Fireman Footsteps

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Kaere Bedstefar,

It would be easy to call you a hero. You were, after all, a fireman.

Firemen, man. Hats off! The only people who run straight into the burning heart of the problem. Willingly, all eager shouts and focused strength, while the rest of us run for the hills at heavy-metal speed.

Heroes. Obviously.

But the dictionary definition of a hero is so pat: A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.

Gunnar Kristensen. You were a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather et al. You were said fireman, bricklayer, and carpenter. You built your house. That’s pretty heroic. I mean, hello, I can barely hang a picture. (Or find a septic tank…) But, this list does not define a hero.

Heroes show up when it is hard. They extend a hand when it is inconvenient. They love the unlovable.

When I was 8, I could barely breathe. In Toronto, a Death-like stench permeated our home. The disease that would come to claim me had claimed your son-in-law. That summer, my brother and I fled the plague of stout brown bottles that threatened for the temperate Danish climate, Cheese and black licorice delights called Brumbasser (bumblebees) and Høns Bryster (hens breasts). Ah, those kooky Danes!

Over four idyllic summers, I taught you a little English, and you taught me all the Danish I know.

[Summer? Sommer. Father? Far. Heaven? Himmel.]

You showed me how to hold a paintbrush, where to trim a rose, and helped me mow your lawn. You caressed the back of a broken-hearted flower girl in a yellow dress who had lost her father seven months earlier.

I followed you puppy-like, all perky ears, and adoring eyes, as we biked the daisy-littered Danish paths, swam in the sea and learned the Art of Multiple Tea Breaks. And for a few blissful weeks, the Death-like stench evaporated, as I breathed in the candy-like sweetness of newly-cut grass.

But the stench returned. And my father did not.

Heroes leave their home to help a broken, reluctantly-formed family of three rebuild through one of the coldest winters Toronto had even known.

For half a year you and Bedstemor lived with us in the early 80’s. Every morning the guttural, throat-scraping sounds of Danish chit-chat rose upstairs to jostle me awake. (Not exactly melodic, Danish is.) Laughter with, and teasing of your daughter, my Mum, and your perennial first date, the love of your life, my Bedstemor.

Plopping down the stairs, I’d bear witness to some new thing you had built…A kitchen table, a coffin for my guinea pig (!) and, oh, a canopy bed! Thin wooden white stalks topped with bubble-gum pink petals. My dream come true.

It must have been hard to leave your home. Your rhythm. Your language. The Cheese! But I was so happy to have you there. Your quiet constant. Shoveling snow. Washing the dishes. Watching me.

Heroes see you. They watch you and hold space for the aching soul they spy.

You flew across The Pond again when I was 33. This time to Vancouver. It must have been harder and harder for you to take flight, now 83. Older bones, stomach pain chronically entrenched, crippling you for longer hours. And yet you showed up. It was inconvenient. But heroes do like that.

On that trip I was a struggling thespian. Convinced I was but one screen test away from happiness. I had my health, a husband and a home, but I was restless, discontent. Yet always Arting—mosaics, writing a (terrible!) screenplay, and even designing oil lamps!

1) Take a glass bottle with great lines. 2) Stuff a bunch of dried rose petals in with a shoelace. 3) Pour in lamp oil. And Voila! One homemade graduation present for my newly-christened MD brother.

You watched me across the room. Followed along as I instructed my brother on how to trim the wick for a gentler flame. And then you spoke. You never spoke English. It was like a source of pride, to never utter the Universal Language. But oh, you understood so much more than you let on…

It floated across the room on our frequency. Cut through the ambient noise of Bedstemor’s musical chatter, the clicking of Mum’s knitting needles, and the rustling of crumpled paper. In your crazy language, in that accent not even Meryl Steep could master in Out of Africa, in your deadpan, self-assured tone you tapped me on my soul, and said,

“Henriette is an artist.”

That sentence was a clicking together of our souls. You saw the heart of me. It was a dumb oil lamp. Unrefined. Amatuerish. (I mean c’mon, you’re burning a shoelace!) But I was trying. You saw me. You revealed to me something I had yet to own about myself.

And it lit me up more brilliantly than all the oil lamps in the world ever could.

When you were 94 and I was 44, we were both very sick. I was struggling to care about getting sober. Pills were still my God. You were about to meet yours. You were dying.

We were both dying.

My cousin had been messaging me from Denmark. You would not be going home from the hospital. I called my mother who couldn’t talk to me. I spoke with my brother who had Skyped with you the day before. Then.

