About a Ring

By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr
By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr

By Nikki Schulak

“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.

This can just be a story about a ring.


My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.

David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.

Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.

David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.

I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”

“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?

“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.

David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”

“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.

Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”

And he said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”

After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.

When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”

Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”

“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”

Then she asked, “When?”

“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”

And she started to cry.

When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.


A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.

The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.

I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.

Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.

“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.

“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.

My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”

Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.

Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”

David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”

My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”

I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”

I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.


When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.

The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.

Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.

“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.

“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”

“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”

“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.

“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”

She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”

“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”

What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.


I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.

“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”

“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”

“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”

“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.

I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.

I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.

If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.

She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.

And my personal favorite:

They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.

Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”

“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.

“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”

I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.

My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.

“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”


I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.

“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”

The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”

“1790? It’s older than I thought.”

The jeweler looked up at me.

“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”

He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”

When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.

Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?

David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.

Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?

David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?

So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.


When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Is it English?”

“I don’t think so…”

He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.

The jeweler shrugged.

Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.


NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.


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How Can You Be Mad at Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer?

By AfroDad/ Flickr
By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Deesha Philyaw

How can you be mad at someone who’s dying of cancer? It helps if you don’t yet know she’s dying, if you think the doctors are just trying one more thing. It helps if she is your mother and if she’s just driven you crazy your whole life, but insists on a kind of love that leaves you unable to breathe and sick to your stomach from her phone calls or from the mere thought of her visiting you or you visiting her. It helps if she is obsessed with you, her only child, because she believes God sent you to her teenage self to love her since no one else did. It helps if she pours her whole life into you, but you never asked her to, and you would have rather she not, just so you could fucking breathe and dress conservatively and keep the pasta separate from the sauce and breastfeed your baby and buy organic, without her judging you from the valley of her insecurities.

All of that helps you to get mad at someone who is dying of cancer, especially when she doesn’t seem to be doing everything she possibly can to keep herself alive.

“The church was selling fish dinners today.”

“You shouldn’t be eating fried foods.”

“Oh, girl. I pulled the fried part off.”

But what about fruits and vegetables? Whole grains? But I know the answer to that. Cancer is no match for five decades of emotional and cultural eating. So I shut my mouth because the last time I tried to talk about what was broken in me-her-us, she accused me of always using “big words and psychological terms,” when in fact I had used no words larger than, “I can’t do this with you anymore. I’m calling a cab, and I’m leaving.” My college education and my intellect were apparently weapons I wielded to intimidate her. One day out of the blue when I was in my thirties, she said, “I finally found the word to describe the way you made me feel your whole life: intimidated.”

I think the problem started when I was born. My mother said, “I thought you were going to be dark like me with chinky eyes and wavy hair. Like a doll.” Alas, I was born medium-brown, bald, with huge eyes not associated with a racial slur. “Your eyes were so big that for the longest time, they would just roll around because you couldn’t focus them,” my mother said. “I burst into tears when I saw you. And your hands were so tiny. Until you got pregnant, I always thought that meant you wouldn’t be able to have kids.”

Please don’t ask me to explain that last part. I have no idea what my hands and my fertility have to do with each other. I do know that I wasn’t what my mom was expecting. She wanted a dark chocolate doll that would grow up to make the same choices she would have made if she’d had the dolls’ options in life. A doll that liked all the same things she liked—bright-colored clothing, the right amount of condiments and paprika in her potato salad, makeup.

Oh, the makeup! So when I was in the eighth grade and about to turn thirteen, many of the girls in my grade wanted to wear makeup. About half their mothers allowed them to. The other half made up their faces in the bathroom at school in the morning and scrubbed it off at some point before getting on the bus at the end of the day. Lucky me, I had one of those makeup-permitting mothers. Unlucky for her, she had a daughter who couldn’t give two shits about makeup. It just seemed to me like a lot of effort and for no good reason. But as my thirteen birthday approached, my mom was stuck on the idea that a cute little pouch filled with my own cosmetics would make the perfect gift. Meanwhile, a stack of V. C. Andrews books was my idea of the perfect gift. But according to my mother, that wasn’t a “real” gift. To hell with the fact that this was my birthday. She was determined to get me a real gift and it would be makeup.

