Mount Everest. It’s the world’s highest mountain. The Himalayas’ ultimate jewel stands at close to 9,000 meters which equates to over 29,000 feet. I’ve been on flights where the airplane didn’t ascend to that altitude. Everest has attracted climbers and mountaineers for decades willing to put their lives, and others, on the line to spend a few minutes on the highest place on Earth. Simply reaching base camp is an expedition that most people cannot accomplish and requires Sherpas and Yaks to carry supplies for those not born in such thin air.

I’ve long been fascinated by the mountain and by the people who climb – or attempt to climb her. I’ve also long been underwhelmed by the responses of climbers, who when asked the proverbial question, “Why? Why do they put their lives at risk just to say they climbed the highest mountain?” Time and again I’ve read their responses, “Because it’s there.” And time and again I’ve been somewhat annoyed at the seemingly superficial, surface response. Perhaps it’s no one’s business but when they pay all the money, tell all their friends, garner all the endorsements, and train for months and years to climb a mountain who probably doesn’t want them to climb her, “because it’s there,” has always seemed like a lame, almost disrespectful, reason.

And then recently I heard myself uttering similar responses to similar questions. No, I did not attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain but as I came to realize, I had in fact climbed my Everest. And, as I have begun to process my accomplishment, it has occurred to me that we all have our Everest. The actual Mt. Everest may indeed be Everest for some, but it also may be different things for different people. For me, my Everest was traveling to Eastern Europe by myself in the dead of winter to visit and pay homage to Nazi concentration camps, synagogues, memorials, and museums – on my birthday.

Just like the climbers who prepare well in advance for their journey to scale a mountain, last fall I had begun to prepare for my journey. With the help of a friend, we put the rather complicated schedule together. We juggled how to visit three countries, on a range of flights, and modes of transportation, to ensure I visit multiple sites with specific operating hours. I made lists and reminders. I reserved the dates with my pet sitter and lined up another friend she could rely on if needed.

I asked our local used bookseller to be on the lookout for books on this particular part of our world’s history. Every time they called, I bought the book and read every word. I read classic books by well-known authors and I read books that are popular in other countries. I read personal accounts. I read legal arguments. I read books that broke down the psychology of mind manipulation and what it took to perform acts of evil and then go home to your family every night.

As the February trip drew closer and I was beginning to organize my packing list and prepare the house for my pet sitter’s extended stay, I started to tell a few friends. And just like the, “because it’s there” response that had annoyed me in the past, I heard myself answering with my own annoying version of the question, “Why are you going?” Every time someone posed the question (and some people asked more than once), I would respond with, “I don’t know.” It was the truth. I didn’t know. I didn’t fully understand why I was going. I only knew that I felt called to go. It felt cliché to say it then and it feels cliché to write it now but I was compelled, drawn, called to go. Truth be told, it felt more like a need than a want. I needed to experience it in the winter because I didn’t want to hear birds singing or see leaves on the trees. I wanted to experience and feel the raw, harsh weather. I wasn’t interested in comfort – for me, it almost seemed wrong to visit these places when the sun was shining and vendors were selling ice cream around the next corner. I wanted to feel the cold, I wanted the skies to be overcast and the daylight to end early. I wanted to do it on my own, my way – no group tours, only a guide when required and I did not know why. I was not dreading the trip but I cannot truthfully say I was looking forward to it. It was something I had to do. When my flights were canceled, I was undeterred. It would have been easy to postpone or reschedule for another time but instead, I dove right back into the chaos of rebooking and rescheduling.

With the trip a fortnight away, questions and comments from friends and colleagues began to bother me. I’m not sure anyone could relate to my quest, how could they? I couldn’t really understand it myself. Having read about so much evil, I was routinely waking up in the middle of the night shaking and covered in sweat. I had begun lying out a spare set of pajamas, as the night sweats worsened. More than once a week for at least a month I screamed myself awake. I sat through a two-hour online tour preparing myself for something I could not fathom. A Shaman healer who saw me before I left warned me to be careful, “You are very porous,” she said. I put the books away and chose to withdraw from friends and social opportunities – shielding myself from the questions I couldn’t answer, from their concerns about my safety, and from their unwillingness to withhold their discomfort about my choice.

I landed in Poland and immediately felt as though I were on a two-week mission. Yes, I was on vacation but it felt different. I did all the things I had set out to do. On the day I visited Auschwitz, the weather was miserable – just what I had asked for. My driver (whose birth name was Magic) told me it was the coldest day they’d had all winter. We watched the skies spit icy rain and snow with winds that whipped signs and billboards into a frenzy. I walked where people died, and sat where people were tortured. I took my time and allowed my body to feel the feelings. I physically shook from the cold and my nose ran continuously. My back tightened as the wind howled through the barracks where people suffered, starved, and died. I walked stiffly through a gas chamber noticing the fingernail marks on the walls – the last messages from people dying long, painful deaths. I allowed the cold and the darkness to envelop me. I allowed myself to feel.

I visited Schlinder’s Factory and did not rush – I took in every picture, every face. I walked through a Jewish Ghetto and stopped to touch the ground. I walked through a two-story synagogue with the names of millions of murdered people stamped onto every square inch of its walls. I walked where people were forced to march barefoot without proper clothing. I visited memorials and stopped and read the captions under photographs of families, mothers, and their babies, I read their names – often out loud. I saw photographs that the Nazis had taken and some from courageous and stealthy individuals. I looked at horrifying photographs of piles of dead babies – they looked like dolls, piles of dead children that I’ll never unsee dumped against a building, easily one story high. I saw mounds and mounds and mounds of hair, shoes, eyeglasses, crutches, canes, and suitcases. I saw a room filled with empty canisters of the gas used to snuff the lives of innocent people in underground gas chambers because being underground helped mask the sounds of the screams.

Throughout the two-week, three-country trip, I was never able to answer the question as to why I was there and I never forced a response. I simply accepted that I was there with a purpose – I needn’t know more than that. The gift I gave myself was that I would be okay if I never understood. I had made the assumption that I would be filling my waking moments writing. My assumption was wrong. There I was, a writer, with a brand new Moleskine journal who had prepared for months with plans to write about every experience and did not write one word. I returned home with an empty journal – it is the longest amount of time I’ve ever gone without writing at least something.

Upon returning home I was careful with my re-entry phase. I processed the experience by sharing photos and explanations on social media. Unconcerned that I didn’t know why I had gone, I also did not come home with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. For something I had spent months planning and preparing, I was aware I had achieved the goals I had set but I did not feel particularly fulfilled. Thrilled to be back at home with my pets, and book publishing opportunities at my disposal, I felt mired in a fog I couldn’t see nor explain.