My uncle held his cell phone up to your ear. I pictured you in your hospital bed. You had an oxygen mask on your face. Your twinkling eyes were closed as you listened, as my voice floated across the ocean on our frequency. Cutting through the ambient noise of IVs beeping, tears falling, and a breaking heart.

Then this pill-swiping, unsober woman’s soul clicked with yours. Forehead pressed to the bedroom wall, my brimming heart spilled over and across the transatlantic waves. And I told my hero everything he should know. That you saved me, Bedstefar, over and over and over again. Every time you saw me when I could not see myself.

Five minutes later, my uncle called me back. He told me that after we hung up, you rolled onto your side and said, “I’m going to rest now.” And then you died.

All breath fizzled out of me as my tears rained down. Bedstefar. You waited when it was hard. Hung on when it was inconvenient. And loved this unlovable woman until your very last breath. Your final act of heroism.

Three months later I finally got sober. For good and today.

You would have been 100 yesterday. Full disclosure? I’ve always found these “heaven” birthdays kind of creepy. Because, I mean, I’m sorry, but you only lived to 94. What is it about dates and round numbers that compels us to post on social media, release balloons or buy giant slab cakes slathered in colored icing?

Because I think about you every day.

There is no more running for the hills, or Pills, anymore. Every time I show up when it is hard, extend a hand when it is inconvenient, or love the unlovable, I walk in the fireman footsteps of a true hero.

And I see you every step of the way.

Your majestic, raw, beautiful writing continues to move me. You have such a special gift.

— Simone Brodey
The beauty of memory, so exquisitely rendered, for in memory we live on, for a short while.

— Laura Boujoff
I am in tears.

— Anita Dubey
I am in awe. Beautiful, Henriette, you and your artistry.

— Alan Harris

Alcoholism is an Asshole

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I used to be so in love with You.

What? Are you kidding? On a day like today? I would’ve been all over You. Cold. Sharp. Crisp. Glug. Glug. Glug. Beer. Wine. Vodka. Rubbing Alcohol. Name Your Poison.

Suddenly empowered. No longer the short, chronically-in-pain, unpublished, loser of a wife. No. Tall, healthy and successful. All legs and no regrets.

I saw You yesterday. Up close and personal. Retched at the puddles of warm white wine. The clink-clank pained my ears as I stuffed 15 of You into garbage bags. My nostrils twitched at the vomit-stained towels. I flinched as the lies landed upon me, branding my already burning skin. Lies I recognized as my own, a pattern slipped into as easily as a worn pair of jeans.
 


I admit it. I still think about You. Once in a while, my heart flips when I hear the pharmacist confirm an order for: Hydrocodone. Oxycodone. Dilaudid. Adderall. Name Your Poison.

Sometimes, my pupils dilate as I witness a gymnastic pour at the bar. My empty stomach twists. I imagine the sharp stream coursing down my throat into the welcoming waters below. Splish. Splash. Toss down a couple of opiates. Then a couple more. My pulse quickens. My flesh swells in anticipation. And for 20 minutes I am coming harder than I ever have in my life.

Relapse is awesome. You are magic.

Relapse is awful. You are a magic trick.

You dazzle in your cunningness. The infinite and glorious light of You, beams of euphoria I had just been riding, fade away. I am falling. One by one, the lights go out. Like a gigantic light switch, or, many hundreds all at once. Click. I am cut off. From my husband, friends, and family. From my God. From myself. I am alone, and it is darker than it has ever been in my life.

I am crawling toward a light I can no longer see.
 


I wish I could take you outside and beat You up. Taste blood on my lips as I pummel You into the ground. Kick dirt into Your eyes, and spit upon the quivering lump of You.

Take. That.

I used to beat up little girls because of You. When I was 7, I would march across the playground. Scan. Point. Announce. “I’m gonna beat you up.” Justified anger vibrated through my curled fingers as I knocked those wide-eyes gals off their innocent feet.

“Daddy just needs to go on vacation.”

I knew everyone was lying. Kids aren’t stupid, you know. I knew You had my dad.

You took my dad.
 


I will not be angry. Because that’s what You want.

I didn’t understand You before. I do now.

Every morning You show up, bright-eyed and full-of-tales. You remind me how other people aren’t in constant pain. They have their health. More money. A new house. A big career. And they get to have a glass of wine at night to take the edge off!

[Yeah! How come!]

Well, I have something stronger. And I’m not afraid to say it. I hope the light of my God burns You into a permanent crisp so I never have to deal with the noise of You again.

