What We Don’t Know Until We Do

Doing the mall crawl, laughing with Bestie. Bam! I was crying. And I didn’t know why.

It wasn’t a drip, drip, seeping cry but a sneaker wave that washed over me. We sat down on a mall bench flanked by potted plants and an ash tray, shoppers walked by. My tears flowed.

I tried to hide that I had come undone.

“What happened?” surprised Bestie asked. A legit question. I asked myself the same. What happened?

I didn’t have an answer.

As we sat I backed up through our last few minutes. Walking. Walking past the tea store with too many smells, a shop girl in front, her hair parted down the center, and an apron on, offering her tray of Dixie cup samples. “Ladies, would you like a taste of our tea of the day?”

No. No, thank you.

Before that was the luggage store with beautiful, designer suitcases we could only dream of owning. And the kitchen store. Ahhh, the kitchen store. I’ll take one of everything…

Then a big open space, aisles to the anchor stores intersected. A mall village square where the local piano store had set up shop for a weekend demo. Gorgeous black lacquer grand pianos gleamed under a massive skylight, a white baby grand, and used uprights artfully arranged with sales people meandering trying to catch our eye. I remembered seeing the word YAMAHA.

Chopin. Étude 1 in A flat major, Opus 25. A little girl playing. Small, light fingers skimming the keys.

Tiny thing sitting on the piano bench. Black velvet dress with a white scalloped collar and crisp bow tied behind her at the waist. Ruffled cuffs on her socks and black Mary Janes. A girl for a magazine, for a movie. Perfect in every way as her hands skipped across the gleaming keys of the glossy black piano.

Bestie and I sat on the bench spinning the dial backwards and instantly knew when we met the miniature pianist what the trigger for tears had been. Chopin filled my head.

My little girl would not play the piano. Would not wear such a dress. Would not smile for passersby, would not grace a mall demonstration, a classroom or any other place.

As had happened when the Half Moon Bay Review announced in its weekly news that “All Children Born in 1979 Register for School Tomorrow”, I wept because there would be no tomorrow. No yellow rain slicker, galoshes or lunchbox. No kindergarten.

There was only October 9, 1979.

I have learned a few times over, and am prepared for more, there is no mourning for that we haven’t yet realized has slipped through our grasp until a revelatory moment. Until a scene unfolds that comes with an instant knowing, “Oh, yes, and this, too…”  

In the stream of daily data that cascades by there will be times the flow will dam, then drench me with a memory-might-have-been.

As I revisited the little musician in my mind I surrendered to another little death amid the old, larger wound I carried.

It has been several years since the day of the mall crawl with Bestie. I wonder if she remembers it, too.

I couldn’t have known in the beginning that I would recall with such clarity the exact second I was told my daughter was gone or that it would hurt this much 39 years years later. Perhaps it’s for the best to find out over time, after the days of searing sorrow and stifling desperation have passed.  When longing has been distilled to a sad companion that sometimes asserts itself and other times recedes to a resting place away from view. It would be too much to absorb at the start.

I don’t know who my baby girl might have been by her 39th birthday. An artist? A teacher? A physician? A gardener? A scientist? A mom? Stern or funny, conventional or outrageous? Living a town away from me, or across a nation.

Would she play the piano?

I know she was and remains my daughter. She is her brother’s sister. All the rest resides in imagination.

Happy birthday, Stefani Anna King. Happy all that was and all that may have been. You have not been forgotten. Play Chopin in the heavens today. I will hear you.

©Bradley Baxter


Posted in Acknowlegement, Back to Life, Grief, Loss, Memoir, pamela hester king | 1 Comment


I found this article fascinating because it articulated something I believe to be true yet had not previously consciously considered. I had, and have, rituals. They’ve helped me.

Though I don’t go to the cemetery often, I always go close to Thanksgiving and leave Christmas wreaths for my lost loved ones.

I make a point of  taking the day off on my daughter’s birthday and I do something healing for myself.

