Wednesday, January 30, 2013


People who have lost loved ones often say that the deceased is still with them in spirit, or in their heart, or in some metaphysical way. Balthazar, though, is apparently still with me in the literal sense. A study conducted by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and published in September demonstrated that fetal cells can pass through the placenta into a mother's body and travel all the way to her brain, lodging there for the rest of her life.

The researchers looked for male DNA in the brains of 59 women, ranging in age from 32 to 101, who had died. They found it in the brains of 37 of them, presumably from a pregnancy with a male fetus. Such an exchange of cells is called microchimerism. Scientists had previously been unsure whether the fetal cells could pass the blood-brain barrier in humans. It now appears that microchimerism in the human brain is common and that the cells persist, potentially for a lifetime. The oldest woman with male DNA in her brain was 94. 

The purpose of the research was to determine if these foreign cells are to blame for autoimmune disorders in middle-aged women. The results weren't clear. The cells actually may be in some way protective against Alzheimer's, which would be a nice touch. For now this research exists as proof, if any were needed, that our children change our bodies forever and remain a part of us. 


A few years ago Jonathan and I were driving by the Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery in Southeast Portland. It's a small but fascinating historical site that contains the graves of many early Portlanders, including a recently rediscovered section of Chinese workers, a lot of Woodmen of the World with Norwegian names and James and Elizabeth Stephens, a transcendentalist couple from Virginia and Kentucky whose gravestone I particularly admire.

I was thinking about my friends whose son had been recently stillborn. They had buried him in a cemetery on the West Side.

"They can never move, now," I said.

Passing Lone Fir had put me in mind of pioneer women who were forced to bury their children along the trail and then climb back into the wagon and keep going. Those women would likely never have seen that place again. They could probably only have created the most makeshift of markers: a few stones, initials carved on a tree. I had understood intellectually the brutal hardship of it, but it wasn't until that day that the anguish of those women felt real to me. I imagined that if I were my friend I would want to stay as close to that patch of ground as I could.


My sister-in-law asked me, early on, if we were going to move. Not cities, presumably, although maybe a flight of that magnitude did seem necessary. I think, though, that she was asking if we were going to sell our house.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect that I was sleeping when Balthazar died. It hasn't changed the way I feel about my house. The terrible thing that happened occurred inside of me, not in the house. The house is just where I happened to be. Living with myself is the hard part. 

I've always suspected that my house is a little bit haunted. It's not a ghost that I feel, but a kind of energy, to do with the fact that for many years the house was a shelter for battered women and their children. I have worried that all of that collective pain has soaked into the walls. The night we moved in I had violent nightmares, and I was unnerved for the first few weeks. But as the years have passed I notice it less.

Last fall a woman and a teenage boy appeared at the door. She spoke to me beseechingly in Spanish, and then looked at the boy, who was her son, to translate for her. She said she used to live here. She was looking for her records.

I'd often wondered about the women and children who lived here, and I was relieved to see two of them looking so entirely ordinary. There was nothing of the poltergeist about either of them. She was tiny and animated, gesturing to me urgently with her hands. The boy was skinny, the way teenage boys are, and appeared slightly embarrassed to be on such an errand with his mother. I directed them to the Volunteers of America office on Stark. I think my worries and nightmares have had more to do with my own fear of other people's suffering than with the house's former occupants or the house itself.


The dismantling of Balthazar's room has reached its next stage, and I was surprised to discover how hard it has been for Jonathan. It's not as if I've found it easy. It took me eight months to put the baby clothes in the basement. But I think the room means less to me than it does to Jonathan because I carry Balthazar's room with me wherever I go, like a backpack on a long distance hiker. In my view, I was his only real home. The room in our house, the upstairs room with blue-green walls and a view of the apartments across the street, was meant to be Balthazar's room, but for me it could be Fiona's room, or Lucien's room, or Jasper's, if he decides he wants to move. But for Jonathan it is always and forever Balthazar's room.