But I know You are not going anywhere.

You’re not a demon or the devil. You’re just a disease. And for today, I know how to treat You.

I thought You lived inside my heart, but—ha, ha—there’s no space in there for You. I am not in love with You today.

You live inside my head. I will not listen to You as I walk away from my friend until she is ready. I feel my heart crack. I taste salt on my lips from the tears. But I will not listen to You.

[Don’t You fucking take my friend.]

You no longer empower me.

I don’t believe You anymore.

I am kind. I try. I have a God.

I’m not the loser.

You are.

You have a gift. I wonder if it is the magical gift given to you for all the suffering. It is so special. So captivating. The kind of talent that cannot be taught. — Jessica Snow Wilson
Just, Wow! Is that book published yet? If not, the literary masses are being deprived. — Joe Foley
This was absolutely amazing. Brought tears to my eyes. Maybe cause I have almost 9 months sober (the longest I’ve had in 3 years) and I’m grateful for the life I have today? Hydrocodone, OxyContin, Fentanyl, Morphine, Cocaine, Meth, Adderall, Alcohol, and Xanax were my many drugs of choice. “I hope the light of my God burns You into a permanent crisp so I never have to deal with the noise of You again.” is so powerful! You are describing my experiences. — Simone Brodey
Amazing! — Raffaele Ragonese
I’m crying. So, so, so beautiful. — Danielle Mercier England
Poet. — Katherine White
Every time I read your passages I just want to read more! Such a beautiful writer. — Alexis Dillard Hermann

Dear Ms. Hillenbrand

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Dear Ms. Hillenbrand,

I stand before you, eyes downcast, shuffling my feet, crushin’ like a middle-schooler. And as I do, I am aware that I can stand. For you, often, cannot. You have been housebound, bed-bound, hell-bound for much of a quarter century.

You are sick. You are a loser. You are a waste of space.

It is my brain’s refrain when I am bed-bound, when physical pain crushes all rational thought and my heart accepts this mantra of defeat. It was in one of these moments, when I was lost in my own bed that distraction as cyber-surfing became of the highest order. And I stumbled upon your national award-winning essay: A Sudden Illness.

Open-mouthed, I scrolled through your torture. Struck at 19 with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the shamefully misnamed condition that suggests you are little more than tired. Such branding does not incorporate your mercury-smashing fevers, swollen glands, bone pain, headaches, mouth sores, and three-hour naps after taking a shower. Unable to get up, turn over, or sometimes, even open your eyes. Exhaustion that restrains you, as if buried under damp clumps of soil you’re unable to shake off.

As I closed my laptop, sending you back into cyber space, I wondered. Do you swallow your tears because the cost to your body would be too great? Or it is less effort letting them roll down your cheeks onto the stale sheets below?

My sudden illness began in March 2015. One innocent night, I scraped at itchy forearms with an old pumice stone from the side of the tub. Two days later, angry red dots swarmed beneath my defenseless limbs, imprinting my arms, and then legs with the color of pain. Three years later, the rash is gone, but the pain remains. 18,400 seconds a day my nerves flare with a hot-knife needling, shingles-like agony: Burning. Itching. Pinpricking. Clothes have become the enemy, and sleep a “fingers crossed!” situation.

Three dermatologists, a neurologist, nephrologist, allergist, immunologist, acupuncturist, naturopath, over 20 discarded medications, ointments and oils, a night of 40 dermatologists called Grand Rounds (for the record, nothing grand about it) and my Cedars-Sinai transplant team became the planets around which I orbited, undiagnosed. Under this unfamiliar sun, I was blinded to everything but research, phone calls, and pharmacies. I lost sight of my laptop. Lifting a finger to type seemed like a luxury reserved for The Symptomless.

My condition is not shingles. It is not autoimmune. It is not a virus or infection. Nor any condition any East/West doctor has ever seen. It is their nothing. It is my everything.

When I found you, I was stuck, trying to finish my book. I had time. An award. My husband’s support. Even a muse by way of an old basset hound named Wahlter White McIntyre. But once again, my life was steeped in the medical world, and I was drowning in the brew.

It is a fancy-tickling irony that in 2018, my two kidney transplants and five-year recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are the least of my worries right now. In 1987, my life as a sick teen was hitting what I believed to be its apex. My six-year journey down Chronic Kidney Disease Lane was coming to an end. End Stage Renal Failure to be exact. I was 19 years old, and my kidneys were operating at 3%.

