer Santiago

Often in the past twenty years, I have been surprised by a feeling: as if I’ve woken to find myself in a place not altogether unknown, but surprising all the same: walking down the hallways of the high school, I expect to see Karen and Patrick hanging out by the book room, as they did in 1983. I know, intellectually, I’m 43 and on my way to pick up a child for the orthodontist, but pushing through those glass doors into the high school smell, I feel the sixteen-year-old thrill of walking down the hallway, hoping against schedule and tardy make-up, that he will be there today. And there he is, walking towards me, his basketball calves stretching Allen Iverson-thin into his khaki Dickies. My heart skips a beat, as I watch him saunter toward me. That he calls me “Mom” stuns me into present. To my surprise, the lanky man-child walking toward me with that half-hitch in his step, braces glinting, is not Derek, but my son, Christian.

A post-midnight with sleeping bodies in beds, lights off everywhere, except maybe over the sink, a cup of rooibos tea in hand, curled up on the leather couch, book on the arm, listening to the noises of the night house. I’ve spent so many nights in this position at this same time, that, if I am very still, and all I hear is my breath and the same heart beating inside me since before memory, it is hard to tell whether the breathing coming from the other room is my father or my husband; am I seven or forty-three?

Can I be all three? Because, sitting on the couch in my forty-three-year old body, I can still feel the hot flush of shame that fills a seven-year-old body when she realizes she is wholly out of step with the majority, that what she thought was normal was, in fact, quite startling. I can still remember taking my mother’s hand to cross Main Road in Claremont, spacing my fingers to fit between hers, feeling the warmth of her palm cup against mine. My son Adam holds my hand as we run through the parking lot after the game (not as often as before but sometimes still) and when his little fingers fill the curves at the base of mine, for a moment I cannot quite tell whose hand is whose. I am simultaneously small Tessa, knobbly-kneed in green school uniform, and someone’s mother. The years run through me like it was yesterday, today and tomorrow at the same time. Continue reading


The chill, then stupor, then the letting go

It was Emily Dickinson who said in her beautiful poem “After Great Pain”:

This is the hour of lead

Remembered if outlived

As freezing persons recollect the snow

First the chill, then stupor, then the letting go

It is strange and amazing how we can read something one day and find it nothing more than haunting and beautiful and the next grasp the fullest meaning of each short word. It is remarkable how the death of a child can bring your senses to a sharpness you never experienced before. It is this sharpness that allows us to feel more intensely at these times though it doesn’t always feel like a gift. Often times I wonder what I would say to parents like these.

At one time I wore shoes that fit in a similar fashion. This doesn’t make me any wiser, but I recollect some of the things people did say to me and I wonder now as I did then, “what were they thinking?” I was blessed to have one woman placed in my life that acted as a guiding beacon to me during these times because of some of the advice she gave me–though not all of it came in the form of words. If I had to pass on anything to other parents who were hurting because of the death of their precious child what would it be? It wouldn’t be enough, it would be lacking, and it would be less than perfect. It would be heartfelt and honest though; it would be something like this: Continue reading

Scrambled Heart, Part 1

I have spent countless days in hospitals: Someone checks you in, you fill out papers, they take copies, you wait. Someone else rolls your son in a wheelchair down the wide corridor, past the grand piano where elderly volunteers play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” or “Five Foot Two” or “Amazing Grace,” up the elevator to a private room on the sixth floor where you’ve been before. You follow behind, making small talk and smiling, packing the necessary equipment – cell phone, laptop and an unread book – you will need to stay occupied while you wait. And wait. You wait for blood tests and x-rays and doctor visits while you play with your cell phone downloading worthless ring tones and pictures of purple mountains you will never look at again. You watch the black shadows move down the concrete walls on the buildings outside the window. You rub your son’s palm with your index finger, the way you did when he was a baby. You try to read, but your eyes blur. You fill up the room with balloons from the gift shop, because no one even knows that your son is in the hospital, again, and no one sends balloons or stops by or calls. So you fill in the space. Continue reading

Nod, be present, and listen

When my sons were taking piano lessons, I decided to steal the motivational technique of my first teacher, Mrs. Childs, and reward them with a candy bar whenever they memorized a piece. For me, chocolate has always been wildly motivating; perhaps this is why, according to my mother, no one ever had to nag me to practice.

At the time of this story, my sons were seven and ten, my father had just died, and my mother was dying. I felt that I was failing her–and everyone else in my life–in a multitude of ways on a daily, even hourly, basis, and was so desperate for solace that I decided to make one last attempt at psychotherapy. In the Midwest, where I was raised, the accepted credo is “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Hardly an attitude that fosters the kind of work that needs to occur in a therapist’s office.