I have had one dream about Balthazar, four or five months ago. In the dream he was still dead, but the nurses wanted me to see what he would have looked like alive, so they took out a hairdryer and blew pink into his skin with the warm air. They propped open his eyes and suddenly he was alive. I mean, my unconscious mind still knew the truth but for a minute I saw him as if he were alive. He wasn't a newborn; he looked five months old, as he would have been at the time I had the dream. He had dark hair like Jonathan and blue sparkling eyes like Jasper. His mouth was like Jasper's too, and he was smiling. He could not have been more beautiful. I had to thank my unconscious for providing me with that glimpse of him, and I wonder: will I have these dreams periodically? Will they age progress him as if he were on a milk carton?

I don't feel Balthazar in the house. I don't feel him in his room. If he's here, he's a good-natured sort of presence. Jasper is a remarkably agreeable child, a constant marvel to his mother, who was not. Balthazar, who looked so much like him, would have been too, I like to think.

Balthazar is not in a cemetery. He has no patch of ground. Physically, at least, part of him is in his little box, and part of him is inside of me. I could put a hat on my head, put his ashes in my pocket and take him anywhere. But I see no reason to go.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I started Crossfit the week after Thanksgiving. For those of you who don't know, Crossfit is a gym cult which emphasizes "functional fitness." What that means is that they teach you some Olympic lifts, and in addition to the weightlifting make you do a whole bunch of other painful things, like pull-ups and push ups and jumping rope and sprints. Sometimes they make you flip a very large tire, or throw a heavy ball high up onto a wall. They also wear really nerdy knee-high socks. I've got purple ones that say 'Genius' on them in yellow. Ironically, it was my friend Jessica who gave them to me for my birthday two years ago, long before she made me buy the Living Social coupon that brought us to Crossfit.

It's pretty brutal. The other day my hip flexors were so sore I couldn't stand up straight for two days. Sometimes when I'm there I want to throw up, and I find myself spending a lot of time on my knees gasping. But in addition to carving my delts into a shape I haven't seen since college, it's a godsend for my mood. I think it performs the function that yoga is supposed to: a quieting of the mind that allows for an unimpeded presence in your own body. My mind is a wily sucker and has created many workarounds in the years I've been doing yoga, but intrusive thoughts appear, at least so far, to be impossible at Crossfit. Now it's true that I often cry on the drive home, but that's actually an improvement on the way I usually feel when I leave the house.

At the gym one Saturday a few weeks ago I started chatting with Callie, a tall and slender woman of about my age, and she mentioned that she had had a baby. Actually, she complained that the Paleo diet, which we are all attempting to adhere to for thirty days, was hell when you're nursing.

I've got a love/hate relationship with the Paleo diet. It's how I lost thirty-five pounds four years ago. I couldn't stay on it when I was pregnant, though, because of the nausea and food aversions, and I've been struggling to get back on it and stay on it since Balthazar was born. It doesn't work in the magical way it used to, either, and I've got thirteen pregnancy pounds still to lose. Maybe it's because I'm reluctant to shed that last vestige of Balthazar, but I think the weight I've got left is less his fault than mine, the result of the many, many croissants and plates of pasta I consumed. Mostly I just wish I could wear all of my clothes again.

"How old is your baby?" I asked Callie.

"Nine months," she said.

Oh my God, your baby is exactly the same age as my not-baby! I didn't say. Instead I said, "I'm impressed that you are trying the diet at all."

I noticed immediately that I didn't hate her. I didn't run to the other side of the gym to avoid her. I did think, Oh no, and I thought, what a weird coincidence, but that was it. I even thought about telling her about Balthazar, but then I didn't. I didn't want to freak her out by dumping that information on her the day we met. But then last Saturday we were partnered up for the workout. I didn't choose her; I was afraid that to seek her out would make me some kind of creepy mom stalker. But the trainer put us together because we are close in height.

She is slighter, though, and before we started I apologized to her, because the first thing we had to do was to take turns carrying each other on our backs. I mentioned that I carry my son sometimes, but he is only fifty-seven pounds.

"How old is he?" she asked, making conversation as we waited for the workout to begin.