And then a few weeks after I returned it happened. It was one of those gradual moments as if life was happening in slow motion. Soaking in a bubble bath and lost in one of those light and breezy summer beach reads, I thought my mind was a million miles away trying to determine if the woman in the book was or wasn’t the long-lost mother of the adopted boy in the story. The story took place off the coast of England and the descriptions of the seafood made me think of my years spent in Maine. Yet, slowly my brain couldn’t follow the simple story – it wanted to focus on the present. Aware that I was rereading the same sentences, I closed the book and put it down. Overcome with a sense of something I couldn’t quite describe I sat in bubbly stillness trying to understand what I was feeling. There was lightness and a sense of having won yet all I was doing was relaxing in a bubble bath sipping sparkling water. I felt a little like laughing, almost giddy, but couldn’t quite pinpoint it.

Over the course of a week or so, the subtle slow-motion thoughts kept surfacing. I would be overcome with a feeling of such pure lightness I would laugh out loud. I’d get up and dance to a random song. The feelings felt happy and pure and I didn’t recognize them. They would wash over me and feel really, really good. I would say to my dog, “Gracie, I feel so light!” and she would jump around with me enjoying whatever was happening. And then one afternoon walking Gracie, watching her scamper and sniff coyote poop, I gazed up at the snow-capped mountains and it all made sense. I finally understood.

I had experienced a great deal of loss in my life which I had come to accept. The loss had defined me for a long time but no longer did. But, the grief that resulted from the loss had held on. I didn’t realize it had been part of me yet there I stood on the dusty, gravel road staring up at the cerulean blue sky juxtaposed with the snowy mountain peaks I finally understood why I went on that trip. I had climbed my Everest. Standing in the road I wept tears of joy. I felt light and love, and release. The grief that had grabbed me and stayed with me for a long, long time was gone. Did I drop off my grief at one of those memorials to pay forever respect to those who died there? Perhaps. Or did I need to see and feel the depths of hell on Earth to finally release it? Perhaps. That question, I’ll never be able to answer. But today if someone asks me why I went on the trip, they will not hear me say, “I don’t know.”

My Everest was not the Everest. My Everest was going to a place where evil, born from fear and hatred, had gripped the world. Millions of people died and a world was forever scarred but ultimately love prevailed. I climbed my Everest not knowing why. It wasn’t until I returned home that I understood.

I’ve often wondered if those climbers who summit Everest – and even the ones who don’t make it to the top – ever have a different response than, “because it’s there.” My guess is they, just like me, experience people who question their motives and can’t relate to their choices. Maybe those climbers, just like me, have to climb their Everest before they really know why.

I’ve read that climbing Everest changes a person. Climbing mine changed me. I find that my inner circle – already purposefully small – is becoming smaller. My tolerance for pettiness seems to be gone and honesty, something that has always been important to me, is more important than ever. Most of all my Everest showed me my strength. I trusted that I needed to do something without knowing why despite the judgment of people who couldn’t relate. The loss I’ve experienced in my life will never change but the grief that had latched on to me, that I was not aware I was carrying, has dissipated. I had to see and feel and walk through manmade hell to release my own burdens.

We all have an Everest. Your Everest might be running a marathon or adopting a healthy diet. It may be telling someone you love them – or telling them you don’t. It may be stepping away from an unhealthy relationship or going back to school. Climbing our Everest isn’t easy and we may not understand why but the mountain is there, calling you with a challenge that is yours, and yours alone. No one can climb your Everest for you but it is there waiting for you when you’re ready.

What’s your Everest?


Photo of the infamous gate into Auschwitz taken by the author on a cold, February morning. 



It’s okay to not know the answer to,


It’s okay if you don’t fit the collective suit and instead, fit your own. It’s the opposite of what the fashion industry refers to as, ‘Off the rack.’

For many of us, it’s likely the only thing that has ever actually fit – yet not on the favored rack that immediately fits like a glove, but rather something that was never actually intended to fit. Something beyond that. Beyond the rack, the thing that takes more effort to find.

I prefer those who don’t fit the proverbial suit. Perhaps those are the hearts too large to conform to the standard. The ones who aren’t so keen on what is expected.

I love the depth of people who live in the sacred space I now call home, surrounded by Mother Devine. When someone I don’t know particularly well recently learned I was about to embark on a trip and an experience that has called me for reasons I don’t understand, she shared a wisdom of words that helped it all make sense. This call to embark on this particular trip has rendered me a bit nervous, and unsure, yet curious about the growth that awaits. I was told:

We don’t know why we are called to places. But it takes courage to answer the call when it comes because those calls are rare and not meant for everyone. We don’t have to know the reason why the call came but those calls seldom go to those unwilling to answer. Maybe that part of the Earth needs acupuncture and maybe you’re the needle. Maybe you have the energy to heal part of that place, maybe it holds the energy to heal part of you. You don’t know and you don’t have to. You received the call and you answered.

I stood in awe of the words that not only resonated with me but also held wisdom that I someday want to hold. The rather random conversation enveloped me with a sense of acceptance of this tenacious call that I am answering without being able to adequately answer all the ‘why’ questions.

As I soon set out on a journey that few people seem to understand, including myself, I have retreated to the safety of my proverbial shell – at least for a moment as I prepare to respond to the call, embrace a world, and history, and an experience that knowing whatever happens, was meant to be.

Am I the needle? Am I the giver or the recipient? I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I may never know.

And that feeling of not knowing, of not having control, of complete uncertainty and total acceptance feels, to me, like

Strength and Freedom and ultimately,


~ ~ ~

Auschwitz photo courtesy of Alexey Soucho.

Terry Cycling featured me and my poem, The Mourning Ride, in their January newsletter. Click the link to read more.


Terry Peloton Logo

Here is the poem.

The Mourning Ride

Empty on the inside

While life was being lived all around me

Nothing felt like it fit

Including me

Words fell flat

Hugs didn’t land

Food had no taste

Life lost its flavor

My faith kept me upright

My bike helped me heal

The cadence

The pedals

The rhythm of my breath

The sounds of the gears

Miles of solitude

I let the tears fall from my heart

Exhaustion felt better than empty

The tears and the sweat

The crashes and the flats

The poems that started to come

The cracks in my heart that started to mend

The light was still there

The smiles started to come when I would see a dog

or a flock of geese

or a momma deer with her fawn

Without thought I pedaled

From my darkness to the light

Hundreds of rides

Thousands of miles

Gallons of tears

And then one day the tears stopped

Since 2015, I have fed a Gratitude Jar with memories, cards, and expressions of appreciation. And at the end of each of those years, I have emptied it and read the hundreds of messages. Some neatly penned from home on the paper that sits by the jar, others hastily written on bits of paper while on holiday or writing trips. My jar is fed with goodness throughout the year and reading the messages has become a beautiful way to close out the year and welcome a new one.

