Category Archives: Personal Stories

For my mother, upon your death, a spark of dust

Mom,

We are sitting here together in the peacefulness of your bedroom. A place you redesigned to include a beautiful bathroom, with a wide tub against a window, a warming towel rack – your dream respite. You did such a stunning job. I’ve always loved sitting in your bedroom, reading or talking to you. I am glad we are here now, together as you start your path to a different phase of life – that of death.

Mom, I hope that in your passing, I will be less afraid of death, as it, many times, colors my actions and anxieties. But this death, yours in this room, I want it to be a whispered song. I want you to listen  to the wind chimes outside of your window, the wind blowing through the trees in our backyard, and breathe in the solemnity of home you have created here.

For me, seeing you in our home brings me great comfort, knowing that you are safe and in the care of people who love you. Even though you have suffered through this terrible disease, we have helped determine how you will die. You will die in your own home, in your own bedroom, with your family and loved ones nearby. You will die without pain because of the medicines we give you. You will die having been able to say I love you to the ones you hold so dear, and hear them say it to you. We have been given a gift of that time – to say goodbye, to fill out hearts with each other.

I will miss you so desperately. I know my heart will break thinking about you not here. Even now, it grieves knowing the future.

I was talking to Dad a few days ago; he has been saying that cancer is the malady of all disease. I said that cancer reminded me of the Nothing. Do you remember that, from The NeverEnding Story? That is one of my favorite books. The Nothing eats away at everything around it. You put in a hand, and you lose it. A toe and it’s gone. The Nothing in the story is death. Everyone runs from it. Many are driven insane if they come too close. But the Nothing will be come for all of us, no matter what we do; disappearing our friends, our loved ones, our world. You have put in your uterus, your brain, your lungs, and your bones. The Nothing has touched each part to take it away from you, so that you may disappear entirely.

I have always loved stories, Mom. You helped me develop that. You let me read by the light of the bathroom when I was little. You gave me free reign of any book in the house or library. One of my most cherished memories of you is waking up and walking into your bedroom in the morning. I would find you propped up on several pillows, reading a book and drinking coffee. You particularly loved mysteries, and later, rather smutty vampire novels. You loved fantasy and science fiction, to be lost in another world.

About a month ago, you told me a story about how you had only gotten glasses when you were 8 years old. Until then, you were barely able to see. When you put on your glasses, you said you looked at grass with amazement. You were really able to see its lush green-ness for the first time, and marveled at how the blades were separated like little soldiers.

It flabbergasted me – to think that for the beginning part of your life, you had lived in a blinded state. This surprised me more because I knew how much you read as a child. I imagined you straining your eyes against weak lamplight to read your favorite books. It must have been such a comfort – to see another world so clearly when you could not see your own.

I don’t gravitate to the same genres you do. You know I love personal narrative and memoir – I love to read the stories of real people, and I love to write about my life and the people I experience. When I first started to write, and call myself a writer, I talked to you about it. I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure you’d understand. But you did, of course, because you are a lover of words like me. I told you I wanted to write a book, and you were so excited. I was surprised, but more by my own lack of foresight than anything. Of course you would love it if I wrote a book. My first real piece was published in a literary magazine – about you – and you kept it in your bedside table drawer. I knew you were moved and proud of my work.

I love these kinds of stories, Mom, because they help people come alive. I love that they help us with legacy, giving us the backbone of family gatherings; they help us remember each other and the bonds we share. They hold a way for us to look at our past reflectively. They help us carry on.

The NeverEnding Story is just that, Mom — it is a symbol of cyclical life. The Nothing is death, yes, but it is also a carrier of stories. Stories do not disappear into the Nothing – they are contained within it, and are recreated as something new yet familiar. Once the Nothing has swallowed all of Fantastica, Bastian is left with a single spark of dust. That is what you will become, Mom: a single spark of dust that is filled with possibilities. You’ll be fueled by our storytellings, our continued lives on this earth, our marriages to other loved ones, our births of new children, our dedication to the lives of those in pain or need. You will live on through those actions and words, helping shape our lives until we, too, are called into the Nothing, to be reborn into something more.

I love and miss you, with all my heart, with all my sparks of dust.

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“Talk Like a Neighbor” in Ohio Edit

I forgot to share that the lovely folks at Ohio Edit published my short piece, “Talk Like a Neighbor“. Check it out along with all the other beautiful writings on their site, including my good friend and humorist poet, Josh Lefkowitz.

VIDEO: A Bear in a Cage reading for 2nd Story

Hey all-

Here’s the video for my 2nd Story reading of “A Bear in a Cage”- a bit late to the party, but here nonetheless. Such is my life right now.

It’s long, about 15 minutes, but worth a sit down. It was amazing to perform it at City Winery- lovely crowd, and so very receptive. Grateful for everyone who came out that night.

xx alyssa

Upcoming reading: 2nd Story “No Fool: Stories of Risk and Strategy” April 1st

Hey all-

I’m fortunate to be reading again with the good folks of 2nd story on April 1st at City Winery. You can buy tickets here.