"Seven," I said.

"I have two seven year-old boys," she said.

OK, now that's really weird, I thought. Then I asked her how the age difference was working out with them and the baby. Pretty well, she said. She'd been concerned about it, but the older boys took great care of the little boy. And I felt guilty for fishing when she didn't know I had my own very specific reasons for asking that question. Then the workout started. Did I mention that everything is for time and that you're trying to beat everyone else?

We were great on our squats and our box jumps. When we got to the flutter kick portion of the workout, though, we fell behind. Now it was her turn to apologize for her weak core. I knew then I had to tell her. So in between the flutter kicks and the push presses, as we ran out the door and toward the third telephone pole down the street, I said, "We are at a real disadvantage in that exercise, because I had a baby nine months ago too."

"You have a nine month-old too?" she asked, sounding surprised and pleased.

"Well, no," I said, "because he died."

It was probably the least opportune moment to spring that information on anyone ever. She handled it gracefully, though, and I didn't collapse in tears, though I thought I was going to hyperventilate for a second. I had just wanted her to know that we were in the same boat with our abs, but for obvious reasons that can't be a simple conversation.

We finished our push presses. We ran again. And then when we were done we talked a bit, about the hyper-competitive mom who was kicking everyone's ass at sprints one month post partum, and about what happened to Balthazar.

Since our conversation I realized that I've entered a new stage of grief. I was able to approach this woman as someone who has a lot in common with me: We both have seven year-old boys! We both have weak abs! My first thought was something other than that she has everything I don't.

I think that's why I tried something different with the blog last week, though I don't think it worked. I just wasn't sure that I could write another piece about what the woman at the grocery store said to me about my dead baby. I have read other blogs like this where the writer has admitted that they have nothing left to say on the topic, but I didn't ever think I'd run out of things to say about it. I don't necessarily think the well is dry just yet, but I think the things I want to say are going to be different.

There is sadness attached to the knowledge that I'm in a new place. It means that Balthazar is farther away from me. The loss of a stage of grief creates its own grief. I understand that it's not linear. I've felt better and then worse again before; maybe this is just a temporary phase.  

But I feel that something has changed. At the coffeeshop today I looked on as a blonde toddler arranged some plastic dinosaurs on a table and I realized there wasn't any bitterness there. His presence no longer seemed like an affront.

Callie and I make good workout partners, I think. For women who had babies nine months ago we're in pretty good shape, but we lag behind some of the other women, who are under thirty and whose pelvic floors remain untraumatized. I doubt I'm ready to meet her baby, but maybe it'll be OK if she talks about him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Skin Horse Part One

Balthazar is his own person and he deserves his own book, a book I am in the process of writing on this blog. But he is also part of my life, which was well underway when he was born. It seems diminishing to say that his death is one of several pivot points in my life. I want to say that it is the pivot point: Before and After. But there are many ways to divide an orange.

I was writing another, different memoir before Balthazar was born. It was tentatively titled The Skin Horse, and it was about my childhood and about motherhood and my long slow crawl toward a real and authentic self. My agent told me it didn't have an ending. I'm posting some of it now, because it's what I've been working on and thinking about lately, trying to understand where Balthazar fits.


A year after I graduated from college, I got a job at an independent bookstore I'd venerated as a holy shrine since I was a little kid. While I worked there I became involved, predictably, in a brief, tortured relationship with a coworker.

We met in front of the self-help section. The manager was introducing me to all of my new colleagues, and the man was shelving books in what I learned were his assigned sections: self-help, sexuality and religion. How absurdly spot-on is that? What a Holy Trinity, those sections. What a perfect shamrock of all that I had yet to grapple with. And standing right in front of me, blond and beautiful, was the curator of that arcane knowledge.

There was something defiantly 1970's about the man, though maybe that was just the beard, which was an unusual feature in the mid-90's. He was wearing green jeans and running shoes, but he might as well have been wearing a deerskin vest with no shirt underneath, and maybe some kind of amulet on a leather strap. He might as well have been strumming "Dance With Me" on an acoustic guitar. And I was a goner, because I was a girl trapped in amber, a girl with a heart schooled by 70's soft rock, a heart that was lonely and sad and vulnerable to synthesizers.

