Decisions, Decisions . . .

This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly ‘Blogapalooza’ series where bloggers are provided a writing prompt and given 60 minutes to publish a post about it.  This month’s writing prompt is:  “Write about a decision you made that changed the course of your life, for better or worse.”

This one is easy for me.  I remember back in 2011 when my return to the work force after leaving to care for my girl coincided with my decision to start my first blog over on Tumblr.  I was adamant I was not going to write about cancer or grief.  Pffft.  We all know how that turned out.

A couple of months into it, a friend who worked at the Chicago Tribune encouraged me to move my teeny tiny Mary Tyler Mom blog over to the ChicagoNow blogging network.  I liked the idea, found it intriguing, but had a few reservations.  Would I maintain creative control over Mary Tyler Mom?  Would ChicagoNow own my words moving forward?  Would I be able to write more than once a week and still have something interesting to say?

I was curious enough to pitch my blog and the community manager there (yo, Jimmy!) responded to it quickly and enthusiastically.  It was time for me to decide — would I move my little blog over to the big network?


I dithered, as Libras are wont to do.  I imagined the worst and made the decision way more complicated than it needed to be. Choosing to blog on the ChicagoNow platform has literally changed my life, and only in positive ways.

After a few months at ChicagoNow working to find my audience and trying on different writing styles — was I snarky?  hip?  sarcastic?, I eventually made another decision to come out of the grief closet and reveal to my few but growing number of readers that I was a grieving mom.  I introduced Donna and was warmly, fully, and completely embraced by you all Internet folks.

It turns out that moving my blog to ChicagoNow was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

  • Telling Donna’s story in serial format in September 2011 turned me into a writer.
  • Sharing the beauty and joy and sorrow and brutality of childhood cancer created an army of new advocates wanting to address the funding disparity that exists between adult and pediatric cancers.
  • In the past six years, between Donna’s Good Things and St. Baldrick’s, and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, almost a million dollars has been donated by people who have been exposed to Donna’s Cancer Story and were moved to help in a tangible way.
  • I have met amazing, incredible, generous, and talented bloggers from all walks of life that have enriched me in so many ways and who I now get to call my friends.
  • My blog posts have sparked enough conversation to get featured on Huffington Post, Fox Business Network, and NPR.  For someone who considers herself an out of work social worker, that always tickles me.
  • Writing the story of Donna turned into telling her story on stage and now my own story at local storytelling events.
  • I authored an essay in an honest to goodness book, yo!  Hardcover and everything.  And it was published just a few weeks before my Dad died, and I will always and forever have the memory of reading him my essay in an ER room while holding his hand. You can buy that sucker HERE.
  • When I got a little bored and fidgety writing only about parenting issues, folks still bothered to read me when I wrote about gun violence, public education, aging parents, health care, politics, and race.
  • I started writing for hard, cold cash.  People actually pay me $ now for me to write words.  How crazy is that?
  • There is a Peter Lisagor journalism award with my name on it for writing this post.
  • You are here, reading my words.

Honestly, folks, I could go on and on and on about how writing Mary Tyler Mom has changed my life.  But it’s after 10, so I am already late for my one hour Blogapalooza time limit.  Long story short, deciding to write a little blog I named Mary Tyler Mom and moving it to ChicagoNow has changed my life.  Humbled and grateful, always.  xox, MTM

Bad, Bad Leroy Brown: The Funeral Recessional That Never Was

This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “Blogapalooza” feature where bloggers are provided a prompt and required to write and publish a post within an hour.  Tonight’s prompt was this:  “Pick a song that has special meaning to you and explain why.”

My Dad’s been on my mind a lot today.  Probably because the first thing I saw this morning when I flipped on the old Facebook was THIS – a collection of photos and memories chronicling my Dad’s last months before he died.  It was a horrible, horrible time for my family.  Something I feel I am still reeling and recovering from in many ways.

Then tonight, dishes done, kids in bed, getting ready to settle in for some serious binge watching of something, anything, our landline rang.  Yes, I still have a landline, it’s true.

It was a volunteer for the local Democrats looking for my Dad.  Inexplicably, I heard myself saying, “John Quirke is dead.  May I take a message?”  What the what?  Not exactly certain how I might deliver that message, but the offer was out there.

The volunteer politely declined, offered his condolences, and clearly wanted to get off the line.  Yeah, but no, I was still talking, grateful for the connection to my dead Dad, someone looking for him, calling for him, reminding me that in odd little ways, he was still a part of the world.  I started chatting about him, reassuring the man that had my Dad still have been alive, he would have been a lock for Hillary.  And I just kept talking, providing more reassurance that my Dad’s four kiddos were also good for Hillary votes.  There was an awkward, “That’s great!” from the other end of the phone, then the call was over.

I smiled, thinking that while my Dad wasn’t successful in passing along his deeply entrenched Catholic faith to any of his four children, he did manage to solidly pass along his Democratic faith to those same four kiddos.  I wondered, as I never asked, which of those might have been more meaningful or important to my Dad.  I honestly don’t know.