And as a friend of mine said to me long ago, “Place something beautiful where you see it first thing in the morning.” Vicki was right. I’ve done so ever since, over 25 years now. A lovely Nambé heart-shaped bowl is on my nightstand and it’s filled with other glass hearts I’ve collected through the years.

I hope you find something in this 2014 article written by Emily Esfahani Smith, and published in The Atlantic, that resonates for you. And if you haven’t established a healing ritual, maybe now is the time to try. Link to the article below.

A Free Syrian Army fighter prays after eating his iftar (breaking fast) meal during the holy month of Ramadan in the rebel-held town of Dael


In Grief, Try Rituals


Posted in Back to Life, Death & Dying, Grief, Support | Leave a comment


Recently I was a guest on The Kiss My Age Show podcast. The episode’s topic was  the “invisibility” of women of a certain age. (Check the App Store or Google Play on your device for a podcast subscription. If you’re a mid-century modern or vintage woman, you’ll love these three co-hosts, their brisk banter, and the program. End of the serious plug.)


Julie Harris Walker

During the course of conversation, Julie Harris Walker, a co-host, asked me a question about helpful/appropriate things one might say to the recently bereaved. You know, that first or second encounter, either at the memorial service or later at the dry cleaners, Starbucks, the grocery store…

shoppingIf you were to send a note (and NOT a Hallmark card that’s supposed to do the job for you because you don’t trust yourself to ad lib your way through your own genuine and personal thoughts), what might you say?

We’ve all felt dread at these situations. The ‘what if a thought moves from my mind and rolls out through my mouth like a gumball exiting a machine, makes no sense, or – perish the thought – leaves someone already feeling horrible, feeling worse. What if they dissolve into tears right in front of me?’

It’s a somewhat legit thought. Though generally speaking they probably already feel so destroyed it’s doubtful you could make them feel worse unless you dissed their loved one or somehow de-legitimized their grief.

Feel better now?

My policy and what I loved most when folks visited me was truth. The moment a friend owned their feelings of helplessness and awkwardness and said, “I have no idea what to say because this is so awful,” it lightened my burden. It took from me the feeling that I was supposed to make my guests comfortable with MY loss when I was reeling in unreality.


Thanks, Pexels

Let’s tell the truth. My life had blown up. To me it seemed bits of flesh were everywhere after the explosion. Kinda like a hard boiled egg left on the stove too long. I checked to be sure I wasn’t leaving a blood trail as I was sure I’d been disemboweled. I had no idea, literal or figurative, what my next move might be. I existed minute to minute because every breath was excruciating and I didn’t know if I had the strength to take another.

The truth? No one had any idea what to say, least of all me, and the willingness to own that out loud and hang with me anyway meant everything.

Those who didn’t allow their nervousness, unease, and awkwardness with my grief rule their willingness to be with me had my deepest gratitude. My husband’s suicide was 25 years ago. I’ve not forgotten the truthful exchanges. The courageous, life changing and healing, truthful exchanges.


Thanks, Pexels

Truth set the ground rules. We moved forward from those interactions feeling our way to the future together. Tentatively. Tenderly. Truthfully.

Please don’t for a minute think the discomfort you’re feeling at not knowing what to say registers on the cosmic pain scale. The weights are so inequivalent that the scale needle won’t even budge. Sorry. Your discomfort doesn’t count.

Get over yourself.

Take a chance on you. On your grieving loved one.

Tell the truth.

Everyone will be okay.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Posted in Back to Life, Grief, Memoir, Suicide, Support | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

And Then There’s Suicide

There is no “worst” thing about suicide because it’s all the worst. Every aspect, every horror, every guilt, every wish for a do-over; the keening of every parent whose child has chosen it, the longing for a lifetime of every child whose parent followed that path. The permanent solution to a temporary awfulness that was being experienced. It’s just that in the moment, the suicide victim no longer holds hope that their predicament is temporary, will ever be even minutely better.

Maybe knowing that of a beloved is the “worst” for those left behind.

Among the long list of “worsts” is that suicide begets suicide.

Yup. You read it right. Suicide begets suicide.

