Selected Excerpts

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.


Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging—and Grief

The Sephora sales girl was in her early 20s. As she took off my makeup, I was marveling at hers, not to mention her flawless, creamy skin. Her smoky eye was perfect, all layers of dark blue, grey and black, a look that whenever I attempt it is a smeary, bruised-looking mess. Her eyebrows were expertly plucked and reinforced by a Kardashian-sized amount of brow pencil, creating arcs not found in nature. Glancing around, I saw that nearly all the salesgirls’ faces contained these same elements.

“I really need something for this situation,” I said to her, drawing a circle in the air to indicate everything between my 45-year-old chin and collarbone. “This is happening.”


“Oh, no, you look great!” she said, giggling. She was sweet, but when I turned my head, and caught my profile in the well-lit mirror, it was unmistakable. It was my grandmother’s neck, it was my mother’s neck, it was my neck. It was the beginnings of a wattle, and it was happening.

I had escaped to Sephora, which is housed in the same mall I’d haunted as a teenager, during a trip home to Portland last spring. I’m sure I arrived at the store looking a bit like a ghost myself — I was visiting from California with my 4-year-old son Jamie to help my stepfather, Jim, clean out the house where I grew up. My mother had been dead for five years, and Jim had moved in with his girlfriend, and while all the packing and sorting and moving in with girlfriends was entirely the natural course of things, I wasn’t prepared. I pictured the house preserved as it had been since my mom died, which was essentially as it was when she was alive. To his credit, Jim had tried to warn me, letting me know he’d been getting rid of things and making small improvements to the house for months, but I was stunned all the same. Read more. 




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.


Origin Story


It is five days before Christmas, 1972. I am curled inside my mother’s womb, almost fully cooked. She is standing at the edge of a frozen lake in Whitefish, Montana, with my aunt, her sister.

Origin-Story-10.25.18My father and uncle scrape across its surface in a canoe like a couple of Vikings. They dig into its hard shell with wooden oars, shards of ice flying as they attempt to catch my aunt’s dog, appropriately named Crazy. This is the dog that bolts from moving cars and after them and, once, hitched a ride across the country and back. Now, in the dead of night, he has escaped from my parents’ little red cabin near the lake. The horizon is black and endless, and my mother has lost sight of my father, my uncle and the tiny canoe. She takes a step forward and does what someone might do in bright sunlight—shades her eyes with one hand, attempting to see further. As her foot connects with the ice, it breaks, and her boots fill with frigid water. From behind, my aunt yells, wraps her arms around my mother and pulls her back from the lake’s depths. Then the contractions start.

When my son Jamie was born, there was nothing but silence. I knew from watching my mother die that preparing for the moment of his birth was hypothetical and largely pointless, aside from this: give me the epidural. You can read and research and plan all you want, but in the end coming into this world and leaving it is all bodies and blood, constricting, releasing, changing—primal reflexes that miraculously allow our souls to come and go. We are not in charge.

Then I looked at my husband Matt and said, “Why isn’t he crying?”

In the next moment, the room was filled with sound: the wheels of NICU crash carts, a swarm of doctors and nurses, my high, strained voice. labor nurse, the funny one, the one I know my dead mother sent to take care of me, was suddenly there whispering: “The cord was wrapped around his neck twice and your temperature spike, so we were worried about infection. But sweetie, he’s beautiful, he’s fine. Don’t worry.” She winked and then the little man was on my chest, eyes open, cooing.

My mother died a year before my son was born, which complicated things immensely. Or more to the point, it complicated things entirely. Another complication: the fact that I lived with my mother and stepfather for two of the last four years of her life and helped take care of her. I believed this had prepared me for a baby, and in some way it had, as she was partially paralyzed almost immediately after they found the brain tumor pressing down on her motor strip. In the course of the tumor’s growth, she lost everything, including nearly all of her language. Interpreting her wants and needs became something of an intuitive art for me, one I prided myself on mastering. However, this intuition was based on a lifetime of knowing and understanding her, whereas the baby and I were complete strangers.

Having him was the only act I could imagine as a salve for my grief, but it simply didn’t work that way. When I didn’t know what to do, the only person I wanted to call was dead in a way I hadn’t anticipated. On some level, given how close we had been, even dead I believed I would still be able to access her, but she was really, truly gone. I also believed that because she died without anything left unsaid between us, I had enough of her wisdom to get me through the rest of my life. But now, I had an endless supply of questions, ones I hadn’t thought to ask her because I didn’t know they existed. 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.