Except for this year, I wasn’t convinced it would be enjoyable. The last week of the year had been challenging at best and I was concerned that I would welcome the new year with a heavy heart.

For months, I had driven by a lone horse in a field less than a mile from where I lived. Intuitively I was concerned that he had been neglected but I was unsure what I was seeing. As fall turned to winter and the temperatures dropped, I looked to see if he had hay. I tried to see if there were any signs of fresh water or a bucket that a caretaker would fill with grain. I never saw any sign of food, or love for that matter. When I noticed the horse was frequently lying on the frozen, snow-covered ground I felt sick to my stomach. Something was dreadfully wrong and I did not know what to do.

Finally, through the help of one friend, doors opened to a world of horse advocacy, rescue, and a Livestock Inspector. As we collectively learned more and as I increasingly came to the realization that I had spoken up too late, I struggled with a large dose of self-blame. Why hadn’t I spoken up sooner? And why was I the only person in my village who spoke up at all? It hurt me to see how easy it is for people to busy themselves away from looking or caring. It bothered me that people were surprised that I was upset about this situation – how could I not be? How could they not be? I was confused and frustrated with a culture that believes leaving a horse to starve to death is akin to “letting him live out his life.” Nothing made sense and it all hurt my heart.

Inherently sensitive and empathic, today I recognize my attributes for the strengths they are rather than the weaknesses I was raised to believe they were. As I sit writing this, the experience I’m about to share is painfully shocking yet ultimately a beautiful gift that I am still unwrapping and learning from.

I had driven by to voyeuristically see what was happening – would they release the horse to be rescued and saved? Were they trying to hide what was happening since they moved him as soon as they got word someone had spoken up? Would the horse have the happy ending I had been praying and pleading with the Universe for? And then as I sat in my car and pondered those questions and more, from my secret vantage point I watched the owner walk up to the suffering horse and shoot him in the head. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t think I can ever unsee that act.

Yet, that now unseeable act, I realize was a gift from the Universe. Later, as my body began to calm down from the uncontrollable shaking and spasms that resulted from watching, I learned that the most humane way to end the life of a horse is exactly the way I had just witnessed. Had I not seen it happen, I would have likely been tormented for a long, long time by the unknown.

Up until that point, the entire day had been gray and overcast, a fitting match for how I felt. Yet within minutes of the horse’s death, I watched the winds magically change direction. The clouds lifted and hints of blue sky peaked through directly over the place where he had died. Perhaps it wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I also trusted that the Universe knew best and I believe she was showing me that it was over – no more gray, already within minutes there was light.

That night, before going to bed early and emotionally exhausted, I decided to draw a message card from a deck of Angel Cards. In this case, the picture on the card told me everything I needed to know. As soon as I saw the card I laughed and I cried and I felt relief. The horse who had died was not white like the one on the card, but it is only one of two cards in the deck that has a horse on it. The message was clear. It wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I had to accept that ultimately it was in fact a happy ending. The horse was released from suffering and I would go to bed that night knowing, despite the months of neglect, he had died in the best possible way because I had borne witness.

Days later, with thoughts of the horse and his transition on my mind, I built a beautiful fire in my chimenea and sat outside and emptied my years’ worth of gratitude. My heart wasn’t heavy as I had anticipated. I relished the memories and more than once laughed out loud.

I am working hard to forgive myself for not speaking up and out sooner, I have cried tears of regret and apologies and struggled with anger at anyone who can mistreat any living being. I have to accept that as we welcome 2023, there is at least one being who is no longer starving in a frozen field all alone. I have to accept, despite the fact that we couldn’t save him, that this was somehow a happy ending. My wish for the new year is that we all work a little bit harder to use our voices to create happier endings for those who need us most.

If you live in Taos County and have even the slightest concern that a horse or other livestock is being neglected or abused, do not hesitate to call Livestock Investigator, Ruben Baca, 575-770-1490. For anyone who lives elsewhere, call 911 and ask who to reach for possible livestock neglect and abuse. They are required by law to respond and they will.

Of all those moments and all those experiences and all those days, months, and years, I never remember a time when I was angry with Justin. I was often confused, frustrated, and convinced I had ruined him by saying or doing the wrong thing. I was angry at others and our higher-than-thou-keep-poor-people-in-their-place system with that whole ‘no kid left behind’ crap as kids were being left behind, and the school administrators with their demeaning attitudes and hateful, ignorant words about poor kids. The more I learned about our flawed, yet well-marketed system, I was angry at them. I was not angry at Justin.

Except for that one time.

I got angry at Justin. Frustration and confusion blended together – boiled actually. For a moment my anger had been redirected – away from the asinine system full of talking heads and toward Justin. I was upset with him yet I didn’t outwardly voice it. My anger was mine, not his. But, I recognized it was real and I knew it was valid. I owned the anger that had entered my mind space. I wanted to explode and yell at him, “how can you not care about this?” but of course, I didn’t. That would have been harmful. I had a young, mutable mind at my disposal. I wanted to do the right thing, but what?

I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t know where the words came from but they came, and they came quickly, and I turned my anger into something I am deeply proud of. It may be the best thing I’ve ever done.

In his sophomore year of high school, Justin was making straight A’s and at times he was a bit cocky about it, which I loved. I didn’t encourage him to be a jerk but I supported his budding confidence. He had gone from a malnourished middle-school dropout to outperforming the rich kids who had every well-financed New England advantage.

Justin’s assignment was to read a book and write a report on it which was nothing new. He was good at these. He loved to read and he wrote with a rawness that while seldom polished, was always compelling. Yet, he was treating this particular assignment about some random girl who lived and died decades ago as just an every-other-day thing he had to do. “I’ll get to it,” he told me. He wasn’t interested in it. He didn’t care about it. And something deep inside of me that I do not understand angered me to my core. He was treating this like Tom Sawyer. This wasn’t anything close to Tom Sawyer. This was Anne Frank.

It meant nothing to him and it meant everything to me.