“I don’t want makeup. But thank you.”

“Don’t you remember how nice you looked at James’ wedding when I let you wear makeup?” I had been eleven when my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, got married, and while I hadn’t been made up against my will, I hadn’t asked for makeup.

“Yes, but I don’t want to wear makeup. Thank you, though.”

“But why not?”

“Because … just because I don’t.”

“Well, I wish my mama had let me wear makeup when I was your age.”

But. I’m. Not. You.

“I don’t want to wear makeup.”

“No, really. You should,” my mother said, fixing her eyes hard on me. “You should.”

And it was that last “you should” that did it. I don’t mean that I relented; I didn’t start wearing makeup regularly until around eleventh grade. But that “you should” crushed me. It crushed the microscopic part of me that dared to think that my “big for her age” self was maybe kinda a little bit cute and sort of not too fat. “You should” meant that makeup would make me look better, more presentable, less homely, more like I belonged to my gorgeous mother.

My mother was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I actually preferred her without makeup. Her beauty didn’t need any help. She had a glorious ’fro when glorious ’fros were in, the first time around. And her smile … My Lord. The woman had perfect lips and perfect teeth, and together, they were brilliant. And until loneliness, depression, and her changing metabolism took its toll, my mother had what folks back then called a “brick house” figure, so named for the popular R&B song by The Commodores.

“You should” was my mother’s go-to tactic for shaming me into liking what she liked, and caring about what she cared about. As in, I should care what people would think of me if I didn’t dress or carry myself a certain way, i.e., like her. My mother cared a lot about appearances, literally. Overwhelmed by mother’s obsession with how others might find me lacking, I became ten times more self-conscious than your typical self-conscious teen. It was debilitating, and I was damn-near thirty-five years old before I realized that most people didn’t size me up critically the minute I entered a room; they were probably too busy trying to get free of their own mother-induced neuroses to care if my clothes were wrinkled or how my hair looked.

Twenty or so birthdays later, and a few years into my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I finally got up the nerve to tell her how much that “you should” had hurt and how I had carried that hurt into adulthood and how her shaming me over the years had contributed to us not having the kind of relationship she said she wanted us to have.

Her response? “Huh. I don’t remember that at all.”

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction later to the whole stolen ring thing, which became Reason #14 Why You Might Be Mad at Someone With Cancer.

But before I get into that, this is the part where I pause to make sure you don’t think my mother was a horrible person or a bad mother. She was neither of those things. This is important and needs to be said because we don’t allow mothers to have done some shitty things in the course of their parenting career and still get credit for the good they did. In our cultural consciousness, either mothers are saints or we’re driving our minivan full of kids into the river. And in the final tally of who I am because of my mother, I believe she did far more good than harm. She was a loving mother who sacrificed for me, and I always knew that my needs and many of my wants were her priority. If I am generous, hard-working, hospitable, responsible, and a person of integrity, I owe it in large part to my mother’s example and guidance. Even in her flaws, she had raised me to do as she said, not as she did.

She also raised me, ironically enough, to speak up for myself. But I guess she just intended for me to do this at school and with other people besides her. At any rate, this knack for being my own advocate came in handy in sophomore year of high school when I got straight A’s for the first three grading quarters, and then all A’s and a B in gym class in the last quarter. I was livid. How dare the gym teacher, of all people, fuck up my 4.0!

I went to see the girls’ dean of students who had taken me under her wing, but she wasn’t in her office that day. Another administrator was there and she did her best to calm me down. She listened as I rattled off all the reasons that this B was some bullshit. Ultimately, my grade didn’t get changed, but what did happen is that this administrator remembered me and my righteous indignation. So a month or so later, when our local Congressman’s office contacted her to recommend a rising junior who was mature and academically talented enough to spend the first half of the coming school year living and working on Capitol Hill as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives, this administrator recommended me.

