My Modern Love Story: What the Sea Took Away

Sharing my piece from the New York Times Modern Love.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/fashion/Modern-love-What-the-Sea-Took-Away-a-Daughter-Restores-.html?_r=0

Fourteen years ago, my husband vanished. A talented sculptor whose work was in major collections, he had been in a downward spiral for over a year, unable to finish a single piece of work, tumbling into alcoholism, paralyzed by depression.

After 10 years of marriage, he moved into his studio in Lower Manhattan while I stayed in our nearby apartment with our 5-year-old daughter, Sasha. We spoke every day, often more honestly than we had in years, about the drinking that was destroying our marriage, the demons he had faced and triumphed over in the past and why he couldn’t fight them now.

Most of all, we spoke of Sasha. He adored her and, despite everything, remained a doting father. I hoped the separation would make him face what he was in danger of losing — his family, the ability to create art — and get the help he needed.

Instead, he went to Florida to stay with a woman he had dated in college and fell further into an alcohol-soaked haze, filled with self-blame, unreachable. At midnight on an August night, a few days before he was to return home, he apparently swam into the ocean as far as he could go and didn’t come back.

“Apparently” is the word that came to define his death, and my life, for years to come. My husband’s body was never found. The woman he was staying with waited four days to call the police. When they arrived, they found his ID, credit cards, unused airline ticket to New York and two drawings. One said: “Drowned.” The other: “Lonely Head, Dead.”

For the first few days, I told Sasha nothing. I clung to the hope that my husband would be found in a hospital, would magically appear at the airport for his return flight or, worst-case scenario, that his body would be discovered in some weedy cove.

None came to pass. And I discovered there is something worse: absence without answers. Finally, I had no choice but to tell Sasha her father had disappeared and we didn’t know what had happened. Each night she asked if there was news, her legs twirling in agitation, the horror of losing a much-loved parent exacerbated by the quicksand of uncertainty.

If the world could swallow up one parent without a trace, what protection is there? Six weeks later, as I began to accept that we might never have answers, I lied and told Sasha the police knew for sure her father had died. We held a memorial service and Sasha began to heal.

Questions naturally arose. When she was 8, Sasha turned to me out of the blue and said, “Mom, the police don’t really know for sure what happened, do they?”

The story she was so ready to believe at 6 was proving leaky. She began to make up better endings. In school, she wrote tales of a man who ventured into the ocean at night only to discover he had forgotten how to swim.

Always, in her stories, he was rescued by mermaids or suddenly reclaimed his aquatic ability. (And upon his return to shore, his wife was furiously yelling, “What were you thinking?”)

I held firm in my conviction that her father had died that night. I wanted most to spare Sasha the realization that there would always be a black hole in the center of our lives.

For the inevitable question, “Where is your father?” I gave her a pat answer: “Just say he drowned. You don’t need to explain more than that.”

I had found in my own life, particularly as I started dating again, that the surreal and open-ended nature of what had happened was as disturbing to listeners as to me. Nevertheless, Sasha instead replied, “I have no father.” On school forms, she wrote “none” rather than “deceased.”

The few times she tried to explain the situation in more detail, she was bombarded with questions she could not answer. Still, I found it unsettling that she was erasing a father who despite his struggles had loved her deeply.

Eventually, I published a novel based on the story, and while the act of shaping the narrative helped me to move on, I was worried how Sasha, then 14 and an inveterate reader, might react. I prepared a speech to give her with the book, stressing that I would be happy to answer any questions about her father’s death, and I waited.

But the novel languished on her bedside table for three years before she opened it. She claimed to be too busy. She kept pictures of her father in her room, but she never again inquired about the details of his disappearance. My version was her version, my life story hers.

Until now. Sasha, 20 years old and a junior in college, received an assignment to write a life story only she could tell. “I want to write about Dad,” she texted me.

At first, she intended to make it an impressionistic essay about how his death had shaped her, but her professor had another idea. She suggested Sasha approach it as an investigative piece.