Suicide introduced into a family, high school, community, society, culture begets another. Think the Hemingway family. Or Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and then and then, and then the thoughts by we mere mortals that if the sparkly people can’t make it in life, how will we?

A suicide enters a name on a Rolodex. Adds an app to your phone. It’s one more take-out menu in your kitchen junk drawer. Because it happened it’s in the index of potential solutions in crisis and rolls up as a possibility for resolution.

Beware of this. Talk about it. Reach out. Look into the eyes of your distressed loved ones and neighbors. Look into the face in the mirror.

Suicide begets suicide. You can’t un-introduce it in the master plan of options during a terrible time, but you can be on the lookout. You can listen for and hear your own self-talk and if you allow the suicide choice to flit through your mind and land on your brain for more than an instant, it’s time to talk to a professional. Let them help you make distinctions between the normally neurotic, needing a little help through a down time and needing a lot of help out of a black hole.

Do it.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline



Posted in Grief, Loss, Suicide | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Men Who Fix Things

I relied on men to fix things. I didn’t know appliances weren’t meant to last forever. My
dad fixed them. He kept everything working like new, and sometimes even better. Toys
fixing toasterand water heaters, washing machines and hair dryers. That’s just the way it was.

My dad taught my brother to do the same and I had no doubt if Dad was unavailable, my brother could do the job.

I believed all men were built like my dad. They barbecued, fixed things, and had the power to mend broken hearts.

Prime ribI’d known my dad for 40 years when Tom died. Dad was a good and decent man. He was stubbornly loyal with a generous spirit. Devoted to family, even-tempered, a sharp intellect and quick wit. His scruples were well-honed and consistent to the point of being boring. If he valued something yesterday, count on it today, and don’t bet on anything else tomorrow. He was a prime rib and Caesar salad guy mostly, unless it was once-in-awhile, then he was a rack of lamb and Caesar salad guy. Shifts were subtle.

I left home and married Tom and I noticed from the start that he fixed broken things, too. Different than Dad, he thought jury-rigging akin to innovation, and saved his refinish-furniture-heropatience and talents for renovation. Furniture, cars, homes. He could breathe life back into that which others had declared unsalvageable. Cars were not only restored but resurrected; finishes were applied to wood with bare palms to imbue warmth and renew spirit. He saw life and a story in most everything, thus making his suicide an even more tragic contradiction.

Years later I met two more men who fixed broken things. Cardiac surgeons, and I went to work for them. In my first weeks in their employ I watched bewildered as cards and gifts showed up at the office nearly every day. A deliveryman arrived at reception one morning pushing a hand truck stacked with crates of pineapples. The attached card described 20 years of frustration with chest pain and breathlessness that forced a patient to abandon what he loved most–walking, golfing and playing with his grandchildren. On his recent trip to Hawaii he did all three as a result of his surgery. The docs didn’t just fix his heart, they healed his life.operating room

My life, personal and professional, overflowed with men who fixed things.

When I found Tom’s body adrenaline and instinct kicked in. I called 9-1-1.

I called my dad.

Then I called my bosses. One was still in the operating room and the other at home having dinner with his family.

Three men quickly arrived to help with what couldn’t be fixed, couldn’t be unbroken.

Strangers combed our home looking for clues that might explain the lifeless body lying on the garage floor. Police. Fire. The coroner, who carefully lifted Tom onto a gurney. It was January dark at 5PM and the flashing lights bathed everything in red as a crowd of neighbors grew and gawked on the sidewalk in front of our home .

Tom’s body was held by the coroner pending a completed police investigation. So out of the ordinary was the method of suicide, homicide had to be ruled out. Suicide notes were confiscated. My garage was a crime scene.police-2167968_1280

An army of fixing men couldn’t fix this. What Tom had done with a knife could not be stitched back together. Not by surgeons, or my devoted dad. Life had blown up and even the pull of gravity wasn’t enough to drag the pieces down to Earth.

I would do the fixing. Make things right, and make things work. The men who fixed things watched Christopher and me. There would be no fix that made things as they had been, no forward motion without more pain and scars. But there could be healing. One day at a time, one bite at a time.