The day I was due to arrive at the page dorm also happened to be my sixteenth birthday. My mother had been eager for this day for many years, because it would also be the day that she gave me one of her prized possessions: a gold ring shaped like a rose with a stone at the center of it that may or may not have been a diamond. When I was five, a guy she had dated had given her this ring. I knew from overhearing my mom’s conversations with friends that this guy was a thief. And yet, for eleven years my mother had worn this ring and gushed to me about how when I turned sixteen, this stolen property would be mine, and then one day, I would give it to my daughter (if I had one … you know, with my small hands and all), and my daughter would give it to her daughter…

This was my mother’s attempt to create a family heirloom. But the things that my mother gave me that I want to pass on to my daughters can’t be placed in a ring box, or any box. They are things of spirit and heart. But my mother didn’t treasure these gifts. When she was dying, I told her how much I treasured them, but that only added to her grief that she had, in her words, “wasted so much time on us, on things that didn’t really matter.”

But she didn’t have that insight in 1987. So, as ceremoniously as you can be in the page dorm, my mother presented me with the ring. I acted excited because I knew that that was what she wanted, but all I kept thinking was, “This ring was stolen.” And I wore the ring for exactly sixteen years and nine months.

The day I took the ring off and never wore it again, I was in Florida with my kids, visiting my mother. About four years earlier, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she had called to tell me, I’d been a few months into a self-imposed hiatus from her. I’d finally decided that I couldn’t take her guilt trips and criticisms of my life and choices anymore. I needed a break from her. I told her not to call or email me, and not to expect to hear from me. Indefinitely. I can’t remember what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but I do remember that a year or so before the hiatus, she’d sent me a pair of burgundy jeans (she was always sending me clothes that I never wore) and got upset when I said that I hadn’t worn them and had no intention of wearing them because I’d asked her countless times to stop sending me clothes 1) because I was an adult, and 2) because the clothes she sent weren’t my style. “But your style is boring!” she’d said. And this was the argument in which she denied ever being critical of me.

So. Something else happened after that, and I decided to take a break from her. And then she got the cancer diagnosis, and fuck. So I ended the hiatus and learned everything I could about cancer and how we could save her life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t save her life; I couldn’t even get her to change her eating habits. So I began to mourn her while she was still alive.

June 7, 2005, was a ridiculously hot day in Jacksonville, Florida, which is saying a lot. But my mom wanted to take my daughters to the zoo during our week-long visit, and I agreed, even though I wasn’t really up for it. My mother had told me that her doctors were going to try one more treatment, but they weren’t sure if they could do anything else for her after that. My beloved grandmother, who had helped my mom raise me, had died from ovarian and colon cancer that January. I was in the middle of a separation, heading to divorce. And the last thing I wanted to do was spend the day out in the heat. Needless to say, I was miserable, but of course my mother wanted to invite a drunken neighbor and her grandson to go with us to the zoo. In the monkey habitat, the neighbor kept screaming at the monkeys to shut up. I wanted to push her into the tiger pit.

On the ride home, my period started, just to cap off such a glorious day. I had to stop off at CVS. I left my mom and my kids in the air-conditioned rental SUV, so that I could at least be alone in the store. I picked up what I needed and stood in line. Someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, but you just cut in front of me in the line.”

“Oh, my god! I’m so sorry!” I said to the woman behind me. And when I said this, I grabbed the edge of the counter because I thought I would faint. How had I missed this entire line of people?

The woman looked down at my hand and said, “What a beautiful ring!”

It was the stolen rose ring my mother had given me. “Oh. Thank you,” I said.

The woman continued. “You know, I had a ring just like that. Back in the ’70s. I bought it with my very first paycheck, but …”

No. No. Nononononono.

“…somebody broke into my apartment and stole it.”

“Oh. Well…My mother gave me this one…”

I wanted to go outside and drag my mother out of that SUV and… And what? She had cancer. How can you be mad with someone who has cancer?

I thought about giving the woman the ring. “Here’s your ring, ma’am. My mother suffers from some kind of condition that made her think that not only accepting a stolen ring as a gift was a good idea, but that she should also give it to me to pass down through the generations of our family. Please understand.”

But I couldn’t risk getting arrested.

I felt like shit. I felt like shit and I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Except accept stolen property.

From my mother.

But it was only because I didn’t want her to feel bad.

The woman kept chatting about how she’d lived in Jacksonville until the early ’80s but then moved to Dallas where she was a nurse (I think). She was home visiting her mother, who, as it turned out, had cancer. I told her that my mother also had cancer, and we gave each other that knowing “Fuck cancer” look. And then she let me go ahead of her anyway in the check-out line and wished my mother well. I wished her mother well too and then headed back to the SUV.