From my petal-pink, white-stemmed canopy bed, I lay dying. The bed's bright and hopeful sheaths were stiff, alive, like the folds of a little girl’s party dress. For hours, I would stare at the clock on my desk. When the numbers blinked forward from 4:59 pm to 5:00 pm, I rallied, sliding to prop myself up against the wall, knowing my mother was on her way home.

My day had been four, maybe five hours long. We were in collusion, Sleep and I, on How to Survive Kidney Failure: More sleep, less Life. Toxins had commandeered my bloodstream. Martial law-like edema had seized control of my flesh. Every move an Everest to overcome: Brushing my teeth, changing pajamas, or letting the dog out to pee. Impossible to walk without a quickening of the breath. Even hobbling the few steps toward the television felt worthy of staking a flag into the carpeted den floor.

Alone, I’d curl into one half of the bunk bed of my youth Mum had reassembled. My young heart pinged with a curious guilt as I reached for the remote. My head filled with a dark refrain. You are sick. You are a loser. You are a waste of space.

At 19, I did not know I could write. I could no longer read. Paragraphs spread out on the page like computer code I could no longer decipher. There was no 24-hour news cycle. No smart phones. No social media. No NY Times award-winning author’s essay to stumble across.

But there was serial TV, as over-the-top 80’s big as I had become small. Defeated, I clicked the remote, aching for connection, to be part of a story, anyone’s story but my own. Even one as basic as Girl and Girl fight over Boy. Through the flickering screen, this teen soaked up every delicious drop of Krystal and Alexis’ Dynastic, ratings-busting, lily-pond fight. Partly because I had no energy to splash around in a pond, but really, because everyone else in North America was watching with me.

This solitary confinement was but two months of a sentence that would be fully pardoned by the luck of genetic draw. In January 1988, my mother’s kidney was attached to my ureter, roto-rooting out the toxins, gifting me a new lease on life. You spent two years in this kind of meticulous negotiation with your body.

Oh, Laura. Dare I hope you wish this kind of suffering on others? For just one day. Long enough to hear them cry out, perhaps beg, for relief. Or maybe a few times over a week? Or even one cruel month. Do I? Yes. I do.

On this I am clear. There exists a distinct imbalance between the Sick and the Healthy. The Healthy hold all power because they can walk away. From our broken bodies, of course, but really from the fear our stories reflect. That Illness might one day happen to them.

When The Healthy inquire after me, with head-tilting emphasis on the second word, How ARE you? I have two options.

One: To answer, OK or Hangin’ in there! even as my soul tantrums, pummeling the air with defiant fists, Not true! Not true! Not true!

Two: I unspool my medical tale, launching into a description of the immunosuppressives prescribed for my now second kidney transplant. The pilot light of interest that flickered in their eyes vanishes. Their relief feathers across my skin as they turn to go. Occasionally, before a turned back ends The Conversation That Never Was they spout, Well, you look great!  It is my undoing. My effort to look good is calculated resistance to Undiagnosis, stress, and pain, but it backfires. When the Healthy note how great I look, it’s as if they’re waving an invitation to join them beneath my nose, yet when I reach for it, I claw nothing but air. I can never RSVP “Yes.”

I know, Laura. I know. It isn’t fair. They are trying. It’s an impossible game to win, because when they forget to ask how I am, I feel just as alone.

Maybe you are lying in your bed right now, fuming, your laptop jerry-rigged the way Borden used to so you can read this.

At least you can stand and see their eyes glaze over!

I watch you in interviews, Laura. The way you hold your body to compensate for vertigo that conducts your life like a Shostakovich symphony, all wild arms and screeching violins.

It looks like the room is moving around me. My desk is moving. Everything looks and feels like it is moving. It is hell.

I know of the constant shrieking sound in your ears. My world not only burns, but also buzzes. Some days the scraping noise inside my brain is so invasive I read my work aloud over the insect-like cacophony to understand what I have written. Perhaps as loud as the plague of cicadas that fell against your summer window as you watched, trapped inside your body, house, hell. Were you envious of their energy before they smashed against the glass and fell onto the ground?

I have been lost inside your momentary darkness when you fingered 30 blue pills on your mother’s bedspread. Once in a while, when my flesh is burning too hot for me to feel, and my ears ring too loud to hear, I wonder. Can I do this any more?

What I think about is a life where I don’t have to monitor my body.

Yes.

I had to find a way back. To story and the connection I find therein. Back to the ratings-busting, water-splashing sensation of story that connects us all.