I didn’t want to “sell” him on caring about this assignment. I wanted him to understand the history enough to care on his own. I wanted him to respect how easily humans can be manipulated to hate other humans. I wanted him to respect those awful possibilities. I wanted him to be brave enough to learn about this horrible history and to have an informed opinion. This was not just another book report.

Rather than pretend to be Martian Woman or encourage him to tick the boxes of the assignment I did something altogether different. For the first time in my life, I called a local Jewish temple. I talked to a Rabbi. I explained the situation. I expressed my concern. I don’t know what the Rabbi heard in my voice but he said he would help. The next day he called and gave me the name of an elderly couple who lived nearby. They were Holocaust survivors and they were willing to meet with Justin and me. In their home.

That weekend we pulled up in front of a well-maintained home in a modest blue-collar section of town. We walked up to the door and I rang the bell. The couple met us at the door and invited us into their tidy living room. It was quaint and the furniture, which somehow seemed small to me, was covered with dainty doilies. There was a crystal candy dish filled with hard candies. There was a crocheted Afghan folded neatly across the back of the sofa where Justin and I sat. The room was spotless.

I spoke first and thanked them for having us. There was a silence surrounding us but it wasn’t awkward – rather, it felt respectful, almost like we were in a museum or a place of worship. If the couple knew of my frustration and concern that Justin did not care about this assignment, they never showed it. I explained with pride in my voice that Justin was a great student who had an assignment and wanted to learn more. If I were a lawyer in a courtroom, it would have been a leading statement. I set the tone and Justin followed.

One of the first things the man did was roll up his sleeve and show us his tattoo. The one he received when he was in Auschwitz. He walked over to us and told us to touch it and all those years later, his voice broke as he explained what it felt like standing in the line, cold and hungry, Nazi soldiers yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand, waiting his turn to be labeled in their system. With tears in his eyes, he talked about being separated from his parents, “they were separated from me, they both went left and I was told to go right.” “What do you mean?,” Justin asked having not yet read a word of his assignment due in two days. “Son, the people in line who were told to go left were gassed in an incinerator. They died right away. I was about your age. I was the only one in my family who survived.” At that moment, I do not remember saying another word. The three of them talked. The tone was somber and serious yet at the same time, there was a lightness about it. There was a sense of success – after all, they had won, and Hitler had lost. The light within them transferred to Justin. It was hard to hear their story. All four of us cried, every one of us used the tissues sitting on the dust-free, shiny coffee table.

We spent a few hours and as we got up to leave, the boy I was raising who had walked into the house was not the same one who was walking out. He grew that day in front of my eyes. It was a little bit like watching one of those fast-motioned videos of a flower blossoming.

As we walked out, I approached the small, elderly woman and hugged her, and expressed my gratitude. She turned ever so slightly and whispered in my ear, “It takes a village.” They made a difference that day and we all felt it.

As I pulled away from the house Justin was quiet. I said nothing pretending to be solely focused on navigating the traffic-free side street. I wanted him to have time to think and absorb what we had just experienced. Something had changed within me too. I needed the quiet time too. I learned that day that humans can choose to fill themselves with hate or with love – it’s up to them. It’s up to us. As I turned onto the main road, continuing to act as though I was in downtown Manhattan merging into traffic that wasn’t there, Justin, who had not uttered a word since walking off their porch, said to me in almost in a whisper, “can we stop at CVS on the way home? I want to buy them a thank you card.” I nodded, tears of something rolling down my face – love, gratitude, success, awe – I wasn’t sure. I swallowed heavily and managed to say, “Of course, Kiddo, that’s a great idea,” without my voice breaking.

I pulled into the CVS parking lot and Justin got out, “wait here, I want to go in by myself.” I sat in the car, trying not to cry yet eventually yanking napkins from the glovebox to dry my tears and blow my nose. I wanted to jump and shout and high-five the world but this wasn’t about me. I was witnessing seeds of knowledge blossoming into compassion in record time and clearly, that requires tissues or in my case, long-forgotten napkins shoved in a glovebox.

Justin mailed the couple a card and one to me too – the only piece of mail he ever sent me – words full of gratitude and of understanding. He devoured The Diary of Anne Frank not once, but twice that weekend. He received an A+ on his book report with acknowledgment from his teacher that it was the best in the class. The thing is, I didn’t care about the grade – I cared that Justin cared.

The first words Justin ever said to me were, “I don’t know.” Today, I sit remembering that experience – of intercepting the football that Justin had thrown in the air on that fateful 19-degree day, which eventually led to sitting face-to-face with two survivors of Hitler’s evil manifesto to ‘Make Germany Great Again’.

In a few months, I will be traveling to Eastern Europe to visit, honor, and pay homage to some of those concentration camps. I’ve asked myself why I am so compelled – called – to go when there are so many other fun, adventurous, easy, relaxing places to visit and my response is, “I don’t know.” I’m not the kid tossing the football in the air on a bitterly cold winter’s day, but my response is the same. “I don’t know.”

In time, we learned why Justin’s response to any question was, “I don’t know” and in time, I’ll learn why I’ve chosen to spend my birthday at the site of one of the most evil, destructive, inhumane places man has ever created. And, at the site where humanity ultimately survived. Love is stronger than hate. It has always been so and it will always be. We get to choose what we want: to be filled with hate or to be filled with love.

~ ~ ~

If I were to say to Justin, “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” he would respond with the next line, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

We initially learned to recite the Rudyard Kipling classic for a school project but eventually, the poem became a bit of a secret code – a comfort code, almost like the words to a favorite song that feels good to sing out loud.

He had enlisted in the Army and wherever he was, his emails would end with the first part of one of the lines and my response would start with the line that followed.

Then husband and I had relocated to North Carolina, hoping, wishing, and praying I suppose that somehow a change in geography would magically erode whatever was wrong – a southern elixir of sorts. I had sold my business to an employee and orchestrated the move south – leaving the life we created in Maine behind. I embraced a once-familiar culture where men wore polo shirts, everyone ate hushpuppies, and confederate statues decorated public squares – whatever it took to fix him, us, and it, I was willing. Thing is, all the problems I had hoped we were moving away from somehow got packed in one of the bags – and despite trading the grays of Maine for the famous Carolina Blue sky, the problems were the same.

It was as if I had traded the blinders I had been wearing in Maine for a thicker, larger pair. Living in a house one-third the size of the one we had moved from so he could easily step in and ride on the coattails of a retiring financial advisor in the same firm – a fresh start with a successful path was laid in front of him. Meanwhile, I started working as a healthcare paralegal.

