Selected Excerpts



Dr. A, my mother’s handsome Bolivian neurosurgeon, lost his father on Everest. I pictured whorls of snow, a worthless compass and a man, stepping out into thin air. I was slightly in love with Dr. A, and so was my mother. Her first appointment, she said, “I know you’re married, but this is serious. We need to find my daughter a husband.” He smiled, saying, “Well, don’t date a surgeon.” He opened up her skull and took what he could of the tumor. He was good, but he wasn’t a magician: a trail of cancer cells dragged behind it, straight back to malignancy.

Months after her surgery, I saw him at a bar with a nurse from the ICU. I wasn’t surprised. We had heard he was leaving his second wife. Watching them, I thought of the way his hands might map bodies—wives, nurses, mine. He came over to our table, unstable on his feet, and talked of issues at home, a separation. He wanted us to know he was good, he was kind, cheating was relative, and he knew what it was to have a parent die. My mother was still alive then, but she was losing everything. As he walked away, I closed my eyes and pictured her dancing on that mountaintop in Nepal, taking one last breath of rarified air before her body turned to ashes and she was released, left to land along the Milky Way. Read more.

Pre-Nup Is A Four Letter Word


On the corner of my lawyer’s desk was a red button marked “No.” It was the type you might find in a display of gag gifts, next to the Whoopee cushions and boxing nun action figures. My 18-month-old son, Jamie, was on my lap, fussing and squirming with enough force that I was struggling to remain upright. As my lawyer talked about the prenuptial agreement my fiancé’s lawyer had drawn up, that “No” button became my focal point, as if it were warning me not to sign.

I was 42, as was my fiancé, Matt. We had been together for six years. The first two were long-distance, with him in Mountain View, Calif., and me in Portland, Ore., where I was caring for my terminally ill mother. Until, at her urging, I moved south to join Matt. A few years later, we had Jamie.

I wanted to get married then, but Matt held back. Marriage scared him more than having a child together, and a big part of his fear was financial. He did eventually propose, beautifully so, but as we got further in our wedding planning, he said he wanted us to sign a prenup. I cringed but ultimately agreed, believing it was the only way forward.

He said he would pay all of the lawyers’ fees and make it as easy as possible. It sounded simple. The reality, however — especially having to confess every detail of my sketchy financial history to this lawyer — was nothing short of awful. Read more.


The View From Here

Four months after my mother died at 66, I was closing in on 41 and pregnant. Her dying had been long—four years—but my pregnancy had happened fast, only a few months of trying with no fertility drugs, narrowed down to one hectic shot in the right 24-48 hour window, and we had what could be classified as a minor miracle on our hands. I thought I was ready. I thought I was ready because my ovaries were ticking so loudly I could practically hear them in the quiet of certain mornings.

I thought I was ready because I had learned to take such good care of my mother in the last years of her life. The cancerous brain tumor took her mobility and her speech and eventually, everything else, and because I had been the daughter least likely, but the only one left standing, I knew I could take care of a child. I thought I was ready because I believed that having a baby would cure my grief, that there would be a way to trade her death for his or her birth so that I would come out even. Whole again. But then the hormones hit, the reality, the heartbeat, the perfect spine lit up on the ultrasound at 13 weeks, and my loss was only magnified by this gain. Her absence, which was already taking up 90% of me, went for 100% and then some.

When I was in my early 20s, my mother gave me the book “How To Survive The Loss Of A Love” to help me get over whatever wrong boy had most recently dumped me. It had a cheery red cover that I thought didn’t quite match up with its outline of the stages of grief. It included a tidy graph of said stages—denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, acceptance—and I studied its ups and downs for the answers as to how and when I would feel better.

Those jagged lines and plot points were comforting, because it indicated there was, somewhere in time, an end to my pain. Post-breakup(s), I would check in with myself: What stage was I in? Was I angry or bargaining? Anger was good, as that usually meant things were progressing; bargaining was bad, it meant I wasn’t anywhere near acceptance. Sadness was mind-numbingly boring and full of drama at the same time, with hours spent on the floor sobbing, promising myself I wouldn’t call him and calling him anyway, along with myriad lost afternoons (read: days, weeks and months, sometimes years) devoted to extensive forensic analysis of the situation with my girlfriends and my mother.

And on it went, until I met the next wrong boy, who would conveniently stand in for the acceptance stage if I hadn’t quite gotten there yet. I believed the pain of losing those boys was the worst kind I would ever experience. I also believed that this roadmap out of mourning and grief was reliable, maybe even foolproof. Read more.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Joan Didion

In 2007, my mother and I traveled to New York to see Vanessa Redgrave portray Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  We had been through a lot in the few years prior, including my younger sister’s diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer at 28.  From the outside, I guess it would appear strange that we traveled across the country to see a play about death not long after my sister survived a cancer she shouldn’t have.  But there were myriad reasons we went — our shared love of literature and Didion, her memoir of the joanandvanessabybrigittelacombesame title (we had both been floored by her exploration of grief after her husband suddenly died), not to mention the fact that my mother had never been to New York. 

And then there was Quintana. I vividly remember when we found out Didion’s only child had died within two years of her husband, just weeks before Magical Thinking was published, my mom and I looked at each other and said, “How is she going on? How is she still here, writing and living?” The one-woman play was proof of her survival, a tangible message that Didion was indeed still here.

I imagine, too, we were still wondering about our own grief, as my mother had nearly lost her youngest child; me my only sibling. We still carried vestiges of this almost loss with us as we adapted back to post-cancer life, and moreover to my sister’s new rules.  She was understandably so anxious to leave cancer behind that she seemed to be trying to move forward as if it had never happened, acting at times if my mother, stepfather and I hadn’t been right there at her side for a year, fighting to save her life.

This manifested in declarations that we had taken away her privacy when she was sick, and she needed it back. Her marriage was new, and it needed protecting, she claimed, and going forward, she would see us on her terms and her terms only. It was as if a switch had been flipped and we were no longer the protectors, we were the interlopers. This too, is why we went to New York. In the face of losing her again in a wholly different way, we wanted to understand what the shape of our lives would have been if my sister hadn’t survived and how to cope now with her absence. In part, we hoped Didion could tell us. Read more.