When we were introduced, he briefly lifted his bright blue eyes from his cart of books, and I was shocked stupid by them. Apparently my rostromedial prefrontal cortex recognized him in an instant.

Some higher, wiser part of my brain recognized him, too. This will not end well, it informed me.


Five months later I was at the bookstore's service desk with Daria, who was eighteen years old and a recent Russian émigré. We were talking about a chick who worked in the café, who had gotten married over the weekend to someone she'd met the week before.

"Why would she do that?" Marriage: I couldn't imagine it. Couldn't you just hole up in your apartment and have sex constantly? Of course I had a boyfriend and I wasn't having sex with him at all, much less constantly, but that was because I was secretly in love with someone else.

"Maybe he's a millionaire," Daria said.

"Maybe he's a millionaire," I spat. "Only you would say that."

I was always annoyed with her. She was brilliant and socially awkward and so nakedly, transparently in love with the man that I was also (secretly) in love with.  She was what I feared I was, and was therefore to be despised in the same measure as I despised myself.

He approached the service desk and caught the tail end of the conversation. It took him a minute to figure out who had said what.

"Thank god," he said to me. "I thought you said you wanted to marry a millionaire and that would be terrible."

"Your image of me would be shattered?" I teased. For many weeks I had been too terrified to speak to him. Every day I had left the store determined not to be such a pathetic loser and every morning I had been again unable to act like a normal person. Eventually I had committed myself to a slow process of desensitization, as if I had a peanut allergy. Even now, though, I had trouble looking at him directly.

"Why would you care if she said that?" asked Daria suspiciously.

"She's the only woman I respect," he said.

"Me?" said Daria, confused at first. "I'm the only woman you respect?"

He caught my eye over her head and gave me a conspiratorial smile. Eventually Daria understood.

"But what about me?"

"You're kind of a counterpoint."

As soon as I was able I fled to the warehouse. I offered to wrap things for people and hid at the wrapping station, where my goofy joyful smile wouldn't cause anyone to ask me any questions. That was where he eventually found me, some time later.

"Here you are, hiding and wrapping," he said, correctly assessing my motivations.

"That was really nice what you said," I said, not looking up from the roll of hunter green paper and the spool of gold stickers. "You embarrassed me."

"I embarrassed you?" He seemed stumped by the admission. He hung around awhile longer, put some of the books in his bin onto a cart and checked whatever lists managers checked, but then he left me alone.

What he said was not nice. It was cruel to Daria, who was just a teenager, after all. He was thirty-one. And what was wrong with a man if a co-worker he hardly knew was the only woman he respected? Did he not respect his mother? His sister? His boss or his college professor or Hillary Clinton or Ruth Bader Ginsberg or An Sung Suu Kyi?  The other possibility was that it was a lie, an obvious attempt to flatter me. But I didn't see that, because I had fallen for it.


My mother's family thought of itself as a Family. As in, the Family has endowed this church pew. The Family always sits at this table at the country club for Sunday brunch. This farm has been in the Family for a hundred and fifty years.

Being born into this Family, I learned early on, meant certain things. In a place like Louisville, in which the degree to which you belong is measured in generations, I was given to understand that I could hold my head up against anyone. With the possible exception of the kids whose great great great grandmother had been scalped by Indians on the way from Shelbyville to Louisville and had survived to found a dynasty. Fortunately there were only three of them.

Being part of the Family meant that I was not allowed to get a bad grade, or use the incorrect object pronoun. I was not allowed to be rude, or loud, or neglect my grooming. I attended church every Sunday, not the megachurch in the South end with the video screens and electric guitars, but the Presbyterian one in Crescent Hill with my parents or the Episcopal one in the Highlands with my grandparents.

Everyone in the Family gave money and time to the Red Cross and the Democratic Party. In return for their noblesse oblige, they could expect a certain amount of deference wherever they went, a deference I could only assume would be mine as well, when I grew up and took my rightful place.