Justin had come for a visit, a stopover on his way to Ft. Hood, the large Army base in Texas. He was preparing to serve one more year of duty and then leave the Army and enroll in college. He was going to be a teacher and despite my resistance to all things military, the Army had, in some ways, been good for him. He had just bought a car, a bright blue Jetta, and he had grown into a confident young man with a job, a paycheck, and a big ol’ dream. He was ready to leave the service and excited about college.

The Raleigh-Durham area where we were living, is a nexus for up-and-coming industries, research and technology, and both state and private colleges and universities. Durham was a particularly fun place to explore. Good restaurants, eclectic shops, and the home of Duke University. The lush campus with its combination of neo-Gothic and Georgian architecture was nothing less than stunning. As we walked the campus beneath old-growth trees and granite buildings Justin was clearly inspired. We joked that we felt smarter just for walking on the campus where some of the nation’s smartest students go to school.

That afternoon I was keenly aware of how the tables had turned. Me, feeling lost and ungrounded in a southern culture that wasn’t comfortable, and sensing that then husband seemed to be cracking at the seams yet still not knowing what was wrong or how to help and, Justin, confident and curious telling me how it wouldn’t be long before he would be walking to classes on a college campus.

“Do you think I could go to Duke?” he asked.

“If you can dream and not make dreams your master,” I replied, to which Justin immediately said, “If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,” he finished.

That particular day was one of my favorite days ever – the sunny afternoon walking the campus, sneaking into the stately Chapel, it felt like we were in Europe. “You know, we still haven’t gone to Ver-say-lees,” I said in the same way Martian Woman once pronounced it before Justin taught her to properly enunciate the Palace of Versailles. “Before you start college, we’re going to take you there just like we always said.” “I want to go to Normandy too,” he said, with a seriousness born from a young man who had already been to Afghanistan and would likely be returning.

A few days later, we stood in the gravel driveway of our small home as Justin was preparing to leave. I noticed on his front seat the notebook we had made a few years before, all the sticky notes with the inspirational and positive sayings now taped and sealed into plastic – the stickiness on the backs long gone. I held the notebook, remembering how those sticky notes had eventually covered all but a few inches of his bathroom mirror. I was proud of who he had become.

As Justin backed out of the driveway, then husband and I walked awkwardly alongside the car until he reached the road and put it in drive. He rolled down the windows, music already filling the interior. I leaned into the passenger side window and said one more goodbye. We stood in the road and watched the bright blue Jetta drive out of sight.

It would be the last time I saw Justin.

He was killed in Afghanistan a couple of months later. We were told it was “friendly fire,” but there is nothing remotely friendly about it.

His funeral was one of the worst experiences of my life. Other than the bagpipes – a sound that to this day, can still make me feel nauseated, I remember only fragments of conversations. I don’t remember where we stayed, who we saw, how long we were there, what we drove, or where we ate. I do remember boarding the plane to fly back to our new North Carolina home and having a full-fledged panic attack – the first I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to die. There was not enough oxygen on the plane – grief had consumed every particle and I could not breathe.

Over the course of weeks and months and beyond, I learned about grief. I learned those seven steps of grief aren’t like steps at all – more like waves in the ocean, sometimes politely landing on shore, other times crashing down and disrupting every grain of thought-to-be-healed sand. Life changed – I gravitated toward volunteering, my Buddhist community, and my bike. I made the decision to apply to graduate school to earn a degree in social work. I figured I would likely never walk into the street and intercept a kid’s football again but it felt like the right thing to do. In every conceivable way, I moved in one direction and then husband moved in another.

It was many months later when I learned my financial advisor then husband had drained my once-healthy investment portfolio of every penny. While his IRA was safe and sound, there was nothing left in my name. He lost his license and his job shortly after as he apparently had moved on from my depleted accounts to start feeding off of others. One would think the blinders would have immediately been ripped off with the undisputable proof in front of me, yet it took nearly two more years of listening to more lies and promises before I finally summoned the courage to leave.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… It’s just one line from the poem we recited hundreds of times but one that is difficult to achieve. Even though I understood the words, it would take more than a decade and a great deal of work for me to be able to come close to treating those two imposters just the same. In many ways, Justin had always been able to do that.

The End.

(But in all actuality, it was really The Beginning.)

~ ~ ~

In one of many hits by Coldplay, there is a particular lyric penned by Chris Martin about how he used to rule the world, and how he now sweeps the streets he used to own. From the first time I heard it, the line, like the entire song, resonated with me. Its title was inspired by Frida Khalo’s final painting of the watermelons before her death, ‘Viva la Vida’. Long live life. The full name of the song is ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.’

Back when I ruled my world and long before I started sweeping its streets, I never understood how a woman could be beaten and battered by a man, only to hide the bruises he left behind with long sleeves and heavy makeup – enabling him to hit her another day. I often thought if someone left a bruise on me, I wouldn’t hide it. Yet, later in my street-sweeping years, when my myopic vision began to improve, I could clearly see how I had done the same thing. My scars were easy to hide – they didn’t come in the form of bruises and broken bones and it took years before I realized the scars were even there – having formed from the inside out.

I suppose it started with the middle school food fight I was not involved in but paid a price for – being humiliated and made to feel hungry at the hands of my mother. The only constant was unpredictability and just like the woman trying to avoid the next punch, I walked on eggshells and learned to live a life of damage control.

Then husband and I technically met in college – me the student, he the football coach. It was fun and exciting and we ‘came out’ at my graduation – since he would have lost his job for dating a student. We dated for nearly seven years before we got married. The first time I remember him having trouble with money he was coaching in Gainesville, Florida. It was big-time football and since I lived in Virginia at the time, we spent a lot of time on the telephone. I don’t remember the details, it was something I never understood, but he had gotten into trouble about unpaid phone bills. He asked me for what seemed to me like a lot of money and when I hesitated he calmly changed the subject. It was never mentioned again.

Like the home in which I was raised, then husband was great at not seeing things and not talking about things that were in the middle of the proverbial room. It was familiar behavior to me and I never questioned it. Certainly not in those ‘rule my world’ days when we had successful businesses, and a happy life filled with all the things people strive for while watching Justin grow into an increasingly well-adjusted young man.

Justin had just joined a national reserve program for high school students. I wanted nothing to do with it and as much love and energy I had put into that kid, I couldn’t pretend to be happy about his interest in it. He was getting stronger and loved showing me how many pushups he could do. He had started talking about wanting to be a teacher and I thought, like all the preceding phases, this whole military phase would pass. After all, he wanted to be a teacher.