“There was a woman in there in the check-out line who saw the ring you gave me, and it turns out your boyfriend stole it from her all those years ago. It was her ring!”

“Hmmm,” my mother said. “Small world.”

A little over two weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh when I got the call that my mother had been hospitalized. She was in so much pain that the doctors didn’t expect her to survive the night. But she did, and when I arrived the next day, having caught the first flight I could after getting my kids situated with their dad, I went straight to the hospital. When I walked into her room, my mom’s best friend was there, and my mom beamed at her and said, “Oh, look! Deesha came!”

As if there had been a question of whether I would or not, continuing the pity narrative that my mother had kept up amongst her friends that I was just too busy with my own life to be concerned about her. I found out later, after she’d died, that she had known her cancer was at stage 4 for several months before telling me. She had told everyone but me. But she didn’t tell her friends that she hadn’t told me. So when they asked why I hadn’t come down to see her, she’d say, “Oh, you know … she’s just so busy with her own life.” So of course I looked like an asshole of a daughter, and everyone felt extra sorry for my mother because she had cancer and an asshole for a daughter.

In the two months I spent in Jacksonville when my mom was dying, I had to contend with people thinking I’d been a negligent daughter, while also tending to all of my mother’s complicated affairs and trying to see my kids whenever their dad was able to fly them down to me. My kids were six-and-a-half and one-and-a-half at the time.

My ex had known me, and by extension, my mother, since I was eighteen years old. He knew better than anyone how much grief my relationship with my mother had caused me over the years. When she had contacted him behind my back during the hiatus, hoping to make a surprise visit for my birthday … during the fucking hiatus … my then-husband had gently explained why that would be a terrible idea. “It’s like when you hold a bar of soap in the shower,” he’d told her. “If you hold on too tightly, the soap will slip away.”

And I had slipped away from my mother, long before she slipped away from me in death. But then I came back, in the ways that I could, in the time that she had left. On a yellow legal pad, I made long lists of things she wanted and things she wanted done after her death. How to distribute the vast contents of her costume jewelry collection, who to give the canned goods in her pantry. A big party at the hospice center for her and a hundred of her closest friends. Directions to pay her best friend’s utility bills for a year. Permission to give her brothers absolutely nothing since, in her estimation, she had given them enough money already over the years because she’d felt guilty telling them “no.”

“Don’t let them or anyone make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do,” my mother told me. “Live your life.”

I had waited my whole life to hear those words from my mother. I ached that they came too late for us to both fully enjoy the aftermath together, but I’m so very glad they came. Her words freed me.

My mother was lucid for most of her time in hospice. And not just lucid, but often hilarious. There was that a-hundred-person party at the hospital adjacent to the hospice center. My mother insisted on doing her own make-up and having a decorative cover for her colostomy bag. Someone alerted the local news, and they sent a camera crew and a reporter who asked my mother, “How does this celebration make you feel?”

And my mother, her voice heavy with Dilaudid, said, “Popular.”

And there was that day a childhood friend stopped by. He told my mother that he’d always had a crush on her, growing up. She’d been skinny and asthmatic as a kid, but he thought she was beautiful. “And you still are beautiful,” he told her.

After he left, my mom said to me, “Fine time for him to tell me alla that. But girl, look. I’m on my deathbed, and I still got it goin’ on.”

This is why I felt my mother would not mind how I dressed for her funeral. I had become obsessed with not sweating at the funeral, so I found this cocktail dress, above-the-knee, sleeveless, more “after 5” than “your mother’s funeral.” And I wore backless heels that were anything but conservative. And I think I strutted up to my mother’s casket because you can’t do anything but strut in heels like that.

And I’m pretty sure my critics among my mother’s friends did not approve of my attire, but I didn’t care. I didn’t sweat and I didn’t faint and I survived the day. And I’ve survived the many days since then, knowing that my mother died fully aware of how much I loved her, how much I had always loved her, despite all of the fights and frustration.