It hardly mattered for the purposes of this narrative I was bequeathed that we actually lived in an ugly suburban ranch house where the kitchen had a plaid carpet, that I wore pale blue Levi's corduroys and matching acrylic sweaters, that I went to public school and had giant, ugly, crooked teeth. All of that was incidental. My mother also made it clear that my father was, genealogically speaking, beside the point.  He had come to Louisville from Tennessee and would therefore always be an outsider. I, on the other hand, was a princess of the blood.

To be continued... 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Family History

"Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of our family," my mother said.

Was it Day Two, or Day Three? I see myself on the big brown chenille couch in the TV room, holding Captain Zimbo and watching Eureka impassively. Zane, the sexy bad boy computer genius (because we all know one of those) is doing something to annoy Jo, the gorgeous sheriff's deputy. I'm barely ambulatory, but occasionally I get up and cut myself a piece of the hazelnut tart that Tanja has made. It bears more than a passing resemblance to chess pie, and I cannot resist it, despite the fact that I had had every intention of returning to my pre-pregnancy low-carb diet right away.

If I give my mother the benefit of the doubt, this might mean, "Honey, this is really, really bad. I realize how bad this is." But the truth is, it made me feel like an alien freak, the only person, going back hundreds of years, who was defective enough to give birth to a dead baby. Which even as she said it I understood was not remotely true. 

In 1970 my father's sister Jane gave birth at full-term to a stillborn daughter. The way that stillbirth was handled in those days makes me cry for my aunt and uncle. Jane went into labor the usual way. During the course of it, the doctor discovered that the baby had no heartbeat. He didn't tell her that the baby was dead, thinking that she wouldn't give her best effort during the labor if she knew. Just before delivery they knocked her out. They took the baby away. I don't think she even saw her, or was able to give her a name. She said that she and my uncle were young and living in a town without family. They didn't know what to do, and there was no one to guide them. So they allowed the hospital take care of the disposal of their dead child's remains and they walked away.

I am so grateful that Balthazar was not born in 1970. I am so grateful for the women's movement. I am so grateful for the birthing revolution, which even as it gave us judgmental prenatal yoga teachers and sanctimonious home birthers also gave us compassion and acknowledgement, gave us different protocols for perinatal loss. I am so grateful that I live in Portland, because I am not sure that every babyloss mom has been treated with the sensitivity that I have.

The story of my aunt and uncle's stillborn daughter was not a secret. From the time I was old enough to ask questions I knew that they had had a baby that died. They never hid it as something to be ashamed of or secretive about, and yet, maybe because my father's family tends to be stoic and because most of what I learned about both sides of my family I learned from my mother, the tragedy of it was never emphasized. Or maybe it was, but I just wasn't equipped to grasp the enormity of it.

After Balthazar died my aunt called me, and it was clear that in some way she had been waiting for forty years to share the details of her story with someone who would understand it as fully and viscerally as I did. She wanted to help me, I know, but also she wanted to talk. I'm not sure she ever felt she got full credit for becoming a mother that day. I'm not sure anyone appreciated how much it must have hurt every time her sister, who was pregnant with her third child at the time of the stillbirth, popped out another baby. The things that people said to her, like the church member who said it was God's will that she not have children so that she could devote more time to her husband and his ministry, still burned inside of her all of these years later.

Four years after the stillbirth my aunt and uncle adopted my cousin Sara. She and I speculated together, when we were embarking on parenthood ourselves, that today whatever had killed her parents' baby would have been detected and treated, and that she would likely have survived. Which just shows that we both thought stillbirth was a tragedy that happened in the old-timey days, but certainly not now. With all the medicine!


Around the time my mother was born, her mother Elsie's sister Annamae gave birth to a premature son who subsequently died. Annamae's husband was in Korea at the time. The child's name was Patrick and he is buried with my great-aunt and uncle. This was also not a secret. My cousin on that side, Ambie, says that when Annamae went to the doctor to ask how she could conceive another son, and quickly, he told her to "get on top." She went on to have one more child, my mother's cousin Ken, so whatever she did must have worked.