Then husband always called me a “math atheist” and I always agreed. For as good as I was becoming with words, I was the opposite when it came to numbers. Having decided to stop coaching, he was a budding, brilliant financial advisor. He was charming and in Maine, with his slow-cadence and midwestern drawl, even the staunchest, distrusting Yankees grew to trust him. Because of my undisputed and agreed-upon math atheist status, we easily evolved to having the financial advisor in the family handle the finances. We’d walk the dogs and he’d explain how well we were doing, how he signed me up for long-term care health insurance, and how he was handling my personal investments. I felt safe, secure, and loved. Every part of my being trusted him – it never occurred to me not to.

Despite my slight concern about Justin’s current military, pushup phase, I thought it would pass. I was happy in my marriage and I loved my life. Invariably a bill would arrive in the mail stamped in red, block letters, OVERDUE or PAST DUE. Sometimes there would be credit card bills that would arrive – thick envelopes – clearly out of the ordinary but they weren’t discussed. Then husband was handling that aspect of things while I handled other things.

Yet, the errant envelope stamped PAST DUE or FINAL NOTICE would continue to arrive and then husband would continue to say nothing was wrong. The first time I decided on a whim to open one of the ominous-looking red, stamped envelopes I read words that scared me – explaining we owed thousands upon thousands of dollars and thousands more in interest fees. There were words about debt collectors and class-action lawsuits and I simply did not know how to respond. I was scared. The words I was reading completely conflicted with the words he was saying.

And just like the battered woman who I could never understand what could compel her to hide her bruises – I started hiding my own scars. Just like I had learned to hide similar versions in my youth. And just like the woman with the throbbing hematoma who loved her husband and wanted desperately to believe him when he said, “it was just this one time” I did the same thing. I believed my charming midwestern then husband with the slightly slow speech cadence when he explained, “I had some unexpected business expenses.” “I promise, this will never happen again.” “Something went wrong at the bank, the check must have gotten lost in the mail.”

It continued to happen and we each played our role – a common pattern in every relationship. One always had the excuses and promises and one followed up with the enabling behavior. Rather than naming and claiming the big ugly thing that was erupting in our marriage, like the woman trying to hide her bruises, I kept adding more and more makeup to hide the scars – scared to say anything out loud (because that would make it real).

Increasingly concerned about Justin’s escalating interest in the military, much of my attention was on his future. “Did you know if you join the Army they’ll pay for your college?” he said one Saturday afternoon. “It’s called the GI Bill. I can go to college for free.”

My heart was sinking. I was no longer ruling my world. The scars were getting harder to hide, then husband seemed to be turning into someone I no longer knew, and ‘Death and All His Friends’ were making a beeline for everyone and everything in my life.

Much later, I took solace in learning to play ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends’ on my violin. One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me. I discovered that my castles stand upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.

~ ~ ~

Like every region and state in our country, Maine has its particular, and peculiar, nuances. It’s those national nuances that I not only notice, but I also embrace. I’d never lived in a place where it is common for the heavily-accented demographic to not pronounce an existing ‘R’ at the end of the word yet add the sound to an otherwise softer word – as if to make it harsher. The word cellar was softened to cellah, the word idea was hardened to idear. Later when we moved south, it was at a local garden shop that I realized the plant, hosta, didn’t end in an ‘R’ because it was by and large pronounced hoster in Maine.

Having relocated from my aforementioned Basketball and Jesus upbringing of the south, I noticed things that New Englanders – having grown up with the particulars and peculiarities – didn’t seem to notice as much. For a boy born and raised in Maine who had limited exposure to life outside of the state, Justin noticed the nuances too. For every oddity I pointed out, he would match me with another one.

Life had continued to amble and speed along as it tends to do. No longer malnourished, Justin ran track in the springtime and was on his high school football team. His grades were better than mine at that age. He loved the movie Rudy and country music – it was his mom’s favorite too. He went through every conceivable teenage phase as he discovered who he was and who he wanted to become: rapper dude with baggy pants, preppy boy with khakis and blue oxford shirts, and sweatpants with flannel shirt guy – as if he were a couch potato from the waist down and a logger from the waist up.

It was his enthusiasm for life that I loved the most. Unlike many teenagers, Justin was never embarrassed to be out with then husband and me. We’d sit in restaurants during the holidays wearing those thin paper hats that come from British Christmas Crackers. His laughter was infectious, his curiosity unwavering.

He had taken to writing down positive and inspiring quotes on those little square Post-It notes and they covered nearly every surface in his rooms (the one in our house and the one in his, beside my office). You can say you can or you can’t, either way you’ll be right. I have not failed; I have simply succeeded in finding a way that doesn’t work. If there wasn’t any darkness, we’d never see the stars.

The quotes came from everyone and everywhere, including things I had said to him. The first time I saw a yellow sticky note with words I had said to him, I touched it with my fingers – lightly, as if I would rub the ink off.

It was Justin who first asked me about the wishing wells. One of the particular peculiarities about Maine is that people often adorn their yards with wooden wishing wells. As Justin pointed out over and over, “but they’re fake, they’re not even real!” and they weren’t. They were purely decorative and typically had flowers in them. Then husband would comment that they were just one more thing to mow around.

We had driven to Rockland to explore and eat pie along the way at our favorite roadside diner when Justin started, obnoxiously at first, pointing out the wishing wells. “Wishing Well!” “Wishing Well!” “Wishing Well!” Oh my god, this kid is going to drive me crazy, I would think. But that laughter of his, the antidote to seemingly all things, would consume me every time. It soon became a game – the one who could spot the most wishing wells won. You’d score a point if you saw it first which meant that these wishing well adventures devolved into mostly a car full of people yelling, “Wishing Well!” at the top of their lungs – the decibels becoming as important as the actual spotting of the wishing well.

Holiday time was no different – the wishing well game was replaced by the Christmas tree version. Another nuance of cold, dark winters in Maine, and oddly antithetical to keeping the coveted heat inside the house, many, if not most homes, did not have drapes or window coverings. It was easy to walk or drive by homes in the late afternoon (already dark outside) or evenings and see into the quaint New England-style homes and, during the holidays, spot their Christmas trees. A quick errand to the store or dropping Justin off at practice during December was nothing more than a drive from Point A to Point B, yelling, “Christmas Tree!” at the tops of our lungs.