I wish that I hadn’t needed my mother’s permission to live my life. I wish that I had just been able to live it and ignore her criticisms, without having to hold her at arm’s length. I wish I had been strong and confident enough in myself to do that while she was alive, instead of having that strength and confidence ushered in by her death.

My mother’s death hasn’t changed what I remember about my relationship with her, but it has caused me to filter the memories through a lens of understanding, gratitude, and humility. I have to show my mother this grace if for no other reason than I hope my own daughters will do the same for me. My mother’s utter obliviousness to her parenting missteps forces me to recognize the likelihood of my own misinterpretation of my parenting actions and intentions. What I see as well-intentioned and helpful, my daughters could very well experience as overbearing and judgmental. What I offer as guidance might feel to them like pressure and shaming. I can’t dictate their experience, and I won’t tell them how to feel. I can only communicate my desire for them to be free to be who they are, even when I can’t relate. And I can keep the lines of communication open so that they can tell me what they need from me in order to thrive, even when it’s hard for me to hear. I can do the very best I can with what I know, which, I believe, is what my mother did.


DEESHA PHILYAW is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Along with her ex-husband,, she is the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Essence and Bitch magazines. Deesha’s other work includes contributions to anthologies such as Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made; Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives; Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta; Women’s Work; and The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.

First Thing

snowy couple
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By William Bradley

My Hodgkin’s Disease had returned—my doctor was fairly certain. It turns out he was wrong, that the strange glows on the scan were … well, something other than cancer. But Emily and I didn’t know that at the time.

This was in 2006, six years after my last radiation treatment. This time, it was in my thigh rather than in my neck and chest area, but nonetheless, the doctor seemed sure that it was back. I would need to have a biopsy performed, of course, but that felt like just a formality. A hunk of lymph nodes would be cut out, and then we’d begin treatments—likely radiation therapy, but a bone marrow transplant remained a possibility as well. Time was off the essence. I was likely going to die. My wife and I had serious thinking to do.

What we did know was that, when I’d had my bone marrow transplant in 1998, my doctor had said that I had a forty percent chance of living for more than five years. We also knew that I had radiation therapy to treat a recurrence two years after the transplant. Emily and I didn’t meet until after I had completed these treatments, but we had discussed my medical history, and what it meant for our relationship, once we were “seriously” dating—we met in grad school while working on our Ph.D.s in English, and had tried to keep things relatively casual so that we wouldn’t be tied down to another person. Neither of us wanted to compromise on our professional ambitions by becoming too attached to someone similarly ambitious, so we self-consciously tried to limit our relationship to one of hanging out and hooking up—a bit more intimate than friends-with-benefits, but nothing too emotionally consequential.

But at some point while hiking through the Missouri wilderness, or discussing the latest academic scandal reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education over coffee, or drinking cheap wine in her small basement apartment, we fell in love with each other, and we decided the best thing to do would be to get married. I couldn’t quite tell you when I realized that Emily mattered more to me than keeping all of my options open for the sake of my career, but I know that it happened.

Our life together was filled with reading, writing, sending out academic articles and creative work, supporting each other when the eventual rejections came, applying for academic jobs, worrying about money. We also played Scrabble, sought out strange landmarks like the world’s largest statue of a goose (“Maxie” in Sumner, Missouri), watched livestock shows at state fairs, and—in the words of the girl in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—we would “look at new things and try new drinks.”

We had both been involved with other people before we met each other, of course. Both of us had been in college relationships that had continued for far too long, with protracted break-ups and broken hearts. After my bone marrow transplant, my college girlfriend and I were breaking up for the final time. I reflected on what I wanted in a romantic relationship. Someone adventurous, willing to travel and have new experiences. Someone who loved literature as much as I did, but who could also enjoy the same type of lowbrow culture I enjoyed—I wanted to be able to talk about books and art with someone who could also appreciate the sublime genius of Don Knotts’s performance in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Someone who had a sense of humor, who would laugh if I called her “scumbag” and would be willing to high-five me after sex. In short, I wanted to be in a relationship that was fun—I’d had enough of passive-aggression and adolescent angst.

As it happens, Emily had recently reached similar conclusions about her own love life. It wasn’t love at first sight, but we immediately knew that we made each other laugh and had fun together—she was not only down with the high-fiving but was willing to call me “dude.” Things grew from there.