Elsie and Annamae had another sister, Patricia. She died in early childhood. My great-grandmother always maintained it was because she had eaten a banana. They were poor and living in an urban slum and I would say it was more likely to be typhus or cholera, but I don't know if they even had the money for a doctor.

My brother is married to Jenny. Jenny's brother and his wife had twins in 2007. One of the twins, Katie, developed a life-threatening complication after birth that left her permanently disabled. She died at the age of two.

An older couple from the church attended Balthazar's memorial. I had not met either of them before, but they were boldfaced names; they ran committees and led prayer groups, the way my parents did, and do. They seemed familiar: the husband wore a suit and tie; the wife, a scarf clasped with a gold pin. They could have been my godparents. The wife squeezed my hands as they left and told me how sorry she was, while her husband stood diffidently behind her. A few days later a card came in the mail letting us know that they had made a donation to the March of Dimes in Balthazar's memory.

I wondered about them, later. Because they clearly weren't just two of a parade of the churchgoing elderly who have passed through my life. They were people who felt moved to attend the memorial for a stranger's dead baby. What story are they carrying that compelled them to come?

Parents who have lost children are a family. A family with millions of members. When Balthazar died, my nuclear family got smaller but my human family got much, much larger. I exchanged Christmas cards this year with six members of the perinatal loss book group I attended remotely this fall. They are part of my family now, even if we never meet. The woman who writes the blog Still Life With Circles is part of my family. The moms and dads at Glow in the Woods are too.

Two photographs in the New York Times affected me profoundly this year. The first appeared on the front page July 5. It showed the captain of the boat that capsized on Long Island Sound on July 4. His eleven year-old daughter was one of those who drowned. He is talking to a Nassau County detective and holding his hands over his face to shield it from the photographers, but you do not have to see any of his features to perceive their rictus of agony. The second was of a father in Syria holding the body of his dead son, killed by the Syrian Army in Aleppo. The composition is a classic Pieta. The son is maybe nine years old.

These men are my family, too.

If I project myself into the future I can see that I will be the one to attend the funeral of a stranger's dead baby. Like the mystery couple at church, I won't burden the grieving parents with my own story, but I will be there. Because someone has to bear witness, and the only people who really understand that are the ones who have stood there themselves. People who are members of this family.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I Blame You, George McGovern

George McGovern, the former senator and presidential candidate, died in October. Since McGovern was an outsized presence in my family narrative, I expected, even wanted, to feel solemn and hagiographic when I saw the news.  Instead, I found myself unexpectedly full of snark and bitterness. OK, I do blame him for the food pyramid, and the bullshit dogma of low-fat under which we all have suffered for thirty years. Even if the direct result was the current public health crisis of obesity, he did not act alone and he certainly meant well. But it turns out that I blame him for much more than that. 

What bothers me about McGovern, I realize, is that I hold him directly responsible for the moment when my father gave up.

My father ran McGovern's campaign in Kentucky during the Democratic primary. He went to Miami for the Democratic National Convention and rushed into the surf, delirious with happiness, after the famous 3am speech. It's a story I have heard many times, but as hard as I try I can never summon the image. I get the surf, faded and green like a 70's Polaroid. I even get my father, with his wavy red hair, wearing some kind of raffia-colored, big-lapeled suit. I just can't put him in the water. Because my father delirious with happiness does not exist in any memory I can access.

Because it all happened when I was a very small child, I learned about my father's aborted political career in bits and pieces. There was a china planter of alphabet blocks on my bathroom windowsill and once I asked my mother where it came from. Oh, Ron Mazzoli sent that when you were born, my mom said, naming a Kentucky Congressman. For awhile I thought that Congressmen sent plants to every newborn in their district.

Once in high school a female politician came to speak at my school and when I mentioned it to my mother the anger coming off of her was palpable. I asked her why she didn't like the woman. I don't think she was very nice to your father, she said. She stabbed him in the back. She did not elaborate. My father denied it all and changed the subject.