It was a time before Steve Jobs and his smartphone invention would disrupt and forever change our ways of being in the world. We were present and we saw and participated in the world around us. We played goofy games in the car and no one sat at dinner checking their phone. Justin had blended into our dynamic and he was eager to learn and grow. He was easy to be around. Then husband’s business was thriving and we worked together to help it grow. He moved into my previous space – as planned – and my business relocated to the back of our building in a space we had refurbished. I was married to my best friend, living in a beautiful home we had built, and playing high-level tennis each week. We had cats and dogs who kept us busy. We hiked and explored. We traveled. We cross-country skied in the winter and water-skied in the summer.

It was a busy time in our lives but it was not hectic or chaotic. It felt successful. I felt successful. We were all dreaming and achieving and with Justin’s presence, there was a great deal of laughter in our lives. When I thought of our collective futures, I was full of optimism.

That optimism, however, would be short-lived. A veil was about to be lifted and a dormant darkness I never knew was lurking was about to change everything. As I enjoyed the wishing wells and Christmas trees of our lives, I had no idea what was coming. I had no idea the laughter was about to die.

When I was in the fourth grade we moved to a new town. My mother took me to the school and introduced me to the woman who would be my teacher. Always consumed with making good impressions, my mother was perpetually concerned with her image and what people thought of her.

Soon after starting at the new school, I was having lunch in the cafeteria when a student a few tables over threw food. I cannot remember if he was aiming at someone else or at me, but the food hit me. Already self-conscious about being the new student with brand new glasses (they called me names but at least I could see), I felt somewhat frozen. I’d never been in a situation where anyone other than my father had called me a derogatory name and now, they were throwing food. More food hit me and within minutes, a group of kids was throwing food. When the teacher who was overseeing the cafeteria that day – who also happened to be my teacher – asked what had happened, someone blamed the new kid. Me. I hadn’t thrown any food. I wasn’t even sure what was happening.

It was what happened after that when I was introduced to a side of my mother I had not remembered meeting before. Granted, she had left me plenty of times with a babysitter and not picked me up until days later. I spent summers (thankfully) with her parents, my Grand and Granddaddy. She made it easy to have distance between us – for as long as I can remember, it’s what she wanted. For as long as I remember the words she would utter at home, “I never wanted you.”

When the teacher at my new school called to tell my mother I had started a food fight (which wasn’t true), my mother showed up. Far too young to understand at the time, and I suppose I still don’t, a different version walked into the room. Her anger scared me, the look on her face was one I would grow to fear, but what really resonated was that she didn’t have any interest in hearing my side of the story. I had no voice. I had done nothing wrong but that didn’t matter – not to Ms. Hoffsinger, my teacher, and certainly not to my mother. All my mother knew was someone had said I had done something wrong and that was the gospel. She didn’t believe me.

It was then when she said something to me that I would hear hundreds of times, probably thousands. It was one of the last things she ever said to me, “You embarrass the hell out of me.” If there is an award for embarrassing the hell out of one’s mother, I undoubtedly should win.

That night, instead of joining the family for dinner, my mother told me that we didn’t have enough food to throw in our house and so I wouldn’t be eating dinner. I was made to write sentences – 500 every night – a sentence I remember to this day and still, cannot make myself write it again – all these years later in my healed state, I don’t want to say that sentence out loud, and I don’t want to write it. She made me apologize thousands of times in writing for something I didn’t do. She made me take it to Ms. Hoffsinger who acted like she was some kind of savior – preventing me from going down the road of sin and failure. By the 7th night of having only lunch to eat (because my mother took breakfast away too), my father actually stood up to her for perhaps one of the only times in his life. He grabbed me by the arm from sitting there writing the sentences as they all ate and sat me down at the dinner table. I remember being hungry but also feeling how it had sort of passed – the hunger had somehow felt like a new friend. Despite the food in front of me, it was hard to eat. That new friend would show up years later, familiar and oddly nurturing.

The circumstances in Justin’s life resulted in him missing far more dinners than those seven consecutive dinner-less nights I experienced, but the difference is it was never on purpose. His mother wasn’t angry at her son or cruel to him. My god, she loved her son and didn’t hesitate to talk about that. Yes, she was sick with addiction and her kid missed a lot of meals because of that but not because she was trying to prove a point she had latched onto. Jackie was fighting a disease whose side effects were societal stigma. I knew what it felt like to be in a house with the neighbors all thinking things were butterflies and Cracker Jacks when they weren’t. I continued to be wary of being the same type of mother figure that I had experienced, yet it was becoming clear that despite not knowing all the right things to do and say, I had love – a lot of it – to share. There was full-on Momma Bear in me and I wasn’t afraid to let Momma Bear come out.

Turns out, you don’t have to have experienced a Momma Bear to be one.

By the time Justin was starting high school, Jackie had signed all the permissions the form-filler-outers required. I was his contact and if there was a parent-teacher conference, I was generally the first one there. In my experience, the thing about advocating for a child you love but is not yours is teachers and administrators and seemingly every Tom, Dick, and Harriet felt like they could say anything to me. I often wondered if they spoke to “real parents” like they spoke to me but I knew the answer.

The first teacher I talked to was a bored, burnout time-to-change-careers math teacher and apparently didn’t care what he said – at least not to me. Justin’s grades had continued to improve and he had blossomed. “I think he’s doing just fine for what we can expect, the bar isn’t too high with these kids – let’s just try and get him to graduate.” Truth be told, I always hated math – still do. It was easy to dislike Mr. Bored, Burnout, Math Teacher.

Momma Bear had come out before. Momma Bear wasn’t fucking around. Her cub may not have had a voice but she sure as hell had one. She had come out when we bought a winter coat and much later when we shopped for shoes – both times the salesperson asked if I was volunteering to help the poor or some bullshit. Momma Bear came out at a doctor who made a snide comment about Justin’s diet and why he was malnourished, “these kids are raised on junk food.” I didn’t wait long enough for that asinine comment to land. Perhaps Momma Bear came out her biggest and gnarliest with a school administrator who was lucky I didn’t claw him in his face when he referred to Justin as a, “Section Eighter.”

I knew I wasn’t a mother but I damn sure knew I was motherly and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I had the capacity to love – I needn’t have worried. Some things skip a generation – my guess was the loving and nurturing capacities of my Grand skipped past her seed, my mother, and landed squarely with me. In some ways, I was indeed my mother – fearless, unafraid, ready to travel and discover all the things. I once asked her if she liked sushi, “I do now!” she replied, despite never having tasted sushi and I loved that part of her. She was ready to embrace the unknown – it was like she was offended by limitations. No one’s mother was like that but mine was and I fucking loved it. But, at no time in my life did she ever take up for me or have my back as the kids say these days. And I was the opposite of that – I could not imagine not supporting a child. All the marketing slogans in the world could whitewash our world about not leaving kids behind but the truth was, they were being left behind. They were slipping through the cracks. I wasn’t going to change the world, but I was going to do everything I could to change the world for one. Justin. With Jackie’s permission and her repeated “thank you’s,” we loved our baby cub and you don’t get in between a Momma (and Momma’s) and her cub.