If your body of work was inspiration porn (I can write that because I’m chronically ill), your essay was the money shot. In the obsessive re-reading of your words, in soaking up your story, I grew strong. Using ice packs for my pain, white noise for my tinnitus, and a fan on my skin. An Infrared sauna now stands in our living room. As I cook, I scribble until detoxified beads of sweat smear my glasses, and drip onto the freshly scratched words below. Naked I type, or in my husband’s underwear, intentional, so as not to brush my skin. When its waist snapped, I attached a clothes peg to hold them up. I would think of your jerry-rigged laptop and write on.

Your pain tempered mine. Your voice silenced It: You are sick. You are a loser. You are a waste of space. And I wrote on to The End.

On my wall, I have your picture pinned next to this quote. And when I feel too small for my circumstances, I read it to find my way home.

My illness is painful and excruciating and causes more suffering than I can possibly describe.

Still crushin’

Henriette

 

No words are good enough to describe how amazing and powerful YOUR words are. And YOU. I’m home recovering from cervical spine surgery and caring for a sick 4-year old alone. You have brought me gratefulness, and a moment of peace honoring someone like you. Thank you. — Ginette Rhodes
Just. Wow.

— Kelly Lester
Thank you for this.

— Puppett Puppett
You are such a beautiful writer, Henriette!

— Tracy Vandenberghe Flores
Awe inspiring!

— Robin Roberts

Sober Girl

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At one of my first meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, a member declared,

“Today, I live a life beyond my wildest dreams!”

As I slumped in a hard-backed chair, duly humbled, clutching the cliché of a Styrofoam cup between my hands, I thought,

“Oh, goody! Now I’ll finally become a movie star!”

I had no idea there will never be a career big enough, a bank account large enough, or enough attention to satisfy my self-seeking, alcoholic soul. Never. Enough.

In 2011, I lived only to swallow pills. To pluck them from the bottom of their plastic home with greedy, agitated fingers. To lie, steal and punish those around me who could not fulfill my constant need for more. Henriette had disappeared. I was a drug-seeking animal, existing only to drink and use on the gift of a kidney from my husband.

“My name is Henriette, and I am a drug addict and an alcoholic.”

I have lost the power of choice to an allergy of the body and obsession of the mind. To a disease listed in the AMA, but outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual malady.
I no longer get to sip champagne after winning a writing award. I cannot take opiates for chronic pain. I must decline toasting my husband with a glass of Manischewitz.

But in exchange for this progressive and fatal disease, I get something better.

Today, a community of people has turned my world upside down: Alcoholics Anonymous. From my first meeting, they squatted inside my heart and refused to leave. The women and men of AA never judged me for drinking rubbing alcohol. Never shamed me for the 15 months I raised my hand as a Newcomer, post-rehab, unable to stop stealing pain medication. Or lying. Or hating everyone and everything, including them.

Thank you to my beautiful sponsor who takes my calls, smiles when I can’t, and reaches out her hand when I pull away. She reminds me of the ironic truth, that through chronic pain I have built a gorgeous relationship with my God. My homie. I love you, D.

Thank you to my beautiful sponsees who allow me into their lives and their innermost selves. It is a privilege. To sponsor has been my greatest joy. I love you all so much.

Thank you always to my in-laws and dearest friend, E, who paid for 60 days in rehab, which in turn, introduced me to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I would never have found AA on my own.

Today has less to do with me than anything I have ever “accomplished.” Every morning, my broken body and aching soul shows up with a tiny bit of willingness. That is all. AA and my God do the rest. I am granted a one-day reprieve, where my soul is set free.

When I look at my life on paper, it goes one of two ways:

Crazy, talk radio, all-Henriette-all-the-time mind focuses on this: My skin hurts! What if my kidney rejects? I haven’t landed an agent for The Book! I have no career! I only make $900 a month in disability! My hair won't grow! He didn’t like my post! She didn't like my post!

Never. Enough.

But when I invite God in, I no longer see me. I see We: Friends, family, community, and God. And Kevin. My Kevin. Forever.

Today, I don’t always like my life, but I want my life. No matter what.

Today, I am enough.

And that is my wildest dream come true.

This is beautiful! I am happy you found the help you needed. There are so many people that do not have a support group and will not get help. My husband, Jim, lost his sweet soul of a brother to alcoholism. I wish he had gotten help. We tried, he would not. So many people suffer with so many things, but are too embarrassed to seek help or a shoulder to cry on. Good for you for sharing such a personal battle! You are incredible, beautiful and extremely talented. —Kim Brewer Cusick.
You are one of my favorite wordsmiths!