My first response was outrage. How could this woman have any idea of what she was asking? I had long tried to shield my daughter from the vortex of uncertainty; the last thing I wanted was for her to start poking around, reaching out to people from years ago who may harbor conflicting theories. (One lone police detective still insisted my husband must be alive somewhere, and it had taken me seven years to get a death certificate.)

“My professor said you might be a bit hesitant or protective,” Sasha said. “It’s my life, too, and I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while.”

We tell our children the stories of our lives to shape our shared history, to give them identity and meaning, and sometimes to protect them. At some point, though, they will yank the story from our hands and make it theirs.

I agreed to help Sasha. Nevertheless, my inclination was to try to control the flow of information. I called my husband’s best friend from Florida and his brothers, alerting them to Sasha’s coming inquiries. I asked them to keep the door closed on any questions they may have about his death, though they assured me they had none.

A few days later, Sasha emailed to say she had decided to turn the assignment into a multimedia project. She asked for photos of the police reports, the Coast Guard charts of the tides the night her father died, the private investigator records. On a wintry afternoon, I opened a box that had been shut for years and began snapping pictures with my iPhone: the official documents, the unused airline ticket for his trip back to New York, the address book the police found that still had the hearts he had drawn around my name when we first started dating.

For all of my fears, though, it was not her father’s death that ended up interesting Sasha. She accepted it as fact: sad, bizarre, haunting, incontrovertible. It was his life that she wanted to learn about.

His single-minded determination awed her.

“Did you know that Daddy lived in an abandoned building when he was in college and ate canned soup so he could put all his money into his art?” she asked me.

It was that burning ambition, that will to create, that I first fell in love with, I told her, realizing now how little I had spoken of it.

“Do you have any idea what made him so committed to sculpture?” she asked.

I remembered a photograph of him at 7 with his mother, a dressmaker in Germany, standing at the table while she cut patterns, eerily similar to his later work. I hadn’t looked at it in a decade, but I sent it to Sasha along with photos from his shows, a list of his collectors, reviews of his work before the bottom fell out, stories I willfully had forgotten in the effort to forge a new life.

Sasha was hungry for detail, and I did my best, digging up shards of a past that felt at once distant and immediate. But the sadness that descended on me did not spill over to her. She was too busy filling in pieces and stitching them together.

It is a particularly American story, I told her, of a boy who came to this country at 8 not speaking a word of English; a teenager who left a difficult home and put himself through college and graduate school; an artist who succeeded magnificently and failed miserably, felled by his own addiction.

In the end, the story she wrote was about a man who redefined himself through art, a man of overwhelming talent and fatal flaws. I had spent 14 years trying to protect my daughter from her father’s death, and she gave me back his life.

The CitiBike Diaries

Citibike Diaries: Part 1: The People Who Love/Hate People Version

Time from gym to work: 15 minutes

Time spent developing road rage against pedestrians crossing in middle of the street while walking/talking/eating: 4 minutes

Time spent looking for open dock: 5 minutes.

Time spent talking to cute guy also trying to dock bike: Not long enough.

****

Citibike Diaries Part 2: Calories Burned: The New Math

Bad News: Biking slowly (hard to go fast in Manhattan with cars/pedestrians/trucks coming at you like pinballs) does not burn a lot of calories.

Good News: Cars/pedestrians/trucks coming at you like pinballs causes fast spike in heart rate and blood pressure, thus turning leisurely ride into intense cardio interval.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it!

*****

CitiBaked Diaries Part 3: The Hot and Bothered Edition

# of docks it took to find a bike last night: 3

# of docks it took to find open slot to dock: 3

# of unjustified over-charges on credit card: $187.27

# of responses to my complaint: 0
The love affair isn’t over but we might need couples counseling.

*****

Citibike Diaries: Part 4: The Summer Friday Edition*

(Note: This post has not been approved by medical authorities)

The Plan: No biking today. Drinks with friends on roof at Eataly.