“Excuse me?” is one of two things I remember saying to Justin’s teacher, as I knew I was there for someone who didn’t have a voice. As he proceeded to droll on about the limitations of generational poverty or some bullshit pontifications in his little reside-in-the-box world, he perceived simply because of Justin’s demographic, I interrupted him. As a Momma Bear, it was one of my finer moments and likely why I remember my words, verbatim. Words I later shared with Jackie who could not have been happier – because she could not have said those words and we both knew it. I turned to the weasel teacher who seemed more interested in his tin of Altoid mints than talking with me and embodied my Momma Bear voice, “Listen to me right now and you might want to take notes. (That was my favorite part, telling the teacher to take notes. To this day, it still makes me smile.) I will be here for every parent-teacher conference held at this school and I will talk to every one of Justin’s teachers – including you. If you think I’m going to miss one – you’ll be wrong. I’ll advocate for MORE of these conferences if I have to. If I ever hear you or ANYONE at this school say that Justin doesn’t have potential I’ll be speaking to the School Board about you.”

The teacher’s face turned every bit as red as the Altoid’s tin he had begun to nervously fondle. We continued our conversation in a cordial, new realization way, despite the fact that my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my body and land on the desk between us. He never stopped playing with the Altoids tin but to give him credit, he changed his tune and he changed it on a dime.

I drove home way too fast, because it felt good, and yes, the thing Momma Bear inadvertently taught her cub as he learned to drive because it’s fun and feels free. Justin met me at the door as I came in from the garage. “How did it go at my school?” exuberance in his youthful, full-of-potential voice.

“It went great, Kiddo. You’ve got a great school and amazing teachers. You’re going to do great in high school.”

After that Momma Bear moment, Justin’s teachers welcomed me – and more importantly, him – with open arms. They say it takes a village and I do believe it does. But sometimes, it takes a big, onery Momma Bear who isn’t afraid to growl.

The cub, by the way, graduated from high school with honors, at the top of his class.

In the ensuing months, it seemed every part of life changed yet in some ways it felt the same. Life continued. We embraced Justin and perhaps more so, we welcomed his situation. Given my resistance to rubbing off the not-so-good things of my upbringing, I worked hard to add goodness and love to Justin’s life without adding discomfort or stigma – he had enough of that already. We were often in touch with Jackie, Justin’s mom, to strengthen the bond between the two of them.

I continued working hard at my business, gaining clients, and hiring employees and subcontractors, yet in the evenings rather than spend time doing whatever I was doing B.J. (Before Justin), I would work with him on his studies. We would go through homework and lessons – something he had never given much consideration to before. When a chapter would have sample test questions at the end, we would go through them – we took the extra steps, we did the extra work. Justin didn’t particularly like it but he didn’t hate it. He struggled with concepts and he struggled with how to study but he worked hard.

One particularly frustrating evening as we tried to work through a concept, Martian Woman landed in our living room. She wasn’t expected and I suppose like most Martians or UFOs, no one knows where they come from. But there she was, front and center. To my surprise, as soon as Martian Woman arrived, everything got better – studying and practicing for tests became fun.

Justin was struggling to understand a science class. It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying – but he wasn’t getting it. I’ve never been a good student. I have always been a horrible test taker and I related to his struggle. When then husband and I were planning a trip to France we hired a local tutor to help us learn the language. Then husband excelled in the structured lessons and practice sessions while I floundered. Yet, as soon as we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, without the pressure or structure, I found myself speaking and communicating while then husband was the one left to flail. I knew what it was like to be smart but to struggle with structured, left-brain assignments.

It occurred to me as we continued on a bumpy, uncomfortable, yet familiar, path that I was trying to get Justin to see something he couldn’t – something that teachers had always done to me – when really, we just needed to be presented with the information and be trusted to discover what was in front of us. Without any conscious decision or preplanning, I turned into Martian Woman on the spot – someone who did not understand the language, the steps, the concept. In essence, Martian Woman had just landed in our living room and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Justin had to teach her.

For whatever reason, and for all the silly laughter, Martian Woman helped bridge the gap for the boy struggling with school to one who couldn’t wait to tell Martian Woman about the things he learned in class that day. Without any prompts or suggestions, Justin started taking notes during class so he could explain it to Martian Woman that night. He would stay after class and ask questions to make sure he understood how to describe the steps to her. He would raise his hand if he didn’t understand a word and write down the definition. It was as if Justin wasn’t just responsible for himself – he was responsible for Martian Woman and he loved trying to make her understand.

For me, it was comically easy to be someone from outer space – school never came easy to me anyway. It was at times, side-splitting, pee-your-pants (not quite) funny, but in what seemed like no time at all, school, studies, homework, and assignments became fun. Our study sessions were filled with laughter and more than once Justin would say, “Martian Woman is SO stupid!” I would laugh and agree every time.

The first test Justin took after Martian Woman landed in our living room, he made an ‘A’. But it was not just a run-of-the-mill ‘A’. He had scored 100, his first-ever (there would be many more). His teacher wrote a note at the top of the paper in red ink about his improvement. The 100 was circled with two or three exclamation marks. Sitting in my office, I heard Justin burst through the door and watch as he bounded into my office. Keely had quickly learned not to schedule any calls or meetings for me from 3:30 to 5 PM – although we never actually discussed it, that time had become reserved for Justin. Beaming from ear to ear, laughing and jumping around, “Look! It’s because of Martian Woman.”

I listened to Justin excitedly tell the whole story of the test and how the teacher handed them out and explained in front of everyone that Justin was one of three students who had made a 100. I told Justin to go show Keely and I’d be right there. I ducked into the bathroom, a solace to hide my tears – an emotion I had been taught was weak and embarrassing. My tears of joy and utter amazement ran down my face and soaked into my collar. Trying to dry my eyes, flooded with emotion I hadn’t anticipated, I wasted a lot of toilet paper. I looked in the mirror and saw the joy on my tear-stained face. Why was I hiding tears of happiness? How would I explain that behavior to Martian Woman?

I walked out into the office with big tear-filled eyes and laughed and cried and celebrated all of us – Martian Woman too.