I own that while I don’t practice the Catholic faith, I am marked by the cultural significance of growing up Catholic — something that is simply part of my fiber.  Familiar traditions, spoken prayers, comforting memories of childhood.  As the siblings of my parents die, I will lose my last tangible connection to the Catholic church.  My Dad’s funeral may very well be the last time I would step foot in the church and parochial school that was my home from kindergarten through eighth grade.  So many happy memories there, so many challenging ones, too.

Me and my Dad, c. 1979.  This photo was taken at a wedding where he would have definitely danced to "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."
Me and my Dad, c. 1979. This photo was taken at a wedding where he would have definitely danced to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

When my Mom died, my sister and I both delivered eulogies.  It was never in question and simply worked into the funeral mass.  That same sister and I both expected to eulogize my Dad, ten years later, when we were surprised to learn that families were no longer allowed to eulogize a loved one or provide any kind of personal remembrances at the funeral mass.  Catholic practice now demanded that funerals be focused on God and faith, and not so much on the deceased.

Hearing that was crushing, I’ve got to say.  I’ve delivered four eulogies in my life and each of them has been my love letter to someone I miss dearly.  My personal goodbye, a way to put into words a sliver of what loving them had gifted me in life.  I did this for my Mom, then my daughter, my aunt (a nun herself), and had mentally crafted the words to my Dad’s eulogy for the past twenty years, since my Dad suffered his first heart attack at age 60.

My sister and I bickered about it at the funeral home.  I was stunned and bereft, full of words that needed to be spoken about my Dad, for my Dad, the last time I would ever stand next to his body before it was committed to the earth.  And I was being told no.  It was unacceptable.

I arranged for the funeral director to call the priest directly, the same priest from my childhood, a man my father had had a very complicated relationship with after the good father simply forgot to show up to the mass where my parents were to renew their marriage vows in honor of their 25th anniversary.  There was a church full of friends and family who had flown in to help celebrate a silver anniversary but no priest, so no vows.  Worse was his refusal to apologize to my parents.  It put both my very Catholic parents off going to mass for a few years.

Anyway.  Fast forward to me literally begging this father, the holy one, not the biological one, to be able to eulogize my Dad.  I pleaded and appealed, hoping to find his humanity.  “Three minutes,” he said, “I’ll give you three minutes, but then I’m cutting off your mic.” I expressed tremendous gratitude,  but all I could think to myself was, “Yeah, peace be with you, too, buddy.”

I laughed after hanging up the phone, remembering, from the fantasy funerals for my Dad that had played out in my head for the past twenty years, that there was no chance in hell I would be able to get to hear the song I had always imagined would play as his recessional — the song that is played as the casket is carried out of the church after the funeral mass.  That song being Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

Bad, bad Leroy Brown from the southside of Chicago, baddest man in the whole damn town, meaner than a junkyard dog.

That song transports me to my years of childhood, watching my parents dance to it at all of my cousin’s weddings, and I had a lot of older cousins.  I loved to watch my parents dance.  They had a complicated relationship, my folks, but they always made sense on the dance floor.  They met at a dance hall in 1957, the Holiday Ballroom.

So, yes, I didn’t push the idea of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown as my Dad rolled out of church for the last time.  I was happy with my three minutes.  But tonight, this one is for Da.  Take it, Jim Croce, and for those of you at home, this works best with the volume up, way up.

When a Cake Is More Than a Cake

This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “Blogapalooza” hour wherein bloggers are given a prompt at 9:00 pm and required to post their words by 10:00 pm.  Here is this month’s prompt:

“Write about a time you lost your temper or somebody lost their temper at you.”

I have been feeling bereft lately.  For days, really.  It is a whole lot of not fun.  I am so tired of being sad.  Or mad.  It feels like I sort of ping pong between those two emotions as of late.  My poor husband is left as a witness to the worst tennis match ever:  Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, and Sad wins by a hair.

Last Monday, Mad won out and it is still sticking with me.  That day happened to be the should be/would be birthday for our daughter, Donna.  Donna’s 10th, to be exact.  I will be the first to admit that even six years in to this whole grief thing, I don’t have a clue about how to celebrate the birthday of our dead child.  Not.  A.  Clue.

In the end, I let our older son stay home from camp.  We made a day of it and went to the zoo together.  We came home and napped together.  My husband got home from work and we decided to eat out.  Noodles & Co., because it was Donna’s favorite. Cheesy noodles make everything better, right?

Not exactly.  The restaurant, despite being almost empty, was a dirty pit.  Food and paper all over the floor.  Tables needing to be bused.  The drink station was filthy.  The food came out lukewarm, meaning the cheese never even melted.  It was depressing as hell on an already depressing day.

A young man passed our table.  I took a stab at it and guessed correctly that he was the manager.  He was, indeed, the manager.  I politely registered my complaints, pointing out the dirty tables and floors adjacent to our table.  I told him about the drink station needing attention.  I showed him how the cheese on our son’s macaroni-and-cheese orders was just clumping, as the noodles were not hot enough to melt it.