The Reality: Drinks with friends on roof at Eataly. Row of tempting bikes a block away on way out. Couldn’t resist. Flip-flops, dress, rosé, no helmet- and yet….hey guys, it was just a few blocks. And it made me happy.

*****

Image

Aside

I am thrilled for any number of reasons that Yahoo hired Marissa Mayer, chief among them that women are finally beginning to break the glass ceiling in tech and that pregnant women are being seen as serious contenders.

But in all the talk about the ever-connected – and ever-shorter – Maternity Leave 2.0, including today’s piece in The New York Times one thing is missing from the dialog: The true toll it can take on women, including what remains a taboo subject: post-partum depression.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of hiring pregnant women and I have been in a position to do exactly that.  It worked out beautifully.

I also know first-hand the toll working even while still in the maternity unit can take.

When I was in the hospital giving birth to my daughter my publisher called to say that the pub date of my upcoming novel would be moved up.  The revisions that I thought I had months to do now had to be completed within weeks.  “Just work while the baby naps,” my editor said.  (For the record, she was a mother herself.)  Alright, I thought, that sounds do-able.   Frankly, part of me was glad about the need to keep working.  It was such an entrenched part of my identity that I thought it would ease the transition to motherhood.

And so, of course, that is precisely what I did.  Unfortunately, I also stopped sleeping and developed post-partum depression, which I was too ashamed to admit to anyone – including myself.   I didn’t even really know enough about PPD to recognize the symptoms. (It still galls me that hospitals send you home with all sorts of information except the warning signs of PPD.)  I hid it from my husband, my doctor, and of course, my publisher.  (It didn’t help that for some insane reason that I  can no longer recall I had it my mind that we wouldn’t hire help for the first three months.)

The book got done on time.  We eventually hired help.  And the PPD waned.  A few years later, I decided to come clean and publish a magazine story about PPD.  I have never had as strong – and as undercover – a reaction to a piece.  Women  in the hallways of my office, on the street, in furtive phone calls, all confessed that the too had suffered from PPD but had been too embarrassed to admit it.  They didn’t want to be seen as incompetent  as mothers or as workers.

So.  Back to Marissa Mayer.  Yes, she will have all the help she needs.  And yes, technology has made staying in touch so much easier than it was when I had a child 18 years ago.  But  I hope that women who now have the bar set even higher are able to acknowledge that it is not easy, no matter what.  Unless we are willing to admit that, we are doing each other a great disservice.

College Application Essays: The Zelda Fitzgerald Edition

USA Today did a great piece on 5 top college essay blunders.  I’m going to add some of my own: One mistake I see kids making is trying to cram everything they know/want/think into one essay.  An entire life experience – whether you an octogenarian or  a teen – can’t really be fit into 250-500 words.  An essay is not a résumé, after all.   Rather, one thought, one quirk, one person or book who moved  you in a unique way gives you a better opportunity to explore – and explain – your thinking.  Zelda Fitgerald once wrote that what she missed most about her father after he died was the particular way he tented his fingers when he spoke.  That single detail brought all of her emotions – loss, love, the power of memory – to light.  What is the one detail or anecdote that can become the focal point for your essay?  It is worth taking the time to think about that before you write.  For more tips, go to The College Essay Expert.

Reinvention, Take One

More Magazine (one of my favorites, and one that I’m happy to write for frequently) just posted my essay on the hows and whys of how I came to help kids with their Common App essays and more.  Here it is:

From Magazine Editor to College Essay Expert

How a professional editor transferred her solid skill set to a new career path

 
 Like so many parents, I suffered through the college application process with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. My daughter, fiercely independent, wanted to handle it all on her own (except for the 16 schools we toured!) and I respected that, even if it meant biting my tongue at times. But when it came to the all-important Common App essay, it drove me nuts that she wouldn’t show it to me. Yes, she’s a fantastic writer BUT this was my area of expertise. After working as the editor-in-chief of a magazine, penning countless essays for publications from the New York Timesto yes, More, and publishing seven novels, I figured she’d let me help. (Let me stress: Help, not write it for her.) As a writer, I know how valuable another set of eyes can be. Instead, my daughter turned to her SAT tutor, her creative writing teacher, anyone but me….until two nights before the essay was due. And guess what? Though it was beautifully written, I saw what the tutors and teachers had missed – the essay lacked the crucial point at the end that would tie her thoughts together. It was a quick but important fix. (PS: She actually said thank you. PPS: She is now enrolled in the Ivy League school of her choice. I’m not taking credit, she did that all on her own – I’m just saying.)    

I began to help all of my daughter’s friends with their essays. (Along with the Common App, many colleges request additional writing samples.) Here’s what I found: Even the most brilliant students freeze. They try to fit their entire lives into one essay. They can’t figure out what to write about. They have no idea what tone to use. And here’s what else I discovered: I truly love helping each kid find his or her unique voice and story.

After doing a little research, I discovered that while there are a ton of SAT tutors, advisors, and others to help in the ever more complicated (and stressful!) college application process, no one was specializing solely in the essays. At the same time, while I continue to love writing for magazines, I wanted more control of my career. It was perfect: A hole in the market that just happened to fit my exact skill set. My entrepreneurial spirit kicked into high gear just as my daughter was heading off to college. (Funny how that works.) I started my own business: The College Essay Expert. Now I work with kids all over the country on their applications. And in helping them tell their stories, I’ve reinvented my own.

 

http://www.more.com/reinvention-money/second-acts/magazine-editor-college-essay-expert

Fatherless Kids on Father’s Day: Cards, Dances and other Dilemmas

My daughter was in third grade when she began to come home from school increasingly cranky and argumentative.  When I asked if anything was wrong, she replied everything was ‘fine.’  (To this day, and she is now a freshman in college, everything is always ‘fine.’)  But when, at the end of the week, she showed me an intricate collage she had made and I complimented her on it, she threw it to the floor and burst into tears.  Only then did I realize the cause: At her public school, the kids had spent the week making Father’s Day cards and gifts under a teacher’s supervision.  My daughter’s father (my husband) had died two years earlier. And my father the year before that. She had no one to give the card to and hadn’t wanted to admit that in school.

I cannot begin to explain how I irate I was – and still am – at the misguided school policy that had children spending time making gifts for fathers.  (Like religion, doesn’t that belong in the home?) Surely, in a city as diverse as New York – or anywhere for that matter – we were not the only family without a father. Surely, too, there should have been more understanding of all types of families. Flash forward three years: I decided to switch my daughter to private school.  One of the places she was accepted was an elite girls’ school. On their annual calendar: A traditional father/daughter dance.  It caused knots in my stomach just contemplating it.  For a different school’s entrance essay,  my daughter had written about  a  photo she kept on her desk of her dad holding her the day after she was born and how it made her happy/sad. The head of that school wrote me a note saying how much she loved the essay. Choice made. (That, of course, wasn’t the only reason.)

I don’t know if either school has changed its policy, but I hope so. This Father’s Day, I will tell my daughter as I frequently do how proud  her dad would be of her. She still keeps that picture on her desk.   And  I will send my thoughts to all children who have lost their fathers, and to the single mothers everywhere doing the best they can.

Teens, Parents, and the Facebook Conundrum

Thinking about Bill Keller’s piece in today’s NY Times: It’s true that teens may be easing off of FB because their parents are on it (spying on them, among other things.) But it may be equally true that parents are easing off it because it’s tough to complain about your kids when they can read every word of it. Transparency and parenting have never been a natural fit on either end. Just wait until Zuckerberg has kids.

Would love to hear from other parents: Do you spy on your kids on FB?  Do you censor what you write?

(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/opinion/wising-up-to-facebook.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&gwh=D97D59A9771517968597B69723749150