A year or two later I was looking through family photographs when I found a yellowed Courier-Journal in the red-topped Rodes department store box. My father's picture was on the front page. I read the accompanying article, which shed some light on things. It contained the memorable quote "I'm a straight," in which my father tried to convince the suspicious voters of Kentucky that you didn't have to smoke pot and live in a camper van to vote for McGovern. The 60's slang sounded weird to my ear, and obviously it didn't work. After the convention, my father was dumped by the campaign in favor of some other operative with closer ties to Senator Wendell Ford. Then came the election and McGovern's landslide defeat. After that, whatever career my father had contemplated in politics was over.

Whether anyone in my family admits it or not, we all believe that it is possible to fly too close to the sun. This was my father's Icarus moment. What he imagined his future would be, I don't know. Was he going to run for Congress? Was he going to run the state Democratic party machine?

So I was just a kid and an innocent bystander, but here's what I took from events: prior to November of 1972 there was hope. By 1973 it was just about carrying the yoke. Maybe it didn't feel that way to my father, but if not, how did this belief I have coalesce? He was thirty-six years old in November of 1972. Did it have to turn out this way? I've spent a lot of time thinking about how people respond to setbacks, which seems more important in terms of predicting success than anything else. I tell myself that he didn't have to give up, that it was a choice he made. It was easy to tell myself that, before Balthazar died.


When I was twenty-one and home from college for Christmas, my mother and I had a conversation that was ostensibly about my brother. We were in the kitchen, in the upholstered teal armchairs where our many lengthy discussions inevitably took place.

"I worry about Scott," my mother said. "He seems depressed. Have you talked to him?"

"He hates school," I said. My brother was a sophomore at the kind of private school where the guidance counselor meets with all of the new ninth graders at the beginning of the year and helps them formulate a plan for making friends. Presumably without this plan they'd be eating lunch in a bathroom stall for the next four years.

"It's a cold, cold place," my mother said. "Didn't you think so?"

I thought back to my admired European history teacher, and how he had refused to speak to me after a senior prom drinking episode. The following year I'd written him a letter, which he never answered.

"It is cold," I agreed. "I guess by the time I got there"—I had transferred there as a junior—" I just wanted to take what I needed from it and move on."

"Somehow I never worried about you," my mother mused.

I'd always known this to be true, but she'd never admitted it before. "Why not?" I said.

"I don't know," she said. "I guess I always thought you were so strong. You would find a way.  Remember when you were eight and you had that terrible fever? I wanted to keep you home from the swim meet…"

"It was the Junior Olympics," I corrected her, the rush of adrenaline of that long-ago day flooding me, despite the fact that it had been thirteen years and that Junior Olympics tag was just a name they gave to a third-rate meet to impress gullible kids like me.

"I'll never forget you marching out of the house and down the driveway in your warmup suit. You were going to walk all the way to Jeffersonville. With Scott…" she let her thoughts drift for a minute. "He might just let things happen to him."

She had recently read an article about a group of high school students who had been caught in a snowstorm on a mountain. The students who had gone for help survived. Those who stayed behind to make a snow cave had not. Strange now to think that many years later I would make my home in Portland, Oregon, where the students were from, and hike Mt. Hood, the mountain on which they died.

"I always imagined that if you were in that situation, you'd be one of the ones going for help," my mother said. "One of the strong ones."

This is the line on me, and always has been. Whatever it is, I can take it. Physically, emotionally. It was a belief that served other people's interests. You don't have to feel bad about not taking care of someone if they don't need you.

I have a lot invested in believing that I am tough and resilient, too, but I no longer think it's true. What I fear is that Balthazar's death is my McGovern in '72. Maybe I'm finished. From here on in is it going to be just put your nose to the grindstone and eke out an existence for the good of the family? Go through the motions and hope my kid doesn't notice? Because he will. I don't think he has a writer's temperament: he's not watching me and making notes. Mostly, he's on the playground selling his Bok Choy Boy figurines at inflated prices. But he's got his eye on me just the same, and it would be unfair to him to give up now.