Even though it’s April Fool’s, our stories are anything but foolish. Here’s an excerpt from mine, “The Bear in the Cage”:

Melissa quickly walked over, but nobody hugged anyone. She immediately asked me, “Have they found her? What’s been going on?” questions I avoided as I grabbed her suitcase. The whites of her eyes shined like a person in a cage with a wild bear. I averted my eyes, so afraid I would say something and ruin the surprise. Like it was a birthday party or something instead of this awful news. My mom jumped in and put her arm around Melissa’s shoulders—No, honey, they haven’t found her yet. You just come with us. Everything will be ok. Don’t worry, everything will be ok. We walked out to the car. I carried the suitcase, trailing behind them.

I took the driver’s seat, grateful to have the distraction. Melissa sat in the front passenger seat while my mom sat in the back. I gripped the steering wheel and entered the ramp onto 90 going west. Our hometown of Bartlett was about 45 minutes away.

Melissa gestured to the sky through the windshield, “I don’t get it. I know she went missing before, but we found her, ” she said. There was this buzzing energy about her that made me nauseous, like there were landmines beneath her skin.

 “I just talked to her earlier in the week. She seemed fine.  We talked about how she was getting her hair done on Friday,” Melissa turned to me, “What do you think, Alyssa? Do you think she’s ok?”

 “I…” my shoulders weakly shrugged, my jaw tensed, my head locked straight ahead. “uh…” Don’t look at her. DO NOT FUCKING LOOK AT HER.  “I don’t know.” There was a vice grip on my throat that made the words sound strange and strangled. She knew me better than anyone. Had she started to put it together?

– alyssa xx

How I Met Bill Murray

Bill-Murray-Youre-Awesome1I met Bill Murray a month ago at O’Hare airport. I had just flown in from Detroit after visiting my family for Thanksgiving. Coming from the terminal, I’m walking to the escalator that will take me to baggage claim. I see someone who looks like Bill Murray going the same way. I think, that looks like Bill Murray but it can’t be. I keep walking towards the escalator, then I notice somebody who looks at the possible Bill Murray too. They say Hey, oh my god, it’s you! They shake hands. I step onto the escalator and think, it must be Bill Murray and, if so, Bill Murray will be stepping onto the same escalator behind me in just a few seconds. A bunch of thoughts flash through my head: I really want to say hi to him–but how? How do I tell him, your films are amazing! (?) I shouldn’t say Ghostbusters. Too old. But I just saw him in Zombieland and Broken Flowers, yea, so I don’t want to reference the old shit. But maybe I shouldn’t bother this man, who’s a human being and probably tired of being bothered, oh MY GOD HE’S BEHIND ME NOW.

Are you who I think you are?

He does one of those corner mouth smiles, classic Bill Murray doesn’t-react-in-his-face thing. (It is him!) He takes a second and kicks the top of my suitcase that is between us. It’s a kick that doesn’t use the rest of his body, only his leg. He says, What do you think? I can’t say anything- Bill Murray just kicked my suitcase! His eyes focus past me, he doesn’t say anything else, but then looks behind him as if to say our interaction is over.

I get off the escalator and walk towards baggage claim, confused and slightly mystified. I see him strike up a conversation with an African American lady who is already laughing. I am jealous — that could have been me laughing.

A year later, I’m walking downtown in the South Loop of Chicago. I’ve just come out of a Caribou Coffee because I didn’t want to go to Starbucks. I have a latte, decaf (I can’t handle caffeine- I always feel like I should explain that, apologize even) in my hand and I’m heading back east towards Michigan Ave on Balbo. I get to State Street and am waiting on the corner alone for the little walkman to come on. A man with a long trench coat steps up beside me. I sip my coffee and glance out of the corner of my eye and holy shit! It’s Bill Murray! Again! I almost choke on my coffee and an escalator of thoughts materializes inside my head: What should I say, will he remember me, should I say anything? Maybe we could actually have a conversation this time or he could make me laugh like the African American woman or I could get his autograph for my dad who was kinda pissed I didn’t get one the last time (my dad loves Ghostbusters). I take a breath, turn to him and say, We met, before, last year, we met! You kicked my suitcase on the escalator at O’Hare?

He looks at me, that corner-of-the-mouth half smile forms again on his face. He reaches out his hand, his pointer finger and thumb forms the OK sign, and he flicks my coffee cup– FLICKS my coffee cup! Some of the coffee erupts out of the plastic drink hole and I jump back slightly and look down to see if anything has spilled on my jacket.

Is this real, are you a real person? I say while wiping away some imaginary coffee. But there’s no answer because Bill Murray has crossed the street, the walkman blinking white and friendly.

I really liked you in Ghostbusters!!! So did my dad!! I yell — I’m not embarrassed about that anymore, I just want him to know all my thoughts — Why do you keep flicking my things, is it something about me?? Why are you downtown in the South Loop, there’s nothing here!