I went from my father’s house to my husband’s, and suddenly my own. One might say I was at a disadvantage. 40 years old and I had barely heard my own voice. I hadn’t made an important decision without a chorus of baritones nearby to approve, or not. But I did have the most remarkable role models, and access to their experiences, skills and decision-making criteria. For years I’d watched the men who fixed things as they considered complex issues, sorted boulders from pebbles, plotted courses, and tackled what mattered. I’d had the benefit of their care and protection.

I was a quick study and they a loud cheering section. My voice grew stronger until I became my own fixer. male-cheerleaders

My dad is gone now. He died in December of 2013. My son is now a fixer, too. Just ask his little boy… We remember his dad, and mine and all the men who have contributed to our growth and strength.

To the men who fix things, including the one who came much later with the special salve of his love – who married a woman, a boy, a ghost and a story, blessed Father’s Day to all. And deepest gratitude. Enjoy your special day and know you make a difference.

Dad 4th of July

For my dad, Donald Hester, the first man who fixed things for me.

Are you or someone you know in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Posted in Acknowlegement, Memoir, Suicide | Leave a comment

A Wonderful Life ~ Twice

I have a wonderful life. It’s rich with people I love and who love me. I’m safe. I have room to grow and make a difference. Most of all, there’s my husband, and my son, too. Both to whom I’m devoted. And indebted.

Fortunate does not adequately describe my station.

And some days, just for a little while, I wish I could turn back time.

Dad 4th of July


I would choose a summer afternoon. Independence Day, 1989. A barbecue in our yard. My 8 year-old son jumping around with excitement, fireworks to come. Our garden festooned and blooming in red, white and blue, my then husband alive and smiling — a man with a mission and a grill, and my parents. Well, happy, late middle-age, no hint of infirmity and devastation to come.

We said grace before the meal made for America’s celebration. Hot dogs, ribs, hamburgers, salads and cupcakes decorated with toothpick flags. We remembered those who fought for our freedom. We remembered those killed attempting to a scale a wall in Berlin that had finally come down. Last, we acknowledged the students killed a month before at Tiananmen Square wanting exactly what we had.

The right to choose a sun-shiny day in a little backyard oasis with friends and family, pursuing or not pursuing exactly what we wished. Whenever we wished. According to our whim.

A beautiful day. In another life. When I was a young, brunette mother and wife with a plethora of imaginings about my future and that of my family.

backyard bench daylight environment

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And now it’s all different. I am latter middle-age, new to old age, stepping into my 60s. My boy a grown man. I am bottle-blonde to cover burgeoning gray better managed with this color. Like life. Sometimes more gracefully handled by going with the flow and morphing a bit to make accommodations for the unexpected. When incredibly lucky the unexpected becomes beautiful. In time.

Brunette. Blonde. Both nice. Like my old life and present life.

woman looking at photo album

Photo by Studio 7042 on Pexels.com

But on certain days when I stop, am still and reflect, it is in an odd place I find myself. Owning  barely related lives. Picking through my past while detached from it. As though meandering through a lovely antique trove appreciating the relics. I feel pulled to them, admiring of them. A tugging to grab things and take them home. But I don’t have a place for them. In the end, they would collect dust. Distract and crowd me.    par-9cinzano.jpg


Yet these souvenirs are already mine. They are packed in my cosmic attic. Sometimes clutter. Other times cherished mementoes provoking an occasional longing I cannot deny even in my blessed life.

people-bbqAnd today I wish I were sitting at that picnic table, crowded together under the red Cinzano umbrella, laughing again with no inkling of what is in store. No sense of what will be lost. Or gained.

Only the moment. On the 4th of July, 1989.

Posted in Back to Life, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Red Light, Green Light, In Between Light

DICK CLARK S NEW YEAR S ROCKIN EVEA day or two before New Years Eve my grandmother called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. And doing. My infant daughter had died in October. My mom’s dad in September. My other grandfather, her husband, months before in June. It was a grueling year. Finally grinding to conclusion.

She found it nearly impossible to be without her husband. Cocooned in sorrow. Her picture of herself as content, even alive, gone with him. In 1979.