— Lee Rose
Beautiful words as ever, Hen. I’m quite sure most people struggle to feel they are close to “enough.” The arduous journey you have been on to be so, I believe, is unfortunately more often than not an essential prerequisite to finding that out.

— Elle Chalfen
Beautiful.

— Ann Lantello
Congratulations. Powerful journey. Stunning writing.

— Jean Badoud Riddell
Beautiful.

— Heather Shoopman

For Every High...

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For every high, there is an equal low. This I know to be pharmaceutically true.

Yesterday, I got to read the first chapter from my next book, "Are you there, Judy Blume? It's me, Henriette." at the Sidedoor Salon. Oh, ecstasy! Fresh words rolled around on my tongue like French kissin'!

Today, I woke up to my 16th agent rejection in 6 1/2 months, from those folks in NYC. (One, albeit, reluctantly. WTF.)

It sucks. Soul-sucking to be clear. Agent rejection feels like getting dressed on your wedding day, asking, "How do I look?" and having someone throw grape juice all over you (obligatory sober reference.) It's like kissing someone for the first time, having them pull back and go, "Yeah. Not so much." It's like wearing your heart on your sleeve and having them set it on fire.

You get the idea.

The way I see it, I have two options. I can drop to the floor and roll around fetal, sticking the thumb-that-I-sucked-until-I-was-10 back into my mouth. OR I can do the following:

1) Let my husband repeatedly and adorably tell me the story of how John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" was completely rejected until he wrote "The Firm."

2) Play my friend, K's, melodic voice in my head. "DO NOT GIVE UP! DO NOT GIVE UP!"

3) Cry.

3) Eat some black licorice (insert your Sugar of Choice).

4) Get off the thinking pot and focus on something other than The Book. Talk to my beautiful sponsee. Celebrate another equally beautiful sponsee who turned a miraculous "1" today! Call someone new who is suffering with chronic pain.

5) Open up an email from my FIL who tells me I am unconditionally loved.

6) Cry some more.

7) Hit my knees and thank G_d for: My sobriety, my kidney transplant, the strength to sustain chronic pain, my husband, home, family and friends. And black licorice.

8) Pull up the photo to the right and swoon: Look at them. Sensational. Sexy. Supportive. We will love each other whether or not The Book ever sees the light of press.

9) And, oh. Thank G_d for one more thing: My talent. Because f**k those 16 agents. The Book is happening. One way or another It's On.

But that ain't success. Nope. Success are those 5 faces to the right.

For I also know this to be true. "No man is a failure who has friends.”

Cue: a decidedly unpharmaceutical high coming on.

They’re freaking morons. Self publish and start your own publishing company, you brilliant goddess, you.— Katherine White
I’ve read your book and it is amazing Henriette! No agent can take that away from you!

— Penny Framstad
When you get that acceptance letter from Agent/Publisher, it is only going to be that much sweeter due to this journey! We all know the book is fantastic. That is an empirical truth. It just hasn’t found it’s home yet.

— Kelly Shipe Jeffers
Oh, Hank. Your big talent cannot be lessened or taken away. Your perfect sit-ups just unfolding in it’s own perfect timing. And you get to get writing and growing while all the details are working out. Thank you for gracing us with your steadfast craft and honesty. You make us better.

— Ronna Dragon

When You Lose Your Father

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When you lose your Daddy at 10, in a lot of ways you don’t know what a father is. What you do know is that it hurts. Your fists go up. Your fingers are pointed at anyone who resembles him. Always communicating the same message: Go away.

Then you get a FIL, and you cannot, or will not, see what a father can be.

A father reads your (terribly written!) screenplay 3 times, calls you up and declares, “When’s the movie!?!”

A father asks you how you are feeling when in renal failure. When you reply, “Not that great…” and he responds, “Well, have you ever felt worse?” you scowl, unable to see that he is trying. That he is there. That he cares at all.

A father gives you his bed to sleep in. Dismantled and reconstructed in the guest room because you need restorative sleep to heal.

A father goes to four 7-11s to find you Diet Ginger Ale when you have a migraine, and buys every last one.

A father pays for your first month in rehab, immediately, almost without question. Because he knows his son is hurting. That he is dying inside. That you both are dying.

A father loves you through the darkest moments of your life, even when he probably does not like you very much. He loves you, when you cannot love yourself.

Dear Campbell, never once have you made me feel anything less than a member of The Fam.