This therapist, however, was different. Her technique was unusual. She’d get me talking–they all do that–but when I let my guard down and became loose-lipped enough to let slip with something honest, something vaguely not-nice, i.e. “I’m mad at her,” the therapist had me repeat more potent versions of that statement (“I’m angry at my mother for getting cancer,” or “I’m so mad at you, Mom, for dying!” etc.) over and over again, while at the same time making little tapping motions on the backs of my hands, the top of my head, the center of my chest. I’d cry. I’d feel crummy for awhile. But through the course of the session, eventually I’d move through and beyond that not-nice feeling to a place of calm, a place where – for some reason – I could at least function. It helped.

One afternoon, when my eldest son Noah failed to demonstrate that he’d memorized “Bill Grogan’s Goat,” he was told that chocolate would not be forthcoming – not today anyway, but surely tomorrow, because he almost had it, just a couple of notes, a little bit more practice, he was so close!

He burst into tears.

“What?” I cried. My son’s response was so sudden, so out of proportion that I wondered if he’d physically hurt himself. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“It’s not fair!” he wailed, shrugging off my attempts to hug him. “It’s not fair…”

Exacerbating Noah’s misery was the fact that his brother Sam had already finished his practice session and–having successfully memorized “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”–was sitting a few feet away on the sofa, blithely consuming his Almond Joy. I wish I could say that I had the good sense to ask him to remove himself to the kitchen. Maybe I did. I don’t remember.

After telling Noah how sorry I was that he felt sad, I went on to explain that it actually was fair, reminding him this was our policy when it came to practicing. What really wouldn’t be fair would be if I gave him a candy bar when he hadn’t memorized his piece.

This did not comfort him.

“But it’s not fair!” he repeated. “Sam’s songs are easier than mine!”

“That’s true, but when Sam is ten like you, he’ll have harder songs, and then –”

“It’s not fair!” Noah proclaimed again, head shaking, tears falling. “It’s not fair, it’s not FAIR!”

Okay, I thought. Not working.

Remembering another therapist from years ago, the one who encouraged me to think of intensely negative feelings as temporary, like billowy clouds in a variable sky, I said, “Okay then, let’s pretend that this big feeling of Unfair is a huge puffy cloud, and we’re going to blow it away.” Noah paused and frowned, still sniffling, but seemed game. “Are you ready? Are you ready to take a big breath with me and blow that huge Unfair Cloud away?”

He quieted long enough for us to inhale and exhale, our conjoined breaths creating an impressive gale force wind which sent several dust bunnies careening across the living room floor.

There was a pause, and then a resumption of inconsolable sobs.

That was when I remembered that the emotions-as-clouds metaphor hadn’t worked any better for me than it did for my son.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s JUST NOT FAIR!”

I continue to be amazed by what a dullard I can be when it comes to my own children, how my response as a parent can sometimes lead me to relate to my sons in a completely unhelpful–and uncharacteristic–manner. Would I treat one of my friends like this? Would I try to talk her out of her feelings? Of course not. I’d commiserate. I’d buy her a glass of wine. I’d sit and listen. I’d let her moan to her heart’s content.

It’s not fair.

Finally I remembered the technique my therapist had been using with me: encouraging me to repeat the unvarnished, unattractive, unreasonable truth.

So I started to say, “You’re right, honey, it’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

Noah joined in. We sang the It’s Not Fair lament for a few minutes and then, eventually, the sky cleared, the clouds passed, the tears ceased. Sam finished his Almond Joy without further notice. Noah got past his grief and went on to memorize (and earn a Three Musketeers) another day.

Now, when my kids let forth with an uncensored expression of unreasonable emotional truth–-“I had a scary, bad thought” or “This homework is so pointless” or “I’m never going to get this!” etc.–I try not to talk it away with reason, or blow it away with a gale force exhalation. I try to remember to simply nod my head, be present, and listen. So much of childhood is baffling. So much of what our children experience emotionally is not nice.

We’ve abandoned the candy bar reward, by the way, as well as piano lessons. Noah, now thirteen, plays the trumpet, Sam plays trombone, and I do what most parents do when it comes to motivating their kids to practice: I nag.

I wish I didn’t have to. My mom never had to nag me to practice.

It is so unfair.

Stephanie Kallos lives in Seattle with her husband and sons. She is the author of two published novels, BROKEN FOR YOU and SING THEM HOME. Her website is: www.stephaniekallos.com