My dog died in April. Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. A sliding scale of despair.Lhasa-Apso-2 April seemed terrible. Then I learned there were worse things.

My grandmother worried about me. That’s why she called. To see if I was better. Healing. I told her I was because I didn’t want to worry her. Didn’t want to splash my pain on her.

And then, a day later on New Years Eve, she killed herself. I was on the mend. The last permission she needed.

That’s how I saw it.

traffic_signalGreen light. Live. Until she said no. STOP. Red light instead.

Her hastily scribbled note said she couldn’t go on without him. Wanted to be with him. In the year of his departure. As close to him as she could get. So she made it happen. Red light to life.  A choice.

My dad didn’t say a lot. Stoic till this day. He dispatched her various detritus. Then her ashes at Donner Pass the way she wanted, where she’d floated my grandfather’s remains in the late summer. Their favorite place.

Dad’s brilliant blue eyes, the echo of his mother’s, dimmed. No words needed. And no matter how much those eyes danced and twinkled in the years that followed, no one could think of her life without thinking of her death and at least momentarily, he would blink.

We knew. Whenever Dad looked at the son I later bore and said to me, “How your grandmother would have enjoyed this boy.” His tell. The sharp knife at his core twisted.

My then in-laws were visiting from Texas when it happened. Were standing in the kitchen when my husband took the call from my dad early New Year’s morning. He came into the bedroom to tell me.

Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. Grandmother.

Later in the day, a quiet day in which I hadn’t much to say except for a slow trickle of tears, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, “She had the right to choose. We all do.”

When my husband did a version of the same years later I wondered if she remembered what she’d said to me that day. If she thought it applied to her son as well as my grandmother.

I didn’t call my in-laws right when I found my husband. It was nearly 9PM where they telephonewere. The last good night’s sleep I figured they might ever have. So in the morning I called his cousin, Mort. Told him. Asked him to go to the church to get their favorite preacher, and take him, too, to tell them in person and attempt to give what would never be. Comfort.

There’s no best way to tell a parent but the phone seemed wrong. And touch seemed better.

Like my grandmother, my son’s father chose. He switched his light. Green light, I’m here. Red light, I’m not.

The Earth spun in reverse and day became night.

No mate gone before him calling from another world, incipient illness, or grown children gone away taking purpose with them; no way to explain the unthinkable. Except to say, sometimes there’s sickness we can’t see. Hidden in despair.

But my mother was different. She just slowed to a crawl. Then stopped. In the center of the road. She let life march over the top of her. We stopped too, to give her a hand, to hold off the stampede and pull her to her feet. We did it several times. Beefed her up, held her up, cheered her up, loved her up, and sometimes ordered her up.

It didn’t matter. She glowed neither red nor green. On a dimmer, a dial she wouldn’t let us touch. She didn’t commit. To life. Or death.

She opened the door. Let death in, played hide and seek, cat and mouse, and eventually let it have its way. And made us all accomplice.

We could only watch.

Now we scatter each wondering what we might have done differently.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2990Where does one have to be inside to leave a dying husband to face his own fatal illness alone? To say adieu to a partner of 73 years? You thought you could count on me til the end; sorry to disappoint.

What do I not understand about aging at this age that will become clear as I move along? Will it frighten me so much that I choose as my mother did? Death by default. Not red or green light, but instead in between light.

Is it suicide? Is it choice? Is it neither but rather capacity worn by years and unable to grasp consequence?

Is it a right? A choice we’re entitled to? If so, what do we owe?

And what are we, left behind, entitled to? Other than the sorrow, the tears, the missing, the messiness, the confusion, the ‘if only’, and ‘what ifs’.

Then there’s the anger.P2200113-2

I miss my mom. When she carried her green light into life. Looked out the window at the neighbor’s fancy car, parked in their driveway crunched from a wreck.

“Well, I’d say today that car is a little more Benz than Mercedes.” Satisfied with her play on words.

Glowing. Fading. Flickering. Gone.


Posted in Death & Dying, Grief, Loss, Memoir, Suicide | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments