“panebreaking heartmadness: | nightmare begins responsibility.” ~ Michael S. Harper, from “Nightmare Begins Responsibility”

Charles Bukowski

“But there are forces that don’t let you turn back and undo things, because to do so would be to deny what is already in motion, to unwrite and erase passages, to shorten the arc of a story you don’t own.” ~ Salvador Plascencia

Sometimes, I wish that I could go back, back to the time before responsibility, before emotional debt, before conscious thought. I will not say before pain because I know that sorrow has been in my life for as long as I have breathed. I will not say before sadness because I was a morose child, content to play alone with my dolls or to spend hour upon hour within my books. I was both content and lonely, if such a thing can be. But still I would like to go back, if only to avoid all of the times in which I have had to be the responsible one, the one to make the hard decisions, the life-changing decisions, and yet, it has always been so. Parent to my mother, I have been the one to assume the mantle of responsible adult, regardless of how much I wished it were not so. Old before my years, I have never felt young and carefree. Truly. Still, I would like to go back because there had to be a point in time in which I did not understand responsibility, in which I did not act in the best interests of all involved, in which I was purely selfish, and as such, I was perhaps content.

But the truth is that I do not know if that time ever existed. I do not know if I have ever eschewed responsibility. Oh yes. There was that brief period in my 30’s during which I attempted to run away from home, keeping my emergency backpack in the trunk of my car for those nights on which I simply could not face home, or hearth, or family. But in the end, I always came home. After spending the night in the safety my gay non-lover’s bed, I would return home, return to responsibility, having been freed if only for half a day. And yes, those days passed, too, and of course, there was the ensuing guilt for the times in which I had run away or wanted to run away or thought of running away. So the truth is that I have never really run away.

But I would go back if I can; just do not ask me to pinpoint a moment in time, because honestly, I cannot. In my mind, I know that there had to be a year, a month, a day during which I had no cares, had no obligations, no one’s needs to satisfy, no one’s heart to hold tenderly, no one’s sensibilities to tend. But truthfully, I do not know when it was. But I would go back if I could because going back would mean that yet again I would not be making the decision. You know the one. The decision that the time has come, that the suffering must end, that to do anything else is morally reprehensible, even though to do so is heartbreaking and soul-crushing, and to do so, to make this decision, to be the one to make this decision also means that I am the one to bear the burden of guilt for having made this decision.

Time and time again, those around me have had the ignorant placebo of never having to face such a task, whether it was my ex-husband, or my now-husband, or my mother, or my children. Those on the other side, the clinicians in white coats with sad eyes, they have turned to me. Every single time they have turned to me, and I have made the decision, and I just have to say that I would give anything, would give my corpuscles, my fiber, my sinew, whatever I have to not be the one who is responsible, and even more not to be picked out of the crowd as the responsible one. What is it about my face, my demeanor that tells them, “she will do it”?

Yet I know that I would not allow anyone else to bear this burden because my personal history reveals that I can survive it, as I have again, and again, and again, and again, with the child, the father, the crippled dog, old dog, the old dog that was not mine, the boy dog, and now the other boy dog. Time has been cruel to me, placing me in this position, even with my old friend, when I had to be the one to say, “she cannot live alone like this any more,” but perhaps cruel is the incorrect word. Time has sought me out like the beam from a lighthouse, hoping that I can offer a direction when the stars seem snuffed out, and it’s hard to see anything clearly. But I acknowledge this: I have survived and will survive because I have no other choice. I know, too, that I possess the cold detachment necessary to separate heart from head, if only for the few seconds that are necessary to acknowledge that the time has come for no more, no more extreme measures, no more needles, no more tubes, no more medicines, no more machines. The whoosh-click must be made silent, else we can never move into the next moment, the moment that is after.

So let me pause here: When my time comes, I want to be the one to make the decision. I would not have any other voice in the mix. Mine alone. Because if I can’t go back, and I know that I cannot, then at least I will go forward, and in so doing, I know that means that until my last breath I will be the one who shoulders the responsibility, the one who has the discussion in the hall with the sad-eyed clinician, the one who will then find a solitary corner in which to keen until my breath comes in short gasps, and my only wish at the moment would be to go back.

Music by Rascal Flatts, “Why?”


from Those times . . .