I see him hail a cab (he could have hailed one on my side of the street!). He looks at me once again, and waves before he gets in and shuts the door.

My dad’s going to be so pissed.

My 2nd Story Podcast is UP!

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Hooray! My 2nd Story story, “Go On Back to Your Boyfriend” that I wrote and performed in January at Webster’s Wine Bar, is now available in official podcast form!

 

 

I’m so ridiculously excited about this, and listened to it on my commute home on Friday with a big, ridiculous smile on my face.

You can click here to listen to the podcast! It’s about 10 minutes, and can be listened to directly on the site, or downloaded for free on iTunes and Sticher. So do it already! I promise you will laugh at least once, especially if you’ve ever made out with a lesbian from the British Navy.

More on the horizon….cheers! xx

Going Home to Dolly

My nonno, my Italian grandfather, passed away this morning. That means I have no more grandparents. Want a grandparent? Don’t ask me! I’m tapped.

Ah, gallow’s humor. Or is it gallows humor? Who is Gallow if it’s his/her/their humor?

My nonno…I won’t lie, he wasn’t this outstanding citizen of the world. He was cranky and miserable; he didn’t treat his children well as they grew up. He always said, “Everyone’s out to get you,” and “Don’t trust nobody!” or “I just want to die,” in this morbid, slightly paranoid way. But I loved him.  When my nonna was alive, they lived only 5 minutes from my parents’ house for the majority of my childhood.  They were my brother and mine’s regular babysitters, always taking us to their home or coming over to visit. My nonno would teach me how to draw and paint; he was a self-taught oil painter who used to make his own brushes out of cloth strips. His oil paintings covered the walls of our house, mostly landscapes and single portraits.  My nonno said he never painted smiling people, because the world wasn’t like that. We would have dinner with them at least a few times a week.  My nonna was a phenomenal cook and would bring over baked ziti, foccaccia, profiteroles, meatloaf…believe me, you’ve never had Italian food like hers, not even at the Olive Garden. And my nonno would call her “Dolly” – “Dahhlly,” he would say — that’s what she has on her gravestone now under her name.

One of nonno's many oil paintings.

One of nonno’s many oil paintings.

Nonno was a captivating storyteller and a jokester. As my nonna was ailing, I started recording both of them telling stories of growing up in Italy, fighting in World War II, raising their kids in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn. Nonno didn’t like Jewish people because he had worked at a garment factory for a Jewish guy who was cheap and mean.  But when I brought home Dan, who’s Jewish, nonno immediately liked him because, “He’s a good guy.  He got a job.” When really, it was the fact that Dan sat and listened to his stories, asked him questions and spent time with him when the rest of the family wanted a break. Nonno would tell me, “that man — he really loves you!” I didn’t want to acknowledge what he saw for a long time, but he was right. He knew a soulmate when he saw one.

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Nonna

After my nonna died, my nonno was revealed in a way. Without her, he said he had nothing to live for, and so was nothing to the world. I know there are statistics regarding long-term relationships about the surviving partner dying usually within a year from their partner’s passing; that’s what was happening to nonno. Even though nonna and nonno fought like crazy, drove each other nuts, they Loved in a big, capitalized way, even into their 80s. It wasn’t the healthiest love, but it gave their lives meaning. Nonna and nonno met in Italy when they were in their early teens; nonna said she knew she was going to marry nonno from that very moment. Nonna was constantly jealous of the older woman who lived across the street from them in their retirement complex. Nonna thought this woman was trying to steal nonno from her, especially when the woman put up a sign in her garden that had an innocuous quote about love on it. My nonna called other women “chickens,” implying that nonno was indeed a rooster, but her rooster only.

I realize that in a way, I loved nonno because of nonna. As an elderly man, it was hard to love nonno because his outlook on life was so bleak.  But with nonna, either alive or in memory, I loved him because she made him a better person. As a child and into adulthood, I could see that they complimented each other in how much they loved their family. We were the center of their universe, and that space overflowed with affection everyday of their lives.

I am sad because my nonno will not be at our wedding. I was really hoping he would make it because I wanted a grandparent there – it just felt important to me as a representation of my life cycle. But also because I wanted something of my nonna there with me; that through his eyes, she’d be able to see her earring that I made into my engagement ring or her wedding picture I’d put up at our ceremony…I miss being able to talk about my wedding planning with her because I know it would have brought her so much joy.  I don’t speak about my wedding in serious or detailed terms with many people, but I would have told her everything, over and over, as much as she wanted to hear it.  Ultimately though, what I want is my nonna and nonno together, when they are their happiest. And that’s how they’ll be at our wedding this summer.

There was a nurse, no doubt of the chicken variety, who was with my nonno when he passed this morning. She said he had a little smile on his face as he stopped breathing. I’m positive it was because he was finally going home to his Dolly.

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