The manager looked at me and replied, with a tight smile, that corporate was responsible for the cheese sauce.  Um.  What?  I smiled back and told him that the noodles, including my own, were not warm enough to melt the cheese.  He finally got it.  “Oh,” he said, “We check our temperatures regularly in the kitchen.”

Okey dokey, manager not doing your job.

I smiled at the young man.  I was weary and sad and tired.  “Thank you for listening,” I said, and left it at that.  Yuck.  Was he dense or defensive or obtuse or simply 24?  I didn’t know and I didn’t care.  The meal was less than ideal, as was our day.  It wasn’t his fault my daughter had died of cancer.  It was his fault his restaurant sucked, but he didn’t seem to care and I didn’t want to argue.

After we left there we stopped by the grocery store to pick up a small cake.  I’ve gotten cakes at the same store for years because they sell nicely decorated 5″ cakes that won’t sit around my counter for a week reminding me of how awful it is to celebrate the birthday of a child who is no longer with you.

Donna's cake was just like the pink and green one in the middle row, except teal and yellow.  A cheerful cake for a girl no longer here.
Donna’s cake was just like the pink and green one in the middle row, except teal and yellow. A cheerful cake for a girl no longer here.

I hate to name names, but the grocery story chain rhymes with Schmariano’s.  This is a small chain who stakes their reputation on customer service.  They are different from the rest, they say, and, for the most part, they are.  It’s a pleasant shopping experience there.

I left the family waiting in the car and ran in just to get the cake.  There were three left to choose from.  I chose the teal cake with the large yellow bloom on top.  It was pretty, and happy, and didn’t look like frosted depression.

A young woman assisted me.  It was easy to see her trying out a couple of different boxes.  She settled on a square one when I noticed her manager whisper in her ear.  It was easy to tell the manager was directing her to a different box.

The young gal (whose name rhymes with Machel) didn’t heed her manager’s advice and brought the box to me at the counter.  She greeted me with a disclaimer, “This box is too small, but you can see that I taped it so that the top will not touch the frosting.”

Well, before I had even touched the box, it was clear that the frosting had already been smushed, as could be seen through the cellophane window.  I asked for a different box, please, as clearly, the cake was damaged before I had even left the counter.  “There must be a properly sized box back there to accommodate this sized cake.  Please, I want it to look nice,” I gently pushed, confirming I was no pushover.

Machel turned away from me in a huff with the cake, walked to the back counter where she clearly said something nasty about me to two of her bakery coworkers, who promptly looked up from their work and simultaneously snickered in my direction.

What in the fuck just happened?  Did she just do that?  In front of me?  Oh, no, no, no.

She had.  My sad and my mad collided and exploded in that moment.  I had had enough.  “What did you just say about me?” I called out to her.  Machel looked the other way.  Then she walked away.  Then she started taking care of another customer.

There, at the bakery counter of Schmariano’s, I wanted to scream.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to wail and wail and wail and wail at all of it.  I wanted to slap Machel six ways to Sunday.  I wanted everyone within a 20 foot vicinity to know what had just happened and that it was not okay.  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  I wanted to cry.

I did none of that.

Instead, I asked someone else for help.  A young man took over and within about two minutes he had packaged up the cake properly.  I asked for the young woman’s name. I asked why she was no longer helping me.  “Machel,” he said.  “She’s rude to everyone,” he whispered to me, then apologized.

Machel did not know why I was buying a cake.  She had no idea what was happening in my own little slice of the universe.  She was just a mean and nasty person in that moment.  She chose to be.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe she too was grieving.  Maybe she just got dumped.  Maybe she was feeling sick to her stomach.  Maybe she has a strong aversion to middle aged ladies with curly hair and glasses.

I don’t know what Machel’s problem was and I don’t care.

With my cake in hand, I went to go pay for it, making a beeline for the customer service desk on the way.  I calmly explained the situation to the two store managers there. Both apologized profusely.  One left immediately to talk with Machel.  The other comped me the cake, hoping the experience would not keep me from shopping with them in the future.

And then, I cried.  I didn’t mean to.  The tears came, just a few, but they were unmistakable.  I told him why I was there to buy a cake and how the mere act of walking up to that bakery counter took every ounce of strength I had.  I hoped Machel would do better and learn not to be so nasty.  I had just freaking played the grieving mother card.

Sigh.  Oh, yes I did.

Today, for the first time in nine days, I went back to Schmariano’s.  I didn’t see Machel, but that brief bakery exchange did come flooding back while I was there.  I felt icky. Unkind.  Sad.  Who wants to feel all of that while standing in line to pay for cheese and cilantro and limes?

I had just about convinced myself I would never return to that store again, when, as I was leaving, I ran into the manager I had confided in last week.  He recognized me, it seemed, because when he said, “How are you?” he cocked his head and seemed to actually care.