At six
I lived in a graveyard full of dolls,
avoiding myself,
my body, the suspect
in its grotesque house.
I was locked in my room all day behind a gate,
a prison cell.
I was the exile
who sat all day in a knot.


I think of the dolls,
so well made,
so perfectly put together
as I pressed them against me,
kissing their little imaginary mouths.
I remember their smooth skin,
those newly delivered,
the pink skin and the serious China-blue eyes.
They came from a mysterious country
without the pang of birth,
born quietly and well.
When I wanted to visit,
the closet is where I rehearsed my life,
all day among shoes,
away from the glare of the bulb in the ceiling,
away from the bed and the heavy table
and the same terrible rose repeating on the walls.

I did not question it.
I hid in the closet as one hides in a tree.
I grew into it like a root
and yet I planned such plans of flight,
believing I would take my body into the sky,
dragging it behind me like a large bed.
And although I was unskilled
I was sure to get there or at least
to move up like an elevator.
With such dreams,
storing their energy like a bull,
I planned my growth and my womanhood
as one choreographs a dance.

I knew that if I waited among shoes
I was sure to outgrow them,
the heavy oxfords, the thick execution reds,
shoes that lay together like partners,
the sneakers thick with Griffin eyewash
and then the dresses swinging above me,
always above me, empty and sensible
with sashes and puffs,
with collars and two-inch hems
and evil fortunes in their belts.

I sat all day
stuffing my heart into a shoe box,
avoiding the precious window
as if it were an ugly eye
through which birds coughed,
chained to the heaving trees;
avoiding the wallpaper of the room
where tongues bloomed over and over,
bursting from lips like sea flowers —
and in this way I waited out the day
until my mother,
the large one,
came to force me to undress.
I lay there silently,
hoarding my small dignity.
I did not ask about the gate or the closet.
I did not question the bedtime ritual
where, on the cold bathroom tiles,
I was spread out daily
and examined for flaws.

I did not know
that my bones,
those solids, those pieces of sculpture
would not splinter.

I did not know the woman I would be
nor that blood would bloom in me
each month like an exotic flower,
nor that children,
two monuments,
would break from between my legs
two cramped girls breathing carelessly,
each asleep in her tiny beauty.
I did not know that my life, in the end,
would run over my mother’s like a truck
and all that would remain
from the year I was six
was a small hole in my heart, a deaf spot,
so that I might hear
the unsaid more clearly.


“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ Kevin Arnold

The Magpie Monet 1869 oil on canvas Musee d Orsay

“The Magpie,” by Monet (1869, oil on canvas), Musee d’Orsay


” . . . say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness” ~ From “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” by Michael S. Harper

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone you love in your arms as she is dying? All of the white noise of the hospital room dissipates in those last few minutes. The only sounds that you hear are your own heartbeat in your ears and the sound of someone near you crying. Time becomes suspended, and a part of you hopes that it will remain that way forever, just so that you never have to move into that next moment, the moment when all possibilities cease to exist.

I still remember the weight of my daughter’s body in my arms, still remember the smell of her dark hair, or what was left of it. I can recall vividly the bright overhead lights of the small room, and the way that I stared at the machine that monitored her heartbeat, willing it to remain steady so that all that was left of Caitlin would not end.

I remember how it felt as if my own heart stopped in that moment when hers stopped, and how I wished that it were true so that I would never have to exist in a world in which Caitlin was no longer a part. And then how we all left the room while the nurses disconnected her from all of the machines and removed the tubes that had sustained her. How when we went back into the room, she was lying there in the middle of that big hospital bed, so small, so seemingly perfect, and how I knew that at last she was no longer in pain.

I removed the hospital gown and dressed her in soft white pajamas, and I tried to train my eyes away from the incisions on her chest and arms and legs. I felt the scar on the back of her head where the surgeons had cut into her only two months’ previous, and then I kissed her, caressed her still-warm cheeks, and left.

We walked out into the bright November afternoon, and I thought to myself that it was impossibly cruel that the world outside could still be moving on as if Caitlin had never been a life force among those moving about, completely mindless of her life and her death. After that, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember the car ride home. I don’t remember walking into the house that had been mostly empty for months. I don’t remember getting into bed that night or waking the next morning.

My next memories are of minutiae: picking out a headstone and deciding what to inscribe, taking a dress and bonnet to the funeral home, renting a carpet cleaner and cleaning the carpet and living room furniture, even though they did not need it. I remember my mother-in-law bringing Pizza Tuesday night so that we would eat, and I remember that it tasted of cardboard. I remember Ann going with me to find a dress for the funeral, and how I obsessed over finding finger-tip towels for the bathroom.

I remember the day of the funeral, passing out Valium like it was sweet tarts, standing in the tiny bathroom of the chapel with Kathleen and watching the people pulling into the parking lot, walking up to the podium and looking out at all of the faces of people who had been so much a part of our lives—nurses from the hospital, our friends from the medical school, people with whom I taught at the university, and I remember not being able to distinguish faces.

I remember the ride to the cemetery in Kathleen’s car, and looking behind us at the long line of cars that followed. I remember the late morning sun and the cool breeze. I don’t remember what was said, nor do I remember actually being there during the service, only the moments after the service concluded, when friends began to come up to me and hug me, how surprised I was. I remember looking up and seeing Johnny and collapsing into his arms, sobbing openly in my dear friend’s embrace.

Afterwards, I remember sitting in the Bentwood rocker in which I had held my daughter, drinking wine, and listening to people talk to me. I don’t remember what was said or everyone who was there. I remember that Sarah wore red. And then as people left, I remember pressing food into their hands because the idea of a house full of food made me physically ill.

Awakening Bessie Pease Butmann 1918

             “Awakening,” by Bessie Pease Gutmann (1918):            This is how Caitlin looked with her dark hair and chubby cheeks.


“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t undrestand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

These are the things that I remember about those four days in November, remember still even though so much time has passed. And while I know that I have forgotten as much as I remember, it’s the memories that continue to cut so sharply, reopening wounds that have never healed completely.

I know that it is a cliché to say that a part of me died in that room that day, but that does not negate the statement’s truth. A part of my heart closed off completely the moment that Caitlin’s heart stopped beating. The part that had belonged to her grew cold and has never regained its living warmth. I can live with that. I have lived with that. I will continue to live with that.

Death is not a gentle journey for anyone, for those who die or for those who are left. Death is insidious in its ability to weave its way into the sinews of existence and memory. What those of us who remain must do is learn to take that loss and incorporate it into our daily lives. If not, it would be impossible to go on, to move through time with any kind of peace or hope.

The memories of the day that my daughter died and the hours that followed are stored away, and I dare not retrieve them too often lest they break me. But sometimes, it is necessary to open the box in which they reside, even if the doing feels like bloodletting. These memories are not the totality of my daughter, yet they are as much a part of me as the cells that give me life. I have incorporated these memories into my lifeblood, and there they will remain, along with the memories of my father and all of the other memories that make me who I am.

I have come to realize that the ability to recall such intense emotion helps to make me stronger, even if it feels like a little death each time that I do so. It may not seem to make much sense, but embracing every part of the tapestry of my life—the beauty and the pain—affords me my humanity, and given the opportunity, I would not choose to have traveled any other path.

One of my favorite songs from that time: “Cristofori’s Dream,” by David Lanz

More later. Peace.


Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past
     for Josh

How can I explain to you
what it is to hold someone you love
until she dies?
I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—
     it is something so unspeakably personal
     that to watch it, to intrude upon it
     almost cannot be forgiven.
If I try to tell you about the silences
that enclose and isolate,
     you will not understand
     until you, too,
     have felt them.
I cannot describe for you
     the desperation
     with which you will try to pass
    from your arms to hers,
    but you will come to know this as well
    as I once did.
When the moment comes,
     you will not be ready,
     but you will recognize it for what it is—
     that last instant
     in which possibilities still exist.

L. Liwag

“Dear Zachary”: A Haunting Documentary Not To Be Missed

Set Your DVR or Tivo Now

A Letter to a Son About His Father

Andrew Bagby and Best Friend Kurt Keunne (picture taken from http://www.dearzachary.com)

This past Sunday, December 7 on MSNBC, I watched one of the best feature documentaries I have ever seen—ever, in my entire life, I kid you not. Made by Kurt Keunne, the film was originally intended to be viewed by only the friends and family of Andrew Bagby, to tell this man’s story to his son through their eyes, a tribute from one friend to another. But this film is anything but a simple story: It is gut-wrenching in its relentlessness, taking the viewer on a journey that is so powerful, so impassioned, that by the end, I dare you to come away from this experience unchanged.

Dear Zachary has already been named one of the top 5 documentaries by the National Board of Review, and it won Best Documentary at the Orlando Film Festival and the Audience Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film will reair on MSNBC on Sunday December 14 at 4 p.m EST. Set your DVR’s now. I hesitate to tell you too much about the film or to send you to the blog page because I really want you to view this film through unadulterated eyes, and then I beg you to please react as many viewers have, and go to the website, www.dearzachary.com, so that you can join in the common cause for reform. Trust me, if you have read anything that I have written, and if you have been moved in any way by anything that I have written, you will want to watch this movie, and you will want to visit the website. But please do not visit the website before you have seen the movie.

Let me just say that I spent moments of this movie literally gasping for air at the injustices that unrolled before me, and many other moments in tears, sometimes in awe at the pure bravery of Kate and David Bagby, and at other times in despair because of the ways in which the human heart is expected to endure more sorrow than it should ever have to bear. There is a hero here; in fact, there are several. There are several victims, unfortunately. And there is most definitely a  monster, seemingly unlikely, yet not at all so if anyone had bothered to look closely. There is bureacracy galore, and there is more than enough injustice for a thousand families. You will find it hard to pinpoint your rage, and well you should.

Yet it is this one family, an extended family to be sure, that endures this devastating sequence of tragedies. Keunne’s narrative honesty is almost too much for the viewer at times, making you feel as if you are intruding on moments that should remain private, and sometimes, you have to wonder at his ability to finish this legacy to his friend—where did he find the stamina to continue? But then you remember that it is because of his love for Andrew that he was able to bring this story to the public in the first place.

At its core, Dear Zachary reminds us to cherish what we have for as long as we have it, and it simultaneously reminds us of the ugliness that waits right outside our doors, just when we think that we are safe. Please watch this film. If you appreciate well-made documentaries, you will admire Keunne’s phenomenal skills. If you respect well-written, thoroughly researched stories that do not turn away from complex, riveting storylines, that dare to go down dark allies in the glaring light of day, you will be drawn in within the first few moments of Dear Zachary and be unable to turn away until the final pen scratches on the page.

A Personal Response to Dear Zachary

It’s odd how so many things lately are drawing me to my own poems. After watching Dear Zachary, I went into my poetry file and looked at a number of poems that I had written after Caitlin died. Most of them were pure grief on the page. However, the ones that I wrote years removed from her death were different: For one thing, they had the benefit of time and space, which allowed me to turn my raw grief into more than just rambling words on a page. I found several that I actually liked, and a few that I can work with. The one below, however, is one that I always liked because it wasn’t written specifically for Caitlin. I wrote it after reading a poem by the wonderful poet Michael Harper about his son Reuben. I learned a lot about writing about grief from reading Harper’s work. His poems were not full of maudlin sentimentality, yet they reflected sentiment and love, something I had struggled with when trying to write about Caitlin.cover-of-nightmare-begins-responsibility1

I had decided to write a poem in which I addressed Harper about his son Reuben and my daughter Caitlin, and in so doing, I think that I found a common ground between two grieving parents, even though we never met. Parents who have lost children are part of a strange society: No one wants to belong to this group, but once you belong, and you meet another member, you form an instant connection. This is one of the reasons why I still am very careful about what kind of movies I watch; I don’t like to watch movies in which a child is lost to an illness, and I surprised myself by voluntarily watching Dear Zachary, but I am so very glad that I did.


Perhaps wrongly, you assumed 

“say nightmare, say it loud

panebreaking, heartmadness:

nightmare begins reponsibility.”

— Michael S. Harper from Nightmare Begins Responsibility


You assumed

that in 28 hours

your son, Reuben, never knew

that the cloudy sky of his isolette

was not home

to the night wind or morning rain,

that he was unaware

of how you kept your death watch

and then signed the papers in black ink

to consign him to heaven.

You assumed

that he did not know that you loved him.

But if I am to continue with this existence,

to move past my heartmadness,

then I must assume

that Reuben waited patiently for Caitlin,

waited for the seven months,

eleven days, and

twenty-two hours

that was her life

to be over

so that he could show her

how the pattern of the stars

in the blackest of skies

are time’s eternal mirror

of Reuben, of Caitlin

and all who came before and after,

unreal, asleep, silent



Lolita Liwag

As always, there will be more later. Peace.