As Emily and I contemplated what a malignancy would mean for our relationship, I realized I couldn’t really say that life was unfair. I had been fortunate to be disease-free for as long as I had been, I figured, and I had experienced a powerful love and friendship the likes of which I don’t think too many people get to experience. The only disappointment was that we couldn’t make it last forever, and it looked like our time together was coming to an end.

In the week between the tentative diagnosis and the biopsy that would ultimately be reassuring, we spent our days crying, our evenings drinking wine and trying to reassure each other that this would be okay, nothing we couldn’t handle. I’d done all this before, with only my parents for companionship and support, listening to depressing music like Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya or Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss alone in the den that my parents had hastily converted into a bedroom when I’d been diagnosed. With Emily beside me, it wouldn’t be nearly as lonely or depressing. She knew how bad things had been before, how dark those days had been.

“I’m going to take care of you,” she said, looking at me from across the table on our screened-in porch while we drank our Pinot Grigio. “It’s not going to be like last time.”

I nodded and tried to agree. We said such things to each other, but hanging between us—unspoken, but mutually understood—was the understanding that a recurrence at this point could very well mean I would die.

The morning of the biopsy, Emily drove me to the hospital. After the nurse called me from the waiting room to the pre-op area, I handed Emily my wedding ring, which she put on her thumb. I kissed her goodbye.

What followed seemed to take forever—the shaving, the pre-surgery talk with the doctor, then watching the anesthesia drip through my IV.

I shut my eyes, then opened them to find myself sitting up, in recovery. It happened that fast. Emily and a nurse were laughing. I had a Diet Coke and a glass of water in front of me—my usual beverage order, if I’m not drinking wine or beer.

“Where did this Diet Coke and water come from?” I asked.

Emily smiled. “You asked the nurse for them when you woke up after your surgery.”

“Oh,” I replied. “I must have thought I was at a restaurant.”

At this, both Emily and the nurse exploded in laughter again.

“That’s the fourth time you’ve asked that question,” Emily said, “and then followed with ‘I must have thought I was at a restaurant.’”

I laughed too—although I should tell you that, later, when we told the story to friends, they were horrified. “I would have been afraid that it was permanent,” one friend replied. That obviously hadn’t occurred to Emily—or else, she is so used to the way I am normally that she didn’t worry that any lasting brain damage would be noticeable or change her life in any fundamental way.

At one point—still foggy and a bit confused—I glanced down at my left hand. My wedding ring was back where it belonged.

“When did you give this back to me?” I asked, holding up my hand.

This time, Emily did not laugh as she ran her hand up and down on my arm, telling me that it was the first thing I’d asked for—before the beverages, even—when I saw her after coming out of surgery.

“You said that you missed it,” she told me.

Emily and I have been together for eleven years, and as happy as that time has been, I have to tell you that we argue as much as any couple. Maybe even more—we can both be strong-willed and opinionated, especially when it comes to matters of teaching and writing, which are important parts of our careers. Sometimes, we argue over a work of literature. Sometimes, it’s pop culture. We rarely argue about politics, but it happens, sometimes.

More rarely—but more seriously—we fight about the important things in our marriage. Whether one of us takes the other for granted. Occasions of self-centeredness. Concerns that one of us prioritizes work over our relationship with each other. These are the serious fights. The ones that result in tears for her, or me stomping out of the house to “go for a walk, to clear my head.” These are the times when we get overwhelmed with thought—fears, suspicions, and pressures that probably come from outside the marriage itself, but are nonetheless real when we contemplate them.

But what I like about the story of my recovery from surgery is that it testifies to the fact that loving her isn’t something I have to think about—that even when my mind is wrapped up in a confused fog, when I’m basically just a being incapable of reflection, operating on instinct, unconscious habit, and biological imperative, I still love her. More than I love my job, more than I love literature, more than I love anything in the world. And I love her first, even before I get my Diet Coke and glass of water.


WILLIAM BRADLEY has been married to the poet and Renaissance scholar Emily Isaacson for almost nine years now. She was the one who encouraged him to try to publish the creative nonfiction he wrote, and since then, he has had work appear in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Normal School, Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, and other magazines. They spend most of their time in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University.