Thank you for your love even when I couldn't feel it. Thank you for your patience, until I finally learned how to drop my fists, and accept your hand.

I love you. And as your lovely wife likes to say, "That's the nice part."

Totally crying on the plane now! So beautiful. I’m glad you have a dad in him. —Rachel Gardner Jackson
Thank you for being so real. There is not enough of that in life.

— Valerie Martin
Tear jerker.

— Jennifer Bertrand Ziegler Lamm
I really needed to see this today. This perspective. Thank you for your beautiful words, as always.

— Betty Power

Wahlter White

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For those of us who do not, or cannot, go forth and multiply, we know love from the metronome beat of a tail. From the brush of whiskers against my calf, as his furry face collapses against it. From the steady clip-clip-clip as panicked paws follow me from bedroom to bathroom and beyond. From the respectful and cool nudge of his nose upon my arm as I kneel in prayer upon his stomping grounds.

"Are you OK?"

Unspoken words ooze from unconditional pools of brown, hazel really, followed by low, quick twitches of love. Wag, wag, wag. With the tilt of his head, I am seen, heard, without ever exchanging a word. Every minute holding space for me, as I strive to exist in mine.

Unabashed. Fearless. What dogs know of love, I am only beginning to understand.

Without ever changing a diaper.

WOW!!! Beautifully spoken, very Bukowski.

— Ed Friedman
You are a poet.

— Katherine White
Awww, Henni. Cue the ugly cry because of your beautiful words.

Tania Makiri Cooper
You are such a beautiful and gifted writer, Henriette!

—Sigute Miller
So eloquently expressed. ❤ Even those of us who have had human babies can appreciate the purity of a dog’s love. —Jane Fredgant

Year 23

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Wednesday, May 23rd. Day 8395 of Marital This:

I am crying. (Quel surprise).

You find me inside our tiny cabin-for-two (Well, three. Sorry, Wahlter.) I sit hunched over the outline of my next book, clutching my head. Tapping my skin. You lift my tired frame, pulling it towards you. I flinch. My nerves flare hot as I graze the coarse hair of your chest. (You anti-manscaper, you!) As we sway, you croon into my ear, loud enough for me to hear over my buzzing ears, but soft enough to deflate my knees. I sink into you. My skin percolates with goose bumps, their cool texture oddly soothing.

“Stuck on You.” It’s an oldie, but a goody in our repertoire. The slightly ironic, but mostly sincere way you sing Lionel Richie’s 1984 near-chart topper, makes me cry harder. “I am cursed. I am so lucky. I hate my body. I love my husband. It hurts when you hold me. Please never let me go.” Your hand strokes my back. Soothing. Sincere. It moves all the way down to the top of my buttocks. Lovely. And then, riiiiight into my butt crack.

“Kevin!” I chortle, choke, spit up. You laugh. I push you away. We laugh. Wahlter wags.

And I go in again for another round.

And that pretty much sums up the last 23 years, McIntyre. A whole lot of pain, a lot more love, inside jokes that will never die, and every once in a while, a surprise that keeps me coming back for more.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart. Stuck on you times infinity.

Again demonstrating your black belt in word crafting. You are a fabulous writer.

— Lee Rose
Wow...What amazing images you invoke.

— Barbara Sternlight McCarthy
WOW! And moved to tears yet again Hennybear!

— Dawn Michelle Mercer

Beshert

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In Hebrew, beshert means "preordained" or "bearing the fingerprints of divine providence." Did we know you would save my life on the day we met?

One fine day back in 1991, I curiously inquired as to your birthday (Lame!), tossing my hair over my shoulder with a delighted spark in my 23-year old eye.

"January 26th," you replied, all 18 years of you. Rockin' your Andy Gibb, Les Miz mullet with a smattering of pimples on your chin.

"That's the anniversary of my kidney transplant!" I cried, as your eyebrows disappeared up into your blond highlights. "We're meant to be good friends!" (Mega lame!)

We didn't know the name, but we could feel it.

Beshert. ❤️

7 years ago today, you gave me your kidney. Sweetheart, I know loving an alcoholic, redheaded, Scorpio writer is not easy, but I will never know how hard the journey was for you. Today, when I watch you laugh, elastic with joy, not restricted to dam pain, I shudder with gratitude.

That I am alive. That you are my person. That we have love. That you are the reason I pee.

Beshert.

Gorgeous words. Gorgeous human.

— Lisa Poggi
Beautiful.

— Doreen Brown
This is so beautiful. I had no idea.

