Helping Grandma through Cancer

Ron Estrada and I went to high school together. I haven’t seen him in years, but due to the magic of social media, I’ve discovered he’s a writer. It doesn’t surprise me; he always had a certain sensitivity about him, as you’ll see in this poignant piece about a particular moment in his grandmother’s battle with cancer ten Januaries ago:

January, 2004, I drove to the ranch townhome where my grandma, in her brown recliner, needlepointed table runners for a Thanksgiving that was eleven months away.  She waited for me, for the white bag that sat in the passenger seat of my Jeep, a white bag that may as well have held plutonium with how I considered the ideal temperature and stability and whether it was lit properly in my car in order for it to keep its proper composition and, more, its proper effectiveness.  These were silly thoughts. Nevertheless, when you think that any action you take can further compromise an already troubling situation, you adopt a role where you believe that everything you do holds the utmost causal importance to the immediate future.  So I left the heat off and cracked the windows and sat on my left hand to keep it warm and then switched to the right hand to get it warm and I listened to the Little River Band.

Just a bit earlier that day my aunt gave me the white bag that held a single white pill that was going to be the magic pill that took away my grandma’s cancer.  That’s what we called it, the magic pill.  Hearing it, hearing magic pulled me in different directions.  There was a magic pill in existence and it was sitting next to me in the car.  I thought of the few boundaries in magic.  Coins pulled out of kids’ ears, rouged women made into a cross section with lumberjack saws, warships disappearing in front of hundreds of unblinking eyes.  Magic makes believers.

But I had doubt while being hopeful, tried to establish belief and convince myself with ho-hum adages, the power of positive thinking, so forth.  They all swirled in my head like lottery balls.  Doubt and hope, partners–maybes holding hands with probably nots.

I pulled into my grandma’s driveway with the radio off.  The asphalt whitened by the winter cold, I thought of the seasons, how pavement seems to change color in a deep freeze–uglier somehow and harder looking. She met me at the door, and hugging her was like hugging a newspaper.  She’d lost form and I just tried to fit my arms around the spots that would give me a complete hold, a better covering.  It’s hard to hug someone when you’re not able to relocate all the emotion inside of you that you intend to give away.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Oh, just working on these tablecloths.”  She showed them to me.

“I like the grapes.  Do you fill them in or leave ‘em like that?”

“No.  You just follow the lines and leave it like a…”



“No.  It looks good.  You don’t want to have too much color on it all.  It looks classier with more white.  Your fingers’ll hurt more too.”  I looked at her hands just as she did, thin and veiny, covered in Mercurochrome, as if she’d been into the markers.

“Looks like you got sloppy with the markers.”

She laughed. “Yeah.  They’re cracking something terrible.”

“The winter.”

“And they hurt.”

“Keep putting that stuff on.”  We sat, she on the brown recliner, me on a chair that felt like I was sitting in the elbow of a tree branch. She exhaled and looked upwards and didn’t say anything.

“Here’s the thing from Aunt Nancy.”  I gave her the bag.  I couldn’t say the name.  We talked about it like the room might be bugged. For a moment it felt like we were using sign language. But we were preserving. Keeping the fragile skin of luck unpierced.

“So this is the magic pill.”

“That’s it.”

She opened the box and pushed the tablet through the foil barrier. “Just with water?”

“Umm…I guess.  Probably wouldn’t hurt to eat something.  Bread or something.”

She looked at it, so small in her hand.  Resembling a Bayer.  What you’d pop after a night of booze.  Just a regular pill. She looked at me and smiled, and I was immediately seven years old getting off the school bus.

“Well, if this doesn’t work, sayonara,” she said. She looked at her hand and left me for a moment.  She was a woman looking down at her hand. She was a woman alone facing the dark doorway of probably not.

And this image: Pinocchio, sitting outside on a stone step, feet turned in, he rests his head in his hands, his eyes open only because he’s awake; he isn’t looking at anything certain, his eyes might as well be his elbow as he’s dropped in heavy, masking thought, reflection, and thinking about all he’s done, how it affects the now and, then, naturally, the future.  Pinocchio sits on his donkey/mule/jackass tail, ear tops curled, sulky, his cricket friend sits nearby, mirroring his manner, both: “What have I done?  What now?  What do I have left?”

There’s a marked hopelessness on the faces in this picture, despair. I had the poster on my wall of this scene and there’d be times at night when I would stare at it ’til the periphery would blur and my focus would be so tight that the image would become a short narrative, though only consisting of Pinocchio deeply inhaling and then the quick out, an audible shrug.  Both seemed so lost that that this type of breathing (the kind where you might actually have to tell yourself to do it) seemed like the only thing that they could do.  They were stuck.

It’s kind of a funny poster for a kid’s room.  I did like the cartoon, the story, and I don’t remember if I asked for it at some point.  If not, I like the idea of my parents choosing it as a cautionary tale of sorts. Nevertheless, it was there and part of my small room and stood for something in my life whether or not it stood for something in my parents’.

I thought of that loneliness and also of friendship, the two sharing in the misery, making the situation an “us,” the pursuit for solution a team charge.  And there sat hope, in the collective, in the bond, jacketed in misery, but there because there were two.

I don’t think I could’ve owned that poster if it were just Pinocchio sitting there, alone in the street, transformed and unloved. It’s the two of them, together, not speaking, that makes it.

That January, my grandma got ready to swallow that single pill.  The moment seemed to extend like the blue in your eye after a camera flash.  I imagine that she considered the amount of fight that was left in her during that time. I know she’d been done in by successive hours in a chair with a Star magazine, a needle perforated into her breast plate through a tiny port that pressed against her like a small battery under a Kleenex.  I’d pick her up from the doctor’s office at times in the afternoon and she’d be situated along the perimeter of the room. There were empty seats–permanently vacated?  Had these people been saved, died, moved to a different hospital? What about now with the Thanksgiving runners around her legs like lists of not done yets. The clock ticking. Her wrong colored fingers. These thoughts packed the emptiness and fit around my grandma and me like the withheld name of the pill. Not asking, not saying was the magic and it filled in the spaces.  But there was so much space.

I watched her with that little pill in her hand, it, a compact nub of potential. I sat with her and whispered fierce statements in my head. We’re in this together. We are not done here yet. Think of these out loud—their hope and buoyancy rising around our necks like ill-fitting life jackets, like nooses.  Unspoken, they become the sibilants of belief.

I sat there with my elbows on my knees, my chin resting on my fists, just as unaware on the edge of a couch as in a lonely street, wondering what can be changed, what can be moved, and how much say we have anyhow.

All this, and I watched her sit on the edge of that chair, asking herself things I couldn’t hear and answering them just as quietly.

Helen Hatch Inglesby, "Helping Grandma Sew,"

Helen Hatch Inglesby, “Helping Grandma Sew,”

Ron Estrada lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Sal and Sonny. He is a writer of fiction and short nonfiction and can be read on his blog 8.187 ( He is also a regular contributor to Today’s Author ( and is the co-owner of a literary greeting card company, Aporia | Chicago ( He loves garlic, Tom Waits, and Chicago Blackhawks hockey.

How I Know I Love My Children Unconditionally

Before children, I merely loved. It was a selfish love. When my husband reached a hand across the table to snag something off my plate, I slapped it.

I know I love my children unconditionally. For instance, when I’ve just sat down at the kitchen table with a warm breakfast and my daughter crawls onto my lap and starts shoving it into her mouth, I don’t toss her across the room. I let her have some.

When I eat a cookie, I munch around the center until only the soft middle is left, the part I used to save for last and eat with relish, and then I hand it over to my son, who loves it, too.

When I recently came upon my daughter standing in a puddle—yes, a puddle—of diarrhea on the bathroom floor, my thought was, “You poor, sweet, lovely thing.” I would never have thought that about my husband.

When my son asks to play make-believe with his Angry Bird stuffed animals for the eight-thousandth time, I nod over my horror, grab the red bird, and pretend to launch it at a pig.

When my daughter shovels snow off of the lawn and onto the driveway, I smile.

When my children wake me up three times a night, and then enter our bedroom for good at 6am, I say, “Good morning” and pull them up to cuddle. This has been my hardest struggle. Since having children, I’ve learned that I am no good without adequate sleep. I’m touchy and angry. I have to swallow my urge to snap, and then on top of it, I have to smile. I am mostly successful at this.

Looking back over six years of being a mom, I think parenting is hard not because of dirty diapers, missed naps, or whining. Those are the details. What’s hard, for me anyway, is the fundamental transformation I’ve had to make. Henry and Clara have forced me to face my faults, to figure out what I don’t want them to emulate, and to change. Their well-being is important to me. And so I share. I compromise. I slough off the hard edges and I give them the soft center.







A Year of Moments

I was born on the 13th day of February (a Friday to boot) so I have an affinity for the number 13, especially since so many people say it’s unlucky. I’ve always been crazy rebellious that way.

2013 went fast, the fastest year yet. In fact, it was hard to think back on what happened, so I read through this blog and searched through my planner for reminders.

Some of what I found:

January: I read The Snow Child, my favorite book of the year. (You can read about that and other Great New Books here.) I also rang in the New Year in a small, London pub with some of my favorite people.


Sister, husband, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law at a pre-Liverpool football game celebration on New Year’s Day.

February: I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, my favorite movie of the year. I also began contributing to PDXX Collective—check them out—and passed the 1-year mark on this blog.

March: We traveled to Naples, FL with my husband’s parents, the only major travel we did this year after a 2012 filled to the brim with trips. It made me realize four big trips in a year is too many; one is too few.

April: Got to see Vanessa Diffenbaugh speak at my local theater, the Metropolis Performing Arts Center, five blocks from my house. She was charming and smart and funny. If you haven’t read her book, The Language of Flowers, you should do so.

My son started t-ball. Bestill my beating heart.

May: I submitted my manuscript to She Writes Press and later that month it was accepted. The first person I told was my husband (he was next to me as I read the email on my phone). I tried to call my mom but she was in the middle of Wisconsin so I had to send a text. My sister was in Ireland; as soon as she received my text she sent a video of her and her Irish friends cheering for me in a Dublin pub.

June: Signed the contract with SWP.

Attended Printer’s Row Lit Fest and stood in line for Colum McCann to sign my copy of Let the Great World Spin. I sweated and stuttered as I told him that my sister was in Ireland (he’s Irish). He wrote an Irish blessing in my book.

July: I spent one week at the Northwoods resort I went to every summer as a child. Everything was the same, down to the swingset. It was fantastic and trippy, and I’ve never tripped before.

August: My son started kindergarten. It was hard, but I have a feeling 1st grade is going to be much harder. Gone all day? No thank you. The day before school started, I took him on a date, his choice. We ended up at a local heritage farm, walked the grounds, petted the animals, and Henry picked up a leaf from the ground that he thought was pretty and gave it to me. It’s now pressed between the pages of my journal.

I road-tripped to Troy, OH, for Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road tour, which is becoming an annual tradition with my husband and sister, and an old friend from elementary school.

September: My husband and I celebrated our 9th anniversary. I gave him tickets to Macklemore. (He’s a born-and-raised Norwegian-Minnesotan who loves rap.) He gave me a writing desk.

I also ran a half-marathon, which my knees still seem to be recovering from.

October: 15-year college reunion. It’s hard to write that.

November: Thanksgiving in Minneapolis. 10 degrees.

December: The HerStories Project published. It’s been remarkable getting to know the fifty writers involved, and it’s a remarkable book on friendship. You can buy one for your friends HERE.


And last but not least, I received in the mail the advance copies of my book, The Rooms Are Filled (April 2014). It’s also up on, for all you book bloggers and reviewers. If you’d like to read and review it, check it out and download a free e-copy HERE.

Honestly, though, when I think back on the year, I think of my children, and of mothering. I think of teaching them to bake cookies, playing dinosaurs, riding bikes on our dead-end street with neighbors, lying in bed with them after story time, watching them sleep, kissing their soft cheeks, wiping their bums, wiping their tears. I think of sledding and strollers, discovery walks in the alley, gummy worms piled on frozen yogurt, first fish and life jackets that are too big. Sidewalk chalk and pretend lawn mowers, library books and lunch on the front porch, blueberry yogurt dripping down shirt fronts.

There are so many details in a life; the highlights tell only a small part of the story.

This week we will host Christmas dinner. My children will spill milk, they’ll talk over each other, my daughter will hold up a finger and say “Ackashee” instead of “actually,” my son will complain he’s bored and do a dance that makes me laugh, they’ll flip over their kid chairs and make a fort. And many, many other things.

Cheers to life’s moments. I hope each of you find happiness in them.

The First Day of Kindergarten, and the Main Character

I read a moving article yesterday written by a man who had recently dropped off his son at college. There was a particular part that got to me—something about how parenthood is like being a secondary character in someone else’s story, and that it doesn’t matter because being a parent is enough of a reward. I related to this, and so I cried—partly, I admit, because it implies that my part of the story, the part when I am the central character, is over. I’ve been feeling this more and more the older I get.

I tried to remind myself that there’s plenty more to do. I half felt it. The world belongs to younger generations. Movies I grew up with are now being remade. Our fashions have made the full cycle to being back in style. I might be on top of the hill right now, but that’s just because I’m about to go over it. Many days, I’d much rather still be climbing up. I’m even a little jealous of my son, who is just planting a foot at the base of the mighty hill. He has so much to look forward to.

Today was my son’s first day of kindergarten. I cried a bit before we left to walk to school and worried my son, who’d been quite fine until he saw tears streaming down his mother’s face. I assured him I wasn’t sending him anywhere evil.

I wasn’t crying because I thought he’d be scared. I wasn’t crying because I was worried he won’t like it. I wasn’t crying, even, because it was the First Big Goodbye. I was crying because motherhood is like having an open wound that anyone walking by can poke, and sending my son to school is like asking for the wound to be stabbed with serrated knives. Maybe not that bad. But close.

I did not cry at the school. I kept it together like a She-Woman for the sake of my little one, since I’d already horrified him. (Though I almost lost it when a neighbor put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Crying yet?”)

When I picked him up after school he smiled, like I knew he would, and said, “That was really fun.” Any sadness I had this morning whisked away.

And when I got home, an email was waiting for me. One of the authors I’d asked to write a blurb about my book had responded with a very nice note (which you’ll be seeing on the back cover when the book comes out).

I felt very much on top of the hill. And it reminded me that we’re all secondary characters in someone else’s story. Whether we’re central to our own story is up to us.


On the way into school, the early climb

Why We Reminisce

My uncle (who makes an appearance on this blog so much, I feel like I should give him a royalty, and would, if I got any money for this; I’ve even stopped asking for permission to use his emails) asked me last month why we reminisce:

“Is it because we are fonder of the past than we are of the present?  Is it because we thought those days were happier than today, or tougher than today, or because it gives the reminiscer more credibility?

“Christy asked me once why I took photographs. This was before cell phones. I would buy several roles of slide film at a time, take a whole bunch of shots, take them to the photo shop, then a week later come back and pick them up.  I’m not sure why I took all the shots I did but I think I told Christy that it proved I was there at that particular time and place, not just physically but mentally, artistically, and emotionally.

“That still doesn’t explain to me why I like to reminisce and since I started thinking about it last night I decided I would not reminisce until I figured it out. The one thing I do not want to be is a has-been, someone who lives more in the past than the future.”

Dave & Keith Null

My dad and his little brother, my uncle

Here is my response–three weeks later, I’m sorry to say. I’m also sorry it’s not half as eloquent:

“It took me way too long to respond to this.

I am the same way; I worry that my glasses are too rose colored. I tend to pine for the past; not sure why. And it doesn’t even have to be my own past. As a girl, the Civil War was my favorite thing in the world and I was sure I was born in the wrong century [I’ve since recognized the upside to things like washing machines, antibiotics, and toilets]. I know during the present, I will miss it; when the kids do cute things, I know there will be a point in the future when I cry for these times.

It’s getting worse as I get older, so I’m trying hard to have a more positive outlook and live presently. I’m going to blame my parents for all this.”

As usual, when I began writing this post I didn’t know what I was going to say. As I wrote, I came up with a few thoughts, and I think together they start to answer why we reminisce:

I think life already lived is something like childbirth–you forget the immediacy of the painful and you’re left with the pleasant, the interesting, and the wonderful. Reminiscing about those parts is also, therefore, pleasant.

My grandmother, on the left

My grandmother, on the left

People also generally love tradition–traditions provide comfort and security in the known. Traditions create bonds, shared experiences over and over. Reminiscing is probably a cousin of tradition.

Mostly, though, I think reminiscing is storytelling. It is sharing your story, a story in which you are the main character. It is validating your life, a documentation of sorts, but more than that. And when shared, your story–your life–is passed on. As the tagline above says: “When telling stories we are engaged in a democracy like no other.”  We each have a voice. We are each important. We each were here.

Reminiscing is like writing, like photography. It’s not so much about living in the past as it is about telling your story–sharing it with others so they can laugh, cry, and tell you it’s all going to be okay.