— Karla Vassy

P.L.O.

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ln 1975, when I was a girl of 7, Israel was all over the news. Wide-eyed, I stared at our B & W television as Walter Cronkite commented upon religious and political carnage from the Middle East. Gruesome footage of dead bodies covered by plain, wool blankets, and dark-haired men pounding their angry fists into the air. Over Cronkite’s shoulder, the graphic “P.L.O” would scream in bold letters. Confused, I asked my dad (or Daddy, as I will evermore think of him, especially after he died three years later at 38 from the same condition I have self-diagnosed. No, not renal failure, chronic migraines, or The Nightmare of Unknown Skin Pain, but straight up, nearly-took-me-down, took-him-down-and-out, alcoholism) a question."

“Daddy. Why does it say, please leave on?

I remember his high-pitched giggle, and his smooth British-accented answer,

“Palestinian Liberation Organization.”

Huh?

In my world, P.L.O. meant “Please leave on.” An acronym understood between the teachers and custodians at my private Anglican Girls’ School in Toronto. Lessons meant to be saved on the classroom blackboard would be circled and peppered with the 3 letters, “P.L.O.” and the custodians would leave the valuable intellectual gems alone.

To the rest of the world, P.L.O. meant the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As Walter Cronkite ended each broadcast with “And that’s the way it is…” Daddy might have tossed out something glib like, “They’re all crazy over there," but in his heart, I knew he was worried. The world was watching religious and political freedoms clash, but a brother was watching the newly adopted homeland of his sister live through wartime.

Dare I write that most of the world feels connected to Israel because of religion? The Top 3: In Judaism, the Jews believe Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac for God at Moriah. Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected here, and in Islam, Jerusalem is where Mohammed ascended into heaven and was given the second pillar of Islam. Look, I’m no rabbi/priest/prophet. What do I know from religion? Nothing but what Wikipedia, a few weeks of Catholic Sunday School and one scintillating 18-week Introduction to Judaism class taught me. I know my God from a Big Book and 12 Steps where I get to choose a higher power of my own understanding, and thank God for that.

It’s funny, isn’t it? How one place can mean so many things to so many people.

All I understood about Israel was that Daddy was connected to it because his younger sister, T, had chosen to live there. I am sure there were many nights in the mid-70s, pre-24-hour news cycle, pre-internet, when he wished he didn’t have to wait for weeks for his insanely messy, jam-packed letters of love to arrive, to reach across the miles to touch her, in lieu of his hand.

Born in Latvia, my father and my Auntie T., held hands together over a 4-year age gap and 4 years of passage through post-WW 2 German refugee camps (from 1944-1948). Growing up in Coventry, England, first Daddy, and then Auntie T. became doctors at Guy’s Hospital in London. In 1968, she was one of only two women to graduate from her medical school class.

(Side note: You’d think in a family riddled with doctors named Ivanans—father, aunt and brother—this perennial patient would’ve had a better shot at health, but that’s like saying you can become an astronomer by looking at the stars.)

In 1976, she visited Toronto after Daddy had been hospitalized for three months at age 36. I recall her flat lined shock. Tears that filled her beautiful eyes. She did not need to know the details of his bleeding ulcers or full set of dentures. Eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand they connected. Even as a wee girl of six, I could feel their love tinged with a dank sadness. If you breathed in too deep, it filled all of our lungs: Daddy’s illness. It was in the air all day, every day. But that day, I bore witness to love. Their tender love. A love filled with history, one that had traversed borders, post-war rations and the pains of starting over.

In 2011, my Auntie T. offered me one of her kidneys if I could get to Israel. I was too sick to get to Israel. Today, I am 7 years kidney strong. (Hats off, McIntyre!)

Today, my beloved and I are traversing our own borders. For me, Israel has never been a religious or spiritual destination. It is not a country constantly at war. It has nothing to do with the P.L.O..

Israel is where I will hold my Auntie T. at last.

Today, come hell or high-water, come gurgling Gaza or Burning Skin we are going to Israel. We will land in Tel Aviv, and meet my Auntie T. by the coffee bar in the airport—it is where the family always meets. And I am family.

We are family.

I will reach out and hold the hand that held my father’s. For Israel is the country where Kevin’s heart has always been, and where my blood has always been waiting

So beautifully said.

— Patricia Hunter
A beautiful heartfelt piece of writing! Moved me to tears again!

— Bonnie Scott
Henriette, if you aren’t an author, you must become one. You’re writing is incredible as I hang on every word you write.

— Marli Shell Lerner